Early Church History


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Christian Beliefs

While there's no external corroboration of the tradition that Paul died a martyr in the Roman arena, this apostle stands out from the others as a visionary, organizer and motivator who gave the religion he adopted a definite form, molding inspired teaching into a working belief system. Among his many titles, Saint Paul should also be proclaimed Christianity's "Darius," its shopkeeper.

As it grew and prospered, Christianity came more and more into the public eye, and that ultimately brought its membership into conflict with Roman authority. In particular, the predilection of early believers in Christ to proclaim that the end of the world was imminent smacked to the Romans of insurrection, the sort of cabal that promoted general despair and hysteria and late payment of taxes. From the early Empire's perspective, doom-cults like Christianos did not contribute to Roman life the way good religions were expected to.

Moreover, the Romans saw the Christians as a subset of Jews who had already been granted special privileges because of their unusual religion and, in return, delivered little more than a ragged promise of peaceful cooperation. Because of their non-conformist monotheistic notions, they had also received a general exemption from emperor-worship see Chapter 12 , which in the minds of many Romans amounted to tax-dodging. Worse still, this mercy imported the potential for setting other sects off which might decide to petition for the same sort of licence. Thus, into an already noxious environment, Christianity was pumping only more poison.

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But persecution was not the way Romans as a rule preferred to handle their civic and social responsibilities. To the contrary, open acceptance of new ideas was their default position, whenever feasible. From any polytheist's perspective, after all, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with having a few more gods—the more the holier, in fact—ironically, then, the Christians' insistence on exclusivity branded them atheists in the eyes of many Romans, because not letting people worship freely seemed selfish and pointless, by the standards of the day.

A Pantheon , a space consecrated to "all gods," is the type of temple the Romans and their coalition partners encouraged everyone to embrace. So, because the Christians riled the already irritable Jewish element in Roman society and furthermore claimed their god was returning at any moment to end all time—which implied that serving the state or doing any work at all was pointless—the Romans felt they had to come down hard on these gloomy rebels who were so inexplicably ungrateful for the government's largesse. And so they did, several times in history, though never harder, it should be noted, than they did on the Jews themselves or, for that matter, other barbarian groups whom they slaughtered mercilessly and displaced in droves, always in the name of protecting Rome and the greater good.

But that's mostly because there were much larger numbers of barbarians and even Jews compared to Christians, at least in the first few centuries of the modern age. Later pro-Christian historians played up these random persecutions as some sort of organized devilry on the Romans' part. The fact is, decades often passed between assaults on Christian groups and, while it's true that several emperors did, in fact, go after Christians per se , most weren't persecuting them for their religion but their wealth. Especially in the great economic depression of the third century CE when it was becoming harder and harder for the Roman government to pay its armies and keep at bay the hordes of foreigners pounding on the gates of the frontier , emperors sought reasons to confiscate wealth anywhere they could and, because Christians lived in a tax-shelter of sorts, exempted from having to participate in certain forms of revenue collection, some of them had become quite well-off.

Many more used their religious convictions to beg off serving in the army. If the emperors of Rome were wrong to attack Christians as such—and there's no question they were wrong! They feared for the Roman state's survival and, as history ultimately proved, they were right about that, at least. Nevertheless, late third-century Rome finally found the savior it so desperately needed, not a divine one but a hard-nosed, working-class emperor named Diocletian.

This no-nonsense general who had risen to pre-eminence out of the lowest caste of Roman society looked with suspicion upon those who appealed to ideology as a means of escaping any form of public service. When he fell seriously ill toward the end of his life in CE, Diocletian commanded everyone in the Empire, including Christian authorities, to sacrifice to the emperor's health. Some Christians obeyed even though the Church was against it, others didn't, some died and that was the last systematic Roman assault on Christians in the West.

In the East, on the other hand, it took a few more years, until CE and the death of the Emperor Galerius who was a fierce opponent of Christianity. Then, general persecutions ended once and for all.

