Orthodoxy in the World: The Byzantine Period

This blog continues this introductory series to the Orthodox Faith.  The First blog in the series is The First blog is Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World.  The previous blog is Orthodoxy in the World: The Roman Empire.

 The Greek Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople is the natural inheritor of  and successor to early Christian history and tradition with its use of Greek language and its being the area in which most Christians in the early centuries of Christianity lived.   Modern Western Christians have tended to view this Eastern Christianity as somewhat peripheral to Christian history.   Western Christians tend only to know the history of Christianity in its Western forms:  Latin Catholicism and the Protestant Reformers.   This is especially true in America which itself was Europeanized by Protestants and Catholics who had little knowledge of Eastern Christians.  It is Western Christianity which has coined the phrase “The Byzantine Empire” to describe the development of Christianity within the Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople.   Usually in Western Christian history books the Holy Roman Empire refers to those kingdoms which formed in Western Europe after the time of Charlemagne (800AD).   The Byzantine Empire, Byzantium,  was recognized both in Eastern Christianity and in Islam as the real Roman Empire.

            There are many features which characterize Byzantine Christianity.  The Christians of the Empire did see themselves as receiving the Faith of the apostles and being responsible for passing it on to future generations.   They saw themselves as the natural inheritors of the faith of the martyrs – those many faithful who had been executed by the Roman state.   They believed themselves to be the people of God, the true Israel, those who had believed God’s promises and saw those promises fulfilled in the Messiah Jesus.

            One of the first things that happened to Christianity in the Constantinian world is that Constantine demanded from the Christians unity in faith.   He had after all envisioned Christianity as being able to unite his empire in one religion.  But the Christians were a diverse group and had numerous divisions in terms of beliefs.  Constantine wanted them to have at least some basic agreement in the tenets of faith.  And so Constantine summoned what became known as the First Ecumenical Council (325 CE) in the city of Nicea to get the Christians to adopt a creedal statement that would enumerate the basic required beliefs of the Church which all Christians could accept.   The summoning of a council of bishops (and the first council was dominated by bishops who spoke Greek) was to set a pattern for how the imperial Church would deal with problematic issues.   Greek bishops tended to believe in the equality of all bishops and they accepted notions of hierarchy which saw the bishops as the authentic  spiritual leaders of Christianity.   The Councils (ultimately Orthodoxy came to recognize Seven Ecumenical Councils as being authoritative over the entire Church, the First held in 325 CE, the last in 787 CE, all of them dominated by Greek speaking bishops) formed in the Greek Christian consciousness a sense of conciliarity within the leadership of the Church.   Councils also came to be viewed as the highest authority within the Church, ruling over the bishops themselves, at least once the bishops accepted the Council’s decisions.

Next:   The Age of the Ecumenical Councils

Orthodoxy in the World & Light to the World

Five years or so ago, when I was teaching at the University of Dayton, a colleague in the Religious Studies Department asked me to compose an essay on the Orthodox Church to be included in an introduction to religion textbook which was to be entitled World Religions in Dialogue .   The project eventually was abandoned, and my essay on Eastern Orthodoxy was returned to me to do with as I wished.   I’ve decided to convert it into a blog series, and publish it as such.   It was intended to be a general introduction to the Orthodox Christian faith in a book that had an ecumenical bent to it.   This is my original draft as the project never got to the stage of editing or asking me to rewrite text.

Map of Israel 1000BC

History – Beginnings

            The Middle East has through history been a crossroads for many varied cultures and kingdoms.   It has been the grounds for much cross pollination of thought and belief.  Two thousand years ago a new religious movement began in the Middle East which fertilized by a cross pollination of culture and language blossomed into one of the world’s major religions.   This nascent movement came to be known in history as Christianity.    This new religion began as a movement within Judaism itself but quickly jumped cultures and rapidly evolved and adapted to a Greek milieu which surrounded the Judaism of Palestine.

            Judaism of two thousand years ago was itself in the process of change.  The religion which was centered in and identified with the Temple in Jerusalem and with the written Torah, had itself been adapting the culture changes brought about by the changing fortunes of history and kingdoms.   Judaism had a long standing relationship with the cultures and religions of the Syrians, Babylonians, Persians and Egyptians.   But all of these lands had come under the influence of the Greeks as Alexander the Great (4th Century BCE) conquered all of these territories in rapid succession causing a Greek cultural influence to be spread throughout the region.   Not all forms of Judaism resisted the influx of Greek culture to the same extent, though religiously some of Judaism tried to limit the effects of Greek thinking on its own practices.  However, in the centuries following the invasion of Alexander the Great, the Jews themselves translated their scriptures, the Tanakh, into the Greek language giving the world the Septuagint and an international access to the wisdom, beliefs and revelation of Judaism.    The Septuagint  became accepted by Jews as an authoritative version of their own scriptures for Jews as well as for Gentiles.   It’s appearance on the world scene occurred as Judaism was beginning to expand beyond Jerusalem and Palestine through the rabbinic synagogues which made Judaism accessible where ever Jews settled.   Coupled with the Greek language Septuagint which opened its faith to the world, Judaism was beginning to be a world religion, not limited by geography, language or ethnicity.     The prophets of Israel and the Messianic form of Judaism furthered the notion that Judaism had a message for the world.

Next:  Orthodoxy in the World: Beginnings