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Master of Liesborn, The Annunciation (probably 1470-80)


see also:



The Bible illustrations by

Julius von Carolsfeld "Das Buch der Bucher in Bildeb"

Gustave Dore

William Blak
e "The Book of Job"







The Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci


Simone Martini, 1313-1342


Hans Memling


Matthias Grunewald, 1512-1516


Jean Bellegambe





The history of

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Part III


The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The internal development of the early Christian Church » The problem of scriptural authority
After the initial problems regarding the continuity and authority of the hierarchy, the greatest guarantee of true continuity and authenticity was found in the Scriptures. Christians inherited (without debate at first) the Hebrew Bible as the Word of God to the people of God at a now superseded stage of their pilgrimage through history. If St. Paul’s Gentile mission was valid, then the Old Testament Law was viewed as no longer God’s final word to his people. Thus, the Hebrew Bible began to be called the “old” covenant. There was some hesitation in the church about the exact books included. The Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint) included books (such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and others) that were not accepted in the Hebrew canon. Most, but not all, Gentile Christian communities accepted the Septuagintal canon. The 3rd-century Alexandrian theologian Origen and especially the Latin biblical scholar Jerome (4th–5th century) believed it imprudent to base theological affirmations on books enjoying less than universal recognition. The fact that in many English Bibles the parts of the Old Testament accepted in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew canon are often printed separately under the (misleading) title Apocrypha is a tribute to these ancient hesitations.

The growth of the New Testament is more complex and controversial. The earliest Christians used oral tradition to pass on the story of Jesus’ acts and words, often told in the context of preaching and teaching. As the first generation passed away, however, the need for a more permanent and lasting tradition of the life of Jesus became apparent. Mark first conceived the plan of composing a connected narrative, probably in the decade before—or at some time near—ad 70, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. The Gospels that traditionally were thought to have been written by Matthew and Luke borrowed from Mark and were compiled in the generation after his Gospel. Toward the end of the first century, and reflecting the persecutions of the emperor Domitian, The Gospel According to John was written. Nevertheless, even after the Gospels were in common circulation, oral tradition was still current; it may even have been preferred. The Gospels themselves, which were probably intended for pastoral uses, did not immediately assume the status of scripture. Well into the 3rd century, new gospels were being compiled, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas, which were not incorporated into the canonical New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels seem to have been used by the Apologist Justin Martyr at Rome about ad 150 in the form of an early harmony (or synthesis of the Gospels); to this, Justin’s Syrian pupil Tatian added The Gospel According to John to make his Diatessaron (according to the four), a harmony of all four Gospels so successful that in Mesopotamia (Tatian’s homeland) it virtually ousted the separate Gospels for 250 years. And in the late 2nd century, Irenaeus accepted as the standard version of the Christian scriptures the four Gospels and several other texts that would become part of the canonical New Testament.

On a second level of authority stood the apostolic letters, especially those of Paul. The first of the letters appeared about ad 50, and well before ad 90 the main body of his correspondence was circulating as a corpus (body of writings). Paul’s letters were the earliest texts of the Christian Scriptures. In addition to them, there are the seven so-called Catholic Letters (i.e., James, I and II Peter, I, II, and III John, and Jude), which were among the last of the literature to be accepted as part of the canonical New Testament.

Paul’s antitheses of law and grace, justice and goodness, and the letter and the spirit were extended further than Paul intended by the radical semi-Gnostic heretic Marcion of Pontus (c. 140–150), who taught that the Old Testament came from the inferior vengeful Jewish God of justice and that the New Testament told of the kindly universal Father. As the current texts of Gospels and letters presupposed some divine revelation through the Old Testament, Marcion concluded that they had been corrupted and interpolated by Judaizers. Marcion therefore established a fixed canon of an edited version of Luke’s Gospel and some of the Pauline Letters (expurgated), and no Old Testament at all.

