History of Christianity Pt. 1

Written on: September 2, 2020

Article by: Bob Sandiford


As restorationist Christians, we are very familiar with, and hold to, the pattern of Christianity found in the New Testament portion of the Bible. But, as we look around, we see a huge array of various beliefs and practices, gathered under the umbrella term ‘Christianity’

  • How did the general Christian religious landscape of today develop?
  • How did religion influence history in the areas that were nominally Christian?
  • What can we learn from the various developments?
  • Can we see the hand of God working through time?
  • Can we look our own time and practices through a broader lens than we have used?

What I hope to do each week is have the first part of the class be more informational, and then have a discussion question or two, related to the information, for the second part of the class.


For this study, most comes from “Introduction to The History of Christianity”, Third Revision, Fortress Press 1995, Edited by Dr Tim Dowley.

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Supplemental material comes from a variety of sources – Including Wikipedia (that most certain of all sources ) which I generally try to cross reference to at least one other source.

More generally – where the material comes from

  • Most source material is written – period historians, church writers, some archaeological finds that included day to day correspondence.
  • Generally, surviving written materials come from major players – government archives, for example, or historians such as Tacitus or Josephus
  • Or, writings from people who have become known as the Church Fathers (more about them in a bit)
    • Apologists for Christianity – if they could defend Christianity and point out weaknesses of paganism, then this might influence public opinion and lead to conversion.
    • Writings on Theology and against heresy
    • Some info on day to day Christian activities
  • And – some important finds come from areas like the deserts of Egypt, where the dry environment has preserved the old Papyrus documents.
    • In fact the oldest known NT, a fragment of John’s gospel dated to about 130AD, was found in North Africa.
    • Finds like this also help linguists to gain a better understanding of Greek every day usage, which aids in better understanding the original Greek of the NT.
  • Relatively little from individuals
  • All have to be weighed for reliability, authenticity (there have been forgeries), and the like.

Archaeology – examining physical remains – also sheds some light, but not as much.

Some Thoughts on Why Study History

People live in the present, and have direct knowledge only of the present and of our own life times.

  • That has a tendency to make us think that what we know is ‘the norm’, and to not question many aspects of what we see around us. Sort of like a fish in water – does it know it’s in water, and what other environments might there be?
  • We also have a tendency to judge the ‘now’ as being better, more informed, than what has gone before. We see this around us in the condemnation of people of the past by evaluating them by today’s standards – and miss the fact that people of the future will do the same with us.
  • One way to gain broader insight is through travel – getting to see and know other cultures
  • Another is to look at history, looking at similar or related aspects from the past, and through them seeing today in a different light.

Christianity – and Judaism before it – are historical religions.

  • God has revealed Himself in his people, not in doctrinal statements or theoretical studies, but in action.
  • It is the outworking of a story of relationships.
  • The birth of Jesus is the larger, spiritual reality breaking in on time and creation. In Jesus, God is revealed to us and He shares some ultimate truth with us.

History / archaeology doesn’t seek to prove anything, but rather to try to build a picture of an age or society or series of events.

  • i.e. this can’t prove the Bible to be true.
  • But – it can give support that the Bible is historically accurate, which lends credence to its being written when it claims to have been (i.e. IN that historic context), and given that details are accurate, it helps build confidence that other aspects of the writing are also accurate.

God also works in His people, and in movements.

  • This is harder to evaluate outside of scripture.
  • For example, in Esther, though God isn’t mentioned, we understand His working in His people during the captivity.
  • We believe that God is still working today – though how to evaluate what actions are God’s, and which are not, is very hard to do reliably. Does He work only in the good events and people – like Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa? Or does He work in terrible events as well, like persecution and war?
  • His working is not usually in the miraculous, not something that goes against the rules of nature, but acts with them – in coincidence and providence, and through His ongoing sustaining of His creation.
  • God is working in this world towards a divine goal – the salvation of humanity. But – we do not understand in a detailed way just how He is working. Sometimes we’re given glimpses – especially in our own lives as we look back. But – the broad sweep of God working in history we’ll see only at the end of time.

The Close of the New Testament / Apostolic age

Approximately 100 AD

The Apostles have died, but there are Christians who knew them and had been taught by them.

