Christianity in the 3rd century

Christianity in the 3rd century
Funerary stele of Licinia Amias on marble. One of the most ancient Christian inscriptions found, it is from the early 3rd-century Vatican necropolis area, Rome.
Upper tier: dedication to the Dis Manibus and Christian motto in Greek letters ΙΧΘΥC ΖΩΝΤΩΝ: Ikhthus zōntōn, "fish of the living"; middle tier: depiction of fish and an anchor; lower tier: Latin inscription “LICINIAE FAMIATI BE / NE MERENTI VIXIT”.

The 3rd century of Christianity was largely the time of the Ante-Nicene Fathers who wrote after the Apostolic Fathers of the 1st and 2nd centuries but before the First Council of Nicaea in 325 (ante-nicene meaning before Nicaea). The Roman government experienced the Crisis of the Third Century and some of the larger persecutions of early Christians in the Roman Empire occurred in this time period, only ceasing with the Edict of Milan of 313 in the 4th century (excluding the brief rule of Julian the Apostate, 331-363).


Early Christianity

A folio from P46, an early 3rd century collection of Pauline epistles.

Defining scripture

The Biblical canon began with the officially accepted books of the Koine Greek Old Testament (which predates Christianity, see Hellenistic Judaism). The Septuagint or seventy is accepted as the foundation of the Christian faith along with the Good news (gospels), Revelations and Letters of the Apostles (including Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Hebrews) of the New Testament.

By the early 200's, Origen of Alexandria may have been using the same 27 books as in the modern New Testament, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation,[1] referred to as the Antilegomena.

Early Heresies

The letters accepted by many Christians as part of Scripture warned about mixing Judaism with Christianity, leading to decisions reached in the first ecumenical council, which was convoked by the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325, in response to further disruptive polemical controversy within the Christian community, in that case Arian disputes over the nature of the Trinity. Before 325 AD, the "heretical" nature of some beliefs was a matter of much debate within the churches. After 325 AD, some opinion was formulated as dogma through the canons promulgated by the councils.

Early iconography

Christ Jesus,[2] the Good Shepherd, 3rd century.

Christian art emerged only relatively late. According to art historian André Grabar, the first known Christian images emerge from about AD 200,[3] though there is some literary evidence that small domestic images were used earlier. Although many Hellenised Jews seem, as at the Dura-Europos synagogue, to have had images of religious figures, the traditional Mosaic prohibition of "graven images" no doubt retained some effect, see also Idolatry in Christianity. This early rejection of images, although never proclaimed by theologians, and the necessity to hide Christian practise from persecution, leaves us with few archaeological records regarding Early Christianity and its evolution.[4] The oldest Christian paintings are from the Roman Catacombs, dated to about AD 200, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 3rd century.[4]


Institutional Christian monasticism seems to have begun in the deserts in 3rd century Egypt as a kind of living martyrdom. Anthony of Egypt (251-356) is the best known of these early hermit-monks. Anthony the Great and Pachomius were early monastic innovators in Egypt, although Paul the Hermit is the first Christian historically known to have been living as a monk. Eastern Orthodoxy looks to Basil of Caesarea as a founding monastic legislator, as well to as the example of the Desert Fathers. Shortly after 360 AD Martin of Tours introduced monasticism to the west. Benedict of Nursia, who lived a century later, established the Rule that led to him being credited with the title of father of western monasticism. Scholars such as Lester K. Little attribute the rise of monasticism at this time to the immense changes in the church brought about by Constantine's legalization of Christianity. The subsequent transformation of Christianity into the main Roman religion ended the position of Christians as a small group that believed itself to be the godly elite. In response a new more advanced form of dedication was developed. The long-term "martyrdom" of the ascetic replaced the violent physical martyrdom of the persecutions. Others point to historical evidence that individuals were living the life later known as monasticism before the legalization of Christianity.In fact it is believed by the Carmelites that they were started by the Jewish prophet Elias.

From the earliest times there were probably individual hermits who lived a life in isolation in imitation of Jesus's 40 days in the desert. They have left no confirmed archaeological traces and only hints in the written record. Communities of virgins who had consecrated themselves to Christ are found at least as far back as the 2nd century. There were also individual ascetics, known as the "devout," who usually lived not in the deserts but on the edge of inhabited places, still remaining in the world but practicing asceticism and striving for union with God. Anthony the Great was the first to specifically leave the world and live in the desert as a monk.[5] In the 3rd century Anthony of Egypt lived as a hermit in the desert and gradually gained followers who lived as hermits nearby but not in actual community with him. One such, Paul the Hermit, lived in absolute solitude not very far from Anthony and was looked upon even by Anthony as a perfect monk. This type of monasticism is called eremitical or "hermit-like."

