Early Christianity Essay

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Christianity grew out of Second Temple Judaism and inherited its most important legacy, the Jewish scripture. It also inherited much of the Jewish interpretive traditions, such as the concepts of monotheism, covenant, election, and revelation, that had shaped the interpretation of these scriptures. The New Testament (NT) writers reinterpreted these traditions, as well as the scriptures, to confirm and to bolster the conviction that Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth, a person of the peasant class in the Greco-Roman world, was the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who established the new covenant by his blood, inaugurated the new age of eternal life, and gave all humans—male, female, old, young, slave, free, Jews, and Gentiles—the right to receive salvation by faith.

A very able articulator of these new views was the apostle Paul of Tarsus, a Diaspora Jew and a former persecutor of the church. After a dramatic encounter with the risen Jesus, he became convinced that the death and the resurrection of Jesus fulfilled all the promises of the Jewish scriptures. Armed with this conviction, Paul redefined Jewish monotheism in new and surprising ways. If God had chosen to reveal himself fully in the death of Jesus, Paul argued, God, like Jesus, must be a friend of sinners. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8; Revised Standard Version). No Jewish literature prior to Paul depicts God’s love toward humans in these radical terms. God was customarily viewed in Judaism as a judge who punished sinners. Judaism did not teach that God loved sinners. Paul’s teaching that the dying figure of Jesus on the cross was the most complete revelation of God’s love toward sinful humans was simply revolutionary. This radical vision of God is precisely what early Christianity came to embrace as its central conviction, and it is this conviction that caused Christianity to take root and prosper in the ancient world.

Christianity’s explosive growth, however, was due to more than just doctrines, scriptural interpretations, or its message, brilliant as they were. There were other factors aiding its growth. Perhaps the most important of these was Christianity’s aggressive missionary zeal. In fact, Christianity was the most missionary-minded religion of antiquity. Neither Judaism nor Hellenistic philosophical schools engaged in missionary activities to the degree of Christianity. All the apostles were missionaries who made evangelistic forays into the far reaches of the Roman Empire. Of early Christianity’s missionaries, the most successful was Paul. He founded churches throughout Asia Minor (Turkey) and Greece. The second factor aiding Christianity’s growth was that Christianity was an urban religion. This was a surprising development because Christianity began as a small Jewish reform movement in Galilee led by one of its peasants. Within 50 years of the death of its founder, this humble rural religious movement took root in every major urban center of the empire. Antioch on the Orontes, Alexandria, Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Rome all became the major centers of Christianity’s growth and eventual domination. Ironically, the rural territories of the Roman Empire were the last to be converted to Christianity.

The urban settings of the empire offered, among others, two conditions that made Christianity attractive: openness to new ideas and ethnic diversity. The city people were open minded, and Christianity had plenty of novel ideas to offer about God, humanity, and the world. But unlike Hellenistic philosophers, Christian preachers offered a relatively simple and practical message that appealed to many different classes of people, including the illiterate. Celsus, a second-century opponent of Christianity, ridiculed Christianity for exploiting the ignorant and appealing to the disadvantaged.

More important was the ethnic diversity of the Roman cities. The cities of the empire were cosmopolitan. People came from all parts of the empire to live and work in the cities, creating a network of relations in which merchants, soldiers, and slaves frequently intermingled with one another. Christianity’s key attraction was that no particular ethnic ties bound it. It preached its message to persons of any class and ethnic origin who were willing to listen. Unlike many pagan religions, Christianity was not tied to the customs of the land and did not discriminate against anyone. For example, Mithraism, a rival religion to Christianity, did not accept women into its fellowship. Early Christianity welcomed all who chose to accept Jesus as Lord. Early Christian preachers saw the cosmopolitan cities of the empire as offering exceptional opportunities to spread the gospel “to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev 14:7). Christianity had an unexplainable power to appeal to displaced people who were experiencing insecurity and distress in the major cities of the empire.

Christianity quickly established itself in North Africa in Alexandria and Carthage, where the great apologists Tertullian (c. 185 c.e.), Origen (c. 185–254 c.e.), and Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 c.e.) worked, all of whom played a critical role in shaping the church’s Trinitarian doctrine. The city of Rome became home to Clement (c. 96 c.e.), Justin Martyr (150 c.e.), and Pope Callistus (217–222 c.e.). The churches in these Italian and North African cities became centers from which Christianity spread and took root in the Western Roman Empire. Lyon of Gaul (France) became home to Bishop Irenaeus (160–220 c.e.), one of the greatest apologists of early Christianity, whose writings provided a rich source of information about Christian Dualism before the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered. Christianity also took root in the cities of the East. The powerful Christian centers Ephesus, Smyrna, and Laodicea were all important cities of Asia Minor. The Antioch of Syria on the Orontes became an ancient center of Syrian Christianity going back to the very beginning of Christianity. Antioch gave birth to the great bishop Ignatius (c. 98–117 c.e.), whose letters are a valuable source of information about Christianity in Greece and Asia at the end of the era of the Twelve Apostles.

