The Church in the Roman Empire: 313 - 800 AD

This is the dome of Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built in 532 - 537 AD by Roman Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.  The architecture itself was meant to lead to worship.  Prior to the conquest of the Turks in 1453 AD and its conversion to a Muslim mosque, the dome had a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator; Christian iconographic art reflected a synthesis of Semitic and Greek artistic styles.  The architecture was Roman, as the Romans were the first architects who used domes to create large interior spaces.  The dome in Christian use was designed to give the impression that Jesus, supported by light alone (streaming in from the windows), was descending from heaven to earth.  Photo credit:  Dean Strelau | CC2.0, Flickr


the church in the roman empire 313 - 800 AD

The selection of perspectives on church history in this section has been guided by three factors: (1) to demonstrate that Christianity has not been a “white man’s religion”; (2) the study of empire as a recurring motif in Scripture by recent biblical studies scholars; and (3) explorations of biblical Christian ethics on issues of power and polity, to understand how Christians were faithful to Christ or not.  Christian relational ethics continues a Christian theological anthropology that began with reflection on the human nature of Jesus, and the human experience of biblical Israel.

Books and Articles on the Church in the Roman Empire 313 - 800 AD: How the Church Shaped the Empire 

Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Augustine, What Did the Early Church Say About Economic Justice? (Plough)

Wikipedia, San Marino, a small democratic republic in Italy, a continuation of a Christian monastic community founded in 301 AD

W.H.C. Frend, The Monks and the Survival of the East Roman Empire in the Fifth Century (Past & Present | Oxford University, Feb 1972) highlights both the positive and negative influence of popular monastic movements

T.F. Torrance, The Grammar and Ground of Theology, lecture 5 (audio lecture, 1981) 46min mark comparing Greek and Hebraic-Christian ways of thinking about images and realities

R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Amazon book, Aug 16, 1990) has very important facts about the Roman Popes of late Antiquity being Syrian, Greek, etc.  When the Popes became uniformly Latin, the Roman Church became notably less interested in unity with the broader church

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Amazon book, 1993)

Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Amazon book, 1993) Adolf Harnack's view of a Hellenized Christianity, a disguised Paganism, is laid to rest in Pelikan's magisterial work. The use of Greek concepts and terminology was an unavoidable and necessary means of communication in making the Christian Gospel relevant to the world in which it appeared. The Trinitarian terminology of the Cappadocian Fathers, and its later application to Christology in the Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian periods, clearly show that such concepts as ousia, hypostasis, or physis are infused with Christian meaning, not Platonic or Aristotelian philosophical concepts or ideas. Three hypostases united in one essence (ousia), or two natures (physis) united in one hypostasis, are no part of either the Platonic or Aristotelian systems of thought. As Pelikan notes, the “Cappadocians represented the Christian message as an acceptance of what was correct in both Judaism and Classicism, coupled with an avoidance of the errors in each.” Fr. Florovsky described it as the "enchurching of Hellenism".

Timothy S. Miller, The Birth of the Hospital in the Byzantine Empire (Amazon book, 1997) from Basil of Caesarea who started the hospital as an institution and urban monasticism to support it, throughout the hospital network and its medical achievements in the Byzantine period. See also Andrew T. Crislip, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity (Amazon book, Apr 2005)

Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Amazon book, May 9, 1997) explores some of the behaviors demonstrated by the early Christians which led to its impact on the Roman Empire

Christianity Today, The Conversion of Scandinavia: Christian History Timeline (Christianity Today, 1999)

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Amazon book, 1999) O'Donovan deals with the biblical presentation of the church, states, and Israel - not simply 'church and state' - and does an excellent job in biblical exposition and church history.  Sadly, the church did not always stay faithful to its intellectual and ethical inheritance.  But it did have quite an impact on law and policy.

Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Amazon book, 1999) and this bibliographic summary by Patristic Evangelism, Readings in Patristic Ethics  (Patristic Evangelism blog, date unknown)

Robert M. Frakes, Contra Potentium Iniuras: The Defensor Civitatis and Late Roman Justice (Google book, 2001)

Henry Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great (Amazon book, 2001)

Henry Chadwick, East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence (Amazon book, 2003)

Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (book, 2001), and Walter Brueggemann's review, How the Early Church Practiced Charity (Religion Online, Jun 14, 2003)

O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Amazon book, 2005) an absolutely invaluable study of how Christian faith made an enormous and decisive impact on how children were treated as fully human, overturning Greek and Latin practices of infanticide, etc. which accorded only instrumental value to infants and children

Bogdan Popescu, Human Rights in Early Christian Writings (Mozaic, 2005/1), also a pdf file

Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe, Ambrosiaster's Political Theology (Amazon book, 2007) her Oxford dissertation

Robert Miller, Syriac and Antiochian Exegesis and Biblical Theology for the 3rd Millenium (Amazon book, Dec 1, 2008)

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Amazon book, 2010)

Kimberly Flint-Hamilton, Gregory of Nyssa and the Culture of Oppression (Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2010)

John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions: The Church 450-680 A.D. (Amazon book, Dec 13, 2011)

Kevin Knight, Influence of the Church on Civil Law (New Advent website, 2012)

Megan Kraus, The Concept of Childhood in Anglo-Saxon Culture: A Case Study ( paper, Mar 12, 2012) how Christianity led to the honored burial of children who died prematurely, and what that signifies

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Amazon book, Feb 4, 2013) surveys both East and West, though he focuses more attention on the West

Ethan Gannaway, Saint Ambrose and Toleration (The Academy for the Study of Ambrose of Milan, Apr 4, 2013) makes helpful historical remarks concerning Ambrose, given the bishop's engagement with political events

