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When and Where did Christianity begin?

People who professed themselves to be followers of Jesus were first called "Christianoi" in the Syrian town of Antioch perhaps twenty or thirty years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth.  But as with other traditions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign a precise date to the origins of Christianity.  Reasonably sound historical information, however, supports a number of general conclusions about the matter.  Most of the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who believed that this man from Galilee, a northern sector of the Roman province known as Palestine and administered by the Herodian dynasty of Jewish kings, fulfilled enough of the traditional criteria to be proclaimed Messiah or, to use the Greek equivalent, "Christ."

Jesus seems to have formed a core community of supporters among Galileans and other Jews who, according to the Greek or New Testament, accepted his invitation to follow him on his itinerant mission to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God.  During his lifetime, Jesus apparently sent out his seventy disciples, among whom were the twelve Apostles, to announce the Kingdom, to heal the sick, and to forgive sins.  Jesus’ death around 30 CE, was a severe blow to his followers’ sense of identity.  But, reinvigorated by their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, they regrouped and organized themselves as a missionary movement, some preaching to Jews and some to Gentiles (non-Jews).  They fanned out over much of the eastern Mediterranean basin, and within a generation after Jesus’ death, numerous small religious communities had begun to call themselves Christians.  At first the Christians met in "house churches" under the local leadership of elders or "presbyters," later to be called priests.  Deacons and deaconesses served the needs of the local community, and the communities in a given region looked  to the leadership of "overseers" (from the Greek episkopoi) or "bishops."

What other early texts are important to Christians?

In addition to the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, early Christian authors produced a number of other important works.  It is important to keep in mind that the formal canon of the New Testament was not finalized until around 198 CE.  Previous generations of Christians may well have been in general agreement about what constituted the core of their scripture, but until the late second century, some factions continued to claim the status of divine inspiration for a number of texts eventually judged to be apocryphal and thus not part of the Canon.

Most prominent among those apocryphal writings are a sizeable group calling themselves Gospels.  Some (such as the Gospels of Thomas and Philip) were an attempt to support the views of tendentious or heretical factions, while others (such as Gospel of Nicodemus and the Childhood of Jesus) purport to fill the gaps of Canonical texts with legend and lore.  Apocryphal works call "Acts" and identified with one or another of the Apostles generally, but not necessarily, reflect heretical views. Writings by a group of post-biblical authors known as the Apostolic Fathers, mostly of the late first or early to mid-second century, provide important information on the concerns and theological themes of bishops and their communities throughout the Mediterranean basin.  A third significant corpus of writings dating from about 120 to 220 CE, are those of authors known collectively as the Apologists.  Major figures like Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), who founded a Christian school in Rome, and Tertullian (c. 160-220) of Carthage (in present-day Tunisia) and later Rome, wrote in defense of Christian views when outsiders mounted theoretical or political attacks against them.

Were early Christians persecuted by Rome?  How long did that go on?

As Christianity became more clearly separated from its Jewish roots, Roman authorities all over the Mediterranean became more wary of Christianity’s potential threat to Rome’s authority.  Many Christians refused to burn incense to the emperor and paid with their lives, but executions remained largely a matter of local jurisdiction until about the middle of the third century.  Several Roman emperors, such as Nero and Marcus Aurelius, were known for their personal antipathy to Christians.  But it was Decius who in 250 CE issued the first general order requiring all in the realm to worship the gods of Rome.  Thousands of Christians were executed and many more renounced the faith, at least publicly.  Diocletian (284-305 CE) began his reign with greater tolerance, but toward the end sanctioned the razing of churches, the burning of scriptures, and wholesale executions.  The reign of terror continued until 311 CE, when Emperor Galerius proclaimed a renewal of official toleration of Christians.

Why was the Emperor Constantine important in Christian history?

