The early Christian Church faced many challenges and the following reference list will help identify the main players, institutions and schisms that influenced or threatened the Church during the first turbulent centuries of its existence.
Alpha and Omega: The letters ‘alpha’ and ‘omega’ are respectively the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet and were used symbolically by early Christians to designate Christ. The significance comes from the book of Revelations “I am the Alpha and Omega – the first and the last” to signify that Jesus Christ is everything – the beginning and the end. The phrase is an affirmation of the theology of the ‘Logos’ (Greek term for Word) that asserts that Christ is eternal and one with God. In the Gospel of St John 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” .
Arianism: Schismatic branch of Christianity, named after the 4th century bishop Arius of Alexandria. They were labelled heretical by the Orthodox Christians, because they believed that Christ was created by God the Father. Thus they rejected the Nicene creed of the first ecumenical council held in Nicaea in AD 325 , especially the concept of consubstantiation whereby the trinity of Christ, God the father and the Holy Spirit all had one unified nature (or person), as is believed by most modern Christian churches today. Most of the barbarian peoples, such as the Ostrogoths and Vandals were of the Arian faith until converted to Orthodoxy.
Bishop: From the Greek ‘episcopos‘ meaning a leader. Bishops were authorised by right of ‘apostolic succession’ from St Peter and the original apostles of Christ to be leaders of a Christian community of the early church and to ordain priests by the act of laying on of hands.
Chi Rho: A monogram using the Greek letters chi and rho symbolically to signify Christ and Christianity by using the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’ as written in Greek letters –
Christology: The theological study of the nature of Jesus Christ in relation to God, as recorded in the Gospels and New Testament writings of the Apostles. An obsession with this study was the cause of much dissension in the Early Church, from the third century onwards, often causing irreconcilable splits, as splinter groups and schisms formed around Bishops, who were adamant in their own interpretation or speculation of the nature of Christ. Gradually by the sixth century (in the Empire at least), the adherents to the Nicene Creed (Orthodox and Catholic Churches) were dominant and all dissenters were outlawed (Anathematised) as heretics, by both Church and the State itself. The derisive question “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” has become a metaphor for the negative aspects of this endless disruptive and divisive speculation into what is ultimately unknowable.
Donatists: A heretical Schism of Early Christianity, who had been markedly intolerant of those fellow Christians who had refused martyrdom during Diocletion’s Great Persecution at the start of the fourth century AD. Many Christians had turned apostate to save their skins and had symbolically surrendered their gospels for burning, to appease the pagans. Most of these subsequently regretted their weakness, once the threat was over and begged to rejoin the Church. The Donatists rigorously refused forgiveness to these so-called ‘traditores’ (traitors), though most of them did regain acceptance back into the other mainstream Christian communities. Their intolerant and unforgiving attitude towards those they judged to have been apostate, put the Donatists at odds with the forgiving spirit of the main churches, who willingly accepted back those who publically repented.
The break was then compounded, because the Donatists would not accept the authority of any bishops that were subsequently put above them, who had any taint of the traditores and refused to accept as valid the consecration of any priests made by these same bishops. The sect actually took its name from Bishop Donatus of Carthage, who displaced one such appointee, whose consecration the community considered invalid. In time the schism became permanent as the Donatists effectively rejected all consecrations other than those of their own bishops and came to consider themselves as the only true Christian faith. Moreover they resented the involvement of the Emperor Constantine in directing the affairs of the Church and therefore would not subscribe in 323, to the Nicene Creed, that was to become the foundation stone of Orthodox Christianity.
In spite of their isolation from the Catholic churches, by the end of the fourth century, the Donatists had became very strong, especially in Roman North Africa, where they were vigorously opposed in matters of dogma by St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. At this time they also began to be persecuted as heretics by the Roman authorities, as the emperors had officially adopted Orthodox (Catholic) Christianity to be the sole state religion and had already ordered the Donatists to rejoin the mainstream church. The Provincial government was highly intolerant of any challenge to the authority of either the Church or the Emperor and turned up the heat. However the sect persisted and even managed to survive the subsequent invasion of North Africa by the Arian Vandals, who in their turn persecuted both Donatist and Catholic faiths equally and indiscriminately, murdering many of the priests of both faiths.
