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Christianity is grounded in a narrative of Roman oppression. Jesus Christ was, after all, executed by Roman soldiers on the orders of a Roman provincial governor, however reluctant a killer some of the gospels may describe Pontius Pilate to have been. The lore and legends of the centuries immediately after the crucifixion are filled with more sainted martyrs, the victims of real or alleged persecution by the Roman authorities.

In reality, however, serious, concerted oppression of the religion didn’t become a matter of presumably permanent empire-wide policy until Christianity had been around for some 270 years. “Christians were not always bullied, beaten, tortured, and executed,” writes Bart D. Ehrman. “Most of the time, in most places, they were simply left in peace.” While incidents of persecution — even incidents of massacre — certainly did occur, they were not the universal, everyday norm which Christian devotional texts might lead one to believe them to have been.

Still, we mustn’t let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction either: like the Jews before them, the Christians definitely did suffer the stigma of being different, of withdrawing into themselves rather than sharing in the worship practices of the communities around them, of considering themselves a chosen people, and thus seeming at least to imply that each of them was more individually worthy than the typical pagan. This was bound to cause trouble for them from time to time, whenever a handy scapegoat was needed.

The first Roman emperor to use them for this purpose was Nero. During his reign in AD 64, a sudden fire burned half of the city of Rome to the ground. As it was doing so, an unconcerned Nero was giving a music concert in one of his palaces outside the city’s walls. (This is the source of the phrase “to fiddle while Rome burns.”) Some people soon came to believe that Nero, a tremendous builder and urban planner, had set the fire himself in order to clear space for his projects. Faced with a highly displeased populace through which rumors like this one were running rampant, he blamed the conflagration on “the notoriously depraved Christians” of Rome, an accusation for which he provided no evidence and, indeed, not even any particular motive. No matter: the pogrom which followed all but wiped out the city’s nascent Christian community. Then, once the political crisis was passed, Nero turned his attention to other matters, and the Christians trickled back into Rome.

Nero thus set the pattern for pagan treatment of the early Christians: long periods of disinterest alternating with occasional spasms of violence. The latter came sometimes at the hands of the government, as in the case of Nero’s pogrom, but more often at the hands of murderous mobs that were out of everyone’s control. Whatever the claims of later Christian scribes, or for that matter the screenwriters of Hollywood’s golden age, there is no concrete evidence that large numbers of Christians were ever thrown to the lions by the authorities, whether in Rome’s Colosseum or anywhere else.

The pattern was no different in Alexandria, a city with a reputation for base mob violence to match its one for rarefied intellectual brilliance. The most famous of its legendary martyrs is none other than Saint Mark, that apocryphal founding father of Alexandrian Christianity.

Easter Sunday of AD 68 coincided with a feast day in honor of Serapis, Alexandria’s pagan patron deity; this fact alone created a measure of tension between the city’s pagans and its Christians. In addition, a widely believed if thoroughly improbable rumor had recently been spreading on the streets of Alexandria, saying the Christians planned to overthrow the traditional temple authorities and forcibly convert everyone to their faith. Thus a mob burst into the church where the Christians were holding their Easter service, seized Mark, and dragged the aged apostle through the city’s streets until he expired. But when his murderers tried to build a pyre to incinerate the body, a great thunderstorm blew up — an extremely unusual occurrence in Alexandria — and drenched the wood. Unnerved, the mob fled the scene, leaving Mark’s fellow Christians behind to discover that his body was once again pristine, completely unmarked by the abuse it had endured. So, they buried it reverently in the church in which he had last worshiped, which they now named the Church of Saint Mark.

As I noted in an earlier chapter, Saint Mark’s existence in Alexandria, much less his martyrdom there, are by no means proven historical facts. It is clear, however, that random, intermittent acts of violence like the one just described were a fact of life for the city’s Christians for many years after AD 68.

Yet the first wave of official, institutionalized Christian oppression in Alexandria appears not to have struck until about AD 200, when all of the city’s Christians may have been ordered to either give up their faith or face execution. Christian historians later attributed this ultimatum to an edict issued by Emperor Septimius Severus, but this is by no means certain, as other evidence points to Severus being tolerant of or even friendly toward Christianity. It seems at least as likely that the effort was a brainstorm of the local provincial government of Egypt, and that it was abandoned within a year or two thanks to a rescinding edict from the imperial throne. Regardless, it left a profound mark on Alexandria’s Christian community during what was already a time of great theological ferment within its ranks: Clement was forced to flee the city for a period of time, while a young Origen saw his father beheaded for refusing to renounce his faith.