After learning the protocols of the Roman court by serving under Deocletian, Constantine (c. 274-337) consolidated his power in the eastern empire in around 312.  Tradition says Constantine underwent a dramatic conversion to Christianity around that time.  The following year he met with his western counterpart, Emperor Licinius, at Milan and the two concurred on a formula for what would become Christianity’s political enfranchisement.  In a dramatic about-face in the fortunes of its adherents all over the empire, Christianity now had power on its side.  Thenceforth, whenever dissension within the ranks of Christians led to violence, the mainstream could enforce its views by appeal to the Emperor.  Under Constantine, Sunday officially became a religious holiday for Christians.  Constantine has the further considerable distinction of having convened the first of many "ecumenical councils," that of Nicea in 325.

Though he was as yet unbaptized, the Emperor presided over the debates concerning the damaging claims by the influential Arius (c. 250-336) that Jesus was a human creature, not eternal and divine, which were opposed by Bishop Athanasius (c. 296-373), who made the case for the orthodox response to Arius’ heretical views.  Five years later, Constantine tightened his grip on the empire, established his capital at Byzantium, newly renamed Constantinople ("City of Constantine"), and went on to become known among Orthodox Christians as the "thirteenth Apostle."

Who are the Fathers of the Church and why are they important?

Some of Christianity’s most important religious and theological literature dates from the fourth to the eight centuries CE.  During the Patristic Age, or "Late Antiquity," dozens of influential authors from North Africa, through the central middle East and Anatolia (now called Turkey), to Rome and westward even to Spain, wrote major works in Latin, Greek, and Syriac.  Patristic literature includes virtually every type, from extensive biblical commentaries to sermons to theological treatises.

Among the most important Latin Fathers is Ausutine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa and author of the monumental City of God and one of the best-known spiritual autobiographies, The Confessions.  Tradition credits Ausustine with a monastic rule that has influenced religious orders such as the Dominicans and Servites, as well as Ursuline and Visitation nuns.  Major Greek Fathers include the three Cappadocians, so called because they lived and worked in the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor (now in east-central Turkey).  More famous were Basil (c. 330-379) and his brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-395).  Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), like the other Gregory, was an outspoken bishop much involved in the theological controversies of the day.  All three made critical contributions to the clarification of Christian doctrines about Christ and the Trinity.  Less famous but very important in the early Christian history in the eastern Mediterranean are the Syriac Fathers.  They wrote in a Semitic language related to the Aramaic commonly spoken in the time of Jesus.  Ephrem of Syria (306-73) authored dozens of works, almost all in verse and including many hymns that are still sung in worship rituals.

Were there any Mothers of the Church?

There were many important "Church Mothers," women of great influence in the early Church.  They have been less famous because they rarely wrote and published as did their male counterparts.  Unfortunately, we known little of many of these women apart from often scanty or anonymous references in the writings of the Fathers and in early histories of the Christianity.  The historian Eusebius, for example, mentions some fifty-five women as making important contributions.  Recent research has begun to give some of these outstanding women names and "faces."  Some of the first well-known women were martyrs such as Blandina (d. 177), and Perpetua and Felicitas, who both died in 203.  Along with the so-called Desert Fathers credited with the beginnings of monasticism were a number of Desert Mothers.  Macrina (c. 327-379), sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, was also a prominent churchwoman.  We know from the testimony of other authors that she was a respected theologian.

What were the Crusades and why were they important?

Beginning in 1096 and continuing intermittently for the next two centuries, the Crusades were wars fought over possession of the "Holy Land" and its chief sacred place, JerusalemMuslims had been in control of Jerusalem since around 636, but the Christian powers of central and eastern Europe mobilized only after a Turkish force vanquished a Byzantine army in eastern Asia Minor in 1071.  The Byzantine emperor sought help from the pope in Rome and the first Crusade began twenty-five years later.  From the Christian perspective the first was the only genuinely successful Crusade, resulting in the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem.  An ill-fated second Crusade was launched in 1147 in hopes of expanding Christian control.

