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History of early Christianity

This article is a historical overview of early Christianity; for a description of early Christianity itself, see Early Christianity.
File:Stele Licinia Amias Terme 67646.jpg
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble. One of the earliest Christian inscriptions found, it is from the early 3rd-century Vatican necropolis area, Rome.

The history of early Christianity covers Christianity from its origins to the First Council of Nicaea in 325.

The first part of the period, during the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles, is traditionally believed to have been initiated by the Great Commission of Jesus (though some scholars[who?] dispute its historicity), and is called the Apostolic Age. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect, which historians refer to as Jewish Christianity. Though Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author,[1] the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed today. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism during the first two centuries and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire.

In the Ante-Nicene Period (literally before the First Council of Nicaea in 325), 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 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, see Early centers of Christianity.

The First Council of Nicaea in 325 and the promotion of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I in the Roman Empire are commonly used to mark the end of early Christianity, beginning the era of the first seven Ecumenical Councils.


See also Jesus in the Talmud


Jewish messianism has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BC to 1st century BC, promising a future "anointed" leader or Messiah to resurrect the Israelite "Kingdom of God", in place of the foreign rulers of the time. This corresponded with the Maccabean Revolt directed against the Seleucids. Following the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, it was directed against the Roman administration of Iudaea Province, which, according to Josephus, began with the formation of the Zealots during the Census of Quirinius of 6 AD, though full scale open revolt did not occur until the First Jewish–Roman War in 66 AD. Historian H. H. Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37-41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews.[2]

Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, and Zealots, but also included other less influential sects. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BC and 1st century AD saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa.

Ministry of Jesus

Main article: Ministry of Jesus

The Gospel accounts show the ministry of Jesus as falling into this pattern of sectarian preachers with devoted disciples. According to the Gospel writers, Jesus preached for a period of one to three years when he was in his early 30s, in the early 1st century AD. The gospels give Jesus' method of teaching as involving parables, metaphor, allegory, proverbs, and a small number of direct sermons such as the Sermon on the Mount. His ministry of teaching, healing the sick and disabled and performing various miracles culminated in his execution at the hands of the Roman authorities in Jerusalem (but see also Responsibility for the death of Jesus). Shortly thereafter, a strong belief in Jesus' bodily resurrection spread rapidly through Jerusalem, beginning with his closest disciples, which led up to the traditional Day of Pentecost. This event provoked the Apostles to embark on a number of missionary campaigns to spread the "Good News", following the Great Commission handed down by Jesus.[citation needed]

Most New Testament scholars agree that Peter had some sort of special position among the Twelve.[3]

Apostolic Age

Main article: Apostolic Age
File:Jerusalem Cenacle BW 5.JPG
The Cenacle on Mount Zion, claimed to be the location of the Last Supper and Pentecost. Bargil Pixner[4] claims the original Church of the Apostles is located under the current structure.

The Christian church sees "the Apostolic Age" as the foundation upon which its whole history is founded.[5] This period, roughly dated between the years 30 and 100 AD, produced writings traditionally attributed to the direct followers of Jesus Christ (the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers collections) and is thus associated with the apostles and their contemporaries. [6]

Earliest Christianity took the form of a Jewish eschatological faith. The apostles traveled to Jewish communities around the Mediterranean Sea, and attracted Jewish converts.[7] Within 10 years of the death of Jesus, apostles had spread Christianity from Jerusalem to Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, Cyprus, Crete, and Rome.[8] The book of Acts reports that the early followers continued daily Temple attendance and traditional Jewish home prayer. Other passages in the canonical gospels reflect a similar observance of traditional Jewish piety such as fasting, reverence for the Torah (generally translated as "the Law" in English translations of the Bible) and observance of Jewish holy days.[9][10]

In the mid-1st century, in Antioch, Paul of Tarsus began preaching to Gentiles.[7] The new converts did not follow all "Jewish Law" (generally understood to mean Mosaic Law as the Halakha was still being formalized at the time) and refused to be circumcised,[11] as circumcision was considered repulsive in Hellenistic culture.[12] The resulting circumcision controversy was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem about the year 50. Paul, who was vocally supported by Peter, argued that circumcision was not a necessary practice.[13] The council agreed that converts could forgo circumcision, but other aspects of "Jewish Law" were deemed necessary.[14] Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.[13] The rift between Christianity and Judaism continued to grow and the relationship between Paul of Tarsus and Judaism and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity is still disputed today. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.[15][16][17]