Thomas Heyne, Reconstructing the World's First Hospital: The Basiliad (Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities, Spring 2015).  See also The Cosmological Vision of St. Basil and the First Hospital (Servant of Prayer blog, Apr 8, 2014) and Father Johannes Jacobse, St. Basil the Great and Christian Philanthropy (American Orthodox Institute USA, Dec 20, 2014)

Brian Patrick Mitchell, Byzantine Empire - or Republic? (The American Conservative, Aug 7, 2015) makes the fascinating case that the Byzantine Emperors were less autocratic and more accountable to the people, the Senate, and the church

Peter Wehner, The Christmas Revolution (NY Times, Dec 25, 2015)

Ronald Osborn, The Scandalous Origins of Human Rights (Veritas Forum, Jan 15, 2016)

Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Amazon book, Mar 29, 2016) an excellent historical treatment

Jack Davila-Ashcraft, The Early Church on Government (Paleo-Orthodoxy, Oct 3, 2016)

J.T. Fitzgerald, Orphans in Mediterranean Antiquity and Early Christianity (Acta Theologica, 2016)

David Bentley Hart, Human Dignity Was a Rarity Before Christianity (Church Life Journal, Oct 26, 2017)

Benjamin Wiker, From a Moral-Historical Perspective, This Crisis is Worse Than You Realize (National Catholic Register, Aug 30, 2018) re: pedophilia.  Within this lament for the Catholic sex abuse crisis lies the reason this is so bitter:  Christian faith alone was the reason why pedophilia - once common in Greco-Roman life and culture - was dramatically curtailed and became a moral horror

Trevor Saxby, ‘Always Enough’: Early Church Leader Basil of Caesarea and Sustainability (Making History Now blog, Sep 10, 2018)

Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Amazon book, Oct 2019) explores the role of Christian faith from the fall of Rome in 476 as one of many factors

Books and Articles on the Church in the Roman Empire from 313 - 800 AD: How Empires Shaped the Church

Church and Women in Leadership A compilation of essays, presentations, and resources arguing that women shared all levels of church leadership with men in the earliest stage of the church.  The church shifted to having all male leadership likely because of the Roman legal and social tradition of disempowering women in law and the public sphere.  

Authoritarianism: Augustine’s Authoritarian-Theocratic Synthesis A compilation of resources focused on the consequences of Augustine of Hippo’s decision to use state force to persecute the heretics. This opened a terrible door. Compare to how Christianity initially was for Religious Pluralism and Tolerance on the political level.

W.H.C. Frend, The Monks and the Survival of the East Roman Empire in the Fifth Century (Past & Present | Oxford University, Feb 1972) highlights both the positive and negative influence of popular monastic movements

Thomas F.X. Noble, The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680-825 (Amazon book, 1984) traces decisions made by the Roman Popes about the Byzantines, the Normans, and the Franks; these decisions laid the groundwork for the Western Catholic and Protestant dependence on political and military power

Vasiliki M. Limberis, Divine Heiress: The Virgin Mary and the Making of Christian Constantinople (Amazon book, 1994) argues that the interpretation of Mary as a now-semi-divine intercessor and patron of Constantinople fit previous Greek myths

R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Amazon book, 1996) a very important work exploring how early Christian apologetics and theology did not fully articulate the original New Testament anchoring of Jesus in his Jewish context and the thought forms of Hebrew biblical narrative.  This resulted in a political situation under European Christendom which left the Jewish community vulnerable.  The section on Kant and Schleiermacher as representatives of Christian Modernism which sought a "universal" grounding without reference to Judaism is especially relevant.

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Amazon book, 1999) O'Donovan deals with the biblical presentation of the church, states, and Israel - not simply 'church and state' - and does an excellent job in biblical exposition and church history.  Although Constantine made public space for the old pagan temples in the fourth century, by the late fifth century, the church did not honor the role of Israel as Paul envisioned in Romans 9 - 11, and therefore did not develop a political pluralism.

Gay Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (Amazon book, Jun 30, 2002) explores how the previous Greco-Roman discourse about Egyptians, Ethiopians, and blackness was used in early Christian writings; at times signifying "the ends of the earth" (Luke's Gospel) and at times skin color signifying "blackened by their sins" (Jerome)

Gregory Paul, The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis (Church and State, Oct 11, 2003) traces the Christian alliance with the Roman Empire into anti-semitism and the rise of German Aryan "Volkism" and the German equivalent of "manifest destiny" through the conquest of Lebensraum ("living space").

Vasiliki M. Limberis, Architects of Piety: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Cult of the Martyrs (Amazon book, 2011) how martyr stories, popular with Christians on the ground, had to be re-deployed and re-purposed after Constantine

Kings and Generals, How the Romans Stole Silk Production Secrets from China (Kings and Generals, Jan 31, 2019) about how Roman taste for Chinese silk led to the Roman Imperial economic crisis of the 3rd century, the enriching of the Persians; also, how Nestorian monks bargained with Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to steal Chinese silkworms and the mulberry plant to help Justinian start a native silk industry in the Byzantine Roman Empire.  This also led to the rise of the Italian merchant republics and banking families.

Gildas, Christianity and Relics, Part 5: Conclusion (On the Ruin of Britain, Feb 25, 2019) how the veneration of relics, and the cult of the saints, developed

Mark Brown, Britain’s Equivalent to Tutankhamun Found in Southend-on-Sea (The Guardian, May 8, 2019) evidence of Christianity Anglo-Saxon peoples from the 500’s. It is evidence of the spread of Christian faith early on, complementing trade and travel, generally, evidenced for instance by the 2nd century tombstone statue of Regina with Aramaic writing found at South Shields.

the church in europe: the church shaping empires, empires shaping the church

church and empire: reflections on faithfulness and compromise: topics