All of these scattered incidents were ironically more healthy than otherwise for Christianity; religious fervor feeds on few things as well as the blood of martyrs. The often latent but always palpable threat from outside forces spurred the Christians of Alexandria and elsewhere to organize, to turn a set of beliefs into a set of practices for governing themselves inside a broader society that moved on a spectrum between indifference and hostility. We know that most of the things that would come to be associated with the institution of Christianity — the Sunday service and Eucharist; the priest, deacon, bishop, and pope; the church and the cathedral; the ultimate punishment of excommunication from the faith — sprang up one after another during the religion’s first three centuries, although we know frustratingly few of the details of how those things came to be, in Alexandria or elsewhere.

It does appear, however, that the ascetic traditions of the monk and the monastery,  the nun and the nunnery, were born in or near Alexandria. According to Christian lore, it was a young Egyptian man named Antony who first chose to take literally the words of Jesus reported in the Gospel of Matthew: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” At the time of his revelation, Antony was a wealthy young man of about twenty years, who had just lost both of his parents; his sister was the only family he had left. So, he sold all of the family holdings, deposited his sister with a group of other female virgins who agreed to lived strictly in and for Jesus Christ, and wandered into the desert, where he eventually founded a community of fellow ascetics. Thus he became Saint Antony, the “Father of Monasticism.” Monasteries and to a lesser extent nunneries became staples of Christianity thereafter. By the middle of the third century AD, those located in Egypt alone numbered in the hundreds, even as the practice also spread well beyond the land’s borders.

By that same point in time, the Roman Empire was beginning to show its age. The murderous intrigues taking place constantly in the capital resembled those that had once been such a staple of life in Ptolemaic Alexandria; some 60 different men laid claim to the throne in Rome over the course of 50 years. Sensing the rot at the center of the empire, provinces in both its west and east rebelled, and the so-called “barbarians” to the north raided farther and farther into Roman territory with impunity, approaching alarmingly close to the capital itself at times. The largest empire the world had ever known was on the verge of coming apart at the seams. Even Alexandria was briefly overrun in around AD 270 by the army of an uppity eastern city-state called Palmyra.

At last, in AD 284, an unusually strong-willed character named Diocletian gained the throne. Just two years later, in a move that epitomized his willingness to break with tradition wherever necessary in the name of restoring a measure of order, he moved his official administrative capital from the viper’s nest of intrigue that Rome had become to the smaller, more manageable northern Italian city of Mediolanum (modern-day Milan).

In AD 297, the latest would-be imperial usurper, whose name was Domitius Domitianus, seized control of Alexandria, forcing Diocletian to personally besiege the city for six months before he managed to dispatch him. Legend has it that Diocletian was so furious with those Alexandrians who had aided and abetted his enemy that he swore to his officers that, just as soon as he passed inside the city’s walls, he would proceed to slaughter the population indiscriminately until his victims’ blood reached the level of his horse’s knees. But as he crossed the threshold, his horse stumbled to its knees, meaning the level in question was in fact no level at all. Taking this as a sign from the gods, he chose to show mercy. A grateful Alexandria then placed a statue of the emperor on horseback beside the Serapeum, atop a pillar 88 feet (26.85 meters) high. The statue is long gone, but the pillar — colloquially known as “Pompey’s Pillar” — is the one structure from ancient Alexandria which has stood intact in its original location from its construction until the present day.

This pillar erected in Alexandria circa AD 300 to support a statue of Diocletian is popularly known even today as Pompey’s Pillar. The confusion arises from a fifteenth-century misreading of the badly weathered inscription on its base, which placed it 350 years earlier in time than its actual origin. (Daniel Mayer)

But unfortunately for the Christians in Alexandria and elsewhere, Diocletian saw their ever-growing numbers — there may have been as many as 3 million active believers by this point, constituting between 5 and 10 percent of the empire’s total population — as a threat to the stability he had been fighting so hard to restore. We don’t know precisely why he saw them that way. In line with Jesus’s exhortation to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” the Christians had never fomented serious insurrection against Roman rule; likewise, the emperors prior to Diocletian had rarely seen much profit in trying to dictate to their subjects which gods they should worship. Diocletian’s shift to a concerted, empire-wide oppression of Christianity was thus a marked shift from the previous norm.

