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Nearly three hundred years after Paul created Christian communities in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi and other places, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Learn about early subscribers to the faith as well as the development of Church law and leaders of the Church in the years before Christianity became a legal religion in Rome.


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Foundational Beliefs of Christianity

by Elizabeth McNamer

“Go, and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commanded his apostles (Mt 28:19). And in the first hundred years after his death, the message had been carried to much of the known world.

The process of evangelization began early. On the first Christian Pentecost, some 3,000 people were converted in Jerusalem (Acts 2:40). Many of these had come from Parthia, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Libya, Egypt, and many other places for the celebration of the feast.

The enthusiasm with which Jesus’ disciples told of the resurrection led people to think that they were “filled with new wine.” But once the people heard what the disciples had to say, they asked right away for baptism.

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All of them were Jews. But within Judaism there was room for differences of opinion and interpretation. Undoubtedly, those who were baptized at that Pentecost gathering carried the message back to their own countries.

Philip took the good news to Samaria where “the rejoicing rose to fever pitch” (Acts 8:8). And he converted a man who had come from Ethiopia.

Peter went to Lydda and Joppa where he performed a miracle on a paralytic and “all the inhabitants were converted to the Lord” (Acts 9:15). He then went on to convert gentiles in Caesarea.

By the time Paul appeared on the scene there were Christian communities in Damascus and Antioch. With Barnabas, Paul set out to convert the Cypriots, including the governor, Sergius Paulus. He went to Antioch in Pisidia where “almost the entire city gathered to hear the word of God” (Acts 13:44). He preached to a divided audience in Iconium. At Lystra he and Barnabas were so charismatic that they were hailed as gods and had to restrain the people.

Paul would eventually travel thousands of miles creating Christian communities in Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, and many other places.

Through Paul’s efforts the message would get to Rome, where three hundred years later it would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Why Rome?

The Romans regarded religion as a cohesive institution that kept the Empire together. Atheism was not an option. One could choose the worship of the Capitoline gods, Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Mars and the others. The Romans took these gods very seriously and sacrifice was offered every day to Jupiter by the chief priest (the “Pontifus Maximus”).

One could adhere to the cult of the Emperor (he was regarded as divine) but the series of Emperors after Augustus left much to be desired (many were neurotic if not completely insane). Many of the upper classes belonged to the cults of Dionysus, Demeter and Isis, called the “mystery” cults, because they operated in secret. Intellectuals joined philosophical organizations like the Stoics and the Epicureans. Well-established religions such as Judaism were accepted and many “god fearers” were attracted to Judaism. New cults were suspect, and after Christians were expelled from the synagogue, they were no longer Jewish. Christians were put to death for being irreligious!

What, then, attracted thousands to Christianity in the early centuries? The enthusiasm of the messengers cannot be underestimated. (The word enthusiasm means filled with God). The Christian message offered something more substantial than the other options. It made demands. It called for right living, caring for widows and orphans and loving one another. It offered the solace of resurrection. And its adherents were willing to die for their beliefs. Martyrdom started in the sixties and continued sporadically for another 260 years! Rightly has Tertullian said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

What Was the Christian Message?

Jesus left no books of theology. He had preached, taught, cured the sick, lived an exemplary life and been crucified as a criminal. But he had risen from the dead! This was the basic message, the kerygma.

“He is risen!” was the message proclaimed on Pentecost. The significance of this glorious message was that if he is risen, so will we be raised! Belief in the resurrection, Paul reminds us, is the foundation of Christianity (1 Cor 15:12).

This essential proclamation contained the seed of all that would later develop: “son of God,” “pre-existent messiah,” “second person of the trinity.” But it took the church several centuries and four major councils to come to terms with who Jesus was.

Unorthodox ideas arose early. The first of these was the Ebionite heresy (adoptionism). For its proponents, referring to Jesus as the Son of God meant that he, like Moses, had been adopted as a son during his baptism in the Jordan. They could not accept the developing theology of the incarnation of Jesus in the womb of a virgin. Eusebius writes about them: “They regarded him as plain and ordinary. A man esteemed as righteous through growth of character and nothing more, the child of a normal union between a man and Mary.”

Gnostics spread the message that Jesus had been spiritual only and did not have a real body. This heresy is sometimes referred to as “the docetic Christ.” This of course meant that he had not died since he didn’t have a real body in the first place. Much later the Arians believed that Jesus had a real body, but was less than divine, not on a par with God.

In the face of all these conflicting ideas, it was often difficult for the early Christians to understand exactly what they believed about Jesus. In response to this confusion, the church had to come up with a creed.

Nor was there a definitive set of writings in the very early church. The twenty-seven books that we have in the New Testament, the four Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Revelation, the thirteen letters attributed to Paul or his followers, and the eight catholic letters were all written between the years 49 and 120. But many other texts about Jesus were circulating as well. How was a Christian to know which books to read? The church had to create a canon.

Who Was in Charge?

Before the church could address the questions of creed and canon, it faced the question of authority. Just who was in charge?

We know from the Acts of the Apostles and the pastoral letters that the roles of deacon, presbyter and bishop existed by the end of the first century. They were appointed by the laying on of hands. The communities deferred to these leaders when questions arose. But we also know from the letters of Paul and others that there were those who questioned that authority, such as the Judaizers.

