Religion & Beliefs

A (Brief) Jewish Guide to Christian History (Part II)

When we left off, a loosely organized band of Jesus-loving Jews had just begun to form “a religion”.  What happened? Then they split up again: Orthodoxy and Catholicism  Then what happened?  Well, you have to bear in mind that as … Read More

By / April 27, 2007
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When we left off, a loosely organized band of Jesus-loving Jews had just begun to form “a religion”.  What happened?

Then they split up again: Orthodoxy and Catholicism 

Then what happened?  Well, you have to bear in mind that as time went on, and Christianity picked up steam, it drew converts from all over.  It grew like wildfire, and there began to be different seats of power.  We date the Schism of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church to 1054, but really these flavors of Christianity had been dividing for a long time. With primary capitals in Rome and Constantinople, different languages (Latin and Greek), the collapse of the Roman Empire, and serious conflict over theological issues… there was a lot for these far flung communities to fight about.   

But one thing that unifies both sets of churches today is that both believe in Apostolic Succession, that they can trace unbroken lineage of their leadership back to the apostles (kind of like a rabbinic dynasty). Both are old traditions with old languages, and both like to gild things and burn incense.

So why are there several kinds of Orthodoxy today

Good question!  Why aren’t the Orthodox Churches unified under one umbrella like the Catholic Church?  This is tricky, but the basic reason is that they never really were unified in the first place.  In the beginning, neither was Rome.   

Think about the early seats of religious power as a loose federation of leadership, not as a union.  There were these bishops in Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and they were really independent representatives of their Churches, and not so much a governing body. As time went by, the churches all splintered and splintered again, and it’s SO complicated.

There are a lot of distinct churches, and I can’t go into it all (because I don’t know it all). But basically, you can lump most of the Eastern Orthodox Churches (based on what language they speak) into the Greek and Russian Orthodoxies.  To make things even more complicated, some churches, like the Oriental Orthodox (Coptics) and the Armenian Church, really split off long before Catholicism did.  And so they don’t even make it into the “Eastern Orthodoxy” camp.   

This is a little hard to understand if you compare the process to the evolution of Judaism, because we’ve divided ourselves so clearly into camps and unions.  But bear in mind that when we, in the West, think of Catholicism as the “primary” orthodox Christian faith, we’re doing that because it’s the one we know best.  In truth, each Orthodox Church broke off as an independent group (including the Catholic Church), and the urge to form an umbrella organization out of them is (I think) in many cases political, and not theological. I wonder, if we called Catholicism “Roman Orthodoxy”, whether we’d get confused about this issue so much?

Oy!  Now I see why nobody ever attempts a “brief” history of religious evolution…  

(tune in on Monday to watch me gloss over important distinctions among Protestant denominations.  I’ll also be offering tips on who—historically—REALLY thinks we’re going to hell!)