Whatever the reasoning behind his antipathy toward the religion, on February 24, AD 303, Diocletian sent down an edict declaring Christianity illegal. All over the empire, Christian churches were to be torn down, Christian texts burned; Christian civil servants were to be fired from their jobs, Christian freedmen to be enslaved once again. Subsequent edicts ordered all Christian clergy arrested, then demanded that all Roman subjects, with the exception only of the Jews, participate in pagan religious ceremonies on pain of imprisonment. Although enforcement across such a large and diverse empire was probably inconsistent at best, this period would go down in Christian history as the Great Persecution.

A Christian writer named Eusebius later claimed to have personally witnessed the mass martyrdom of Egypt’s faithful. His account illustrates among other things just how fetishistic the idea of martyrdom had become for Christianity by this point, a state of affairs which makes it even more difficult to determine how bloody the Roman oppression of the religion really was.

We were there and observed many executions, some by beheading, others by burning, so many that the execution axe became blunt, worn out, and broke into pieces; the executioners became so exhausted that they had to work in shifts. Yet we always observed a most wonderful zeal, and a truly divine power and eagerness in those who believed in the Christ of God. As soon as the first group was sentenced, others rushed to the tribunal and proclaimed themselves Christians, heedless of the horror and various kinds of torture, speaking boldly and with composure about their religion and the God of the universe. They received their death sentences with joy, laughter, and gladness, singing hymns of thanksgiving to the God of the universe until their last breath.

However brutal his methods, Diocletian wasn’t just another self-interested despot; he was, whatever else he may have been, a genuine Roman patriot. He proved this first of all by voluntarily stepping down from his throne in AD 305, then proved it again through the system of imperial power sharing which he attempted to leave as his legacy. The empire was to be governed henceforward by a Tetrarchy: a “Rule of Four.” Two senior emperors, known as Augusti, would each be responsible for half of the realm, administrating either its western or its eastern reaches. Each Augustus would choose a junior emperor, known as a Caesar, to be his deputy and eventual successor. There would be just one restriction on his choice of a Caesar: he could not choose one of his own relations. Thus the imperial thrones would, theoretically at least, be freed from the tyranny of bloodlines, would instead become true meritocracies.

It looked like a reasonable compromise on paper. But alas, in the real world of Roman egomania, such a council of proud autocrats could only lead to civil war among its members. This it did in AD 306, just one year after Diocletian’s voluntary abdication, and even as the Great Persecution — another of the legacies he left behind — was still going on.

Both were still ongoing yet six years later, when one of the two most important principals in the civil war, an accomplished general named Constantine, swept down from the north toward Rome — for Rome was still the real first city of the empire, despite Diocletian’s move of the official capital to Mediolanum, and it was then in the hands of his arch-rival Maxentius. Standing on the northern shore of the Tiber River, facing an enemy army that outnumbered his by two to one, Constantine cast about in his mind for a god to whom to appeal for aid. He hit upon, of all possibilities, the strange monotheistic deity of the Christians, the persecution of whom he had never really agreed with. Trusting his instinct, he began to pray. And then there came a vision, as described 30 years later by his hagiographer Eusebius:

About the time of the midday sun, he saw with his own eyes, up in the sky and resting over the sun, a cross-shaped trophy formed from light, and a text attached to it that said, “By this conquer.” He and the whole company of soldiers that was then accompanying him witnessed the miracle and were gripped by amazement.

That night, Jesus Christ came to him in a dream, telling him that, if he ordered his men to make a copy of the cross he had seen and carried it into the battle to come, he would be invincible. He did so, and Jesus proved as good as his word: in spite of his numerical disadvantage, Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, killing Maxentius in the process. Then he marched on to take Rome and assume the newly minted role of a Christian emperor by very publicly refusing to thank the traditional gods for his victory via a ceremony of sacrifice.

