History of Early Christianity

The history of early Christianity covers the Apostolic Age (1st century, CE) and the Ante-Nicene Period (c.100-325 CE), to the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

The earliest followers of Jesus comprised an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect of Jewish Christians. Eventually, the inclusion of Gentile God-fearers led to a departure from Jewish customs, the establishment of Christianity as an independent religion, and the condemnation of Jewish Christians as heretics.

In the Ante-Nicene Period (literally before Nicaea) following the Apostolic Age, both incredible diversity and unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period emerged simultaneously. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism and of Jewish practices.

By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and to North Africa and the East. Historians commonly use the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and Emperor Constantine I’s toleration and promotion of Christianity in the Roman Empire to mark the end of early Christianity and the beginning of the era of the first seven ecumenical councils.

An Eastern Roman mosaic showing a basilica with towers, mounted with Christian crosses, 5th century, Louvre.

An Eastern Roman mosaic showing a basilica with towers, mounted with Christian crosses, 5th century, Louvre.

Etymology

Early Jewish Christians referred to themselves as ‘The Way’ (ἡ ὁδός), probably coming from Isaiah 40:3, “prepare the way of the Lord.” According to Acts 11:26, the term “Christian” (Greek: Χριστιανός) was first used in reference to Jesus‘s disciples in the city of Antioch, meaning “followers of Christ,” by the non-Jewish inhabitants of Antioch. The earliest recorded use of the term “Christianity” (Greek: Χριστιανισμός) was by Ignatius of Antioch, in around 100 AD.

Origins

Main article: Christianity in The ante-Nicene Period
See also: Historical background of the New Testament

Jewish-Hellenistic background

Main articles: Second Temple JudaismHellenistic JudaismJewish eschatology, Covenant Theology, and Messiah in Judaism

Christianity “emerged as a sect of Judaism in Roman Palestine” in the syncretistic Hellenistic world of the first century CE, which was dominated by Roman law and Greek culture. During the early first century CE there were many competing Jewish sects in the Holy Land, and those that became Rabbinic Judaism and Proto-orthodox Christianity were but two of these. There were Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots, but also other less influential sects, including the Essenes. The first century BCE and first century CE saw a growing number of charismatic religious leaders contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism; and the ministry of Jesus, which would lead to the emergence of the first Jewish Christian community.

A central concern in 1st century Judaism was the covenant with God, and the status of the Jews as the chosen people. Many Jews believed that this covenant would be renewed with the coming of the Messiah. The Law was given by God to guide them in their worship of the Lord and in their interactions with each other, “the greatest gift God had given his people.”

The Jewish messiah concept has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BC to 1st century BC, promising a future leader or king from the Davidic line who is expected to be anointed with holy anointing oil and rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age and world to come. The Messiah is often referred to as “King Messiah” (Hebrew: מלך משיח‎, melekh mashiach) or malka meshiḥa in Aramaic.

Jesus

Main articles: JesusMinistry of Jesus, and Christian views on Jesus

New Testament

See also: Gospels

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

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

In the Synoptic Gospels Jewish eschatology stands central. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus teaches extensively for a year, or maybe just a few months, about the Kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the Kingdom of Heaven), in aphorisms and parables, using similes and figures of speech.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus himself is the main subject.

The Kingdom is essentially described as eschatological, becoming reality in the near future. Jesus talks as expecting the coming of the “Son of Man” from heaven, an apocalyptic figure who would initiate “the coming judgment and the redemption of Israel.” According to Davies, the Sermon on the Mount presents Jesus as the new Moses who brings a New Law, the Messianic Torah.

His ministry was ended by his execution by crucifixion. His early followers believed that three days after his death, Jesus rose bodily from the dead and was exalted to Divine status. Paul’s letters and the Gospels document a number of post-resurrection appearances, and the resurrection of Jesus “signalled for earliest believers that the days of eschatological fulfilment were at hand.” The resurrection was also seen as the exaltation of Jesus to the status of divine Son and Lord. His followers expected Him to return in the near future, ushering in the Kingdom of God.

Scholarly views

Main articles: Historical Jesus and Quest for the historical Jesus

Since the 18th century, three scholarly quests for the historical Jesus have taken place, each with distinct characteristics and based on different research criteria, which were often developed during each specific phase. Scholars involved in the third quest for the historical Jesus have constructed a variety of portraits and profiles for Jesus, most prominently that of Jesus as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet or eschatological teacher.

Apostolic Age (1st century)

Main article: Classical antiquity

Apostolic

Main articles: Acts of the Apostles and Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles

The Cenacle on Mount Zion, claimed to be the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost. Bargil Pixner claims the original Church of the Apostles is located under the current structure.

The first part of the period, named after the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles as narrated in the Acts of the Apostles, is called the Apostolic Age. The Great Commission is the instruction of the resurrected Jesus Christ to his disciples to spread his teachings to all the nations of the world.

Jewish Christianity

After the death of Jesus, “Christianity […] emerged as a sect of Judaism in Roman Palestine.” The first Christians were all Jews, either by birth or conversion (“proselytes” in Biblical terminology), who constituted a Second Temple Jewish sect with an apocalyptic eschatology.

