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CH101 - First Century Church History

The Primitive Church - 30 - 100 A.D.

Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius

First Century Church History Introduction

Christianity begins with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Church history begins on the Day of Pentecost. These Jewish Christians adopt a messianic theology and continue to follow the Law of Moses. Hellenistic Jews from all over the Roman empire were among the initial converts - conflict soon surfaced between the Palestinian Jews and the Hellenstic Jews. This represented the beginning of the church's struggle to reach out beyond it's original culture and race - the Great Commission.

The Hellenized Jews failed to take the gospel to the Gentiles in any appreciable way. It took a special man, Saul of Tarsus, a Hellenized Jew, to aggressively take the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul becomes "the apostle Paul" and is attacked on every side: the Jews attack him, the followers of James attack him, and the Romans arrest him.

In the early 60's, under Nero, the Roman government begins orchestrated persecution of Christians. By the 60's the Christian sect, especially under Paul, had separated from Judaism. In 62 AD both Peter and Paul are executed in Rome. Roman persecution will sporadically occur throughout the second, third, and the beginning of the fourth centuries.

In the late 60's Jewish Zealots in Jerusalem rise up in rebellion against the Romans. Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, commands more than 60,000 Roman troops to wipe out these Zealots. The Jewish Temple is burned to the ground in 70 AD. This event marks a critical point in the development of Christianity - the struggle of the Church against Judaism almost completely disappears. From 70 AD forward Christianity becomes mainly a Gentile dominated movement.

Early gospel accounts had already begun to be circulated by 70 AD. Mark's gospel was probably written first, followed soon by the accounts of Matthew and Luke. Paul's various letters (written mainly from around 50-60) were also beginning to be circulated. Post apostolic writings that eventually do NOT become part of the New Testament canon attest to a growing negative attitude towards Judaism after 70 AD. By the close of the first century all the documents which are now contained in the New Testament had been written.

1st Century Church Comes to a Conclusion
The first century ended with the persecution under Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD). This is the historical backdrop for John's Revelation. The writer is urging fellow believers to stand firm against "Babylon," the Roman empire.

Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius


The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Immediately after the resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, a new Jewish sect is firmly established. According to Acts a supernatural event takes place that draws a crowd of Jews who have made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the great festival. Something like "tongues of fire" appear on over 100 believers; Jews from all over the Roman empire hear the message of the gospel in their familiar language, then hear Peter preach, and a few thousand of them respond.

This early sect of Jews continued to observe the Sabbath, but also meet together on the first day, Sunday, referring to it as "the Lord's day." These early Jesus followers were all Jews, many of them continued in strict observance of the Law of Moses. Even some Pharisees came to faith (Acts 15:5).

Even though Luke gives us a picture of harmony in this primitive Church, he also gives some hints that it was not trouble-free.

Early Conflict
In Acts 6 we get the first sign of internal trouble. The Hebrew widows were being cared for while the Grecian widows were neglected. As we mentioned above, Jews from all over the empire had made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the great festival of Pentecost and had witnessed the strange, yet supernatural events described by Luke. Many had trusted in Jesus as the promised Messiah and made the decision to stay in Judea rather than make the trek back home (it is possible that these early believers were waiting for the apocalyptic return of Jesus).

- Hellenized Jews
Large numbers of Jews lived outside Palestine in the first century. These are the Jews of the Diaspora, the "scattering," or "exile" of the Jews throughout the Greek world - first in 722 BC when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, then in 588 BC the Chaldeans conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. The victors in both instances forced the Jews to be relocated, thus diluting their national and cultural strength. Over the next few centuries the Hebrew language was neglected and forgotten by these exiled Jews. Most diaspora Jews of the first century spoke Greek. In fact, sometime in the third century BC the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament, OT) were translated from Hebrew into Greek so that these Greek-speaking Jews could hear and understand the Law of Moses. This famous translation is known as the Septuagint (or LXX), a reference to the legendary story that 72 scribes translated the various texts in a 72 day period with a divinely inspired perfection of agreement.

