EARLY CHRISTIANS AND THE FIRST CHURCHES AND CHRISTIAN COMMUNITIES

FIRST CHRISTIANS

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Christ as a Sun God, AD 3rd century
Christianity began as a small movement. When Jesus died his immediate followers perhaps numbered no more than a hundred. In the years after the crucifixion these followers stayed close to Jerusalem, where they were led by Jesus’s brother James and had success winning converts among Jews. Jewish leaders regarded them as a threat and forced them move from Jerusalem to Samaria, Damascus and Antioch, where there were large Jewish communities.

The first Christians were Jews and thought of themselves as Jews. Christianity emerged as a distinct sect in the second half of the A.D. 1st century and its followers were first called Christians in Antioch around the same time. As Christianity spread it absorbed some elements of the cultures around it. Orpheus and Hercules became the good shepherd and a metaphor of Christ.

The appeal of Christianity to many early converts was the promise of an afterlife. The burial rite and safekeeping of the tomb for early Christians was important because it was believed the soul would rise to heaven just as Jesus's had done during resurrection. The doctrine of humility and compassion found a receptive audience among the poor and oppressed.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org

The Term "Christian

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The term "Christian" was first coined in Antioch probably some ten maybe even fifteen years after the death of Jesus. Now while this term Christian of course becomes the standard terminology for all later Christian traditions, and we think of it in much more lofty and positive terms, at the time that it was coined it was probably a slur. It was probably thrown at these early followers of Jesus as some derogatory designation of them. This is what we often see happening with new religious movements.... We often find in the sociology of sectarian groups that the group may have one self designation. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“They may call themselves "the way" or "the true light" or something like that because that's their religious self conception, but outsiders will often label them by the name of the leader or the name of some catchy element in their message that sparks their interest. So when we hear at Antioch that they're called "Christians" we have to think of that in more in the vein of them being called "Messianists" or "Christies." People who follow a Messiah or just talk about the Messiah an awful lot and we're not actually sure who coined the term. Whether it's other Jews who didn't believe in the Messiah or pagans who heard these Jewish groups talking about messianic ideas. It's not entirely clear. <>

Paul and the Early Church


Paul's conversion

According to the BBC: “It has been suggested that the work of Jesus Christ and the impact of his death and resurrection would not have made any lasting impact on the world were it not for the missionary work of Paul. The account of Paul's conversion to Christianity is contained in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Before his conversion Paul had been known as Saul and had been violently opposed to the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and after his death, by his disciples. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]

“Saul experienced a dramatic conversion, known as the Damascus Road conversion, when he was temporarily blinded. He found himself filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching the Christian gospel. Paul's teaching centred on understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a central turning point in history. He understood the resurrection to signal the end of the need to live under Jewish law. Instead Paul taught of living in the Spirit in which the power of God was made to work through human flesh. | ::|

Professor Harold W. Attridge told PBS: “Paul, who apparently started his life as Saul, was a Jew from the Diaspora, from Tarsus, who according to his own account in his Epistle to the Philippians was a Pharisee, by training. And someone who tried to abide by the Torah, the way of life of the scriptures. Paul had an encounter with the resurrected Christ, which is something reported in the Book of Acts as the Damascus Road experience. That's a dramatization clearly, but Paul himself in his Epistle to the Galatians talks about a revelation of Christ that he had. And through that revelation he became convinced that the person who had died on the cross as a political criminal was, in fact, God's anointed Messiah. And the essence of his gospel, what he preached through the Mediterranean world, revolved around the significance of those two events, the death and resurrection of Christ.... [Source: Harold W. Attridge, Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Some of his letters to fledgling churches throughout the Roman Empire are contained in the New Testament and outline Paul's theology. He insisted that Gentiles had as much access to the faith as Jews and that freedom from the Law set everyone free. It was this teaching which was essential for the development and success of the early church which would otherwise have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect. | ::|

“Paul established Christian churches throughout the Roman Empire, including Europe, and beyond - even into Africa. However, in all cases, the church remained small and was persecuted, particularly under tyrannical Roman emperors like Nero (54-68), Domitian (81-96), under whom being a Christian was an illegal act, and Diocletian (284-305). Many Christian believers died for their faith and became martyrs for the church (Bishop Polycarp and St Alban amongst others). |::|