The Donatists never regained their prominence and not much is known of them under the Vandal occupation, nor of them later, when Roman authority (now Byzantine) was restored in North Africa by Justinian’s general Beliarius, who retook the province from the Vandals in the sixth century. Whatever remained of Donatism as a viable religion was however eliminated by the subsequent Arab conquest of North Africa in the seventh century. Sadly, Donatistsm has left behind no theological heritage and, because of its voluntary isolation, seems to have made little or no lasting contribution towards influencing the historical direction of the mainstream Christian Church
Epistle to the Romans: St Paul’s ‘Letter to the Romans’ , the sixth book of the New Testament. It is an important historically as well as spiritually as it explains the motivation and justification for the mission to convert gentiles throughout the Roman Empire to the salvation offered by the Gospels of Jesus Christ.
Flavian Dynasty: The Flavian emperor Vespasian and his son Titus put down a large Jewish rebellion in Judea, in the first Roman-Jewish War, with great bloodshed and destroyed Jerusalem. Christians at the time were not easily distinguished from the Jews by the Roman authorities and suffered in consequence, however the early church grew considerably in numbers, during the rule of the Flavian dynasty (from 69 – 96 AD) and was already well established in the East by the time of Trajan in the beginning of the second century. The dynasty was founded by Vespasian, and followed by his sons Titus and Domitian.
Gnosticism: An early quasi-Christian schism that believed in salvation through ‘Gnosis’, a Greek word denoting intuitive spiritual knowledge. Gnostics rejected the material world, as inherently sinful. They denied that an imperfect world could be made by God, who was perfect. They attributed material creation to an aspect of the universal divine spirit, an entity called a ‘demi-urge‘ that was inherently flawed or evil. Christ was seen as the incarnation of “the good” , sent to redeem the world. The ‘Gospel of Thomas‘, found in Egypt in 1945, has shed much light on early beliefs of the Gnostics.
There were also strong non-Christian Gnostic religions that were active in the Roman empire, at the same time as the early Christian church was trying to establish itself. The most widespread was the Manichaeism faith, that originated from Persia and became the fierce rival of Christianity from the third to seventh centuries. In the East, originating at more or less the same time, a strong sect of reclusive Gnostics, called the Mandaeans, took root. They rejected Jesus Christ, but revered John the Baptist.
Despite ongoing persecution, traces of Gnosticism lingered on and actually outlived the Roman Empire. The medieval Jewish Kabbalah and groups such as the Cathars of Southern France were largely founded on Gnostic beliefs. However in the thirteenth century the Cathar communities were massacred throughout southern France and the Inquisition was set up by the Catholic church to finally root out this pervasive heresy. Yet despite strong opposition from all the mainline Christian churches, and the advent of Islam, a small pocket of Gnostic believers, the Mandaeists, have managed to keep their faith intact from early Roman times until the present day. However, living in remote parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran this last Gnostic sect is once again under great threat – this time from Islamic fundamentalist intolerance.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a sudden interest amongst a few intellectuals in studying Gnostic texts, from old manuscripts and this interest spurred a limited revival amongst one or two fringe groups, notably the adherents of Theosophy and it has had influence on some serious branches of modern philosophy such as ‘ existentialism’
Hadrian: The later part of the rule of Hadrian was marked by a huge Jewish rebellion in Judea called the Bar Kokbah revolt or the second Jewish War ending in AD 135, which resulted in huge devastation. Hadrian had Jerusalem rebuilt as a pagan city and renamed Judea to Syria Palaestina. He expelled both Jews and Christians, although the later had taken no part in the revolt.
Helena: The Empress Helena, now known as St Helena, was the mother of Constantine the great. Renowned for her piety, she was a pillar of the early Christian church and is accepted as a saint by both Catholics and Greek Orthodox churches. Nevertheless she seems to have been directly implicated in the summary execution of Constantine’s wife Fausta and in the death of her own grandson Crispus.
Iudaea Capta: The words sent by Titus to his father the Emperor Vespasian to tell him that Judea had been taken, commemorated on a brass coin.