These Jews of the diaspora were referred to as "Hellenized" ("Greek influenced") by the politically important, Hebrew-speaking Jews of Palestine. Palestinian Jews despised these Hellenized Jews, believing they had compromised their religion. They could not speak Hebrew, God's language, nor could they understand the Law of Moses when read in Hebrew. When Hellenized Jews came to Jerusalem they were urged to attend Greek speaking synagogues so they could hear and understand Moses being read. They were not wanted in the Temple. We know that the Jews hated Samaritans, and were not fond of Gentiles. Luke tells us this prejudice found its way into the primitive church - Hellenized widows were being neglected.

I have had someone ask me a question regarding my use of "Palestinian" Jew, suggesting that the use of "Palestine" was not biblical. This person had found the following information online:
It is clear, then, that the Bible never uses the term Palestine to refer to the Holy Land as a whole, and that Bible maps that refer to Palestine in the Old or New Testament are, at best, inaccurate, and, at worst, are a conscious denial of the biblical name of Israel.

"Palestine" is not a biblical term, but was a Greek term used by Aristotle, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Philo to refer to the region that included Judea. See my response to this criticism, Palestine in Ancient History.

- Stephen
According to Luke, the apostles solve this problem by appointing seven men to new leadership positions. If you look closely you will find that these men are all Hellenized Jews. The apostles apparently realized that the minority class needed representation in the leadership of the church. In the next chapter we find Stephen (one of the seven deacons) preaching aggressively against the Jewish leadership and, more importantly, against Temple worship. Hellenized Jews living outside Judea were forced to find a more spiritualized way for obeying the Law of Moses since they did not have access to the Temple nor to the sacrificial system. This spiritualized Judaism is attested to in the writings of Philo of Alexandria and in the writings of the Qumran community (The Dead Sea Scrolls). In the next few chapters of Acts we see these Hellenized Jews taking the gospel to Samaritans, Ethiopians, and other non-Palestinian Jews. The Great Commission is being extended, but it should be noted that non-Jews continue to be excluded by these Hellenized evangelists (Acts 11:19). It takes a special person to push the infant church outside the Jewish boundaries - Saul of Tarsus is that person.

Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius


Outreach to the Gentiles
According to Acts, a young man named Saul was present (and may have had been in charge) when Stephen was stoned. Acts gives an account of this man as he travels through the region "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1). Saul embodies the earliest opposition to the primitive church as a Jewish sect. The radical view that Jesus was the promised Messiah, coupled with the anti-Temple worship preached by the Hellenized Jewish believers, gave rise to a militant opposition. It appears that some of the existing Jewish leadership made an attempt to stamp out this new sect and Saul appears to have been a leader in this movement.

We know this man as the apostle Paul, author of 13 letters within the New Testament (NT). Saul, who later changes his name to Paul, is himself a Hellenized Jew. Paul reveals very little of his biography in his writings; it is the account in Acts where we learn that he grew up in Tarsus (northeast of Syria) and was later brought to Jerusalem for his education. One important piece of evidence pointing to Paul being a Hellenized Jew comes from his quotations of the NT - his text is the LXX rather than the Hebrew version.

Conversion of Paul

In his own words, Paul tells us "I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it" (Gal. 1:13). On his way to Damascus he was confronted by the risen Jesus in a heavenly vision. According to the three separate accounts in Acts, Saul found himself on the ground, blinded by the intensity of a heavenly light. The risen Jesus gave Saul a commission to "be a light to the Gentiles." This Saul was to propel the infant church to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the gospel to the Gentiles.

According to Paul he immediately went to Arabia where the risen Jesus taught him "by revelation" for the next 2-3 years (Gal. 1:11-18). This appears to be a wilderness experience, following in the OT tradition of Moses and Elijah, where Paul receives and attempts to understand his calling. Paul says that the leadership in Jerusalem recognized this calling and gave him "the right hand of fellowship" (Gal. 2:9).

