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Early Christianity is generally considered as Christianity before 325. The New Testament's Book of Acts and Epistle to the Galatians records that the first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem and its leaders included James, Peter and John.[1]

The first Christians were all Jews or Jewish proselytes, either by birth or conversion, referred to by historians as the Jewish Christians. Paul of Tarsus, after his conversion, claimed the title of "Apostle to the Gentiles". Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author.[2] By the end of the 1st century, Christianity began to be recognized internally and externally as a separate religion from Rabbinic Judaism which itself was refined and developed further in the centuries after the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple.

As shown by the numerous quotations in the New Testament books and other Christian writings of the 1st centuries, early Christians generally used and revered the Jewish Bible as Scripture, mostly in the Greek (Septuagint) or Aramaic (Targum) translations. As the New Testament canon developed, the Letters of Paul, 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 rejected as heretical.

Contents

History

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 missionary activity spread Christianity to cities throughout the Hellenistic world and even beyond the Roman Empire. Though Paul's influence on Christian thinking is said to be more significant than any other New Testament author,[2] the relationship of Paul of Tarsus and Judaism is still disputed.

Early Christians suffered sporadic persecution because they refused to pay homage to the emperor as divine. Persecution was on the rise in Asia Minor towards the end of the 1st century,[3] as well as in Rome in the aftermath of the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64.

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 rejection of Judaism and Jewish practices. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism during the first two centuries and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire.

What started as a religious movement within 1st century Judaism became, by the end of this period, the favored religion of the Roman Empire, as well as a significant religion outside the empire.[4] 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.[5]

Practices

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.

Baptism

Early Christian beliefs regarding baptism probably predate the New Testament writings. It seems certain that baptism was practised by numerous Jewish sects and certainly by Jesus and his disciples and was integral to nearly every manifestation of the religion of the Jews. John the Baptist had baptized many people before it was done 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 described baptism as a burial (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).

While some believe that infant baptism began to be widely practised at least by the 3rd century,[2] the origins of the practice are controversial. Some believe that the Church in apostolic period practised infant baptism, arguing that the mention of the baptism of households in the Acts of the Apostles most definitely would have included children within the household.[6] In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, may have referred to it.[2][7][8]

The 3rd century evidence is clearer, with both Origen[9] and Cyprian advocating the practice. Tertullian refers to the practice (and that sponsors would speak on behalf of the children), but argues against it, on the grounds that baptism should be postponed until after marriage.[10]

Interpretation of the baptismal practices of the early church is important to groups such as Baptists and Anabaptists, who believe that infant baptism was a later development, yet the early Christian writings mentioned above, which date from the 2nd and 3rd century clearly show that the early Christians did maintain such practice.[11]

Organization

Christian groups were first organized loosely. In Paul's time, there were no precisely delineated functions for bishops, elders, and deacons.[12] A Church hierarchy, however, seems to have developed by the early 2nd century[12] (see Pastoral Epistles, c 90 - 140[12]). 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 episkopos (overseers; and the origin of the term bishop) and presbyters (elders; and the origin of the term priest), and then deacons (servants). But this 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 elders interchangeably and as synonyms.[13] The Didache (dated by most scholars to the early 2nd century),[14]) speaks of "appointing for yourself bishops and deacons" and also speaks about teachers and prophets and false prophets.

Post-apostolic bishops of importance include Polycarp of Smyrna, Clement of Rome, and Irenaeus of Lyons. 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.[15]

Jerusalem was the first church and an important church center up to 135.[16] 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.[17]

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.

Sabbath

According to Bauckham, the post-apostolic church contained diverse practices as regards Sabbath.[18]

Women

Elizabeth Clark describes the attitude of the Church Fathers towards women as "ambivalent".[19] The attitudes paralleled rules in Jewish law regarding a woman's role in worship. The early church did, however, allow women to participate in the worship, something that was not allowed in the Synagogue (where women were restricted to the outer court).

Beliefs

Early Christian beliefs were based on the apostolic preaching (kerygma), considered to be preserved in tradition and, according as was produced, in New Testament scripture.[20]

Christology

Divinity of Christ

Most Christians identified Jesus as divine from a very early period, although holding a variety of competing views as to what exactly this implied.[21] Early Christian views tended to see Jesus as a unique agent of God;[22] by the Council of Nicaea in 325 he was identified as God in the fullest sense, literally 'of the same substance, essence or being'.

The 1st and 2nd-century texts that would later be canonized as the New Testament several times imply or indirectly refer to Jesus' divinity, though there is scholarly debate as to whether or not they call him God[23] 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" 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. The Book of Revelation depicts Jesus as the "Alpha and Omega, the first and the last" who is to come soon,[24] who died and now lives forever and who holds the keys of death and Hades.[25] The Epistle to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the mediator of the New Covenant.

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).[26][27]

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.

Eschatology

Orthodoxy and heterodoxy

In the orthodox main stream of the church, the categories orthodoxy and heresy were created, and "orthodoxy" was depicted and projected into the past as the authentic lineage of tradition. Other forms of Christianity were viewed as deviant streams of thought and therefore labeled as "heterodox", or even called heretical.

Perhaps one of the most important discussions 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.[28]

Religious writing

Early Christians wrote many religious works, some of which were later canonized as the New Testament of today.

Defining scripture

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,[29] 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).[30]

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.[29]

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[31]). 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.

Fathers of the church

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.[32]

Apostolic Fathers

St. Clement I was an Apostolic Father.