  • We don’t know the actual ends of most of the apostles. James’ end we know – he was martyred early in the church’s history, put to death by Herod (Acts 12:1-2).
  • There are traditions around many of the apostles
  • Peter may have worked in Asia Minor, perhaps in Corinth, but ultimately settled in Rome.
  • He describes himself as an ‘elder’ in I Pet 5:1, perhaps meaning he was one of the church leaders there but not the only one.
  • He was crucified in Rome around 64AD under Nero’s persecution
  • Not the founder of the church in Rome, but his death there gave it great prestige
  • Paul was also likely put to death in Rome, and at about the same time.
  • These gave the church in Rome both claim to apostolic roots and complete succession, and later monuments to Peter at least were built as the popes in Rome claimed that direct spiritual descent from Peter.
  • John – lived and worked in Asia in later life
  • Mark – helped found the church in Alexandria, and may have taken Christianity to India

Churches have been established in Judea and Samaria, throughout Asia Minor, in Greece, and Italy

  • Congregations are independent, generally overseen by elders, served by deacons.
  • Cooperation exists between congregations, and some are seen as more influential than others – for example, Antioch. The influence of Jerusalem has declined since Rome has destroyed the temple in AD 70, and the scattering of many of the inhabitants.
  • Church membership is mixed background – Jewish and Pagan, though some churches will be primarily one or the other in membership.

Christianity is a separate religion than Judaism, but not yet generally recognized as such in the Roman Empire.

  • Christianity has been condemned and at least periodically persecuted by the Jews
  • Christianity is not legal in the Roman Empire – and is just reaching the notice of the Roman authorities as being separate from Judaism, which is legal.
  • For example, around 98 AD, Emperor Nerva (96-98AD) decreed Christians did not have to pay the annual tax that was imposed on Jews
  • Jews were exempted from taking part in the cult of emperor-worship.
  • Christians wanted the same exemption, but when churches became primarily Gentile, identifying with Judaism wasn’t possible.
  • As a result, Christians were required to offer a pinch of incense on an altar to the divine Emperor – and generally refused.
  • Opened the way for Christians to be persecuted for disobedience to the Emperor.
  • To a large extent, Christianity was still an urban religion – based in cities and towns, it hadn’t spread generally through any population or country. Congregations were fairly isolated from one another.
  • By AD 100, over 40 congregations existed (Hitchcock, 2004)

The New Testament content had been authored, and was in circulation as individual documents, but had not yet been collected into one coherent whole.

  • Other writings were also in circulation, and viewed in a variety of ways – some on a par with what we now have in the NT, some not.

Rome had recognized various religions – though primarily, Rome used a ‘syncretistic’ approach

  • Incorporating other religions into their own, rather than imposing their own on conquered areas.
  • Best known is probably the identification of Roman gods and goddesses with Greek gods and goddesses
  • For example, Jupiter and Zeus, Venus and Aphrodite, Neptune and Poseidon, Diana and Artemis, Mars and Ares, and so on.

The Roman Empire was at its greatest size around 117 AD

  • It had changed from a Republic to an Empire about 25 BC
  • It reached all the way around the Mediterranean coast, through modern day Spain and France, England, the Balkans and Greece, Asia minor and into Mesopotamia, Egypt, and of course Italy
  • Travel was, to us, slow. From Constantinople in the east to London in the west would take about 7 weeks travel. Longer to get to the interior of many of the land locked provinces

Rome was a slave holding empire

  • Not racially based – but more politically and economically.
  • Conquered peoples were taken into slavery, as were people who couldn’t pay debts, or as punishment for crime.
  • Slaves were often highly educated, and were sought after for tutoring children or performing clerical work

Christianity in the Second and Third Centuries

The Bible

Old Testament

The early church generally accepted and used the OT Greek translation known as the Septuagint

  • Some early church leaders viewed the Septuagint as an inspired translation (e.g. Augustine of Hippo (354-430))
  • Similar to the way many today view the King James Version as being an inspired English translation.

New Testament

Paul’s writings had been collected probably by about the end of the first century (in I Clement ca 100AD they were accepted on an equal basis with other scripture), and certainly by 140AD (time of Marcion), and were being circulated.

  • The other books now in the NT, along with other Christian writings, were circulating with various levels of acceptance.
  • Originally written in Greek – the common language of the Eastern Mediterranean area, and spoken by many throughout the Roman Empire.

Various attempts had been made by individuals and groups to create an accepted collection of writings into a ‘canon’ (from the Greek word meaning ‘measuring rod’, or ‘standard’)

  • 2nd century – Tatian brought the four gospels together as a single harmonized work
  • Muratorian Canon – ca 200 AD – earliest compilation resembling the NT
  • Late 4th / early 5th century before basic agreement on a canon
  • Eastern church reached consensus by 367
  • Synod of Hippo (393 North Africa) laid out the first Christian Bible canon that was generally accepted by the Western church.
  • Still disagreement on some books – the Roman Catholic OT includes 7 additional – for total of 73 books in the OT and NT
  • OT – Tobit, Judith, I & II Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch
  • Eastern Orthodox church has additional books
  • Protestants generally refuse these, or include them as ‘apocrypha’, meaning ‘obscure’, or ‘non-canonical’
  • The creation of the canon was really a formal recognition of the books that had been generally accepted, though there were several specific criteria used:
  • Had to be written or sponsored by an apostle
  • Recognizably orthodox in content
  • Publicly used by a prominent church or majority of churches

One of the things that this means is that during the first three centuries of the Christian church after the close of the apostolic age, there was no generally accepted collection of NT Scripture.

