From the very beginning of Westar, with the work of the Jesus Seminar, we have been striving to understand and make known the historical origins of Christianity. Just as the Jesus Seminar advanced the findings of scholarship about the historical Jesus and disseminated the results to the public, so the Christianity Seminar has been taking the next steps to reimagine how the movement that began around Jesus eventually became Christian orthodoxy and the official religion of the Roman Empire. For the last eight years, we have focused on the first two centuries, a time after Jesus, but before “Christianity” as we now know it had taken shape. By the end of the second century of the Christian era, an assortment of groups and communities identified by their association with Jesus were only beginning to grapple with the significant differences in how they thought about and expressed that association.
The Christianity Seminar now begins a new phase, in which it will examine the next two centuries of developments among Jesus-related communities in the third and fourth centuries, culminating in the establishment of one particular articulation of this movement as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 381 C.E. As hard as it may be to accept, it is only in this period that we have the first manuscripts, works of art, and architectural remains related to Jesus. This evidence reveals continued diversity among groups on the ground, alongside the emergence of new aspects of religious identity, as these groups confronted a changing political, social, economic, and cultural environment, not only within the Roman Empire, but beyond its borders as they moved into areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe beyond Roman control. Legalization of at least some forms of Christianity under the emperor Constantine effected the most dramatic change in conditions for these groups, not all of which were experienced as positive.
The Christianity Seminar, Phase II, will be exploring key aspects of this history, as we bring the latest scholarly methods and insights to the wider public, in order to better understand how and why particular elements came to be part of the religion we know today as Christianity. Recovering an accurate picture of early Christianity provides an opportunity to critically assess the choices made along the way of Christian history, and reconnect with lost aspects of the faith that may speak to people today in fresh ways.
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