The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles and Epistle to the Galatians record the existence of a Christian community centered on Jerusalem, and that its leaders included Peter, James, the “brother of Jesus”, and John the Apostle. The Jerusalem Church “held a central place among all the churches,” as witnessed by Paul’s writings.

Emerging Church

Growth of early Christianity

Main articles: Christianity in the 1st Century, Great Commission and Early centers of Christianity

Christian missionary activity spread Christianity to cities throughout the Hellenistic world and even beyond the Roman Empire. Over forty existed by the year 100, most in Asia Minor, such as the seven churches of Asia, and some in Greece and Italy.

Paul and the inclusion of Gentiles

Main articles: Paul the Apostle, Paul the Apostle and Jewish Christianity, and God-fearers

Paul’s influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than that of any other New Testament author. According to the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus first persecuted the early Jewish Christians, but then converted. He adopted the name Paul and started proselytizing among the Gentiles, calling himself “Apostle to the Gentiles.”

According to Krister Stendahl, the main concern of Paul’s writings on Jesus’ role, and salvation by faith, is not the individual conscience of human sinners, and their doubts about being chosen by God or not, but the problem of the inclusion of gentile (Greek) Torah observers into God’s covenant. The inclusion of Gentiles posed a problem for the early Christian community, since the new converts did not follow all “Jewish Law” and refused to be circumcised, as circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture. According to Fredriksen, Paul’s opposition to male circumcison for Gentiles is in line with Old Testament predictions that “in the last days the gentile nations would come to the God of Israel, as gentiles (e.g., Zechariah 8:20-23), not as proselytes to Israel.” For Paul, Gentile male circumcision was therefore an affront to God’s intentions. According to Hurtado, “Paul saw himself as what Munck called a salvation-historical figure in his own right,” who was “personally and singularly deputized by God to bring about the predicted ingathering (the “fullness”) of the nations (Romans 11:25).”

For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection solved this problem of the exclusion of the gentiles from God’s covenant, since the faithful are redeemed by participation in Jesus’ death and rising. According to Galatians 2:1–10 and Acts chapter 15, Paul discussed the issue with the leaders of the Jerusalem ekklēsia, agreeing to allow Gentile converts exemption from most Jewish commandments, which opened the way for a much larger Christian Church, extending far beyond the Jewish community.

Hurtado notes that Paul valued the linkage with “Jewish Christian circles in Roman Judea,” which makes it likely that his Christology was in line with, and indebted to, their views. Hurtado further notes that “[i]t is widely accepted that the tradition that Paul recites in [Corinthians] 15:1-71 must go back to the Jerusalem Church.”

The inclusion of Gentiles is reflected in Luke-Acts, which is an attempt to answer a theological problem, namely how the Messiah of the Jews came to have an overwhelmingly non-Jewish church; the answer it provides, and its central theme, is that the message of Christ was sent to the Gentiles because the Jews rejected it.

Split of early Christianity and Judaism

Split between Christians and Jews

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. Growing tensions led to a starker separation that was virtually complete by the time Christians refused to join in the Bar Khokba Jewish revolt of 132. Certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism.

The destruction of Jerusalem and the consequent dispersion of Jews and Jewish Christians from the city (after the Bar Kokhba revolt) ended any pre-eminence of the Jewish-Christian leadership in Jerusalem. Early Christianity grew further apart from Judaism to establish itself as a predominantly Gentile religion, and Antioch became the first Gentile Christian community with stature. The Jewish Council of Jamnia (c. 85) may have been the occasion when the Jewish authorities decided to exclude believers in Jesus as the Messiah from synagogue attendance.

Around the year 98, the emperor Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. This opened the way to Christians being persecuted for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon. From c. 98 onwards a distinction between Christians and Jews in Roman literature becomes apparent.

Rejection of Jewish Christianity

According to Dauphin, Jewish Christians constituted a separate community from the Pauline Christians but maintained a similar faith, differing only in practice. He argues that in Christian circles, “Nazarene” later came to be used as a label for those faithful to Jewish law, in particular for a certain sect. Moreover, he posits that these Jewish Christians, originally the central group in Christianity, and holding to orthodoxy except in their adherence to Jewish law, were not deemed heretical until the dominance of orthodoxy in the 4th century. The Ebionites may have been a splinter group of Nazarenes, with disagreements over Christology and leadership. They were considered by Gentile Christians to have unorthodox beliefs, particularly in relation to their views of Christ and Gentile converts. After the condemnation of the Nazarenes, “Ebionite” was often used as a general pejorative for all related “heresies”.

Dunn posits that there was a post-Nicene “double rejection” of the Jewish Christians by both Gentile Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and that the true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the 5th century. Dauphin concluded that Gentile Christianity remained the sole strand of orthodoxy and imposed itself on the previously Jewish Christian sanctuaries, taking full control of those houses of worship by the end of the 5th century.

Ante-Nicene Period (c.100-325)

Main article: Ante-Nicene Period

Christ Jesus,[4] the Good Shepherd, 3rd century.