There was as yet no pope in the modern sense of the term, although Peter was clearly the leader in Acts, and in the Gospels Jesus singles out Peter as the rock or foundation. Not until the end of the fifth century, when the Roman Empire was at an end, would the papacy as we know it begin to emerge.

By the end of the first century there were five major centers of Christianity: Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria and Rome, all with significant authority, although Acts presents the apostolic community in Jerusalem as having dominance. For example, the Council of Jerusalem made decisions that affected other communities. Also, Paul takes up a collection for the Jerusalem church. A letter written by Clement of Rome in the year 90, however, suggests that Rome was beginning to emerge as leader.

The Fathers of the Church

The early fathers helped develop a basic stance for the church in answering many of these problems that arose. As these early fathers wrote they were establishing the foundations of Christian theology.

The apostolic fathers (those who came directly after the apostles) addressed problems within the church: the hierarchy, canon and creed.

The Didache, “the Lord’s instruction to the Gentiles through the twelve apostles,” is the oldest source of Christian law. It gives a summary of Christian values and teaches that the way of life consists of love of God and neighbor and fulfillment of personal and social duty. It teaches the value of confessing one’s faults and lists the vices to be shunned by Christians. It also gives instruction about administrating baptism and the Eucharist. It includes rules for the organization of the church community including the election of bishops and deacons.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the beliefs of the apostles. It includes the principal items of belief: God is the Father and creation of the universe is largely attributed to him. Jesus is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered, died, rose from the dead and will come to judge the living and the dead. The creed affirms belief in the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Clement of Rome wrote to Corinth in 90 c.e. because a group of elders had been deposed and he urged their return. Already we find the Bishop of Rome telling others what to do. This letter also tells about Peter’s stay in Rome.

Ignatius of Antioch wrote several letters about authority. He was Bishop of Antioch in 105 and was martyred in Rome. He also wrote these beliefs in a letter on his way to Rome: “Jesus Christ was of David’s line. He was son of Mary, he was verily indeed born, he ate and drank and he was the Son of God, by the divine will and power truly born of a virgin, baptized by John, and in the days of Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, truly pierced by nails in his human flesh.” Ignatius obviously had Gnostics in mind.

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to the Philippians to counsel them in dealing with the crisis in that community. His letter seems directed against Marcion, who had developed his own canon of Scripture, and other Gnostics.

The Letter of Barnabas deals with the Judaizers and gives a summary of Christian morality.

The Shepherd of Hermas warns against Gnosticism and is concerned with forgiveness and post-baptismal sin.

The apologists did not apologize for anything. They merely explained. The apologists addressed issues outside the church, trying to explain to the Roman authorities that they had nothing to fear from Christians. As they did so, they illuminated basic Christian beliefs about Jesus for the church as well. They wanted to make clear to the civil authorities, particularly in Rome, what Christianity was about and why they had no need to fear it. They were the first theologians.

Justin Martyr was the most important apologist. He said that Christians don’t practice magic, they work against hatred and war, they pray for their enemies. He gave an early account of the celebration of the Eucharist in the church and referred to the gospels as “memoirs of the apostles.” He also wrote about resurrection, incarnation and free will.

Justin was put to death for refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor.

Tatian, who was a student of Justin, wrote about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, immortality of the soul and free will.

Athanagoras wrote when Christians were being charged with atheism, cannibalism and incest. He wrote about the resurrection and developed the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Irenaeus of Lyons wrote against Gnostics and about the incarnation, and further developed the idea of three persons in the godhead and the resurrection.

Tertullian, from Carthage, emphasized that all the church’s teachings must relate back to the apostles. He gave primacy to the church in Rome. He was the first to coin the word Trinity.

Clement of Alexandria wrote that it was not by nature but by culture that man becomes good. He details how a Christian ought to live his daily life, and talks about Jesus as an instructor. All good things lead us to God, said Clement: art, music, philosophy. Human intelligence is meant to illuminate human choice and is the essence of morality.

A Legal Religion

Christianity became a legal religion in the Roman Empire in 314. This security ushered in a new age in which the church established its identity. Disputes such as the Arian heresy threatened the unity of the church. The Emperor Constantine called together a council at Nicea to iron things out. About 250 bishops gathered for the Council and came to some foundational conclusions: the unity and trinity of God, the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. It did not solve all differences.

In the next 125 years many other church fathers—Athanasius, Basil, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and others—devoted their lives to searching the Scriptures and working out our beliefs.

There were four more councils—two at Constantinople, and one each at Ephesus and Calcedon—before the basics were finally accepted in 451 adn what we refer to as the Deposit of Faith was established.

Elizabeth McNamer, co-creator of Scripture From Scratch, one of its general editors and a frequent contributor, teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

Next : The Letter to the Ephesisans (By Ronald Witherup, S.S.)

Praying With Scriptures
Read 1 John 1:2-3 aloud, slowly allowing the words of this passage to fill you. The bishops at Vatican II hoped the entire world would more clearly experience the wonders which John expresses here. Do you?
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