From 1099 to 1187, Crusaders held the holy city and surrounding regions.  Then, under the famous hero Saladin, Muslim armies brought the Latin Kingdom down and reclaimed Jerusalem, and in the following year Christians organized the third Crusade.  The English king Richard I "The Lionhearted" managed a truce with Saladin in 1192, securing little more than a token visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  One of the truly grim episodes in Crusading history occurred during the fourth Crusade.  Western Christian troops overthrew the Byzantine emperor, venting their wrath on their Eastern Christian cousins, and never made it to the Middle East.  Four more major Crusades and several minor ones followed during the thirteenth century.  Only one was a qualified success, securing control over Jerusalem for fifteen years (1229-1244).  Muslim authorities retained primary custody of the holy places for nearly the next seven centuries, finally yielding to the British mandate in the early 1900s.  Christian sources often glorify the Crusades as examples of heroism, but in fact those who suffered most from their consequences were the Christian communities of the Middle East.

Is there a Christian Creed?

A number of New Testament texts suggest early forms of creedal statements.  For example, the Letter to the Philippians 2:1-11 describes how Jesus "emptied himself" of all divine prerogatives, even to the point of becoming a slave and dying on the cross.  The passage ends by saying that all should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that "every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father."  The Gospel of Matthew 28:19 records Jesus sending his followers to baptize "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," an early expression of the notion of the Holy Trinity.  But the first important formal creedal statements did not gain wide currency until the early fourth century.

An important outcome of the Council of Nicea, in 325, was the Nicene Creed.  As has so often been the case in the history of religion, Christians first formulated a comprehensive statement of "orthodox" or "right" beliefs.  In other words, the Nicene Creed does not represent the first expression of those beliefs, but rather the first comprehensive clarification of points that had come under attack by factions now considered "heretical."  Christians all over the world now recite in their liturgies a later and somewhat longer version of the Nicene statement, with sections devoted to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and concluding with affirmations of belief in the church, baptism, forgiveness, and the resurrection of the dead in the next life.  The liturgical formula does not include the "anathemas" or condemnations of unacceptable views contained in the Council’s original document.  Subsequent Church councils have published other creedal statements, but the only other creed in common use (outside of the Eastern Christian churches) is the briefer so-called "Apostles’ Creed," earlier versions of which seem to have come into common use around the fourth century.

What are the words of the Nicene Creed?

I believe in one God, the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages.  Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father through Whom all things are made.

Who for us and for our salvation, came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin, and became man.

He was also crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.

He rose again on the third day according to scriptures.

He ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father.

And he will come again with glory to judge the lying and the dead, and of His kingdom there will be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who precedes from the Father, Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and gloried, Who spoke through the prophets.

I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

I profess one baptism for the remission of sins.

I expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

What is the central mystery of the Christian faith?

The doctrine of the Trinity is the central Christian teaching about God.  Christians believe that there is only one God, but in that one God are three distinct divine Persons — the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit — who possess equally and eternally the same divine nature.  The early ecumenical councils took care to define the mystery of the Trinity with great preciseness because the mystery of God, obviously, is the most important of the mysteries of faith.  During the early centuries of the Church’s life, many individuals denied elements of what Christians believed concerning the Trinity.  Some claimed that Jesus was not really God; other rejected the divinity of the Hoy Spirit; and some presented a very faulty understanding of God the Father.  Belief in the Trinity is one main belief that distinguishes Christians from their Jewish and Muslim brethren.

What is original sin?

According to mainstream Christian tradition, the story of Adam and Eve is critical to an understanding of the relationship between human beings and their Creator.  According to Genesis 2:16-17 and 3:1-24, God commanded these first human beings not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  A tempter tried to persuade them that God was merely attempting to prevent Adam and Eve from becoming like Himself.  Once the primodial couple succumbed to the lure of such dangerous knowledge, they became aware of their potential for disobedience and lost their pristine innocence.  Christian theologians have interpreted this critical moment in human history, known as The Fall, in various ways.  From the time of the early Church Fathers on through the Middle Ages, theologians have discussed how the descendants of Adam and Eve inherited both their guilt and their inherent moral weakness.  Protestant reformers stimulated further debate in the context of their discussion of faith and works.  To what extent, they asked, can human beings remedy the situation by well-intentioned action?