In Acts 13:1,2 Luke recounts the missionary commission of Saul and Barnabas by the church in Antioch. In this account their initial missionary focus is primarily on the Jews. Only after repeated rejection do they announce that they will turn to the Gentiles. Once they make this decision the intensity of persecution increases. Where does their opposition come from? The Judaizers, a sect of early Jewish believers, wanted Gentiles to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses.

The first sign of this conflict within the primitive church appears immediately after Peter leads the first Gentiles to faith, the household of Cornelius:
The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."   Acts 11:1-3

The Apostle Paul: in danger from every side
In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians the apostle describes the opposition he continually faced in order to fulfill his call:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning...in danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters...many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.  - 2 Cor. 11:24-27 (emphasis added)
To understand Paul's letters you must first understand that his entire ministry is forged in conflict. Luke gives us an overview in Acts that shows Paul and his companions being opposed in almost every city, many times being attacked and chased out. Who is opposing Paul?

We begin to get an idea of Paul's opposition in Acts 15:1-2, and 5. There are Jews, some Pharisees who have believed, demanding that the Gentiles be circumcised and obey the Laws of Moses. Paul rejects this position and continues to reach Gentiles without pushing the Law on them. For the remainder of the Acts record he is chased, beaten, and slandered by Jews. Luke seems to describe these merely as Jews, which leads the casual reader to assume they are persecuting Paul in the same manner as he himself had done as Saul of Tarsus. But when Paul's writings are carefully studied it seems that he describes his primary opposers as pseudo, or false brothers.

In Galatians Paul is on the attack against those who have led Gentiles to circumcise themselves and place themselves under the Law. In Gal 2:11ff he relates an important story of when he confronted Peter over a similar issue. Peter had been sharing table fellowship with Gentiles until "certain men came from James." Paul is referring to James, the brother of Jesus. This is the same James who speaks out and seems to make the final decision at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

This group of early Jewish believers is often referred to as "Judaizers." Why is this important? Paul refers to this struggle he has with this group in at least five of his letters; thus, to properly read and understand Paul one must recognize the historical backdrop in each Pauline epistle. How prevalent is this issue? Here are the letters with the most important texts highlighted.

- Galatians
The entire letter to the Galatian church is Paul's reaction to this issue. Some of these Judaizers had convinced some of the Gentile Galatians to get circumcised. In 2:4 he calls these Jews "false brothers" and:
Mark my words. I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Paul's most animated words come in this letter in 5:12.

- Romans
This is a unique letter for Paul in that he has not yet been among this congregation. He is writing this letter to make sure his ideas are clearly presented to the Romans rather than having his opposers misrepresent him. In 14:14-23 he gives his clear stance on unclean meat, one of the issues where he is not in agreement with the decision of the Jerusalem Council.

Other texts where Paul speaks about the Judaizers:
2 Corinthians 11:1-29
Philippians 3:2-6
1 Timothy 4:1-5

Paul was commissioned by Jesus to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Peter and James recognized that calling (Gal. 2:9), and Paul aggressively pursued his calling even though it cost him greatly. The Acts account seems to indicate that the primitive church was not effectively fulfilling the Great Commission until the apostle Paul came on the scene. By the middle of the second century the Christian Church was primarily Gentile.

Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius


The Jerusalem Council
Next we find this same sentiment directed at Paul after he and Barnabas have had success reaching Gentiles:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.  - Acts 15:1-2

This is what led to the Jerusalem Council, the first known formal gathering of the most strategic leaders in the Church. The issue is to define the expectations for the growing Gentile church. According to Luke, Peter reminds the Council of how God had used him to bring the first Gentiles into the fold. Then Paul and Barnabas shared some of their stories. Next James speaks. Outside of some vague references in the gospels and one quick reference in Acts 12:17, this is the first mention of James, the brother of Jesus. Yet it seems that James is in charge rather than Peter, the "rock." It is James who states the decision of the Council: Gentiles would be expected to avoid three types of unclean meat, and to avoid sexual immorality.

