How did the Church begin?
The early Christian Church began in Jerusalem and the surrounding area and grew out of the Jewish tradition. Jesus and his disciples were all Jews. The first Christians therefore did not meet in separate churches but continued to meet in the local Jewish synagogues.
St Paul was one of the main leaders in the early church, and he believed that the good news of Jesus was for all people and not just the Jews. This belief led Paul to set up Christian churches throughout the Roman empire including Europe and even into Africa. You can read about Paul in the Bible, in the Book of Acts.
The idea of personal salvation was a new innovation. Jews had articulated salvation as the restoration of the nation of Israel. Pagans had no similar concept but some did have concerns about their existence in the afterlife. But Paul wrote that Christ’s death was a sacrifice that eliminated the punishment for the sin of Adam which was death (the doctrine of atonement). For this first generation of Christians, physical death was no longer a reality; they would be transformed into “spiritual bodies” when Christ returned (1 Cor. 15). As time passed and Christ did not return, Christians accepted the death of the body but were promised a reward in heaven.
Throughout the Roman Empire everyone was expected to show loyalty to the empire by standing before the statue of the Roman Emperor, putting a pinch of incense on the altar fire and saying, “Caesar is Lord.”
Christians, however, saw these rituals and tributes as idolatry. They were committed to worship their God exclusively.
The only people who didn’t have to do this were the Jews. While the Jews had the same view as Christians, they were generally tolerated since they were a distinct racial group, and their peculiarity was seen as a function of their ethnicity. At first the Romans thought Christians were the same as Jews, but as more and more non-Jews (Gentiles) became Christians, the Roman authorities started to persecute them: punishing Christians because of their beliefs.
Widely ridiculed, especially by the cultural elites, they were excluded from circles of influence and business, and were often persecuted and put to death. L.W Hurtado (Author) says Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups.
Yet Christianity spread through all ethnic groups, and most believers were former pagans who suddenly, after conversion, refused to honor the other gods. This refusal created huge social problems, making it disruptive and impossible for Christians to be accepted into most public gatherings. If a family member or a servant became a Christian, they suddenly refused to honor the household’s gods.
Christianity’s spread was seen as subversive to the social order—a threat to the culture’s way of life. Followers of Jesus were thought to be too exclusive to be good citizens.
Nero – 54 AD-68 AD
Persecution started with the massacre of Christians in Rome by the Emperor Nero in 64 AD.
In this time of Nero until the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.), whereby Christianity was made legal, the Christian faith was officially regarded as a “religio prava”, an evil or depraved religion.
When the terrible fire that destroyed the centre of Rome, people were saying that it had been started by Nero to make room for his new palace. However, Nero put the blame onto the Christians.
A Roman historian called Tacitus wrote:
“To kill the rumours, Nero charged and tortured some people hated for their evil practices – the ‘Christians’.First those who confessed to being Christians were arrested. Then put to death. They were covered in the skins of wild animals, torn to death by dogs, crucified or set on fire. Nero opened up his own gardens for this spectacle and gave a show in the arena.
Spies, Cannibalism, Incest & Immoral practices in the Early Church
The early Christians held their meetings secretly early in the morning or late at night; in houses, catacombs, any place hidden from the Roman authorities, leading the Roman to feel this could only be done for reasons of conspiracy. Christians spoke of Christ as their ruler, and as the king of his kingdom leading the Romans to consider Christians guilty of treason.
Early Roman spies know as the “speculatores” & frumentarii, partaking in intelligence networks reported that early Christians partook regularly of cannibalism, incest and immoral practices because they practised eating and drinking of a man named Christ’s body and blood equating to cannibalism and the holy kiss misconstrued as incest and immoral practices.
Tertullian (prolific early Christian author) wrote that the government was disturbed about the early church. [Roman] spies went into the Christian gathering and came back with a report something like this: “These Christians are very strange people. They speak of One by the name of Jesus, who is absent, but whom they seem to be expecting at any time. And, my, how they love Him and how they love one another.” If spies came [to your church] from an atheistic government to see whether Christianity is genuine, what would be the verdict? Would they go back to report how Christians love each other?
For the next 250 years, from time to time, Christians were rounded up and put to death. Many were thrown to lions and bears in public arenas as public entertainment. Today there is a cross in the Colosseum to remember the Christians who died there – though most executions probably took place in the Circus Maximus nearby. Entertainment in the Colosseum was free, but the Circus Maximus was a paying show.
But Christians were not under persecution everywhere and all the time. The persecutions were sporadic, with peaceful intervals in between. They varied in their intensity and were mostly localized.
Christians borrowed the concept of martyrdom from Judaism, where anyone who died for their faith was immediately taken into the presence of God. Martyrdom, therefore, became very attractive for Christians and many stories were told of their bravery and conviction in the face of death. Such devotion served as evidence for the faith.