Even before Anthony the Great (the "father of monasticism") went out into the desert, there were Christians who devoted their lives to ascetic discipline and striving to lead an evangelical life (i.e., in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel, see Evangelical counsels). Communities of virgins who had consecrated themselves to Christ are found at least as far back as the 2nd century. There were also individual ascetics, known as the "devout," who usually lived not in the deserts but on the edge of inhabited places, still remaining in the world but practicing asceticism and striving for union with God. Anthony was the first to specifically leave the world and live in the desert as a monk.[5]

As monasticism spread in the East from the hermits living in the deserts of Egypt to Palestine, Syria, and on up into Asia Minor and beyond, the sayings (apophthegmata) and acts (praxeis) of the Desert Fathers came to be recorded and circulated, first among their fellow monastics and then among the laity as well.

Among these earliest recorded accounts was the Paradise, by Palladius of Galatia, Bishop of Helenopolis (also known as the Lausiac History, after the prefect Lausus, to whom it was addressed). Athanasius of Alexandria (whose Life of Saint Anthony the Great set the pattern for monastic hagiography), Jerome, and other anonymous compilers were also responsible for setting down very influential accounts. Also of great importance are the writings surrounding the communities founded by Pachomius, the father of cenobiticism, and his disciple Saint Theodore, the founder of the skete form of monasticism.

Ante-Nicene Fathers

As Christianity spread, it acquired certain members from well-educated circles of the Hellenistic world; they sometimes became bishops but not always. They produced two sorts of works: theological and "apologetic", the latter being works aimed at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity. These authors are known as the Church Fathers, and study of them is called Patristics. Notable early Fathers include Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, etc.

A huge quantity of theological reflection emerged in the early centuries of the Christian church – in a wide variety of genres, in a variety of contexts, and in several languages – much of it the product of attempts to discuss how Christian faith should be lived in cultures very different from the one in which it was born. So, for instance, a good deal of the Greek language literature can be read as an attempt to come to terms with Hellenistic culture. The period sees the slow emergence of orthodoxy (the idea of which seems to emerge out of the conflicts between proto-orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism and Marcionism), the establishment of a Biblical canon, debates about the doctrine of the Trinity (most notably between the councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381), about Christology (most notably between the councils of Constantinople in 381 and Chalcedon in 451), about the purity of the Church (for instance in the debates surrounding the Donatists), and about grace, free will and predestination (for instance in the debate between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius).

The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, or Fathers of the Church are the early and influential theologians and writers in the Christian Church, particularly those of the first five centuries of Christian history. The term is used of writers and teachers of the Church, not necessarily saints. Teachers particularly are also known as doctors of the Church, although Athanasius called them men of little intellect.[6]

Greek Fathers

Those who wrote in Greek are called the Greek (Church) Fathers. Famous Greek Fathers include: Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, the heterodox Origen, Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus, Peter of Sebaste & Gregory of Nyssa).

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens) (c.150-211/216), was the first member of the Church of Alexandria to be more than a name, and one of its most distinguished teachers. He united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine and valued gnosis that with communion for all people could be held by common Christians. He developed a Christian Platonism.[7] Like Origen, he arose from Catechetical School of Alexandria and was well versed in pagan literature.[7]

Origen of Alexandria

Origen, or Origen Adamantius (c 185 - c254) was an early Christian scholar and theologian. According to tradition, he was an Egyptian[8] who taught in Alexandria, reviving the Catechetical School, where Clement had taught. The patriarch of Alexandria at first supported Origen but later expelled him for being ordained without the patriarch's permission. He relocated to Caesarea Maritima and died there[9] after being tortured during a persecution.

