Early Christianity: The Apostolic Age
You’ll notice that early Christianity is going to be broken into parts. That’s because I didn’t fully realize just how long a period that early Christianity is supposed to be. By definition, it lasts approximately 300 years, until the Council of Nicaea, from which we get the Nicene Creed. So, there may be many installments on early Christianity, and there will be biographies of not only Paul of Tarsus but also Simon Peter and James the Just among others, because there are many people that were influential in developing early Christianity.
For this installment in our saga, I’m most interested in approximately the first 40 years of Christianity. This is a period that encompasses the development of Christianity up until the second destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, a time period pre-dating the writing of the Gospels. In other words, this post will be primarily concerned with the Apostolic Age.
Immediately following Jesus’ death, most of his followers scattered, leaving only the most faithful, the original twelve disciples and a handful of others. After Jesus revealed himself first to the women, he later revealed himself to his disciples as well and spent several days with them before ascending to Heaven.
After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples are first charged with replacing one of the disciples, as Judas committed suicide. Peter takes charge, and Barnabas is elected to be the new twelfth disciple. For fifty days following Jesus’ ascension there is a time of fear and confusion that ends with the Day of Pentecost.
On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus’ followers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The believers experience a renewal of energy. They speak in tongues. This is a forerunner of the speaking in tongues practiced in Pentecostal churches and charismatic congregations today.
Members of the Jesus sect begin to spread the word of Jesus’ resurrection, to preach Jesus’ message through the Roman occupied Mediterranean, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa. Early Christians were not Christians as we understand them today. These were Jewish people who were part of a Jesus movement. You could almost think of them as Kaballists or Hassidic Jews in the sense that they understood themselves to be primarily Jews.
The earliest Christians lived communally, and they shared all their belongings. Christians sold all their possessions and pooled them to share them amongst themselves and also to distribute alms to the poor. These early Christians observed Jewish law.
Many early Christians actually converted to Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Gentiles were attracted to the Jesus movement through their contact with Jewish Christians in the synagogues. At that time, synagogues were more of a Jewish community center rather than the places of worship that they are today. Gentiles were welcome at the synagogues, and they came into contact with Christians in this way.
These early Christians observed only two sacramental rituals: baptism and the Love Feast, a reenactment of the Lord’s Last Supper that would eventually become the Eucharist, or communion. These Christians believed their Holy texts were the Jewish Bible, texts that were mostly comprised of what Christians now refer to as the Old Testament. They told the story of Jesus through oral tradition. They probably didn’t believe that they needed to write it down.
This is because the followers of Jesus believed in an apocryphal Christ. They believed that Jesus was coming back to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, and they believed that his return was imminent.
The Jesus movement continued to spread and gain popularity, and as such it attracted the attention of both Romans and other adherents of Judaism. Several Jews saw the Jesus sect as heretics, none less than the Pharisees, strict observers and interpreters of Jewish law. Amongst these Pharisees was a diasporic Jew from Greek influenced Tarsus, a Roman citizen named Saul. Saul became well known for persecuting early Christians. He was violently opposed to Christianity and saw the movement as a threat to Judaism.
The first Christian martyr was Stephen. Stephen was preaching for Christ, and he was imprisoned by Jewish authorities and tried by the Sanhedrin for blasphemy. This was because he claimed that Jesus was the Messiah. He was stoned to death by a crowd of angry Jews, encouraged and led by Saul of Tarsus.
At the time of Stephen’s martyrdom, the church was very much centered in Jerusalem under the leadership of James the Just, who was Jesus’ brother. After Stephen’s martyrdom, the rest of the Book of Acts tells the story of the spread of Christianity in ever widening circles. The apostles scattered and preached the good news to Jews and gentiles alike. Christians met in small groups in homes, and there was a wide array of freedom of theology, and women were even key leaders in this early church.
