52 Early Christian Religion and Culture

Life of Jesus

The life of Jesus began in north and central Palestine, a region between the Dead Sea and the Jordan River in the east and the Eastern Mediterranean in the west. This region was under Roman control since the 1st century BCE, initially as a tributary kingdom. The Roman campaigns, coupled with internal revolts and the incursion of the Parthians, made the region very unstable and chaotic up until 37 BCE, when Herod the Great (c.73 BCE–4 BCE) became king. The region gradually gained political stability and became prosperous. Although Jewish in religion, Herod was a vassal king who served the interests of the Roman Empire.

Jesus was born towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great (died 4 BCE) and brought up in Nazareth, Galilee. He was named Jesus (Yeshu’a in Aramaic, Yehoshua or Joshua in Hebrew, Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Roman) and was conceived between the engagement and marriage of his parents whose names were Mary (Miriam in Hebrew and Mariam in Aramaic) and Joseph (Yossef in Hebrew, Yosep in Aramaic). In Matthew 13.55 it is said that his father was a carpenter, and Mark 6.3 says that this was also Jesus’ profession. It was a common practice during that time that sons would follow their father’s occupation, so it would be safe to believe that Jesus was a carpenter. Although not certain, it is probable that Jesus’ education included a detailed study of the Hebrew Scriptures, a very common practice among the devout poor in Israel.

His public ministry began after being baptized by John the Baptist. According to the gospel of Luke, this was when Jesus was about 30 years of age. According to Mark (11.27–33), Jesus saw John the Baptist as an authority and possibly a source of inspiration. It seems that he performed baptisms parallel to John the Baptist (John 3.22). After the arrest of John the Baptist (Mark 1.14), Jesus began a new kind of ministry, spreading the message of the kingdom of God approaching and stressing the importance of repentance by the people of Israel.

The oldest known icon depicting Jesus Christ (6th century) in Saint Catherine's Monastery, Egypt. In this image, Jesus grasps a New Testament in his left arm while making a symbol for peace with two right fingers. Also notable here is that Jesus eyes are of different color, with his brown iris dominating far more of his left eye than his right eye.
Jesus Christ Pantokrator by Hardscarf is Public Domain

Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus’ teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.

Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time. Like the Pharisees, his teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures. Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important.

Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12.28–31; Matthew 22.35–40 and Luke 10.25–28). The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practiced exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus.

At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem in Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47–53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony.

A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice.(7)

The Early Christian Movement

Following Jesus’ death, the Christian religion continued to flourish. This was in large part to missionaries like the apostle Paul who successfully reshaped the religion, making it more Greco-Roman in orientation than Jewish. Indeed, playing down the importance of circumcision and pork abstinence, Paul was able to make the budding faith more palatable to a Gentile audience. Emphasizing themes such as life-after-death and personal redemption, Paul promoted Christianity in terms not unlike those promoted by the various mystery religions of the day. As such, Christianity became a competitor for converts within a very crowded religious marketplace.

Stone etching of St. Peter and St. Paul. Some attempt at realism is present here. Indeed, the illustrator has endeavored to distinguish the two bearded men from one another by figuring their heads differently. Peter possess a round shape head while Paul's head is more oval in orientation.
Peter and Paul 4th century etching in Public Domain | Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Gryffindor

From the Roman point of view, they initially identified Christianity as a sect of the Jewish religion. As Christian believers became increasingly Gentile in orientation, however, practitioners of the faith became a problem for Roman rulers. Around the year 98, Nerva decreed that Christians—unlike the Jews—would no longer be able to pay a tax in order to absolve themselves from demonstrating devotion to the Roman gods. This opened the way to the persecutions of Christians for disobedience to the emperor, as many refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor. Thus, members of the Early Christian movement often became political targets and scapegoats for the social ills and political tensions of specific rulers and turbulent periods during the first three centuries, CE; however, this persecution was sporadic and rarely Empire-wide, but it was devastating, nonetheless.

