The New Christian Empire

East and West

By the onset of the first century AD the Roman Empire included all the lands around the Mediterranean. Throughout this territory, whether in Europe, North Africa or the Middle East, early Christians endured terrible persecutions for their faith until in 313, during the reign of the emperor Constantine, the Edict of Toleration made Christian worship legal throughout the empire. By the end of the century Christianity had become the almost universal religion of the Roman world.

The word ‘catholic’ means universal and all-embracing and was the word used to describe the original Christian Church. It was a universal Church, and the faithful travelled freely from one end of Christendom to the other. Tens of thousands of pilgrims travelled to the East to visit the holy sites and to obtain the blessings of monks and other holy ascetics there. ‘Not only do the inhabitants of our part of the world flock together’, wrote the Syrian monk Theodoret of Cyrrhus (393–466) in his Religious History, ‘but also Ishmaelites, Persians, Armenians subject to them, Iberians, Homerites, and men even more distant than these; and there came many inhabitants of the extreme west, Spaniards, Britons, and the Gauls who live between them. Of Italy it is superfluous to speak.’

In what had already been the universal Roman Empire, Christianity added a new dimension of unity between the diversity of local cultures. Christian ideas and images were shared from the Thames to the Euphrates, from the Rhone to the Nile. Nor was the past forgotten; memories of the pagan gods still haunted the temples turned into churches, and the tombs and other places of pilgrimage often preserved, in Christian form, the immemorial beliefs and practises of a region. In those early days the only hint of a breach between the East and the West came in the arguments over the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

Pilgrimages to the Holy Land

Pilgrimages are practised among all the world’s religions, yet in Christianity there has always been an undercurrent of criticism against the idea of attaching faith to any place or thing. This was expressed by Jesus himself to the woman of Samaria who wanted to know where she should pray: ‘The hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem worship the Father…. God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth’ (John 4: 19–24). Moreover, during its first three centuries Christianity was a persecuted faith, and it was not safe or practical to go on a pilgrimage.

Yet despite the danger to their lives, Christians did go on pilgrimages from an early date. Already by the early second century a ‘cave of the Nativity’ was being shown in the Holy Land; people wanted to see sites associated with the life and death of Jesus. There was something like this in Judaism where heroes and holy people had their memorials. But a peculiarity of Christians was their interest in graves and corpses, unclean to Jews but to Christians the focus of hope, for the dead were merely sleeping until the resurrection. Meanwhile there was good reason to treasure the bones or dust of martyrs who had died for their faith and were already in heaven. When Saint Polycarp was burnt alive at Smyrna in 155 his relics were eagerly sought, and the last sight seen by Saint Cyprian at Carthage in 258 would have been a shower of rags thrown at him by the faithful to soak up his martyr’s blood the moment he was decapitated.

The era of pilgrimages really got under way with the end of persecutions following Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313. The pace was set by the Emperor’s own mother, the empress Helena, who visited the Holy Land in 326–8. That she was a woman was typical of pilgrimages, for the truth about women in pagan societies was that their worth was judged almost exclusively on their success as sexual and reproductive beings, whereas Christianity, once it had been legitimised by Constantine, was liberating for women in numerous ways, not least in providing them with an excuse for going on long journeys away from home.

As his mother travelled from site to site, Constantine ordered and financed the construction of churches to celebrate the central events of Christian belief. In Bethlehem Constantine built the Church of the Nativity, and in Jerusalem he built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the spot, discovered by Helena herself, where Jesus was entombed and then rose again on the third day.

But neither Constantine nor Helena, nor the pilgrims who followed, took any interest in the Jewish monuments of Jerusalem, none of which were restored. In 333, after Helena’s visit, a pilgrim noted that two statues of the Emperor Hadrian stood in the Temple area, and not far away was a stone where Jews came to pray. But the Temple Mount had little significance for Christians, and though a chapel or church was built at the southern end of the platform, the Mount was not densely built up during Christian times.

The Search for Relics: from the Holy Prepuce to the Holy Grail

For the collector of relics, Jesus and his mother the Virgin Mary were disappointing; unlike burnt or beheaded saints, they had both bodily ascended to heaven, leaving nothing behind. Though not quite. Neither milk expressed from Mary’s breasts nor bodily hair that had come loose had joined her in the ascent, and soon these were identified and enshrined as relics. Also it was discovered that Jesus had ascended without his foreskin. According to Jewish practise he had been circumcised when he was eight days old, and somehow the foreskin had found its way into the hands of Mary Magdalene, who gave it to John the Baptist. To cut a long story short, the foreskin, or Holy Prepuce, is now in the possession of the Vatican, or at one of seventeen churches around Europe which make the same claim.

