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Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

A Short Course on Christianity

by Rev. Fr. Joseph T. Hilinski
Interfaith Director, The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland

Historical and Cultural Influences on Christianity

Christianity has a two thousand year history. It spread over the whole Mediterranean basin and then advanced into all the continents on the globe. Those formative years have left a legacy that continues to influence Christianity. Three important factors of that formation are Hellenism, the Roman Empire, and the Jewish religion. All continue to exert their influence on Christianity today.

A. Hellenism-the Greek philosophy and koine Greek language that was in the air of the people of this area.

The Christian scriptures were first written and disseminated in koine Greek that was a form of a lingua franca of that world. Actually, the New Testament was not officially translated into Latin until St. Jerome's work in 4th century. The Greek philosophy would be a useful vehicle for translating biblical thought to the great non-Jewish world. However, it does not come without consequences and difficulties.

B. The second factor: the Roman Empire

The Roman empire would help Christianity spread by its vast network of roads and outposts but also would give impetus to notoriety of the religion in persecutions. But also the Roman Empire would finally contribute to the estrangement between what would become Eastern and Western Christians, known today as Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. 

When Constantinople (now Istanbul) became the capital of the empire and the city of Rome would take second place, the dynamics were set in motion that would affect Christians. The power vacuum left in the city of Rome was taken up by the Bishop of Rome. And political and religious authority saw itself mixed in ways that were not always beneficial to the unity of the Church both in the East and the West.

Eastern Christians looked more readily to Constantinople, its Emperor and its bishop. The vast tribes of Europe would benefit from the missionaries sent by Rome and they would naturally look to the Holy Father of Rome for their faith and guidance. The division into the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as we end the first thousand years of Christian history would become a seeming hard fact, not simply a development of diversity of culture and tradition in the one family of Christ as more and more it is considered by theologians. 

Even the liturgical life of both of these churches is influenced by the Roman Empire: in the east the lavish court rituals would inspire services of majesty and pomp whereas the churches of the west more often outposts among the tribes would be more sober and simplified. But even this sobriety and simplicity and directness would be a reflection of the legal and administrative culture of the Roman Empire. But I remind my listeners that for the sake of simplification we may be giving you more caricature than characterization.

C. The third factor: the roots of Judaism and the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers. 

That the Jews were in the major cities of the Roman empire and had synagogues proved effective way stations as Christian missioners the first of whom were Jewish made there way throughout the Roman empire. In addition to the Jews in each synagogue there were Gentiles who had a close association with these synagogues and were called God-fearers who were disposed to the worship and power of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but did not formally adopt all of Jewish tradition. Some of these gentiles, as some of the Jews, would prove attracted to the way of Jesus the Christ. 

But this Jewish basis posed a challenge to early Christians of how they would relate to the prescriptions of the Jewish law and its observance. The challenge was to maintain that Christianity and the revelation of the God of Abraham are in continuity. The influence of Judaism is also found certainly in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians have called the Old Testament. You will find a list of the books of the bible elsewhere that are regarded as the official books of the Christian religion. They are inspired by God, the Holy Spirit and are taken to contain religious truth. There is a small disagreement on a number of texts, which while accepted by Catholic and Orthodox believers, were not accepted by Jews and Protestant Christians.

In the worship of the Christian Church, the book of Psalms has had particular importance. And in the worship of the Church, the ceremonies and traditions have strong Jewish roots. Hebrew words such as Amen and Alleluia still resound in Christian worship.

See Also: Summary of the Bible

Next Topic: Sacraments and Rituals

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