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Christianity:  the 300's

Overview: What happened in this century?

Timeline

early 300's Sinaiticus, one of the oldest complete copies of the New Testament that has been discovered, dates from the 300s.
  • The Sinaiticus almost became part of a fire to heat a stove. Find out the fascinating story here.
303 The Emperor Diocletian began a persecution of the Christians, who were quite numerous by this time. He ordered that all churches be burned (this could have included house churches, which could have meant that people's homes were destroyed) and all Christian Scriptures be burned. Eusebius (b. 260 and therefore an eyewitness) wrote "We saw with our very eyes . . . the inspired and sacred scriptures committed to the flames in the marketplaces." (Eusebius, Church History, 8.2.1)
304 Pope Marcellinus died. Due to the Diocletian persecution and the havoc it caused, no one would ascend to the papacy until 308.
306 The earliest known record which enforces celibacy of clergy dates from the Council of Elvira (Spain) held around this year. The clergy were assumed to be married but were commanded "to abstain completely from their wives and not have children." (see Canon 33 here.)
309 Marcellus I died and Eusebius of Cassano became Pope; four months later he died and no one ascended to the papacy until 311.
311 The Emperor Galerius issued an Edict of Toleration toward the Christians as he lay dying. Apparently he was so afraid of dying that he included this request: “In return for our tolerance, Christians will be required to pray to their god for us.” He died five days later.
313 The Edict of Milan is signed by co-emperors Constantine and Licinius and ends persecutions of Christians. It states in part, “We, therefore, announce that, notwithstanding any provisions concerning the Christians in our former instructions, all who choose that religion are to be permitted to continue therein, without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested.” In 380, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
  • More details: To read a short history of Christian persecutions, go here.
314 The Synod of Arles was commissioned by Constantine to respond to the Donatist schism. This schism resulted over the question of how to respond to priests who broke under persecution. To learn more about the Donatist schism and its result, go here.
315 Forty Christian soldiers are martyred by being placed on a frozen lake. Read how thirty-nine of the martyrs convinced one soldier to join them; go here.
320 Pachomius established the first monastery in the Egyptian desert. This type of monasticism is known as cenobitic (or coebobitic) monasticism. Pachomius wrote a set of rules to guide the monks at his monasteries, known as a Rule.
  • More details: To read his rule, go here.
  • More details: To learn more about Pachomius, how he had to restart his monastery, and why it was more successful the second time, click here.

The Big Picture: Creation of Monasticism
The Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches all have monks and nuns, which began with the Egyptian desert monks and, to a lesser degree, Syria. The answer to the question of why people began to withdraw into the desert cannot be fully satisfied. Part of the reason includes a discontent with Christian as it became more widely accepted and mainstream, the availability of a large space (the desert) which could be readily accessed and where one could be isolated (unlike in southern Europe), and a desire to fully surrender to God in an age when persecutions had ended (you could no longer be put to death for being a Christian after but you could die to yourself in the form of being a monk or nun). The two monks given credit for initiating the two types of monasticism, solitary or eremitic and communal or cenobitic, are Antony (see the year 285; eremitic) and Pachomius (see the year 320; cenobitic).
  • These groups of monks left a number of sayings behind; go here: one, two, three.
324 Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
325 The Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea (or Nicea), which is known as the First Ecumenical Council; this refers to the fact that it called all Christian leaders to gather together for the first time. This was the first of the twenty-one major Church Councils. Councils or meetings had been held before between several or a number of leaders, but this was the first one to include all Christian leaders. Around 300 Christian leaders attended from near and far; one "John of Persia" signed his name and wrote that he was head of all churches in Persia and India. The main issue dealt with in the Council was a debate initiated by Arius, who denied the divinity of Jesus. Arius believed that Jesus was created by God and was therefore not eternal nor divine on the same level as the Father. The debate was reduced to a choice of words: should the word “homoousios” (of the same nature) or “homoiousios” (of the similar or like nature; preferred by the Arians) be used to describe Christ; the former was chosen. The Nicene Creed developed within the Council to defeat Arius' thought. Arius, who attended, refused to sign the Creed. To read the Creed, including the portion which ostracized the Arians, go here. The Creed would be enlarged at the Council of Constantinople in 381. See that year to read the Creed. One of the decisions at the Council was the dating of Easter. To read more, go here.
c.325 Constantine ordered that 50 copies of the Christian Scriptures be made (although the New Testament was not "closed" yet). One copy out of those 50 might have been discovered; it is known as the Sinaiticus.
  • More details: The Sinaiticus almost became part of a fire to heat a stove. Find out the fascinating story here.
326 Helena, the mother of Constantine, visited the Holy Land. She had basilicas b uilt on the Mount of Olives and in Bethlehem. The basilica in Bethlehem was destroyed in 529 and rebuilt in 565 and is today known as the Church of the Nativity. Some believe the birthplace of Jesus is located inside it. She also supposedly brought back to Rome the 28 steps in Herod's palace which Jesus walked up to be put on trial. These steps are known as the "Scala Sancta," which is Italian for "Holy Stairs." Today many people kneel and pray at each of the steps.
330 By this year, Constantine had rebuilt the city of Byzantium and changed its name to Constantinople.

