Sunday, December 20, 2015

So this is Christmas

Jesus, or Yeshua bar Yosif, was born. Just when or where is still open for debate. In fact, the story of the Christmas holiday is a perfect example of the adaptation of the gospel to the various social cultures to which it was taken.

The traditional story of Christmas loosely combines two narratives in the canonical gospels of Matthew (1:18-2:23) and Luke (1:5-2:39). Mark has no nativity story; John offers a poem, believed to draw on an early Christian hymn, concerning the presence of Christ at creation and the enfleshment, or incarnation, into the person of Jesus, but not a birth story.

These two narratives contain some similarities and some contradictions.

Matthew and Luke both say Jesus was born in Judea, in the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. In both accounts, Jesus’ mother is Mary, a virgin who becomes pregnant by divine agency while betrothed to a man named Joseph, who married her despite her being pregnant after getting the green light from an angel in a dream.

Matthew opens with a patrilineal genealogy of Jesus, an odd choice since the story makes it clear that Joseph did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born. Then he presents the traveling astrologers or men of wisdom who are being guided to Judea to a “child born king of the Jews”; they go to King Herod for help locating the new king.

Herod learns from his court scholars that prophecies point to a birthplace in Bethlehem, and he asks the wise men to let him know when they find the new king so he may go pay homage. After the wise men find Jesus, an angel warns them against telling Herod and tells Joseph to flee; when the wise men fail to report back, Herod orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem two years and under, just as Joseph, Mary and Jesus are fleeing to Egypt. After Herod’s death they return, not to Judea but to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth.

Luke has a very different story, which begins in Nazareth with the parents of the future John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, is Mary’s cousin. He eases into the announcement of Jesus’ coming to Mary, who is perplexed and recites the well-known Magnificat hymn, which borrows heavily from the Hebrew Bible and bears a remarkable resemblance to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Joseph and Mary journey to Bethlehem as required by a census order of Emperor Augustus, while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Shepherds appear at the birth. Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem on the eighth day, to be circumcised. Then they return to Nazareth.

Matthew does not mention a census. Luke has no wise men, no Herod, no slaughter, no Egypt. Both present problems to the dispassionate historian.

One of the principal independent contemporary sources, the Jewish historian Josephus (37–100 CE), makes no mention of Herod’s slaughter, an oddity for someone who is keen to record gruesome suffering of the Jews of that period. However, he does cite a census, around the year 6 CE. This would mesh with the governorship of Quirinius, which began that year; however, Herod died in 4 BCE, or 10 years earlier.

The Quirinius problem may be disposed of by some problematic claims that he had been governor for another term earlier, conceivably while Herod was alive. Even then, if Luke is correct, scholars propose that Jesus may have been born around the year 6 BCE.

These are just a few of many potential holes in the two narratives.

Matthew was probably written in Antioch by scribes working on the testimony of the apostle of the same name around the year 50 or 60. Luke, a disciple of Paul’s, was a physician and highly literate in Greek; he could write and research his own material, which he penned between 60 and 80, probably in Greece.

Neither was an eyewitness to the birth. Matthew met Jesus as an adult, and Luke never met Jesus, although he may have met Mary in Ephesus, where she reputedly lived under the care of John before he was exiled. More than likely, their narratives are a literary device, one very common in the Greco-Roman world, in which an important figure had to be born under portentous auspices.

The first writer to approach the early Christian story as a historian was Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who was present at the Nicene Council and authored his well-known Ecclesiastical History. Eusebius attributed to early tradition the account that Jesus was born in the summer, possibly in June or July.

Christmas was not celebrated at all by the apostles or their early followers. Until Nicea, there is no evidence of any religious feast days other than Easter, from which came the Sunday Eucharist, Pentecost and the occasional commemorations of local martyrs’ birth to new life at the hands of the Romans.

Yet barely a few years after the Church became legal, suddenly there appeared in Rome the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus on December 25. Why that date?

The 25th of December was the pagan festival of the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the Unconquered Sun”), a festival inaugurated by the Roman emperor Aurelian (270–75) to celebrate the sun god at the winter solstice. This was the occasion of riotous orgies and drunken revelry. It was also the reputed birthday of the Zoroastrian god Mithra, also revered by the Romans.

The date was a way of Christianizing or “baptizing” a pagan feast. This kind of supplantation is part of a pattern that would repeat itself in the history of the process known as the inculturation of the gospel, or adaptation by evangelizers of the gospel story and Christian ritual practice to suit the customs of various social cultures.

Indeed, the ceiling mosaic seen above, from a tomb in the necropolis under mid-3rd century Vatican grottoes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, depicts Christ as the Sun (Christus Sol Invictus), which supplants the pagan mythology.

The image is believed to represent the ideas of that period that St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology cites as a favorite of early Christians awaiting the return of the Lord: Psalm 19:5-6, which speaks of “a bridegroom coming out of his chamber who rejoices as a strong man to run a race. His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”

Much as the church in Rome did with the solstice on Dec. 25, the eastern churches celebrated the “coming of light,” or in Greek Epiphania, on Jan. 6. As Christianity moved north, it took the solstice holly and ivy from the pagan Celtic religion in Britain and the pagan Norse yule log from Scandinavia and Germany (where it later became the Weihnachtsbaum, or Christmas tree).

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

In Name Only

The expansion of Catholic Christianity north and west of the Mediterranean Basin through mass conversions of peoples as a result of the baptism of their king or chieftain had the net effect of generating mass nominalism. To put it simply, many of the new converts were Christian in name only.

Mass and indirect conversions were not unique to medieval Christian missions.

Recall that in the book of Acts (chapter 2) some 2,000 are said to have been converted to the faith as a result of Peter’s speech. In Acts chapters 10 and 11, Peter baptizes the first Gentile, a centurion named Cornelius who, as befit the Roman paterfamilias, had his whole household, wife, children, servants and slaves baptized as well.

Christians, even those who had known Jesus, were not instantly enlightened men and women of our time (although arguably our time is not so enlightened). They were people of theirs.

While the manner of conversion in some cases involved some peer pressure at a minimum, or even coercion of the sort we can only imagine at the hands of the average barbarian chieftain, it was based on a widely accepted principle, which was accepted long after the Middle Ages and even by leaders of the Protestant Reformation as late as the 17th century.

Cuius regio, eius religio is a Latin phrase that literally means “whose realm, his religion,” meaning that the religion of the ruler should dictate the religion of those ruled.

Of course, nominal European Christians would be very unlikely to march to martyrdom singing hymns of praise as had their predecessors under Roman persecution.

The new tepid faith was evident in the behavior of the Christian kings and chieftains—as we saw earlier in the words of Gregory Dix (see Enter the Barbarians)—but also in that of ordinary people in matters religious, in particular the Eucharist.

Faced with desecration of consecrated wine through drunkenness or coarse and clumsy manners leading to spillage, the Church experimented with a vast array of methods of dispensing wine. In despair, clerics in the West opted to withhold communion in both species, reserving the Blood of Christ for those in the sanctuary area surrounding the altar, mostly clerics or clerics in training. It was argued that the Body of Christ in the consecrated bread implicitly contained the Blood, as flesh and blood are as one.

Moreover, nominalism brought about a decline in the reception of communion, even in the bread species alone. This has been studied by reviewing the records of communion bread production by monasteries and purchases by dioceses.

In response to the lukewarm faith of an arguably ill-prepared laity, clerics began to devise a series of clever rules and devices to suffuse the ordinary lives of Catholic Christians in Europe with acts that might elicit the true inner disposition of conversion that was missing.

This is the source of rigorism, which eventually devolved into widespread mandatory fasting and church attendance at various times of the year. It is also what propelled the Church to combat the ignorance of the laity with artistic works, such as stained-glass windows, statues of saints and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedrals pointing upward, to God.

All of this did not occur at once, nor systematically, as we shall see.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Christianity spreads north and west

The early middle ages feature a second crop of missionary activity and conversions to Christianity. For the most part, these efforts followed a common pattern that spawned the beginnings of Western Christendom.

Where Rome had conquered, some initial Christian seedling churches had been planted. Then the barbarians came and the legions withdrew. A new effort had to be made to convert the chieftains, who in turn pretty much ordered all their tribespeople to convert. Let’s look at how this pattern played out in several of the key western European countries that influenced religion in what came to be called the New World.


Christianity in Spain began in the first century with the siete varones apostólicos (Seven Apostolic Men) ordained in Rome by Saints Peter and Paul: Saints Isicio, Cecilio, Tesifonte, Torcuato, Eufrasio, Hesiquio and Segundo. My namesake, St. Cecilio, is venerated as the patron saint of Granada (then known as Iliberis, later Elvira), where he became the first bishop, around the year 64; he was burned to death during the reign of Nero.