Julian the Apostate: Emperor of Rome from 361 – 363 AD. Although a member of Constantine’s family, he was a pagan and unsuccessfuly tried to turn the clock back on Christianity. He restored temples that had been converted into churches, put up images of gods in public display and encouraged a return to the the study of Greek philosophy. He was an energetic and generally benign ruler, but was despised by the Christian chroniclers, who wrote the history of his times, for obvious reasons. He died from wounds, whilst campaigning against the Persians.
Kalends: Or “Calends” The first days of the month in the Roman calendar. Our modern name calendar derives from “Kalends”.
Luke: St Luke is believed to be the author of the ‘St Lukes Gospel’ and ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ . He was a Greek speaking physician, from the Syrian city of Antioch and was well respected by contemporary Jewish Christians, such as St Paul.
Mandaeism: A non-Christian Gnostic faith that became established in the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire from around the 2nd century was Mandaeism, originally centred in Mesopotamia. They rejected Christ, but celebrated most of the Jewish Old Testament prophets and especially revered John the Baptist. Mandeanism, which has added aspects of Zoroaster and Buddhism syncretistically to an original Christian base, survived in remoter areas of the Near East and is still extant in parts of Syria, Iraq and Iran at the present day, although now under great threat from the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists..
Manichaeism: Not all Gnosticism faiths were entirely based in Christianity, although all seem to have incorporated at least some tenets of Christian beliefs, mixed in with elements of other (mainly Eastern) religions. Manichaeism was such a synchrenistic religion, which had its roots in Persia and followed the teachings of the prophet Mani. It contained elements of Christianity, Zoaroaster and Buddhism. This Gnostic faith was a major rival to early Christianity from the third to the seventh centuries and was particularly strong in North Africa, where St Augustine himself was a Manichaeist in his early life, before converting to Catholicism.
As with Christianity, Manichaeism suffered severe persecution from the Pagan Roman Emperors, particularly during the Great Persecution of Diocletian around the end of the third century. Manichaeism, like other branches of Gnosticism were considered to be dangerously heretical and a great threat to the the establishment of Christ’s Church, by orthodox Christianity. However, the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century gave the edge to Christianity, whose growing ascendancy (and intolerance) had largely displaced Manichaeaism throughout the Empire by the beginning of the seventh century. However by that time Manichaeaism had spread itself far beyond the reach of the Roman Empire – as far as China and remained strong for centuries in the East, until it withered away under a revived persecution – this time from the Muslims.
Mosaic: Mosaics were used by early Christians to embellish their simple places of worship with fairly crude portrayals of saints and scenes from the Bible, using coloured stone blocks (tesserae in latin). The initial imagery from the second and third centuries was amaturish and hardly impressive, but by the 6th century mosaics with religious themes had become creations of breathtaking splendour. Notable works were centred at Ravenna in Italy, but the tradition was strongest in the Eastern churches. The Byzantine mosaics, using brilliant glass and gold leaf tesserae were truly magnificent in their use of colour and artistic expression. Fine examples of Roman Mosaics can be seen at the gallery of roman mosaics)
Nero: (AD 54-68) This despoticl emperor of Rome was the instigator of the first persecution of the early Christians, whom he used as a scapegoat to divert the anger of the populace, following the great fire of Rome .
Nestorius: (AD 386 – 452) Whilst Archbishop of Constantinople he became at odds with his fellow Orthodox Christians due to his condemnation of the concept of Mary as the ‘Mother of God’ or ‘Theotokos’ in Greek. At the time his teaching was incorrectly seen as challenging the divinity of Jesus Christ and at the instigation of Archbishop Cyril of Alexandriahe he was deposed and cast out as a heretic. Anathematised at the first council of Ephesus in 431, he was exiled to an Egyptian Monastery. A number of other Bishops who agreed with his thinking also subsequently lost their Sees and fled to to Mesopotamia and Persia, finding refuge with the the Eastern Church that was already resident there. because of this the Eastern Church became known Nestorian, and was considered heretical by the Orthodox churches. Although, now under threat from Islamists, the remnants of this Church are still in existence in Iraq and Iran.
Odoacer: (AD 476 – 493) A Germanic warlord, who made himself the first barbarian king of Italy. Although he was an Arian Christian, as were most barbarians, he tolerated Catholic (orthodox) Christianity and did little to disrupt the church.
