How Early Roman Christianity Outlasted Its Competitors

Charged by the power of historical circumstances, the Roman Christian church expanded from west to east. It eliminated other forms of the Jesus movement. It even more energetically endeavoured to control Gnostic Christianity. By the time of Constantine there were only the two contenders: Roman Christianity and Gnostic Christianity. Constantine’s interest was in the former and he did not want Christian dissent either within Roman Christianity or outside it. Gnostic Christianity was subdued brutally by Roman military force. But Christian Rome had conquered the known world. It brought with it Roman Christianity; no other was allowed.

See Also: The Christian Survivor (Springer; 2017).

By Robert Crotty
Emeritus Professor of Religion and Education
University of South Australia
January 2017


The literature of the Bible is not a series of historical narratives or even religious commentaries. Its language, even that of the narratives, is closer to poetry and drama. This fact does not impinge on its utility, nor on its quality. Using the Bible’s literature to reconstruct its historical background however requires a clear understanding of genre.

One question is: how did this literature come into being? We will confine ourselves to the literature of the Christian Scriptures. The first written sources seem to have derived from oral materials and can be broadly entitled The Jesus-Tradition. This Jesus-Tradition would have only gradually reached any sort of regular shape; it would have been expanded, corrected and amended over time after the death of Jesus. This would have taken decades. It would seem that the earliest followers of Jesus incorporated only pivotal Jesus events, elaborated as the years passed, in their first formulations of the Jesus-Tradition: his Last Meal, his Death by crucifixion, his Visions to disciples after his death. Further details would have been supplied to fill out the sparse catalogue of events particularly by reflection on the Hebrew Scriptures’ prophecies and thought-patterns (for example, the Virgin Birth, the details of the crucifixion taken mostly from the Psalms and Isaiah). The belief that the Jesus events had been foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures was a very early presumption and the basis for this methodology.

Secondly, there would have been input into the narratives of the Jesus events by comparing those events with much later communities and their troubles. It was presumed that the events of Jesus’s life were a paradigm for what would be experienced by his disciples. This produced the Jesus sayings: some remembered with all the faults of memory, some constructed on the idea of ‘what Jesus might have said, had he been confronted with this situation’. At some stage the Jesus sayings would have been gathered (such as in the early Greek text of sayings attributed to the apostle Thomas, various collections of parables and teaching metaphors) and likewise ‘events’ such as miracle stories, cures and exorcisms would have been gathered.

These collections of sayings and events would have developed within a catechetical and kerygmatic life-situation of the early Jesus movements, where there was a need to instruct both newcomers and more mature members. Some of these collections may have been oral, perhaps diligently remembered by memory strategies, and some written.

Jesus-movement groups

From whom would this Jesus-Tradition have derived? We can conjecture that after the death of Jesus (one of the certain facts in his life history was his death, presumably by Roman execution, together with his birth the circumstances of which we know nothing), small Jesus-movement groups formed in Palestine. For them Jesus had been a holy man, a Zaddik, or Just One in Jewish tradition. He was regarded as human although in a godly way. He could be compared to the righteousness Mahatma Gandhi in our own days who also has generated later traditions and followers.

These Palestinian groups had their separate leaders. There was the blood-brother of Jesus, James, who was also known as James the Zaddik. His Jesus-movement resided in Jerusalem and its surrounds and he attempted to revive the Temple worship. Then there was Peter, probably ruling a centre up in Antioch, who led a Jesus movement that saw Jesus specifically as a New Moses, come to deliver his people. Another leader was Stephen (mentioned only in the Acts of the Apostles), over on the Palestinian coast. His Jesus movement was less accommodating to the Jews and announced that, with the coming of Jesus, the need for Temple worship was over. (Crotty, 1996)

There was competition over the right of one or other of these leaders to be the official successor to Jesus. Perhaps the leaders claimed the privilege for themselves; perhaps their followers later tried to exalt their founder. James and Peter were certainly contenders.

