The last centuries of the Roman Empire was marked with chaos and bloodshed. Rival claimants to the imperial throne constantly waged war with one another, disrupting all aspects of Roman life in the process. Barbaric tribes from neighboring regions took advantage of this situation by invading the countryside, stealing crops and livestock, burning entire towns to the ground and killing or enslaving Roman peasants.
In the cities, ambitious praetorians and senators often led rebellions, paralyzing economic activity as a result.The tragic end of the Roman Empire eroded confidence in human reason and shattered the hope of attaining happiness in this world. Desperate, impoverished and fearful for their lives, people during this period were searching for an escape from the oppression that they were experiencing. This need, in turn, prompted the evolution and expansion of Christianity. Christianity’s otherworldliness and promise of personal immortality gave a spiritually disillusioned Greco-Roman world a reason to continue living. Furthermore, the triumph of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world marked the end of classical antiquity and the beginning of the medieval period (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 171).
A Palestinian Jew named Jesus Christ (4 BC-29 AD) was the founder of Christianity. Prior to his ministry, most Palestinian Jews were followers of Judaism, a religion that was based on Mosaic Law (Torah). Apart from religious rituals, Judaism was also composed of many laws that governed daily life. Christ himself was taught Jewish religious-ethical thought in his formative years (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 174).Christ, however, was distressed over the manner in which Jewish leaders implemented the teachings of Judaism. He felt that their focus “shifted from prophetic values to obedience to rules and prohibitions regulating the smallest details of daily life” (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 174). For Christ, detailed regulations governing everyday activities dealt only with a person’s visible behavior but not with his or her inner being.
Such a superficial manner of enforcing Jewish law produced individuals who mechanically followed rules and prohibitions but whose hearts remained impure (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 174). He believed that true morality meant doing away with vices such as fornication, adultery, murder and avarice.The Jewish scribes and priests, as a result, viewed Christ as a threat to ancient traditions and to their authority over the Jews. The Romans, meanwhile, regarded him as a political agitator who would incite a rebellion against Rome (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 175). Jewish leaders therefore had him arrested for high treason and turned him over to Pontius Pilate, who sentenced him to death by crucifixion. But Christ underwent resurrection three days after his demise and later ascended into heaven. His followers then traveled to various parts of the world in order to spread his teachings.The early years of Christianity were not easy for its followers.
Christians during the Roman Empire, for instance, were brutally persecuted because they were seen as “subversives (who) preached allegiance to God and not to Rome” (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 180). They were imprisoned, beaten, starved, burned alive, crucified and torn apart by wild animals in the arena for the amusement of the Roman public (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 181). In order to escape harassment, Christians clandestinely met and held worship services in venues such as catacombs.But Christianity’s aforementioned situation was reversed with the fall of the Roman Empire. The appeal of Christianity was based mainly on the common knowledge that religion is more capable of stirring human hearts than reason. The Roman Empire’s staunch belief in science and philosophy did not save it from total destruction. Neither was it able to provide comforting solutions to the existential problems of life and death (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 178).
Christianity, in sharp contrast, gave the assurance that all earthly torments were “the will of God” – God made human beings undergo suffering in order to test their faithfulness to him.As Christianity became increasingly popular among the Romans, emperors realized that crushing the religion through persecution was already futile. They instead decided to obtain the support of the empire’s Christian population. Constantine, for instance, issued in 313 AD the Edict of Milan – a law that granted toleration to Christians. This directive was followed by other legislations which was favorable to the church – Theodosius I had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and outlawed the worship of pagan gods by 392 AD (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 181).It would be fair to say that these laws transformed Christianity into an apparatus for the restoration and remaking of state power. Fanatic clergy took advantage of their newly-empowered status by persuading Roman emperors to issue decrees that persecuted pagans, Jews and Christians with unorthodox views.
