You probably already know that one of the reasons Europeans claimed they were traveling across the Ocean Sea (aka Atlantic) was to “spread the Gospel to the infidels.” Infidel meant unbeliever, or one who didn’t trust. The word came from the same root as faithful. Here is our attempt to define gospel in laymen’s terms.
The word gospel translated from old English godspel to good news. The words good and god in the old Hebrew language were one and the same word. Spel translated to news.
Every Christian denomination has interpreted the good news differently. The Christians and the Hebrews wanted the people who worshiped the Earth God, the Sun God, the Water God and other spiritless idols to know they were wasting their time. There was only one God, one force. To Christians, Jesus’ story (how he was born, how he lived, what he preached, and how he died) was good news because his life and actions proved the existence of that one God.
There is enough documentation from Roman times (aside from the Bible) to prove as historical fact that a man named Jesus traveled around Canaan preaching about “the one God.” Historians have deduced from circumstantial evidence that he was born sometime between zero and 4 CE. Egypt had just been conquered by the Romans. The last pharaoh, Cleopatra [who was actually a Greek], had died in 30 BCE, about 30 years earlier. Historians have deduced from that same circumstantial evidence that this man named Jesus was crucified between 30 and 37 CE.
Other stories about Jesus are not so factual. Theologians debate about whether or not he was divine [a god himself], born by immaculate conception [Mary got pregnant by God], overcame death, and ascended to heaven.
Some of Jesus’ followers, known as disciples, testified (witnessed) that they saw him reappear and ascend after his death as Jesus the Christ [aka the Holy Spirit]. In about 37 CE, a Jew named Saul from the area called Tarsus in today’s Southern Turkey witnessed the same thing. He claimed that Jesus the Christ visited him after the crucifixion and told him to share the gospel with the rest of the world. Jesus the Christ gave Saul a new name, Paul.
The newly-named apostle Paul led and encouraged other disciples (followers or students) of Christianity to travel around the Latin- and Greek-speaking world preaching the Good News.
The Romans Expelled the Jews from Jerusalem
While Christianity spread, the Jews in Jerusalem struggled to retain their promised land. They rebelled against Roman rule in 70 CE, some thirty years after Jesus’ death. In retaliation, Roman armies under Emperor Titus slaughtered the Israelites in massive numbers and destroyed the Second Temple of Solomon. Titus sailed back to Rome in triumph with his ships piled high with the Temple treasure. That included the golden table, the candlesticks, and the Book of Laws from the Holy of Holies.
In the year 106, the Romans did more damage to the Jews as well as to the Christians. Emperor Trajan ordered that Simon, the last descendant of Jesus, be put to death, ending the Jesus Dynasty. Then Trajan ordered all Jews – from northern Iraq to the southern end of Egypt – annihilated. Many of the Jews who fled from the Middle East migrated to Iberia.
Trajan’s successor, Emperor Hadrian, was equally harsh. He banned circumcision “on pain of death.” Circumcision was an important custom for the Jews. It represented the sign of God’s covenant (promise) to them. Over the Holy Sepulcher, Hadrian built a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. On the rock where Jesus had been crucified, Hadrian built a giant statue of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, passion, pleasure and procreation. [Remember this when we discuss Empress Helena below.]
Hadrian reigned from 117 to 138 CE. He demanded that all Christians deny Jesus was the Messiah (the leader or savior God promised to send to Earth on Judgment Day to save his followers). Those who refused were severely punished. To further squelch the influence and power of Christianity and Judaism, the Romans ignored any reference to a Holy Land. Instead, they named “the land between Phoenicia and Egypt,” (aka Canaan), Palestine, referencing the ancient Jewish enemies, the Philistines.
By 135 CE, the Romans were banning the Jews from Jerusalem except for one day each year. That day was called Tisha B’Av, which translates to the Ninth of Av. Av was the eleventh month of the Jewish calendar year. (Jews counted years differently than Christians did.) Today, Tisha B’Av is an annual Jewish feast day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jews. It is considered the saddest day of the Jewish year.
