The significance of Orthodox Christianity is twofold. The first is its ability to provide insights into the history of early Christians. The Orthodox Church clings to early Christian beliefs and practices that date from the missionary work of the Apostle Paul a few decades after the death of Jesus. Secondly, the Orthodox Church is the most influential Christian denomination in many parts of Eastern Europe, the Near East and Mediterranean, including Greece, Turkey and Russia.
Shortly after the death of Jesus, the Apostle Paul (ca. 5-67 A.D.) became the most significant leader of the early Christians. Paul preached not only to Jews in the Middle East but also to Gentiles in Greece and the Mediterranean. The converts Paul made in the Mediterranean formed the origins of the Orthodox Church. From the beginning, these non-Jewish converts shared significant cultural, historical and geographical differences from their Jewish counterparts, a divide that culminated centuries later in 1054.
The Byzantine Church
Constantine (272-337 A.D.) reunited the Roman Empire and became the first emperor to convert to Christianity. He moved the seat of empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 and began what is commonly called the Byzantine Empire. The histories of the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire are intertwined, and a study of the empire is also a study of the Orthodox Church. However, Constantine could not reconcile the differences between Rome and Constantinople, and the empire soon split.
Upon the death of Constantine, the Roman Empire was split again by his two sons. One ruled from Rome and the other from Constantinople. This increased the cultural divide between a western Christian tradition in Rome, using the Latin Bible, and an eastern tradition in Constantinople that translated the Bible into Greek. In the 11th century, the Orthodox Church formally broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1054, Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Constantinople Church.
The Orthodox Church and the Modern Era
Although not as common in the United States, the various Orthodox churches comprise the second largest group of Christians, following Roman Catholics, in the world. They are found in large numbers in Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey and Greece. The Orthodox Church maintains strong liturgical, cultural and historical ties with its earliest history and traditions that are traced from the eastern Christian tradition begun by Paul’s missionary work, Constantine’s religious conversion and the great schism with the Catholic Church in 1054.
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