The orthodox reaction (by such theologians as Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the 2nd century) was to insist on the Gospel as the fulfillment of prophecy and on creation as the ground of redemption. Reasons were found for accepting the four already current Gospels, the full corpus of Pauline Letters, Acts of the Apostles, John’s Revelation (Apocalypse), and the Catholic Letters. On the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews there were doubts: Rome rejected it as non-Pauline and Alexandria accepted it as Pauline. The list once established was a criterion (the meaning of “canon”) for the authentic Gospel of the new covenant and soon (by transference from the old) became entitled the New Testament. (The Greek word diathēkē means both covenant and testament.) The formation of the canon meant that special revelation ended with the death of the Apostles and that no authority could be attached to the apocryphal gospels, acts, and apocalypses proliferating in the 2nd century.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The internal development of the early Christian Church » The problem of theological authority
Third, a check was found in the creed, an authoritative profession of the faith. At baptism, after renouncing “the devil and his pomps,” initiates declared their faith in response to three questions of the form:

Do you believe in God the Father almighty? Do you believe in Jesus Christ his Son our Lord. . . ? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit in the church and in the Resurrection?

In time, these interrogations became the basis of declaratory creeds, adapted for use by clergy who felt themselves required to reassure colleagues who were not especially confident of their orthodoxy. The so-called Apostles’ Creed, a direct descendant of the baptismal interrogation used at Rome by ad 200, is similar to the creed used in Rome in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Each church (or region) might have its own variant form, but all had the threefold structure.

The internal coherence given by creed, canon, and hierarchy was necessary both in the defense of orthodox Christianity against Gnostic theosophical speculations and also in confronting pagan society. The strong coherence of the scattered congregations was remarkable to pagan observers.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The internal development of the early Christian Church » Early heretical movements
Gnosticism, from the Greek gnōstikos (one who has gnōsis, or “secret knowledge”), was an important movement in the early Christian centuries—especially the 2nd—that offered an alternative to emerging orthodox Christian teaching. Gnostics taught that the world was created by a demiurge or satanic power—which they often associated with the God of the Old Testament— and that there is total opposition between this world and God. Redemption was viewed as liberation from the chaos of a creation derived from either incompetent or malevolent powers, a world in which the elect are alien prisoners. The method of salvation was to discover the Kingdom of God within one’s elect soul and to learn how to pass the hostile powers barring the soul’s ascent to bliss. The Gnostics held a Docetist Christology, in which Jesus only appeared to assume the flesh. Although not assuming material form according to the Gnostics, Jesus, nonetheless, was the redeemer sent by God to reveal His special gnōsis. Irenaeus and other Christian theologians, as well as the 3rd-century Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, dismissed Gnosticism as a pretentious but dangerous nonsense.

Along with Irenaeus and others, the writers of the later New Testament books seem to have opposed early Gnosticism. The supporters of what would become orthodox Christianity stressed the need to adhere to tradition, which was attested by the churches of apostolic foundation. A more hazardous reply was to appeal to ecstatic prophecy. About ad 172 a quasi-pentecostal movement in Phrygia was led by Montanus with two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla, reasserting the imminence of the end of the world. He taught that there was an age of the Father (Old Testament), an age of the Son (New Testament), and an age of the Spirit (heralded by the prophet Montanus). Montanism won its chief convert in Tertullian. Its claim to supplement the New Testament was generally rejected, and the age of prophecy was held to have ended in the time of the apostles.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » Relations between Christianity and the Roman government and the Hellenistic culture » Church-state relations
The Christians were not respectful toward ancestral pagan customs, and their preaching of a new king sounded like revolution. The opposition of the Jews to them led to breaches of the peace. Thus the Christians could very well be unpopular, and they often were. Paul’s success at Ephesus provoked a riot to defend the cult of the goddess Artemis. In ad 64 a fire destroyed much of Rome; the emperor Nero, in order to escape blame, killed a “vast multitude” of Christians as scapegoats. For the first time, Rome was conscious that Christians were distinct from Jews. But there probably was no formal senatorial enactment proscribing Christianity at this time. Nero’s persecution, which was local and short, was condemned by Tacitus as an expression of the emperor’s cruelty rather than as a service to the public good. Soon thereafter, however, the profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime—though of a special kind, because one gained pardon by apostasy (rejection of a faith once confessed) demonstrated by offering sacrifice to the pagan gods or to the emperor. Popular gossip soon accused the Christians of secret vices, such as eating murdered infants (due to the secrecy surrounding the Lord’s Supper and the use of the words body and blood) and sexual promiscuity (due to the practice of Christians calling each other “brother” or “sister” while living as husband and wife).