“When a Roman soldier, Constantine, won victory over his rival in battle to become the Roman emperor, he attributed his success to the Christian God and immediately proclaimed his conversion to Christianity. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine then needed to establish exactly what the Christian faith was and called the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD which formulated and codified the faith.| ::|

Early Christians: Paul’s Congregations


Paul in Ephesus

Paul's early congregations were portrayed being comprised mainly of lower class people, but they were in fact made up of of what could be described as "upwardly mobile" people. Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “What kinds of people belong to these early congregations? Who signs up? Paul's congregations are typically based in individual homes. We call those "house churches" these days. They didn't have church buildings. There probably weren't that many synagogue buildings that one could recognize. Even Jewish communities typically began in homes as well, and in these home congregations or house churches we should imagine a mix of people from across the social spectrum of any Greek city. There's the owner of the house, a kind of wealthy patron. It might be someone like Stephanus or Phoebe. Also the members of their household, family members as well as household slaves and even their clients if they were in a artisan guild. Say tent makers or merchants of some sort. We might typically expect that the household would include not only the immediate family and others around them but even the clients and business partners.... Paul seems to have recognized the opportunity that these house church congregations afforded for getting into the networks of individual relationships that afford to him access to many different people within the Greek city. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“The worship of an early Christian house church probably centered around the dinner table. They don't necessarily all sit facing forward like in a church building that we think of today but rather they're in someone's dining room and the center of their activity really is the fellowship meal or the communal meal. The term communion actually comes from this experience of the dining fellowship.... We need to remember that dining is one of the hallmarks of early Christian practice almost from the very beginning. All the gospel traditions tend to portray Jesus at the dinner table as a very important part of his activity. Paul's confrontation with Peter at Antioch is over dining, and when we look at the context of the letters, especially First Corinthians, the role of dining in fellowship is central to all of their religious understanding and practices. <>

“We also know that all other aspects of worship that we think of as going with early Christian practice probably happened around the dinner table as well. Paul refers to one person having a song and another person bringing a prayer. Everyone is contributing to the banquet whether it's in the form of food or in the form of their piety and worship. They all bring it to the table.... Some of them bring prophecies or charismatic gifts, and these too form some of the concerns that Paul deals with in some of the letters. Sometimes charismatic gifts also produce tension within Paul's communities. We hear at times of Paul having to discipline people or suggest that the congregation discipline people by kicking them out of the fellowship dinner because he doesn't like the ethical behavior of some people. We hear of questions of dining with pagans and going to dinner parties where the meat might not be of a suitable sort, so there's all kinds of questions that come up in the context of this house church environment in Paul's letters. <>

Paul's Message Appeals to a Range of Social Classes

Paul wrote in First Corinthians (1 Cor 1.10 -1.17); 10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga'ius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Steph'anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The traditional view of the composition of the early Christian communities -- and the ones we know anything about are the Pauline communities -- is that are from the proletariat. Early Marxist interpreters of Christianity make a great todo with this. It's a movement of the proletariat.... [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“But if you actually look at the Book of Acts, and you look at Paul, and you begin to collect the people who are named, or identified in some way, here you have Erastus, the City Treasurer of Corinth; you have Gaius of Corinth, whose home is big enough to let him be not only Paul's host but the host to all of the Churches of Corinth, all of the little household communities can meet in his house at one time. You have Stephanos and his household who have been host to the community. You have Lydia, in Philippi, who is the seller of purple goods, a luxury fabric. You have Prisca and Aquila, and we wonder why the woman is usually mentioned before her husband. She must be a woman of some consequence, who runs a tent making establishment, accordingly to the Book of Acts, in which Paul joins, as a fellow artisan. <>


Masters and slaves in the ancient Roman Empire


“So you begin to get the impression that you have quite a variety of different social levels represented in these early Christian communities. Not people at the absolutely top level; you have, with the exception possibly of Erastus, no one from the aristocratic orders - no one who would be a member of the city council. You have no agricultural slaves, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. But, in the rest of the social pyramid, everything in between, you seem to have representatives in these early Christian groups. The people who are named, whom we can identify, have the further characteristic that they seem to cross various boundaries, they're betwixt and between. In some ways, they are marked by high social status. Take Paul, himself. He clearly uses Greek very fluently. He clearly has rhetorical skills, though probably not of the sort that one would have learned at the university. He knows some of the things that are being discussed in the philosophical schools. On the other hand, he's a hand-worker, a tent maker, which is at the other end of the scale, and this is characteristic of most of those people that we know of, as leaders, who are named in the group. So, we begin to get a picture of upwardly mobile people, to use a modern anachronistic way of describing them.

