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The Ecole

Christianity in Crete (to 827)


Because of its central location in the eastern Mediterranean, Crete was continually drawn into the affairs of Greece and Rome, though always as a pawn manipulated by greater powers. Its fiercely independent city-states resisted unification and generally adopted conservative constitutions modeled on that of Sparta. Knossos and Gortyna, the two most important Cretan cities, dominated the island's northern and southern coasts respectively and were highly regarded in the ancient world for their wealth and antiquity.

In the Hellenistic era Crete came under the influence of the Ptolemaic dynasts of Egypt, who established a garrison and naval base at Itanos and ties with other cities. The incessant wars among the Cretan cities brought Roman intervention early in the second century BCE, but it was not until Metellus' conquest of the island in 68-7 BCE that it was absorbed by the Empire. Crete was administered as a joint province with Cyrene from at least the time of Augustus until 295-7. Shortly thereafter, Constantine made it a senatorial province under a consularis in the Diocese of Macedonia in the Prefecture of Illyricum. This arrangement lasted until the seventh century, when the Arabs began their assault on Crete from North Africa. The Arab conquest was completed in 827-8.

Of particular significance for the history of Christianity in Crete is the sizable Jewish population which no doubt formed the basis of the early church there. Numerous ancient authorities attest to Crete's status as one of the flourishing centers of the Diaspora. I Macc. 15:23, for example, cites Gortyna as one of the cities to which the Roman Senate sent its proclamation of 139 BCE warning against the molestation of Jews. Philo (Leg. ad Gaium 282) counted Crete among those regions of the Empire with important Jewish communities; and Josephus, who married a woman from a Cretan Jewish family, considered the Jews of Crete sufficiently numerous to mention them as supporters of the imposter who sought to succeed Herod the Great by impersonating his son, Alexander (AJ 17.324-8; BJ 2.101-10).


The earliest reference to Christianity in Crete is Acts 2:1-41, which describes the conversion of Cretan Jews who were in Jerusalem at Pentecost. A second account is found in the Letter to Titus, where we are told that Paul left Titus on the island (ca. 57) with instructions to organize the church and "appoint elders in every town" (1:5). Titus also describes the qualifications for church leaders and refers to false teachings which threatened their congregations; e.g., "Jewish myths" (1:14) and "genealogies" (2:9). But the extent to which the letter reflects the actual roles of Paul and Titus and the circumstances of the church in the mid-first century is called into question by the majority of NT scholars who consider it a post-Pauline composition. Apart from ancient local tradition which assumed Paul's mission to Crete, regarded Titus as its first bishop and ultimately venerated his relics at Gortyna (Ferguson, 904), we have no other sources for Cretan Christianity in the first century.

Though limited, the historical record suggests that the church in Crete enjoyed steady growth from the second century until the Arab conquest and that the bishops of Gortyna quickly established themselves as its leaders. Gortyna's importance is also indicated by its many ancient churches and status as Crete's richest source of Christian inscriptions.

Our earliest post-biblical source is Eusebius, who refers to the second-century correspondence of Bishop Dionysius of Corinth with the Cretan bishops Philip of Gortyna and Pinytus of Knossos. Eusebius describes Philip as the author of a "very elaborate treatise against Marcion" (HE 4.25) who presided over a church both noted for its virtue and, according to Dionysius, endangered by the errors of heretics (HE 4.23). Of Pinytus, Eusebius tells us that he was a "learned" and "orthodox" theologian who was urged by Dionysius to reconsider the wisdom of the "heavy and compulsory burden" of chastity he had imposed on his congregation (HE 4.23). Eusebius' reference (HE 4.23) to the "other dioceses" in Crete to which Dionysius wrote indicates that Christianity had spread well beyond Gortyna and Knossos by the end of the second century.

The martyrdom of The Ten at Hagioi Deka ("Ten Saints") in the region of Gortyna during the Decian persecution of 250-51 also points to the growth of Christianity in Crete. According to an episcopal letter of 458, the martyrs represented all regions of the island (Schwartz, v. 2, epist. 48, pp. 96-7; Detorakes, 53-94). The participation of Cretan bishops in church councils offers additional evidence. Three bishops -- from Hierapytna, Cydonia and Kissamos -- attended the Council of Sardica in 343. Seven were present at Chalcedon in 451, though four additional sees not represented there are known to have existed by that time. By the eighth century there were twelve dioceses: Gortyna, Hierapytna, Chersonisos, Siteia, Arcades, Sybrita, Knossos, Eleutherna, Lappa, Cydonia, Kissamos, and Kantanos. These included more than seventy churches.