Consequently, many followers of pagan cults were fined, imprisoned, tortured and executed. In addition, Christian mobs burned non-Christian writings, destroyed pagan altars and sacred images and squelched pagan rites and festivals (Perry, Chase, Jacob, Jacob, Von Laue 181). In the process, the Roman Empire was slowly being replaced with a theocracy – Roman emperors were reduced to puppets that the Christian clergy controlled at the strings.Christianity further gained political clout when it started amassing material wealth.
Many wealthy Christians died leaving almost all of their fortune to the church. Some Christian leaders in the 4th century were therefore able to build monasteries or communities of people committed to prayer and asceticism (Hastings 43). Monasteries played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity – they served as training grounds for missionaries. Monasteries were likewise vital to social and economic development, as they established schools and libraries and served as landlords and organizers of economic wealth (McManners 119).The Christian Church, through the monasteries, amassed so much wealth in donated lands, money and priceless church furnishings. Thus, the Christian Church eventually became richer and more powerful than most lay monarchies. The pope, previously a spiritual leader alone, also became a temporal power in the process (Bausch, Cannon and Obach 120). By the 9th century, the Christian Church was already powerful enough to establish its own empire – Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800 (MSN Encarta n.
pag.).The Middle Ages was characterized with constant power struggles between the pope and the monarchs.
In 1075, for instance, Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV fought over the right of the sovereign to appoint bishops in his realm (lay investiture). Henry refused to acknowledge Gregory’s papacy, while the pope excommunicated the emperor. Lay investiture is said to be the most persistent source of clashes between the Christian Church and the nobility – bishops and abbots refused to have the king exercise control over their lands and other wealth.
But it was necessary for the king to do it in order to assert his authority over his secular nobility (MSN Encarta n. pag.).
The Crusades was one of the rare instances wherein the monarchy and the Christian Church joined forces. The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem spawned meant that the sacred places associated with the life of Christ would fall into the hands of a non-Christian power. West European Christians therefore launched the Crusades, a series of wars from 1095 to 1204 that were intended to recapture Jerusalem from Muslim rule. But the Crusades proved to be a failure – Jerusalem returned to Islamic rule a century after the Fourth Crusade of 1202-1204 (MSN Encarta n. pag.).
After the Crusades, the Christian Church was plagued with even more problems. Moral laxity and financial corruption were very rampant (MSN Encarta n. pag.).
The clergy lived luxuriously, while ordinary people starved. Another anomaly that took place within the Christian Church was the selling of indulgences. Priests would sell people relics (hair or bones of saints) at very expensive prices.
They would convince people into buying by claiming that possessing relics would immediately take them to Heaven upon their death.Some priests and religious leaders openly criticized the aforementioned irregularities in the Christian Church, a phenomenon which was later known as the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, German theologian Martin Luther published the Ninety-five Theses, a criticism on the selling of indulgences in order to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
His excommunication by Pope Leo X led to the formation of Protestantism. Others, such as Huldreich Zwingli and John Calvin, soon came up with their own Protestant sects (MSN Encarta n. pag.).The emergence of Protestantism prompted the Catholic Church to stage the Counterreformation in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563), for one, clarified controversial doctrines and established guidelines on liturgy, church administration and education. The Catholic Church likewise came up with the Index of Forbidden Books and a new Inquisition. Missionaries were then sent to the Far East and North and South America in order to draw more converts to Roman Catholicism (MSN Encarta n. pag.
).Christianity’s otherworldliness and promise of personal immortality made it appear as a suitable alternative to the chaotic Roman Empire. As a result, people wholeheartedly supported the Christian Church. Apart from being faithful followers, they invested time and resources on the religion. The Christian Church, in the process, became even more powerful than secular nobility.But if power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Later Catholic leaders became morally decadent and corrupt. Consequently, concerned parties from the clergy established Protestantism. It is indeed very ironic that Christianity, once regarded as an alternative to a corrupt status quo, ended up being a corrupt institution itself.