By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.
I was excited for my undergraduate class History of Christianity, and my two graduate-level courses: Church History I and II. These studies provided a working knowledge of ecclesiology, including church organization and governance, doctrine, “marks” of the church (“one,” “holy,” “catholic,” and “apostolic”), heresies, worship, teaching, sacraments, and mission. Apologetics emerged as a powerful tool for “defending” Christianity. Many changes, edicts, and accusations impacted the church in the centuries to come, such as Gnosticism, numerous “Just Wars,” the Crusades, Donatism, syncretism, apostasy, and the mighty Roman Empire. As persecution rose, Christians began renouncing their faith. Many Christian leaders were tortured and murdered under the Roman Empire, including Stephen, James, Peter, Paul, Polycarp, and others.
In Part One of this series we learned that early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Jewish leaders regarded Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. The sentiment was simple: One must avoid Christians at all cost. If that does not work, then move ahead with harassment, persecution, torture, and murder. We looked at Constantine’s dubious conversion, and we learned about the four solas: sola Christus (Christ alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), and sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). The first part of this lesson touched on Christianity’s early troubles with Islam. Each of these factors began to detraction from the story of redemption. Accordingly, the church needed to “defend” itself against rumors and lofty criticism. Justin Martyr set out to provide clarification, remarking, “We do not seek to flatter you… but request that you judge on the basis of a proper and thorough investigation” (1).
There seems to be a natural inclination to monasticism in the early church. It was hoped that monasteries would provide a quiet and secluded space for prayer, devotion, worship, exegetical studies, and a modified approach to interacting with culture. A secluded life would provide safe haven from heresies and distractions which had become prevalent. The “narrow gate” Jesus spoke of had become quite wide. Ministry had become for some a pursuit of privilege and position, without caring too much about learning the deeper meaning. Bishops competed for prestigious posts; the rich and powerful began to dominate and impact the church. Gonzalez writes, “When the church joins the powers of the world, when luxury and ostentation take hold of Christian alters, when the whole of society is intent on turning the narrow path into a wide avenue, how is one to resist the enormous temptations of the times”(2)? Origen, following the Platonic ideal of leading a wise existence, chose to live at a bare-bones subsistence and extreme asceticism.
Christian monasticism began in AD 318. Several years later, Marcarius, a Coptic Christian, monk, and hermit in Egypt, retired to the desert of Scete, where for 60 years he lived as a hermit among the scattered settlements of other solitaries. As of 345, eight monasteries had been founded. Stoic doctrine held that passions are the great enemy of true wisdom: traditions such as sacred virgins, celibate priests, eunuchs, and others whose lifestyle set them apart for service to God. There was an incidental belief that sexual activity was somehow evil or improper for those devoted to holiness. The Council of Nicea, however, rejected castration as part of service to the church. Gonzalez notes that monasticism was not the invention of one person, but rather “a mass exodus, a contagion, which seems to have suddenly affected thousands of people” (3). Paul writes in Galatians, “For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ… nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus… Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days” (Gal. 1:11-12, 17-18, NRSV).
A growing number of people were withdrawing to the desert desiring to learn from an experienced teacher. One of the earliest monasteries opened in Mosul, Iraq in 340. The first French monastery was founded in 360. Jerome started a monastery in Bethlehem in 386. Solitary monasticism gave way to a communal setting. They still referred to themselves as “monks” (solitary), but by this they meant living in solitude from the world but not living completely alone. This cenobitic lifestyle cropped up throughout many regions as a reaction to the pressures of daily living. Monks were required to obey their superiors, which necessitated a hierarchical order that was clearly delineated. Those in top positions were called abbots. Augustine of Hippo partly owed his conversion to reading Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony, and lived as a monk until he was called to assume a more active role in the church. Monasticism featured the common thread of Christian living: personal poverty and sharing of goods with the community. A monastic feudal system spread across Europe beginning in 1039. Knights Templar (warrior monks) were founded in AD 1118. Ultimately, the “Black Death” bubonic plague pandemic broke out across Afro-Eurasia in AD 1346, causing a drastic decline in monasticism.
Muhammad and Islam
One of the great challenges to Christianity was Islam, a monotheistic religion founded by Muhammad. Muhammad was born in Mecca, Arabia, in AD 570. Prior to becoming the prophet of Allah, he served as a business manager for Lady Khadija, the daughter of Khuwaylid ibn Asad (a leader of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca) and a successful businesswoman in her own right. She became Muhammad’s first wife and the earliest follower of Islam. Muhammad is said to have received revelations from the angel Gabriel on Mount Hira from AD 609 to 632, which became the basis for the Qur’an. The word “Qur’an” comes from the arabic qaraa, which means “to read.” According to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad was called by Allah to preach and confirm the monotheistic teachings of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.
Prior to the advent of Islam, Muslims practiced a form of paganism called Jahiliyya. It taught that Allah was the creator god and the supreme god of pre-Islamic Arabs. Intermediaries were set below Allah, such as his daughters Allat, Al-Uzza, and Manat, who would intercede on behalf of their worshipers. Over time, more Gods were added, ultimately representing most of the gods of other tribes in Arabia. Muhammad is never portrayed as indulging in this religion; he preached against polytheism in all forms. He claimed to be the “last prophet” of God whose mission was to correct the heresy that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, the Son of God. There has never been a period since the beginning of Islam that was characterized by large-scale peaceful existence between Muslims and non-Muslims. There was no time when mainstream and dominant Islamic authorities taught the equality of non-Muslims. There has always been, with virtually no interruption, jihad against infidels. Muslims conquered Jerusalem in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall. Persecution of Christians began in 717 under Caliph Umar II.
Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches (a sad and accurate foreshadowing of Jews forced to wear arm bands of the Star of David by the Nazis). When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles Martel had been able to defeat the Muslim invasion of France in 732 at the Battle of Tours. Trouble with Islam continued, however. In 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in 1091. In 1291 the fall of Acre ended Christian power in the Holy Land.
Timeline of Temple in Jerusalem
Nehemiah told Artaxerxes he was sad, saying “Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh. 2:3).
David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 1010 BC and established the capital of his kingdom there. Solomon, David’s son, expanded the city northward to include what came to be known as the Temple Mount, where he built the First Temple in 960 BC. In 721, Jerusalem expanded into the Western Hill as refugees sought protection from the conquering Assyrians. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC. Babylonian forces destroyed Jerusalem and demolish the first temple in 586. Persian leader Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire (including Jerusalem) in 539 BC. He allowed Jews in Babylonian exile to return to the city in 516. The second temple was rebuilt during this period. Artaxerxes allowed Nehemiah to begin rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Judea and Jerusalem were conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. King Herod restructured the temple in 37 BC, adding retaining walls. Jerusalem fell to the Roman Empire in AD 70 and the second temple was destroyed. Jerusalem was rebuilt in AD 135 as a Roman city, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built.
In Part Three we will examine the rumblings that began in the Christian church regarding its need for a profound reformation. The decline and corruption of the papacy was well known. Popes began amassing property and wealth, and intended to rival the Roman Empire. The papacy was moved by the the glories of the Renaissance, neglecting the gospel message. Reformers issued anathemas and decrees against absenteeism, pluralism, and simony (the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical positions). Gonzalez wrote, “…even the many priests and monastics who wished to be faithful to their calling found this to be exceedingly difficult. How could one practice asceticism and contemplation in a monastery that had become a house of leisure and a meeting place for fashionable soireées” (4). We will find that Martin Luther was not the only Christian driven to a great reformation.
(1) Justin Martyr, in Justo L. Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010), 59.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 157.
(3) Ibid., 161.
(4) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church , Vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), 8.