Early Christianity is the period of Christianity preceding the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It is typically divided into the Apostolic Age and the Ante-Nicene Period (from the Apostolic Age until Nicea).
The first Christians, as described in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, were all Jews either by birth or conversion, for which the biblical term "proselyte" is used, and referred to by historians as Jewish Christians. The early Gospel message was spread orally, probably in Aramaic, but almost immediately also in Greek. The New Testament's Acts of the Apostles and Epistle to the Galatians record that the first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem and its leaders included Peter, James, the brother of Jesus, and John the Apostle.
After the conversion of Paul the Apostle, he claimed the title of "Apostle to the Gentiles". Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than that of any other New Testament author. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity began to be recognized internally and externally as a separate religion from Judaism which itself was refined and developed further in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple.
Numerous quotations in the New Testament and other Christian writings of the first centuries, indicate that early Christians generally used and revered the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) as religious text, mostly in the Greek (Septuagint) or Aramaic (Targum) translations.
As the New Testament canon developed, the Pauline epistles, the canonical gospels and various other works were also recognized as scripture to be read in church. Paul's letters, especially Romans, established a theology based on Christ rather than on the Mosaic Law, but most Christian denominations today still consider the "moral prescriptions" of the Mosaic Law, such as the Ten Commandments, Great Commandment, and Golden Rule, to be relevant. Early Christians demonstrated a wide range of beliefs and practices, many of which were later denounced as heretical.
The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect, which historians refer to as Jewish Christianity. The first part of the period, during the lifetimes of the Twelve Apostles, is called the Apostolic Age. In line with the Great Commission attributed to the resurrected Jesus, the Apostles are said to have dispersed from Jerusalem, and the Christian missionary activity spread Christianity to cities throughout the Hellenistic world and even beyond the Roman Empire. The relationship of Paul the Apostle and Judaism is still disputed although Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author.
Early Christians suffered under sporadic anti-Christian policies in the Roman Empire as the result of local pagan populations putting pressure on the imperial authorities to take action against the Christians in their midst, who were thought to bring misfortune by their refusal to honour the gods.
As the existence of the Christians became more widely known, it became increasingly clear that they were (a) antisocial, in that they did not participate in the normal social life of their communities; (b) sacrilegious, in that they refused to worship the gods; and (c) dangerous, in that the gods did not take kindly to communities that harbored those who failed to offer them cult. By the end of the second century, the Christian apologist (literally, 'defender' of the faith) Tertullian complained about the widespread perception that Christians were the source of all disasters brought against the human race by the gods. 'They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, "Away with the Christians to the lion!"
Persecution was on the rise in Anatolia towards the end of the first century, and in 111, emperor Trajan issued regulations about the conduct of trials of Christians under the Roman governor of the area. The first action taken against Christians by the order of an emperor occurred half a century earlier under Nero after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.
During the Ante-Nicene Period following the Apostolic Age, a great diversity of views emerged simultaneously with strong unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh anti-Judaism and rejection of Judaizers. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism during the first two centuries and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire.
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.
From the writings of early Christians, historians have tried to piece together an understanding of various early Christian practices including worship services, customs and observances. Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (100–165) described these practices.
Early Christian beliefs regarding baptism probably predate the New Testament writings. It seems certain that numerous Jewish sects and certainly Jesus's disciples practised baptism, which became integral to nearly every manifestation of the religion of the Jews. John the Baptist had baptized many people, before baptisms took place in the name of Jesus Christ. Many of the interpretations that would later become Orthodox Christian beliefs concerning baptism can be traced to apostles such as Paul, who likened baptism to being buried with Christ in his death (Romans 6:3–4; Colossians 2:12). On the basis of this description, it was supposed by some modern theologians that the early Christians practised baptism by submersion (Matthew 3:13–17). This interpretation is debated between those Christian denominations who advocate immersion baptism exclusively and those who practice baptism by affusion or aspersion as well as by immersion. Yet the Didache, one of the earliest Christian writings on liturgical practices, mentions that baptism may occur by pouring water on the head three times using the trinitarian formula (i.e., in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). The Orthodox Church continues this practice, submerging the baptized and then pouring water on the head in that formula.
