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Early Christianity is a period in the history of Christianity, generally reckoned by church historians to begin with the ministry of Jesus (c. 27-30) and end with the First Council of Nicaea (325). It is typically divided into two periods: Christianity in the 1st century which is known as the Apostolic Age (c. 30–100) and the Ante-Nicene Period (c. 100–325). Christians in the Roman Empire were persecuted until Emperor Constantine I's toleration and promotion of Christianity.
The earliest followers of Jesus were an apocalyptic, Second Temple Jewish sect of Jewish Christians in the Roman province of Judea. Throughout the 2nd and 3rd century, Christianity spread to various settlements in around the Mediterranean Basin, Southern Europe, North Africa, Anatolia, and in the east reached the Caspian Sea. A variety of strains developed in, for example, Alexandria, Antioch, Judea, and Rome. One strain, later known as Pauline Christianity, included Gentiles (non-Jews) and God-fearers (non-Jews who partially adopted Hellenistic Judaism) and departed from Jewish Christianity and Jewish customs (a decision affirmed in the Council of Jerusalem c. 50). This proto-orthodox Christianity gradually became an independent religion, evolving into the dominant strain of Christianity which condemned other early Christian sects and Jewish Christians as heretics. As proto-orthodox bishops across the Roman and Persian Empires assembled into an organized network, around 180 they began referring to the it as the Great Church. The First Council of Nicaea refined the doctrine of the Great Church, but splinter groups of Gentile Christianity such as Arian Christianity continued to exist as did Jewish Christian groups who continued to follow the Law of Moses. In 380, the remaining mainstream of Nicene Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Early Christians generally used and revered the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) as a religious text, mostly in the Greek (Septuagint) or Aramaic (Targum) translations. Orthodox Christianity developed the canon of the New Testament, including the canonical gospels, Acts, letters of the Apostles, and Revelation, all written before 120. Important practices included baptism, which made one a member of the Christian community, and the communal meals, from which the Eucharist developed – the participation in Christ's death and resurrection.
Ante-Nicene period (c. 100–325)Edit
Beliefs and practicesEdit
Infant baptism was widely practised at least by the 3rd century, but it is disputed whether it was in the first centuries of Christianity. Some believe that the Church in the apostolic period practised infant baptism, arguing that the mention of the baptism of households in the Acts of the Apostles would have included children within the household. Others believe that infants were excluded from the baptism of households, citing verses of the Bible that describe the baptized households as believing, which infants are incapable of doing.[note 1]
Date of EasterEdit
Until the late 2nd century there was a difference in dating the celebration of the Christian Passover/Easter between Western churches and those of Asia Minor. The churches in Asia Minor celebrated it on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, the day before Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week it fell on, as the Crucifixion had occurred on the day before Passover according to the Gospel of John. The Latins called them Quartodecimans, literally meaning 14'ers. At the time, the West celebrated Easter on the Sunday following the Jewish 14th of Nisan.
Victor, the bishop of Rome, attempted to declare the Nisan 14 practice heretical and excommunicate all who followed it, but rescinded, after Irenaeus and Polycrates of Ephesus wrote to Victor. A uniform method of computing the date of Easter was not formally addressed until 325 at the First Council of Nicaea.[note 2]
Diversity and proto-orthodoxyEdit
The development of doctrine, the position of orthodoxy, and the relationship between the various opinions is a matter of continuing academic debate. Since the Nicene Creed came to define the Church, the early debates have long been regarded as a unified orthodox position against a minority of heretics. Walter Bauer, drawing upon distinctions between Jewish Christians, Pauline Christians, and other groups such as Gnostics and Marcionites, argued that early Christianity was fragmented, with various competing interpretations. According to Bauer, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary to secondary, but in many regions heresy was the original manifestation of Christianity.
Growth of ChristianityEdit
Rodney Stark estimates that the number of Christians grew by approximately 40% a decade during the first and second centuries. The growth forced Christian communities to evolve in order to adapt to their changes in the nature of their communities as well as their relationship with their political and socioeconomic environment. As the number of Christians grew, the Christian communities became larger, more numerous and farther apart geographically. The passage of time also moved some Christians farther from the original teachings of the apostles giving rise to teachings that were considered heterodox and sowing controversy and divisiveness within churches and between churches.