Just Get your Certificate!
There were two all-out empire-wide persecutions intended to utterly destroy the church. The first, under the emperor Decius, began in December, 249. Everyone in the empire had to get a certificate from a government officer verifying that he or she had offered a sacrifice to the gods – an act that most Christians in good conscience could not do. (does this certificate remind you of anything?).
The second, called “The Great Persecution,” began on February 23, 303, under Emperor Diocletian. Galerius, the empire’s second-in-command, was behind this persecution policy and continued it after Diocletian’s death. For eight long years, official decrees ordered Christians out of public office, scriptures confiscated, church buildings destroyed, leaders arrested, and pagan sacrifices required. All the reliable methods of torture were mercilessly employed – wild beasts, burning, stabbing, crucifixion, the rack. But they were all to no avail. The penetration of the faith across the empire was so pervasive that the church could not be intimidated nor destroyed. In 311, the same Galerius, shortly before his death, weak and diseased, issued an “edict of toleration.” This included the statement that it was the duty of Christians “to pray to their god for our good estate.”
The persecution of the Christians under Roman rule ended when the emperor Constantine became a Christian.
The Conversion of Constantine
By 300 AD, Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) had organized the Roman Empire into East and West. When he died in 306 AD, various co-rulers vied to return to one-man rule. In the West, the battle was between Maxentius (306-312 AD) and Constantine I (306-337 AD). Constantine later told the story that the night before the battle (at the Milvian Bridge in Rome), he saw a sign in the sky (either chi and rho, the first two letters of Christ, or a cross) and heard a voice that commanded “in hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign conquer”). Constantine claimed that he won the battle with the support of the Christian god.
The Edict of Milan was issued in 313 AD, granting Christianity the right to legally assemble without fear of arrest or persecution. Christianity now joined the hundreds of other pagan cults, although Constantine favored Christians through tax exemptions and funds for building churches.
The church and the Roman Empire
The attitude of the first generations of Christians toward the existing political order was determined by the imminent expectation of the kingdom of God, whose miraculous power had begun to be visibly realized in the figure of Jesus Christ. The importance of the political order was, thus, negligible, as Jesus himself asserted when he said, “My kingship is not of this world.”
In the early church, discipline concerned four areas in which there arose violations of the demand for holiness.
(1). the relationship to the pagan social milieu and the forms of life and culture connected with it (such as, idolatry, the emperor’s cult, the theatre, and the circus).
(2). the relationship of the sexes within the Christian community (such as, rejection of polygamy, prostitution, pederasty, sodomy, and obscene literature and art).
(3). other offenses against the community, especially murder and property crimes of all kinds; and (4). the relationship to teachers of false doctrine, false prophets, and heretics.
Christianity: The biblical perspective
The early church nevertheless had many tensions and conflicts that called for ecumenical proclamations and pleas from the Evangelists and Apostles. Tensions arose between Jewish Christian churches and Gentile Christian churches, between St. Paul and the enthusiasts.
St. Peter and St. Paul disagreed strongly over matters of gentile acceptance.
When a “church” wasn’t a building
These early believers did not have church buildings to meet in. They met mostly in homes. The first church buildings did not start to appear until the early 200s.
Early Christian communities gathered in a private homes and huts to sing hymns, listen to readings of the scriptures, conduct all night prayer sessions and commemorate events like the Last Supper. There was often a lot of noise and animals walking around. Early congregations had an urban and plebeian character.
The building of churches was largely forbidden until Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire. The first churches were rather plain. They were built of heavy stones, had few windows and consequently were very dark. There were no columns or friezes like Greek and Roman temples, the main object it seems was to create a space large enough for worship.
In the early Christian era, churches were usually small rooms with an altar on the east side. Because they were sometimes attacked, towers were often added to act as look out points and defensive positions.
The earliest known example of a church was built in the late A.D. 3rd century at the Jordanian port town of Aila (now called Al Aqabah). The building was 85 feet long, 52 feet wide and 13 feet high. It had a central nave, two side aisles, a chancel with an altar table and rectangular apse. It was destroyed by a 4th century earthquake. Until it was found the oldest known churches were in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, dated to around A.D. 325.
Debate but not denominations
The early church did not have denominations as we think of them today. But that does not mean they had no serious disagreements within the ranks. They did. And they did not find this surprising. They felt they were dealing with matters of ultimate truth and error – matters to be taken with the utmost seriousness even when it meant dissension.