The disciples were first called "Christians" in Antioch (as related in Acts 11:26). Accordingly, "Christians" (with the variant "Chrestians") was by 49 already a familiar term in the Latin-speaking capital of the Roman Empire. As the church spread throughout Greek-speaking Gentile lands, the appellation took prominence and eventually became the standard reference for followers of the faith. Ignatius of Antioch was the first known Christian to use the label in self-reference and made the earliest recorded use of the term Christianity (Greek Χριστιανισμός), around 100 AD.[18]

File:Nerva Fiscus Iudaicus coin.jpg
Coin of Nerva "The blackmail of the Jewish tax lifted"

Judaism and Christianity

During the late 1st century, Judaism was a legal religion with the protection of Roman law, worked out in compromise with the Roman state over two centuries, see Anti-Judaism in the Roman Empire for details. In contrast, Christianity was not legalized until the 313 Edict of Milan. Observant Jews had special rights, including the privilege of abstaining from civic pagan rites. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers. 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.[19][20][21]

File:Saint James the Just.jpg
James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the decree of Acts 15:19-29, c. 50 AD.

Jewish Christians were among the earliest followers of Jesus and an important part of Judean society during the mid- to late 1st century. This movement was centered in Jerusalem (possibly in the Cenacle) and led by James the Just. They held faithfully to the Torah and Jewish law (which was still somewhat fluid in this time period), including acceptance of Gentile converts possibly based on a version of the Noachide laws (Acts 15 and Acts 21).

Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. The issue was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem where Paul made an argument that circumcision was not a necessary practice, vocally supported by Peter, as documented in Acts 15. This position received widespread support and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith in Jesus and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.[13]

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism. The Council of Jamnia c. 85 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of "heretics" in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.[15][16][17] The true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the 5th century. 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.[22]

Post-apostolic period

Main article: Ante-Nicene Period

Christianity throughout the 2nd and 3rd centuries have generally been less studied than the periods that came before and after it. This is reflected in that it is usually referred to in terms of the adjacent periods with names as such "post-apostolic" (after the period of 1st century formative Christianity) and "ante-Nicene" (before the First Council of Nicaea). However, the 2nd and 3rd centuries are quite important in the development of Christianity.[23]

There is a relative lack of material for this period, compared with the later Church Father period. For example, a widely used collection (Ante-Nicene Fathers) includes most 2nd- and 3rd-century writings in nine volumes. This includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen of Alexandria and the New Testament Apocrypha, among others. In contrast, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (consisting mainly of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom) fills twenty-eight volumes.[24]

The developments of this time are "multidirectional and not easily mapped". While the preceding and following periods were diverse, they possessed unifying characteristics lacking in this period. 1st-century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character, and self-identification as a messianic movement. 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. 4th- 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.[25]

By the early 2nd century, Christians had agreed on a basic list of writings that would serve as their canon,[26] see Development of the New Testament canon, but interpretations of these works differed, often wildly.[27] In part to ensure a greater consistency in their teachings, by the end of the 1st century many Christian communities evolved a more structured hierarchy, with a central bishop, whose opinion held more weight in that city.[28] By 160, most communities had a bishop, who based his authority on the chain of succession from the apostles to himself.[29]

Bishops still had a freedom of interpretation. The competing versions of Christianity led many bishops who subscribed to what is now the mainstream version of Christianity to rally more closely together.[30] Bishops would call synods to discuss problems or doctrinal differences in certain regions; the first of these to be documented occurred in Roman Asia in about 160. Some bishops began to take on a more authoritative role for a region; in many cases, the bishop of the church located in the capital city of a province became the central authority for all churches in that province. These more centralized authorities were known as metropolitan churches headed by a Metropolitan bishop. The churches in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome exerted authority over groups of these metropolitan churches.[31]

Spread of Christianity

File:Spread of Christianity to AD 600 (1).png
  Spread of Christianity to AD 325
  Spread of Christianity to AD 600

Early Christianity spread from city to city in the Hellenized Roman Empire and beyond into East Africa and South Asia. Apostles traveled extensively, establishing communities in major cities and regions throughout the Empire. The original church communities were founded by apostles (see Apostolic see) and numerous other Christians soldiers, merchants, and preachers[32] in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Arabia, Greece, and other places.[33][34][35] Over 40 were established by the year 100,[33][35] many in Asia Minor, such as the seven churches of Asia. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity had already spread to Greece and Italy, some say as far as India, serving as foundations for the expansive spread of Christianity throughout the world. In 301 AD, 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.

