CH101 - First Century Church HistoryThe Primitive Church - 30 - 100 A.D.
First Century Church History Introduction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
The Jerusalem Council
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
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.
The beginning of persecution
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
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
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 IIOther 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.
The New Testament Canon, Part 1
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.
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
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
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The conversion of the apostle Paul
Early Church History of Galatians
James Just brother of Jesus in the Bible
1st Century Christian Church Struggles
Christian History - conversion Apostle Paul
Palestine - Philo, Josephus, Strabo, Aristotle
Apollos NT Hebrews in Ancient Rome
Apollos NT Hebrews in the Bible
Wine in Bible Alcoholic?
James the Just and Jesus in the Bible
Hellenized Jews New Testament
Jews and the conversion of the apostle Paul
Conflict in the Early Christian Church
Palestine vs Israel Zola Levitt Dr. McCall
Palestine in the Bible and the Ancient World
Apollos NT Hebrews in the Bible
Apollos NT Hebrews - Ancient Roman World
Palestine Israel in Ancient Greece Rome
Alcoholic Wine - New Testament
James the Just Paul and Jesus in the NT
How the NT Canon was formed or canonized
Questions about Wine in the Ancient World
Wine Alcohol in the Bible - New Testament
Early Church Catechesis - Catechetical Training
Questions regarding Christian Issues
Palestine - Israel Map Ancient World
Apollos Alexandria Hebrews in the Bible
Apollos Paul Corinthians - Bible
James the Just the brother of Jesus
Gnosticism in the 1st Century Early Church
Early Church History of Galations
Early Christianity War and Conflict
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity
Palestine Israel in Greek Roman World
Apollos Alexandria Hebrews - Bible
Apollos Paul Corinthians NT