Infant baptism was widely practised at least by the 3rd century, but it is disputed whether it was in the first centuries of Christianity. Some believe that the Church in the apostolic period practised infant baptism, arguing that the mention of the baptism of households in the Acts of the Apostles would have included children within the household. Others believe that infants were excluded from the baptism of households, citing verses of the Bible that describe the baptized households as believing, which infants are incapable of doing. In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, may have referred to it. Additionally, Justin Martyr wrote about baptism in First Apology (written in the mid-2nd century), describing it as a choice and contrasting it with the lack of choice one has in one's physical birth. However, Justin Martyr also seems to imply elsewhere that believers were "disciples from childhood", indicating, perhaps, their baptism. The Bishop Polycarp, himself a disciple of the Apostle John, stated at his martyrdom (168 AD) that he had been in the "service of Christ" for eighty-six years. Other recorded dates from Polycarp's life make it likely that eighty-six years was his age from birth as well. Joachim Jeremias concludes the following from these facts: "This shows at any rate that his parents were already Christians, or at least were converted quite soon after his birth. If his parents were pagans at his birth, he would have been baptized with the 'house' at their conversion. But even if his parents were Christians, the words 'service of Christ for eighty-six years' support a baptism soon after his birth rather than one as a child of 'mature years'... for which there is no evidence at all." The so-called Apostolic Tradition says to "Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them." If it was written by Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition could be dated about 215 AD, but recent scholars believe it to be material from separate sources ranging from the middle second to the fourth century, being gathered and compiled on about 375–400 AD. The 3rd century evidence is clearer, with both Origen (calling infant baptism "according to the usage of the Church") and Cyprian advocating the practice. Tertullian acknowledges the practice (and that sponsors would speak on behalf of the children), but, holding an unusual view of marriage, argues against it, on the grounds that baptism should be postponed until after marriage.
Interpretation of the baptismal practices of the early church is important to groups such as Baptists, Anabaptists, and the Churches of Christ who believe that infant baptism was a development that occurred during the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries. The early Christian writings mentioned above, which date from the 2nd and 3rd century indicate that Christians as early as the 2nd century did maintain such a practice.
Christian groups and congregations first organized themselves loosely. In Paul's time, although certain decisions by Elders and Apostles were binding, as in the Council of Jerusalem, there were no precisely delineated functions yet for bishops, elders, and deacons. A Church hierarchy, however, seems to have developed by the late 1st century and early 2nd century (see Pastoral Epistles, c. 90–140). These structures were certainly formalized well before the end of the Early Christian period, which concluded with the legalization of Christianity by Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 and the holding of the First Council of Nicea in 325, when the title of Metropolitan bishop first appears.
In the post-Apostolic church, bishops emerged as overseers of urban Christian populations, and a hierarchy of clergy gradually took on the form of episkopoi (overseers), presbyteroi (elders), and diakonoi (ministerial servants). This hierarchy emerged slowly and at different times for different locations. Clement, a 1st-century bishop of Rome, refers to the leaders of the Corinthian church in his epistle to Corinthians as bishops and presbyters interchangeably. The New Testament writers also use the terms "overseer" and "elder" interchangeably and as synonyms. The Didache (dated by most scholars to the early 2nd century), speaks of "appointing for yourself bishops and deacons".
Disputes regarding the proper titles and roles of church leaders would later become one of the major causes of schism within the Christian Church. Such disputes include the roles of bishops and presbyters. Churches such as the Catholic and Orthodox use the word "priest" of all the baptized, but apply it in a more specific sense ("ministerial priesthood") to bishops and presbyters and sometimes, somewhat loosely, treat "presbyter" and "priest" as synonyms, applying both terms to clergy subordinate to bishops. In congregational churches, the title "priest" is rejected, keeping only "presbyter" or "elder". Some congregational churches do not include a role of bishop in their organizational polity.
