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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Church in Late Antiquity

The fourth to sixth centuries CE witnessed the church's adaptation to empire, as well as its increasing institutionalization and associated efforts at doctrinal clarification. Begun centuries earlier, the process of scriptural canonization, which would yield a fixed and authoritative listing of the books of the New Testament, reached a milestone in the fourth century. In a festal letter written in 367, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all of the twenty-seven books of today's New Testament. By the early fifth century, his canon had been largely accepted in both the east and the west.

The process of canonization cannot be reconstructed with certainty. In the second and third centuries many Christian writings were regarded as authoritative, but not all of them ended up in the New Testament canon or even exist today. The degree to which a text was regarded as authoritative often varied both regionally and among different factions and figures in the church. Indeed, the second century was an era in which many gospels were composed, containing traditions about and sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical Gospels. By the close of the century, the four canonical Gospels and the letters of Paul had already acquired a widespread authoritative status. But the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter are examples of texts that were widely known and viewed as authoritative by many, and yet did not achieve canonical status. Many historians hold that the process of canonization was in part a response to what key figures in the early church regarded as threats, including in the second and third centuries Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism. The opinions of, and rivalries among, various sees and prominent clerical figures also played a role, both shaping and reflecting the evolving regional consensus concerning a writing. Moreover, as New Testament scholar Harry Gamble has observed, canonicity demanded that a writing be considered apostolic, catholic—of relevance to the universal church, orthodox, and in wide usage. Significantly, only in the fourth century, when the canon emerged, did the technology of codex production make possible the manufacture as one book of a collection as large as the New Testament.

The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed also the growing power and authority of the bishop of Rome, even as, during the fifth century, Roman imperial power was in decline. To be sure, the title pope (Latin papa) had been appropriated not only by the bishop of Rome but also by the bishops of other major cities. However, from the time of the papacy of Damasus (366–84), the Roman bishops had argued increasingly forcefully and explicitly that they were, as the inheritors of the authority of the apostle Peter, the rightful leaders of the church. Strong and able fifth- and sixth-century popes such as Leo I (440–61) and Gregory the Great (590–604) contributed to the growing power, especially in the west, of the Roman papacy, an office that would facilitate greater church unity in the west and add to the growing tensions between eastern and western Christendom.

During this period there were seven church councils whose decisions on the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ were regarded as binding for all Christians: Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553), Constantinople III (680–81), and Nicea II (787). The church also developed the belief that the decisions of these councils had been guided by the Holy Spirit. From a sociological perspective, this served to legitimate the majority-rule decision making of the conciliar bishops, an emerging power elite, and to better position them against others who claimed authority to act in God's name.

The bishops are paradoxical figures. Many emerged from the upper-class urban elites who had appropriated and adapted the traditional system of paideia, or learning, which had also been the domain of the pagan elites. They had close ties with the state, exercised much authority in their locales, and stood at the top of a very wealthy institution that the state had endowed with great privileges. For example, by the early fifth century, church lands were exempt from most taxes. Most of the bishops were part of the empire's privileged “handful,” supported by and generally supportive of a social, economic, and political structure oppressive to the vast majority of people, who, overwhelmingly, were dreadfully impoverished. At the same time, the bishops presented themselves as the protectors of the poor. In an era of growing civic unrest, this enabled them to accrue power vis-à-vis the imperial government and to serve as mediators between the populace and the government, at times intervening with the latter on behalf of the former. The bishops' appropriation of the roles of civic patron and benefactor, institutions essential to the functioning of the cities, was facilitated by the privileges that the imperial government allocated to them, even as these privileges contributed to the bishops' increasing wealth, power, and popularity among the populace.

Their frequent alliances with the monks contributed to the popularity of the bishops. In contrast to bishops, monks represented, at least in theory if not always in fact (some monks were themselves from the elite), the uneducated and simple man of the lower classes who understood and indeed embodied the fundamental truths and teachings of Christianity, and for whom the culture of the upper classes was inferior and superfluous. The bishops were able both to participate in and to benefit from the prominence and power that the monks enjoyed with the populace, while retaining the advantages of their upper-class status. The monks, in turn, were separate from the larger society and distinct from its ruling classes. Yet simultaneously, by virtue of this separateness and distinctiveness (especially as exemplified in the widespread belief in their extraordinary holiness, reflected in their sexual renunciation, asceticism, and withdrawal from ordinary life), monks could play a significant role in influencing the outcome of events in both the clerical and the civic realms—and in making peace between local communities and the state.

Monasticism drew on a long-standing belief in many religious and philosophical traditions of the Roman world that the path to the holy rested in subduing the body, especially sexual desire, and in withdrawing from the everyday world. By the early fourth century CE, both male and female ascetics populated the Egyptian deserts. These monks and solitaries claimed to experience the divine outside the institutions and the locales that the bishops controlled. This threat to the hierarchy's authority was curbed in part by the growing institutionalization of monasticism. Even in the lifetime of the earliest solitary, Anthony (ca. 270–356), about whom traditions survive, communities of monks had been established in the deserts of Egypt. The evolution of communal monasticism with its rules and orders, increasingly under the supervision of bishops and abbots, brought the monks under institutional authority. For most Christians, the veneration of those to whom extraordinary holiness was ascribed, and who might intercede with God on one's behalf—monks, martyrs, and saints—played a greater role in their religious lives than did the doctrinal disputes that preoccupied the bishops. Yet the distinction between “popular” religion and the religion of the elites should not be overstated, for one of the strengths of the institutional church has been its capacity to organize, regularize, and thus domesticate the practices and customs of its adherents.

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