History of early Christianity

History of early Christianity

The history of early Christianity spans from the death of Jesus Christ and birth of the Apostolic Age in about the year 30 to the First Council of Nicaea in 325.

The first part of the period, when some of the Twelve Apostles are believed to have been still alive, is called the Apostolic Age. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic, Second Temple, Jewish sect. During the Apostolic Age, Paul of Tarsus had great success spreading the religion to gentiles. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion.

In the Ante-Nicene period 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, and to North Africa and the Near East.

The First Council of Nicaea (the origin of the term "Nicene") 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.



The term "Christians" (Greek and ). In Christian circles, "Nazarene" later came to be used as a label for those faithful to Jewish law, in particular for a certain sect. These Jewish Christians, originally a central group in Christianity, were not at first declared to be unorthodox, but were later excluded and denounced. Some Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, were considered to have unorthodox beliefs, particularly in relation to their views of Christ and Gentile converts. The Nazarenes, holding to orthodoxy except in their adherence to Jewish law, were not deemed heretical until the dominance of orthodoxy in the fourth century. The Ebionites may have been a splinter group of Nazarenes, with disagreements over Christology and leadership. After the condemnation of the Nazarenes, "Ebionite" was often used as a general pejorative for all related "heresies". [Tabor (1998).] [Esler (2004). Pp 157-159.]

Jewish Christians constituted a separate community from the Pauline Christians, but maintained a similar faith, differing only in practice. There was a post-Nicene "double rejection" of the Jewish Christians by both Gentile Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. It is believed that there was no direct confrontation, or persecution, between Gentile and Judaic Christianity. However, by this time the practice of Judeo-Christianity was diluted, both by internal schisms and external pressures. The true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the fifth century. Those remaining fully faithful to Halacha became purely Jews, while those adhering to the Christian faith joined with Pauline Christianity. 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 fifth century. [Dauphin (1993). Pp 235, 240-242.]

plit with Judaism

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. Even though it is commonly thought that Paul established a Gentile church, it took centuries for a complete break to manifest. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism. The Council of Jamnia circa 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. [Wylen (1995). Pg 190.] [Berard (2006). Pp 112-113.] [Wright (1992). Pp 164-165.]

During the late first century, Judaism was a legal religion with the protection of Roman law, worked out in compromise with the Roman state over two centuries. 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. Circa 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. It is notable that from c. 98 onwards a distinction between Christians and Jews in Roman literature becomes apparent. For example, Pliny the Younger postulates that Christians are not Jews since they do not pay the tax, in his letters to Trajan. [Wylen (1995). Pp 190-192.] [Dunn (1999). Pp 33-34.] [Boatwright (2004). Pg 426.]

Bar Kokhba Revolt

The Bar Kokhba Revolt (132 - 135) created a large rift between Judaism and Jewish Christians. Simon bar Kokhba was recognized as the Jewish Messiah by Rabbi Akiva. The Christians, believing Jesus to be their Messiah, rejected Bar Kokhba and refused to join the revolt. The revolution turned against the Jewish Christians and some were killed. The failure of the revolt had serious consequences. Jews and Jewish Christians were barred entry into Jerusalem leaving the church in Jerusalem without a Jewish identity. Many historians believe the revolt was the most notable event in the split between Judaism and Christianity. [Wylen (1995). Pp 190-192.] [Hunt (2003). Pp 6-7.]

Post-apostolic period

Christianity throughout the second and third 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 in 325 CE). However, the second and third periods are quite important in the development of Christianity. [Siker (2000). Pg 231.]

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 second and third 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. [Siker (2000). Pp 231-32.]

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. First century Christianity possessed a basic cohesion based on the Pauline church movement, Jewish character and self-identification as a messianic movement. The second and third 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 second century, with a growing body of "adversus Judaeos" literature. Fourth and fifth century Christianity experienced imperial pressure and developed strong episcopal and unifying structure. The ante-Nicene period was without such authority and immensely diverse. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, with as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era. [Siker (2000). Pp 232-34.]