Post-apostolic bishops of importance include Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome. These men reportedly knew and studied under the apostles personally and are therefore called Apostolic Fathers. 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. In the 2nd century, an episcopal structure becomes more visible, and in that 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.
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.
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.
It is classically understood that Jews have tradition to observe Saturday as the Sabbath, due to Yahweh resting on the seventh day after creation. It is contested that worship on Sundays, as is now mostly common in the Christian movement, only shifted from Saturday because of Emperor Constantine. However, it seems clear that most of the Early Church did not consider observation of the Sabbath to be required or of imminent importance to Christians and in fact worshiped on Sunday. Ignatius of Antioch, who lived from around 30–108 AD, mentions this in Chapter 9 of his "Epistle to the Magnesians" which is dated to around 101 AD. Justin Martyr, a disciple who lived between 110–165 AD, wrote about this extensively in his "Dialogue With Trypho the Jew." Another mention of this by Justin Martyr is in his "Apologies" work Section 1:67 dated to around 140–150 AD. Below is a portion of the text:
“And on the day which is called Sunday there is an assembly in the same place of all who live in cities or in country districts; and the records of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets, are read as long as we have time… Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the day on which God, when he changed the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.” (Justin Martyr, written 140 AD, from “Apologies” 1:67)
The attitude of the Church Fathers towards women paralleled rules in Jewish law regarding a woman's role in worship, although the early church allowed women to participate in worship—something that was not allowed in the Synagogue (where women were restricted to the outer court). The Deutero-Pauline First Epistle to Timothy teaches that women should remain quiet during public worship and were not to instruct men or assume authority over them. The Epistle to the Ephesians, which is also Deutero-Pauline, calls upon women to submit to the authority of their husbands.
Elizabeth A. Clark says that the Church Fathers regarded women both as "God's good gift to men" and as "the curse of the world", both as "weak in both mind and character" and as people who "displayed dauntless courage, undertook prodigious feats of scholarship".
The New Testament provides several examples of female leaders, including Phoebe (a deaconess, a Christian designated to serve with under the bishops and presbyters of the church in a variety of ways, in Corinth), Priscilla (an early missionary and wife of Aquila) and Lydia (who hosted a house church in the Asian city of Thyatira). While it's quite clear these women were not ordained clerics, these women were very influential, and they are still venerated today.
The Christian practise of incest was widely reported by contemporary pagan and Christian authors. Pliny wrote of clandestine debauchery including not only ritual incest but also the sacrifice of their young. Marcus Cornelius Fronto described the feasts of Christians as abominations, and gave details of how their babies were killed, dismembered and eaten. Fronto related that "On a special day they gather in a feast with all their children, sisters, mothers—all sexes and ages", and after feasting and drinking, "copulate in random unions, all being equally guilty of incest, some by deed but everyone by complicity". Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Epiphanius, were equally concerned about such practises. Epiphanius described a sect known as the Phibionites, who
unite with each other [sister and brother] in the passion of fornication .... The woman and the man take the fluid of the emission of the man into their hands, they stand, tum toward heaven, their hands besmeared by uncleanness, and pray (saying) "We offer to thee this gift, the body of Christ," and then they eat it, their own ugliness, and say: "This is the body of Christ and this is the Passover for the sake of which our bodies suffer and are forced to confess the suffering of Christ." Similarly also with the woman when she happens to be in the flowing of the blood, they gather the blood of menstruation of her uncleanness and eat it together and say, "This is the blood of Christ."
In his Apology, Tertullian describes murder, cannibalism, treason, sacrilege (atheism), and incest. It is impossible to judge how common such practises were. Early Christian writers would take care to emphasise that they considered that congregations guilty of these practises falsely claimed to be Christian.