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Within the century, Rome would not only learn to tolerate this new belief-system but come to embrace it exclusively. In the generation after Diocletian, Constantine ca. He was the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity—that much at least is clear, even if little else about Constantine is—but as a man he's a historical enigma, and a great deal of conflicting information surrounds this imperial paradox, the primordial "Christian general. Constantine was born the illegitimate son of a Roman ruler but was later made his father's heir. As a child he grew up in the Roman West, yet he later preferred the Hellenized East and, in fact, moved the center of Roman government there, where he built a grand new capital named after himself, Constantinople "Constantine's city".

Furthermore, during his tumultuous rise to power he fomented civil war on the pretext of re-uniting Rome and, even after he'd embraced Christianity, he continued to worship the sun the way many pagans did. Without doubt, one of history's most important transitional figures, this conundrum of a man seems to have been constantly in the process of transformation himself.

What matters to the issue at hand here is that he converted to some sort of Christianity at some point during his life. The story goes that he'd had a vision of the cross before one of the crucial battles in the civil wars that brought him to power, and on that cross was written in hoc signo vince , "With this ensign, conquer! But close examination of the historical evidence from the day muddies the waters considerably, suggesting this is an invented history since it's confirmed only long after the fact and then by sources with a direct interest in promoting the emperor's allegiance to Christian belief.

The truth is, Constantine was only finally baptized on his deathbed, and his biography hardly constitutes a model of the good Christian life. Whatever the what-really-happened, this emperor's adoption of Christianity stopped once and for all the persecution of Christians in the West. If, in issuing the Edict of Milan in , Constantine did not go so far as to declare Rome a Christian state, he did enforce a policy of official neutrality in Christian affairs.

Under his regime, Christians were free at last to speak as themselves in public without fear of reprisal or torture and, more important, to worship as they wished. It was surely his hope that the Edict of Milan and a general posture of tolerance would help restore order within the government and the state.

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Just the opposite happened. By sanctioning Christianity, Constantine quickly learned that he had made himself an important figure in the Church and, like any influential "board member," he was now obliged to give his advice on matters of consequence which, as it turned out, were all there seemed to be in this religion.

The Christian Church in his day was, in fact, boiling over with controversy, and Constantine—much to his surprise and, no doubt, dismay—found himself having to render judgment about complex theological issues. If anyone ever in history was poorly prepared or ill-equipped to debate the nature of the Trinity, it was this lucky bastard. The evidence is unclear about Constantine's motivations for adopting the Christian religion. Part of him must have believed in it, part of him must have believed it would help bind together a fractured society, and part of him surely hoped that from it would rise a new brand of soldier pledged to follow the Emperor's cross-encrusted signum into victory.

If so, his conversion turned out to offer the mere mirage of peace and order, for not only did his investment in Christianity embroil Roman government in doctoral-dissertation-level religious disputes, but it seriously alienated the many who refused to join the Church, those traditional pagans who still constituted the majority of Romans , the conservatives of their day. What's particularly compelling in all this is that, while the city of Rome and its urban counterparts across the late classical world were splintering into gangs and cults and various interest groups, life and religion in the countryside, where the vast majority of people under Roman sway lived throughout antiquity, changed remarkably little as far as we can tell.

There, the worship of local gods and spirits persisted, even as countless armies marched by and revolutions revolved. Well past Roman times and into the Middle Ages, these so-called pagan beliefs carried on. Indeed, Charlemagne's Christ as late as the eighth century met more than one Thor on the battlefield of gods. It's important, then, to note that most of the phenomena we think of as Roman, including Christianity, were features of life in municipal Rome, the life which urban, not rural Romans knew.

Furthermore, to many Christians in the day, especially Church administrators, there were "heathens" inside their ranks, too. Because much acrimonious debate surrounded the formation of the hierarchy which ultimately came to govern the early Church, this antagonism tended to center around what constituted being a "good upstanding Christian. Fascinating, isn't it, that even back then "choice" was a word around which the winds of controversy swirled? One of the earliest and most prominent of the heretical groups denounced by Church officials was a class of believers called the Gnostics.