The Ante-Nicene period saw the rise of a great number of Christian sects, cults and movements with strong unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period. They had different interpretations of Scripture, particularly the divinity of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh anti-Judaism and rejection of Judaizers.
- Gnosticism – 2nd to 4th centuries – reliance on revealed knowledge from an unknowable God, a distinct divinity from the Demiurge who created and oversees the material world.
- Marcionism – 2nd century – the God of Jesus was a different God from the God of the Old Testament.
- Montanism – 2nd century – relied on prophetic revelations from the Holy Spirit.
- Adoptionism – 2nd century – Jesus was not born the Son of God, but was adopted at his baptism, resurrection or ascension.
- Docetism – 2nd to 3rd century – Jesus was pure spirit and his physical form an illusion.
- Sabellianism – 3rd century – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three modes of the one God and not the three separate persons of the Trinity.
- Arianism – 3rd to 4th century – Jesus, as the Son, was subordinate to God the Father.
Christianity differed from other Roman religions in that it set out its beliefs in a clearly defined way, though the process of orthodoxy (right belief) was not underway until the period of the First seven Ecumenical Councils. By the end of the third century proto-orthodoxy became dominant, viewing Christian teachings as either orthodox or heterodox. Orthodox teachings were those that claimed to have the authentic lineage of Holy Tradition. All other teachings were viewed as deviant streams of thought and were possibly heretical.
Developing Church hierarchyEdit
A Church hierarchy seems to have developed by the late 1st century and early 2nd century. (see Pastoral Epistles, c. 90–140) Robert Williams posits that the "origin and earliest development of episcopacy and monepiscopacy and the ecclesiastical concept of (apostolic) succession were associated with crisis situations in the early church."
Roger Haight posits the development of ecclesiology in the form of "Early Catholicism" as one response to the problem of church unity. Thus, the solution to division arising from heterodox teaching was the development of "tighter and more standardized structures of ministry. One of these structures is the tri-partite form of church leadership consisting of episkopoi (overseers); presbyteroi (elders), as was the case with Jewish communities; and diakonoi (ministerial servants). Presbyters were ordained and assisted the bishop; as Christianity spread, especially in rural areas, the presbyters exercised more responsibilities and took distinctive shape as priests. Deacons also performed certain duties, such as tending to the poor and sick.
Ignatius of Antioch urged churches to adopt this structure, writing that "You cannot have a church without these." In the 2nd century this structure was supported by teaching on apostolic succession, where a bishop becomes the spiritual successor of the previous bishop in a line tracing back to the apostles themselves. Over the course of the second century, this organizational structure became universal and continues to be used in the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches as well as in some Protestant denominations.
Important Church centersEdit
Jerusalem was the first church and an important church center up to 135. The First Council of Nicaea recognized and confirmed the tradition by which Jerusalem continued to be given "special honour", but did not assign to it even metropolitan authority within its own province, still less the extraprovincial jurisdiction exercised by Rome and the other sees mentioned above.
Constantinople came into prominence only after the early Christian period, being founded officially in 330, five years after the First Council of Nicaea, though the much smaller original city of Byzantium was an early center of Christianity largely due to its proximity to Anatolia.
By the end of the early Christian period, the church within the Roman Empire had hundreds of bishops, some of them (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, "other provinces") holding some form of jurisdiction over others.
Development of the Christian CanonEdit
The books of the canon of the New Testament, which includes the Canonical Gospels, Acts, letters of the Apostles, and Revelation were written before AD 120, but not defined as "canon" until the 4th century.
Debates about scripture were underway in the mid-2nd century, concurrent with a drastic increase of new scriptures, both Jewish and Christian. Debates regarding practice and belief gradually became reliant on the use of scripture other than what Melito referred to as the Old Testament, as the New Testament canon developed. Similarly, in the 3rd century a shift away from direct revelation as a source of authority occurred, most notably against the Montanists. "Scripture" still had a broad meaning and usually referred to the Septuagint among Greek speakers or the Targums among Aramaic speakers or the Vetus Latina translations in Carthage. Beyond the Torah (the Law) and some of the earliest prophetic works (the Prophets), there was not agreement on the canon, but this was not debated much at first.