Using his knowledge of Hebrew, he produced a corrected Septuagint.[7] He wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible.[7] In Peri Archon (First Principles), he articulated the first philosophical exposition of Christian doctrine.[7] He interpreted scripture allegorically and showed himself to be a Stoic, a Neo-Pythagorean, a and Platonic.[7] Like Plotinus, he wrote that the soul passes through successive stages before incarnation as a human and after death, eventually reaching God.[7] He imagined even demons being reunited with God. For Origen, God was not Yahweh but the First Principle, and Christ, the Logos, was subordinate to him.[7] His views of a hierarchical structure in the Trinity, the temporality of matter, "the fabulous preexistence of souls," and "the monstrous restoration which follows from it" were declared anathema in the 6th century.[10][11]

Hippolytus of Rome

Hippolytus of Rome (c 170 — c 236) was one of the most prolific writers of Early Christianity. Hippolytus was born during the second half of the 2nd century, probably in Rome. Photius describes him in his Bibliotheca (cod. 121) as a disciple of Irenaeus, who was said to be a disciple of Polycarp, and from the context of this passage it is supposed that he suggested that Hippolytus himself so styled himself. However, this assertion is doubtful.[12] He came into conflict with the Popes of his time and for some time headed a separate group. For that reason he is sometimes considered the first Antipope. However he died in 235 or 236 reconciled to the Church and as a martyr.

Cyprian of Carthage

Saint Cyprian (Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus) (died September 14, 258) was bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was probably born at the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received an excellent classical (pagan) education. After converting to Christianity, he became a bishop (249) and eventually died a martyr at Carthage.

Latin Fathers

Those fathers who wrote in Latin are called the Latin (Church) Fathers. Famous Latin Fathers include Tertullian (who later in life converted to Montanism), Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory the Great (6th century), Augustine of Hippo (4th century), Ambrose of Milan (4th century), and Jerome (4th century).


Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 225), who was converted to Christianity before 197, was a prolific writer of apologetic, theological, controversial and ascetic works.[13] He was the son of a Roman centurion.

While a Christian, Tertullian denounced Christian doctrines he considered heretical, but it has been claimed that later in life converted to Montanism, a heretical sect that appealed to his rigorism.[13] He wrote three books in Greek and was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, thus sometimes known as the "Father of the Latin Church".[14] He was evidently a lawyer in Rome.[15] He is said to have introduced the Latin term "trinitas" with regard to the Divine (Trinity) to the Christian vocabulary[16] (but Theophilus of Antioch (c. 115 - c. 183) already wrote of "the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom", which is similar but not identical to the Trinitarian wording),[17] and also probably the formula "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis Hypostases, Homoousios"), and also the terms "vetus testamentum" (Old Testament) and "novum testamentum" (New Testament).

In his Apologeticus, he was the first Latin author who qualified Christianity as the "vera religio", and systematically relegated the classical Roman Empire religion and other accepted cults to the position of mere "superstitions".

Spread of Christianity

Map of the spread of Christianity to 300 (dark green), 600 (light green), and 800 AD (yellow).


In the 3rd century, East-Germanic peoples migrated into Scythia. Gothic culture and identity emerged from various East-Germanic, local, and Roman influences. In the same period, Gothic raiders took captives among the Romans, see Crisis of the Third Century, including many Christians, (and Roman-supported raiders took captives among the Goths).

Bishops East and West

Leading to the Great Schism, Eastern and Western Mediterranean Christians had a history of differences and disagreements dating back to the 2nd century. Among the most significant disagreements the Rebaptism controversy at the time of Stephen of Rome and Cyprian of Carthage (250s).

Some scholars[18] have argued that the Schism between East and West has very ancient roots, and that sporadic schisms in the common unions took place under

Bishops of Rome

Early belief in the Church is that Jesus granted Peter jurisdiction over the Church. In "Who is the Rich man that is Saved", St. Clement of Alexandria writes of "the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first of the disciples, for whom alone and Himself the Saviour paid tribute, [who] quickly seized and comprehended the saying" (Ch. 21), referring to Mk 10:28. Tertullian, [3] while examining Scriptural teachings, legal precedents, and dogma surrounding monogamy and marriage (post 213), says of Peter, "Monogamist I am led to presume him by consideration of the Church, which, built upon him..." ("On Monogamy", Ch. 8): his certainty that the Church is built especially upon Peter is such that he simply refers to it in the context of another discussion. In a slightly later text (AD 220) "On Modesty", Tertullian writes at length about the significance of Matthew 16:18-19, "On this rock I will build my Church" and similar, emphasizing the singular, not plural, right, and condemning "wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter" (Ch. 21). Origen (c. 232) wrote also of "Peter, upon whom is built the Church of Christ" (Jurgens §479a). St. Cyprian of Carthage [4] prepared an essay discussing, inter alia, Mt. 16:18-19, titled "On the Unity of the Church" (251) in which he strongly associates primacy, unity, the authority of Jesus, and Peter: "On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity" (Jurgens §555-6). Jurgens gives Cyprian as an example of "Papal Primacy being 'implicit' in the early Church."