Gnostic Jesus-movement groups

Besides these groups there were also flourishing Gnostic Jesus-movements. Within Judaism there had been a trend towards Gnosticism in the pre-Christian period and it took many forms. Generally, Gnostics held that there was a Great Invisible Spirit, also known as The Father. From the Father there had emanated a divine being, The Mother. She had other names too. From The Mother came The Child or the Son or the Only-Begotten. However, The Mother had made a cosmic error. Without permission from the Great Invisible Spirit, she had given rise to a deformed divinity, known as Yaldaba’oth (as well as other names).

This warped divinity had then created the world and its inhabitants, and creation was stranded in a morass of evil. Humans still retained a spark of divinity, but they were impotent. They needed to be redeemed.

For the Christian Gnostics, Jesus was the Only-Begotten Son, who came into the world to teach gnosis or the fullest experience of knowledge of the divinity. Humans needed to submit to this gnosis and realise their part in the Gnostic history. The Gnostic Jesus was a Divine Teacher, completely divine. He might have taken on the trappings of Flesh and looked like a human, but he was never human. He could not be born and he could not die. (Franzman, 2001, 2011)

The Christian Gnostics produced a library of complex Discourses, Treatises and Poems based on their portrayal of the coming of the divine Jesus to redeem needy humanity from the forces of Yaldaba’oth. They had a number of leaders. Later, we know of Marcion and Valentinus in the second century. But these looked back to yet earlier nominated successors of the Divine Jesus. They were numerous: Mary Magdalene, Thomas, John, Philip, James.

These particular Jesus movements from Palestine began to stretch around the Mediterranean. But there was another most important Jesus-movement. It would become historically the dominant one. It was Roman Christianity.

Roman Christianity

Who established Christianity in Rome? We may never know; it was not Peter nor Paul. We can only speculate that either Jews (whether they were merchants, immigrants, prisoners of war or slaves) who had somehow come into contact with the Jesus-movements in Palestine came to Rome (perhaps on business? to consult the political authorities? forced by Roman capture?) or that Roman Jews had gone to Palestine (perhaps to celebrate one of the festivals?). Having come into contact with the new Peter Jesus-movement there, would have brought it back to Rome and introduced it to Jews in the Roman synagogues. Perhaps Jesus-movement factions would have flourished in some of those synagogues; perhaps entire synagogues would have been taken over by a Jesus-movement. The identification of the founder or founders of Roman Christianity, and its initial format, will probably be forever shrouded in anonymity. (Richardson, 1998)

During the time of the emperor Claudius (ruled 41 to 54 CE), the Jesus-movement groups were accused of causing dissension among the Jews. They were exiled. When they returned to Rome after the death of Claudius in 54 CE, they would have found that the Roman Jesus-movement people they had left behind had become mainly gentile. They had cut their moorings with the synagogues and moved into house-churches or ekklesiae. For the most part, they were no longer Jewish, and the argument amongst them was whether they should retain any Jewish heritage at all.

What is important is that the Jesus tradition that was originally brought back to Rome and established in the synagogues was the Peter tradition. Peter was adamantly portrayed as the successor to Jesus. In the latter part of the second century Christians would erect a memorial (tropaion, in Greek) to Peter in a cemetery on the Vatican Hill. The tropaion would eventually become part of the foundation of Constantine’s first St Peter’s.

An extensive necropolis was uncovered in 1939 under St Peter’s. It had been established on the Vatican Hill in the mid-second CE and survived to the early fourth century CE. Today, the main street of the excavated necropolis runs under the length of the nave of St Peter’s, with the tropaion under the High Altar. It is a rather insignificant shrine, set into a wall, with two small pillars and a niche, in that part of the necropolis used for the burial of the poor.

In the fourth century CE, Constantine would have gone to extraordinary lengths to incorporate this tropaion as the focus of St Peter’s. Gradually Roman thinking had developed: Peter was believed by some in Palestine to be the successor of Jesus; this belief had taken root in Rome; the Roman Christians could not imagine that, if Peter was the successor of Jesus, he would not have founded the Church in Rome, the centre of the world. Therefore, he must have come to Rome, died there and was buried there.