  • So, for example, no way to make a ‘scriptural appeal’ that would be accepted by all to combat heresy.

Latin translations of OT and at least parts of NT existed in the 4th century

  • Vetus Latina – translation of the Septuagint (i.e. a translation of a translation)
  • Jerome did a Latin translation – the Vulgate – that was accepted as official by the Catholic Church.
  • The OT portion was translated from Hebrew, rather than from the Septuagint

Apostolic Fathers / Church Fathers

Christian writers, whose works have survived (or substantially survived), from the second and third centuries.

These aren’t scripture by any means, but they have value is in several areas:

  • Show what early church practices were. Not that this alone is sufficient to define the practices as scriptural, but a lot of them did continue in the teachings of the NT
  • Show the development of more complete Christian doctrine
  • Show the gradual departure from NT practices

Here are a few:

Clement of Rome (died approx. 100AD)

An early bishop or presbyter in Rome, dying about 100AD (‘Presbyter’ from gr ‘Presbyteros’, meaning elder or senior. e.g. I Tim 5:19, I Pet 5:1, II John 1:1)

  • Wrote a letter to Corinth, which has come to be called ‘I Clement’, and is probably the oldest non-NT Christian writing we have.
  • No trace of a single ruling bishop – rather the leaders of the church are called either bishops and deacons or elders (presbyters).
  • The martyrdom of Peter and Paul are referred to – but only in vague terms.
  • The concept of Apostolic succession is mentioned, but only in a very simple form. More on this later.
  • Great emphasis on good order, and faith being accompanied by good works, and to humility and love.
  • He does emphasize that celebrating the Lord’s Supper is possible only when conducted by the bishops or presbyters, which is not taught in the NT.

Tertullian (active writing approx. 196-221AD)

  • Carthage area (North Africa, west of Egypt) He wrote between about 196-221AD
  • He also used Greek philosophical language and thought forms – law, rhetoric, and Stoicism
  • Three main areas he wrote of:
  • Christianity’s attitude to the Roman state and society
  • Including the argument that Christianity should be tolerated by Rome, that Christians were actually good citizens.
  • Defence of orthodox beliefs against heresy
  • Including against Marcionism, which completely separated Christianity from Judaism, rejecting Judaism completely, including rejecting the OT, and much of the NT writings
  • The good moral behaviour of Christians
  • He ultimately became a Montanist – a somewhat fanatical, though orthodox, movement of strict asceticism
  • He wrote of other areas also, including the earliest surviving work on Baptism, in which he argued against the baptism of children, which was starting to be practised.

Origen (approx. 185 – 254AD)

  • Greatest scholar and most prolific writer of the early church
  • Born in Alexandria (Egypt) to Christian parents
  • Travelled widely to mediate in church disputes or to speak in front of prominent people
  • Produced the Hexapla – parallel columns of the Hebrew text of the OT, Greek transliteration, and four Greek translations including the Septuagint.
  • Strong conviction that Scripture has three levels:
  • The literal sense and immediate context
  • The moral application to the soul
  • The allegorical or spiritual sense, referring to the mysteries of the Christian faith
  • First Principles attempted to present the fundamental Christian doctrines systematically
  • God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, the soul, free will, salvation, and the Scriptures
  • He also wrote on the Christian life, and a defense of Christianity against pagan criticisms
  • He also tried to express the Christian faith in terms of the Greek philosophers such as Plato
  • e.g. universal salvation
  • Many of these teachings were repudiated by the church at large.

Variant Christian Teachings / Theology, Orthodoxy / Heterodoxy

The NT itself contains references to and arguments against theology drifting away from the true faith

Some examples of invalid teachings which are addressed in the NT:

  • Jesus was sent only to the Jews – Gentiles need not apply
  • Christians must first become Jews, especially circumcised, before they can become Christian
  • Tension between justification being based solely on faith, and the expectation that Christians will be good deed doers.
  • Denying that Jesus came in the flesh – he only seemed to be human

Other teachings came along after the close of the NT, which also needed addressing. Here are a few:


  • From the Greek word meaning ‘to seem or appear’
  • Jesus only seemed to be a man, but was in fact a pure spirit-being, uncontaminated by this material world.
  • Common in churches in Asia Minor, early in the second century
  • This may be what John wrote of in I John 4:1-6 and II John 1:7-11, rather than Gnosticism.
  • Ignatius wrote against them ca 110-115 (on his way to Rome to be executed as a Christian)


Not a single movement, but a collection of similar religious movements.