James, the brother of Jesus
For the remainder of the history given by Luke, James is barely mentioned again, and Peter is absent. In chapter 21 Paul makes another visit to Jerusalem to meet with the leadership and the only name mentioned is James. Other than the letter attributed to James, he is only mentioned three times in all of the NT. How did James become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem? The answer comes from an early church tradition recorded in Eusebius' Church History. Eusebius quotes from some earlier writings that now only exist through his quotations:

But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: "For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem." But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: "The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.  - Church History II.1.3-5

But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows: "James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day....He was holy from his mother's womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel...
  - Church History II.23.5-6

We cannot trust these traditions completely, but it is clear that such an early tradition did exist. This indicates the need of the second century fathers to understand and explain how James could have had such a leadership position since he certainly did not have a prominent role in the Acts account until chapter 15. Yet it is clear that James held a place of authority. Paul refers to James as a leader (Gal. 1:19; 2:9) and indicates that he had been the recipient of a post-resurrection vision:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.  - 1 Corinthians 15:3-8

The reason for this discussion on James, Paul, and the Jerusalem Council is to understand the struggle of the early church with respect to the issue of the Gentile believers. The first Christians, and the initial leadership, was Jewish. By the late 50's Paul's evangelistic reach into the Gentile world had grown to such an extent that Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. It was Paul's custom to appoint leadership in each church when he left for his next destination. As Paul's Gentile churches grew in number, the leadership base grew and the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem probably felt their influence diminishing.

In addition to the Pauline outreach there are indications that the gospel was spreading outside immediate apostolic influence. There is no clear record of an apostolic visit to Rome, yet Paul writes a letter to the Romans addressing what appears to be an already stable community with Jewish and Gentile believers. In Acts 18:24-25 a man named Apollos appears on the scene with "a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord." He needed some teaching concerning the Holy Spirit, but appears to have clearly understood the gospel of Jesus. [Read about the theory that Apollos was the author of New Testament Hebrews] Early tradition recorded in the fragments of Papias tell us that Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, had taken an early copy of his gospel to Egypt.

Another tradition says that Barnabas and Mark actually preached in the streets of Alexandria. These traditions may have been attempts at explaining the Apollos text, but are certainly not impossible. What is clear is that the missionary outreach of the church had taken hold.

Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius


The beginning of persecution
In Acts 21 Paul visited Jerusalem again to present a financial offering from the Gentile church to the Jerusalem church. Paul meets with James, and in a strange turn of events is arrested (Acts 21:18-36). Paul learns of a plot to kill him and appeals to be handed over to the Romans. The remainder of the Acts record follows Paul on his way to Rome as a prisoner, ending with him in Rome under house arrest, waiting to appear before Caesar. According to early tradition found in the writings of Clement of Rome, Paul was apparently released from this imprisonment and made his way to "the extreme limit of the west" (1 Clement 5.15). This could be a reference to Paul's stated desire to take the gospel to Spain (Rom. 15:28). It appears that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome, traveled west and was arrested again. It was during this second Roman arrest that Paul writes the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus).

In 62 AD James was executed in Jerusalem by the Sanhedrin. It is not clear what led to this execution, but it must have had something to do with his belief in, and teaching of the Messiah Jesus. A few years later Paul is executed in Rome by Nero. Eusebius reports that he was beheaded, and though the exact date is uncertain, it must have been between 64-67 AD. It is also reported that Peter was executed around the same time, being crucified upside down. The traditions surrounding the persecution of Nero report that a huge fire erupted, burning nine days and destroying at least a quarter of the city. Tacticus reports that Nero blamed the Christians to divert attention away from himself. Blaming the Christians, and having the masses turn their rage on the Christians, was not difficult as this new religion was already being viewed with suspicion. The resulting persecution was brutal:

Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired...
  - Annals XV.44

The destruction of the Temple
Only a few years later the radical Jewish fringe led a revolt against Roman control. Nero sent general Vespasian to crush the rebellion. Vespasian dispatched an army of approximately 60,000 soldiers that methodically went through northern Judea restoring order as they went. Some Jews in the insurrection surrendered and were executed by Zealot leaders. The Roman "invasion" came to a standstill at the capital city, Jerusalem. The Romans laid siege to Jerusalem establishing an encampment completely encircling the city. Anyone caught trying to escape was executed, sometimes by crucifixion, and hung on the city wall for all to see.