Despite sporadic incidents of local persecution and a few periods of persecution on an empire-wide scale, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.[36] There is no agreement as for how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan and Constantine favoring the creed and it is probably not possible to identify a single cause for this. Traditionally this has not been the subject of much research, as from a theological point of view the success was simply the natural consequence of people meeting what theologians considered the truth. In the influential book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that the various sociological factors of Christianity which improved the quality of life of its adherents were crucial for its triumph over paganism.[37] Another factor that may have contributed to the success of Christianity was how the Christian promise of a general resurrection of the dead combined the traditional Greek belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body with practical explanations of how this was going to actually happen at the end of times.[38]

See also

History of Christianity:
Early Christianity
Preceded by:
Followed by:
Late ancient
BC 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th
11th 12th 13th 14th 15th 16th 17th 18th 19th 20th 21st


  1. ^ Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F.L. Lucas (Oxford) entry on Paul
  2. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then — if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment — there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
  3. ^ Theodore Stylianopoulos "Concerning the Biblical Foundation of Primacy", in Walter Kasper (editor), The Petrine Ministry (Paulist Press 2008 ISBN 978-0-80914334-4), pp. 43–44, citing John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. 3. Companions and Competitors (Knopf Doubleday 2001 ISBN 978-0-38546993-7), pp. 221–225, and others.
  4. ^ Bargil Pixner, The Church of the Apostles found on Mount Zion, Biblical Archaeology Review 16.3 May/June 1990 [1]
  5. ^ Brown (1993). Pg 10.
  6. ^ Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday, 1997), pp. 5-15.
  7. ^ a b Bokenkotter, p. 18.
  8. ^ Duffy, p. 3.
  9. ^ White (2004). Pg 127.
  10. ^ Ehrman (2005). Pg 187.
  11. ^ Bokenkotter, p. 19.
  12. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Circumcision: In Apocryphal and Rabbinical Literature: "Contact with Grecian life, especially at the games of the arena [which involved nudity], made this distinction obnoxious to the Hellenists, or antinationalists; and the consequence was their attempt to appear like the Greeks by epispasm ("making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18; , Tosef., Shab. xv. 9; Yeb. 72a, b; Yer. Peah i. 16b; Yeb. viii. 9a). All the more did the law-observing Jews defy the edict of Antiochus Epiphanes prohibiting circumcision (I Macc. i. 48, 60; ii. 46); and the Jewish women showed their loyalty to the Law, even at the risk of their lives, by themselves circumcising their sons."; Hodges, Frederick, M. (2001). "The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme" (PDF). The Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75 (Fall 2001): 375–405. PMID 11568485. doi:10.1353/bhm.2001.0119. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  13. ^ a b c McGrath (2006). Pp 174-175.
  14. ^ Bokenkotter, p. 20.
  15. ^ a b Wylen (1995). Pg 190.
  16. ^ a b Berard (2006). Pp 112-113.
  17. ^ a b Wright (1992). Pp 164-165.
  18. ^ Elwell & Comfort (2001). Pp 266, 828.
  19. ^ Wylen (1995). Pp 190-192.
  20. ^ Dunn (1999). Pp 33-34.
  21. ^ Boatwright (2004). Pg 426.
  22. ^ Dauphin (1993). Pp 235, 240-242.
  23. ^ Siker (2000). Pg 231.
  24. ^ Siker (2000). Pp 231-32.
  25. ^ Siker (2000). Pp 232-34.
  26. ^ Bokenkotter, pp. 34–35.
  27. ^ Bokenkotter, p. 32.
  28. ^ Duffy, pp. 9–10.
  29. ^ Bokenkotter, p. 33.
  30. ^ Duffy, p. 13.
  31. ^ Bokenkotter, p. 35.
  32. ^ Franzen 29
  33. ^ a b Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2004), p. 18, quote: "The story of how this tiny community of believers spread to many cities of the Roman Empire within less than a century is indeed a remarkable chapter in the history of humanity."
  34. ^ Vidmar, The Catholic Church Through the Ages (2005), pp. 19–20
  35. ^ a b Hitchcock, Geography of Religion (2004), p. 281, quote: "By the year 100, more than 40 Christian communities existed in cities around the Mediterranean, including two in North Africa, at Alexandria and Cyrene, and several in Italy."
  36. ^ Michael Whitby, et al. eds. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom and Orthodoxy (2006) online edition
  37. ^ Stark (1996)
  38. ^ Endsjø (2009), pp. 159-217