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).[33]

Spread of Christianity

  Spread of Christianity in Europe to AD 325
  Spread of Christianity in Europe to AD 600
  *The map does not accurately reflect the conversion of the Arsacid Dynasty of Armenia to Christianity in 301 AD

Early Christianity spread from city to city in the Hellenized Roman Empire and beyond into East Africa and South Asia. Apostles traveled extensively and 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[34] in northern Africa, Asia Minor, Armenia, Arabia, Greece, and other places.[35][36][37] Over 40 were established by the year 100,[36][37] 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, even 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.

In spite of at-times intense persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin.[38] 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 not 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 the what theologians considered the truth. In the influential book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that various sociological factors which made Christianity improving the quality of life of its adherents were crucial for its triumph over paganism.[39] Another factor, more recently pointed out, 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.[40]

See also

References

  1. ^ Galatians 2:9, Acts 1:13; See Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles for details
  2. ^ a b c d Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F.L. Lucas (Oxford) entry on Paul
  3. ^ Ehrman 2004, p. 318 - "If the letter [1 Peter] is indeed associated with Asia Minor, as its prescript suggests, it should probably be assigned to the first century, possibly near its end, when persecution of the Christians was on the rise"
  4. ^ Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine, London: Viking, 1986, ISBN 978-0-670-80848-9.
  5. ^ Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972
  6. ^ Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.; John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; Jordan Bajis; Bryan Chapell; Gregg Strawbridge (response to objections)
  7. ^ "He (Jesus) came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God and children, infants, and boys, and youths, and old men" (Adversus Haereses, ii, 22, 4)
  8. ^ Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, (Eerdmans 1978), page 127.
  9. ^ Homilies on Leviticus 8.3.11; Commentary on Romans 5.9; and Homily on Luke 14.5
  10. ^ "The delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary ... that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? ... For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred - in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom - until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence" (On Baptism 18).
  11. ^ "The Didache, representing practice perhaps as early as the beginning of the second century, probably in Syria, also assumes immersion to be normal, but it allows that if sufficient water for immersion is not at hand, water may be poured three times over the head. The latter must have been a frequent arrangement, for it corresponds with most early artistic depictions of baptism, in Roman catacombs and on sarcophagi of the third century and later. The earliest identifiable Christian meeting house known to us, at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, contained a baptismal basin too shallow for immersion. Obviously local practice varied, and practicality will often have trumped whatever desire leaders may have felt to make action mime metaphor" (Margaret Mary Mitchell, Frances Margaret Young, K. Scott Bowie, Cambridge History of Christianity, Vol. 1, Origins to Constantine (Cambridge University Press 2006 ISBN 9780521812399), pp. 160-161).
  12. ^ a b c Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  13. ^ Philip Carrington, The Early Christian Church (2 vol. 1957) online edition vol 1; online edition vol 2
  14. ^ Metzger, Bruce. The canon of the New Testament. 1997
  15. ^ Canon VI of the First Council of Nicea, which closes the period under consideration in this article, reads: "Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop ..." As can be seen, the title of "Patriarch", later applied to some of these bishops, was not used by the Council: "Nobody can maintain that the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria were called patriarchs then, or that the jurisdiction they had then was co-extensive with what they had afterward, when they were so called" (ffoulkes, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, quoted in Volume XIV of Philip Schaff's The Seven Ecumenical Councils).
  16. ^ See, for example, Council of Jerusalem and Early centers of Christianity#Jerusalem.
  17. ^ "Since there prevails a custom and ancient tradition to the effect that the bishop of Aelia is to be honoured, let him be granted everything consequent upon this honour, saving the dignity proper to the metropolitan" (Canon 7).
  18. ^ R. J. Bauckham (1982), D. A. Carson, ed., "Sabbath and Sunday in the Post-Apostolic church", From Sabbath to Lord's Day (Zondervan): 252–298 
  19. ^ Clark, Elizabeth Ann (1983). Women in the early church. Liturgical Press. p. 20. http://books.google.com/books?id=qt3X9bHti3wC&pg=PA20&dq=%22Catholic+Church%22+women&hl=en&ei=i70HTpmAPKbliALS2dCxDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CFYQ6AEwCTgU#v=onepage&q=%22Catholic%20Church%22%20women&f=false. 
  20. ^ In recent centuries some have posited for parts of the New Testament dates as late as the third century, early Christians attributed it to the Apostles themselves and their contemporaries (such as Mark and Luke).
  21. ^ Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, (Eerdmans, 2005), page 650.
  22. ^ Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, (Eerdmans, 2005), page 204.
  23. ^ See Raymond E. Brown's "Does the New Testament call Jesus God?" in Theological Studies, #26, 1965, p. 545-73 for a good summary of the debate.
  24. ^ Revelation 1:11
  25. ^ Revelation 1:18
  26. ^ "Alogi or Alogoi", Early Church.org.uk.
  27. ^ "Alogi", Francis P. Havey, The Catholic Encyclopedia Volume I, 1907.
  28. ^ Esler (2004). Pp 893-894.
  29. ^ a b White (2004). Pp 446-447.
  30. ^ Philip R. Davies, in The Canon Debate, page 50: "With many other scholars, I conclude that the fixing of a canonical list was almost certainly the achievement of the Hasmonean dynasty."
  31. ^ Swete's Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, page 112
  32. ^ Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article Fathers of the Church
  33. ^ Ephesians 5-6, Magnesians 2, 6-7, 13, Trallians 2-3, Smyrnaeans 8-9
  34. ^ Franzen 29
  35. ^ Vidmar, The Catholic Church Through the Ages (2005), pp. 19–20
  36. ^ 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."
  37. ^ 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."
  38. ^ Michael Whitby, et al. eds. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom and Orthodoxy (2006) online edition
  39. ^ Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1996.
  40. ^ Dag Øistein Endsjø. Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009.

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