How to Read Church History. Chapter One
I. The Birth of the Church
A. The Apostolic Age
1. Church began around 30 AD, in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Twelve men announced the Good News to their countrymen. Jesus, who had been sent by God and crucified as a criminal, was alive. God had raised him up. He was the Savior, the Messiah, awaited down through the generations among the people of the Bible.
2. So the church begins with the events recorded in the New Testament; Acts of the Apostles, and the letters of Paul, Revelations etc… However, revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle. They are the witnesses of the life and resurrection of Christ. The New Testament writings are historical books.
3. But there are other writings which are attributed to an apostle or one of those around Jesus which the Christian community did not consider to be inspired scripture. They are called apocryphal writings; i.e., mysterious texts, in the sense that their meanings were often hidden. They help to satisfy our curiosity where scripture has nothing to tell us about the family and childhood of Jesus, the lives of the apostles etc… Some of these writings may have some historical truth to them, but in any case they give us some idea of the religious mentality of the communities where they originated.
B. Jesus’ death and resurrection announced to the Jews (Acts 2-4)
1. Acts 2:22f– Peter proclaims the risen Lord to a crowd. Three thousand are baptized that day. All were Jews who became the first members of the church of Jesus Christ. They continued to worship in the temple, follow the dietary laws, circumcised their boys and in short became just another sect of Jews in the Temple like the Pharisees, Saduccees, Zealots etc… They were called Nazareans. Their distinguishing differences were they baptized in Jesus’ name, their diligent regard for the apostles teachings, breaking of bread together in Eucharist, and holding all things in common. Acts 2:31-37
2. The first expansion, the first break. The Gospel message is not tied to Jerusalem. (Acts 69)
a. Soon Jews from Greece joined the Aramaic Jews and a dispute arose. The apostles took care of the Aramaics and appointed seven men to take care of the Hellenists. Thus the new community of Jews included those from the Diaspora; i.e., those who lived outside the limits of Palestine.
3. The second expansion, the second disagreement. You need not be a Jew to be Jesus’ disciple.
a. (Acts 10;11) A vision by Peter made him realize the gospel was for everyone. He saw the Holy Spirit come upon the Roman Centurion Cornelius, who was not a Jew and he welcomed him into the church without embracing Judaism. (Acts 13;14)
b. In Antioch, where the Hellenists had taken refuge, the disciples of Christ were first given the name Christians. From then on this would be the name that separated them from other religious groups. Antioch became the starting block for evangelization of the Roman Empire.
c. There were now two communities of believers (1) Jews from Jerusalem; Jews and non Jews in Antioch. The Jews from Jerusalem tried to impose Judaic circumcision laws on the Hellenistic converts that were not Jews. They also tried to force on them the dietary laws of no pork, no blood and certain methods of preparing foods when they came together to celebrate Eucharist. A dispute erupted and the First Council of Jerusalem was formed.
d. James was in charge in Jerusalem and Paul and Barnabas were there from their missionary journeys. Peter was the arbitrator. Paul’s position was accepted with certain restrictions about eating blood in the company of Jews from Jerusalem. (Acts 15:29)
e. The Christian faith was no longer tied to Judaism. No one had to be uprooted from their culture to receive the gospel. The church became universal under the headship of Paul in the missionary countries.
4. The church expands with Paul
a. Paul has a vision to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:9) circa 50 A.D. and the church is spread from there to Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and Athens. Those in Athens wouldn’t listen to his comparisons to the Greek philosophers. (Acts 17:16-33)
b. On Paul’s third journey he encountered hostile Jews and Gentiles. Mad because he was endangering the trade routes of pilgrimages making their way to the temples. (Acts 19) In the city of Corinth people were being filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues on the one hand and fighting within the community of believers on the other. They were getting drunk at Eucharist, not sharing in common and abusing their Christian liberty. (I Cor.5)
c. Paul’s fourth journey led him back to Jerusalem to give James a collection for the church. In order to prove his faithfulness to Jewish traditions he showed himself in the temple and caused a riot and he was arrested. After two years in prison in Caesarea he appealed to the Roman Emperor and was sent to Rome to serve two more years in prison under a sort of house arrest where he preached about the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ quite openly. (Acts 28:3 1) This is the last we hear of Paul and this was about 60 A.D.
5. The formation of the Christian scriptures
a. This end of the first century saw the gradual appearance of the sacred writings of Paul and a great deal of time would elapse before the communities would agree on which letters would be used as a rule of faith. The faith spread throughout the Roman Empire.
II. The Holy Roman Empire
A. The -Roman empire a “preparation for the gospel”
1. Melito, Bishop of Sardis wrote to the Roman emperor that it was no coincidence that the beginnings of Christianity and the success of the Roman empire happened at the same time. He tried to convince the emperor that Christianity was a ‘philosophy’.
2. Christianity rooted itself firmly in the Roman world during the second century and it became the most important place of evangelization. Throughout the Roman empire people could move freely without fear of invasion from the Persian empire and with it the gospel spread. The Roman way of thinking and ways of expression characterized Christianity even up to our times.