Jesus in the Catacombs of Rome. Third-century fresco from the Catacomb of Callixtus of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

The 2nd and 3rd centuries saw a sharp divorce from its early roots. There was an explicit rejection of then-modern Judaism and Jewish culture by the end of the 2nd century, with a growing body of adversus Judaeos literature. Fourth- and 5th-century Christianity experienced imperial pressure and developed strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority and was more diverse. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era.

Diversity and proto-orthodoxy

The development of doctrine, the position of orthodoxy, and the relationship between the various opinions is a matter of continuing academic debate. Since the Nicene Creed came to define the Church, the early debates have long been regarded as a unified orthodox position against a minority of heretics. Walter Bauer, drawing upon distinctions between Jewish Christians, Pauline Christians, and other groups such as Gnostics and Marcionites, argued that early Christianity was fragmented, with various competing interpretations. According to Bauer, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions heresy was the original manifestation of Christianity.

Variant Christianities

Main article: Diversity in early Christian theology

The Ante-Nicene period saw the rise of a great number of Christian sects, cults and movements with different interpretations of Scripture, particularly the divinity of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity. These were called heresies by the leaders of the Proto-orthodox church, but many were very popular and had large followings. Some of the major movements were:

  • Gnosticism – 2nd to 4th centuries – reliance on revealed knowledge from an unknowable God, a distinct divinity from the Demiurge who created and oversees the material world.
  • Marcionism – 2nd century – the God of Jesus was a different God from the God of the Old Testament.
  • Montanism – 2nd century – relied on prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit.
  • Adoptionism – 2nd century – Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted at his baptism, resurrection or ascension.
  • Docetism – 2nd to 3rd century – Jesus was pure spirit and his physical form an illusion.
  • Sabellianism – 3rd century – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of the one God and not the three separate persons of the Trinity.
  • Arianism – 3rd to 4th century – Jesus, as the Son, was subordinate to God the Father.

Proto-orthodoxy

Main articles: Proto-orthodox Christianity

Developing Church-hierarchy

A Church hierarchy seems to have developed by the late 1st century and early 2nd century. (see Pastoral Epistles, c. 90–140) Robert Williams posits that the “origin and earliest development of episcopacy and monepiscopacy and the ecclesiastical concept of (apostolic) succession were associated with crisis situations in the early church.”

Roger Haight posits the development of ecclesiology in the form of “Early Catholicism” as one response to the problem of church unity. Thus, the solution to division arising from heterodox teaching was the development of “tighter and more standardized structures of ministry. One of these structures is the tri-partite form of church leadership consisting of episkopoi (overseers); presbyteroi (elders), as was the case with Jewish communities; and diakonoi (ministerial servants). Presbyters were ordained and assisted the bishop; as Christianity spread, especially in rural areas, the presbyters exercised more responsibilities and took distinctive shape as priests. Deacons also performed certain duties, such as tending to the poor and sick.

Ignatius of Antioch urged churches to adopt this structure, writing that “You cannot have a church without these.” In the 2nd century this structure was supported by teaching on apostolic succession, where a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line tracing back to the apostles themselves. Over the course of the second century, this organizational structure became universal and continues to be used in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches as well as in some Protestant denominations.

Important Church centers

Jerusalem was the first church and an important church center up to 135. The First Council of Nicaea recognized and confirmed the tradition by which Jerusalem continued to be given “special honour”, but did not assign to it even metropolitan authority within its own province, still less the extraprovincial jurisdiction exercised by Rome and the other sees mentioned above.

Constantinople came into prominence only after the early Christian period, being founded officially in 330, five years after the First Council of Nicaea, though the much smaller original city of Byzantium was an early center of Christianity largely due to its proximity to Anatolia.

By the end of the early Christian period, the church within the Roman Empire had hundreds of bishops, some of them (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, “other provinces”) holding some form of jurisdiction over others.

 Spread of Christianity to AD 325 Spread of Christianity to AD 600

Spread of Christianity to AD 325 Spread of Christianity to AD 600

Spread of Christianity

See also: Early centers of Christianity

Christianity spread to Aramaic-speaking peoples along the Mediterranean coast and also to the inland parts of the Roman Empire, and beyond that into the Parthian Empire and the later Sasanian Empire, including Mesopotamia, which was dominated at different times and to varying extents by these empires, and possibly into India. In AD 301, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first to declare Christianity as its state religion, following the conversion of the Royal House of the Arsacids in Armenia.

Various theories attempt to explain how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan (313). According to Rodney Stark, Christianity replaced paganism chiefly because it improved the lives of its adherents in various ways. According to Endsjø, another factor was the way in which Christianity combined its promise of a general resurrection of the dead with the traditional Greek belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body, with Christianity adding practical explanations of how this was going to actually happen at the end of the world. According to Will Durant, the Christian Church prevailed over paganism because it offered a much more attractive doctrine, and because the church leaders addressed human needs better than their rivals. According to Bart D. Ehrman, Christianity offered a powerful alternative to the Roman religions, with its promise of salvation and a better, eternal life, and its powerful God. Its demand for exclusive adherence, and conversions of whole households, also contributed to its strength.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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