Why is the Virgin Mary important to Christians?

Mary, the mother of Jesus, occupies a preeminent position in the theology of the traditional Eastern and Western churches.  Information about her life is extremely limited (Matthew 1 and 2; Luke 1 and 2).  It is clear that Matthew and Luke believed that Mary’s conception of Jesus was miraculous, involving no human paternity, and that her son was the Messiah expected by Israel.  Mary belonged to the house of David (Luke 1:26), was engaged to a man called Joseph (Matthew 1:18), and lived in Nazareth in lower Galilee (Luke 1:26).  The Gospel of Luke relates that an angel of God announced that, although a virgin, would conceive the son of the "Most High," to be named Jesus, and that he would found a new Davidic kingdom (Luke 1:31-33).  Mary consented.  When Joseph discovered that Mary was with child, he wished to dissolve the engagement quietly.  In a dream, however, God’s angel admonished him to marry Mary because the son she would bear was the result of divine intervention (Matthew 1:19-21).

The dates of Mary’s life can only be surmised.  Researchers place the birth of Jesus between 7 and 4 BCE.  Granting Mary a minimal age of 16 to 18 years at the time of Jesus’ birth, this would place her birth at sometime between 22-20 BCE.  There is no precise information as to her death.  At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary was proclaimed the "Theotokos" (Greek, God-bearer), or mother of God.  Her position was further defined in the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1854 stated as an article of faith that Mary had been conceived without the original sin that affects all humanity.  In 1950, Pius XII declared that at her death Mary’s body had not corrupted in the grave but that God had taken bother her body and soul into heaven.

Are dreams and visions important in Christian spirituality?

Some New Testament accounts describe dreams as a way God communicates warnings or courses of action to the dreamer.  An angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife and to flee to Egypt (Matthew 1:20, 2:13).  A dream warns the Magi not to return to Herod (Matthew 2:12), and as a result of a dream Pilate‘s wife counsels her husband to release Jesus (Matthew 27:19).  The Acts of the Apostles records a number of instances in which visions supplied needed insights to Peter and Paul (Acts 11:5, 16:19, 18:5, 26:19).  Throughout Christian history individuals have reported privileged access to divine truth through both dreams and visions.  Mystical insight is often described in visionary terms.  The claim is not primarily one of optical vision, but of spiritual encounter.  More prominent in recent times have been claims concerning apparitions, particularly of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.  Individuals who claim to receive revelations typically communicate the need for peace or penitence and preparation for the coming apocalypse.

What role do angels play in Christian belief?

Angels are spiritual beings with intuitive, though still partial, access to the ultimate truths.  Roaming the universe at God’s command, angels can make their presence known in countless ways.  As messengers of the unseen world, angels represent God’s ongoing communication with individuals on Earth.  Tradition divides angelic beings into three ranks or orders, each comprising three further "choirs."  In descending order, the first rank includes the Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones.  Second in rank are the Doinations, Principalities, and Powers.  Virtues, Archangels, and Angels fill the lowest three orders.

Apart from Archangels and Angels, none of the angelic ranks descend to the human world, and the so-called guardian angels belong to the lowest rank.  Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel are the only angels commonly named in Christian tradition.  Many Christians consider themselves blessed and guarded by the presence of an angelic guardian, as the dramatic increase in colloquial American references to angels in recent times will attest.  Even Christians whose traditions avoid talk of saints because their mediatorial role is deemed unnecessary now commonly talk of angelic intervention.  Some perceive angels as kind strangers or as invisible forces that prevent accidents, for example.

How is the devil significant for Christians?