The Milvian Bridge as it looks today. Although it has been modified and renovated over the years, it is at bottom the same structure that Constantine and Maxentius fought over. As such, it bore witness to one of the most important events in the history of the world: the moment when the Roman Empire became Christian in spirit if not yet by law. (Anthony Majanlahti)

Such is, at any rate, the Christian narrative of Constantine’s conversion. Modern secular historians have good cause to be skeptical of all of its details, up to and including the literal existence of a giant cross hanging in the air before Constantine and his legions; some suspect that his actual conversion occurred as long as two years before the final battle for Rome. In the end, though, such details aren’t overly important in the long arc of history. The salient point is that, by the end of AD 312, a Christian monarch reigned supreme in the imperial capital. Needless to say, the Great Persecution ended immediately. Christianity had completed its long, unlikely journey from an obscure cult of illiterates and vagabonds to the very seat of power in the classical world.

While Christianity did not become the mandated religion of the Roman Empire at this time, it was the one strongly favored by the most powerful man in said empire, and this alone changed its relationship with the world around it overnight. Thanks to the imperial sanction, it was now easier than ever for Christians to organize and communicate with one another, even over long distances. Christians everywhere looked more and more to Rome for their guidance — both to the religious leaders there and to Constantine himself, their greatest patron of all, who actively concerned himself with the many unresolved questions that persisted within the faith.

Although there is no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of his conversion, it’s also clear that Constantine saw a practical advantage to Christianity: like countless rulers who would follow him, he saw it as a means of uniting his realm after a period of chaos. But in order to serve that purpose, Christianity itself needed to present a common front to the world. It was thus at this time that an active effort began to stipulate all of the details of what would be considered the one true version of the faith, the one that would hold sway empire-wide. Most of all, Christianity needed a definitive Christology, one that everyone who wished to call himself a Christian would be compelled to accept.

That Christology was obviously not to be the ecstatic, otherworldly mysticism of the Gnostics; Christianity was now wedded to a worldly power and needed more than ever to evince populist appeal. The loudest voices in Christian theology were by now all in agreement that Jesus had been a divine being who had come down to earth in physical form as the product of a virgin birth, and who had been physically resurrected after his apparent death on the cross before rejoining his heavenly father 40 days later. The arguments that were still ongoing might well strike modern non-believers and believers alike as dismayingly picayune — as thoroughly unimportant in relation to Christianity’s broader message of love and salvation. But one of the many oddities of human nature is that debates of all types often become more rather than less heated when the degree of difference between the two sides shrinks. Such was the case here.

The most clamorous Christological dispute of the century sprang from the fertile soil of Alexandrian theology. We know little about the personal life of the chief instigator of the conflict, a man named Arius, except that he was born in Libya, migrated to Alexandria, and became noted there both for his extreme level of devotion to his religion and his willingness to challenge its foremost authorities when he believed their theological principles to be in error. He made such a gadfly of himself that he may have been excommunicated from the Alexandrian faith at least once, only to do penance and be reinstated.

In AD 318, Arius was 62 years old and serving as the head priest of a church in Alexandria. It was at this point that a momentous exchange took place between him and the current pope of Alexandria’s Christians, a man himself named Alexander. (It should perhaps be noted that the term “pope” was not reserved for the archbishop of Rome by the Catholic Church until Christianity was 1000 years old. During the religion’s first millennium, it was commonly used, especially in the east, for the leader of the Christian community in any given region .)

The subject at hand was the precise relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. Alexander hewed to what we recognize today as the orthodox view: that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, and that he and his father were simultaneously two separate beings and one and the same being; such paradoxes were made possible by the ineffable nature of divinity. But most importantly in the context of the argument to come, Alexander said that the pair had always existed and always would. The Son was, after all, the Father’s logos — his Word, his Wisdom. “If the Son came into being there was [a time] when these attributes were not,”Alexander said, quoting one of his theological predecessors, one Dionysius of Rome. “Therefore there was a time when God was without them, which is most absurd.”

But then Arius piped up with a counterargument. Christians were told, he said, that Jesus Christ was the Son, God the Father. Should they not take these words literally? “If,” he said, “the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence, and from this it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not.” Rather than a co-equal of God, Arius saw Jesus as a divine being to be sure, but younger than his father and subservient to him. Alexander was livid at hearing one of his own priests spout such nonsense, but Arius refused to budge. “Thus from a little spark a large fire was kindled,” as one wry ancient historian later put it. Alexander excommunicated Arius once again for “denying the divinity of our Savior and proclaiming that he is equal to all humans” — which was not really what he had claimed at all, of course.

