Early Christianity (~33–325)

Early Christianity refers to the period when the religion spread in the Greek/Roman world and beyond, from its beginnings as a 1st century Jewish sect,[1] to the end of imperial persecution of Christians after the ascension of Constantine the Great in AD 313, to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It may be divided into two distinct phases: the apostolic period, when the first apostles were alive and organising the Church, and the post-apostolic period, when an early episcopal structure developed, whereby bishoprics were governed by bishops (overseers).

Apostolic Church

The Apostolic Church, called by some the Primitive Church, was the community led by Jesus' apostles and his relatives.[2] According to the Great Commission, the resurrected Jesus commanded the disciples to spread his teachings to all the world. The principal source of information for this period is the Acts of the Apostles, which gives a history of the Church from the Great Commission (1:3–11), Pentecost (2) and the establishment of the Jerusalem Church to the spread of the religion among the gentiles (10)[3], Paul's conversion (9, 22, 26) and eventual imprisonment (house arrest: 28:30–31) in Rome in the mid-first century. However, the historical accuracy of Acts is also disputed and may conflict with accounts in the Epistles of Paul.[4]

The first Christians were essentially all ethnically Jewish or Jewish Proselytes. In other words, Jesus preached to the Jewish people and called from them his first disciples, though the earliest documented "group" of appointed evangelisers, called the Seventy Disciples, was not specifically ethnically Jewish and the Great Commission is specifically directed at "all nations". An early difficulty arose concerning the matter of Gentile (non-Jewish) converts as to whether they had to "become Jewish" (usually referring to circumcision and adherence to dietary law, see also Judaisers) as part of becoming Christian. Circumcision was considered repulsive during the period of Hellenization of the Eastern Mediterranean[5]. The decision of Peter, as evidenced by conversion of the Centurion Cornelius,[6] was that they did not, and the matter was further addressed with the Council of Jerusalem, see also Primacy of Simon Peter. See Biblical law in Christianity for the modern debate. For the parallel in Judaism, see Noahide Law.

The doctrines of the apostles brought the Early Church into conflict with some Jewish religious authorities. This eventually led to their expulsion from the synagogues, (see also Council of Jamnia) Acts records the martyrdom of SS. Stephen and James the Great. Thus, Christianity acquired an identity distinct from Rabbinic Judaism, see also List of events in early Christianity and Christianity and Judaism. The name "Christian" (Greek Χριστιανός) was first applied to the disciples in Antioch, as recorded in Acts 11:26.[7]

Worship of Jesus

The sources for the beliefs of the apostolic community include the Gospels and New Testament Epistles. The very earliest accounts are contained in these texts, such as early Christian creeds and hymns, as well as accounts of the Passion, the empty tomb, and Resurrection appearances; often these are dated to within a decade or so of the crucifixion of Jesus, originating within the Jerusalem Church.[8]

The earliest Christian creeds and hymns express belief in the risen Jesus, e.g., that preserved in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4 quoted by Paul: "For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."[9] The antiquity of the creed has been located by many scholars to less than a decade after Jesus' death, originating from the Jerusalem apostolic community,[10] and no scholar dates it later than the 40s.[11] Other relevant and very early creeds include 1 John 4:2,[12] 2 Timothy 2:8,[13] Romans 1:3–4,[14] and 1 Timothy 3:16, an early creedal hymn.[15]

Jewish continuity

Early Christianity retained some of the doctrines and practices of first-century Judaism while rejecting others. They held the Jewish scriptures to be authoritative and sacred, employing mostly the Septuagint or Targum translations, later called the Old Testament, a term associated with Supersessionism, and added other texts as the New Testament canon developed. Christianity also continued other Judaic practices: baptism[16], liturgical worship, including the use of incense, an altar, a set of scriptural readings adapted from synagogue practice, use of sacred music in hymns and prayer, and a religious calendar, as well as other distinctive features such as an exclusively male priesthood, and ascetic practices (fasting etc.). Circumcision was rejected as a requirement at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50. Sabbath observance was modified, perhaps as early as Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9.1[17]. Quartodecimanism (observation of the Paschal feast on Nisan 14, the day of preparation for Passover) was formally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea.