Still a very much a persecuted minority, Christians slowly gained a foothold in Seville, Cordoba and Toledo. Spanish Christianity under Rome was also marked by the Synod of Elvira in 305, attended by 19 bishops and 26 presbyters. After the edict of toleration, it was a Christian who hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, Emperor Theodosius I, who presided over the Council of Nicea.

In the years following 410, while Rome declined, Spain was overrun by the Visigoths. These barbarians had been converted to Christianity in 325 as a result of the missionary work among Gothic tribes by Bishop Ulfilas. However, Ulfilas had taught them the nontrinitarian variant of the faith condemned as the heresy of Arianism.

The Visigothic Kingdom ruled from Toledo led to the expansion of Arianism in Spain. However, in 587, King Reccared was converted to Chalcedonian Christianity, already known as Catholicism at that point, and he launched a movement to unify doctrine; in other words, his subjects were ordered to believe what he believed.


Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (Gaul is divided into three parts)” state the opening words of Julius Caesar’s Comentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), which recount the 58 BCE conquest of what is today France. The three parts were the lands of the Belgae, which comprise modern northern France and Belgium; the Aquitani, people south of the Loire River, and the Celtae or Celts, inhabiting what is now Normandy and Brittany.

The Romans conquered and held this territory until 486. Christianity flourished in Roman Gaul, mainly in Lyons, in a community established by missionaries from Asia Minor—notably St. Irenaeus, the first bishop, who came from Smyrna. Lyons was the site where 48 martyrs were executed in 177.

When Gaul fell to the Franks, who were a confederation of six tribes from east of the Rhine (in the original area the Romans called Francia), Clovis I established the Frankish Kingdom. The king converted to Catholicism at the suggestion of his wife, Clotilde, a Burgundian princess later revered as a saint for her role in the conversion. Clovis was baptized on Christmas Day 496 in a small church near the future site of the Abbey of Saint-Remi in Reims, with distinctive long-term effects on French Christianity.

St. Clotilde’s faith was distinctive among the barbarian invaders in its adherence to Catholicism, despite the Arian influence among the Goths. When Clovis rose to the Frankish crown, Arians dominated Christian Gaul and Catholics were the minority. Consolidation of dominion over all of Gaul in the hands of Clovis led to the massive conversion of Arians to Catholic orthodoxy.

Another consequence was a peculiar new relationship between religion and state power in France, based on variations of the divine right of kings. Although the theological teaching that monarchy was inherently blessed by the Christian faith was the work of Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, bishop and theologian at the time of Louis XIV, since the middle ages, the story is told in France of a miraculous event concerning the first Louis (Clovis is a Germanic form of the name) that had a decisive effect on the popular understanding of the idea.

According to the pious legend, depicted in many stained-glass windows in French churches, a holy flask miraculously dropped from heaven, pouring anointing oil on Clovis’ head at his baptism, thus bestowing divine support for his kingship. This event was understood to endow kings with an authority at least on a par with that of medieval bishops.


Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 BCE as part of his Gallic Wars and achieved full conquest by 43 BCE, a situation that ushered in Roman Britain until 410 CE. The originally Germanic Britons were culturally assimilated by other Celtic tribes, and their original religion was Druidism.

Under Roman rule, a secret and persecuted Christianity reached Albion, as evidenced by Tertullian’s and Origen’s mention in the third century of native British Christians. This would be the much-fabled but poorly attested church of St. Alban, held by some to be the first British Christian martyr, who died either in the year 209, 251 or 304. All vestiges of this Christianity disappeared with the Romans; whatever survived the Romans was swallowed up by successive invasions of the isles by pagan tribes.

It wasn’t until the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great that Christianity revived in Britain. Reportedly, Gregory’s interest in the Sceptred Isle was first sparked when, as a young man walking about Rome, he came across pale-skinned English children being sold at a slave market. He asked who they were and was told they were Angles.

Non Angli, sed angeli (They are not Angles, but angels),” he responded, adding that they were “well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.”

A few years after he became pope, he dispatched a Benedictine monk to head a mission to Britain. Augustine was the prior of a monastery in Rome when Gregory chose him in 595.

Augustine selected the Kingdom of Kent as his evangelization target upon learning that King Ethelbert had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I, king of Paris; he hoped the Christian woman would have some influence over her husband. After converting the king and winning his permission to preach freely in the land, Augustine was ordained a bishop and converted many of his subjects, including thousands during a mass baptism on Christmas Day in 597. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and is considered the “Apostle to the English” and founder of the English Church.

The site of the cathedral at Canterbury was reputedly chosen by Augustine because it had been a Druid place of worship. This was a practice followed broadly in Christian missions: to take artifacts of the existing pagan religion or social customs already in place and “baptize” them, as it were; indeed, this is how the holly and the ivy, both pagan ritual artifacts, were incorporated into English Christmas celebrations.


No story of the missions to the barbarians would be complete without St. Patrick, an English Christian. His confessional autobiography states that he was captured by Irish pirates at the age of 16, taken to the Emerald Isle to be sold as a slave and escaped back to England six years later.

He returned to Ireland as an adult, already ordained a priest; later he was ordained bishop. Known as the “Apostle of Ireland,” he is the primary patron saint of Ireland, along with Saints Brigid and Columba. Little is actually known about where and when Patrick worked his mission. However, legends about Patrick abound.

The best known credits Patrick with teaching the Irish the doctrine of the Holy Trinity using the shamrock to illustrate the three persons in one God. Another attributes to Patrick the absence of snakes in Ireland; he reputedly chased them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast. He is also said to have carried with him an ash wood walking stick or staff, which he thrust into the ground wherever he was evangelizing and at the place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick).

Yet another tale has Patrick being met by two ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, two former members of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s warrior bands, the fianna. The saint seeks to convert the warriors to Christianity, while they defend their pagan past; the tale contrasts the pagan warriors’ life of fighting and feasting and living close to nature with the peaceful, but unheroic and ascetic life of the Christian.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Enter the Barbarians

The collapse of the western empire based in Rome had two immediate consequences for Christianity. New peoples and lands opened up for missionary activity and the Church’s bishops and priests were forced to assume new, diverse and influential roles in society at large.

Through the fourth century Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon concentrated along coastal areas of the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea. From apostolic times, Christianity had spread from Palestine north and west throughout Asia Minor (today Turkey) and Armenia, then to Greece and Greek-influenced North Africa, then to central Italy (notably Rome), a few southern cities of France, and Spain, primarily in the South.

There were, of course, a few communities along the Rhine and Danube rivers and small groups of Christians wherever converted Romans went, along with the distant outpost in Kerala, India, established by the apostle Thomas. These were all outliers with tenuous connections to the Church federation now increasingly headed by Rome.

In the fifth and sixth centuries, there was a more concerted effort to reach out to the invading barbarians (who were called such by the Greeks because their speech sounded like “bar-bar”), and the faith reached through France and England as far north as Scotland and to the west to Ireland. On the continent, Christianity spread to cover rural areas along the banks of the Rhine and Danube all the way to the Black Sea.

The next few entries will review the expansion of Christianity in greater detail; for now, though, we need only note that most of what people in the West are accustomed to think of as foundational Christianity was actually the result of a second crop in the vineyards of the Lord.

Aside from expanding its geographic and cultural reach, the central institutions of the Christian faith experienced a larger role within society. In the absence of a central state authority in Rome, the pope, bishops, priests and deacons were forced to take on entirely new leadership roles in society.

For centuries Rome, with its armies and officials, had regulated and protected commerce, built and organized cities and public works that are still marvels today, enabled the development of education and learning, and legislated the social, political and economic order from Britain to Palestine and beyond.

Suddenly, marauding bands of illiterate hordes came pillaging, raping and marauding through much of Europe and North Africa, setting up their own kingdoms and fiefdoms ruled by nothing but the most brutish force. They had no idea how to manage aqueducts, build houses or run academies of learning, let alone make use of intellectual persuasion.

As a sample of the shock this caused, consider the words “vandal” and “vandalism,” which come from the name given to one of the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire, the Vandals. Their name is associated with Vendel, a province in Uppland, Sweden, which may have been their original homeland, but it also is related to the Germanic verb wand, from which comes the English “wander.”

This nomadic East Germanic tribe, first observed in southern Poland, ravaged Europe, establishing kingdoms in Spain and later North Africa. Imagine the searing memory they must have left in civilized culture: even today their name is synonymous with the wanton destruction of property.

In the wake of tribes like the Vandals, order in the cities collapsed. Power shifted to rural areas, which at least had their own food.

Although the bulk of Christians remained in the eastern, Greek-speaking areas still under the control of Constantinople, the Roman popes were forced to remain nominally loyal to the emperor in the eastern capital. All the while they were making deals from the Adriatic to the West with the barbarian chieftains—most of whom had risen to power by being the most bloodthirsty of their tribe.

Suddenly, the keepers of doctrine, rituals and holy books were catapulted into the unenviable position of trying to save what shred of civility could be rescued by sheer brainpower.