There is a lack of direct evidence on when Christians began accepting their own scriptures alongside the Septuagint. Well into the 2nd century Christians held onto a strong preference for oral tradition as clearly demonstrated by writers of the time, such as Papias.
Early orthodox writings–Church FathersEdit
Since the end of the 4th century, the title "Fathers of the Church" has been used to refer to a more or less clearly defined group of ecclesiastical writers who are appealed to as authorities on doctrinal matters. They are the early and influential theologians and writers in the early Christian Church, who had strong influence on the development of proto-orthodoxy. They produced two sorts of works: theological and "apologetic", the latter being works aimed at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity.
Justin Martyr's works represent the earliest surviving Christian "apologies" of notable size. The earliest Church Fathers (within two generations of the Twelve apostles of Christ) are usually called the Apostolic Fathers, for reportedly knowing and studied under the apostles personally. Important Apostolic Fathers of the 2nd century include Pope Clement I (died 99), Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110), and Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155). In addition, the Shepherd of Hermas is usually placed among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers although its author is unknown. Those who wrote in Greek are called the Greek Church Fathers. Famous Greek Fathers of 2nd century (other than the Apostolic Fathers) include: Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. Church Fathers who wrote in Latin are called the Latin Church Fathers. Tertullian (c.155–c.240) was the first Latin Father.
Attitude towards womenEdit
The attitude of the Church Fathers towards women paralleled rules in Jewish law regarding a woman's role in worship, although the early church allowed women to participate in worship—something that was not allowed in the Temple (where women were restricted to the outer court). The Deutero-Pauline First Epistle to Timothy teaches that women should remain quiet during public worship and were not to instruct men or assume authority over them. The Epistle to the Ephesians, which is also Deutero-Pauline, calls upon women to submit to the authority of their husbands.
Elizabeth A. Clark says that the Church Fathers regarded women both as "God's good gift to men" and as "the curse of the world", both as "weak in both mind and character" and as people who "displayed dauntless courage, undertook prodigious feats of scholarship".
Persecutions and legalizationEdit
There was no empire-wide persecution of Christians until the reign of Decius in the third century.[web 1] The Edict of Serdica was issued in 311 by the Roman emperor Galerius, officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity in the East. With the passage in AD 313 of the Edict of Milan, in which the Roman Emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius legalised the Christian religion, persecution of Christians by the Roman state ceased.[web 2]
Spread of ChristianityEdit
Christianity spread to Aramaic-speaking peoples along the Mediterranean coast and also to the inland parts of the Roman Empire, and beyond that into the Parthian Empire and the later Sasanian Empire, including Mesopotamia, which was dominated at different times and to varying extents by these empires. In 301, the Kingdom of Armenia became the first state to declare Christianity as its official religion, following the conversion of the Royal House of the Arsacids in Armenia.
Various theories attempt to explain how Christianity managed to spread so successfully prior to the Edict of Milan (313). In The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark argues that Christianity replaced paganism chiefly because it improved the lives of its adherents in various ways. Dag Øistein Endsjø argues that Christianity was helped by its promise of a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world which was compatible with the traditional Greek belief that true immortality depended on the survival of the body. According to Will Durant, the Christian Church prevailed over paganism because it offered a much more attractive doctrine, and because the church leaders addressed human needs better than their rivals.
Bart D. Ehrman attributes the rapid spread of Christianity to five factors: (1) the promise of salvation and eternal life for everyone was an attractive alternative to Roman religions; (2) stories of miracles and healings purportedly showed that the one Christian God was more powerful than the many Roman gods; (3) Christianity began as a grassroots movement providing hope of a better future in the next life for the lower classes; (4) Christianity took worshipers away from other religions since converts were expected to give up the worship of other gods, unusual in antiquity where worship of many gods was common; (5) in the Roman world, converting one person often meant converting the whole household—if the head of the household was converted, he decided the religion of his wife, children and slaves.