Early persecutions were sporadic, caused by local conditions and dependent on the attitude of the governor. The fundamental cause of persecution was the Christians’ conscientious rejection of the gods whose favour was believed to have brought success to the empire. But distrust was increased by Christian detachment and reluctance to serve in the imperial service and in the army. At any time in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, Christians could find themselves the object of unpleasant attention. Violence against them could be precipitated by a bad harvest, a barbarian attack, or a public festival of the emperor cult. Yet, there were also long periods of peace, and the stability provided by the empire and its network of roads and communications may have facilitated Christianity’s growth. The ambivalence of official policy is perhaps best revealed in the exchange between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, and the emperor Trajan in 111. Pliny executed Christians who were brought before him and who refused to worship the emperor and Roman gods but then sought the emperor’s advice on how to treat Christians in his province. Trajan responded that Christians legitimately brought before Pliny should be punished but that the governor should not seek out Christians for persecution. The Christians should be left alone as long as they did not stir up trouble.

Organized, empire-wide persecutions occurred, however, at moments of extreme crisis and as a response to the growth of the faith. During the 3rd century, economic collapse, political chaos, military revolt, and barbarian invasion nearly destroyed the empire. Christians were blamed for the desperate situation because they denied the gods who were thought to protect Rome, thereby bringing down their wrath. To regain divine protection, the emperors introduced the systematic persecution of Christians throughout the empire. The emperor Decius (reigned 249–251) issued an edict requiring all citizens to offer sacrifice to the emperor and to obtain from commissioners a certificate witnessing to the act. Many of these certificates have survived. The requirement created an issue of conscience, especially because certificates could be bought. The great bishop-theologian Cyprian of Carthage was martyred during the next great wave of persecutions (257–259), which were aimed at eradicating the leaders of the church. The persecuting emperor Valerian, however, became a Persian prisoner of war, and his son Gallienus issued an edict of toleration restoring confiscated churches and cemeteries.

Beginning in February 303, the church faced the worst of all persecutions under the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius. The reasons for this persecution are uncertain, but they have been ascribed, among other things, to the influence of Galerius, a fanatic follower of the traditional Roman religion; Diocletian’s own devotion to traditional religion and his desire to use Roman religion to restore complete unity in the empire; and the fear of an alienation of rebellious armies from emperor worship. After Diocletian’s retirement, Galerius continued the persecutions until 311, when he was stricken by a painful disease, described in exquisite detail by the church historian Eusebius, who believed it was an act of revenge by the Christian God. Galerius died shortly after ending the persecutions. The situation of the early church improved further the following year, when the emperor Constantine, prior to a battle against a rival emperor, experienced a vision of the cross in the heavens with the legend “In this sign, conquer.” Constantine’s victory led to his eventual conversion to Christianity. In 313, the joint emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, a manifesto of toleration, which, among other things, granted Christians full legal rights.

The persecutions had two lasting consequences. Although the blood of the martyrs, as contemporaries declared, had helped the church to grow, schism eventually arose with those who had yielded to imperial pressure. Groups such as the Donatists in North Africa, for example, refused to recognize as Christians those who had sacrificed to the emperor or turned over holy books during the persecutions.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » Relations between Christianity and the Roman government and the Hellenistic culture » Christianity and classical culture
The attitude of the earliest Christians toward paganism and the imperial government was complicated by their close association with Greco-Roman literary and artistic culture: it was difficult to attack the former without seeming to criticize the latter. Nevertheless, the Christian opinion of other religions (except Judaism) was generally very negative. All forms of paganism—the Oriental mystery (salvational) religions of Isis, Attis, Adonis, and Mithra, as well as the traditional Greco-Roman polytheisms and the cult of the emperor—were regarded as the worship of evil spirits. Like the Jews, the Christians (unless Gnostic) were opposed to syncretism. With the exception of the notion of baptism as a rebirth, Christians generally and significantly avoided the characteristic vocabularies of the mystery religions.