This was, of course, the key comparative advantage of the people who led the Church. They were highly literate and educated. In many instances, they won over barbarian chieftains by becoming their scribes, or clerks—from which we get the terms “cleric” and “clergy.”

In the West, the Church filled a vacuum by becoming the institution that could preserve knowledge and dictate the rudiments of behavior to keep the peace in society. The pope became not merely a bishop who was primus inter pares (first among equals) within the ecclesiastical structure, but an overall arbiter of law and right between the various small kingdoms and fiefdoms that arose. Over time, this would have a potent corrupting effect on the clergy.

The long-term effect on the faith was the development of a rigorist and simplistic religion that played to both the puerile and superstitious nature of the new conquerors, while attempting to set things straight in the face of their patently uncivilized behavior.

“It is only when one has studied the depressing literature of the Penitentials or manuals for confessors; or the horrible domestic annals of the Merovingian princes with their monotonous record of parricides, adulteries, casual murders and unending civil wars … all of which present us with a practical view of the human material with which the Church then had to work—it is only then that one understands the reason for the rigorist spirit [of] the Church of the middle ages,” wrote Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Benedictine monk and scholar, in his classic work The Shape of the Liturgy. “One may say that the clergy were leaving the people in their ignorance and superstitions; or one may say that in putting this emphasis on right conduct with a population still unlettered and very barbarous the clergy were putting first things first.”

It is in the next thousand years of dark ages that believers in the Christian faith attempted to survive, as true to the gospel as possible, at times experiencing saddening failures, yet often enough resulting in prodigious accomplishments in the face of adversity. This is where our story now takes us.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chalcedon tried to undo the Robber Council

The feisty post-Nicene era ended with the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the first to attempt to set things straight in an atmosphere of top local Christian church leaders calling one another “thieves.” If you wonder where Christianity started to go wrong, this is a widely acknowledged reasonable historical point.

It’s not that the gathering at Chalcedon, an ancient seaside town in today’s district of Istanbul, Turkey, was a mess. The problem was that the council was called with the reluctant assent of the Roman pope, Leo I (also known as St. Leo the Great), by Emperor Marcian to clean up a mess left by a similar meeting, the Second Council of Ephesus in 449. That one ended up getting called a latrocinium (Latin, robbery) by Leo, giving rise to its historical nickname, the Robber Council.

At more than a millennium’s remove, it is difficult to understand the problems at Ephesus and the need to repair them.

Let it suffice to say that slogans simplifying complex philosophical debates—all Christological, meaning concerning the natures of Christ—were in the mouths of the populace. The untutored people marched in opposing bands through the streets chanting slogans for one position against another. Worse, this was all caused by unruly behavior by those charged to be teachers and models, the bishops. If nothing else, it makes ecclesiastical disputes of the 20th and 21st centuries seem exceedingly tame in comparison.

Briefly, Ephesus was called by Emperor Theodosius II and led—in the absence of the Roman pope—by Alexandrian Pope Dioscorus I, who essentially seized the meeting and expelled anyone who disagreed with him. There were accusations, shouts to “burn” members of various parties, and proceedings that exceeded even the heated antics of the British House of Commons.

The minutes of the first session—during which most of the fireworks were set off—are lost, but those of the second survive. The upshot of the disputations was that whatever Dioscorus agreed with was approved, patriarchs and bishops who disagreed were ordered deposed, and the voice of papal legates went unheard, since they were effectively expelled at the outset. When news reached Rome, it is not difficult to imagine how Leo thought the council had been hijacked (or “robbed”).

The central idea at issue at both Ephesus and Chalcedon was whether Christ has one nature or two.

Monophysitism, or doctrine of one nature, argued that when Jesus Christ was conceived there was an indivisible union of the divine and human, involving the divine and eternal Son or Word of God and the human son of Mary. The Chalcedonian declaration, which stands today as almost universally accepted Christian doctrine, insisted that, to the contrary, in Christ there come together two natures in one person and one hypostasis (most commonly translated as one “subsistence,” a technical term to avoid both the terms “substance” and “essence”).

Who cares, right? Did anyone really intimately know the natures of Christ?

Of course, intermingled with these lofty debates were disputes over the territory and prerogatives of certain bishops. Particularly contested was the place of the bishop of Constantinople as head of the church in the “New Rome,” from which the eastern half of the Roman Empire was now ruled. Ephesus was an East-leaning council favorable to the see of Constantinople as second to Rome; Chalcedon was West-leaning, favorable to Rome, with no seconds in mind.

The seeds of a schism that would take 500 years to occur were planted in these councils.

Both councils debated the role of Mary, which was a matter of immense local pride to the inhabitants of Ephesus, where tradition held that Mary and John the Evangelist made their home before John was exiled to Patmos.

The dispute about Mary was mostly about whether she should be called “God bearer” (Gk., Theotokos) or Mother of God (Meter tou Theou). Added to the confusion was the unfortunate poor translation of Theotokos into Latin as Mater Dei: the distinction being that Mary, who was not divine and eternal, could not have been the true mother of the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Ephesians of the fifth century leaned, naturally, to the loftier Mother of God for their local heroine.

Incidentally, the modern Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran use of “Mother of God” is meant to convey Theotokos. It’s a linguistic error, I know, but just you try to reword the Hail Mary and see what happens to you.

In the end Chalcedon settled on a declaration that in part states:
Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.
I hope that makes things crystal clear.

Soon such lofty hair splitting gave way to other concerns as Rome collapsed and the West found itself awash in brutal tribes that had marched from the Russian steppes and beyond to pillage and rape in the Greco-Roman city culture, or civilization, of the Mediterranean.

The Middle, or Dark, Ages had begun.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Tolle, Lege

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the first major Christian thinker whose work transcended faith. He is considered a major contender in nonreligious thought, in issues ranging from war and peace to slavery to morality and civic order, as well as in key theological questions such as grace, sin, sacraments and the sanctity of the Church.


Augustine was born in Tagaste, Numidia (modern-day Souk Ahras, Algeria) in a comfortable but not rich family of freed African slaves, possibly among those granted full Roman citizenship in 212. His mother, St. Monica, was a Christian; his father, Patricius, was a pagan who converted on his deathbed.

At the age of 17 he went to study rhetoric in Carthage, where he came across a speech of Cicero’s that is now lost to us, which sparked his interest in the rhetorical arts and philosophy. Raised a Christian, Augustine converted to an offshoot of Gnosticism known as Manicheism, which taught a cosmology in which a good, spiritual world of light was at war with an evil, material world of darkness. He lived a young man’s licentious life, which inspired his prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” He eventually became a teacher of rhetoric, moving to Rome to teach.

At 19, Augustine began a 12-year monogamous unmarried relationship with a woman whose name is lost to us, but who gave him a son, Adeodatus. Monica opposed that union—even though in Rome concubinage was a respectable way to cohabit when marriage was not legally possible, which may have been the case—and tried to break up the relationship by arranging a marriage to an heiress who was 10, not yet the legal marriage age of 12. Augustine regretfully broke up with the mother of his only child but spent the two years awaiting marriage in the company of two concubines.

Also while living in Rome, Augustine heard of Ambrose of Milan, who was noted for his rhetorical skills. Augustine saw in Ambrose a spectacular orator, a mentor to whom he became attached and whose orations unwittingly led him to the Christian faith.

At 31, reading of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, Augustine converted to Christianity. In his autobiography, he says he was prompted by a childlike voice saying, “tolle, lege” (Latin for “take up and read”); he took it as a command to open the Bible and read the first thing he saw, which happened to be Romans 13:13-14, on how conversion transforms believers, to wit: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, baptized Augustine and Adeodatus, at the Easter Vigil in 387. Shortly thereafter Augustine decided to lead a celibate life. His son and mother died, and he returned to Africa to sell his possessions and give them to the poor. He was ordained a priest in 391 and later bishop of Hippo in 395. He had kept a family home in Hippo, which he used as a monastic residence for himself and his priests.

The story of his early life and conversion is found in his Confessions, a major piece of autobiographical literature. That was, of course, only one of his many works, to which we now turn.


From his seat as a bishop, Augustine the thinker was given rein to produce some of the most influential works of Western philosophy and Christian theology. His work encompasses roughly 80 books and essays, not counting tens of preserved sermons, which stand as the foundation of modern Christianity and of many ideas in secular philosophy.

He was an enormous influence on Thomas Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine developed Irenaeus’ notion of original sin and concupiscence, adding his thoughts on the efficacious grace of Christ. He delved into matters as diverse as free will, the emotions that inform sexual morality, the validity of sacraments, the chosenness of the Jews (and rejection of their persecution), metaphorical interpretation of the Bible, eschatology and epistemology (including a teaching on inner illumination).