Incensed by misrepresentations like these, a substantial portion of Alexander’s clergy came out in favor of Arius, fracturing the city’s Christian community right down the middle. Meanwhile Arius himself wrote a rabble-rousing little book, stating his point of view in simple words that were understandable by ordinary people. It circulated widely among Alexandria’s Christians, the literate often reading it aloud to the illiterate. The tireless Arius then began traveling to other cities all over the Roman Empire, passing out his book and preaching what was now becoming known as the doctrine of Arianism. As tensions escalated, street fights broke out in Alexandria and elsewhere, Christians killing other Christians in the name of the eternality or lack thereof of their mutual savior.

Constantine looked on all of this with increasing concern. His opinion of the debate was ironically similar to the one so many of us tend to hold today. He was by all indications a sincere believer in Christianity, but he wasn’t a theologian, and wasn’t overly invested in what struck him as pedantic details like these. “I considered the origin and occasion for these things as extremely trivial and quite unworthy of so much controversy,” he later wrote in a letter. Yet he most definitely didn’t want the religion which he saw as a unifying force for his empire to fracture over this or any other issue. “My first concern was that the attitude toward the Divinity of all the provinces should be united in one consistent view,” he wrote. He didn’t particularly care which point of view won out; he just wanted everyone to agree on something. The way things were going, it looked like only a matter of time before the Arians started electing their own popes and setting up a parallel religion that would be at war with its counterpart in Christ. And that would be disastrous to all his hopes and plans.

So, Constantine decided to resolve the issue once and for all: he would bring everyone together around a (metaphorical) conference table and instruct them not to leave until they had ironed out their differences. The emperor himself presided over this pivotal event in Christian history, which occurred in June of AD 325 in the Asian Minor city of Nicea (known today as İznik, Turkey). In all, 318 people attended, their numbers fairly evenly split between the views of Alexander and Arius, both of whom were naturally also present to argue their cases.

We know almost none of the details of the proceedings at this First Council of Nicea, but we can dare a few conjectures. Having as chairman the sitting Roman emperor must have been intimidating to say the least. Both sides must have been speaking most of all to him, knowing that the side he chose to back would be all but certain to win the day. And this is exactly how the council played out. What had been an evenly split assemblage broke overwhelmingly for Alexander as soon as Constantine declared his preference for the latter’s doctrine. The first ballot was 298 to 20 in favor of Alexander’s Christology; the second was 315 to 3. Only Arius himself and two others could not be persuaded to change their votes.

The most important outcome of the Council of Nicea was the Nicene Creed, which provided Christianity at long last with a single explicitly stated Christology. Going forward, the attendees pledged, any other point of view would be considered the blackest heresy. Arius’s two fellow dissenters were made the first examples, being excommunicated right there at the council for their intransigence. (Arius himself had of course already suffered that fate.)

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

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who because of us humans and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

But for those who say, “There was when he was not,” and, “Before being born he was not,” and that, “He came into existence out of nothing,” or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance or is subject to alteration and change — these the Catholic and Apostolic church anathematizes.

It would be more convenient for storytellers like your humble author here if the Nicene Creed truly marked the end of Arianism, but this was not in fact the case. Once removed from the august presence of Constantine, many of those who had attended at Nicea reconsidered their disavowal of Arianism. Even Constantine himself began to show doubts in the course of time. By some accounts, he was on the verge of ordering the reinstatement of Arius to the church in AD 336, but the latter saved him the trouble by dying at the ripe old age of 80 years. As late as AD 379, the orthodox theologian Jerome could write in near-despair that “the world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” A definitive breakthrough didn’t come until two years after that, when a Council of Constantinople reiterated the Council of Nicea’s condemnation of Arianism, and this time had somewhat better luck making it stick.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of the Council of Nicea, not only for the dogma it defined but for what it said about Christianity as an institution. Consider again the last words of the Nicene Creed: “these the Catholic and Apostolic church anathematizes.” Our word “catholic” comes from the Greek katholikos, meaning “general,” “whole”, or “universal.” Its use by the Council of Nicea reflects the desire for a single Christian orthodoxy. And that desire in turn  holds within it the seed of the institution we know today as the Catholic Church. The time when Christianity had space for mystics and free thinkers like the Gnostics was quickly passing.

Having come this far, Christianity lacked only a book to tie it all together in blissful homogeneity. It needed a single canon of writings that were officially blessed as those directly inspired by and approved by God, a Christian equivalent — or rather addendum — to the Hebrew Bible. As should surprise no reader by this point, it was Alexandria that provided this final piece of the puzzle.