The so-called Great Persecution—during the reign of Diocletian—was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. This lasted from 302–311 CE. By this point, however, the Emperor’s sweeping endeavor to wipe out the religion proved an impossibility as Christians comprised upwards of ten percent of the Roman population. In the end, the persecution failed to check the rise of the church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion.(8)(9)(10)

Constantine’s Relationship with Christianity

While the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great reigned (306–337 CE), Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Historians remain uncertain about Constantine’s reasons for favoring Christianity, and theologians and historians have argued about which form of Early Christianity he subscribed to. There is no consensus among scholars as to whether he adopted his mother Helena’s Christianity in his youth, or (as claimed by Eusebius of Caesarea) encouraged her to convert to the faith himself. Some scholars question the extent to which he should be considered a Christian emperor: “Constantine saw himself as an ’emperor of the Christian people.’ If this made him a Christian is the subject of debate,” although he allegedly received a baptism shortly before his death.

Constantine’s decision to cease the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire was a turning point for early Christianity, sometimes referred to as the Triumph of the Church, the Peace of the Church, or the Constantinian Shift. In 313, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, decriminalizing Christian worship. The emperor became a great patron of the Church and set a precedent for the position of the Christian emperor within the Church, and the notion of orthodoxy, Christendom, ecumenical councils, and the state church of the Roman Empire, declared by edict in 380. He is revered as a saint and is an apostle in the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church for his example as a “Christian monarch.”(8)

Christianity After Constantine

After Constantine, the Christianization of the Roman Empire would continue apace. Under Theodosius I (r. 378–395), Christianity became the state religion. By the 5th century, Christianity was the empire’s predominant faith, and filled the same role paganism had at the end of the 3rd century. Because of the persecution, however, a number of Christian communities were driven between those who had complied with imperial authorities (traditores) and those who had refused. In Africa, the Donatists, who protested the election of the alleged traditor, Caecilian, to the bishopric of Carthage, continued to resist the authority of the central church until after 411. The Melitians in Egypt left the Egyptian Church similarly divided.(8)

Early Christian Art

Early Christian, or Paleochristian, art was produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from the earliest period of Christianity to, depending on the definition used, between 260 and 525. In practice identifiably Christian art only survives from the second century onwards. After 550, Christian art is classified as Byzantine, or of some other regional type.

It is difficult to know when distinctly Christian art began. Prior to 100, Christians may have been constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion of the lower classes in this period, the lack of surviving art may reflect a lack of funds for patronage or a small numbers of followers. The Old Testament restrictions against the production of graven images (an idol or fetish carved in wood or stone) might have also constrained Christians from producing art. Christians could have made or purchased art with pagan iconography but given it Christian meanings. If this happened, “Christian” art would not be immediately recognizable as such.

Early Christians used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture. These media included fresco, mosaics, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. Early Christian art not only used Roman forms, it also used Roman styles. Late Classical art included a proportional portrayal of the human body and impressionistic presentation of space. The Late Classical style is seen in early Christian frescos, such as those in the Catacombs of Rome, which include most examples of the earliest Christian art.

Early Christian art is generally divided into two periods by scholars: before and after the Edict of Milan of 313. The end of the period of Early Christian art, which is typically defined by art historians as being in the fifth through seventh centuries, is thus a good deal later than the end of the period of Early Christianity as typically defined by theologians and church historians, which is more often considered to end under Constantine, between 313 and 325.(9)

Early Christian Painting

In a move of strategic syncretism, Early Christians adapted Roman motifs and gave new meanings to what had been pagan symbols. Among the motifs adopted were the peacock, grapevines, and the “Good Shepherd.” Early Christians also developed their own iconography. Such symbols as the fish (ikhthus), were not borrowed from pagan iconography.

fresco of eucharistic bread and fish
Eucharist bread and fish uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Leinad-Z~commonswiki is Public Domain

During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily and deliberately furtive and ambiguous, using imagery that was shared with pagan culture but had a special meaning for Christians. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late second to early fourth centuries on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome. From literary evidence, there might have been panel icons which have disappeared.