The English word "devil" comes from the Greek diabolos, meaning "one who throws something against" — in short, a disruptive power or presence.  In the Gospels, Jesus deals with many such presences.  Sometimes the presence is associated with a physical disease, sometimes with what seems to be  form of psychosis.  There is a subtle distinction between a devil and an evil spirit, the latter being a soul gone awry under the influence of the former.  According to tradition, the only difference between an angel and a devil is that a devil has made a choice that caused the loss of divine grace.  Lucifer, "Bearer of Light," is the name of the angel who first separated himself definitively from God and got the name Satan or "adversary"  Others are said to have followed his example and joined an arm of malevolence under Satan’s lead.

In one of the few remaining mythological elements in Christian tradition, Satan does battle against the forces of good represented by the Holy Spirit.  At the end of time, Satan and his minions will suffer crushing defeat.  Homage to the devil remains a feature of folk traditions among Christians in many parts of the world.  In a mountain-side cave in Guatemala overlooking Lake Atitlan, for example, locals still show interested visitors the remnants of chickens sacrificed to "the Prince of the World," represented oddly by a stone cross on the wall.  This is not the same as Satanism or dead worship as such, but an acknowledgment of the continuing presence of evil in the world.  Popular lore has cloaked the devil in red, given him horns, a pointed tail, and a pitchfork, but imagery of that sort does not have biblical roots.

What are the main Christian notions of afterlife?

Christian eschatology focuses on distinctive understandings of death, judgment, and consequential experiences called Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.  First of all, death is not the end of life, but the beginning of a different mode of existence.  Death is the doorway to a world beyond this.  But since each person is responsible for his or her choices in life, there will be an accounting called Judgment.  Immediately after death comes the Particular Judgment, of significance especially in Catholic theology.  At that moment the individual becomes aware with utter clarity where he or she stands with God.

Depending on the situation, the state of the individual soul then changes to an experience of damnation, purification, or bliss.  Individuals who have consistently chosen separation from God (a state called "mortal sin") will then be granted their wish permanently, in Hell.  Those whose lifelong choices have been tainted with self-will and ill intent (called "venial sin") may need to experience a long but limited period of purification called Purgatory.  Once cleansed of the latest vestiges of self-absorption, these individuals will experience a change and be ready to enjoy the eternal presence of God.  Those whom the Particular Judgment reveals to be in a "state of grace" are believed to move directly to the experience of the beatific vision, or Heaven, a state of eternal delight enveloped in divine love.  All Christian theologies speak of a General Judgment, which will occur at the end of time at the Resurrection of the Dead.  Then God will call all humanity to account and seal its fate for eternity.

Protestant reformers rejected both the notion of Particular Judgment and the intermediate state of Purgatory, teaching that only two possibilities, Heaven or Hell, awaited at the General Judgment.  A further state known as "limbo" is reserved in some traditions for the unbaptized.  Limbo is a rather neutral condition, lacking either suffering or supernal bliss, for all the righteous who lived before Christ, as well as for all infants who die without baptism.

What is Parousia?

According to the New Testament, Jesus promised his followers that he would come in glory at the end of the world as Lord and Judge.  This coming of Christ in glory is called the "Parousia."  The Greek word literally means presence or arrival.  The ceremonial entry of a king or triumphant conqueror into a city was called a "parousia."  In this final coming Christ will be recognized as Lord of all.  Christians from the very start have looked forward with confident hope to the final coming of Christ in glory.  The early Christians’ prayer "Marana tha," Aramaic for "Our Lord, come!" (I Corinthians 16:22), was an expression of their eager desire to see the final triumph of Jesus’ saving work.

Who is the Antichrist?

Antichrist is the generic title given to an individual, organization, or principle of evil believed to represent all that runs counter to the values of Jesus Christ.  Only the two Letters of John use the term, referring to people who refuse to believe in the Incarnation.  Some early Christians labeled Roman emperors "Antichrists" because of their opposition to the faith.  Some Protestant groups occasionally have dubbed the pope the Antichrist; similarly, some Muslims today characterize any external enemy as "The Great Satan."  Christians throughout history have identified as the Antichrist the various evil forces of which the Book of Revelation speaks, including Rome and the "beasts" whose appearance will signal the apocalypse.  Perhaps the most common and persistent view is that at the end of time, Jesus (in his "Second Coming") will confront and vanquish an imposter who claims to be Christ (i.e., the Antichrist), but not before the imposter has managed to lure many believers from the faith.