Proto-Christians After Jesus’s Death

After his death, Jesus was seen by Jews as a failure as a Messiah, who by definition was supposed to conquer the oppressors of the Jews and created a Holy Jewish Empire. It was only after his death that the definition of a messiah for Christians would change from a victorious fighter to a peaceful, moralizing savior.

A central prophecy of early Christianity was a Second Coming of “clouds of glory” that was supposed to happen soon after Jesus’s death. In Mark Jesus told his disciples “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” But that didn’t happen at least in any kind of obvious way. As for an explanation the early Christians took a different tact: that salvation had arrived in the form of the church and sacraments and eternal life was available to anyone through salvation.

Some scholars said that the transformation of the perception of Jesus from a militant rebel rouser to a prince of peace took place after A.D. 70 when Jewish insurgent movements were crushed, the Jewish Temple was destroyed and Jewish people fled from Israel to various points around the world. At that point in time Jews realized there was little hope of establishing a Holy Jewish Empire through violent means, while the teachings of Christ showed that personal salvation was possible by following the peaceful teaching of Christ as told by St. Paul and other missionaries.

The Roman writers Josephus (A.D. 37-100),Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) and Suetonis (A.D. 69/75-after 130) refer to Jesus in their discussions of the new Christian sects.

First Christian Communities and Judaism


Pharisees and Saducees (Jewish sects) with Jesus

Christianity was first regarded by the Romans as sect within Judaism while the Jewish community viewed it as the “Jesus cult.” Most of the first Christians were Jews who saw themselves as Jews and as followers of a Jewish sect and didn’t see themselves as Christians. They worshiped at the Temple and followed the laws of Moses and were circumcised. Gentiles were required to become Jews before the could become Christians.

Over time the Jewish community became the disillusioned with members of the Jesus cult as it recruited Gentiles and neglected Jewish law, particularly the rules of circumcision. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Judaism was dealt and near fatal blow and Christianity emerged as a religion in its own right. Jewish authorities severed ties with Christians at the council in Jamnia in A.D. 83, where it was also decided that Hebrew cannon of scriptures was closed and that no Christian writing would be accepted as sacred texts.

Even so for many centuries Passover and Easter were celebrated together and many Christians attended synagogues. As the religion won more non-Jewish Roman converts it began to take on more of a Roman character. Only after several centuries did they begin to view themselves as Christians. For centuries after the Constantine’s conversion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century many Jews called themselves Christians.

Wandering Charismatics Soon After Jesus’s Death

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “One of the earliest indications that we have of the Jesus movement is what we tend to call "wandering charismatics," traveling preachers and prophets, who go on saying the kingdom of heaven is at hand, continuing the legacy of Jesus' own preaching, apparently. They travel around with no money and no extra clothes. So, they are supposed to perform miracles and heal the sick for free but they apparently begged for food. This is a different picture of the earliest form of the Jesus movement than what we've come to expect from the pages of the New Testament and yet, it's within the tradition, itself. We hear even in Paul's day that he encounters people who come from Judea, with a different kind of gospel message, and it looks like these are the same kind of wandering charismatics that we hear of, in the earlier stages of the movement, after Jesus' death. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“The Jesus movement is a sect. How do sects behave? One of the things they have to do is, they have to distance themselves from their dominant cultural environment. A sect always arises within a community with whom it shares a basic set of beliefs and yet, it needs to find some mechanism for differentiating itself. So, sectarian groups are always in tension with their environment. That tension is manifested in a variety of ways - controversies over belief and practice; different ideas of purity and piety. But, another manifestation of that tension is the tendency to want to spread the message out, to hit the road and convince others that the truth is real. <>