  • Carpocrates, Epiphanes, Cainites, Ophites

Common thread – that people could be saved through a secret knowledge (Greek – gnosis)

  • And – that these secret traditions had been passed down to them from the apostles

Other threads:

  • Sharp dualism – transcendent God against an ignorant creator (often a caricature of the OT God)
  • Some taught the creation of the world resulted from the fall of ‘Sophia’ – wisdom.
  • All Gnostics viewed the material creation as evil, though sparks of divinity have been encapsulated in certain ‘spiritual’ individuals destined for salvation.

These ‘spiritual’ individuals are ignorant of their heavenly origins

  • God sends them to a redeemer who brings them salvation in the form of secret knowledge of themselves, their origin, and their destiny.
  • They escape from the ‘prison’ of their bodies at death, and pass safely through the planetary regions controlled by hostile demons, to reunite with God.

Since salvation depended solely on this secret knowledge, some Gnostics indulged in extremely licentious behaviours – after all, the flesh doesn’t matter.

  • The individual was a ‘pearl’ that could not be stained by any external mud
  • The Ophites actually venerated the serpent for bringing ‘knowledge’ to Adam and Eve
  • Since the flesh is evil, Gnostics deny the resurrection of the Christ – in fact of any resurrection. The idea is to escape the evil material realm to reunite with God as pure spirit.
  • They did not view Jesus as God in the flesh.

Other Gnostics went to the other extreme – asceticism

  • Humans were originally unisex – the creation of woman was the source of evil, and having children just increased the number of souls in bondage to the powers of darkness

We know most about the Gnostic teachings through Christian writings of the second century, which viewed these movements as heretical.

  • Historians weren’t sure for a long time how accurate the portrayal was by those who viewed Gnosticism as heresy. However, there have been original Gnostic sources found in the 19th and 20th centuries that pretty much confirm the accuracy of the view gleaned from the earlier Christian writings of the second and third centuries.

There are communities of Gnostics (called ‘Mandaeans’) living today in Iran, Syria and Jordan. (A community of 60-70,000 was in Iraq until the war of 2003 when the survivors migrated to these other three countries, and to smaller communities around the world). Religious persecution exists against them, especially in Iran, where the community continues to dwindle.

A major Christian writer against Gnosticism was Irenaeus, a Church Father, in the late 2nd century.

  • He stressed the fundamental Christian doctrines that were being challenged by Gnosticism
  • The world was created by one God
  • Jesus Christ, son of the Creator, died to save humanity
  • There will be a resurrection of the body
  • Argued that Scripture contained a succession of covenants through which ‘one and the same God’ progressively revealed his will to us as we were ready to receive it.
  • He developed the idea that Christ, fully man as well as fully God, retraced the steps of Adam, but with different results. Because Christ passed through every age of life, all humanity shares in his sanctifying work.
  • The church preserved the ‘rule of true’ as the key for interpreting Scripture, passing down the public, standard beliefs, from apostolic times, by the teachers in the church.
    • You can see where the idea of Apostolic Succession originated, and why it was thought to be so important. Especially without a generally recognized NT canon.


  • Started around 140 AD
  • A brand of anti-Jewish Christianity – focussed on some of the letters of Paul and an edited version of the gospel of Luke and rejecting all other scripture including the whole of the OT, it was anti-Jewish, and influenced by Gnostic teachings.
  • Marcion organized his followers into an organization rivaling mainstream Christianity throughout the empire
  • Marcion tried to show the God of the OT as different from the God of the NT, for example by equating the God of the OT as driven by anger rather than love, of ordering battles and slaughter rather than bringing salvation. That is, as being incompatible with the merciful father of Jesus. Others criticized the OT for the polygamy and other misbehaviours of the Patriarchs, the Psalms that lusted for the destruction of enemies, the seeming focus on earthly prosperity as the reward for piety – which went against the tenor of the times of persecution and martyrs, and widespread asceticism
  • Argued for asceticism and Docetism (that Jesus only appeared to be a man)
  • Jesus wasn’t born of a woman – he suddenly appeared in the synagogue at Capernaum in AD 29 as a grown man – he was a new being on the earth.


  • Started late second century, Asia Minor
  • Montanus and two others claimed to be prophets of the Holy Spirit
  • Their emphasis was on the imminent return of Christ and the end of the age
  • They taught strict asceticism – no marital relationships, more fasts, food eaten dry
  • Refused forgiveness for serious sins after baptism, banned remarriage, banned flight from persecution
  • Encouragement to martyrdom “Do not hope to die in bed . . . but as martyrs”
  • For the most part – not heretical, just much more fanatical than the rest of Christianity
  • Split the church for over a century, at a time where the Christian bishops were working towards a united, stable church that conformed with the tradition of the apostles.


  • A puritanical group splitting off from the church in Rome, under Novatian, around 250AD
  • Main point was how to treat Christians who had renounced Christ under persecution – they refused to take back anyone who had given way under persecution.
  • Viewed churches allowing reconciliation as being ‘polluted’ by these sinners.
  • In other ways they were orthodox
  • Split the church – set up rival bishops in Rome and Carthage, and a network of small congregations against those they considered polluted by accepting sinners back.
  • Lasted until at least 600AD – but faded away after that, likely reabsorbed into the mainstream churches.