Saul of Tarsus was a contemporary of Jesus who never met Jesus. Although he is later referred to as an apostle, he is not one of the twelve disciples. His conversion occurs in a dramatic story told in both his own letters and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Saul was on the road to Damascus when a sudden flash of intense light blinded him. He fell to the ground. A voice asked him why Saul was persecuting him. Saul asked the voice: “Who are you, Lord?” And the Lord answered that He was Jesus and that Saul should rise and go to the city where he would explain to him what he must do next.
In Damascus, Saul was met by a Christian named Ananias. Ananias received a message from God that he must meet Saul. Having heard of Saul’s reputation, he is initially reluctant but eventually agrees to go to Saul. When he meets Saul, he lays hands on him, and something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he is again able to see. After this miracle, Saul describes his conversion as something akin to our modern day term of “born again.” Soon after, Saul changes his name to Paul and begins his ministry.
Initially, church leaders are reluctant to accept Paul, but they are eventually won over by his enthusiasm. Paul meets the apostle Peter and James the Just, and is accepted as a true apostle by what was then the church’s “headquarters,” in Jerusalem. Paul’s ministry becomes concerned with fulfilling the Great Commission and converting Gentiles to the church. He declares that Jewish law no longer needs to be followed to the letter of the law but only to the spirit of the law and removes the Jewish requirements of circumcision and dietary restrictions for Gentile converts.
In this assertion, he meets with some opposition from both Peter and James, and there is an altercation between Peter and Paul where Paul calls Peter out for his hypocrisy when he stops eating with the Gentiles. Eventually, the church breaks with the traditions of the Jewish Christians, and the Christian church becomes primarily a religion of Gentiles. Paul declares himself to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, and because of his personal understanding of Jesus’ message as being one of love for all people and the survival of Paul’s writings, he is the second most influential person in the development of Christianity, trailing only Jesus Himself.
Paul, along with the other disciples, preaches the Gospel far and wide. The disciples are persecuted both by more orthodox Jews and by Roman authorities, who consider the new sect to be a threat to stability in Roman occupied territories. Paul himself is jailed on four separate occasions. By the late 60s C.E. most of the disciples of Jesus die horrific deaths. Peter is crucified upside down. Many other apostles are crucified, stoned, hanged, and beheaded. Paul is beheaded. James the Just is stoned to death. The only disciple that didn’t meet a cruel fate is John, the one whom Jesus loved, commonly believed by evangelicals to be the author of the Gospel of John.
The temple in Jerusalem fell in approximately the year 70 C.E. after the Romans destroyed it, trying to put down a Jewish revolt. Judaism prior to the loss of the temple centered around the temple, the priests and rituals of sacrifice. After the temple is lost, both Judaism and Christianity are forever changed, and Christianity becomes known as a distinct religion. Jewish Christians become a small off-shoot of Christianity known as the Nazarene Christians (not to be confused with the present day Nazarene Church), and they are rejected as being part of the official church sometime in the 4th century.
To write this blog post, I referenced many, many sources that you can read for yourself by simply googling “early Christianity.” If you read through at least the first six or seven links you can see where I got a lot of my information. I got a lot of material from Wikipedia, but I didn’t just get it from there. There’s a website with a ton of links from Fordham University that was exceptionally helpful as well. I refreshed my memory by re-reading the Book of Acts, available at a website online called Bible Gateway, and I watched a miniseries that the PBS show Frontline produced about early Christianity called From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians. It’s available to view online at:
I hope that I’ve been accurate, informative, and entertaining. Each week I’ll be doing at least one blog post about the history of Christianity or a mini biography about a church father, disciple, theologian or other figure central to the development of modern day Christianity. Please feel free to leave comments.
Entry filed under: Chrisitanity, Faith, History, Spirituality, The Holy Bible. Tags: Acts of the Apostles, Apostle (Christian), Christian, Christianity, Early Christianity, Jesus, Nicene Creed, Religion and Spirituality.