Many Christians also rejected the literary traditions of the classical world, denouncing the immoral and unethical behaviour of the deities and heroes of ancient myth and literature. Reflecting this position, Tertullian once asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Despite this hostility, many Christians recognized the value of ancient letters. St. Paul could quote such pagan poets as Aratus, Menander, and Epimenides. Clement of Rome cited the dramatists Sophocles and Euripides. Educated Christians shared this literary tradition with educated pagans. The defenders of Christianity against pagan attack (especially Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century) welcomed classical philosophy and literature; they wished only to reject all polytheistic myth and cult and all metaphysical and ethical doctrines irreconcilable with Christian belief (e.g., Stoic materialism and Platonic doctrines of the transmigration of souls and the eternity of the world). Clement of Alexandria, the second known head of the catechetical school at Alexandria, possessed a wide erudition in the main classics and knew the works of Plato and Homer intimately. His successor at Alexandria, Origen, showed less interest in literary and aesthetic matters but was a greater scholar and thinker; he first applied the methods of Alexandrian philology to the text of the Bible. Augustine held that although classical literature contained superstitious imaginings, it included references to moral truths and learning that could be used in the service of God. The great church father compared classical literature to the gold of the Egyptians, which God permitted the Hebrews to use on their journey to the Promised Land even though it had once been used in pagan religious practice.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » Relations between Christianity and the Roman government and the Hellenistic culture » The Apologists
The Christian Apologists of the 2nd century were a group of writers who sought to defend the faith against Jewish and Greco-Roman critics. They refuted a variety of scandalous rumours, including allegations of cannibalism and promiscuity. By and large, they sought both to make Christianity intelligible to members of Greco-Roman society and to define the Christian understanding of God, the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection of the body. To accomplish this, the Apologists adopted the philosophical and literary vocabulary of the broader culture to develop a more refined expression of the faith that could appeal to the sophisticated sensibilities of their pagan contemporaries.

Second-century Platonists, for example, found it easy to think of Mind (nous) or Reason (Logos) as divine power immanent within the world. Philo of Alexandria had spoken of the Logos as mediating between the transcendent God and the created order. Although some of their coreligionists were offended by the use of Greek philosophical ideas, the Apologists made important advances in the development of Christian thought and were the first of the Christian theologians.

The church and its history » The history of Christianity » The early liturgy, the calendar, and the arts
Paul’s letters mention worship on the first day of the week. In John’s Apocalypse, Sunday is called “the Lord’s day.” The weekly commemoration of the Resurrection replaced for Christians the synagogue meetings on Saturdays; the practice of circumcision was dropped, and initiation was by baptism; and continuing membership in the church was signified by weekly participation in the Eucharist. Baptism in water in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was preceded by instruction (catechesis) and fasting. Persons about to be baptized renounced evil and, as they made the declaration of faith, were dipped in water; they then received by anointing and by the laying on of hands (confirmation) the gift of the Holy Spirit and incorporation within the body of Christ. Only the baptized were allowed to be admitted to the Eucharist, when the words of Jesus at the Last Supper were recalled; the Holy Spirit was invoked upon the people of God making the offering, and the consecrated bread and wine were distributed to the faithful. Accounts of these rites are given in the works of Justin (c. 150) and especially in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 220).

Before the 4th century, worship was in private houses. A house church of ad 232 has been excavated at Doura-Europus on the Euphrates. Whereas pagan temples were intended as the residence of the god, churches were designed for the community. The rectangular basilica with an apse (semicircular projection to house the altar), which had been used for Roman judicial buildings, was found especially suitable. The Doura-Europus church has Gospel scenes on the walls. But many Old Testament heroes also appear in the earliest Christian art; Jewish models probably were followed. The artists also adapted conventional pagan forms (good shepherd; praying persons with hands uplifted). Fishing scenes, doves, and lyres also were popular. In themselves neutral, they carried special meaning to the Christians. The words of several pre-Constantinian hymns survive (e.g., “Shepherd of tender youth,” by Clement of Alexandria), but only one with musical notation (Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1786 of the 3rd century).

The earliest Christians wrote to convert or to edify, not to please. Their literature was not produced with aesthetic intentions. Nevertheless, the pulpit offered scope for oratory (as in Melito of Sardis’s Homily on the Pascha, c. 170). Desire for romance and adventure was satisfied by apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, recounting their travels, with continence replacing love. Justin and Irenaeus did not write for high style but simply to convey information. Apologists hoping for well-educated readers, however, could not be indifferent to literary tastes. By ad 200 the most graceful living writer of Greek literature was Clement of Alexandria, the liveliest writer of Latin, Tertullian. Wholly different in temperament (Clement urbane and allusive, Tertullian vigorous and vulgar), both men wrote distinguished prose with regard to form and rhetorical convention.

By the 3rd century the Bible needed explanation. Origen of Alexandria set out to provide commentaries and undertook for the Old Testament a collation of the various Greek versions with the original Hebrew. Many of his sermons and commentaries were translated into Latin between 385 and 400 by Tyrannius Rufinus and Jerome; their learning and passionate mystical aspiration shaped Western medieval exegesis (critical interpretive methods).



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