He saw in human beings a marriage of body and soul, which he considered separate (the Manichean influence) yet united (the Hebraic biblical influence). With respect to the Church, he distinguished between the visible human institution of sinners and saints and the invisible communion of saints, dead and alive, known only to God.

Augustine also authored one of the earliest rules of monastic life, which was the basis for the much later Augustinian Order of monks, to which Luther belonged. He wrote the rule for a troubled convent in which his sister and several cousins lived.

He was the first major Christian thinker to address a world in which Christianity was an influential voice amid the crumbling power of Rome, which leads some to call him the first medieval philosopher. He ventured into areas of social and political theory in, among other things, opposing slavery and war as contrary to the divine will.

However, in his major work, the City of God, he coined the term “just war” to address cases in which a grave wrong can be stopped only by violence; he thought that it would be a sin to insist on peacefulness in such a circumstance. Many centuries later, Aquinas would draw on Augustine to develop his own full-fledged theory of just war.

Augustine’s turnabout from pacifism to just war may stem from the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. City of God states that the virgins who were raped during the sacking were not to be deemed at fault. It also asserts to the still-pagan world that Christianity did not weaken the Roman Empire, as some Romans were beginning to argue.

Augustine’s thought anticipated a world in which Christianity would have to take stand not merely on personal matters, church order and biblical interpretation but also on broader social, political and economic issues.

Nothing places Augustine more perfectly in the context of his time than his death. Shortly before he died, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, invaded Roman Africa. They besieged Hippo early in 430, as Augustine collapsed from his final and fatal illness. One of the few miracles attributed to Augustine, the healing of a sick man who invoked the dead bishop, took place during the siege.

Augustine was canonized in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII. He is considered “blessed” by the Orthodox Church, but not a saint due to his view of the trinity, which is at the heart of the controversy with the West. His feast day is August 28, the day he died. He is revered as the patron saint of brewers, printers, theologians and sore eyes, as well as of several cities and dioceses.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

First Bible, first monastery, first major philosopher

Apart from holding two councils, setting worship styles, a calendar of feasts and a hierarchy of scholarly clergy, post-Nicene Christianity developed the Christian Bible, gave rise to monasticism and featured major “fathers” of the Church.

The average Christian in the pews is apt to think that Bibles dropped out of the sky, some in zippered leatherette covers, in 17th century English full of “thou” and “thee.”

In fact, as we have seen, the Hebrew Bible took centuries to get written and edited, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 of our era, the Talmud overtook it as the go-to reference in Judaism.

The translation that came to form the Christian Old Testament is called the Septuagint (from the Greek for 70) from a legendary origin having to do with the number of scholars involved, cited in the Babylonian Talmud as follows:
King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one's room and said: “Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.” God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did. (Tractate Megillah, pages 9a-9b)
Ptolemy, Greek king of Egypt, lived from 287 to 246 BCE. The translation was completed by 132 BCE and a copy deposited in the famous Library of Alexandria. This is attested by numerous references and quotes of the era and by its Greek literary style.

The 27 Christian biblical books were written between about 50 and 110 CE, probably not by the reputed authors but by scribes. The earliest works are the Pauline letters, which are unquestionably by Paul of Tarsus (50-63), then the gospels Mark, Matthew and Luke with Acts (55-75), deutero-Pauline letters written by his followers (65-85), the gospel of John (85-95) and then the remaining works.

The New or Christian Testament also took some time to get established, mostly by custom. St. Irenaeus of Lyons referred to the four gospels around 160. Origen of Alexandria listed most of the 27 books in the modern NT, but there were still disputes over Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John and Revelation (also known as the Apocalypse).

At the time, there were about 200 Christian writings similar to those in the current NT. Those that some did not accept as fitting “the measure” (Gr., kanon, a measuring stick) were known as antilegomena; the major writings in what is now the NT were homologoumena, or universally regarded  since the immediate postapostolic era.

In 331, Emperor Constantine commissioned 50 copies of the Bible in Greek. They were completed during 337-339 by Eusebius of Caesarea, probably under his supervision since they had to be copied by hand. These manuscripts were lost until 1844, when a copy, known as the Codex Sinaiticus, was rediscovered in a monastery.

Although lost to antiquity, Constantine’s Bibles set in motion the matter of deciding which books should be in the Bible.

Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, who apparently was asked for another set of Bibles, gave in his Easter letter of 367 the earliest preserved list of the exact books in the NT canon. The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved Athanasius’ list and the Greek Septuagint Bible, a decision endorsed by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419. These councils were held under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the biblical canon as already closed.

Similarly, in 382 Pope Damasus commissioned the Latin Vulgate (from vulgus, “people”) edition of the Bible, most of which was completed by St. Jerome by 405. The Vulgate was used in the West along with the Vetus Vulgata, an older Latin translation, until about the 13th century, when the Vulgate became the dominant version and was declared official in the 16th century.

Just as the postapostolic era saw the rise of hermit monks who lived in solitude following the example of St. Anthony of Egypt, in this new era St. Pachomius (292-348), also an Egyptian, established the first monastic community in 318 on the Nile island of Tabennisi. The monks called Pachomius “Abba” (father), from which the word “Abbot” derives, and within a generation, similar monasteries sprang up in Egypt, Palestine and the Judean Desert, Syria, North Africa and eventually western Europe. The number of monasteries and their locations are not very well established, but estimates hold that at the time there may have been as many as 7,000 monks.

The post-Nicene Church was also graced by the presence of teaching “fathers,” also deemed saints in the major Christian traditions, in particular
  • Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386), bishop and theologian, famous for his Catechetical Lectures, which expound on the principal beliefs and the nature of salvation and the eucharist;
  • Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390), Cappadocian (Turkey) bishop and theologian who specialized in the relations between the three persons of the trinity;
  • Ambrose of Milan (340-397), bishop, famous for his opposition to Arianism and his influence on Augustine of Hippo; and
  • Augustine of Hippo (354-430), convert, bishop and philosopher, whose influence in the West was paramount and whose intellectual influence spreads far and wide—to his life and work we turn next.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Trials of Theodosius, or how the weirdly familiar yet diverse post-Nicenes taught their leaders patience

Just as the structure of the Church began in the 4th century to take forms familiar to us, the customary religious observances of Christians began to emerge in patterns we would recognize, if we could speak the languages and belonged to the social cultures in which they played out.

In particular, the public Mass or Eucharist service took a broad pattern fundamentally unchanged to this day that crosses confessional and denominational lines. The communities of Christians also began to enlarge a calendar of feasts and special observances throughout the year—including Christmas, first celebrated in 385 in Rome but not universally until about three centuries later.

All this was brought about by the startling new reality that, for the first time, Christians could worship and pray together in public without fear for their lives. The stealthy quick services to which only trusted believers were admitted suddenly became public religious events supported by the state that even curious outsiders could attend.

My post of June 7, 2015, Kristianoi at Prayer, explained the principal, recurrent and most important ritual derived from the Last Supper, known by the 4th century as the Eucharist. In Sanctifying Time, posted August 16, 2015, I also explained a parallel, educational gathering called the Synaxis, which included opening prayers and hymns and three biblical readings and concluded with explanatory remarks by the presiding priest or bishop.

After Nicea, when services became public, the Synaxis and Eucharist were joined into one service, with the Nicene Creed recited between them. The public service started with the Synaxis through the sermon—at which point catechumens preparing for reception into the Church through baptism, communion and confirmation departed—then came the creed, a few prayers and the Eucharist proper.

Ever notice what happens after the few prayers that follow the sermon and creed (the prayers vary a little depending on the denomination)?

The priest or minister says, “The peace of the Lord be always with you,” to which the congregation replies, “And with you” (or words to that effect in both cases). Then, as if nothing has happened, the priest moves to the altar and says, “The Lord be with you,” which is met with a hearty “And also with you” from the people, followed by “Lift up your hearts” and a joyful little litany of thanksgiving.

Sound a little repetitious? It’s not; and it is.

The first exchange marks the point at which the Synaxis ended and people were dismissed with a wish that the Lord abide with them. The second is the opening of the pre-Nicene Eucharist, a hearty invitation to partake in the joy of the common union to come.

Why were they kept intact? The only plausible explanation is custom, in particular the custom of the people. Almost without exception the oldest words used in services are those the people—as opposed to leaders or celebrants—say.

Changing what a whole congregation says is a lot harder than changing what one leader says. Indeed, most of the food fights through the centuries among liturgical specialists are about the words said by leaders at worship.

Lest this seem to resolve all matters of worship until modernity, keep in mind the social geography of Christianity at the time. There was no single prayer book followed by all Christian communities.