  • Similar to the Novationists, but started in North Africa about 300AD after the Diocletian persecution

Disagreements over the Nature of Christ

Where did His soul come from? What happened to the human soul, if there was one? If there wasn’t a human soul, then how could Jesus have been human?

Was Jesus created when He became human, or did he pre-exist?

Was Jesus actually Divine?

These all led to various different teachings and heresies, and in many cases actual physical conflict.

Persecution Against Christians

Legal grounds were often obscure – possibly the major issue was refusing to offer to the emperor, and as a result being viewed as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

  • Writings from time of Emperor Trajan (98-117) indicated that the usual practice wasn’t to actively hunt Christians. However if a Christian were to be identified, he or she was given the opportunity to renounce their faith, with refusal likely meaning execution.
  • Several of the church fathers were executed, sometimes even being taken to Rome (e.g. Ignatius sometime 110-115AD)

Other charges at times included:

  • Cannibalism (based on Lord’s Supper – eating Jesus flesh and blood)
  • Atheism – no images in their shrines or church meeting places, refusal to accept any of the Pagan deities
  • Romans believed that keeping the gods happy was key to peace and prosperity
  • Incest – Christians ‘love’ for one another was well known

There were periods where state sponsored persecution was substantially worse than at other times.

  • Domitian (Emperor between 81-96AD) – persecution in Asia
  • Marcus Aurelius (161-180AD) was hostile to Christianity
  • Decius (249-251) and Diocletian (284-305) – full fledged persecution
  • Valerian (253-260) – singled out church leaders ordering them to worship the old gods, under threat of exile or imprisonment
  • Forbidden to hold church meetings, or visit Christian cemeteries under pain of death


  • 250AD – sent Imperial Edicts commanding all citizens of the Empire to sacrifice to the traditional Roman gods.
  • Those doing so received certificates
  • Those not doing so, and not willing to obtain false certificates, were executed.
  • Many Christians complied to save their lives
  • Many did not, and died – including the bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem
  • Decius died in battle less than two years later.
  • Persecution didn’t stop under Gallus (251-253), but it diminished.


  • 303AD – decree ordered destruction of all church buildings, confiscation of Christian books, dismissal of Christians from government and army, imprisonment of the clergy.
  • 304AD – decree ordered all Christians to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.
  • In Asia Minor an entire, predominantly Christian, town was destroyed by soldiers
  • In Rome church property was confiscated and many Christians were martyred
  • Also particular violence against Christians in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt

Persecution pretty much ended under Constantine (306-337)

  • He was the first Christian emperor, though he only converted on his death bed
  • Edict of Milan (313) legalized Christianity, and allowed for freedom of worship throughout the empire

What to do about Christians who had denounced their faith?

  • Baptism by now was generally held to cover only sins already committed.
  • Some Christian leaders held that offences such as idolatry after baptism were unforgiveable
  • Others allowed one occasion of forgiveness and restoration to the church, if the person showed genuine penitence
  • This split the churches in Rome after the persecution under Decius (Novationists), and North Africa after the persecution under Diocletian (Donatists)

The mainstream church’s wrestling with the principle and reality of baptism led to some conclusions:

  • Does not depend on the moral character of the one doing the baptism, but on Christ and the Spirit
  • General practice became to accept people back into the church after a temporary lapse of faith, as long as they gave evidence of repentance.

However – the question led to other issues:

  • Was baptism in a non-Catholic church valid? Or would one so baptized need to be baptized again when coming to the Catholic Church?

Spread of Christianity

Christianity started as a primarily urban centred religion

  • e.g. we see Paul going to various cities and starting churches

Christianity also started as a primarily Jewish based movement

  • The Jewish diaspora created a natural entry point of Christian missionaries throughout the Roman Empire, and beyond.
  • By mid 2nd century, the church had become predominantly Gentile.
  • After 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews took strong action against Christians in their midst, and synagogues were no longer open to Christians. Paul’s approach would no longer work.
  • Throughout the 2nd and 3rd century, relations between Christians and Jews became more and more hostile at the leadership level.
  • Some of that was response to the question, “How can Jesus be the Jewish messiah if so few Jews accept him?”
  • The response was often that Israel was an unbelieving and apostate people from first to last.
  • From the Jewish side, many resented the Christian’s appropriation of the OT as being their own, and claiming that only the Christians understood it rightly.