Spread of Christianity

By the end of the first century, Christianity had already spread to Rome and to various cities in Greece, Asia Minor and Syria. Major cities such as Rome, Ephesus, Antioch and Corinth served as foundations for the expansive spread of Christianity in the post-apostolic period. Christianity spread quickly throughout Asia Minor. In Syria, it reached Edessa during this era, spurring the development of various local Christian legends. Further to the east on the bank of the Euphrates, the earliest known house-church was found, dating to 232 CE. The third-century Acts of Thomas relates the early spread of Christianity to India, though the accuracy of this tradition is disputed. [Siker (2000). Pp 240-41.]

Christianity spread very quickly throughout Italy, establishing nearly one hundred episcopal sees by the middle of the third century. Christianity spread more slowly throughout Gaul and Spain, but was established in the main urban centers by the end of the second century. By the end of the third century, Christianity had reached Britain and spread significantly throughout Gaul, Spain, Germany and Iberia. [Siker (2000). Pg 241.]

In North Africa, Carthage and Alexandria were notable centers of Christianity. The writings of Tertullian and Cyprian indicate the vitality of the churches in the area of Carthage, Numidia and Tunisia during the ante-Nicene era. Clement and Origen bear witness to the influential Alexandrian Christian community. Apocryphal works indicate a strong ascetic component to some forms of Alexandrian Christianity. The Nag Hammadi library indicates the strong presence of Gnostic forms of Christianity in Egypt, but the dating of the earliest Gnostics in the area is heavily disputed. [Siker (2000). Pp 241-42.]

ee also

*Christianity and Judaism
*Persecution of Christians in the New Testament
*List of events in early Christianity
*Early Christianity
*Hellenistic Judaism



* Barclay, William. "The Apostles' Creed". Westminster John Knox Press (1999). ISBN 0664258263.
* Berard, Wayne Daniel. "When Christians Were Jews (That Is, Now)". Cowley Publications (2006). ISBN 1561012807.
* Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro & Gargola, Daniel J & Talbert, Richard John Alexander. "The Romans: From Village to Empire". Oxford University Press (2004). ISBN 0195118758.
* Bockmuehl, Markus N.A. "The Cambridge Companion to Jesus". Cambridge University Press (2001). ISBN 0521796784.
* Brown, Schuyler. "The Origins of Christianity: A Historical Introduction to the New Testament". Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN 0198262078.
* 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).
* Dunn, James D.G. "Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135". Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (1999). ISBN 0802844987.
* Dunn, James D.G. "The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul". Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN 0521786940.
* Ehrman, Bart D. "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why". HarperCollins (2005). ISBN 0060738170.
* Elwell, Walter A. & Comfort, Philip Wesley. "Tyndale Bible Dictionary". Tyndale House Publishers (2001). ISBN 0842370897.
* Esler, Phillip F. "The Early Christian World". Routledge (2004). ISBN 0415333121.
* Hunt, Emily Jane. "Christianity in the Second Century: The Case of Tatian". Routledge (2003). ISBN 0415304059.
* McGrath, Alister E. "Christianity: An Introduction". Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1405108991.
* Siker, Jeffrey S. "Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries", Chapter Nine in "The Early Christian World". Philip F. Esler, editor. Routledge (2000). ISBN 0415241413.
* Tabor, James D. [http://www.religiousstudies.uncc.edu/JDTABOR/ebionites.html "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 0198147856.
* White, L. Michael. "From Jesus to Christianity". HarperCollins (2004). ISBN 0060526556.
* Wright, N.T. "The New Testament and the People of God". Fortress Press (1992). ISBN 0800626818.
* Wylen, Stephen M. "The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction". Paulist Press (1995). ISBN 0809136104.

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 0334029988.
* Freedman, David Noel (Ed). "Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible". Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (2000). ISBN 0802824005.
* Keck, Leander E. "Paul and His Letters". Fortress Press (1988). ISBN 0800623401.
* Mills, Watson E. "Acts and Pauline Writings". Mercer University Press (1997). ISBN 086554512X.
* Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan. "The Christian Tradition: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)". University of Chicago Press (1975). ISBN 0226653714.
* Thiede, Carsten Peter. "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jewish Origins of Christianity". Palgrabe Macmillan (2003). ISBN 1403961433.

External links

* [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/wrestling.html PBS Frontline "From Jesus to Christ", The first Christians, wrestling with their Jewish heritage]

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