These communities split into four major groups:
  • The East, meaning Greater Syria (modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and parts of Iraq and Iran), which had two major liturgical, or worship, families: the Assyro-Chaldean Rite, which worshipped in Aramaic (also known as Syriac), with a “Persian” variant in Antioch that avoided all Christological statements; and a “western” family that later became the Maronite Rite in Lebanon, which evolved to use Arabic.
  • Byzantium, meaning the rite of Constantinople, which was Greek and became the basis of Orthodox worship.
  • Africa: the Coptic rites of Alexandria, which used the Coptic language, an afroasiatic tongue written with the Greek alphabet; and the Ethiopia rites, which used a Semitic tongue known as Ge’ez.
  • Western: four families of rituals, all in Latin—the Roman, Gallic (France), Hispanic or Mozarabic in later use (Spain) and Milanese, inspired by St. Ambrose of Milan (northern Italy).
If the various forms of observance of the Eucharist offer baffling variety, even though the service had a similar outline everywhere, the calendar posed even greater problems.

It’s no surprise that among a network of secret groups, no one kept a central list of all martyrs and, when in the open, each community favored the people it knew. Moreover, some communities preferred the solar Roman calendar, others the Jewish lunar calendar, plus other variants, so there was very little uniformity in timing. This calendar problem was raised at the council of Constantinople by none other than Emperor Theodosius, who wanted everything neat and uniform, to no avail.

The end result was a very lively yet catholic Christianity that changed some of its spots according to the place and language of believers.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Church's one foundation

Catholic Christianity in the period leading to Chalcedon seems at once to neutralize the opposing views propounded by those in communion with the modern Vatican and ye 500-year-olde Protestant idea of what the structure of the Church looked like way back when.

In the Catholic view, St. Peter was anointed leader of the apostles, then, before his upside-down crucifixion in Rome (at his request so as not to receive the honor of Christ), laid hands on Linus, who was the second pope, after whom followed 263 other men in unbroken succession until Francis. In the most pious and conservative hands, the story has the entire current structure—including the title pope—emerging out of the gospel like a rabbit out of a hat.

In the Protestant view, papal primacy never existed in early Christianity and was a travesty invented by some old and very corrupt medieval men in Rome next to whom today’s pedophile priests are just petty criminals.

The historical evidence pulls to somewhere in the middle.

In Jesus’ time, what we would have called “the Church,” in reality an informal Jewish religious movement or sect, initially consisted of his 12 closest followers, named in the gospels. They may or may not have been 12. Biblical numbers are highly symbolic and should generally not be taken at face value; the biblical 12 denotes perfect rule or governance; it is also the number of the tribes of Israel.

Significantly for our purposes, “the Twelve” were regarded as the top leaders of the Christian movement after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the point that one of their first acts of church governance was to elect someone to fill the place of Judas. Acts 1:15-26 narrates the election of Matthias.

These twelve were apostles, from the Greek apostolos meaning “envoy or delegate.” Some argue that its Christian use translated a Jewish position known in Hebrew as the sheliach, a title still used in the Hasidic movement for someone charged with disseminating the ideas of Judaism and Hasidism.

The term was translated into Latin as missio, from which we get “missionary,” which is the role they played. Peter and Paul went west to Rome and sent some of their assistants as far as France and Spain. Thomas went as far east as India, where a community in the state of Kerala traces itself back to the arrival of the apostle in the port city of Muziris (modern-day Pattanam) in the year 52.

Somewhat below the apostles were the “disciples.” In Luke 10:1, Jesus sends out 70 such followers to preach his gospel; here again is a tricky biblical number, seven being the perfect number and anything multiplied by 10 meaning a very large quantity—“a good many” might be the more precise way to put it.

By the time Paul is writing about church order in the 60s (in I and II Timothy and in Titus), he speaks of bishops (successors of the apostles), elders or priests (local stand-ins for the bishops as the church grew) and deacons (designated to service to the community, in particular caring for widows and orphans). There were also teachers and people who spoke in tongues and offered prophesies, although none of these appear to have been formal offices.

Fast-forward to the public, legal and official Christianity of the 4th century and we have a worldwide, loose federation of communities that was in constant communication thanks to Roman roads and navigation.

The established church adopted the organizational map of the Roman Empire, dividing up its territory into provinces and dioceses. In charge of dioceses were bishops, who were usually in major cities known as their “seat,” or “see.” (In later usage, groups of dioceses within a province were nominally headed by an archbishop or a primate.)

Among the sees, five came to hold a special place of privilege—Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria—their respective prestige having to do with their apostolic founders, notable successors and proximity to political power. A fair question may be raised: with all these important bishops around, who was what in the Mafia is known as capo di tutti capi, or boss of all bosses? The answer is unclear.

Since at least the time of Clement of Rome, the bishop of the imperial capital was in many respects preeminent. Clement was the fourth pope, in office from 88 to 99, although some believed he was ordained by Peter along with predecessors Linus and Cletus.

However, depending on the source, when Constantinople was founded to establish a new imperial capital, its bishop was regarded as either second or coequal.

To complicate matters, two of the most prominent sees—Rome and Alexandria—had bishops known also as “pope” (papa, meaning “father”). In contrast, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem were headed by bishops also called “patriarchs.”

Thus, the evolution to one Roman pope as head of all can best be understood as the result of a historical game of musical chairs that went more or less as follows.

Originally, Jerusalem was the Mother Church, headed by St. James, meaning the apostle James the Just, son of Alphaeus, also known as “the brother of the Lord,” denoting some kinship to Jesus (probably cousin). The Roman siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 70, and later persecutions related to several other uprisings in the 1st and 2nd centuries, led to Jerusalem’s decline until Chalcedon.

The church at Antioch was founded by Peter before he went to Rome; his successor, Ignatius of Antioch, coined the term “Catholic Church.” The Antiochene church remained fiercely independent and may have been where the gospel of Matthew was edited into final form. Antioch remained the only major see that continued to have a close relationship with the rabbinical Jewish community. Indeed, its standing declined after the councils of Nicea and Constantinople because of leaders’ efforts to accommodate rabbinical criticism of the divinity of Christ.

Alexandria, home of the other pope, was overrun by two heresies, Arianism and Nestorianism, and ultimately by Islam. Today’s Alexandrian Christians are the Copts, headed by Pope Theodore II.

Constantinople weakened with the Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453 and was subject to Islamic rule until the 20th century. Also, the patriarch severed ties with Rome in 1054 to head a smaller body of culturally segregated communities in communion with one another, as we shall see.

In the end, Rome was the only one left standing.

A few last points fill in the picture. Until becoming imperial employees in 380, the clergy we are speaking of consisted of unpaid volunteers. There is some evidence that in a number of instances bishops, priests and deacons were not merely appointed from above but noisily elected by community voice vote in which the laity participated. The record strongly suggests that all—except for deacons—were male, and most were married.

Roman primacy notwithstanding, the Church of what we’re beginning to understand as Chalcedonian Christianity was not a monolith in ritual practice, customs or usages, the topic we will turn to next.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Christianity goes public

Legalization of Christianity allowed two councils to come up with the first formally adopted essential theological synthesis—or symbolon—of faith, the Nicene Creed. The change also brought about a huge transformation in the practices of Christians, their communities and places of worship into something vaguely recognizable to the modern eye.

To understand the change it is worth taking a good quick look at the “before” and “after” pictures of Christians as a social group.


The ante-Nicene Church was secret, persecuted and run by hardy volunteers who circulated carefully guarded writings and gathered in prearranged hidden places, often homes, for prayer, worship and study.

These communities started out as overwhelmingly Jewish in belief and practice but slowly began to Hellenize as rabbis opposed the followers of Jesus and Gentiles began to overwhelm in number the Jewish Christians. The geographic center of gravity of the Christian community still tilted toward Jerusalem, the destroyed original mother church, but slowly began to turn toward culturally Greek Asia Minor, today Turkey. The Judaic influence gave way to the Hellenic, to the point that almost all extant early manuscripts of Christian writings, including the New Testament, are only available in Greek.

They were originally led by a motley crew of 11 Jewish tradespeople who used the network of Roman roads to tell the story of the executed Galilean who had risen from the dead—the major selling point among people groaning under Roman rule—and spread the faith. Before moving on, however, they delegated someone as their stand-in overseer to teach and develop the faith of the new community of believers; these episkopos (bishops) in turn delegated their role to the elders of the community (presbyteros, or priests). These were all part-time unpaid amateurs and did it only out of conviction.

In Rome they gathered in underground caves known as catacombs, which can be toured today. Elsewhere they gather in homes or other secret places. They had secret signs, such as the crudely drawn fish—in Greek, ichthys—an acrostic for Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter, which translates into “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” In the classic 1951 film “Quo Vadis?” Deborah Kerr, who plays a young early Christian, draws it in the dust to test whether the Roman officer to whom she is attracted, played by Robert Taylor, is a believer; she cringes when he unwittingly reveals he is a pagan by saying, “Am I as ugly as that fish?”

In particular, eucharistic gatherings were closely protected to the point that the “secret of the Eucharist” was observed up to the 6th century in some localities; this meant that only baptized and confirmed Christians were welcome. This was for good reason: outside lay a hostile society and government, ready to kill them all at the slightest betrayal.


