Early history


The Biertan Donarium - an early Christian votive object of early 4th century, unearthed at Biertan, near Sibiu, in Romania
"I, Zenovius, offered this gift"

Christianity was brought on the territory of modern-day Romania either by the occupying Romans or, according to tradition, by the Apostle Andrew, who preached in Scythia Minor (present-day Dobrogea). The Roman province had traces of all imperial religions, including Mithraism, but Christianity, a regio illicita, existed among some of the Romans. The Roman Empire soon found it was too costly to maintain a permanent garrison north of the lower Danube. Starting 106 AD, a permanent military and administrative Roman presence was registered only till 271 AD. However, as in many other provinces of the Empire, Christianity had taken root.

When the Romanians formed as a people, it is quite clear that they already possessed the Christian faith, as proved by tradition, as well as by archaeological and linguistic evidence. Basic terms of Christianity are of Latin origin: such as church ("biserică" < basilica), God ("Dumnezeu" < Domine Deus), Easter ("Paşte" < Paschae), Pagan ("Păgân" < Paganus), Angel ("Înger" < Angelus), cross ("cruce" < crux,-cis), christian ("creştin" < christianus), to baptize ("a boteza" < batizare). Some of them, especially "Church" - Biserica are unique to Romanian Orthodoxy.

Very few traces can be found in Romanian names that are left from Roman Christianity after the Slavic influence began. All the names of the saints were preserved in Latin form: "Sântămăria" (Mary), "Sâmpietru" (Saint Peter), "Sângiordz" (Saint George) and Sânmedru (Saint Demetrius), "Sânandrei" (Saint Andrew), "Sântoader" (Saint Theodore), etc. The non-religious onomastic proof of pre-Christian habits, like "Sânziana" and "Cosânzeana" (Sancta Diana and Qua Sancta Diana) is only of anecdotal value in this context. Yet, the highly spiritualized places in the mountains, the processions, the calendars, and even the physical locations of the early churches were clearly the same with those of the Dacians. Even Saint Andrew is known locally as the Apostle "of the wolves" - with very old and large connotations, whereby the wolf's head was an ethnicon and a symbol of military and spiritual "fire" for Dacians.

The earliest evidence of Christianity is a grave inscription from the second century, found in Napoca, bearing the formula Sit tibi terra levis [1]. The inscription was made by a "college" (a trading association) whose members originated from the Middle East. Among the other persons mentioned in the inscription, most of them bear Roman names, suggesting that Christianity had spread among the ranks of the soldiers as early as the 2nd century A.D.

Christianity in Scythia Minor

While Dacia was part of the Roman Empire for less than two centuries, Scythia Minor (nowadays Dobrogea) was part of it much longer. After the breakdown of the Roman Empire, it became part of the Byzantine Empire.

The first encounter of Christianity in Scythia Minor was when Saint Andrew, brother of Saint Peter, passed through the region in the 1st century with his disciples. Later on, Christianity became the predominant faith of Scythia Minor, as proven by the large number of remains of early Christian churches. The Roman administration was ruthless with the Christians, as the great number of martyrs demonstrates.

Bishop Ephrem, killed on 7 March 304 in Tomis, was the first Christian martyr of this region and was followed by countless others, especially during the repression ordered by emperors Diocletian, Galerius, Licinius and Julian the Apostate.

An important, impressive number of dioceses and martyrs are first attested during the times of Ante-Nicene Fathers. The first known Daco-Roman Christian priest Montanus and his wife Maxima were drowned, as martyrs, because of their faith, on March 26, 304.

The 1971 archaeological digs under the paleo-Christian basilica in Niculiţel (near ancient Noviodunum in Scythia Minor) unearthed an even older martyrium. Besides Zoticos, Attalos, Kamasis and Filippos, who suffered martyrdom under Diocletian (304-305), the relics of two previous martyrs, witnessing and dying during the repressions of Emperor Decius (249-251), were unearthed under the crypt.

The names of these martyrs had been placed since their death in church records, and the find of the tomb with the names written inside was astonishing. The fact that the relics of the famous Saint Sava "the Goth" (martyred by drowning in the River Buzău, under Athanaric on 12 April 372) were recovered by Saint Basil the Great conclusively demonstrates that (unlike bishop Wulfila) Saint Sava was a follower of the Nicene faith, not a heresiarch like Arius.

Once the Dacian-born Emperor Galerius proclaimed freedom for Christians all over the Roman Empire in 311[2], the city of Tomis alone (modern Constanţa) became a Metropolitanate with as many as 14 bishoprics.