The Roman ban against Jews stayed in affect until the end of Roman rule, almost 300 years. As the Christians and Jews fled Jerusalem, the once magnificent city diminished to a small village with only some 10,000 residents. It became a Roman colony called Aelia Capitolina. However, the Jews did not give up. No matter where they lived, the tightly knit community prayed three times a day that Solomon’s Temple and Jerusalem would be restored to them. Every Jew wanted to be buried in Jerusalem so that when Judgment Day occurred and the Golden Gates of Heaven were opened to him or her, they would be close at hand.
Over the next hundred years, the emperor of the Eastern Romans continued to butcher Christians “with axe, roasting, and mutilation.” But a new dynasty of Romans evolved in Western Europe that would turn the tide for Christians. In 312 CE, Emperor Constantine planned an invasion of Italy to complete his campaign to conquer Western Europe. The night before his invasion, he had a revelation, “a night vision.” In the sky, he beheld the sign of a cross of light. In a dream, he was told, “By this sign you will conquer.” So, he ordered the sign emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers. The symbol was the combination of a cross and the first two letters of the Greek word Kristos, which look like our X and P. The overlayed letters became this symbol.
Christ in Greek is spelled “ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ”. The name of the letter “X” is “chi” and the name of “P” is “rho.” Hence this monogram is known as the Chi Rho.
When Constantine won the battle the next day, the Battle of Milvian Bridge, he determined that his success was due to the one Supreme Christian God.
The next year, in February 313 CE, Constantine and Emperor Licinius of the Eastern Romans, drafted a treaty called the Edict of Milan. It permanently granted toleration and privileges to Christians within the Roman Empire. The edict allowed all persons to worship whatever deity they wished and organize their own churches. It also provided that Christians be given back any property that had been confiscated from them.
In 324 CE Constantine defeated Licinius in battle. Once he had united the two empires, Constantine began banishing pegan rituals. He banned scarifies, sacred prostitution, religious orgies, and gladiatorial shows. He replaced them with activities such as chariot racing. He moved his capital from Rome to the Greek town of Byzantion on the Bosporus Strait and renamed it Constantinople. Control of the Bosporus Strait meant control of the gateway between Europe (with its ports on the Mediterranean Sea) and Asia (with its ports on the Black Sea.)
It was during this time that the structure of the Catholic church began to form into what it is today. A hierarchy of elders was known by the Greek word presbyteroi. From that word we have the name of today’s Presbyterian Church, which is run by a group of elders known as a synod [literally sun meet]. These elders were overseen by people higher on the hierarchy known as bishops. The Greek word episkopoi literally meant above looking, or overseer. From this word we get episcopal today. Episcopal churches are run by bishops. Later, during the Reformation in the 1500s, the Puritans and Pilgrims will object to this higher level of bishops.
As with any group of humans discussing their beliefs, Christian bishops had a hard time agreeing on just what their church stood for. A major disagreement centered around the question, “Was Jesus a man with divine characteristics or God inhabiting the body of a man.” In 325, bishops from both East and West met in the town of Nicea in present-day Turkey to discuss such matters. They came up with a statement meant to answer that question, “Jesus was divine and human.” They used the term “consubstantial – of one substance with the father.” Theologians are still arguing about this concept today.
Helena, the Byzantine Empress and First Tourist Guide
During the meeting at Nicea in 325, the bishop who represented Aelia Capitolina [Jerusalem] brought the forgotten city to Constantine’s attention. As part of his campaign to Christianize the world, Constantine decided to rebuild Christ’s city. He sent as his ambassador for the project his beloved mother, Helena, Empress of Byzantium.
Empress Helena had been an early convert to Christianity. She was enthusiastic about seeking out the places where the stories of the Gospels occured. As mentioned above, Roman Emperor Hadrian had built a temple to Jupiter over the Holy Sepulcher and a giant statue of Aphrodite on the Rock where Jesus was crucified. This remarkable woman would rectify the situation, at least temporarily.