Initially Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys, the peacock, the Lamb of God, or an anchor. Later, personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale prefigured the interval between the death and resurrection of Jesus, Daniel in the lion’s den, or Orpheus charming the animals. However, the depiction of Jesus was well-developed by the end of the pre-Constantinian period. He was typically shown in narrative scenes, with a preference for New Testament miracles, and few of scenes from his Passion.A variety of different types of appearance were used, including the thin long-faced figure with long centrally-parted hair that was later to become the norm. But in the earliest images as many show a stocky and short-haired beardless figure in a short tunic, who can only be identified by his context. In many images of miracles Jesus carries a stick or wand, which he points at the subject of the miracle rather like a modern stage magician (though the wand is significantly larger). The image of The Good Shepherd, a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the most common of these images and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus. These images bear some resemblance to depictions of kouroi figures in Greco-Roman art.

The almost total absence from Christian paintings during the persecution period of the cross, except in the disguised form of the anchor, is notable. The cross, symbolizing Jesus’s crucifixion, was not represented explicitly for several centuries, possibly because crucifixion was a punishment meted out to common criminals, but also because literary sources noted that it was a symbol recognized as specifically Christian, as the sign of the cross was made by Christians from the earliest days of the religion. (83)

Catacomb fresco of the The Good Shepherd. Mid-century 3 C.E. The shepherd has a lamb on his shoulders and lambs sitting around his feet.
   A painting of Jesus as The Good Shepherd from early Christian catacombs. The shepherd has a lamb on his shoulders and lambs sitting around his feet.   The healing of a bleeding woman, Rome, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter. Fresco of a woman reaching for the bottom of Jesus's robe while Jesus turns around to acknowledge her presence.
Image attributions: (on left & center) Good shepherd 02b and 03 uploaded to Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain by Leinad-Z-commonswiki; (on right) Healing of a bleeding woman fresco in Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter uploaded to to Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain by Batchheizer


House Church at Dura-Europos

The house church at Dura-Europos is the oldest known house church. One of the walls within the structure was inscribed with a date that was interpreted as 231. It was preserved when it was filled with earth to strengthen the city’s fortifications against an attack by the Sassanians in 256 CE. Despite the larger atmosphere of persecution, the artifacts found in the house church provide evidence of localized Roman tolerance for a Christian presence. This location housed frescos of biblical scenes including a figure of Jesus healing the sick.

When Christianity emerged in the Late Antique world, Christian ceremony and worship were secretive. Before Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians suffered intermittent periods of persecution at the hands of the Romans. Therefore, Christian worship was purposefully kept as inconspicuous as possible. Rather than building prominent new structures for express religious use, Christians in the Late Antique world took advantage of pre-existing, private structures—houses.

Picture of the remains of House Church at Dura-Europos. What the viewer sees here are partially standing sandstone walls as well as the remains of several rooms situated beyond the remains of the Church's entryway.
House Church at Dura-Europos uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Heretiq (assumed) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

The house church in general was known as the domus ecclesiae, Latin for house and assembly. Domi ecclesiae emerged in third-century Rome and are closely tied to domestic Roman architecture of this period, specifically to the peristyle house in which the rooms were arranged around a central courtyard. These rooms were often adjoined to create a larger gathering space that could accommodate small crowds of around fifty people.

Other rooms were used for different religious and ceremonial purpose, including education, the celebration of the

Diagram of the House Church at Dura-Europos. At the bottom of the diagram sits the entryway. The entryway leas to a columned hallway that opens into a courtyard. On three sides of the courtyard lay the inner chambers of the Church.
Plan of the house with church of Dura Europos uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Udimu is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Eucharist, the baptism of Christian converts, storage of charitable items, and private prayer and mass. The plan of the house church at Dura-Europos illustrates how house churches elsewhere were designed.

When Christianity was legalized in the fourth century, Christians were no longer forced to use pre-existing homes for their churches and meeting houses. Instead, they began to build churches of their own. Even then, Christian churches often purposefully featured unassuming—even plain—exteriors. They tended to be much larger as the rise in the popularity of the Christian faith meant that churches needed to accommodate an increasing volume of people.(9)



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