In evidence as early as the second century CE, they represented not so much an organized sect as a motley collection of alternative Christians whose views on the nature of Jesus and the lessons of his ministry differed broadly, sometimes directly contradicting each other as much as the Church. To many of the bishops and saints who held the reins of the burgeoning Christian community at that time, these factions represented a real—if not the real—enemy.

Because of the diversity it embraced, it's impossible to sum up Gnostic theology quickly or simply. Nor does it help that the Church's condemnation did not allow a single Gnostic scripture to survive intact from antiquity. This cache of fifty-two scriptures included several works by Gnostic authors whose "gospels" were later censured and censored by the Church. Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi trove, most of these writings had survived only in tattered fragments, several completely lost. But with their resurrection came a whole new insight into the complexity of Christianity's early years and growth as a religion.

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As Elaine Pagels says p. Yet even the fifty-two writings discovered at Nag Hammadi offer only a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement. We now begin to see that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as Christian tradition—actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves.


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To give just a brief glimpse of the scope of this "heresy," most Gnostics write about Jesus in less literal terms than orthodox scriptures. To them, the real world was evil, incapable of either containing or deriving from a true divinity. Thus, Jesus wasn't really among us, but just seemed to be. Gnostics subscribed to the notion that those who met this god in real life saw him only with the crude instruments of sensation humans possess—eyes and ears—and these crude tools of perception had misled them grossly.

What they had really encountered was merely a specter of Jesus' actual presence, a shadow of his true luminous godhead. This meant Jesus' suffering on the cross was not the point of his life and ministry. To many Gnostics, he was far too removed from the material world to feel human pain. In this context, wearing a crucifix makes little sense; waving it around in battle even less. The Christian Bible is a collection of 66 books written by various authors. The Old Testament, which is also recognized by followers of Judaism , describes the history of the Jewish people, outlines specific laws to follow, details the lives of many prophets, and predicts the coming of the Messiah.

These letters offer instructions for how the church should operate. The final book in the New Testament, Revelation , describes a vision and prophecies that will occur at the end of the world, as well as metaphors to describe the state of the world. Most of the first Christians were Jewish converts, and the church was centered in Jerusalem. Shortly after the creation of the church, many Gentiles non-Jews embraced Christianity. Early Christians considered it their calling to spread and teach the gospel. One of the most important missionaries was the apostle Paul, a former persecutor of Christians.

Paul preached the gospel and established churches throughout the Roman Empire , Europe and Africa. In addition to preaching, Paul is thought to have written 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament. In 64 A. Many were brutally tortured and killed during this time. Under Emperor Domitian, Christianity was illegal. If a person confessed to being a Christian, he or she was executed.

Starting in A.


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This became known as the Great Persecution. During this time, there were several groups of Christians with different ideas about how to interpret scripture and the role of the church. In A. He later tried to unify Christianity and resolve issues that divided the church by establishing the Nicene Creed. Catholics expressed a deep devotion for the Virgin Mary, recognized the seven sacraments, and honored relics and sacred sites. When the Roman Empire collapsed in A. Between about A. In these battles, Christians fought against Muslims to reclaim holy land in the city of Jerusalem.

The Christians were successful in occupying Jerusalem during some of the Crusades, but they were ultimately defeated. In , a German monk named Martin Luther published 95 Theses— a text that criticized certain acts of the Pope and protested some of the practices and priorities of the Catholic church. As a result, Protestantism was created, and different denominations of Christianity eventually began to form. The Catholic branch is governed by the Pope and Catholic Bishops around the world.

The Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox is split into independent units each governed by a Holy Synod; there is no central governing structure akin to the Pope. There are numerous denominations within Protestant Christianity, many of which differ in their interpretation of the Bible and understanding of the church. Catherine of Alexandria, for instance, reportedly lived in the 2nd century, though the earliest reference to her is in an 8th-century work. The patron saint of scholars and philosophers, she allegedly debated 50 philosophers and won them all to Christ.