Not much is known about the details of church expansion during the second and third centuries

  • Glimpses of a lively church, steadily expanding in size and influence on society
  • Christian writings showed almost nothing of the miraculous – and very little of that was linked with evangelism.
  • It seems that evangelism was primarily personal witness – friendship based, ‘chance’ encounters (Justin Martyr and Cyprian were converted by talking with people previously unknown to them). And, as the church grew older, family influence became more common between generations.
  • Celsus, a second century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, noted the ‘even Christians with little or no education seized every opportunity to witness to people, and when confronted by educated pagans they still would not stop pushing their opinions.’
  • Evangelism was often backed up by outstanding acts of kindness
    • Christians ministered the sick and buried the dead during a plague outbreak in Alexandria, when nearly everyone else had fled the city.
    • ‘In a society where kindness, honesty, and personal purity were rare, Christians who lived out these virtues were sure to attract comment and often serious enquiry.’
  • Even martyrdom could lead others to change, seeing the conviction with which Christians often died.
  • By middle of the second century, there were churches from Syria and Rome, as well as other places such as Alexandria in Egypt, and Carthage in North Africa, and likely in some places outside the empire.
  • By middle of the third century, a significant Christian minority existed in almost every province of the empire, and in several countries to the east and north east.
  • By end of the third century, Christians formed a majority in parts of the provinces of Africa and Asia Minor.
  • At least one nation had adopted Christianity nationally. We’ll talk more about National Christianity in an upcoming session.

A previously persecuted minority – Christianity was gradually becoming a major force in the Roman Empire

  • Other aspects that contributed to growth (beyond the Jewish diaspora):
  • Common language – at least through out the Helenized east and as far as Rome – Greek
  • The ‘Pax Romana’ – an extended period that was mostly peaceful, from Augustus (around the time of Jesus’ birth) for three hundred years.
  • Rome had built great roads (some of them still survive) that made travel easier. Sea travel was generally safe from pirates (though certainly not from weather!)
  • The pagan world was experiencing a certain insecurity
  • Rome’s syncretism of the gods of conquered territory, and the fact that local gods had been overcome by foreign gods when Rome took over, shifted faith.
  • Greek culture and philosophy made paganism look more and more morally and spiritually empty.
  • Many looked to Eastern religious cults, others turned to the excitement of ever more brutal public games
  • People were prepared to listen to the Christian gospel.
  • Early Christianity didn’t depend on professional leaders for practice and growth
  • Each Christian is both priest and missionary, as we mentioned earlier.
  • And the erasing of social, religious, and gender differences in the church was very attractive.

In Third Century:

  • Constant travel between different churches
  • Gatherings of bishops (synods) to work out general church matters
  • Mutual loyalty of Christians towards one another

Church Buildings

  • Were very rare until after the early fourth century – before this, Christianity was not legal, so formal church buildings were subject to seizure by the state.
  • The one thought to be the earliest is on the Euphrates River, dated to about 232 AD. A house had been converted, and would have been suitable for about 100 people to assemble.

Church Maps

There are maps that show shaded regions as the church spread. They can give the impression that Christianity was widespread through these regions. However, early Christianity was localized in various cities and towns, and took time to spread into the countryside. The maps here show locations of known churches at the end of the first, second, and third centuries, leading up to the legalization of Christianity

  • It wasn’t until the third century that Christianity penetrated into the countryside.

Church Teachings

A succession of statements of faith were made, attempting to summarize Christian beliefs.

  • For hostile and inquisitive outsiders

A concept called the ‘Rule of Faith’ developed

  • Tied into the idea of unbroken succession of handing down the Apostles’ teachings through the church
  • Not specifically a creed with fixed wording

Creeds developed initially in the context of baptism – words to be said when entering into Christ

  • Early on, converts were generally baptized in the name of Christ alone
  • As time went on, they were baptised in the name of the Trinity
  • Early third century in Rome, from Hippolytus:

‘When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: “Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?” And the person being baptized shall say: “I believe.” Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heave, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?” And when he says: “I believe,” he is baptized again. And again he shall say: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?” The person being baptized shall say: “I believe.”, and then he is baptized a third time.’

  • These developed into more formal creeds, “I believe…” type formulations

Christian Writings

Various types of writings were being produced.

  • Instructional (in the vein of Luke / Acts)
  • Commending Christianity to pagans and Jews
  • Apologetics, defending against attacks such as that by Origen against Celsus.
  • Defending against unorthodoxy

Gradual Drift from NT Church Organization and Practices


  • Early church leadership was Spirit led – apostles, assisted in Jerusalem by the elders, and the practical help of the seven.
  • Other Spirit-filled individuals were prominent in the early decades – missionary preachers, evangelists, teachers and prophets.

By late first century, this model had mostly disappeared.

  • Churches were being led by ‘presbyters’ – i.e. elders or fathers in the faith, or ‘bishops’
  • No counterpart yet of ‘the minister’ of today

By Ignatius’ time (he wrote approx. 110-115 AD) he argued that there should be one ‘bishop’ in charge of each congregation, in order to prevent splits in the church and ensure that correct beliefs were preserved.