What is meant by the term "the Rapture"?

Some millenarian sects hold that at the Second Coming of Christ all believers will be taken up (rapt) into Heaven.  Only those deemed to be "saved" will enjoy the benefit of the experience.  Numbers of the saved and the criteria by which to determine one’s own or others’ membership in that group vary.  Some churches adhere to a literal reading of the scriptural text, according to which one hundred and forty-four thousand, equal to the numbers of each of the twelve tribes of Israel, will be "sealed" on their foreheads (Revelation 7:1-8).  Strict interpretations limit to that number those who will survive the "great tribulation" (Revelation 7:14) that will precede the Second Coming of Christ.  Others allow that the number is symbolic, though the actual number of those saved will remain relatively small.  Some (generally smaller) Christian groups continue to predict specific times when they are convinced the Rapture will occur.

What are the "beatitudes"?

A beatitude is a blessing proclaimed by Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 5:3-11; Luke 6:20-23), commending a characteristic of life that is most precious and dear to God.  Jesus pronounced the beatitudes at the very beginning of his public ministry:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.
  • Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
  • Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

What is the Sign of the Cross?

The sign of the cross is a simple and profound prayer.  In part it is an action or gesture.  A Christian marks himself with the cross to show faith in Christ’s saving work.   Cross is described on the body by the right hand moving from the forehead to the breast, and then shoulder to shoulder.  In the Eastern church the cross stroke is made from right to left; in the Western church from left to right.  While tracing the sign of the cross, the Christian says:  "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  This formula, which recalls the words of Christ sending his Apostles to teach and baptize (Matthew 28:19), expresses an act of the faith in the Trinity.

What are Santos?

Walk into virtually any small neighborhood or village church anywhere in Latin American and you will find Santos.  Santos (Spanish for "saints") are small carved, painted status of holy persons specially revered because of their spiritual power and presence.  You will generally see them lined up on shelves along the side of walls of the church or occupying small side altars flanking the main altar.  All who come to the church regularly are likely to have a particular favorite among the dimunitive saints.  Devotees are not shy about expressing their needs to their patrons and these little churches are often alive with voices communicating in loud whispers, every conceivable physical and spiritual need.  People often light candles, soften the wax on the bottoms so that they will stick to the floor, and proceed to harangue their Santos with animated gestures, humbly demanding rain for the crops or asking why a sick child has not yet been healed.  Santos are an important form of folk religious art that reveals a great deal about popular Christianity in the Americas.  Cathedrals and wealthier churches have their equivalent of Santos in their multiple side altars and shrines, but there the conversations are quieter, the candles mounted on racks, and the Santos often protected behind glass.

What is Holy water and how do some Christians use it?

Roman and Anglo-Catholics especially are accustomed to blessing themselves when they enter church.  They dip their right hand into a font filled with holy water and make the sign of he cross on themselves.  Water is also a medium of blessing for a congregation.  The celebrant takes a branch (or uses a small sprinkler with a handle) dipped in water and scatters a few drops over the crowd.  Water from pilgrimage sites has long been a favorite religious souvenir, sometimes brought home to be given away as gifts or used for its healing properties.  For many Christians, this is all an extension of the use of water for the rite of baptism, which in turn recalls how God brought the Israelites safely though the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, and how Jesus was blessed by his cousin John the Baptist.

Who are Roman Catholics?

As early as the fourth century, Christendom experienced political and religious tensions between Western (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) styles of theology and governance.  These differences were magnified by the East-West division officially declared in 1054, with many Eastern communities (Orthodox or "right-believing" Christians) proclaiming themselves formally independent of Rome.  But the use of the term "Roman Catholic" came into common use after the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.  Papal authority, an often contested issue for at least a millennium, again became a critical question.  The reformers protested against the Church’s rigidly hierarchical structure, officially a kind of oligarchy but often in effect a monarchy in which the pope enjoyed greater power than the College of Cardinals.