What indeed had arrived in Rome was the Peter version of the Jesus-Tradition. This was expanded by the Roman Christians with their own Roman outlook. Jesus was seen as a religious Emperor who had come to establish his Kingdom of God; Peter was his loyal successor who had come to Rome, the centre of civilisation, to establish the most important Jesus movement in the world. (Wiefel, 1991)

Very quickly the Roman Christians drifted from the Jews. Instead of adhering to Jewish synagogue practices, they introduced Roman ideas – the paterfamilias (the most eminent male was the leader of a community) and the ethical practices upheld by the Romans.

The Isaac Tradition

But very importantly, the Jews in Rome had inherited a particular tradition about Isaac, the story of the son of Abraham. Isaac, known as the agapetos or ‘Beloved’ is found in the book of Genesis:

He [God] said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love [agapetos in the Greek Septuagint], and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’

The Jews of the Roman Empire were claiming by the first century BCE that they were ‘Isaac’ the Beloved Son, who was (almost) sacrificed by his Father for the sake of humankind (Crotty, 2012). They interpreted the great setbacks of the Greek and Roman persecutions as their (near) martyrdom. The Roman Christians had a ready answer for the Jews: Isaac was not the predecessor of the Jewish community; he was the predecessor of Jesus, who was sacrificed by his Father for the sins of humanity and redeemed the world, Jews and Gentiles, by his sacrifice.

The Nine Roman Traditions

Slowly the Jesus-Traditions were reworked with this ideology of Isaac in Rome. Nine treatises were constructed dealing with sections of the Jesus-Tradition, one of which was very long and lived its own life; the others were short.

  1. The Context of the gospel of Mark 1:2-13
  2. Jesus, the New Isaac, is revealed as the Messiah of Israel and the Gentiles 1:14-10:52
  3. Jesus in Jerusalem 11:1-12:44
  4. The Eschatological Sermon 13:1-37
  5. The Messiah is anointed and the New Isaac celebrates his Last Meal: 14:1-31
  6. The Prayer in Gethsemane 14:32-42
  7. The Trials of Jesus 14:43-15:15
  8. The Crucifixion, Death and Burial of Jesus 15:16-47
  9. he Finding of the Empty Tomb 16:1-8

At some time in the second century CE a Christian editor put these expanding Traditions into good Greek, worked out a credible chronology and topography and edited out discrepancies and doublets. The end result was the Gospel of Mark, the Roman Christian Gospel.

Rome moves to the East

Towards the end of the first century CE and into the second century, the Roman armies were on the move into the East. They rebuilt Jerusalem and other cities according to Roman city-planning. They built temples to their Roman gods in strategic cities. A Roman gateway to the East had opened up. Within the phalanx of Roman soldiers, Roman merchants, Roman tourists there were Roman Christians. The brought with them the Roman Christian Tradition.

In the north of the Mediterranean there were drastic changes. In a Roman world, Matthew’s gospel intended to translate the Roman Tradition for the use of those around Antioch, where the Peter Tradition had originally arisen. The Gospel of Mark, the official gospel of the Roman Christians, was expanded by Sayings from the Jesus Tradition, well known in Palestinian circles. This became the Gospel of Matthew.

In the northern Mediterranean, Luke’s gospel took its rise for Roman Christian usage in that area. It combined the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew’s Sayings section (and Luke had access to the more original Jesus Tradition too).

Both Matthew and Luke, like their predecessor Mark, acclaimed Peter as the successor of Jesus. (By this time, it is clear that we know little of any ‘authors’.) Luke’s revitalised story of Peter’s succession did not go unchallenged. Some of the northern Mediterranean churches had been established by Paul.

Paul in fact was a Gnostic, who had undergone his own revelation of the divine Jesus, and he founded his churches along the south of Greece and Western Asia Minor and kept contact with his followers by Gnostic Letters. The Gnostic- Jesus movement communities. But they had been soon overrun by the Roman Christians and for the most part they succumbed to Roman Christianity.