  • Churches in Asia minor were led by the ‘three-fold ministry’:
  • A single bishop (Ignatius linked his authority to that of the single God)
  • A body of presbyters (patterned on the band of apostles)
  • several deacons (who ‘served’ as Christ did)
  • This gradually spread until it became universal by the end of the second century

As Christianity spread and grew, and there was no longer a single congregation in a city, but multiple congregations both in cities and in the country-side, the bishop’s authority grew to take in all the churches within a region.

  • Their power grew as undisputed leaders of the Christian community
  • The bishops would preside at the Lord’s table, or represent the area in contacting other churches
  • The role was suggested by the idea of a single founding apostle or missionary for a church, especially if that man stayed put for any length of time. For example, Timothy and Titus, and even James in the Jerusalem church.
  • The bishops were the ones who would get together in the church councils, the Synods.

As a basis for apostolic authority in the developing church, the idea of ‘the teaching of the church, preserved unaltered and handed down in unbroken succession from the apostles.’ (Origen)

  • This came to be seen as an unbroken succession of bishops – guaranteeing the unbroken handing-on of the apostles’ doctrine.
  • Remember – at this time – there was no accepted NT Canon of scripture to appeal to.
  • There would be planning for succession – men qualified to become bishops – as well as succession lists – the history of the bishops in the churches.
  • The argument fails for a number of reasons.
  • Primarily – the apostles had not appointed bishops in every church, and succession-lists were seriously unreliable.
  • However – you can see how the Roman Catholic concept of the primacy and authority of the church came about.

As time went on – several centres became more prominent than others

Major Christian Centres

  • Jerusalem (Palestine)
  • Jerusalem declined after AD70 when it was destroyed by Rome – and Christianity’s focus shifted westward towards Rome.
  • Carthage (North Africa)
  • North African Christianity was often more rigorous
  • The church was viewed more and more as so pure, that it seemed to be forgotten that it is a community of redeemed sinners.
  • Led to repeated controversies and divisions (e.g. around how to view Christians who had denied Christ under persecution)
  • Alexandria (Egypt, North Africa)
  • Earliest Christian monks appeared here around 250 – Christians who became hermits to forsake ordinary society to pursue a life of prayer and solitude – to attempt to become even more pure.
  • They gave away all earthly possessions.
  • Some were still sought out by visitors – one (Antony of Egypt) organized a cluster of hermits around him. Prototype of association of monks.
  • Rome (Italy)
  • Had a special claim, as this is where (traditionally) both Peter and Paul were martyred under Nero.
  • The succession of bishops from Peter was claimed.
  • Also, was the chief Imperial city of Rome, which gained prestige for the bishop there.
  • Antioch (Asia)
  • Retained it’s standing as a major Christian centre, with its bishop recognized along with Rome, Alexandria, Caesarea and Jerusalem as having superior authority.
  • Constantinople (after 300 AD) (Asia)
  • Constantinople became the second capital of the Roman Empire, and so as a leading imperial city, its bishop gained stature and importance from that.

These bishops took on more and more recognition and authority.

  • Bishops usually were the ones to take place in church-wide meetings called Synods, or Councils, for deciding issues and trying to keep church teaching consistent.

Looking ahead some – when Islam conquered North Africa and Asia, that left only Rome and Constantinople of all these major centres.

  • As a result – we ended up with the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Rather than being a force for unity, the Roman bishop (who became the pope) and the Eastern bishop (who became the patriarch) became more and more politically motivated as the church became powerful at the national levels – and ultimately the two branches split.
  • Pope Stephen (mid third century) was the first to claim a special authority derived from Peter, by appealing to Matt 16:18-19

Veneration of Martyrs and Saints

  • Martyrs had always been held in high esteem – from Biblical accounts (e.g. Stephen in Acts, Antipas mentioned in Revelation 2:13
  • (Tradition) has it that Peter and Paul were both put to death in Rome, around AD 64 under Nero’s persecution
  • These came to be viewed with special significance over time
  • Martyrdom became viewed by many as the ultimate sign of Christian discipleship – to the point that there were those who actively sought it out
  • Polycarp’s martyrdom (church father, martyred in 155 under Emperor Anoninus Pius) was celebrated annually by his church at Smyrna
  • This became a pattern for venerating martyr’s remains and commemorating their deaths
  • Later the belief developed that prayers addressed to God through the martyrs were especially effective
  • In late third and early fourth centuries (around the time of Christianity’s legalization), the number of martyrs and their sufferings under the earlier persecutions was exaggerated, and accounts of their deaths embroidered with various miraculous happenings and superstitions.
  • At around the same time, in the church, pagan converts to Christianity started to view martyrs taking on the roles that pagan gods had played in old religions.
  • This was utilized by some Christian missionaries – to bring into Christianity features of pagan religions.
  • Churches took over from pagan temples
  • Festivals of the Christian year took the place of the special days and seasons of the pagan year.
  • Relics were cherished as having special powers, graves became sites of pilgrimages, and they were believed to work miracles and grant special blessings to believers.
  • Over time, Christians who had led lives of special piety, though not martyred, came to be looked on the same way. Leading to the idea of ‘the saints’ and praying not just through them, but to them.