Beginning of the Jesus Movement (Early Christianity)

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The Good shepherd, 3rd century
Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Christianity begins really as a sect among Judaism. One of several sects that we know of from about the same time. Josephus tells us about a number of prophets who appeared and gathered followers and were wiped out by the Roman Governors and their followers were disbursed, and if you read the series of revolts that Josephus talks about, and about the prophets that come and promise to part the waters of the Jordan or whatever, make the walls of Jerusalem fall down, and they gather followers and then their leader is captured and he dies and that's the end of it, of the story that we have about Jesus and the gospel fits rather nicely in that succession. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“But the mystery that remains and which intrigues historians is precisely that. None of those groups of followers had any afterlife. They made no history; so why was this one different? The followers of Jesus somehow are different and this question, which ultimately is perhaps unanswerable, is the thing I think which drives people like me to try to dissect these sources that we call the New Testament and the other early Christian literature and investigate the context of this and do archeology and all the other things, to try to guess ultimately, why is this group different, from the others. <>

Early Christians Use Hebrew Scriptures

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “We have in the four gospels of the New Testament, passion narratives, narratives of Jesus' suffering and death. Outside of the New Testament canon, we have only one more extensive narrative of Jesus' suffering and death, and that has appeared in the Gospel of Peter. Now it was known in ancient times that there was such a thing as the Gospel of Peter. Eusebius of Caesarea, the earliest church historian at the beginning of the 4th century, tells about the fact that there was a Gospel of Peter which was used by some communities in Syria.But no one really knew what was in this gospel until at the end of the last century papyrus was discovered, which was a small amulet that a soldier had been wearing around his neck and which was given into the tomb of this soldier, and when it was opened up it turned out to be a text that told the story of the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus. But it is told in such a way that one can assume that it was not dependent upon the canonical gospels that we have. But that at least part of this gospel goes back to the same story, but draws from the oral tradition of the telling of that story, or from some older gospel as somescholars believe that is preserved here. What is interesting in this Gospel of Peter is that it shows in some instances more clearly the direct dependence of the passion narrative upon the prophecy and psalms and suffering servant stories of the Hebrew Bible, and therefore gives us an insight in the development of the passion narrative.... [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]


Hebrew writing on a 5th century column in Capernaum, a town visited by Jesus

“I don't think that [in the period following Jesus' death] the disciples now were trying to look for the right stories in the Hebrew Scriptures [to explain his suffering and death.] But rather that these texts from the Hebrew Bible were already a part of their regular reading of texts, were already a part of their worship service. We know that in the Jewish synagogue scriptural text would be read and would be interpreted. So the disciples of Jesus must have lived in those texts and must have brought an understanding of the explanation of suffering on earth with them that was already part of their worship life, of their discussions of their meditations at the time. So it's not like someone who tries to go back now and says, "let's find the right text or scripture that would fit." But it's rather that out of the deep involvement in a religious tradition that was anchored in the worship life of Jewish communities, these stories about Jesus arise that now use the same words, the same language, the same images, in order to describe Jesus' suffering. <>

“[For example], the question of the suffering servant is very closely connected with Isaiah 53. And Isaiah 53, in most Christian churches, is usually the text from the Old Testament that is read at Good Friday as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus. Who the suffering servant was has been the subject of debate among Old Testament scholars. Is it the prophet himself who depicts himself as the suffering servant? Or, which is perhaps the most likely solution, that ultimately the suffering servant is Moses. And it tells a different aspect of the story of Moses, not Moses as the leader who leads the people out of exodus, but Moses as the one who dies eventually and who is not able to see the Holy Land, and Moses about whom the book of Deuteronomy says, his tomb could not even be found.... <>

“This story has very deeply influenced the Jewish tradition before the early Christian period with respect to the understanding of the suffering of the righteous person. How can it be understood that the righteous in this world have to suffer? And the answer to this was found in the story of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And that is the story to which the Christians apparently went very early at this stage, to find an understanding of what the suffering and death of Jesus meant and signified.