The early Christians in first century believed Yahweh to be the Only true God, the God of Israel, and considered Jesus to be the Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament.

Alister McGrath, a proponent of palaeo-orthodoxy, claimed that many of the Jewish Christians were fully faithful religious Jews, only differing in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.[18]

Ecclesiastical structure

The Apostolic Church hierarchy was organised into Overseers (Bishop, Elder, Presbyter) and Servants (Deacons). Clement, a Bishop of Rome, refers to the leaders of the Corinthian church as bishops and presbyters indifferently. He writes that the bishops are to lead God's flock by virtue of the chief Shepherd - Jesus Christ.

Important bishops of the Apostolic Era include Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, who, along with Polycarp of Smyrna, reportedly knew and studied under the apostles personally and are therefore called Apostolic Fathers.

Post-Apostolic Church


St. Lawrence before Emperor Valerianus (martyred 258) by Fra Angelico

The post-apostolic period concerns the time roughly after the death of the apostles when bishops emerged as overseers of urban Christian populations, and continues during the time of persecutions until the legalisation of Christian worship with the advent of Constantine the Great. The earliest recorded use of the terms Christianity (Greek Χριστιανισμός) and Catholic (Greek καθολικός), dates to this period, attributed to Ignatius of Antioch c. 107.[19]


From the beginning, Christians were subject to various persecutions. This involved even death for Christians such as Stephen (Acts 7:59) and James, son of Zebedee (12:2). Larger-scale persecutions followed at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire, beginning with the year 64, when, as reported by the Roman historian Tacitus, the Emperor Nero blamed them for that year's great Fire of Rome.

According to Church tradition, it was under Nero's persecution that SS. Peter and Paul were each martyred in Rome. Similarly, several of the New Testament writings mention persecutions and stress endurance through them. For 250 years Christians suffered from sporadic persecutions for their refusal to worship the Roman emperor, considered treasonous and punishable by execution. In spite of these at-times intense persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.

Ecclesiastical structure

By the late first and early second century, a hierarchical and episcopal structure becomes clearly visible. Post-apostolic bishops of importance are SS Polycarp of Smyrna and Irenaeus of Lyons. This structure was based on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession where, by the ritual of the laying on of hands, a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line tracing back to the apostles themselves. Each Christian community also had presbyters, as was the case with Jewish communities, who were also ordained and assisted the bishop; as Christianity spread, especially in rural areas, the presbyters exercised more responsibilities and took distinctive shape as priests. Lastly, deacons also performed certain duties, such as tending to the poor and sick.

Early Christian writings

As Christianity spread, it acquired certain members from well-educated circles of the Hellenistic world; they sometimes became bishops but not always. They produced two sorts of works: theological and "apologetic", the latter being works aimed at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity. These authors are known as the Church Fathers, and study of them is called Patristics. Notable early Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, etc.

Early iconography


Virgin and Child. Wall painting from the early catacombs, Rome, 4th century.

Christian art only emerged relatively late, and the first known Christian images emerge from about AD 200,[20] though there is some literary evidence that small domestic images were used earlier. Although many Hellenised Jews seem, as at the Dura-Europos synagogue, to have had images of religious figures, the traditional Mosaic prohibition of "graven images" no doubt retained some effect, see also Idolatry in Christianity. This early rejection of images, although never proclaimed by theologians, and the necessity to hide Christian practise from persecution, leaves us with few archaeological records regarding early Christianity and its evolution.[21] The oldest Christian paintings are from the Roman Catacombs, dated to about AD 200, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 3rd century.[21]

Early heresies

The New Testament itself speaks of the importance of maintaining orthodox doctrine and refuting heresies, showing the antiquity of the concern.[22] Because of the biblical proscription against false prophets (notably the Gospels of Matthew and Mark) Christianity has always been preoccupied with the "correct", or orthodox, interpretation of the faith. Indeed one of the main roles of the bishops in the early Church was to determine the correct interpretations and refute contrarian opinions (referred to as heresy). As there were differing opinions among the bishops, defining orthodoxy would consume the Church for some time (and still does, hence, "denominations").