  • Barclay, William. The Apostles' Creed. Westminster John Knox Press (1999). ISBN 0-664-25826-3.
  • Berard, Wayne Daniel. When Christians Were Jews (That Is, Now). Cowley Publications (2006). ISBN 1-56101-280-7.
  • Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro & Gargola, Daniel J & Talbert, Richard John Alexander. The Romans: From Village to Empire. Oxford University Press (2004). ISBN 0-19-511875-8.
  • Bockmuehl, Markus N.A. The Cambridge Companion to Jesus. Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN 0-521-79678-4.
  • Bokenkotter, Thomas (2004). A Concise History of the Catholic Church. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-50584-1. 
  • Brown, Schuyler. The Origins of Christianity: A Historical Introduction to the New Testament. Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN 0-19-826207-8.
  • Dauphin, C. "De l'Église de la circoncision à l'Église de la gentilité – sur une nouvelle voie hors de l'impasse". Studium Biblicum Franciscanum. Liber Annuus XLIII (1993).
  • Duffy, Eamon (1997). Saints and Sinners, a History of the Popes. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07332-1. 
  • Dunn, James D.G. Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999). ISBN 0-8028-4498-7.
  • Dunn, James D.G. The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul. Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN 0-521-78694-0.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. HarperCollins (2005). ISBN 0-06-073817-0.
  • Elwell, Walter A. & Comfort, Philip Wesley. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Tyndale House Publishers (2001). ISBN 0-8423-7089-7.
  • Endsjø, Dag Øistein. Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity. Palgrave Macmillan (2009). ISBN 978-0-230-61729-2.
  • Esler, Philip F. The Early Christian World. Routledge (2004). ISBN 0-415-33312-1.
  • Hunt, Emily Jane. Christianity in the Second Century: The Case of Tatian. Routledge (2003). ISBN 0-415-30405-9.
  • McGrath, Alister E. Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1.
  • Siker, Jeffrey S. "Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries", Chapter Nine in The Early Christian World. Philip F. Esler, editor. Routledge (2000). ISBN 0-415-24141-3.
  • Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton University Press (1996). ISBN 0-06-067701-5.
  • Tabor, James D. "Ancient Judaism: Nazarenes and Ebionites", The Jewish Roman World of Jesus. Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (1998).
  • Taylor, Joan E. Christians and the Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins. Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN 0-19-814785-6.
  • Theissen, Gerd & Merz, Annette. The historical Jesus: a comprehensive guide. Fortress Press (1998). ISBN 0-8006-3122-6.
  • White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity. HarperCollins (2004). ISBN 0-06-052655-6.
  • Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Fortress Press (1992). ISBN 0-8006-2681-8.
  • Wylen, Stephen M. The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction. Paulist Press (1995). ISBN 0-8091-3610-4.

Further reading

  • Dunn, James D.G. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity. SCM Press (2006). ISBN 0-334-02998-8.
  • Freedman, David Noel (Ed). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2000). ISBN 0-8028-2400-5.
  • Keck, Leander E. Paul and His Letters. Fortress Press (1988). ISBN 0-8006-2340-1.
  • Mills, Watson E. Acts and Pauline Writings. Mercer University Press (1997). ISBN 0-86554-512-X.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). University of Chicago Press (1975). ISBN 0-226-65371-4.
  • Thiede, Carsten Peter. The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity. Palgrabe Macmillan (2003). ISBN 1-4039-6143-3.

External links

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