But if there has been a scarcity of bodily parts left behind by Jesus, the gap has been filled by relics which are said to have had an association with him. Once again it was the empress Helena who got in there first when she turned up the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Other relics include the Holy Lance which pierced the side of Jesus while he hung on the Cross, the Turin Shroud in which his body was wrapped when he was taken down from the Cross, and the Holy Chalice from which he drank at the Last Supper and which is sometimes referred to as the Holy Grail.

Constantine and Arianism

The great size and diversity of the Roman Empire, and the separate military threats it faced across the Rhine-Danube frontier in the West and the Euphrates in the East, made its governance unwieldy. Constantine’s solution was to establish a new imperial capital at the ancient city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus, the strategic meeting point of Europe and Asia. Beautifying the city and enlarging the circuit of its walls, in 330 he dedicated Nova Roma, as he called Byzantium, to Jesus Christ–though it quickly became known as the city of Constantine, Constantinople.

In 395 a more radical step was taken, and the Roman Empire was formally divided into a western empire ruled from Rome and an eastern empire ruled from Constantinople. Greek culture and language increasingly reasserted themselves in the East Roman Empire, which, taken together with its Christian foundations, has led modern-day historians to give it a different name, the Byzantine Empire. But long after Rome fell to the barbarians in 476, and throughout its struggle in the Middle Ages against Islam, and indeed right up to the last when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the emperors and their subjects in the East called themselves Romans and spoke of their empire as the Roman Empire.

It is to Constantine, too, that the Christian empires owed their sense of orthodoxy. For no sooner was Christianity tolerated than it was threatened by doctrinal splits. The arguments were not over whether Jesus was divine–his divinity was almost universally agreed. Rather they concerned the nature of that divinity. And during Constantine’s reign, the first great heresy emerged–Arianism, so named after a priest of Alexandria.

Arius argued that as Jesus was the Son of God, then surely he was younger than God: an appealing notion that brought Jesus closer to mankind and emphasised his human nature. But another Alexandrian, a bishop called Athanasius, saw a danger. If Jesus was younger than God, so there must have been a time when Jesus was not. This challenged the unity of the godhead–the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit–and opened the way to regarding the nature of Jesus as being not of the same substance as God’s. Indeed in time Jesus might be seen merely as a good man, as Unitarians and Muslims see him today, while God would become less accessible and more remote. The counter-argument of Athanasius was that no distinction could be made between Christ and God, for they were of the same substance.

Seeing the Christians within his empire divided between the arguments of Arius and Athanasius, in 325 Constantine summoned the First General Council of the Church at Nicaea, not far from his future capital of Nova Roma. Two hundred and twenty bishops were in attendance, from Egypt and Syria in the East to Italy and Spain in the West. The divine nature of Jesus Christ was argued from both the Arian and Athanasian points of view, and when the bishops balloted on the issue, it was decided in favour of Athanasius by 218 votes to two. This Nicene Creed became the official position of the universal Church and remains the creed of both the Roman and Orthodox Churches to this day.

The Nicene Creed

Here is the text of the Creed as originally passed by the Council of Nicaea in 325. The final paragraph is specifically directed against the Arians.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, both visible and invisible.

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father God of God and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten and not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, made man, suffered and rose again on the third day, went up into the heavens and is to come again to judge the quick and the dead; And in the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematises those who say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, and that he was not before he was begotten, and that he was made from that which did not exist; or who assert that he is of other substance or essence than the Father, or is susceptible of change.

Byzantines, Persians and Jihad

It was during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610–41) that the pivotal event of Islamic history took place–when a former caravan merchant called Mohammed took refuge in Medina after being driven out of Mecca. The event is called the Hegiraor migration and its date, 622 AD, marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. But Heraclius was distracted by what seemed far greater matters. During the first ten years of his reign the Persians had made frightening advances against his empire.

The Persian state religion was Zoroastrianism and wherever it spread, Christianity was persecuted. Antioch fell to the Persians in 611, Damascus in 613, Jerusalem in 614 and Alexandria in 619. Moreover, after slaughtering Jerusalem’s 67,000 Christian inhabitants the Persians made off with the True Cross, Christendom’s holiest relic–and it was this which turned Heraclius’ 622 campaign against the Persians into something new, as it included a crusading zeal. In 627 as Heraclius advanced deep into Persia, its king was overthrown by revolution and his successor sued for peace. Byzantium’s eastern provinces were restored to the empire and the True Cross was returned to Jerusalem.

But the Byzantines in their victory and the Persians in defeat both lay exhausted when the sounds of war were heard again. This time it was the army of Umar–Arab followers of the new religion of Islam–who in 633 declared a jihad, a holy Islamic war, against the Byzantine Empire. Mohammed had died the previous year, and the Byzantines, to the extent that they knew anything about Islam at all, mistook it for a revival of Arianism, a familiar Christian heresy which depreciated the divinity of Jesus, and did not feel greatly threatened, failing to recognise the approaching Bedouins as a significant military force.

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