In his book Orthodoxy, Christian Apologist and writer G. K. Chesterton asserts that there have been substantial disagreements about faith from the time of the New Testament and Jesus. He pointed out that the Apostles all argued against changing the teachings of Christ as did the earliest church fathers including Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr and Polycarp (see false prophet, the antichrist, the gnostic Nicolaitanes from the Book of Revelation and Man of Sin). Jesus also refers to false prophets (Mark 13:21–23) and the "darnel" (Matthew 13:25–30, 13:36–43) of the flock and how their distortion of the Christian faith is to be rejected.

The earliest controversies were generally Christological in nature; that is, they were related to Jesus' (eternal) divinity or humanity. Docetism held that Jesus' humanity was merely an illusion, thus denying the incarnation. Arianism held that Jesus, while not merely mortal, was not eternally divine and was, therefore, of lesser status than God the Father (John 14:28). Trinitarianism held that God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all strictly one being with three hypostases. Many groups held dualistic beliefs, maintaining that reality was composed into two radically opposing parts: matter, usually seen as evil, and spirit, seen as good. Others held that both the material and spiritual worlds were created by God and were therefore both good, and that this was represented in the unified divine and human natures of Christ.[23]

The development of doctrine, the position of orthodoxy, and the relationship between the various opinions is a matter of continuing academic debate. Since most Christians today subscribe to the doctrines established by the Nicene Creed, modern Christian theologians tend to regard the early debates as a unified orthodox position (see also Proto-orthodox Christianity and Palaeo-orthodoxy) against a minority of heretics. Other scholars, drawing upon, among other things, distinctions between Jewish Christians, Pauline Christians, and other groups such as Gnostics and Marcionites, argue that early Christianity was fragmented, with contemporaneous competing orthodoxies.[24]

Biblical canon


A folio from P46, an early 3rd century collection of Pauline epistles.

The Biblical canon is the set of books Christians regard as divinely inspired and thus constituting the Christian Bible. Though the Early Church used the Old Testament according to the canon of the Septuagint (LXX), the apostles did not otherwise leave a defined set of new scriptures; instead the New Testament developed over time.

The writings attributed to the apostles circulated amongst the earliest Christian communities. The Pauline epistles were circulating in collected form by the end of the first century AD. Justin Martyr, in the early second century, mentions the "memoirs of the apostles", which Christians called "gospels" and which were regarded as on par with the Old Testament.[25] A four gospel canon (the Tetramorph) was in place by the time of Ireanaeus, c. 160, who refers to it directly.[26] By the early 200's, Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books as in the modern New Testament, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation,[27] see also Antilegomena. Likewise the Muratorian fragment shows that by 200 there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to what is now the New Testament, which included the four gospels.[28] Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings were accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the second century.[29]

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of exactly the same books as what would become the New Testament canon,[30] and he used the word "canonised" (kanonizomena) in regards to them.[31] The African Synod of Hippo, in 393, approved the New Testament, as it stands today, together with the Septuagint books, a decision that was repeated by Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419.[32] These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.[33] Pope Damasus I's Council of Rome in 382, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical to that mentioned above,[30] or if not the list is at least a sixth century compilation.[34] Likewise, Damasus's commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c. 383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.[35] In 405, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse. When these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new, but instead "were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church."[36] Thus, from the fourth century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon (as it is today),[37] and by the fifth century the East, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon.[38] Nonetheless, a full dogmatic articulation of the canon was not made until the Council of Trent of 1546 for Roman Catholicism,[39] the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563 for the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 for Calvinism, and the Synod of Jerusalem of 1672 for the Greek Orthodox.

Cite error: <ref> tags exist, but no <references/> tag was found