But there remained opposition to Rome. Paul’s Letters thereupon became a minefield. An official collection of Letters had large Roman insertions or corrections made in them, sometimes making Paul’s logic untenable. Titus and 1-2 Timothy were forgeries by later Roman Christians to enforce Roman Christian practice; Ephesians and Colossians were forgeries written by obstinate Gnostics trying to uphold the thought of the now deceased Paul. What has ended up in our hands today has been a Roman edited version of the Letters of the original Gnostic Paul with the Roman forgeries and the Roman edited Gnostic forgeries written by Paul’s spiritual descendants.

There is more. An author, trying to extend the narrative thread of Luke’s Gospel, wrote the Acts of the Apostles. It admitted the part played by the Apostles Peter, James and John as in Mark, Matthew and Luke. But the eventual successor of Jesus and the one who travelled to Rome was said to be Paul (Peter simply went to ‘another place’). Luke and Acts were subsequently artificially combined as two volumes of the one work and long attributed to ‘Luke’, despite the dissonance between them.

The Three ‘Founders of Christianity’

In Christian memory by the second century CE, with Roman Christianity very much in the ascendancy, three founders of Christianity were acknowledged. The first was Peter, the successor of Jesus, who had founded the Church of Rome which accordingly was superior to all other Christian churches. James the Zaddik had established the church in Jerusalem and its adjacent areas in Palestine. He was recognised by his followers as an alternate High Priest of the Holy City of Jerusalem.

The third founder is more complex. He was ‘John’, but early Christianity knew many Johns. Significantly, there was John of Patmos who went from his island home as a charismatic Christian announcing the End of Times in apocalyptic terms. In Western Asia Minor, now western Turkey, he discovered largely Gnostic communities, some founded by Paul and his emissaries and some who had migrated from the Palestinian area because of opposition from the Jews and other Jesus movements. John was acclaimed by these communities.

Focussing now on Western Asia Minor, we conjecture that these early Gnostic communities in Western Asia Minor had brought with them from Palestine complex Gnostic Christian writings. There was the Gnostic Book of Seven Signs, a number of Gnostic-Jesus Treatises and sometimes extensive Gnostic-Jesus Discourses. Slowly these were amalgamated and the name of ‘John’ was superimposed in honour of the great leader from Patmos. This would have been the first edition of the Gospel of John. There was also an apocalyptic book, the Book of Revelation, which gathered apocalyptic Discourses under the name of the same John. (Crotty, 2012)

As in other places, Roman Christianity came to Asia Minor in the second century together with the advance of Roman civilisation. It found Christians with beliefs and practices quite different to their own Roman beliefs and practices. Roman Christianity then seriously re-edited the Gospel of John and the Divine Gnostic-Jesus became a human who was also divine; Peter was reinstated as the successor of Jesus. They re-edited the Book of Revelation and made sure that it pointed to a Last Day whose coming could be measured. The author of the gospel and the Book of Revelation was therefore named after John of Patmos, the revered one of the area, now long deceased. ‘John’ was responsible for founding Christianity in the vast area.

But within the Roman Jesus Tradition an accommodation was made regarding the founders: Peter, James of Jerusalem and John of Patmos. Gnostic followers claimed that he was the real successor to Jesus and there were Gnostic communities in Rome itself. The Roman Tradition as in Mark claimed that there had been Twelve Apostles nominated by Jesus in his lifetime. The leader was Peter. Two other Apostles were of a higher status than the others: the two brothers, James of Zebedee and John of Zebedee. Thus the final Roman Tradition denied James the Zaddik and John of Patmos a place in the Twelve and created two brothers of the same names in their place. Zebedee was invented as a father of the two.

So it was that the Roman gospel was Mark. It had been reapplied to Roman Christian communities beyond the Roman aegis. Paul’s Letters were Gnostic in their teaching and practice. They were rewritten and defused by the Romans. John’s Gospel was Gnostic; it was edited to become a Roman gospel. The Acts of the Apostles was added to Luke and its message about the priority of Paul languished. Paul had become a loyal Roman Christian apostle. The Book of Revelation was Romanised and lost its spiritual immediacy.