The post-Nicene Church was different in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it became legally tolerated in 313; in 380 it came to be the official religion of the Roman Empire—this status reverted several times to merely a legal religion, until it stuck—and, as such, subsidized by the state, had a legal status similar in some respects to that of the Church of England.

Culturally, the Church, meaning the overarching worldwide “federation” of Christian communities, was very diverse. The most respected sees were Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. Far out in the East, they prayed and worshipped in Aramaic and Syriac; in Greece, near the center, it was primarily Greek; and in Rome, and far off in the West, Hispania, it was Latin. The way they worshipped was similarly distinct.

The successors of the original church volunteers — by then learned academic philosophers who spoke Greek, Hebrew and Latin — became bureaucrats. The robes worn by clerics in modern church services are stylized versions of the 4th-century Roman bureaucrat’s attire, an equivalent of the late 20th century three-piece suit in Washington, D.C. Most of the leading theologians—and theological disputants—of the day were local bishops, who took seriously their charge since apostolic times to teach.

Christians no longer worshipped in private and, with state patronage, began to build structures set aside for that purpose alone, church buildings, frequently designed in an early version of a style called Romanesque. The 4th-century Church of St. Demetrius (Hagios Demetrios) in Thessalonica is a splendid example that still stands today.

Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki, 2008
photo by DMY Licensed via Wikimedia Commons
(Click on picture to view larger)
Buttressing all this activity were the post-Nicene Church Fathers, or the intellectual philosopher-theologians who tackled developing the thinking of the community. Their works responded to the issues of the day, which were very different from our own. Sometimes they wrote in opposition to criticism the still pagan world, often enough in vitriolic disputes among themselves and also against heresies that arose in the Christian Church. Their writings are regarded today as foundational to Christian faith, even if they do not have the canonical seal of being regarded as divine revelation.

The Road to Chalcedonian Christianity

The post-Nicene period—roughly 4th and 5th centuries—is when the foundations of all existing branches of Christianity were laid down. Six hundred or so years later, eastern and western Christianity would split; a thousand years or so later, Luther would claim that nothing after the 5th century was binding on Christians. These divisions persist.

The common Christianity held today by all Christians—often called Chalcedonian Christianity after a noted council in 451 that we shall discuss—developed at a time of enormous historical cataclysms. Just as Christianity gained an open public purchase in society, the existing political order began to crack, splinter and ultimately collapse.

The Roman Empire split into two after emperor Theodosius the Great died in 395. Rome was sacked beginning in 410, and the last western emperor was forced to resign by a Barbarian chieftain in 476.

The eastern empire based in Constantinople continued with ever weakening sway until 1453, when the city fell to invaders. However, already by the 10th century those Muslim invaders had begun to proselytize for Islam in Asia Minor, the Levant and North Africa, contributing to the effective collapse of a Christianity weakened by heresy in those areas. The lands that Jesus knew have not been predominantly Christian for at least a millennium. But this is a tease of what we will review further along.

Before all that, I will spend the next few entries reviewing the Church’s emerging structure and uses of worship and the leading ideas and thinkers in the post-Nicene era. Then we will wrap up the era with Chalcedon.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The first instance of committee writing

In this final post on the Creed, we tackle what I would call the first recorded instance of Christian “committee writing”; it occurred in Constantinople in 381.

This almost has the feel of a laundry list of items drawn up by people trying to make sure nothing essential is forgotten. But they didn’t realize that playing with the words so much yielded perplexing results that would lead to unending arguments.
 We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
This statement is known as the “four marks” of the Church, the collective assembly of Christians, affirming that it is
  • one (Ephesians 4:5-6)—a whole entity united in belief, of which the local churches are only a part (Paul uses “the church of God that is in Corinth” in I Corinthians 1:2);
  • holy—set apart for God’s purpose, yet not devoid of sin (in Mark 2:17, Jesus says “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners”);
  • catholic—universal, geographically, ethnically or by gender (Galatians 3:28), as well as in the wholeness of faith within each locality (in the 4th century, “Catholic Christians” were those who were not heretical or estranged by their beliefs); and
  • apostolic—rooted in the living traditions taught by the apostles, including each local church’s bishops, who were ordained through the laying of hands on their heads by tactile successors of the Twelve (this claim is made today by Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox communions).
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
The last verse of the gospel of Matthew sets forth the commission to go out and baptize the world. The original use of baptism in Judaism had been as a sign of divine forgiveness; it became also a symbol of commitment to the Christian faith.

Early on, forgiveness was offered only once in a lifetime (baptism is still only administered once). Falling back into sin was deemed a sign of insincere conversion (what some Evangelical Protestants even today call “backsliding”).

The lack of an ordinary way for a Christian who committed a grave sin to be reconciled with God by those given the power “to loose and to bind” (Matt. 16:19) is widely cited as the reason Constantine converted when he thought he was dying (and was therefore unlikely ever to sin gravely again). In practice, however, there is evidence bishops did remit sins outside baptism.

After the Diocletian persecution, which nearly wiped out Christianity, bishops allowed Christians who had renounced the faith to confess their wrongdoing before the Christian community and be forgiven. This is distinct from the sign of forgiveness before communion in the Eucharist, which was meant to heal internal rifts among believers.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
Judaism debated the question of the afterlife. The Pharisees, who are the theological ancestors of rabbinical Judaism after the year 70, believed in some, much debated, form of afterlife. The Sadducees did not. In Matthew 22:29-33, Jesus is placed in the middle of the debate and he comes down squarely on the side of the Pharisees.
This Hebrew word, which means “so be it” or “truly” (often translated as “verily”), was absent from the creed approved in Nicea, but was added in Constantinople. It is found in the Old and New Testaments and was and still is used to conclude Jewish prayer, so as to confirm personal assent to what has just been said.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

God the Holy Ghost

The creed approved at Nicea ended with “and the Holy Ghost.” At Constantinople, the bishops added clarifications that would, seven centuries later, cause many headaches.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.

Nicea merely named the Person. Constantinople went into the coexistence and coequality of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son.

The term Holy Spirit was not new, to Jews or Christians.

The Holy Spirit is implicit in Genesis 1:1, which uses Elohim, a plural, for God. Explicitly, the Holy Spirit appears in Gen. 1:2 (“the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”) and on numerous occasions when there are references to inspiration, prophecy and wisdom. The Hebrew for “spirit” is ruach, which also means “wind”—hence the idea of divine inspiration, from the Latin inspirare, “to breathe into.”

In the New Testament the Holy Spirit appears some 90 times—but in Greek, the original language of almost all the NT: Pneuma Hagion. Let’s break that down: pneuma means—you guessed—“wind,” “breath” and figuratively “spirit”; hagion means “holy” or “sacred,” which we already know means “set apart.”

In English, we have Holy Ghost, from the Germanic Geist, and Holy Spirit, from the Latin spiritus. The King James Bible, completed in 1611, uses both interchangeably. It was only in the 20th century, when “ghost” came to refer exclusively to the dead, that translators and liturgists began to prefer Holy Spirit. There is no theological distinction; it’s just a matter of usage.

The Creed attempts a summation of the trinity, a teaching that—contrary to appearances—was not invented at either Nicea or Constantinople. The very colorful James Pike, Episcopal bishop of California in the late 1950s and half of the 60s, started prayer and services simply “In the name of God”; he argued that the apostles would not have understood the Niceo-Constantinopolitan trinitarian formula.

Although Pike had an arguable point, the kernel of the trinitarian idea is found in the gospels (particularly Matthew 28:19) and other books of the NT. Jesus, as the Son of God, conceivably spoke out of knowledge we do not possess about the Godhead, using terms that may have seemed mysterious to his puzzled followers, which they simply repeated assuming Jesus knew what he was doing—in any case the disciples did not record an explanation.

Many attempts, including the Nicene Creed in my opinion, have failed to explain the trinity. I will not try; if I am ever in the presence of God, I call dibs on asking what this is all about.

For our historical purposes, we need only note that the formula here attempts to respond to claims that the bishops judged heterodox. Note, for example, as with the Son earlier, there is an explicit reference to the Spirit as creator (“the giver of Life”) to emphasize the Third Person’s eternal coexistence with the other two.

A last point concerns, again, the grammatical gender. In Old Testament Hebrew and Jesus’ Aramaic, the word for “spirit” is feminine; in Greek it is neuter; in Latin and derivations, it is masculine. Thus, in theory and historically, the Holy Spirit has often been associated with holy wisdom, which is feminine, but also with the paternity of God as “life giver,” which is masculine.

Importantly also, the teaching of the trinity does not propose three gods, but three divine Persons in a triune God. (Don’t ask.) However, some rabbis of Jesus’ and Nicea’s time argued that Christians abandoned monotheism and, to this day, this remains at the heart of why Judaism regards Christianity as apostasy.