- Interpretation of the baptismal practices of the early church is important to groups such as Baptists, Anabaptists, and the Churches of Christ who believe that infant baptism was a development that occurred during the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries.
- Today, the date still varies between West and East, but this is because the West later adopted the Gregorian calendar over the Julian calendar.
- Schaff, Philip (1998) [1858-1890]. History of the Christian Church. 2: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. ISBN 9781610250412. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
The ante-Nicene age... is the natural transition from the apostolic age to the Nicene age....
- Ehrman, Bart D. (2005) . "The Development of Proto-orthodox Theology". Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (reprint ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 151ff. ISBN 9780195182491. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
- Stuart 2014.
Bart D. Ehrman (1997). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-19-508481-8.
The New Testament contains twenty-seven books, written in Greek, by fifteen or sixteen different authors, who were addressing other Christian individuals or communities between the years 50 and 120 (see box 1.4). As we will see, it is difficult to know whether any of these books was written by Jesus' own disciples.
- McKinion, Steven Alan, ed. (2001). "Entering the Community: Baptism in the Early Church". Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press. p. 5. ISBN 9780814756485. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
Baptism and the Eucharist were both deemed important to the life of the community. The former was the means of initiation. The latter was a key component in the continued development of the believer and a central element in Christian worship.
- Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article Infant Baptism
- Richard Wagner, Christianity for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons 2011 ISBN 978-1-11806901-1)
- Eusebius. "Church History". p. 5.24.
- Bauer, Walter (1971). Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. ISBN 0-8006-1363-5.
- Stark, Rodney (9 May 1997). The Rise of Christianity. HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-06-067701-5. Retrieved 28 October 2012.
- Haight, Roger D. (16 September 2004). Christian Community in History Volume 1: Historical Ecclesiology. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-0-8264-1630-8. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
The churches were becoming ever more distant from their origins in space and time. They were growing and with growth came new or false teachings, the sources of controversy and division.
- Herring, An Introduction to the History of Christianity (2006), p. 28
- Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
- Williams, Robert Lee (2005). Bishop Lists: Formation of Apostolic Succession of Bishops in Ecclesiastical Crises. Gorgias Press LLC. p. 6. ISBN 978-1-59333-194-8. Retrieved 28 October 2012.
- presbyter. CollinsDictionary.com. Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 11th Edition. Retrieved 6 October 2012.
- Haight, Roger D. (16 September 2004). Christian Community in History Volume 1: Historical Ecclesiology. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-0-8264-1630-8. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
- See, for example, Council of Jerusalem and Early centers of Christianity#Jerusalem.
- "Since there prevails a custom and ancient tradition to the effect that the bishop of Aelia is to be honoured, let him be granted everything consequent upon this honour, saving the dignity proper to the metropolitan" (Canon 7).
- Canon VI of the First Council of Nicea, which closes the period under consideration in this article, reads: "Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop ..." As can be seen, the title of "Patriarch", later applied to some of these bishops, was not used by the Council: "Nobody can maintain that the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria were called patriarchs then, or that the jurisdiction they had then was co-extensive with what they had afterward, when they were so called" (ffoulkes, Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, quoted in Volume XIV of Philip Schaff's The Seven Ecumenical Councils).
- White (2004). pp. 446–47.
- Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 27–28
- For a review of the most recent editions of the Apostolic Fathers and an overview of the current state of scholarship, see Timothy B. Sailors, "Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Review of The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations". Retrieved 25 January 2013.
- "1 Timothy 2 NIV". BibleGateway. Retrieved 7 October 2012.
- "Ephesians 5 NIV". Retrieved 7 October 2012.
- Elizabeth Ann Clark (1983). Women in the Early Church. Liturgical Press. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8146-5332-6.
- Michael Whitby, et al. eds. Christian Persecution, Martyrdom and Orthodoxy (2006) online edition
- Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1996.
- Dag Øistein Endsjø. Greek Resurrection Beliefs and the Success of Christianity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2009.
- Durant 2011.
- Ehrman, Bart D. (29 March 2018). "Inside the Conversion Tactics of the Early Christian Church". History. A+E Networks. Retrieved 5 April 2019.
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