Struggles of the Early Church

Professor Helmut Koester told PBS: “One interesting problem is simply the experience of diversity. We sometimes think that it's just such a shame that we have so many Christian denominations and so many other religions all in one country. "Wouldn't it be great if we have only one belief and one religion as it was in the time of the early Christians?" No, it wasn't in the time of the early Christians. The early Christians had a hard time to discuss with each other, fight with each other to establish certain patterns and criteria for the organization of community, what was important in the churches. Was it indeed important that churches established mutual responsibility for each other and care for the poor as part of their dossier? This is what they're supposed to do. And that discussion in our church was very helpful twelve years ago, when we discussed whether we should open a shelter for homeless people in the basement of our church. [Source: Helmut Koester, John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“But the other aspect is the diversity of religious movements. And that in fact early Christianity, by moving into different realms of the different universes of thought and of religion in the Greco-Roman world, adopted a lot of concepts from other religions, lots of them pagan religions, which enriched the early Christian movement tremendously. This probably should encourage us to say that our discourse, not only inner Christian discourse with other denominations, but also our discourse with other religions, with the Jews, with Moslems, with Buddhists, may in fact, indeed be very fruitful..., rather than staying away from this and saying, "Oh God, now we have even more Muslims in America than we have Jews." Which some people find terrible. But they have to learn to say "maybe that is very good." <>

Evolution of Christianity from the Jesus Movement

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Christ with a beard, 4th century
Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “In its first stage, Christianity begins not as a religion, it begins rather as the movement of people around a single charismatic teacher or preacher, it's hard to know what noun to use exactly. I would call him a holy man who attracted a crowd of disciples who followed him and his various wanderings as he did his healings, as he did his teachings. But this holy man winds up in Jerusalem and winds up executed by the authorities, probably as a trouble maker, somebody who's best off dead, rather than alive because alive who knows what may happen? He's a threat to the social order. He's best off executed. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“This is how Christianity begins. It very rapidly turns into something different. What began as a kind of ratter-tag assembly of followers of a holy man turns into what we might call a Jewish sect, a group of Jews which now has interpreted the life, teachings and death of its holy man somehow as having cosmic significance, as having meaning for all time, not just for the specific moment, but somehow affecting God's relationship with the Jews and ultimately with the whole world. ... This then is a Jewish sect or a Jewish school, which you might say is the next stage in the development. <>

“After that, the next stage may be represented by Paul, who then takes this Jewish school, this Jewish philosophy, this Jewish sect, and now says that the teachings of this sect are such that the entire map of the world needs to be redrawn, so that we now no longer have the simple dichotomy of Jews and gentiles and we no longer simply have a Jewish school arguing with other Jews about interpretations of law and theology. We now have, Paul says, a new map of the world. Our teachings have within them the secret to understanding the new cosmic order. So that the old distinctions between Jews and gentiles are now obliterated. They have been supplanted by a new and truer and more wonderful and more beautiful map in which we have a new Israel that will embrace both Jews and gentiles, all those who now accept the new covenant and the new faith. This is Paul, who in his teachings has the beginnings of what we might call the breaking out of Christianity [from] Jewish social setting. ... <>

“This of course takes place gradually over the next several decades well into the 2nd century.... It doesn't happen everywhere all at once, in the same way. It's a complex, protracted process. And we must allow for variety; the place of Christianity, let's say in the year 100 CE, may not be the same in Egypt as it is in Judah. It may not be the same in Rome as it is in Asia Minor. We have to ask ourselves constantly - How did the Christians see themselves? How did the Jews see the Christians? How did the gentiles see the Christians? How did each of these groups understand the other and how they fit into the larger society? And the answers may not be the same. There's no guarantee that the Christians and the Jews necessarily looked at each other in the same way at any given moment. We have to allow for a wide variety of opinions. But the tendency, nonetheless, I think is very clear: Christianity is becoming less "Jewish" and is turning into something new and different. ... <>

“For some Christians, this never happens. They can't bring themselves to say that God has thoroughly redrawn the map of the cosmos and has taken them out of the Jewish world and pushed them out into the stage of history. ... Other Christians, of course, disagree with Paul on exactly how to read this new map and exactly what it means, and most importantly, where do the Jews fit in now, those Jews who are "being left behind."... But, in any case, the Christian church itself was now emerging as a new, independent group by the middle of the 2nd century. ... <>

Early Monks and Monasteries


St. Anthony's monestary

Ascetic sects also arose in early days of Christianity. They made vows of poverty, obedience and chastity and headed to the deserts of Egypt to seek solitude and communion with God. Some lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water. The most famous of these hermits was Paul of Thebes who reportedly lived for 112 years in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The word “hermit” is derived from the Greek word cremeites , meaning “desert dweller.”

