The earliest Christians were followers of Jesus in a world in which they had no political power or cultural influence. The earliest followers of Jesus were Palestinian Jews, but the movement soon spread to Jews in the Diaspora, the larger world of Hellenistic (Greek) civilization and Roman law. But Gentiles were soon attracted to the way of life and faith introduced by Jesus and before long became a majority in the movement.
Jews and Christians eventually went their separate ways. The Christians continued to acknowledge their indebtedness to Israel by teaching their children the 10 commandments and the Psalms, and in fact by adopting the Hebrew Scriptures as their Bible. Of course, for most of them it wasn’t actually the Hebrew Bible–it was the Greek Version of it, or a translation based on the Greek (aka the LXX or Septuagint).
By the way, there is an important omission in this summary. Many early Christians spread into the middle east: Syria, Iraq, and Persia in particular–and some went to the far east: China and India for example. This is important and should be studied. But for this class, we are mainly concerned with the development of western civilization and its influence on the interpretation of the Bible.
Until Galerius and Constantine issued the “Edict of Toleration,” Christians were an often-persecuted minority. Beginning in the second century some educated Christians such as Justin began defending their lives and their faith. They appealed to the Greek philosophers and sometimes compared their leaders and even their Savior to Socrates who was persecuted in his search for truth.
By the fifth century, Christians had become prominent and influential. When Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Vandals in 410, some of the old Romans blamed the spreading Christian movement. “See what happened when we stopped serving the old gods who defended us for a thousand years!” they said.
Augustine responded by writing “The City of God,” and in the process created the basis for a new civilization that we call the Christendom. We could also say this was the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. The civilization of the Middle Ages was based on the Christian faith, built on the foundations of classical civilization. In particular Roman law and administration, and the philosophy and poetry of the Greeks as adopted by the Romans and expressed in Latin.
The Latin language, the classical heritage, and the Christian faith gave a unity to the middle ages.
Augustine had been profoundly influenced by Platonic philosophy. Plato was more interested in eternal truths than the shadows and illusions of this world. For Augustine that fit perfectly with the Christian longing for a heavenly city whose builder and maker is God.
Chaos descended on the ruins of the Roman empire, but faith in the heavenly city sustained this new civilization through difficult days. meanwhile, monks in Ireland and other places were keeping literature and literacy alive, as they opened schools for orphaned children and copied the Bible and the classics of the classical world.