Early depiction of Jesus. He has short hair, no beard, and a calf around his shoulders.

Early Christianity Explored: Practices, Origins, and More

Origins of Christianity

The Christian religion got its start as a subset of Judaism. In the third and fourth centuries, Christianity developed substantial differences from that of Judaism. The figure of Jesus was Jewish, and his teachings called for the adherence to the Old Testament (Or Torah), as the New Testament was not yet written. The Romans destroying the Second Temple partially spurred on the deviation from Judaism. This event was catastrophic for Jews and Christians. Thus, many reexamined their beliefs. Jewish leaders made the decision that they would no longer actively seek converts. Jewish religious figures made this decision due to the anxiety associated with their monumental defeat and prejudice from the Romans. Christians, on the other hand, had waived the requirement for new Christians to convert to Judaism years before the destruction. This greatly bolstered the number of Christians, as converting to Judaism is a lengthy and rigorous process.

Early depiction of Jesus. He has short hair, no beard, and a calf around his shoulders.
One of the earliest depictions of Jesus, dating to the third century. Notice how different he looks from the images today (ex. short hair, no beard).

Conflicts Between The Apostles: Curses

The death of Jesus split the Christian faith, with followers pledging allegiance to different apostles. This conflict led to the apostles calling on God and Jesus to curse their rivals, as documented in the book of Acts. This book describes how God curses Zechariah for speaking his doubts pertaining to the birth of John the Baptist. The passage reads, “The angel said to him,  I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” The book also recalls God’s punishment of Judas, leading to his death.

History of Cursing

Curses seem foreign to the modern Christian, as God is a being of love and forgiveness. This view of God aligns with the behavior seen in the New Testament. On the contrary, the God of the Old Testament is stern towards humanity. The reason for the presence of cursing in the Christian tradition is the other religions of the time. The polytheistic religions common during the formation of Christian theology had histories of cursing. Thus, early Christian belief also included the practice.

Polytheism in the Christian Tradition

As a result of surrounding cultural influences, the foundation of early Christianity was polytheism. This might be hard to believe, because many Christians today speak negatively of polytheism and view beliefs of this type as evil. Although, this view of polytheism in the faith did not develop until Christianity and other Abrahamic religions were the state religions of powerful empires, thus polytheistic influence was diminished. Before this, however, Christian belief had to coexist in a region where the Sumerians (and later the Akkadians) were the most powerful force. Both of these empires had polytheistic religions that greatly influenced early Judaism and Christianity.


An example of biblical polytheism is the figure of Lilith in the bible. A group of Jews in 700 – 1000 CE believed that Lilith was the first wife of Adam, a view that has been adopted by many Christians today. The video “Who is Lilith? Adam’s first wife?” makes the case that Lilith refers to a type of female night demon and is similar in function to a succubus. The Sumerians called this type of demon ki-sikil-lil-la-ke, the Akkadians called them lilitu, and the Greek called them Lamia. Take note of how similar these terms are to Lilith. The word “Lilith” comes from Hebrew.  The roll of the lilith (translated as “screech owl”) can be seen in its association with the satyr in Isaiah 34:14. The saytr is a type of lustful god who drinks heavily, hence the association with the lilith is clear.

Bowl with the carving of a lilith demon
This bowl from Mesopotamia depicts a lilith demon. It dates to 600 CE.
Credit: Semitic Musuem

Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is also another sign of Christian polytheism. This is because all three of the entities that make up the trinity are equally divine. The three components of the trinity are the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. One popular way that Christians reconcile this polytheistic aspect of the religion is to view all three entities as different aspects of the same God. This is similar to monolatrism. Religions that are monolatristic believe in the existence of many gods, but only worship one. The meaning of the Holy Trinity, and how to reconcile the monotheistic nature of the religion with the concept, is still a topic of scholarly interest.

Music in Early Christian Worship

It is clear that songs have been integral to Christian worship since the beginning. This is evident from the Book of Psalms, which provides readers with prayers and songs of worship. The Old Testament indicates that psalms are to be accompanied by string instruments. Christians were not the first to practice worship through music, however. This custom was already well established in Judaism, and is similar to the Greek practice of hymns. Notably, the Jewish scholar Philo of the first century encouraged followers to compose their own hymns. He writes,” Then the President rises and sings a hymn composed as an address to God, either a new one of his own composition or an old one by poets of an earlier day who have left behind them hymns…” The encouragement of early Christians and Jews to develop personal ways of worship is fascinating.

Group of monks reciting a hymn. They are positioned in front of a stand holding music.
Monks performing the Gregorian Chant

How Christianity Mixes with Preestablished Belief Systems


Christians in India believe that the apostle Thomas came to the region in the first century, bringing Christianity with him. This is highly possible, as it is known that trade occurred across the Indian ocean. St. Thomas first preached to the preexisting Jewish community. Next, St. Thomas increased his scope to include interested Hindus. The earliest archeological evidence for Christianity in India, a collection of stone crosses, date to the eighth century. The crosses are clearly Christian artifacts, but their design incorporates Buddist and Hindu symbols. The St. Thomas Cross, also known as the Persian Cross, incorporates Hindu symbols. These include markaras, sea creatures that are guardians in Hindu mythology.