The “desert fathers.” who lived hermetic lives in caves of Egypt in the early centuries of Christianity laid the ground work for monks and nuns with their vows of celibacy and poverty. Modern studies of self-inflicted suffering in religious observances suggests there are two main purposes: 1) to gain mastery over some perceived weakness or fault, such as lust and desire; and 2) induce a trance-like state that is believed to bring one closer to the divine.

Saint Anthony is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history. A healer, sufferer, pioneer of monasticism in Christianity, he promulgated celibacy and asceticism and spent most of his life praying and fasting in the desert, where it was said he was tempted many times by the devil, who often appeared dressed as a woman. There is now an Anonite order of monks.

St. Anthony was born in Egypt in 251. Following the admonitions of Matthew, he sold all of his possession, gave his money to the poor so the at he could find the treasure of heaven. He fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he took up an austere life. Others followed his example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the mountains. Since the Middle Age St. Anthony has been acknowledged as the patron saint of domestic animals. The day of the saint is celebrated with bonfires in communities across Spain.

Pachomius founded first true monastery on Tabenna, an island in Nile, in A.D. 340. The difference between the monks here and their predecessors is that the monks associated with one another and performed daily chores and work in the fields in addition to praying, reading the scriptures and meditating.

From Egypt monasticism spread to Syria and Asia Minor. Around 360, St. Basil established a great monastery near Neo-Caesarea , in Pontus. St. Basil (358-64) composed monastic rule and is regarded as founder of the Christian monastic movement. He established the creed that a monk must not only live for himself but must also help his fellow man. He discouraged extreme asterism and established schools, hospitals, hospices and orphanages in conjunction with his monasteries.

From Egypt and Asia Minor monasticism spread to Italy and then parts of the European continent and Britain and Ireland

First Churches

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Trevi Clitumno, a Roman Temple
turned into a church
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. The 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.

In November 2005, archaeologists claimed they had found the “oldest church” in the Holy Land. Dated to the A.D. 3rd or 4th century, it was unearthed in Megiddo (biblical Armageddon) inside a high security prison where Hamas and Israeli Jihad prisoners are kept by Israelis. Prisoners from other Israeli prisons helped excavate the site. The church features a large floor mosaic with the name Jesus Christ written in ancient Greek.

The ancient church building in Megiddo measures 10 meters by five meters and was dated through jugs of wine and cooking pots found at the site and is thought to pre-date the Byzantine period because no distinctive Byzantine crosses were found. The mosaic has been dated to the late 3rd century. The site was discovered b workers preparing to build a new wing for the prison.

"The Church": Home of the People of God

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The word "church" is a tricky one. There is a Greek word, ecclesia, which we translate in all modern translations as "the church," and this is a total anachronism, because nobody in the Greek world would have had any concept which was remotely similar to what we regard as a church. This is a political term; an ecclesia is just a meeting, and preeminently the meeting of the free citizens of a city which is constitutionally organized, so that its citizens can vote on important things. And so when Paul writes to the meeting, the ecclesia of God, of the Thessalonians, this is a very strange kind of notion because ordinarily the town meeting of the Thessalonians is a political thing which couldn't be more different from a group of a dozen or so people who have converted to this community meeting in somebody's house. How does that get to be a church, in our sense of the word? How do these little household meetings come to be thought of as a universal church or the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church? This is something which happens over a long period of time and is deeply part of that process by which this new movement works out its relationship to the larger culture, as it institutionalizes itself, to use a modern sociological bit of jargon, as every movement has to if it's going to survive. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>


Dura-Europos church, the earliest identified Christian house church, located in Dura-Europos, Syria, appears to have been a normal house converted for worship between AD 233 and 256