Nero committed suicide in the midst of a Senate takeover and Vespasian was recalled to Rome where he was installed as emperor. Titus, son of Vespasian, was left in charge of gaining victory in the Jewish revolt. Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed. Most of the Jews in Jerusalem were killed, committed suicide, or fled. These events were recorded in detail by the Jewish historian Josephus (War of the Jews V-VII).

The death of James led to a dispersing of Jewish believers from Jerusalem and a weakening of the Jewish Christian community. The destruction of the Temple, with the consequent end of the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system, brought a virtual close to the Jewish religion. There was a continuation of the religious observances, but it was a mere shadow of what had existed before.

Another apparent result of the demise of Judaism and their historic Temple was a growing rift between what was left of the Jewish faith, including the early Jewish Christians, and the now dominant Gentile community of believers. This is most clearly seen in John's writings, especially in the Gospel of John, which includes confrontations of Jesus with the Jewish leadership not seen in the other gospels. John's writings also contain the clearest language and texts pointing to the deity of Jesus and his co-equality with God the Father.

In 1 John we also find the language of separation:

Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Messiah. Such a person is the antichrist-denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.   -1 John 2:22-23

...because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.  - 1 John 4:1-3


Outline
Introduction - Primitive Christianity
The Initial "Jesus" Movement
Christianity in Conflict
Outreach to the Gentiles
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
Jerusalem Council
James, brother of Jesus
The beginning of persecution
The destruction of the Temple
Post-Apostolic writings
New Testament Canon, Part 1
New Testament Canon, Part 2
Key People
Peter
Stephen
Paul
James
Josephus
Apollos
John
Barnabas
Key Documents
Acts
Galatians
Church History - Eusebius
War of the Jews - Josephus
John
The Revelation
Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Letters of Ignatius


Post-Apostolic writings
There is another set of early Christian writings that show us this continued movement away from first century Judaism. These writings are referred to as "The Apostolic Fathers." Although a slightly confusing designation, these are documents written by the first generation of Christian leadership after the apostles, thus the term "fathers." These documents give us a glimpse of how the ist century Christian churches continued to develop after the account in Acts.

The Didache is a very interesting first century document that does indeed allow us to see how the ist century Christian churches were organized and how they may have been governed. It is important to know that this document represents the Jewish Christian churches more than it does the Gentile churches, but it is still instructive. The Didache is something of an early Minister's Manual. It gives very practical guidelines for baptism, fasting, prayer, the Lord's Supper (the Eucharist), and how to take care of traveling preachers and prophets.

For now I will simply pull a few examples and leave the discussion of these writings for another chapter. Right now the important item to notice is the negative attitude directed at the Jews.

- The Epistle of Barnabas
The writer of this document (Barnabas of the NT for now) adopts the basic theme of NT Hebrews - everything in the OT has been replaced by something better. Barnabas, however, has a consistent negative slant. Where Hebrews says the new covenant "is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises," Barnabas says,

Tread no more My courts, not though ye bring with you fine flour. Incense is a vain abomination unto Me, and your new moons and sabbaths I cannot endure." He has therefore abolished these things, that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ [might exist].  - Barnabas II
Other negative comments concerned circumcision, food laws, the Temple, and the Sabbath.