The Big Picture: The Significance for Christianity (even today) of Constantine's Move
Diocletian (emperor to 305 and died in 313) realized that the Roman Empire was too large for one person to control and so divided the Empire between the rule of two emperors; one controlled the western part of the Empire and one the eastern part. Constantine felt he was strong enough to rule the entire empire yet moved his capital eastward from Rome to Constantinople; this may have reflected growing concern for the stability of the eastern front of the Empire. The Empire vacillated between rule by one emperor and two until 394, when Theodosius became the last sole emperor of the entire Empire. Upon his death, the Empire was divided between Theodosius' two sons. This divide in the Empire reflected differences between the two halves of the Empire which existed well before 394. Eventually these differences would help result in Christianity splitting into western and eastern Christianity: Catholicism in the West and centered in Rome and Orthodoxy in the East and centered in Constantinople.
337 Constantine outlawed crucifixion.
337 Constantine died; he was baptized just prior to his death.
The Big Picture: Effect of Constantine on Christianity
With Constantine, Christianity saw its first imperial protector. Because of this, Christianity itself changed in style. Christians were no longer persecuted during his reign. More people became Christian, more resources were spent on building churches, Christians--no longer fearing for their lives--spent their effort in developing Christian thought and understanding through education and writing, and the church services themselves developed more elaborate ceremonies, such as clerical dress (vestments) during the service, incense, processionals before and after the worship service, and choirs.
337-350 Rule of the Roman Empire fell to Constantine's three sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantinus II. The different parts of the Roman empire vacillated between Arian and Nicene belief.
340 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, died. He is considered the father of Church History. He wrote the first comprehensive church history work, entitled Ecclesiastical History (Church History), completing the final Book X in 323.
340 Paul of Thebes, the first known monk, died.
346 Pachomius, who established the first monastery and the first Rule (rules for running a monastery), died. To learn how his first attempt at creating a monastery failed and what he did to restart the operation, go to the year 320. At his death he ruled over eleven monasteries: nine for men and two for women.
350 Constantinus II became sole emperor of the Roman Empire. He was Arian; for an explanation, see the year 325. He ruled until 361. During his reign, Arian thought spread throughout Christianity. Jerome wrote, "the entire world woke from a deep slumber and discovered that it had become Arian."

The Big Picture: Arianism after the Council of Nicaea
Two ideas that confused people in the first 350 years of Christianity were the ideas of the Incarnation (God becoming human), and the Trinity (one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Many of the early heresies taught different versions of the identity of Jesus. The cause of this lengthy confusion was the inability to accept the idea that Jesus was God. Arius believed that Jesus, being called the "Son," was created at some point in the past by the Father. This idea appealed to many people as well, such that after the Council of Nicaea the Arian view only grew in popularity. A number of church leaders wrote against Arianism after this Council, including Anthanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus (these three are known as the Great Cappadocians), and Ambrose. A second Council, the Council of Constantinople in 381, also attempted to end Arianism, but the heresy remained alive for several hundred years.
354 Augustine is born.
356 Antony, the most popular of the desert monks, died. He popularized eremitic monasticism (living alone).
360 Martin of Tours and Hilary of Poitiers founded the first monastery in Gaul (present-day France).
362 Julius (who had become emperor the year before) was not a Christian and reopened the pagan temples. He did not persecuted Christians, though.
363 Julius died. Jovian became emperor and restored Christianity to its place of prominence in the Roman Empire. He died in the following year. All emperors after Jovian were Christian.
364 Basil the Great issued his Rule, which is the basis of Eastern monasticism. Benedict of Nursia will issue his Rule, which will be the basis for Western monasticism, in the early sixth century.
367 Development of the Canon: Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote a letter that included a listing of the 27 books he believed should be included in the new Christian scripture. This is the first known listing of the New Testament books. To read the portion of the letter which addresses the 27 books of the New Testament, go here. To read about the development of the Canon, Creed, and Clergy, go to The Big Picture after the year 117.
380 The Emperor Theodosius I decreed that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. To read the proclamation, go here. Inherent in this declaration was the concept of the Trinity, therefore a rejection of Arianism. It is noteworthy that Theodosius did not gain control over the entire Empire until 394, when he defeated the Western Emperor Eugenius.
381 Emperor Theodosius I convened the Council of Constantinople, the second Ecumenical Council. This was the second of the twenty-one major Church Councils. This Council was called to refute the ideas of Arius and Apollinarius. The latter believed that, while humans have a physical body, soul, and spirit, Christ only had a physical body and soul. The spirit which humans have was in Christ the "Divine Logos." The Council developed a creed in response to this heresy. Read the Creed here. Today this Creed is (usually) known as the Nicene Creed. In addition, Constantinople was given "honorary precedence" over all churches except for the Roman church.
382 Theodosius I entered into a peace contract with the Visigoths. Twenty-eight years later they would defeat and sack Rome.
393 The Synod of Hippo approved the 27 books of the New Testament.
390 Bishop Ambrose forced Theodosius I to publicly repent on his knees because of a massacre which the emperor caused. This is the first time an emperor was forced to subject to a church leader. To learn more about the massacre and repentance, click here.
395 Theodosius I died. The Roman Empire split into eastern and western parts and have never rejoined.
397 The Council of Carthage approved the 27 books of the New Testament.

The Big Picture: Canon, Creed, and Clergy Established: The Church Institutionalized
By the end of the Fourth Century, Christianity had a Canon (Scripture of Old and New Testaments), Creed (Nicene) and Clergy (priests, bishops, and "bishop of bishops" which we call the Pope). This completed the institutionalization of Christianity, that process where Christianity developed its own writing (canon), its declaration (creed) and its leaders (clergy). In addition, Christianity was the official religion throughout the Roman Empire. In 395, prior to Theodosius dying, Christianity as a movement was on the rise with few impediments. But fifteen years later Rome would be sacked and the beginning of the Dark Ages would begin.
Late 300s John Chrysostom was Bishop in Constantinople. He is known as one of the greatest preachers in Christianity. Find out why he was nicknamed "Golden Mouth" here.
Late 300s The idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary dates from at least this period. This is known because Jerome wrote against a theologian named Helvidius who did not believe that Mary remained a virgin.

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