Image of a St .Thomas cross.
A St. Thomas Cross from the 7th century.
Credit: Christian Musicological Society of India

East Africa: Aksum

The kingdom of Aksum adopted Christianity in the third century. Researchers believe that Christian belief spread to this region through trade along the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Missionaries also helped the faith, but traders made the most impact. This is because merchants stayed in the Aksum region for long periods of time, setting up their own communities for worship. These communities slowly got the local population interested.


Early Christian leadership widely accepted the owning of slaves, and set strict guidelines on the proper treatment of slaves. For example, Augustine claimed that God wants masters to whip their slaves as a form of punishment, but to not do it out of anger. Some Christian sects, however, opposed slavery. One such group was the Marcionites. This sect believed that there was no difference in value between master and slave, or man and woman. Early Christian theology states that slavery is the consequence of sin, thus it was not created by God. The purpose of punishing a slave was to teach them to be a better Christian. Slave owners often punished female slaves for lack of modesty. Methods of punishment included starving, beating, and confinement.

Depiction of Roman slaves catering to their masters.


Fasting was a huge part of early Christianity. A fast was usually done when one suffered a catastrophic event. Early Christians and Jews believed that fasting and fervent prayer would help their problems. More reasons to fast include addressing one’s sins, one is in mourning, ritual purification, and magic. Fasting helps to put one in an emotional state, thus the desired outcome of the ritual is more easily attainable. Fasting also allows one to gain control over a stressful situation, something someone who feels helpless desperately craves.

Depicts Jesus being tempted to break his fast.
Credit: James Tissot


Early Christians were charitable in nature. For instance, Christians in first century Jerusalem organized free communal meals. Wealthy members of the congregation provided funds for these events. The Christian Author Tertullian provides insight on the proper use of money in the faith, “Even if there is a chest of a sort, it is not made up of money paid in entrance-fees, as if religion were a matter of contract. Every man once a month brings some coin – or whatever he wishes, and only if he does wish, and if he can… You might call them the trust funds of piety. For they are not spent upon banquets nor drinking parties nor thankless eating-houses; but to feed the poor and to bury them, for boys and girls who lack property and parents… provided that it is for the sake of God’s school, become the pensioners of their confession…”

Monk giving food to those in need.


The role of women in many cultures has been tied to their ability to reproduce. This is a view that was also held by early Christians, but women of the faith in this time period experienced more independence through their roles in church life. The surrounding Roman culture linked the relationships women had with men to their worth, although women did have a lot of freedom when it came to the running of their household. Divorce was also somewhat common, and women frequently became widows due to their husbands being older.

Writings of Paul

The Apostle Paul challenged the idea that a woman’s value comes from her marital status in Corinthians, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” He also calls for equality in marriage through the passage, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” These statements clearly depart from the Roman view of marriage and the role of women. Paul also said that married couples should love each other, as Christ loves humanity. This was revolutionary because Roman culture saw marriage more as a transaction.


Lust was also a huge topic of discussion. Paul believed that both men and women must not commit adultery and lust should be avoided. Roman culture allowed men to be unfaithful with slaves and unmarried women, but women faced harsh punishment for the same behavior. The theologian Augustine thought that sex should only be for reproductive purposes, but if sex for lust must occur, it has to be in the bonds of marriage. He also believed it was wrong for a married couple to engage in anything but penetrative vaginal sex, as this is the only way impregnation is possible.


Many positions in the Christian church require celibacy. Early Christians had a great deal of respect for those who chose this way of life. They viewed people who were celibate as being closer to God. Many Christians of the time believed sex was born of sin, and God did not want humanity to reproduce this way. Evidence for this is the creation of Adam and Eve, which was done without sex. It was not easy to be celibate, however. This was because of the societal pressure to marry. Thus, many married couples were celibate together. Celibacy was very attractive to women because it allowed them to have more freedom. The whims of a husband did not restrict them, and they did not have to worry about dying in childbirth.

Early Christianity: An Overview

Christianity has its roots within Judaism. Over the centuries, the distinction between the two faiths became apparent. The biggest difference that developed is that Christians attempt to convert others, while Jews are not interested in procuring converts. Judaism was not the only faith that influenced Christianity. The polytheistic influence from Sumer and Akad can be seen through Lilith. The Holy Trinity is another example of polytheistic thinking. The teachings of Jesus emphasize the importance of being charitable. Communal meal events common in first century Jerusalem were interpretations of these teachings. Christian doctrine also provided information on sexuality, advocating for more freedom for women. Unfortunately, those in slavery were not included in this better treatment. Biblical texts called for the harsh punishment of slaves, as they believed it would make them better Christians. Christianity has spread throughout the whole world, making it the most popular religion practiced today.

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