The text of the Acts of the Apostles had at one time showed that indeed Peter, James and John had ruled the Church but they had acknowledged Paul as the new visionary and handed over their authority to him. Later, the Roman Church would accept the Acts but tone down the position of Peter, James the Zaddik and John; they had not handed over leadership in the Church to Paul, they had simply recognised Paul’s ministry as valid.

Charged by the power of historical circumstances, the Roman Christian church expanded from west to east. It eliminated other forms of the Jesus movement. It even more energetically endeavoured to control Gnostic Christianity. By the time of Constantine there were only the two contenders: Roman Christianity and Gnostic Christianity. Constantine’s interest was in the former and he did not want Christian dissent either within Roman Christianity or outside it.

Gnostic Christianity was subdued brutally by Roman military force. But Christian Rome had conquered the known world. It brought with it Roman Christianity; no other was allowed.

Roman Christianity – the Survivor

Roman Christianity was the last standing survivor. And so today, Western Christianity, Eastern Christianity, Reform Christianity, Non-Conformist Christianity, Pentecostal Christian are all Roman Christians. They are more alike than different. They all hold to the Roman Christian template:

  • The Jewish prophets acted by means of the Spirit of God to foretell Jesus
  • Jesus was truly human and truly divine simultaneously
  • The blood sacrifice of Jesus, based on that of Isaac, atoned for sinfulness
  • Jesus’ death was due to the evil Judas and the machinations of the Jewish aristocracy
  • Christian leadership, founded on Peter the successor of Jesus, was modelled on the Roman pattern
  • Jesus had established the sacraments of Baptism, the rite of initiation, and Eucharist, the rite of sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus
  • There will be a coming Last Day and Last Judgement

So it came about that by the time of Constantine there was no longer any doubt: Jesus had come as human and divine, had died the death of a martyr to redeem humans, had established The Twelve with Peter in command. This group would set up the Church in the way it would be by the time of Constantine. All historical byways and features had been eliminated. The story was seamless and only Roman Christianity was the final survivor and the victor.


Crotty, R. (2012), ‘Hagar/Hajar, Muslim Women and Islam: Reflections on the Historical and Theological Ramifications of the Story of Ishmael’s Mother’ in T. Lovat (ed.). Women in Islam. Reflections on Historical and Contemporary Research, Springer: Dordrecht

Crotty, R. (2016), Jesus, his Mother, her Sister Mary and Mary Magdalene. The Gnostic Background of the gospel of John, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

Crotty, R. (1996b), ‘James the Just in the History of Early Christianity’, Australian Biblical Review, 44, pp.42-52

Franzmann, M. (2001), Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Writings, T and T Clark: Edinburgh

Franzmann, M. (2011). “Gnostic Portraits of Jesus.” In The Blackwell Companion to Jesus, ed. Delbert Burkett, pp. 160-175. Blackwell Publishing: London

Richardson, P. (1996), Augustan-Era Synagogues in Rome. In K. Donfried and P.

Richardson (eds.) Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids and Cambridge, pp. 17-29

Wiefel, W. (1991), ‘The Jewish Community in Rome’ in K. Donfried (ed.), The Romans Debate, sec.ed. Hendrickson and Peabody, Mass.

Comments (1)

How might we best understand the crucial terms 'Roman' and 'Gnostic'? Is there any overlap between the sets of those they denote? Does 'Roman' mean 'exalting Rome' or even, even in some approximate way, 'imperialist'? I would rather welcome a challenge to the anti-imperialist school of interpretation of early Christianity, whose case I think extremely overstated. But perhaps you think that Roman Christianity amounted to an imperialist appropriation of the text? Do you regard Gnosis as different in its political as well as its theological views?
To me Acts, while certainly exalting Paul, also exalts Rome: the storyline is the wonderful achievement of the journey of God's message to humanity from Jerusalem to Rome, where for a time, but perhaps for the first time, Paul enjoys free speech. Leaping ahead to Constantine it strikes me that the Roman Church was rather sidelined, perhaps brutally, in the production of what was to be the major Creed, which therefore projects down the centuries a theology that is not that Roman in the sense of springing from Roman intellectual traditions, still less in the sense of glorifying Rome or its Church.

#1 - Martin Hughes - 01/10/2017 - 17:25

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