Most Christians experience God as a parent; as someone who understands us, adoptive children, much the way a sibling might; and, finally, as one who lifts us up to consider things far beyond our daily tribulations and worries.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

At last, here is an action of the Holy Spirit, or God’s spirit of wisdom, as an inspirer of prophetic voices in the history of faith. Consider the “small still voice” heard in 1 Kings 19:11-13:
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

What, indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

God the Son

Now we tackle the Nicene Creed on Jesus Christ.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
In Acts 2:36, Peter offers the basis for the original earliest Christian statement of faith: Jesus is Lord. This meant Jesus is in charge. The much revered verse at John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son ...”) offers one of many possible scriptural bases, for these lines. Importantly also, as we have noted before, Jesus is given the title Christ, from Kristos, the Greek word for Messiah or savior.

Then the Creed turns to belief in the divinity of Jesus, which is distinct and central to Christianity. In the pagan Roman world, Emperor Augustus had been regarded as an adoptive son of God (divus filius) and part of the demand Romans made of Christians when captured was that they worship Caesar, the emperor, as divine—which is why they refused to do so. In the creed, the Church wanted to make clear that Jesus’ divine sonship was not adoptive, but actual and unique.
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
These lines attempt to answer several heresies. Taken together they affirm that Jesus is God in every possible way.

Arius (250–336), a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, originated the idea that Christ, Son of God, did not always exist, but was created by and was distinct from God the Father. Arianism anticipated Nestorianism’s separation of Christ’s human and divine natures and Docetism’s later claim that Jesus was only divine and, as we might say, just pretending to be human.

The Christian belief is that Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ or Messiah, is the living Son of God who spent roughly three decades among us as completely human.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
These lines amplify the message. The introduction to the gospel of John (1:1-18) provides a poetic account of the pre-existence of Christ (“In the beginning was the Word ...”) and his coming to live among us.

The gospel of Luke is the most explicit in describing the announcement of the incarnation (or “enfleshment,” if you will) of Jesus in his mother Myriam (Mary), a young unmarried woman (Luke 1:26-38). Mary tells the angel who brings this announcement that she is a virgin (“How will this be, since I do not know a man?”).

Luke’s and the Creed’s point in laying out the virginity of Mary was to respond to a variety of rabbinical and pagan polemics that called the mother of Jesus either a “whore” or a “loose woman”—certainly one loose enough not to know the father of her child. According to Origen of Alexandria, the Greek philosopher Celsus had argued that Jesus was conceived by a Roman soldier, a story scholars have unanimously rejected it as a fanciful invention.

Here again, the Church is crossing out false claims.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
The crucifixion is the one fact about the life of Jesus that is most widely accepted by believers and nonbelievers alike. It is also part of all four canonical gospel stories. The Church is nailing belief to history.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The resurrection and ascension, with which we dealt in the beginning of the post The Way Christians Were, is the notable set of developments that made Jesus famous. Absent these, he would have been just one of many young men in robes who preached this or that in the religious bazaar that was 1st century Palestine. The Christian faith requires assent to the claim that he rose and is with God the Father.

This is the core “good news” that ran like wild fire across the Roman Empire. An ordinary woodworker had been executed (no surprise). Then, on the third day he rose from the dead. It was the ultimate up-ending of the human order.

A humble one was vilified and executed, but in the end he defied his executors. As in the speech of Peter in Jerusalem in the Book of Acts: this man you dismissed turned out to be the Lord of all. Entire subjugated populations laboring under the Mafia-like protection system of Roman taxes suddenly saw a Power above Rome.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
The return of Jesus Christ is referred to repeatedly in the gospels and in a full literary technicolor of sorts in the book of Revelation. It was the hope that kept the Christians going in the dark era of persecution; of course, it also involved a Final Judgment.

In his own version of that judgment, Jesus said he would reward those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger gave clothes to those who lacked them, cared for the sick and visited prisoners (Matthew 25:31-46).

Sunday, September 13, 2015

God the Father

Now we turn to the Nicene Creed as adopted at Nicea and amended at Constantinople, widely held today to be the bare essentials of the Christian faith. In the next posts we shall explore the creed’s text, meaning and echoes from the Bible.
We believe
The original is plural, a statement of all the Church: all of us believe this. The Latin credo (I believe) was used later, in worship and usually referring to an earlier creed of uncertain origin known as the “Apostles’ Creed.”
in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
Monotheism is the cornerstone of Judaism. The Bible does not attempt to debate the existence of God nor is there an argument that there is only one God; instead, the recurring statement is that only the God of Abraham and Moses should be worshiped.

Jesus reaffirms Judaic monotheism when he recites the famous Hebrew prayer, the Sh’ma, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” (Mark 12:29), which echoes Deuteronomy 6:4.

The assignment of fatherhood to God also has Judaic origins (Isaiah 63:16, for example), but was used many times by Jesus (John 14:9-11).

The scholar Rudolf Bultmann, the father of biblical form criticism, is reputed to have declared that the only word we can safely say came directly from the mouth of Jesus is Abba (Aramaic for “father”), which is the opening of the prayer he taught his closest followers. The comment is often regarded as a humorous scholarly extreme, but it emphasizes the broad consensus concerning how Jesus addressed God.

The meaning is that God is the ultimate source, or father, to all of us. There may be an intimacy implied, such as that explored by Jewish theologian Martin Buber and addressed in his work I and Thou, but it is a “mature” relationship (see my post According to Linguists “Abba” is not “Daddy”).

To be clearer still, “father” does not assign a sex to God; the masculine gender, when used, is merely grammatical. The original proper name for the God of Abraham, YWHW (often rendered as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” to fill ancient Hebrew’s lack of written vowels) means “the existent One.” The bishops at Nicea and Constantinople, who were philosophically sophisticated, were not about to add a mandated sex or gender, other than as required by ordinary language usage. The fatherhood of God is a sexless paternity; it could be a maternity—indeed, in the most precise logic, it would be both.

Then comes the assertion that God is creator—there is ample evidence in Christian usage that the “maker” of the Nicene Creed is meant to be identical to the “creator” of the Apostles’ Creed—of the material world (Genesis 1:1) but also of the immaterial (Colossians 1:15-16). This responds to a variety of Gnostic and related claims concerning the separateness and independence of matter and spirit, sometimes to the point that God, a spirit, does not control matter.

The creed places God before and above all that exists, material or spiritual.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

How the Nicene Creed came about

The creed we know as Nicene should really be called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed—a mouthful. The two councils that approved the text commonly used today took place at Nicea in 325 and Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 381.

Both councils were pivotal meetings. They involved some of the brighter lights of the day, including emperors Constantine (Nicea) and Theodosius (Constantinople), who funded the travel and housing while also hosting their meals.

The actual records of the meetings no longer exist, but there are several accounts and summaries. The original manuscripts of the decrees and creeds are lost. Later manuscripts of the creeds survive, but the 20 to 24 decrees of Constantinople are all reconstructions from various unofficial accounts.

From those documents, we can surmise that each council was attended by up to 318 bishops from all over the known world (the Roman Empire)—which is why they were called “ecumenical” (worldwide). Each bishop was entitled to bring at public cost two presbyters (priests) and three deacons, yielding total conference attendance of potentially some 1,900 church clerics—1,500 is the most commonly agreed figure for each council, probably a lower number for Nicea.

Nicea occurred in that first bloom of public Christianity, when the faith was first legally tolerated. Constantinople was a state-sponsored event in the first year after the faith had been legally proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. These two circumstances distinguish the environment of the meetings, both from the early apostolic and patristic Church and from each other.

Why Creeds?

Constantine was happy to oblige bishops who felt a need to steer the federation of local Christian communities toward some uniformity in essentials, and to defend the content of received faith from newfangled ideas.

In contrast, Theodosius—a Spanish general elevated to the emperor’s chair and the last emperor to preside over both the western and eastern halves of the rapidly dividing Roman Empire—was himself a declared Nicene Christian who saw heresies and regional styles of worship as divisive; he was personally invested in seeing the creed of Nicea amended to make sure its particular flavor of orthodoxy stuck.

Here is where I must reiterate that the bishops and saints who, throughout history, authored all-encompassing statements of faith known as creeds were not attempting to introduce new ideas. Rather, they were seeking to preserve what they believed was the received teachings of faith from the apostles.

In Constantinople more than Nicea, the bishops made certain that whichever text adopted was of such precision that it excluded heresies—this is what is meant when Christian doctrine is said to have developed through the via negativa, not by adding but by negating.

Difficulties of “God Talk”

Of course, developing a statement about matters that are not merely nonempirical—Christians agree that no one has seen God the Father but the Son (John 1:18 and 6:46)—but about which God has not telephoned or faxed humans the precise details is, to say the least, difficult.