- The Letters of Ignatius
Ignatius brings the separation of the Gentile church from the Jerusalem/Jewish church to completion:
If any one celebrates the passover along with the Jews, or receives the emblems of their feast, he is a partaker with those that killed the Lord and His apostles.  - Phil. 14.1

Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables, which are unprofitable. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace.
  - Mag. 8.1

Ignatius warns against a false teaching that portrays Jesus as not truly having a physical body, but that he only appeared to have a body. This is known as docetism (Greek, dokeo, which means "to appear"). It is unclear if these docetics were the Jews opposed by Ignatius, but it is possible.

There will be more discussion on this set of writings, "The Apostolic Fathers," in chapter 2. For now we will move on in our survey of the first century.

The New Testament Canon, Part 1
The most commonly asked question directed at me when I speak on university campuses or in churches is, "How was the New Testament formed?" Because the church has always believed that the documents found in the NT are "inspired" writings and the most important source documents for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (and Christian doctrine), this is not only a good question, but a critical one.

My initial understanding of this issue took place around 30 years ago when I took a New Testament survey course as a freshman in college. Our text was Merrill Tenney's New Testament Survey (Eerdmans 1961). In this text Tenney presents the following criteria to have been observed by the early church in the formation of the canon:
- the author must have either been an apostle or a close associate of an apostle
- the document cannot contradict other "inspired" writings with respect to doctrinal teaching
- the document must share the overall "feel" and "character" of other inspired writings, AND
- it must have been cited by early Christian writers and be accepted by the majority of churches

Although these criteria sound reasonable, one cannot find a clearly described methodology like this in the patristic writings. Many early writings were accepted as inspired by some church fathers, yet failed to meet one or more of these conditions.

I believe Tenney must have also mentioned that the canon was confirmed at a church council - this point stuck in my head for years and many people have echoed this belief over the years. In fact, the exact list of NT documents was confirmed at the third Synod of Carthage (397 AD), but this was only a regional council and by this time the 27 NT documents had already been agreed upon by most of the church...but there were some exceptions.

A Natural Delivery
The NT was NOT dropped from heaven.
The NT was NOT delivered by an angel.
The NT was NOT dug up in a farmer's field as golden plates like the Book of Mormon.
The NT was NOT suddenly "discovered" in a clay jar with 27 "books" intact like the Dea Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi texts.

The NT canon developed, or evolved, over the course of the first 250-300 years of Christian history. If the NT had been delivered by an angel, or unearthed as a complete unit it would not be as believable. Part of the historical validity of the NT comes from the fact that we can trace its development, albeit not as precisely as we might like.

I will attempt to trace this development from the introduction of the gospels to the highly disputed Revelation of St John. I intend to do this in several parts, along with the content of the first four centuries, so you can "see" this development within the proper historical context.

Oral Tradition
Oral tradition was the normal mode for communicating the teachings of a master in the ancient world. For one thing, before the use of papyrus was widespread writing was both clumsy and expensive. Using a stylus on a clay tablet worked, but once the clay dried no "corrections" or "edits" could be made. Writing on a scroll made of an animal skin was certainly an improvement, but was still limited. The widespread use of papyrus for the ancient world was like the coming of the internet in the modern world - a virtual explosion of written communication began.

Once great teachings began to circulate in written form ancient writers continued to be skeptical of using the written word. There was a sense that it fell far short for the communication of treasured knowledge. Church historian Eusebius relates this thinking from the fragments of Papias,

But I will not hesitate also to set down for thy benefit, along with the interpretations, all that ever I carefully learnt and carefully recalled from the elders, guaranteeing its truth....For I supposed that things out of books did not profit me so much as the utterances of a voice which liveth and abideth. -  H.E. III.39,3-4

Irenaeus (A.H. V.33,3-4) quotes another passage from Papias where the author tells us that he knew the apostle John. This represents one of the earliest references to an early oral tradition within Christianity - Papias is writing down what he remembered hearing from the mouth of John, Polycarp, and others - so he is writing down oral tradition.