Pope Alexander’s hand-picked prodigy was a brilliant young priest named Athanasius. While still in his mid-twenties, he had attended the Council of Nicea along with his patron, and had in fact been entrusted to carry much of the argument against Arianism. When Alexander died within three years after the council, Athanasius took his position. Over the course of the following half-century, he continued the battle against Arianism, with almost as many defeats as victories. He was forced to flee Alexandria, still the world’s biggest hotbed of Arian sentiment, on no fewer than five separate occasions, but always found a way to return to his post. Whatever one thought of his doctrine, one couldn’t help but be impressed by his sheer doggedness. His contemporaries referred to him as Athanasius contra mundum: “Athanasius Against the World.”

But it was in a time of comparative calm that he made the most lasting of all his contributions to the institution of Christianity, in the form of what’s known today as his 39th Festal Letter. The year was AD 367, and the letter’s main purpose was a bit of fairly prosaic administrative business: informing the other Egyptian bishops of what he had planned for that year’s Easter celebrations. But almost as a side note, Athanasius also told his bishops that he had decided on a canon of Christian writings that could be considered divinely inspired supplements to the Hebrew Bible. “In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed,” he wrote. “Let no one add to these; let nothing be taken away from them.”

The works he listed correspond exactly to the 27 texts that have come to comprise the Christian New Testament as we know it today. There were the four gospels of Jesus’s life and death, selected from what may have been a dozen or more floating around for their relative amenability to Athanasius’s Christology of a Jesus who was both one with and separate from God, who was co-equal to him, who was both fully human and full divine, and who was resurrected in the flesh, not just in the spirit; there was the Acts of the Apostles, telling of events immediately after the crucifixion, especially the missionary work of Paul; there were 21 epistles from Paul and other founding fathers, clarifying and exhorting the new religion in equal measure; and there was the Revelation, a wild apocalyptic fever dream of a book of prophecy believed to have been written by the same John who had provided one of the gospels. Athanasius’s reputation was such that his selection of texts soon became the standard holy book for orthodox Christianity, and was formally consecrated as such at the Third Synod of Carthage in AD 397. We’ve already seen how the Jews, that first People of the Book, assembled theirs in Alexandria. How extraordinary to think that the second People of the Book laid claim to that name in the very same place.

Given that Christianity sprang from Judaism, we might well ask why it took the Christians so long to follow the Jews’ example. Any answer must consider first and foremost the sheer sense of urgency that clung to early Christianity. Expectations of an imminent apocalypse didn’t disappear when the one Jesus had actually preached failed to materialize before his death. The first people to convert thereafter continued to take his words from the Gospel of Mark at face value: “Truly I tell you, some of you standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” They expected the world as they knew it to end and for the souls of the living and the dead to be judged literally any day now. Fussing over books at a time like this was akin to painting a house that was already on fire. It was only later, with the generations passing and the apocalypse still failing to materialize, that Christians realized they were in for a longer haul than any of them had expected, and decided that they might as well take a book with them. Tellingly, the texts that make up the New Testament were already quite old at the time Athanasius put them together; none of them are believed to have been written after AD 120 at the latest.

The assembling of the New Testament is thus another sign of a religion that was becoming a potent worldly as well as spiritual force — a religion that was, one might say, systematizing itself, developing layers of bureaucracy and hierarchies of power that sometimes had little obviously to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ. The new catholic Christianity stood on the verge of domination — not only religious domination, but political and intellectual domination as well. And that couldn’t fail to have enormous implications for Alexandria, the classical world’s longstanding city of the intellect, as the epoch of history which we now call antiquity passed into its final stages.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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3 Comments for "Chapter 17: One Religion, One Dogma, One Book"

  • Brian Quirt

    A couple of notes.

    First, one of the forces behind martyrdom was the (at least somewhat widespread) belief that, while Christians as a whole would only be resurrected at the end of the world, martyrs would go directly and immediately to heaven when they died.

    Second, it is perhaps a useful illustration of the effect of worldly power that the time interval between the last person documented as being executed by the pagan Roman state for being Christian, and the first person executed by the christian Roman state for being the wrong kind of christian was less than a century.

    Reply
  • Will Moczarski

    Bart. D. Ehrman
    -> Bart D. Ehrman

    the executioners became so exhausted they they had to work
    -> exhausted they had

    Reply
    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks!

      Reply

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