The Christian writer Hippolytus, writing about 200 A.D., describes baptism at Rome. Candidates took off their clothing, were baptized three times after renouncing satan and affirming the basic teachings of the faith, and put on new clothes. Then they joined the rest of the church in the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism was not entered into lightly. First one went through an extensive period of preparation as a “catechumen.” This lasted as long as three years, involving close scrutiny of the catechumen’s behavior. The church would only admit those who proved to be sincere in seeking a totally new life within the Christian community.
“Give me your gifts, Tele Evangelist without the TV”
Misusing the Gospel for financial gain is by no means the invention of 20th-century religious hucksters. One of the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, The Didache, a kind of manual on church practice, warns about traveling preachers who come and ask for money. The satirist Lucian in the second century ridiculed Christians for being so easily taken in by charlatans, often giving them money. Lucian of Samosata (Greek Cynic philosopher), recorded the notorious case of the philosopher Peregrinus Proteus (another Greek Cynic philosopher), who attracted a devoted following among Christians (and a lot of money) before he was found out. The showman instincts of Peregrinus reached their climax when he died by publicly cremating himself at the close of the Olympic games in 165.
Slave makes good!
Christians drew members into their fellowship from every rank and race, an affront to proper, class-conscious Romans. A former slave who had worked the mines actually became the bishop of Rome — Callistus in 217.
Church fathers who made it happen with their lives
Ignatius and Polycarp
Two of the earliest Church Fathers, Polycarp and Ignatius taught the deity of Christ. The early Church father, Irenaeus (circa AD 120–190) wrote that Polycarp was “instructed” and “appointed” by the apostles, and “conversed with many who had seen Christ…having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles. Irenaeus also wrote that he clearly remembered “the accounts which [Polycarp] gave of his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord. And as he remembered their words, and what he heard from them concerning the Lord, and concerning his miracles and his teaching, having received them from eyewitnesses of the ‘Word of life’.”
The Death of Ignatius
Ignatius, was a martyred for his faith. During his journey to Rome he had occasion to write to his fellow Christians regarding his impending execution. We read selections from his letter, how he felt. He writes –
… that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me … Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts … I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts … entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb …
The Death of Polycarp
“86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?”Polycarp’s Martyrdom (ca. 69-ca. 155).
Betrayed, arrested, refuses to deny Jesus continuously, then bound and burned at the stake. Eventually, stabbed to death when the fire failed to consume his body.
Justin Martyr was a major defender of the Christian faith during the second century.
The Death of Justin Martyr
When Justin was arrested for his faith in Rome, the prefect asked him to denounce his faith by making a sacrifice to the gods. Justin replied, “No one who is rightly minded turns from true belief to false.” When the prefect threatened them with death, Justin said, “If we are punished for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hope to be saved.” They were immediatly taken out and beheaded.
Next we go to Irenaeus who wrote around the year AD 185
The Death of Irenaeus
Nothing is known of the date of his death, which must have occurred at the end of the second or the beginning of the third century. He is regarded as a martyr by the Catholic Church and by some within the Orthodox Church. He was buried under the Church of Saint John in Lyon, which was later renamed St Irenaeus in his honour. The tomb and his remains were utterly destroyed in 1562 by zealots.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria wrote around the year AD 200.
The Death of Clement of Alexandria
Clement left Alexandria on the outbreak of persecution against the Christians in 202. There is a fleeting glimpse of him in Syria shortly afterward. Later still he appears in the company of an old pupil, now a bishop in Asia Minor; the bishop sends his old teacher with a letter of congratulation to a newly elected bishop of Antioch. It is generally thought that Clement died about 215.
Tertullian wrote around AD 200.
The Death of Tertullian
The end of his life is shrouded in obscurity, the date of his death being only an intelligent guess.
We next visit Hippolytus, who was the spiritual son of Irenaeus and died in the early part of the third century.
The Death of Hippolytus
During the persecution at the time of Emperor Maximinus Thrax, Hippolytus was exiled in 235 to Sardinia, likely dying in the mines. Other historians have speculated Hippolytus was martyred when dragged to death by wild horses
We finally come to Origen who wrote around AD 200
The Death of Origen
In c. 249, the Plague of Cyprian broke out. In 250, Emperor Decius, believing that the plague was caused by Christians’ failure to recognise him as divine, issued a decree for Christians to be persecuted. This time Origen did not escape. Eusebius (historian of Christianity), recounts how Origen suffered “bodily tortures and torments under the iron collar and in the dungeon; and how for many days with his feet stretched four spaces in the stocks”. The governor of Caesarea gave very specific orders that Origen was not to be killed until he had publicly renounced his faith in Christ. Origen endured two years of imprisonment and torture but obstinately refused to renounce his faith. In June 251, Decius was killed fighting the Goths in the Battle of Abritus, and Origen was released from prison. Nonetheless, Origen’s health was broken by the physical tortures enacted on him, and he died less than a year later at the age of sixty-nine.