The theological counterpart to the hierarchical system of internal governance were distinctively Roman teachings on the seven sacraments and in a vast multitiered celestial realm populated by saints and angels.  Against these and other symbols of authority and mediated spiritual power, the reformers emphasized the priesthood of the faithful and the unmediated relationship of each believer to God.  In response, Roman Catholicism further defined itself through the decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and the Catholic Reformation, spearheaded by the newly founded Society of Jesus or Jesuits (1540), among other emerging religious orders.  Today Roman Catholics constitute about half the number of Christians worldwide.

 


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Books like The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail link modern secret societies to medieval groups such as the Knights Templar and the Cathars. The Cathars were a Christian sect that flourished in southern France, Germany and northern Italy from the 11th to the 13th century, who were in turn linked to a chain of descent from early Christian Gnosticism.

The Manicheans

The early centuries CE were a time of religious ferment across Europe and Asia. Christianity was spreading fast as were Mithraism and Gnosticism. In Sassanid Persia, a young Zoroastrian named Mani (216-276 CE) was overtaken by visions and became a prophet, preaching a Gnostic gospel of radical dualism. Supposedly, primal man, a being of pure light and spirit, had shattered into particles and been swallowed by the powers of darkness so that the particles of light were now imprisoned in matter – the human body, specifically the brain. Salvation was the ongoing process of freeing the sparks of light from their physical prisons in order that they could rejoin the divine, and a series of apostles of light, including the biblical prophets Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mani himself, had been sent to spread the word.

Mani and his followers were actively evangelical and for a while Mani succeeded in gaining the ear of the Sassanid emperor Shapur I, but later he fell foul of political maneuvering and was flayed alive. His Church lives on, spreading through Central Asia an reaching china, where it was practiced in one form or another up until the modern era. Manicheans were divided into two classes: the Elect (the Righteous) and the Auditors (“hearers”). The strict code of Manichean ethics meant that the Elect were forbidden to gather food for themselves and depended for their sustenance on the Auditors, who were free from these restrictions. The Cathars would later have a similar system.

Manicheanism became popular in the Roman world and particularly in Alexandra, and the Church Father St. Augustine was originally a Manichean before becoming a Christian. The triumph of orthodox Christianity saw it suppressed along with other forms of Gnosticism.

The Bogomils

In the 10th century, Gnosticism gripped the Balkans with the flourishing of a Christian sect founded by apriest who took the name Bogomil. The Bogomils, or Friends of God, subscribed to the teachings of an earlier sect called the Paulicians, who argued that the physical world and human beings had actually been created by Satan, not God, and that Jesus had not been a physical being, but had simply had the appearance of one. The dualism was probably passed down from the Manicheans, and they shared a similar hierarchy and moral code. The strictest code – abstinence from sex, marriage, meat and wine, and the giving up of all worldly possessions – was practiced only by a select few, known as the Perfecti, while the ordinary men and women lived normal lives but could achieve the state of grace of the Perfecti by taking the consolamentum – a sort of spiritual baptism – on their deathbed.

The Bogomil movement was popular in the Balkans and the Byzantine Empire up until the 14th century, but the conquest of Asia Minor (Turkey) and the Balkans by the Ottomans led to the adoption of Islam across the region. In Western Europe, the sect was known as the Bulgars because their heartland was Bulgaria; in France Bulgar became Bougre. The typical response of orthodox Christianity to heretical groups was to slander them with accusations such as homosexuality and sexual deviance, and hence the term “bougre” or “bugger” became associated with certain sexual practices.