“But hidden within this development is a piece of self-identity, is a notion of who one is, which comes straight out of the history of Israel. The notion that God has made a treaty, a contract, a covenant, with a group of people, and they will be his people. So this fundamental part of the consciousness of Israel, as being the people of God put among the peoples of the world in order to bring God's intention for humanity to fruition, this is shared by, I think, all of the important groups of early Christianity. Diverse as it was, they all have the sense that, in some way, we have to embody this ancient sense of who Israel was. We either take the place of Israel or we fulfill the notion of Israel or we're a part of the Israel that wants to be a people of God. And, it is this self-concept, I think, which cannot be forgotten, as [part of the process that produces the Church]. <>

Professor Shaye I.D. Cohen told PBS: “An important milestone into development of Christian self-consciousness or Christian self-identity will be the emergence of the word "Christianity." This word appears for the first time in the writings of a church thinker of the early 2nd century of our era named Ignatius, who lived in Western Asia Minor, modern day Western Turkey. Ignatius in his letters is warning his flock to stay away from all sorts of theological perils out there, including Judaism and including all sorts of mistaken Christian theologies. And, in his writings, Ignatius uses the word Christianity, and he uses it ... in contrast with the word Judaism. We have here for the first time a polarity, a contrast. There is something called Judaism and there is something called Christianity, and true Christians will make sure that what they believe and what they do, is in fact Christianity and it's not Judaism. That is explicit and unambiguous for the very first time in the writings of Ignatius around the year 110 or 120 B.C. [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>] <>

Early Christian Rituals: Baptism and Sharing a Meal

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Among the things that make the Christians different are a couple of rituals which they developed, early on before the very earliest sources that we have about them. One of these is an initiation ceremony, which they call baptism, which is simply a Greek word that means dunking. It's interesting that if you go to the little town of Dura-Europas and that 3rd century Christian building... precisely where one would expect to find the statute of one's god in any of the normal shrines of a religious group, you find what we would think of as a bathtub, with some interesting paintings on the wall behind it. This is the Baptistery. This is the place where people are initiated into this new cult. Why is that the center? Why is that the focal point? Clearly something happens here which is fundamental to the establishing of identity of a group, which at the same time binds them together so that they speak of themselves with family terms but also separates them, in some sense, from the society around them. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“A second major ritual which they developed is a meal, a common meal, which they have together, which is designed as a memorial of The Last Supper which Jesus had with his disciplines. This is recorded already in one of the letters of the Apostle Paul, and he presents this as a tradition which he has received and handed on to the people in Corinth. So, it's a very, very early thing and has various interpretations, but as a ritual, clearly this is an ongoing way in which the community has gathered and reasserts their unity with one another and their difference from others. <>

Early "Christianities" of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries


Church in Aqaba, Jordan, one of the oldest churches, whose oldest part dates to around AD 295

Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: “Christianity, or one would rather say "Christianities," of the second and third centuries were a highly variegated phenomenon. We really can't imagine Christianity as a unified coherent religious movement. Certainly there were some religious organizations.... There were institutions developing in some Christian churches, but only in some. And this was not universal by any means. We know from, for example, the literature recovered at Nag Hammadi, that gnostic Christianity didn't have the kind of clear hierarchy that other forms of Christianity had developed. They still clung to a charismatic leadership model. And so there was a lot of variety in 2nd and 3rd century Christianity.... [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“There were very different views of Jesus in the various types of Christianity.... Perhaps the starkest contrast was among those who considered themselves as gnostic Christians, and those who considered themselves Christians in the old Pauline view of things. On the one hand, Paul, and Pauline Christianity, would have placed all of the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection, and the saving power of that death and resurrection. Gnostic Christianity, on the other hand, would have placed its prime emphasis on the message, the wisdom, the knowledge, the gnosis, that's where the word gnostic comes from, the Greek word for knowledge, the knowledge that Jesus transmits, and even the secret knowledge that Jesus transmits. So one would have on the one hand faith in the saving event of Jesus' life and death, and on the other hand knowledge as the great source of adherence to the Jesus movement on the other hand. <>