B. A Short History of Rome
1. Rome was founded in 753 B.C. in the Mediterranean basin by the year 1 B.C. Pompey took Jerusalem in 63 B.C., Julius Caesar completed the conquest of Gaul in about 50 B.C. and Octavius Augustus Egypt in 30 B.C. It was a republic and Augustus in the year 27 B.C. declared himself emperor of the Roman Empire and civil war within the empire ceased entirely. ‘Roman peace’ reigned. Jesus was born into a era of peace. The empire was divided into provinces, with governors appointed by the emperor or the Roman senate. These were called proconsuls, legates, prefects, or procurators (Luke 3:1-3; Acts 13:6f; 18:12:26; 24-27ff.) There were good emperors and bad, but the empire reigned supreme and reached its peak under Trajan to Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century.
C. The cities of the empire
1. A city was not confined to an urban area, but also included the surrounding countryside. Early Christianity was an urban religion. The church was first and foremost a local community.
See Handout #11
See Handout #12
D. Well-organized communications
1. (Acts 27-28) People traveled throughout the empire over land and by sea in trade routes and this is how the gospel was spread throughout. It seems that the Syrian merchant whose epitaph was found in Lyons was both a businessman and a preacher. Like Paul who traveled by land and sea the gospel reached to the far comers of the empire. (lCor 11:25-27) Soldiers and slaves traveled throughout the empire bringing back news, goods and the gospel. Jews were dispersed throughout the empire and the evangelists would seek them out in their communities. The postal service between communities was hand carried by one of the faithful. The emperor’s postal system was for administrative business only.
E. Cultural Unity
1. The empire was made up of many nations with their own customs and language and culture. The first Christians spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. However, two languages became dominant throughout the empire:
a. Greek, the first language of the East was called ‘koine’ i.e., common language. It was the language of culture and philosophy and the one used by merchants. It was largely the main language of the church. Early Christians used the Greek version of the Jewish Bible called the Septuagint. The New Testament was written in the Greek language, liturgical documents, and liturgical texts up until the third century A.D.
b. Latin, was the language of Rome and of the West and it was the language of law and order. It was used as the normal language in the church, first in Africa from the end of the second century and through the third century into Rome and the Christian west. To the extent that early Christians used both of these languages, they also brought into the church the cultural influenced of the Greeks and the Romans. Through Greek they developed the first theology of God. Through Latin the Roman empire gave the church a model of structure and order during the fourth century.
III. The second form of religion
A. Christianity is not alone–
1. Many people had been uprooted during this era of the beginnings of Christianity; i.e., slaves, soldiers, and officials. The gods of the city ceased to hold any allure and skepticism crept in as well as those who sought a deity who could bring consolation to the believer.
2. Philosophy–the most philosophical types progressed towards monotheism, a unique and transcendent God. A god that provided consolation in adversity and required a duty to be done in order to be a faithful follower.
3. Stoicism demanded submission to the order of the universe.
The accent was on moral purity.
4. Oriental or mystery religions–the slaves, soldiers and officials traveled the trade routes and with them came the mystery religions that provided them with a sense of an encounter with the deity. They were brought into a secret cult. They were specially chosen through a mysterious initiation, purified by through trials and tribulations and then belonged to a privileged group. The most important of these were the Egyptian cult of Isis, the Persian cult of Mithras, and the cult of Cybele-Attis. It is at this time that Christianity appeared on the scene. It proved to be a religion that gratified people’s need of moral elevation and of salvation. But Christianity would not compromise any of its values and merge with other religions.
B. The empire and the gospel a co-operative of goodwill
1. That term was used by one historian to describe the Graeco-Roman civilization of the first three centuries. This goodwill benefited only the privileged few: nobles, aristocrats and those plutocrats who made their money in racketeering and found their pleasures in sexual orgies, overeating and thermal baths.
2. A Society hard on the weak–the economy was based on slavery. Manual work was despised. Two thirds of the inhabitants were slaves. a slave had no rights. He could neither marry nor even be considered human. There were other citizens of the Roman empire, but even they were not much better off. A Roman citizen could appeal to the emperor for justice resolution, but that was never a guarantee. There were two classes of citizens: humiliores and honestiores (lower class and nobility).
3. Women and children–Graeco-Roman culture was predominantly male. Women were inferior. One poet once wrote satirically about those women who married in order to get divorced, and who got divorced in order to get married. It only happened to those who had money of their own. Poor women who were divorced by their husbands were forced into prostitution. Children were in a worse state. A father could refuse to accept a newly born child and have it killed outright or left out in the elements to die of exposure. Children who survived were brought up and sold as slaves.
C. The empire meets the dynamism of the gospel–
1. Because of the structure of the Roman empire, the gospel spread readily throughout the Mediterranean basin. The gospel filled a great need in the men and women of the first centuries of this era. Without encouraging social revolution, the Christian community welcomed everyone as equal in the sight of God and that Christ died for them all. In a world particularly hostile to the poor, women and children and slaves they found gospel very appealing. Although Christianity went against some of the mores of the times it did not stop the progression. It set a standard that rejected contempt for this life, a taste for luxurious living and wealth, which were all hallmarks of the imperial society. It was not a religion that would be treated like any other religion and be numbered among the cults, nor would it accept the divinization of the state. And this explains why the ensuing centuries were times of animosity between the empire and Christianity.