Working like a true archaeologist, Empress Helena found resident Jews and Christians whose oral history and rare documents helped her uncover what was left of early Christian history. She demolished the pagan temples and set to work excavating the cave that had been Jesus’ original tomb. Somehow, she was able to obtain the three wooden crosses on which Jesus and the two criminals were crucified, along with the plaque that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.” Not only did she obtain the crosses, but she obtained the actual nails used to attach the bodies to the crosses. Legend states that in order to determine which of the three crosses had been used for Jesus, Empress Helena and the Bishop of Aelia Capitolina “bore the pieces of wood to the bedside of a dying woman. When the third cross was placed beside her, the invalid “suddenly opened her eyes, regained her strength, and sprang, well, from her bed.”
Helena sent part of the True Cross to Constantine along with the nails. The rest of the cross was kept in Jerusalem as a relic for Christians to visit and honor. These early visitors, known as pilgrims, often traveled long distances to places considered holy. The trips were called pilgrimages. From Helena’s time on, Jerusalem and the surrounding areas where Jesus lived and preached were referred to as the Holy Lands.
The image of the cross became the symbol or logo of Christianity. Relics of the True Cross became extremely valuable. Constantine had his relics set in the bridle of his horse like a good luck charm to watch over him during battle. Some naughty pilgrims stole pieces of relics from churches by pretending to kiss them, then biting off a tiny chunk. Pieces of the True Cross traveled back to Europe. As they were passed on to the next generations, they were divided into smaller and smaller fragments. [Remember this when we tell you the story about Henry the Navigator.]
Another important thing Helena did was organize the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle of today’s Old Jerusalem. The church, which afterward became the model for Christian churches throughout Europe, encompassed the two holiest sites in Christendom: the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified [Calvary in Latin and Golgotha in Greek] and the tomb where Jesus was buried and resurrected. Helena named her new church by the Greek name Church of the Anastasis, which meant Church of the Resurrection.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.(1)
Helena did not return to Constantinople until she was nearly eighty years old. She had created the most popular tourist attraction in the world, complete with a trademark - the cross.
The Byzantines under Emperor Constantine controlled Jerusalem. Unfortunately, they continued to ban Jews from the city except for the one day a year, Tisha B’Av. Any Jew caught “preventing a brethren from converting to Christianity” was “instantly burned.” Instead of recognizing that the Romans crucified Jesus, not the Jews, Constantine perpetuated the notion that Jews were the enemy. He banned intermarriage of Jews and Christians. He called Jews a “savage, abominable disgrace.”
Fortunately for the Jews, Constantine’s successor, his nephew Julian, turned that tide around, at least for a while. Julian welcomed Jews back into Jerusalem, restored the town to them, returned their property, and revoked anti-Jewish taxes. But he also restored paganism, worshiping the Sun God in particular. The Most High God, or Jewish Yahweh, became Zeus. In 363, after Julian ordered the Jewish Temple rebuilt, an earthquake ignited the building materials. Soon after, Julian was killed in battle. The rebuild was never completed. Julian’s successor, Theodosius I, turned the tide back in favor of the Christians again.
The power drama flopped back and forth between Jews and Christians for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, between 300 and 500 CE, tribes from today’s Germany, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia migrated south and west into Europe.
Attila the Hun
Between 434 and 453, warriors from the Hunnic Empire led by Attila the Hun terrorized Western Christians. The Hunnics were a confederation of Huns, Ostrogoths, Alans, and other tribes from Central and Eastern Europe. Attila’s Huns were unsuccessful against the Persians, but easily ravaged the Balkans. They overpowered all the Byzantine cities except one. Gigantic walls three layers thick surrounded Constantinople and the Huns were unable to penetrate them.