Rise and Fall of The Cathars

The Bogomils had a direct influence on the best-known Gnostic sect of all, the Cathars, possibly by converting Crusaders passing through their territories, who took their new faith back to Western Europe. Like the Bogomils, the Cathars believed that the material world was corrupt and that salvation lay in freeing the divine spark within to reunite with the Godhead. They shared a similar organization, with a small number of elect known as Perfecti, and the mass of the laypeople known as Bonshommes. The word “Cathar” itself is said to derive from the Latin for “pure ones.” As with the Bogomils and the Manicheans before them, the Cathar Perfecti rejected sex, marriage and meat; initiates to the rank of Perfecti even had to renounce their marriages. Meanwhile, the Bonshommes were less restricted, waiting until near death to take the consolamentum and become purified. Also like the Bogomils, the Cathars had an anti-establishment character. The piety and simplicity of the Perfecti stood in stark contrast to the corrupt and worldly clergy of the time, and there was an egalitarian aspect to the sect – men and women were accounted as equals.

Catharism took root in Germany (where it was first recorded, in 1143) and northern Italy, but its heartland was in southern and central France, particularly the Languedoc region. The town of Albi was considered to be the center of the sect, and they were accordingly known as the Albigensians. At this point in the Middle Ages the Languedec was very different from the rest of France, with its own language and a culture formed from a blend of influences (including Moorish). The nobles of the region were more or less independent from the French monarch, and their embrace of Catharism, coupled with its growing popularity in other parts of Europe and the fact that it had set up its own hierarchy of priests and bishops, meant that the movement posed a great threat to the Catholic Church and its temporal allies.

After failing to “correct” the heretical errors of the Cathars, the Church instituted the Inquisition in 1184 to suppress it by force. Initially, progress was slow, but it gained impetus in 1199 when Pope Innocent III declared that local authorities could share in the property of convicted heretics. In 1208 the Pope declared a new crusade against the Albigensian heresy, unleashing a century of conflict and atrocities across the Languedoc region. Catharism was not finally crushed until 1255 (and there was even a brief revival in the early 14th century), but its defeat was sealed when its greatest stronghold, the impenetrable fortress of Montsegur, fell in mysterious circumstances 1244. According to some writers, the Cathars guarded a mysterious secret, perhaps a treasure, and this was spirited out of Montsegur the night before it fell. Despite the fact that this appears to be pure invention with no basis in evidence, it has become part of the tapestry of legend that weaves together the Cathars, the Knights Templar, the Rosicrucians and the Freemason.

 


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Related to the ancient mystery cults of the Greeks, Mithraism was the worship of the god Mithras. Originally a sun god from the Persian pantheon, Mithras became very popular in the Roman Empire, and the Mithraic religion flourished from the 2nd century CE, rivaling Christianity until the latter got the upper hand. Mithraism eventually died out in the 5th century CE. In practice it had many similarities with Christianity – the two religions probably shared the same sources and cross fertilized each other. Mithras was regarded as a savior or messiah figure; his holy day was Sunday and one of his main festivals was held on 25 December.

The Mithraic cult had many important parallels with modern secret societies such as the Freemasons. It was open only to men (and was particularly popular with soldiers, minor officials and freedmen), who had to undergo initiation rites. Within the cult, rank in the secular world was of no importance – all initiates started off at the same rank and worked their way up, so that a legionnaire could be superior to his centurion. There were seven grades of initiation, corresponding to the seven “planets”: Raven, Nymphus, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Heliodromus and Father. The Mithraic equivalent to a Masonic lodge was the “cave” – an underground (or mock underground) chapel, or Mithraeum, where members would meet for a ritual meal of bread and wine.

Each Mithraeum was equipped with low benches running on either side of an aisle. The men would recline on these benches while they ate. At the head of the aisle was a carved relief or mural displaying the iconic image of Mithras performing his greatest exploit, the slaying of a bull. These icons conformed to a strict symbolic code, with Mithras (wearing his characteristic Phrygian cap) and the bull always shown in the same pose, while animals related to the zodiacal constellations also featured. No texts remain to explain the exact meaning of these symbols, but one explanation is that they are an allegory of the cosmological journey of the soul, which descends to earth at birth but ascends to heaven at death. As with the older forms of mystery religion, Mithraism did not survive antiquity and there is no direct line of descent to secret societies in the modern era, although some have used Mithraic symbolism.

 


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