History of The Early Church Part I

Her story may have been drawn from that of Hypatia, the noted pagan philosopher also of Alexandria, also of the 2nd century. Hypatia did in fact meet her death at the hands of an enraged Christian mob, and her historicity is beyond doubt. The Catherine story may well be drawn from that of Hypatia, but it demonstrates a willingness in the church to project a woman as a spiritual and intellectual leader. Spurious works, even if their authorship is in doubt, can still have value in demonstrating certain attitudes. Two epistles erroneously attributed to Ignatius preserve an appeal from Mary of Cassobelae that three members of the clergy, Maris, Eulogius and Sobelus, be appointed to serve in her community so that it might not be devoid of those fit to preside over the Word of God.

She begs Ignatius to not deny her request simply because the three are young and two of them newly ordained. Rather, she argues from the Scriptures that youth is no deterrent to a significant ministry for God. Thy numerous quotations of Scripture passages exceedingly delighted me, which, when I had read, I had no longer a single doubtful thought respecting the matter.

Thou art perfect in every good work and word, and able also to exhort others in Christ. He promises to comply with her wishes, citing the fame which had accrued to her earnest dedication to Christ at the time of her visit to Rome during the bishopric of Linus beginning of the 2nd century.


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The letter is probably no earlier than the 4th century, but it demonstrates an attitude that was able to gain currency in the early church. A woman of outstanding spiritual gifts purportedly gives direction in the appointment of clergy, and is applauded for the inspiration she affords. The personages may be fictitious, but the appreciation of feminine spirituality is real. The legend of St. Thecla has endeared itself to modern women as well as to their earlier counterparts. It is the bestknown of the numerous apocryphal stories of early Christian heroines. According to the 3rd century text of The Acts of Paul, Thecla, a noblewoman, was converted while listening to the preaching of the apostle.

Early church

Forsaking her old life, she followed Paul and endured persecution, tribulation and great peril. It is, however, a Christianized romance, as are several other of the apocryphal Acts and The Recognitions of Peter. Thecla appears as a truly heroic character who endures all manner of suffering for the sake of Christ. After her itineration through Asia Minor with the Apostle Paul, she settles near Seleucia, where she teaches, preaches, heals and baptizes.

Ramsay maintained that The Acts of Paul contained an authentic 1stcentury account, which had been outrageously embellished by the 3rd-century deacon. Dennis McDonald has pointed out that, though the story is almost surely fictitious, this does not obviate the existence of an actual female leader of that name. Writing in the s, they described her teaching center and hospital near Seleucia. The pilgrim Egeria visited this facility in A. The excavators also found numerous cisterns, apparently for washing the sick, two other churches, and many fine mosaics. The center apparently was in active use for at least 1, years, indicating the presence in Asia Minor of an extremely strong female leader.

Beside the outstanding achievements of individual women stood the ministry of consecrated women in specialized orders. These orders included ecclesial widows, virgins, presbyteresses and deaconesses. Sometimes such women were formally ordained and sat with the rest of the clergy in front of the congregation. Mary McKenna suggests that the disadvantaged women who accompanied Jesus in his Galilean ministry Luke formed the beginning of the order of widows. The Greek term cheira might refer to any woman who found herself in difficult circumstances. Tertullian complained of a virgin who was admitted to the order of widows at the age of 19!

These widows were supported by the gifts of the congregation, and in turn were expected to pray for their benefactors as well as for all other members of the church. Their duties and qualifications were developed from the instructions in 1 Timothy 5. In the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, perhaps from the first half of the 3rd century, St. Peter, as he prepares to leave Tripoli, appoints elders and deacons and organizes an order of widows. Under no circumstances should she reveal the name of a donor, lest other widows demand an equal gift from the same source or, worse yet, curse the one who withheld such benefices.

The selection process and ordination service of widows parallels those of deacons, bishops and presbyters. These widows assumed pastoral responsibilities such as instructing female catechumens and the ignorant, gathering those who desired to live a pure life for prayer and encouragement, rebuking the wayward, and seeking to restore them. As late as the end of the 4th century, diaconos might designate a woman as well as a man.

The order of deaconesses as distinct from that of widows appears clearly delineated in the first half of the 3rd century in the Didascalia, which declared that the deaconesses should be honored as figures of the Holy Spirit.

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