Olympics: The Ancient Olympic Games, originally held in honour of the twelve Olympian Gods of Ancient Greece were seen by the Christian church as an unacceptable relic of paganism and so the Roman Emperor Theodosius I forbade the games in 394 AD. in a drive to get rid of paganism in the Empire.
Orthodox: The term Orthodox is used to denote the major Christian faiths that subscribe to the Nicene Creed. (i.e. have believe in the Trinity of God). The Catholics and all of the Eastern Orthodox churches have the same core beliefs, even though their hierarchy split in ancient times, between the Papacy in the West and the Orthodox bishops of the Eastern empire, who could not accept the supremacy of the Pope of Rome.
Peter: St Peter was originally named Simon and coming from humble beginnings as a fisherman in Galilee, he became the acknowledged leader of the early church. He got his name ‘Peter’ from the Greek word for a rock (‘petros), because Christ called him the “the rock upon whom I shall build my church“.
He was traditionally believed to have been martyred in Rome, where he was said (by Catholics) to have ordained the line of succession of the Bishops of Rome who were destined by God’s will to follow him as leaders of the faith – viz the Catholic Popes.
Quran: The holy writings of Islam, known as the Koran in English were , put into writing under the direction of Caliph Abu Bakr, following the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632 BC. Believed to be verbatim the word of God by Muslims, it has borrowed much from the Bible.
Rome: Besides being the city that contains the Vatican, the term ‘Rome’ is often used to as a noun to denote Catholicism and the Papacy.
Senate: The senate of Rome was the ruling body in the Republic and still had legislative, judicial and ceremonial roles under the Emperors. Senators were generally wealth aristocrats and most had a strong pagan tradition and philosophical leaning that caused them to be very opposed to the early Christian church that they considered to be a crude and unsophisticated faith that was disloyal to the Empire’s ancient traditions and institutions and therefore potentially subversive to the smooth running of the Roman state.
Theodora: The Greek wife and co-empress of the important Eastern emperor Justinian I (AD 527 – 565). Very beautiful and intelligent, she was ruthless and certainly guilty of instigating several murders. She came from a poor family and may even have been a prostitute, but was a woman of great courage and strong will and always very politically astute. She played the leading role in surpressing the Nika riots, which nearly toppled Justinians reign. She died before her husband in 548, who had made her a full partner in his rule.
Theotokos: The concept espoused by the Orthodox and Catholic churches, that Mary is the mother of God is well known. Actually the term has now resolved on the less controversial aspect that she was the mother of the incarnation of God on earth i.e Jesus Christ, but for some period, there was a strong challenge to the Church, in that she was being considered by many to be a goddess in her own right and also eternal as in the case of God the father. The similarity of the nascent cult of Mary to that of the pagan Egyptian Goddess Isis or to that of the Bona Dea was seen as a particularly heretical danger by the Early Church.
Universal Church: The Orthodox faith we now know as Catholics are designated by this term, as originally they adopted the adjective ‘catholicus’ which is the Latin word for ‘universal’.
Valentinian: Emperor of Rome (AD 364 – 375). Sucessful general and conquerer of Alemanni, Quadi and Sarmatians. He took the Western Empire for himself and appointed Valens his brother as emperor of the East. The brothers made a strong team and were both good administrators, making substantial reforms on behalf of the poor and of the army. They were also tolerant in matters of religion. Valentian the Great, as he came to be known died of a stroke and was succeeded by his son Gratian.
Western Church: After the final separation of the two halves of the Roman Empire under Constantine the Great in AD 330, the Western church became increasingly isolated from the East and eventually evolved into the phenomenon of the Papacy, whereby Catholicism under the Popes, had incredible trans-national influence over the affairs of the many secular kingdoms that were heirs to the disintegration of the Roman Empire.
X-shaped Cross: St Andrew (patron saint of Scotland) was traditionally martyred on an X – shaped cross, as he said to have told his persecutors that he was unworthy to emulate Christ’s death by crucifixion on the traditional cross.
Y: Nothing found.
Zoroastrianism: Founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster in 6th century this eastern religion had influence on all the the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) especially in the eschatology of good and evil and the concept of the judgment day .