Internal Schisms and the Drive for Unity

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “Now, the early Christians put a great emphasis upon unity amongst one another, and the odd thing is they seemed always to have been squabbling with one another over what kind of unity they were to have. The earliest documents we have are Paul's letters and what do we find there? He is, ever and again, having defend himself against some other Christians who have come in and said, "No, Paul didn't tell it right. We have now to tell you the real thing." So, it is clear from the very beginning of Christianity, that there are different ways of interpreting the fundamental message. There are different kinds of practice; there are arguments over how Jewish are we to be; how Greek are we to be; how do we adapt to the surrounding culture - what is the real meaning of the death of Jesus, how important is the death of Jesus? Maybe it's the sayings of Jesus that are really the important thing and not his death and not his resurrection. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 <>]

“Now, this runs very contrary to the view... which the mainstream Christianity has always quite understandably wanted to convey. That is, that at the beginning, everything was unity, everything was clear, everything was understandable and only gradually, under outside influences, heresies arose and conflict resulted, so that we must get back somehow to that Golden Age, when everything was okay. One of the most difficult things which has emerged from modern historical scholarship, is precisely that that Golden Age eludes us. The harder we work to try to arrive at that first place where Christianity, were all one and everything was clear, the more it... seems a will-o'- the-wisp. There never was this pure Christianity, different from everybody else and clear, in its contours.... <>

“The interesting thing about Christianity is that you have diversity from the beginning, and each of the diverse groups feel so keenly about their way of of seeing things that obviously, they'd like everybody else to agree with them.... There seems to be a sense, [among] all of the various parties that somehow, it ought to be one group; it ought to be one people. Obviously, they inherit this from Judaism, the notion that there is one people of God, ... and yet, they're not one, they're different on all kinds of of things. And the drive to obtain the truth and to manifest the truth is so strong that if one group cannot convince the others that their way is right, often times, it seems the only thing they can do is separate, to make sure that the truth is embodied somewhere. And so the very drive for unity produces schism, and... quite ironically, the very existence of all the different schisms is testimony to the sense that there ought to be unity. <>

“...The notion of Orthodoxy, which is only the flip-side of the notion of heresy, [developed in the second century]. So heresy which... simply means [in Greek], a choice, and is most commonly used to talk about a philosophical school, now takes on a negative connotation for the Christians. [It] first of all implies a schismatic group, a choice, which is different from the mainstream,... and then secondarily, [implies] people have wrong ideas, people who think wrongly about this or that, notably about the identity of Jesus Christ. The other side of that, of course, is our side, which has orthodoxy, that is, right thinking. The great controversies of the 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, which create what we will know as orthodoxy, and in the west, Catholicism, emerge from this very drive to create a a unified body of opinion. <>

“The early Christians did have turf wars over who had it right and you see this from the very beginning. The Apostle Paul and his opponents in Galatia, who say, "Wait a minute, Paul told you a very simplified gospel, it makes it easy for you to become a member of this new group, but we know, after all, that if you're really going to be a real Christian, first you have to be a real Jew and that means, you have to be circumcised and you have to keep certain regulations out of the Torah. So Paul has not got it right." Paul said, "No, you don't understand how radically new this thing is, which God is doing here." [And] again in Corinth, people come and say, "No no, you don't understand, Paul isn't really quite what he claims to be here and now we're here to put it right." So, from the very beginning, it seems Christianity has different ways of construing what it's all about, which will lead to divisions and lead to conflict. <>

“Who wins - in some sense, nobody wins, in the sense that the result of this is schisms and ultimately, some very nasty things in the history of the church, eventually the use of force and violence.... History is always written by the victors; if one wanted to be very cynical about it, one would say "All right, the people who finally managed the most power and the most persuasive abilities win out and they write the history, which defines everybody else as a heretic." and one would have to say there's a great deal of truth in that. [On] the other side of it... is that who wins, finally, is the side that embodies the widest support of people [for] their way of symbolizing Christian truth, and so there's there's a kind of strange democracy involved here. Obviously distorted by imperial power from the 4th century on but nevertheless, a strange kind of democracy involved... It is the usage of the local churches that eventually determines which books will be included in the New Testament, for example, and which will not be included, which point of view about Jesus has the widest support and therefore will also gain political power because there are people in various places that support that. It's a very complicated picture, obviously. <>

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018


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