The Huns crossed the Rhine toward Roman Gaul [France] and reached as far as Orléans. In 451, Attila’s forces were defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in Chalon, but that didn’t stop them. They moved on to devastate northern Italy. Moving south, however, they were unable to take Rome before Attila died in 453. Without Attila, the Hunnic Empire collapsed.
The year after his death, in 454, his successor, Ardaric of the Gepids, led a coalition of northern Germanic tribes that had formerly been vassals of the Hunnics. Ardaric beat the Hunnics at the Battle of Nedao.
The fall of the Roman Empire during the 400s marks the end of the ancient civilized world and the beginning of the era known as the Middle Ages. Some people call the Middle Ages the Dark Ages. However, academia and art did not go dark, disappear, or not happen. They just changed flavors.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity grew into a force unto itself. It took different forms as it combined with local religions and superstitions. Societies were ruled by their religious leaders as well as their armies. The governments of church and state were essentially combined.
Without a centralized government, as they had had with the Romans, Western Europeans reverted to many separate and often independent kingdoms. The Latin language mixed with the northern and local languages to take on new forms that would, over the next thousand years, become French, Dutch [the word Dutch meant German and included German], Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Italian.
Church Divides in Two
You may be wondering why we are telling you all this. We are about to describe one of the major reasons the technology and theology of Western Europe lost touch and was cut off from the technology of the East.
In some respects, Christianity united the people of the former Roman Empire. The word catholic comes from the Latin word catholicus [katholikos in Greek], which meant universal, with respect for the whole, or all embracing. All Christians claimed to worship One Catholic God and remain faithful to One Apostolic and Catholic Church. But that unity did not last for long.
In spite of the meeting in Nicea, Christians in the west, who read and wrote in Latin, drifted away from Christians in the east, who read and wrote in Greek. Christians in the west were influenced by the people from northern Germanic tribes. Christians in the east were influenced by eastern religions; and they became estranged from the Pope in the Vatican in Rome.
By 476, the Roman Church had become two churches, the Western Roman Church and the Byzantine Church [aka Eastern Roman Church, Romanian Church or Orthodox Catholic Church]. The Western Church was headquartered in Rome. The Byzantine church headquartered in Constantinople. [Today, the Byzantine or Orthodox Catholic Church is the dominating religion of Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. But Constantinople is now a Muslim city called Istanbul.]
Besides communicating in different languages, the two churches felt differently about allegiance to a pope. [Pope is the Latin word for papa or father.] The Western Church honored one official apostolic succession. In other words, Jesus chose his apostle Peter to be the first Pope. When Pope Peter died, the disciples chose a man called Linus(2) to succeed him. When Linus died, the disciples or cardinals approved a new pope, and so on down the line to Pope Francis today. Each new one and only Pope was approved by the laying on of hands, an ancient Jewish way of conferring a blessing or authority.
The Byzantine Church did not follow that line of reasoning. They did not claim there was only one human representative of Jesus living on Earth. They chose one of their chief disciples, or bishops, to hold the supreme seat. But he was no more special than the other bishops. In the Byzantine Church, priests could marry, whereas Western Church priests vowed to stay celibate [have no sexual relations with women] and not marry.
By 600 CE, Christianity had spread to every corner of what was by then the fallen Roman Empire including Iberia and the British Isles. It did not reach as far northeast as Norway until about 900 CE.
The next mighty warrior to threaten the Christians, Jews, and Jerusalem was the Persian Shah, Khusrau II from today’s Afghanistan. Khusrau was Zoroastrian and married to a Nestorian Christian. The monotheistic Zoroastrianism religion was founded in ancient Persia [Iran] nearly 3500 years ago by the profit Zoroaster. It used to be one of the world’s most common religions. Today it is one of the world’s least common. The followers split into two groups: the Iranians and the Parsis. Like Christianity and Judaism, Zoroastrians believed in only one god and one creator.