Oral Tradition and the words of Jesus
The words of Jesus were recognized as inspired very soon after the resurrection, yet it was 2-3 decades before his words were circulated in written form. We have one clear example of oral tradition in the NT when Paul is addressing the Ephesian elders,

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' " -  Acts 20:35

This citation is especially interesting since Luke, the author of Acts, does not record this saying in his own gospel. In fact, this agrapha, from the Greek word "unwritten," does not appear in any of the four canonical gospels and is a witness to the sayings of Jesus being transmitted in an oral tradition.

The New Testament Canon, Part 2
Many Christian scholars disagree with the theory that the sayings of Jesus were initially transmitted in an oral tradition. The concern is that this would threaten the integrity of his message, and thus threaten the validity of the gospel tradition. This section of how the NT was formed is more problematic and it should be remembered that the task for the historian is to present the evidence as objectively as possible, always acknowledging that we are working with theories of events that happened 2,000 years ago for which we do not have ALL the evidence.

Probably as early as the late 40's the oral traditions that carried the words of Jesus began to be put into writing. This probably happened in order to protect the integrity of the message, to keep only 'authoritative' sayings intact. The Nag Hammadi texts seem to shed light on this phase of the gospel development. The Nag Hammadi Library, is a collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts, discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945, sealed in a large clay jar. The story of this discovery is the stuff of an adventure novel and can be found in summary form online at www.answers.com - the full story is found in the introduction of The Nag Hammadi Library in English by James Robinson (pp.22-24, rev.ed., HarperCollins Paperback, New York-1990).

Within the Nag Hammadi texts was a Gospel of Thomas which appears to be nothing more than a collection of 'sayings' and stories, not written with any recognizable chronological or thematic order. Some of the sayings are almost identical parallels found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) - Saying 9, for example is the parable of the sower. Yet others are not only different, but bizarre. Just one example will serve to make the point and keep this discussion moving forward:

Jesus said, "This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. In the days when you consumed what is dead, you made it what is alive. When you come to dwell in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?"
-  The Gospel of Thomas, saying 11

It is likely that the early leaders began to hear odd sayings like this one and determined that an authoritative set of sayings needed to be recorded. Most scholars believe that Mark's gospel was the first of the four NT gospels written, followed by Matthew and Luke. The dates given vary widely from the early 60's (for Mark) into the 80's (for Luke). The difficulty with dating comes from the fact that early writers, like Paul for example, do not quote from any of the four gospels. Clear quotations do not begin to appear until the early second century. Even more liberal scholars would not suggest a second century date for the synoptic gospels, thus the lack of quotations are attributed to a slow pace for copying and circulating these documents. Papyrus does not become widely and commonly used outside the Egyptian region until the second century...and that is where our discussion of the NT canon will pick up.

Summary and Applications
Jesus was a first century Jewish man preaching his message to first century Jews. The first 15 years of this new "Jesus movement" was basically a Jewish sect called "The Way." Racial tensions had existed within Judaism and found their way into this new movement. These tensions increased when Saul of Tarsus comes on the scene and aggressively takes the gospel to the Gentile world. From the record in the NT, even the apostles had conflict.

Application 1
Leaders in the church cannot live under a false expectation of unity all the time. We are called to live in unity, yet we cannot force this on others. As individuals we must be committed to doing our part. Leaders must embrace the humility of admitting when they have been wrong, and quickly forgive others.

In 66 AD Zealot Jews attempt to throw off Roman rule. The Romans descend on Judea, laid siege to, and overthrows Jerusalem in 70 AD, burning the Temple to the ground. Christianity had been just another Jewish sect, but now begins to break away from Judaism to become a Gentile dominated church. In this period of transition, partly due to doctrinal differences, the Gentile church takes on an anti-Semitic tone.

Application 2
God calls us to reach the lost and to guard the church against false doctrine and moral laxity. Leaders in the church must be faithful to the gospel, but must be careful not to win the battle and lose the war. No person, no denomination has perfect doctrine or a perfect understanding of the biblical text. Somehow we must hold to the essentials, yet allow love and grace to reach out through us. The non-essentials should not hinder the unity Jesus prays for in John 17.

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