Early Christian beliefs were based on the apostolic preaching (kerygma), considered to be preserved in tradition and in New Testament scripture, for parts of which scholars have posited dates as late as the third century, although it was then attributed to the Apostles themselves and their contemporaries, such as Mark and Luke.
Most Christians identified Jesus as divine from a very early period, although holding a variety of competing views as to what exactly this implied. Early Christian views tended to see Jesus as a unique agent of God; by the Council of Nicaea in 325 he was identified as God in the fullest sense, being 'of the same substance, essence or being'.
Some of the texts that would later be canonized as the New Testament several times imply or indirectly refer to the divine character to Jesus, though there is scholarly debate as to whether or not they call him God Within 15–20 years of the death of Jesus, Paul, who authored the largest early expositions of Christian theology, refers to Jesus as the resurrected "Son of God", the savior who would return from heaven and save his faithful, dead and living, from the imminent destruction of the world. The Synoptic Gospels describe him as the "Son of God", though the phrase "Son of Man" (always placed in the mouth of Jesus himself) is more frequently used in the Gospel of Mark; born of the Virgin Mary by the agency of the Holy Spirit, and who will return to judge the nations. The Gospel of John identifies Jesus as the human incarnation of the divine Word or "Logos" (see Jesus the Logos) and True Vine. It is believed that the Book of Revelation depicts Jesus as "the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (22:13), and applies similar terms to "the Lord God": "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, 'who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty'" (1:8).
The term "Logos" was used in Greek philosophy (see Heraclitus) and in Hellenistic Jewish religious writing (see Philo Judaeus of Alexandria) to mean the ultimate ordering principle of the universe. Those who rejected the identification of Jesus with the Logos, rejecting also the Gospel of John, were called Alogi (see also Monarchianism).
Adoptionists, such as the Ebionites, considered him as at first an ordinary man, born to Joseph and Mary, who later became the Son of God at his baptism, his transfiguration, or his resurrection.
Rodney Stark estimates that the number of Christians grew by approximately 40% a decade during the first and second centuries. This phenomenal growth rate forced Christian communities to evolve in order to adapt to their changes in the nature of their communities as well as their relationship with their political and socioeconomic environment. As the number of Christians grew, the Christian communities became larger, more numerous and farther apart geographically. The passage of time also moved some Christians farther from the original teachings of the apostles giving rise to teachings that were considered heterodox and sowing controversy and divisiveness within churches and between churches.
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 bishops, elders and deacons that Ignatius of Antioch urged churches to adopt, writing that "You cannot have a church without these." 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.
Despite its mention of bishops, there is no clear evidence in the New Testament that supports the concepts of dioceses and monepiscopacy (i.e. the rule that all the churches in a geographic area should be ruled by a single bishop). Ronald Y. K. Fung claimed that scholars point to evidence that Christian communities such as Rome had many bishops and that the concept of monepiscopacy was still emerging when Ignatius was urging his tri-partite structure on other churches.
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."
The proto-orthodox church had a dichotomy for teachings; they were either orthodox or heterodox. Orthodox teachings were those that had the authentic lineage of Holy Tradition. All other teachings were viewed as deviant streams of thought and were possibly heretical. An important discussion in the past century among scholars of early Christianity is to what extent it is still appropriate to speak of "orthodoxy" and "heresy". Higher criticism drastically altered the previous perception that heresy was a very rare exception to the orthodoxy. Some orthodox scholars argue against the increasing focus on heterodoxy. A movement away from presuming the correctness or dominance of the orthodoxy is seen as understandable, in light of modern approaches. However, these orthodox scholars feel that instead of an even and neutral approach to historical analysis that the heterodox sects are given an assumption of superiority over the orthodox movement.
Early Christians wrote many religious works, some of which were later canonized as the New Testament of today.