Nestorians, such as Khusrau’s wife Shirim, belonged to a branch of Christians that evolved from the philosophy of Nestorius (386–450). Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428–431. He insisted that Jesus the Christ [aka the Holy Spirit] was a separate entity from Jesus the Human son of God. This belief differed with the doctrine of the Roman Church and the Byzantine Church. The Romans and Byzantines condemned the Nestorians as heretics in 431. As a result, the Nestorians merged with the Church of the East. We will talk more about the Nestorians when we reach the early 1400s. The Portuguese will seek out their help to fight the Muslims.
Let’s get back to Khusrau. This mighty Persian, wearing robes encrusted with gold and jewels, rode a black horse named Midnight. Gold trimmed Khusrau’s armor. Underground apartments housed his 3,000 concubines. In 602, he united with the Jews and stormed Jerusalem. His armies burned down the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and other Christian buildings after stealing the Christian relics [the True Cross and the nails]. By that time the relic collection had been added to. Christians had found the lance used by the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus while he hung from the cross. And they found the sponge that, soaked with vinegar or sour wine, was hung from the end of a stick and raised to Jesus’ mouth so he could drink from it.
Khusrau’s soldiers massacred thousands of Christians during three-days of pillaging. They marched 37,000 more Christians back to Persia with them, along with the relics. The relics were given to Queen Shirim, who in turn gave them to her church in Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon was an ancient Mesopotamian city that became the capital of the Parthian Empire and then the Sasanian Empire. Today, all that remains of it is the Ctesiphon arch.
Ctesiphon arch within the later-built palace.(3)
The Christians were forced to convert to Judaism or Zoroastrianism or die. During the next campaigns, Shah Khusrau conquered Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Asia Minor before he, too, was stopped at Constantinople. The walled city-island of Tyre also held out.
Then Shah Khusrau made a grave mistake. He became jealous of his chief general known as the Royal Boar and plotted his assassination. The Royal Boar intercepted a letter that revealed the Shah’s plans. He quickly sided with Heraclius of Constantinople. The two leaders outwitted the Persians and saved Constantinople. They also took over the Shah’s new territory and placed the Royal Boar in the driver’s seat. At the same time, Heraclius and his Turkish horsemen invaded Persia. His armies captured Shah Khusrau and tortured him to death. The Royal Boar ended up marrying Heraclius’ niece.
The Royal Boar expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and gave it back to the Christians. Then he seized the Persian throne. But shortly afterward, he was assassinated.
In 629, Heraclius, his wife and niece [the widow of the Royal Boar] set out from Constantinople for Jerusalem. They were transporting the True Cross and the other relics. In preparation for his arrival, Heraclius had a golden gate built for himself in Jerusalem. [Today, the exquisite gate, which was walled up during Medieval times, is considered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to be the mystical portal that the Messiah will pass through when he returns on the Day of Judgment.] Heraclius, dressed resplendently, arrived to the gate on March 21, 630. However, the gate mysteriously would not open. Only when Heraclius took off his fancy robes, so he did not appear to be replacing the Messiah, was he allowed to travel through the gate.
The Golden Gate of Jerusalem, 2009. Wikipedia Commons.(4)
Once inside, Heraclius returned the True Cross and other relics to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which he also rebuilt. Then he expelled, massacred, or forced into conversion every Jew found in Jerusalem. The Jews will not control the Temple again for 1,350 years.
In 636 CE, a new culture conquered Jerusalem, the People of Islam.
- “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher-Jerusalem,” attributed to http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlascar/10350972756/in/set-72157636698118263/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:
- Some religious scholars say that Clement was the second pope, not Linus.
- Image ©2015 Images of Ancient Iran: Sasanian Dynasty (224-651 CE) Ctesiphon (Ayvān-e Khosrow / Tāq-e Kasrā) url: http://www.cais-soas.com/CAIS/virtual_museum/sasanian/Sites/ctesiphon.htm.
- “Golden Gate Jerusalem 2009,” by Wilson44691-Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Golden_Gate_Jerusalem_2009.jpg
Next article: The Rise of Islam