The third factor aiding Christianity’s growth was its high ethical tone and moral purpose. The Roman moral sensibilities were somewhat schizophrenic. On the one hand, Rome extolled morality and law. On the other hand, it encouraged debauchery and savage entertainments, such as gladiator fights and the circus. In the midst of the moral confusion Christianity became a clarion call of protest, particularly on behalf of women and lower-class people. Also, in contrast to the highbrow Roman intelligentsia, Christians actually tried to live a moral life rather than simply pass judgment on society. Many ordinary believers lived an exemplary moral life. This became perhaps most evident in the martyrdom of the early Christians. If apostasy represents dissatisfied customers, martyrdom represents brand loyalty. The early Christian martyrs showcased their unflinching loyalty to the Christian ideals of nonviolence and moral purity before the eyes of the crowds that had come looking for a violent entertainment.

Finally, the most important factor aiding Christianity’s growth was its phenomenal efficiency. Owing mostly to Roman persecutions, the church did not possess significant assets or real estate, so no extensive and centralized administrative oversight was necessary. Also it did not take many to start a church. It took only a handful of the disciples of Jesus to form the initial bands of believers in Palestine. It took only one person, Paul, to found churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. In cities such as Rome and Alexandria it did not even take an apostle to plant Christianity. Maintaining the newly planted churches also required little manpower. The chief reason was the simplicity of the liturgy.

Many of the original congregations were “house churches” that met in private homes and were of no more than 30 or 40 individuals each. Even in the second and third centuries, when many churches grew in size, house church continued to be the way new churches got started. In these house churches the worship consisted basically of the Eucharist, singing of hymns, reading of scripture, mutual sharing of insights, and a fellowship (agape) meal. Rarely did a virtuoso preacher stand in front with a polished sermon, and there were no elaborate initiation rites, as in the mystery religions. Nor was there a painful rite, like Jewish circumcision. The converts were simply baptized by water in a baptistery or a shallow river. The main “service” that Christianity provided to its adherents was koinonia, or “spirit-filled fellowship.” There were deacons, presbyters, bishops, synods, and even councils that looked after the growing church. The presbyters oversaw communities, and the deacons looked after the affairs of the local churches. The most important ecclesiastical office was that of the bishop, who oversaw large territories in the empire. The bishops of major cities were rather powerful. The bishops of Rome in particular, later called the pope, exercised great power, both spiritually and politically. From the middle of the first century c.e. until Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and made it Rome’s official religion in 322, Christianity proliferated more or less spontaneously, where it was least controlled.

Christianity became the spawning ground of exotic ideas, later termed heresies. Gnosticism, Monarchialism, Montanism, and Manichaeanism are some of the names given to these exotic ideas. For a religion growing without close supervision in urban centers of the Roman Empire, mostly among Gentile converts, this was to be expected. Most of the Gentile converts to Christianity did not know the Jewish traditions that stood behind much of the NT. Their intellectual context was Hellenistic philosophy whose general focus was nature. Consequently, the debates that flared up between the fathers of the church and their opponents were about the nature of things: the nature of divine revelation, the nature of God, the nature of Christ, the nature of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the Trinity, the nature of the church, the nature of man, and the nature of redemption—in short the nature of Christianity.

By far the most important theological controversy in early Christianity was about the nature of Christ. The NT writers, most of whom were Jews, had been only minimally concerned with the nature of Christ. Their focus was history, the work of Jesus—that he was born, died for our sins, was buried and raised on the third day, and ascended to sit at the right hand of God to reign and to intercede for the saints before God. Even the writings of the apostolic fathers, such as the Didache, the Letters of Ignatius, 1 Clement, Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas, which were composed at the turn of the first century c.e., continued to focus mostly on the work of Christ and its saving effect on humans. Even their discussions about the preexistence of Christ were about his work in creation and Israel’s history. From the second to third centuries, however, Christian apologists shifted their attention to defining the nature of the relationship between Christ and God—whether Christ had the same nature as that of God the Father.

The “apologists,” such as Justin, Tertullian, and Irenaeus, vigorously fought for a particular conception of the faith and argued for the unity of Christ and God: Christ was uncreated and of one substance with God the Father, and Christ was fully divine and fully human. This notion of divine unity became early Christianity’s orthodox Christology. The main strategy that the apologists used was to argue that they had the true apostolic tradition and that the scriptures must be read in light of this tradition. Irenaeus accused his opponents of developing their doctrines based on obscure scriptural passages and by appealing to forgeries, like the Gospel of Judas, rather than accepting the authentic apostolic tradition. The monumental triumph of the fathers of the church’s orthodoxy came in 325 when the Council of Nicaea declared that Christ is “very God of very God.” It was a temporary victory, however. The reality was that at the time of the Nicene Creed, there was still no widespread consensus on the nature of Christ in early Christianity, and by the end of the fourth century a new conception of Christ had taken hold in mainstream Christianity, Arianism.


  1. Bainton, Roland H. Christendom: A Short History of Christianity and Its Impact on Western Civilization. New York: Harper and Row, 1966;
  2. Kelly, John N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. New York: Harper and Row, 1978;
  3. Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, the Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971;
  4. Richardson, Cyril C. Early Christian Fathers. New York: Macmillan, 1970;
  5. Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

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