26 June 2020

A Brief History of the Early Christian Church

Many may remember the posting of Martin Luther's ninty-five theses that protested the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church of the Sixteenth Century from their High School history class. Some may have an idea of how their specific Protestant denomination came to be and whose ideas influenced its formation. You may know of Zwingli, Calvin, or Luther, but what do you know of Ignatius, Origen, or Tertullian? Before Protestants and Catholics, before indulgences, before crusades, before the East-West Schism, before Constantine, there was an early church which faced persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. What follows is a glimpse at the richness of culture that was unique to that early Church.

The First Century: The Apostalic Church

After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the church was led by the Twelve Apostles, as numbered in the Book of Acts (see Acts 1). Eleven of these were the original disciples called and taught by Jesus during his lifetime. Another, Matthias, was called by the eleven and chosen by prayer. They would later be joined by Paul of Tarsus, who was called by the spirit of Jesus and confirmed by the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9).

The Book of Acts uses the term "apostle" very differently from how it is often used today. It is common for "the Apostles" to mean the original eleven, plus Matthias, plus Paul. However, the Book of Acts does not distinguish between these thirteen and any others who were called to carry out the Great Commission. Acts refers to many apostles, with women as well as men being numbered among them. It may be helpful to think of these apostles as missionaries.

The apostles spread the Gospel from city to city. At each city where they planted a church, they elected elders to lead the congregation and attend to its spiritual development and sound teaching, as well as deacons to make sure that all were fed and none were neglected. Acts 15 refers to there seeming to be some central authority in Jerusalem, though little detail is given on this point.

During the time of the apostles, there is little to no difference between Jews and Christians. Those groups referred to in the book of Acts include Hebraic Jews (6:1), Hellenistic Jews (6:1), "believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees" (15:5) and Gentile believers (15:23). The only real qualifier for being a Christian seemed to be acceptance that Jesus is the Christ.

The start of the split between Judaism and Christianity is first evident at the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70. By AD 150, the two religions had become distinct, with gentile Christians forming the basis of what would become the Catholic Church and Jewish Christians forming Orthodox churches in Arabia and Africa.

The Second & Third Centuries: Theologies and Heresies

The Second and Third Centuries saw a movement to define the theology of Christianity. Many theologians of this time wrote apologetic works to combat perceived heresies of other theologians. In time, accepted beliefs would narrow to the orthodoxy accepted by the early Catholic Church, but in the Second and Third centuries, Christian beliefs were incredibly diverse.

Jewish Christianity, based in Jerusalem, flourished in the Near East, but due to its adherence to Jewish customs, spread slowly compared to Gentile Christianity. At the same time, Gentile Christianity had spread across the Roman Empire, interacting with the Empire's diverse cultures as it spread.

Christians had little agreement between what texts were or were not scripture, and their theology varied widely. Gnostics claimed secret teachings, handed down from secret apostles, and kept secret through use of coded language. They believed God to be inherently unknowable. Most other Christians found them to be a headache. Famed heretic, Marcion of Sinope, taught that the god of Jesus was different from the God of Judaism and that the Jewish God was inferior to the god of Christ. His theology is relatively well-documented as it was both universally rejected and argued against in numerous works.

Marcion published a canon of scripture which included ten of Paul's epistles and the Gospel of Luke. This prompted numerous revisions to be made to Luke's gospel to combat Marcion's heresies, as well as started the conversation about adopting a specific canon of scripture. Marcion's weird (and racist) view of God prompted the conversation of Christology and nature of God which led to the development of Trinitarian doctrine in the Third Century.

Early Christians did not see God as Trinitarian. Some Christians saw Jesus and God as distinct entities. Some thought of God in polytheistic terms, others in monotheistic terms. Adoptionism put forward that Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted at either his baptism, resurrection, or ascension. Docetism asserted that Jesus was pure spirit and that his physical form was an illusion. Sabellianism claimed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes or aspects of the one God, and that these three modes did not constitute three separate persons (as in the Trinitarian view).

Christian views about women changed drastically during the Second and Third centuries. During the time of Christ and of the Apostles, women were seen as equal to men. Paul wrote in Galatians that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." However, early Church Fathers, including Origen, Iraneus, and Tertullian, wrote against women having any share in church leadership or even speaking in church. It is thought that the Pastoral epistles of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were written at this time and attributed to Paul. Limitations on women's roles were even written into earlier Pauline epistles at this time, such as that found in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

The Fourth Century: Beginning of the End

The Fourth Century of the Church officially started in February of 313, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. This came at the culmination of Christian reform which made a very specific form of Christianity acceptable to the Roman Empire. Constantine disliked the risk to social stability posed by such diverse practices and beliefs as practiced in Christianity and sought to establish an orthodoxy.

In 325, Constantine convened the First Council of Nicea to establish a uniform doctrine which resulted in the Nicean Creed. No biblical canon was discussed at this time. The Catholic canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382. Constantine commissioned Bibles to be written for use of the church in Constantinople in 351. This prompted a change in which scripture was transmitted between churches.

Up until the Fourth Century, Christian writings were copied by whoever was locally available to the Christian community and literate enough to do the work. It was not uncommon for changes to be made to correct mistakes, to reword passages for easier interpretation, or to combat heresies. Consequently, the first three centuries saw vast changes being made to the texts that would become the New Testament. In the Fourth Century, the copying of scripture became the work of professionals. Fewer changes were made, but as with any document copied by hand, still crept in.

In February of 380, the Edict of Thessalonica established Trinitarian Christianity as the new state religion of the Roman Empire. This was officially the birth of the Catholic Church and ended the diversity of churches and doctrines which existed up to that time. Those who disagreed with the Church were branded heretics and faced capital punishment beginning in 385.

Further Reading

Numerous books have been writen on the history of Christianity. For an online overview, I recommend the following Wikipedia articles.

History of Christianity

History of Christian Theology

Persecution of Christians

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