By the 4th century, a powerful and organised nucleus of Christian monks existed in the area, known as the Scythian monks.

Middle ages

See also: Romanian Orthodox Church

Following the complex relationship of Byzantine Patriarchates and Bulgarian kingdom, Romanians adopted Old Church Slavonic in the liturgy in the early 9th century. However, most of the religious texts were learned by heart by priests who either did not understand Slavic languages, always wanted to be understood by their own community, or both. Some priest used to mumble ("a boscorodi") the sermon, using certain Slavic prefixes, so at least it would sound like Slavic.

Since the south-of Danube Dacia was also known as Vlahia Mare - Greater Wallachia, the north-of-Danube Dacia was known as Ungro-Vlahia - the "Hungarian" Wallachia, signifying the geopgraphical proximity. This important geographical and ethnogenetic fact of Romania is still reflected into the name of the first Metropolis of Ungro-Wallachia, which was founded in 1359 in Curtea de Argeş. Another Romanian Metropolitanate was founded in 1401 at Suceava, Metropolis of Moldavia.

Byzantine religious records also mention a specific form of bishoprics - chorepiscopate or countryside episcopate - as opposed to the better-known religious centers in large cities. This can possibly be compared to the "monastic bishops" of Ireland, who united the functions of countryside Abbot with that of district Bishop in another country that did not emphasize an urban episcopate, at least for a time. This has been revived also in Cyprus, which currently has eight such bishops.[3]

Translation of the Bible

Ecclesiastical life flourished in all organized forms on both sides of the Lower Danube. However, national metropoles and Metropolitanates for the Romanians north of the Danube were only created in the late 13th century and early 14th century, according to the political developments there. Many religious texts were to be periodically transcribed until the 16th century in Old Church Slavonic only. (see Church Slavonic in Romania)

However, important Romanian translations certainly circulated, including the Codicele Voroneţean (the Codex of Voroneţ) and Palia de la Orăştie. The Bucharest Bible (Biblia de la Bucureşti) was the first complete Romanian translation of the Bible in the late 17th century. It was published in 1688 during the reign of Şerban Cantacuzino in Wallachia and is considered a mature and sumptuous work.

Its cultural importance is not unlike that of King James Version for the English language. This could not have been achieved without many previous (and perhaps as yet unknown) anonymous translation work. For this, a wealth of Byzantine manuscripts, brought north of the Danube in the "Byzantium after Byzantium" movement described by famous historian Nicolae Iorga is an outstanding proof.

Thereafter, the importance of Church Slavonic and Greek languages in the Romanian Orthodox Church began to fade. 1736 was the year when the last Slavonic liturgy was published in Wallachia, but only in 1863 did Romanian became the sole official language of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Although most of the time under foreign suzerainty (under the Ottoman Turks in Moldavia and Wallachia and under the Hungarian rule in Transylvania), Romanians characteristically kept their Orthodox faith as part of their national identity.

The Greek-Catholic Church

Main article: Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic

In 1698 in Transylvania, a part of the Romanian Orthodox Church granted ecclesiastical authority to the Pope, but retained the Orthodox rite. This is seen by some historians as a political move designed to obtain equality of rights with Roman Catholics. Indeed, by becoming members of the "Greek-rite Roman Catholics" church, a minority of Romanians in Transylvania eventually managed to be recognized as a nation by the Habsburg rulers, achieving status equal to the three Transylvanian peoples collectively known under the syntagm of Unio Trium Nationum. Along with this came the arrival of the Jesuits who attempted to align Transylvania more closely with Western Europe.

The communist government suppressed the Romanian Church United with Rome, Greek-Catholic, in 1948, the churches being confiscated and given to the Orthodox Church, while the majority of Romanian Greek-Catholics were included into the Orthodox Church in 1950. As of 2002, there were 191,000 Romanian Greek Catholics.

Modern history

The Romanian Orthodox Church held, through its monasteries, large amounts of land, reaching one third of the land of the United Principalities (Wallachia and Moldavia) in the 1850s. This land was worked either by serfs (şerbi) or Gypsy slaves (robi mănăstireşti or ţigani mănăstireşti). The abolition of this church slavery took place in 1844 in Moldavia and 1847 in Wallachia. The large estates of the church were confiscated in 1863 by the Mihail Kogălniceanu government.


  1. Petre P. Panaitescu, Istoria Românilor ("History of the Romanians"), Bucharest, 1942
  2. See Galerius and Constantines edicts of Toleration from 311 and 313, at Medieval Sourcebook