Take the trinity. At some point between the time the woodworker Jesus talked to his close fishermen friends about these things and the day, probably 20 years after Jesus’ execution, on which the last verses of the gospel of Matthew were written, there had arisen the idea that Jesus’ followers would baptize “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19). Matthew did not explain what this meant, which tells us that he, and/or his scribe, felt that his readers already knew.

Those followers of about the year 50, probably in the city of Antioch, were at best tradespeople, not Greek philosophers; surely they had not considered nor much cared whether the Father and the Son were of the same “substance” or “essence,” nor how precisely the paternity and filial relationship had come about. Jesus said it, the apostles taught it; it must be true. Period. The End.

It’s only when Christianity hits the big time and begins to attract educated people from the academies, which were like universities, that the church fathers of a generation or two later begin to discuss God in terms that might make even the long-dead Aristotle cross-eyed. They were the first to write theology.

From such speculations, mixed with the mythological and philosophical bazaar of the Greco-Roman world, emerge the heresies: Jesus was not really God, or he was God but just pretending to be human, or the Father and the Son were of a similar essence not of the same substance, on and on and on.

Back to Earth

I would venture to say, who cares? Can’t we all wait until the afterlife to find out? Well, some people couldn’t and fought about it and wrote tirades against each other over this and many other details. In the end, it was a mess that someone had to straighten out. Or so thought the bishops and Theodosius.

Actually, there were other people who thought the same. Some had composed what is known as the Apostle’s Creed, an older statement of faith of actually unknown origin. The AC was probably not authored by the apostles themselves, but composed in the spirit of what they would have said. It is reliably known to have been in circulation among Christians before Nicea.

A final caution before we take up the creed in detail. Although in most of the major Christian traditions it is recited as part of the Eucharist service, the creed was not specifically devised to be used in this way. We shall deal with that later.

In the next few posts, I will begin to go through the Nicene Creed and what it says.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Most Christians are familiar with a statement of faith commonly recited as part of the Eucharist service, the Nicene Creed, which resulted from the first few ecumenical, or worldwide, councils of the Church.

The first such council, held in Nicea (today Iznik, Turkey) in 325 was presided by Hosius, bishop of Corduba (today Córdoba, Spain). The council was hosted by Emperor Constantine, who sent letters to all the bishops of the known world—at the time effectively the Roman empire—inviting them to the meeting.

The Church, or loose confederation of local believing communities, already had customs and rituals and ways of organizing themselves that were more or less common to all. Some had been described in the New Testament and common usage made them normative, but there were ever new challenges and this was the first time everyone could get together without fear of persecution.

The term “church” (ekklesia) was a Greek word for a legislative body—not for a building or a community—borrowed by Christians for their decision-making community meetings; eventually, it came to mean, by extension, the whole community.

There was no professional clergy before Nicea (St. Paul notably made a living as a tent maker), but there were specialized functions within the community. Churches were headed by bishops (episkopos, literally “top head”), who were originally the only equivalent of modern clergy. They taught the faith, baptized and presided at the Supper of the Lord.

Over time, as communities grew, there would be more localized eucharistic gatherings and the bishop would delegate leadership of the Supper to one of the older men (presbyteros, “old man”); these came to be the priests, charged with very limited ritual duties.

Helping the priests were the deacons (diakonos, “servant”), who assisted during the rituals but specialized in helping solve the material problems of the members of the communities, caring for the poor, widows and orphans and so forth. There appears to be scriptural evidence that at least one of them was a woman, Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1–2.

There were also other functions, including teachers and prophets, yet only the first three mentioned above were eventually recognized as ordained ministers.

However, even if the officials of the organization itself were fairly uniform everywhere, there were divergences. There were differences in ritual practices—such as whether one followed the Roman or Jewish calendar for celebrating Easter. There also arose doctrinal divergences—such as how to respond to a variety of heresies.

As noted, at this time most of the heresies concerned who Jesus the Christ was believed to be. The doctrinal issue that faced Nicea was Arianism, then new, which denied Jesus was divine; many of the contemporary heresies of Gnostic influence denied he was human.

So far, the responses had come from polemical responses by Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and others. There were a few local councils from prominent churches, such as the church of Alexandria and several churches in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain), which declared followers of several heresies as anathema, or cursed, and therefore forbidden to partake in the Supper of the Lord with the community.

In general, most of the heresies of this period sound odd to the modern Western observer. They involve thinking about the person of Jesus and the nature of God in highly intellectual ways that were distinctly Eastern, which then meant Greek, rather than Western, which then meant Latin or Roman, and generally pragmatic.

The response came in the form of symbolon, or creeds, of which there would be several in the next few hundred years. They stated the essential beliefs in ways that left little room for the heresies of the day.

The teachings of Nicea and the six councils that followed are accepted by Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Orthodox and many other Christians. The teachings of these councils are deemed to summarize the essentials of the faith.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sanctifying time

The beginning of the 4th century was momentous for Christianity. In 311, the Roman emperor Galerius issued a decree of toleration; in 315 his successor Constantine converted to Christianity on what he thought was his deathbed.

The task of Christians was no longer just to go out and tell the world, certainly all the Roman world had heard and its authorities had listened. Missions to the Barbarians would come later.

Meanwhile, with the apostles long dead and almost three centuries since Jesus had been taken up into the heavens with the promise that he would return, attention turned to the notion of “sanctifying time,” or making human life holy throughout the long wait until Christ returned.

Already by the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th, there had arisen men who pulled away from life in society. These early monks, or hermits, came to be known as the Desert Fathers. The first was Paul of Thebes (227-332) but the most famous, regarded as the founder of the desert monasticism movement, was Anthony the Great (251-356).

The Desert Fathers recognized that, even with the leaven of Christians, Greco-Roman society was very far from living under God’s rule, as the Lord prayed. Moreover, they felt society’s manners to be a source of unending temptation and distraction from the task of being a Christian, This is the running theme of Christian monasticism ever since: not that it is better to pull away, but that some weaker people who wish to remain steadfast simply must.

Through the persecutions there were only two religious feasts, fairly close to one another.

Easter was a nocturnal festival, like the Jewish Pesach (Passover). From very early days it was the feast for conferring baptism, confirmation, and initiation into the Eucharist on the catechumens.

On Easter eve, Saturday night, the new Christians would “arise” from what was often a partial or total immersion baptism cleansed of their sin. Then they would be confirmed by the bishop with oils and— since at least the 3rd century—a traditional slap in the face for fortitude. Finally, after midnight they would be welcome to commune in the Body of Christ in the Supper of the Lord, as they celebrated the feast of the Resurrection, or Easter.

The only other religious feast before toleration of Christianity was Pentecost, also borrowed from Judaism, but infused with Christian meaning: the coming of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2.

Another way of sanctifying time was the practice of Lent, which arose in the 4th century. Catechumens, or people seeking conversion into the faith, had been usually required to fast for a fortnight or so in preparation of their baptism on Easter morn.

As preparations for initiation became public, a number of the Christians who had already been initiated chose to accompany the catechumens in their fasts and prayers for 40 days before Easter, in remembrance of the 40 days of fast and prayer spent by Jesus in the desert, according to the gospels (some scholars speculate that this may refer to the time Jesus supposedly spent with a Jewish monastic community called the Essenes).

Similarly, time was sanctified by remembering the date in which local martyrs where executed, recalled as the date of their “birth” into eternal life, which became a saint’s day.

Local churches kept the remains of martyrs—one of the uses of the catacombs, with pieces often shared with other communities as relics—and recited their names during the Eucharistic Prayer, asking for their intercession to God on behalf of the community. On a saint’s day, the martyr would be especially recalled.

The observance of Christmas started in the West around the end of the 3rd century. In the East it was observed a century later, but on January 6, the Epiphany, rather than on December 25.

In Rome the December feast coincided with a particularly riotous pagan feast, the Saturnalia. The argument has been advanced that the Roman date was chosen despite existing traditions that Jesus was born in summertime, which modern scholars generally accept, precisely to “baptize” the Saturnalia. (This approach was later used in missions beyond the Roman world, as we shall see.)

Finally, there is the sanctifying of the week through the celebration of a Eucharist on a Sunday. This had been traditional as a remembrance of the resurrection, but it was a religious observance only.

There was no attempt in the first three centuries to link it to the Sabbath. Indeed, there was some polemic even among Christians about “idling” on that day. Then Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a legal day of rest and Christian sabbatarianism was launched.

The conversion of the emperor was the crowning event of a process by which Christians made such inroads into all levels of Roman society that the outcome was almost inevitable. The change established the Christian faith as a public religion. For centuries it was, indeed, the dominant religion of Europe, transforming Western society perhaps forever.

This changed some outward practices of the faith, as I have recounted.

What happened to the teachings of the faith, its priestly rituals and the sturcture of its religious organization, however, is better told in the story of the First Council of Nicea, which took place in the year 325. To this we shall turn next.