Debates about scripture were underway in the mid-2nd century, concurrent with a drastic increase of new scriptures, both Jewish and Christian. Debates regarding practice and belief gradually became reliant on the use of scripture other than what Melito referred to as the Old Testament, as the New Testament canon developed. Similarly, in the 3rd century a shift away from direct revelation as a source of authority occurred, most notably against the Montanists. "Scripture" still had a broad meaning and usually referred to the Septuagint among Greek speakers or the Targums among Aramaic speakers or the Vetus Latina translations in Carthage. Beyond the Torah (the Law) and some of the earliest prophetic works (the Prophets), there was not agreement on the canon, but this was not debated much at first. By the mid-2nd century, tensions arose with the split of early Christianity and Judaism, which some theorize led eventually to the determination of a Jewish canon by the emerging rabbinic movement, though, even as of today, there is no scholarly consensus as to when the Jewish canon was set. For example, some scholars argue that the Jewish canon was fixed earlier, by the Hasmonean dynasty (140–137 BC).
A problem for scholars is that there is a lack of direct evidence on when Christians began accepting their own scriptures alongside the Septuagint. Well into the 2nd century Christians held onto a strong preference for oral tradition as clearly demonstrated by writers of the time, such as Papias.
Koine Greek spread all over the Empire, even up the Rhone valley of Gaul; Roman satirists complained that even Rome had become a Greek city. Thus the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint) was the dominant translation (even the Peshitta appears to be influenced). Later Jerome would express his preference for adhering strictly to the Hebrew text and canon, but his view held little currency even in his own day. It was not until the Protestant Reformation that substantial numbers of Christians began to reject those books of the Septuagint which are not found in the Jewish Masoretic Text, referring to them as biblical apocrypha. In addition, some New Testament books were also disputed, known as the Antilegomena.
Since the end of the 4th century, the title "Fathers of the Church" has been used to refer to a more or less clearly defined group of ecclesiastical writers who are appealed to as authorities on doctrinal matters. Orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, approval by the Church and antiquity are traditionally considered conditions for classification as a Father of the Church, but modern writers sometimes include Tertullian, Origen and a few others.
The earliest Christian writings (other than those collected in the New Testament) are a group of letters credited to the Apostolic Fathers. These include the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistles of Clement, as well as the Didache. Taken as a whole, the collection is notable for its literary simplicity, religious zeal and lack of Hellenistic philosophy or rhetoric. Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (died 98 to 117) advocated the authority of the apostolic episcopacy (bishops).
Early Christianity spread from city to city throughout the Hellenized Roman Empire and beyond into East Africa and South Asia. The Christian Apostles, said to have dispersed from Jerusalem, traveled extensively and established communities in major cities and regions throughout the Empire. Apostles (see Apostolic see) and other Christian soldiers, merchants, and preachers founded early church communities in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Caucasian Albania, Arabia, Greece, and other places. Over forty existed by the year 100, many in Asia Minor, such as the seven churches of Asia. By the end of the 1st century, Christianity had spread to Greece and Italy, even India.
In 301 AD, the Kingdom of Armenia became the second state to declare Christianity as its official religion, following the conversion of the Royal House of the Arsacids in Armenia. The Armenian Apostolic Church is the world's oldest national church.
Various theories attempt to explain how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan (313). Some Christians saw the success as simply the natural consequence of the truth of the religion and of the direct intervention of God. However, similar explanations are claimed for the spread of, for instance, Islam and Buddhism. In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that Christianity triumphed over paganism chiefly because it improved the lives of its adherents in various ways. Another factor, more recently pointed out, 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. Mosheim (1693–1755) saw the rapid progression of Christianity as due to two factors: translations of the New Testament and the Apologies composed in defence of Christianity. Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), in his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789), discusses the topic in considerable detail in his famous Chapter Fifteen, summarizing the historical causes of the early success of Christianity as follows: "(1) The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses. (2) The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth. (3) The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church. (4) The pure and austere morals of the Christians. (5) The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman empire."
The churches were becoming ever more distant from their origins in space and time. They were growing and with growth came new or false teachings, the sources of controversy and division.
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