The Birth of Christianity

Christianity originated in the 1st century in the Roman province of Judea after the crucifixion of Jesus, a man who declared to be the son of God.

Christus Pantocrator, Cathedral of Cefalù, 1130

Image source:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jewish teacher and healer who proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God, and was crucified at c.30–33 AD. His followers believed that he was then raised from the dead and exalted by God, and would return soon at the inception of God’s Kingdom.

Who was Jesus of Nazareth?

Virgin of the Lilies, Bouguereau, 1899

To better understand the birth of Christianity we must consider Jesus’ life and death, since its history is focused on the life, death and resurrection of one person, Jesus Christ, the son of God.

The traditional story of Jesus tells of his birth in a stable in Bethlehem in the Holy Land, to a young virgin called Mary who had become pregnant with the son of God through the action of the Holy Spirit. After the story of his birth, little is known about Jesus until he began his ministry at the age of about 30. He then spent three years teaching, healing and working miracles, he taught in parables, and he had twelve disciples whom he called to follow him and help him in his work. Jesus stated publicly that he spoke with the authority of God,this claim angered the religious authorities in Palestine and they handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities as a revolutionary, so he was tried for heresy, condemned and put to death by means of crucifixion. On the Sunday following his execution, some of his women followers discovered that the tomb into which his body had been placed was empty. Jesus then appeared to them, alive, as the Jesus they had known prior to his death. His followers realised that God had raised Jesus from the dead, according to the Gospel accounts, he was taken up into heaven.

Image source:

Context and Origin

By 30 B.C, Rome’s empire had expanded to cover virtually all of the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, including the land occupied by the Hebrews. The Romans had little tolerance for sedition or rebellion against their government so when the Jews resisted Roman control in 26 B.C. they established direct rule over the region appointing Pontius Pilate as governor of the territory. The Jews continued opposing to the foreigner invader and refused to adore the roman emperor as their god. In this climate of tension and oppression, many Jews believed in a messiah to free them from Roman rule. For some, this messiah was Jesus of Nazareth.

A representation of Pntious Pilate judging Jesus Christ.
A representation of Pontius Pilate judging Jesus Christ.

Image source:

Saint Paul, founder of the first church

The Apostle Paul, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657

Image  source:

Most Jews rejected the notion of Jesus as their messiah. In the years that followed Jesus’ death, the Romans treated the early Christians as a small, Jewish sect. This all changed with Paul of Tarsus. Paul began to spread Christianity ideas more to non-Jews. Many of the poor, destitute people in the region took solace in the notions of a loving god and a life after death. The Romans persecuted these Christians who rejected Roman polytheism. But Paul traveled far and wide, and his successors did a remarkable job reaching converts. After almost four centuries of existing on the margins, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 395 C.E.

Apostolistic Age

The last supper, Leonardo da Vinci, 1495

Image source:

The Apostolic Age is named after the Apostles and their missionary activities. It holds special significance in Christian tradition as the age of the direct apostles of Jesus. A primary source for the Apostolic Age is the Acts of the Apostles, but its historical accuracy is questionable and its coverage is partial, focusing especially from Acts 15:36 onwards on the ministry of Paul, and ending around 62 AD with Paul preaching in Rome under house arrest.


Early Christians were subject to various persecutions. This meant even death. Early martyrs included Stephen (Acts 7:59) and James, son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2). Persecutions in larger scale by the authorities of the Roman Empire began with the year 64 when Emperor Nero blamed them for the Great Fire of Rome as the Roman historian Tacitus reported.

According to Church tradition, it was under Nero’s persecution that the saints Peter and Paul became martyrs in Rome.

The martyr of St. Peter in a famous painting by Italian painter Caravaggio.
The martyr of St. Peter in a famous painting by Italian painter Caravaggio.

Image source:

Ante-Nicene Period

The council of Nicaea

The Ante-Nicene Period (literally meaning “before Nicaea”) of the history of early Christianity was the period following the Apostolic Age down to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. This period of Christian history had a significant impact on the unity of doctrine across all Christendom and the spreading of Christianity to a greater area of the world. By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and to North Africa and the East. Several trends emerged simultaneously. One unifying trend was an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism, of Jewish practices, and an acceptance of what some scholars have called religious anti-semitism, however, many modern day Christian theologians reject this accusation.

Image source:

Early Christian art

Early Christian art survives from dates near the origins of Christianity. The oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 2nd century. The largest groups of Early Christian paintings come from the tombs in the Catacombs of Rome, and show the evolution of the depiction of Jesus, a process not complete until the 6th century, since when the conventional appearance of Jesus in art has remained remarkably consistent.

Ivory Plaque with Pilate Washing His Hands, Rome, 420 c.

Image source:

Until the adoption of Christianity by Constantine Christian art derived its style and much of its iconography from popular Roman art, but from this point grand Christian buildings built under imperial patronage brought a need for Christian versions of Roman elite and official art, of which mosaics in churches in Rome are the most prominent surviving examples. Christian art was caught up in, but did not originate, the shift in style from the classical tradition inherited from Ancient Greek art to a less realist and otherworldly hieratic style, the start of gothic art.

The early church

From the first to the early fourth centuries most Christian communities worshipped in private homes, often secretly. Some Roman churches, such as the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome, are built directly over the houses where early Christians worshipped. Other early Roman churches are built on the sites of Christian martyrdom or at the entrance to catacombs where Christians were buried.

Old St. Peters Basilica plan

Christian architecture was made to correspond to civic and imperial forms, and so the Basilica, a large rectangular meeting hall became general in east and west, as the model for churches, with a nave and aisles and sometimes galleries and clerestories. While civic basilicas had apses at either end, the Christian basilica usually had a single apse where the bishop and presbyters sat in a dais behind the altar. While pagan basilicas had as their focus a statue of the emperor, Christian basilicas focused on the Eucharist as the symbol of the eternal, loving and forgiving God.

Image source:

The Cross depicted in the dome of the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. The cross is one of the most importante and spread symbols of Christianity since its birth.
The Cross depicted in the dome of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna, Italy. The cross is one of the most important and spread symbols of Christianity since its birth.

Image source:

The history of the Christian religion and the Christian church began with Jesus and his apostles. After becoming the state Religion of the Roman Empire it spread into Northern Europe and Russia in the Middle Ages. During the Age of Exploration, Christianity expanded throughout the world and it is currently the largest religion of the world.

The Link with Jewish Faith

Most of the first Christians were ethnically Jewish or Jewish proselytes. An early difficulty came from non-Jewish converts. Many were the questions raised. For example, if they had to “become Jewish” before becoming Christian. The decision of St. Peter, was that they did not, and the matter was further addressed with the Council of Jerusalem.

Christianity kept many practices from Jewish tradition, Christians thought the Jewish scriptures to be sacred and used mostly the Septuagint edition and translation as the Old Testament and added other texts as the New Testament. Christians professed Jesus to be the God of Israel, having taken human form and considered Jesus to be the Messiah (Christ) who had been prophesied about in the Old Testament and so was expected by the people of Israel.

An Eastern Christian icon depicting Emperor Constantine and the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea (325) as holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.
An Eastern Christian icon depicting Emperor Constantine and the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea (325) as holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Image source:

Info sources:                                                                                                                                                                                  

Leave a Reply