Callixtus I

Pope Callixtus I reduced the number of mortal sins barring an applicant or member from the congregation, while at the same time asserting his right to the general absolution of those sins. To establish such procedures he appealed to the cathedra of the Roman Church and to Scripture (Mark 13:29), that God will separate the wheat from the chaff.


Pope Cornelius gave a detailed accounting of the structure of the Church at the time he was pope, and enquired in a seemingly rhetorical way, "[He], then, did not know that there must be one bishop in the Catholic Church. Yet he was not unaware — how could he be? — that in it there are ..." and thence follows the accounting.[19] This came about because Novatian had allegedly made himself antipope; Cornelius was emphasizing the perceived need for recognition of one bishop, one head of the Church.[20]

Stephen I

The first bishop to claim primacy in writing was Pope Stephen I (254-257). The timing of the claim is significant, for it was made during the worst of the tumults of the 3rd century. There were several persecutions during this century, and they hit the Church of Rome hard.


  1. ^ Both points taken from Mark A. Noll's Turning Points, (Baker Academic, 1997) pp 36–37
  2. ^ "The figure (…) is an allegory of Christ as the shepherd" André Grabar, "Christian iconography, a study of its origins", ISBN 0691018308
  3. ^ "The earliest Christian images appeared somewhere about the year 200." Andre Grabar, p.7
  4. ^ a b Andre Grabar, p7
  5. ^ a b The saint, Paul of Thebes, had gone into the desert before Anthony; however, he went not for the purpose of pursuing God but to escape persecution.
  6. ^ Athanasius, On the Incarnation 47
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Will Durant. Caesar and Christ. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1972, isbn: 1-56731-014-1
  8. ^ George Sarton (1936). "The Unity and Diversity of the Mediterranean World", Osiris 2, p. 406-463 [430].
  9. ^ About Caesarea
  10. ^ The Anathemas Against Origen, by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Schaff, Philip, "The Seven Ecumenical Councils", Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Vol. 14. Edinburgh: T&T Clark)
  11. ^ The Anathematisms of the Emperor Justinian Against Origen (Schaff, op. cit.)
  12. ^ Cross, F. L., ed., "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church" (Oxford University Press 2005)
  13. ^ a b Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article Tertullian
  14. ^ [1] Vincent of Lerins in 434AD, Commonitorium, 17, describes Tertullian as 'first of us among the Latins' (Quasten IV, p.549)
  15. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Tertullian: "He was evidently by profession an advocate in the law-courts, and he shows a close acquaintance with the procedure and terms of Roman law, though it is doubtful whether he is to be identified with a jurist Tertullian who is cited in the Pandects."
  16. ^ A History of Christian Thought, Paul Tillich, Touchstone Books, 1972. ISBN 0-671-21426-8 (p. 43)
  17. ^ To Autolycus, Book 2, chapter XV
  18. ^ Cleenewerck, Laurent His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Washington, DC: EUC Press (2008) pp. 145-155
  19. ^ (Denziger §45, Jurgens §546a)
  20. ^ [2]
  21. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. I, 145
  22. ^ Herbermann, p. 282
  23. ^ Neill, p. 31
  24. ^ Herbermann, p. 481
  25. ^ Latourette, 1941, vol. I, p. 89
  26. ^ Walsh, Martin de Porres. The Ancient Black Christians, Julian Richardson Associates, 1969, p. 5
  27. ^ Barrett, p. 24

Further reading

  • Esler, Phillip F. The Early Christian World. Routledge (2004). ISBN 0415333121.
  • Fletcher, Richard. The Conversion of Europe. From Paganism to Christianity 371-1386 AD. University of California Press (1997).
  • von Padberg, Lutz E. Die Christianisierung Europas im Mittelalter. Reclam (2008).
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. The Christian Tradition, Volume One: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600). University of Chicago Press (1975). ISBN 0226653714.
  • Russell, James C. The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. Oxford University Press (1994). ISBN 0-19-510466-8.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100-400. Yale University Press (1986). ISBN 0-300-03642-6
  • Trombley, Frank R. Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529. Brill (1995). ISBN 90-04-09691-4
  • White, L. Michael. From Jesus to Christianity. HarperCollins (2004). ISBN 0060526556.

External links

See also

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

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