But the eighth century also saw the beginning of important changes. Emperor Leo III's reorganization in 732-3 removed Crete from direct papal authority and brought it within the see of Constantinople. A century later the Arab conquest brought the suppression of Christianity and the destruction of many of the island's churches. In 961 Crete was reclaimed by the Byzantine Empire, only to fall later into the hands of the Venetians. Thus, in the Middle Ages its religious life was shaped by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox influences.


The most notable figure in the early history of Cretan Christianity is St. Andrew of Crete (ca. 660-740), who distinguished himself as an orator, hymnographer and theologian. Born at Damascus, he was a monk in Jerusalem and a deacon in Constantinople before coming to Crete, where he was elected metropolitan between 692 and 713.

Nearly sixty of his sermons and hymns are known (Geerard, 8170-8228). The former display considerable oratorical skill and refer to the invasions of the Scythians (Bulgarians) and Arabs as well as to Leo III's persecution of the Jews. Andrew's most famous hymn is the "Great Canon" (canon magnus), a lengthy penitential hymn in 250 strophes. As a theologian, Andrew is best known for his interest in the Virgin Mary and, in particular, his view that she was in a unique way a daughter of God. We know, too, that he defended the veneration of images before the Emperor Constantine Copronymos.


The Christian epigraphy of Crete includes more than one hundred Greek inscriptions, nearly all of which belong to the period 300- 700. Most are sepulchral and tend to offer more information than pagan tombstones about the deceased. About one-fifth are ecclesiastical and give evidence of ancient bishops, archbishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, presbyters, monks, nuns, readers and a cantor.

While the inscriptions do not offer a coherent picture of early Cretan Christianity, they do indicate certain of its features. Many demonstrate belief in the intercessory powers of the of the Mother of Christ (e.g., Bandy, nos. 9, 85, 86) and the saints (e.g., Bandy, nos. 24, 85, 112). A few tell us the locations of religious communities (e.g., at Gortyna, Biannos and Lappa) and preserve the names of monks and nuns (e.g., Bandy, nos. 2, 36, 56, 88, 93). Others give us the occupations of Christians (e.g., horse-doctor, tailor, archive-keeper) and reflect the rise of Christians to such prominent positions as "consul" and "father of the city" in the period after Constantine.


Christian basilicas are the most common Cretan archeological remains from the Roman period. Nearly seventy have been discovered or are known to have existed, most of simple Aegean design. Nearly all appear to date from 450-550. The most remarkable is the cross-domed cathedral of St. Titus in Gortyna, which represents the highest development of church architecture in Crete by the seventh century. Some churches were built on the sites of pagan temples, such as the Acropolis at Gortyna and Viran Episkopi, or of Christian cemeteries, as at Knossos, Arvi and possibly Mallia. In at least one case a pagan temple was converted into a church: the basilica of Pythian Apollo at Gortyna. Other noteworthy churches are those of Chersonisos, Panormos and Suia.

The early Christian art of Crete is limited almost entirely to the mosaics which covered the floors of its churches. These are generally floral or geometric rather than distintively Christian in design. Excellent examples are those from the churches of Sybrita, Olus and Kera.


Bandy, A. The Greek Christian Inscriptions of Crete. Athens: Christian Archaeological Society, 1970.
Detorakes, Th. Hoi Hagioi tes Protes Buzantines Periodou tes Kretes. Athens, 1970.
Eusebius. Historia Ecclesiastica. Trans., R.J. Defarrari. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953.
Ferguson, E. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland, 1990. S.v. "Titus."
Geerard, M. (ed.). Clavis Patrum Graecorum. 5 vols. Turnhout: Brepols, 1974-87. S.v. "Andreas Cretensis."
Josephus. Antiquitates Judaicae and de Bello Judaico. Trans. H. Thackeray and R. Marcus. The Loeb Classical Library. London: Heinemann, 1965-69.
Nystrom, B. "Inscriptiones Creticae IV.509: An Ancient Christian Priest?" Zeitschrift fuer Papyrologie und Epigraphik. 50 (1983) 122.
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991. S.v. "Andrew of Crete."
Philo of Alexandria. Legatio ad Gaium. Trans. E.M. Smallwood. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961.
Sanders, I.F. Roman Crete. Warminster: Aris & Philips, 1982.
Schwartz, E. (ed.). Acta conciliorum oecumenicorum. Vol. II. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1936.
Spyridakis, S. "Notes on the Jews of Gortyna and Crete." Zeitschrift fuer Papyrologie und Epigraphik 73 (1988) 171-75.
Spyridakis, S. "Cretan Ecclesiastical Inscriptions: Notes and Observations." Kretika Khronika 30 (1990) 62-76.

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