Preparation for Baptism

We talked some about how Baptism changed from simply being baptized in the name of Christ, to being baptized in the names of the trinity, with formal wording.

From early times, converts were baptized with little or no delay, as we see in the NT accounts.

Over time, however, instruction prior to baptism began to be customary – especially for non-Jewish converts.

  • Hippolytus of Rome records some of this.
  • A convert’s occupation and personal relations were investigated.
  • Then came pre-baptismal instruction which took three years (even longer in Syria!)
  • Good progress, or approaching persecution, could shorten this
  • Immediately preceding baptism, the convert went through fasting, exorcism, and blessing.
  • This is the beginnings of ‘Lent’ – from the second century, baptisms normally took place at Easter.

The rationale for this was a changing view of what Baptism signified.

  • Initially it was for forgiveness of sins – not just previously committed, but any in the future – as well as to receive the Holy Spirit.
  • This changed to be viewed as dealing only with a person’s past sins, but not future faults.
  • Thus – development of training and becoming pure BEFORE baptism evolved, since any problems AFTER baptism weren’t covered.
  • As a result, baptism becomes more a prize of success, rather than an entry point and sign of the beginning of a changed life.

From the early third century comes the first definite mention of child baptism

  • Tertullian wrote against this.
  • Infant baptism was common by mid third century
  • Both adult and infant baptism were practiced until around the sixth century – after that, normally only infant baptism was practised.
  • The belief started and spread that baptism had a magical effect – that the water itself carried power to automatically wash away sin. Which helps understand infant baptism – the one being baptized had no role to play, it was completely external – so no understanding or even consciousness of the activity was required on the part of the one receiving baptism.

Greek philosophy and Christianity

Some leading Christian writers worked to try to harmonize Scripture with Greek Philosophy.

  • The OT was viewed as allegory, not literal – that it ALL pointed to the cross and to Jesus.
  • Origen (a church father) developed this fairly far in the late second century
  • “The scriptures were composed through the Spirit of God, and have both a meaning which is obvious, and another which is hidden from most readers. For the contents of Scripture are the outward forms of certain mysteries, and the reflection of divine things . . . The whole law is spiritual, but the inspired meaning is not recognized by all – only by those who are gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the word of wisdom and knowledge”
  • This infuriated pagan objectors – their criticisms depended on taking the OT at face value.
  • Made it easier for Christians to live with the idea that the Bible was inspired, and therefore consistent and significant in every detail – when spiritually understood

Justin Martyr wrote:

  • ‘Christ is the Logos in whom every race of men shared. Those who lived in accordance with the Logos, true reason, are Christians, even though they were regarded as atheists; for example, Socrates and Heraclitus among the Greeks.’

Origin and Tertullian were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and their Christian writings reflect that.

  • The Logos – the Word – meaning Christ, became equated with the philosophical concept of reason, purpose, and wisdom – cosmic principle of order and harmony
  • Tertullian wrote, “God made this universe by his word, reason and power. Your philosophers also agree that the maker of the universe seems to be Logos – that is, word and reason . . . We also claim that the word, reason, and virtue, by which we have said that God made all things, have spirit as their substance . . .This Word, we have learnt, was produced from God, and was generated by being produced, and therefore is called the Son of God, and God, from unity of substance with God. For God too is spirit. When a ray is projected from the sun it is a portion of the whole sun; but the sun will be in the ray because it is a ray of the sun; the substance is not separated but extended. So from spirit comes spirit, and God from God, as light is kindled from light … this ray of God … glided down into a virgin, in her womb was fashioned as flesh, is born as man mixed with God. The flesh was built up by the spirit, was nourished, grew up, spoke, taught, worked, and was Christ.” (Tertullian, Apology XXI)

Problems this brought included:

  • How could the world be created by God, and yet God enter into human life in the incarnation?
  • A transcendent God could not be involved in the physical world, nor change, as the doctrines of creation and incarnation implied.
  • How could God be God and man and Holy Spirit? Both the OT AND Greek philosophy taught the concept of unity, as perfect oneness, excluding any external distinctions.
  • The concept of the trinity hadn’t yet been developed when these criticisms were brought. The reading from Tertullian starts to address this.
  • He went further, teaching that God was one being (substantia), but three concrete individuals (personae). The Son and the Spirit did not issue from the Father by a division of his being, but by extensions from his being.
  • The western church accepted this and encouraged this teaching, which was generally effective in resolving the issue and preventing further heretical teachings and church splits arising from it.
  • The Eastern Church was stronger on the distinctness of the three, and weaker on the unity.

Kitchener, ON