Apostolic Era

The Apostolic Era: 4 B.C. - A.D. 100

The history of Christianity for the apostolic era is based on the Gospels, the book of Acts in the Bible, references to the apostles in the early Christian writings, and Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, written in A.D. 323.

Jesus Christ

You can read Jesus' story in the Gospels. There are no other contemporary sources for his life, other than a couple small references to the fact he existed in Josephus' Antiquities and Philo of Alexandria.

Note: I have an educated guess about Jesus' childhood and a link to some excellent research done by a man named Ray Vander Laan, who is to be commended, in my opinion, for an excellent use of his time on earth. We are all indebted to him.

Jesus Lived to 50?

Interestingly enough, Irenaeus of Lyons (writing around A.D. 185) suggests that Jesus lived to nearly 50 years of age (Against Heresies II:32:4-5). He gives two reasons for believing this:

  • One, the elders in Asia who had known John told him so when he was a young man
  • In John's Gospel, the Jews refer to Jesus as "not yet 50" (8:57). Since the Jews were trying to say he was too young to have known Abraham, Irenaeus feels it unlikely they would have added 20 years to his appearance. Had he been merely 32 or 33, then they would have said "not yet 40."

It's hard to find anyone who agrees with Irenaeus, and he was the only one even of his time period to suggest such a thing. Not many others address the subject, though.

Jesus was born, most likely, between 6 and 4 BC. This is based on Herod's reign, which ended in 4 BC.

I know, I know. That seems strange, since BC means "Before Christ." Our calendar wasn't invented until around A.D. 600. The fact that they were only off four to six years is impressive, actually.

Jesus died (and rose), most likely, in A.D. 29 or 30.

You can read the rest of Jesus' story in the Gospels.

The Apostles

John was the last of the apostles to die, ending the apostolic era. Irenaeus says repeatedly that he lived until the times of Trajan, whose reign began in A.D. 98. Since Irenaeus, who wrote around A.D. 185, was old enough to know people who knew John, his testimony carries a lot of weight.

Jerusalem was obviously the first church of the apostolic era. There's no evidence of any missionary activity, despite the "Great Commission" given to the apostles (Matt. 28:19-20), until Saul's persecution drove most of the Christians out of Jerusalem.

The early Christians had several stories they told about John the apostle. Clement of Alexandria passed on this one around A.D. 190 in his tract, Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved.

This led to the conversion of some Samaritans (Acts 8:5ff), an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26ff), and numerous Jews in Judea (Acts 8:4). God also used Peter to preach to the first Gentiles while he was visiting one of the Judean churches.

The First Gentile Churches

As time passed, the expansion that occurred under Saul's persecution led to churches being formed among the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). The most notable of these was in Antioch.

The apostles sent Barnabas to Antioch. By this time years had passed, and Saul was converted and living in his home town of Tarsus, not far from Antioch. Barnabas went and got him, and together they helped lead and build the church in Antioch, which is today the site of the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church.

After the Holy Spirit called Barnabas and Saul, soon to be Paul, as apostles ("sent ones") to preach throughout Greece, they formed several churches. Only four were formed on Paul's first missionary journey.

The Apostle Paul

Paul was not an eye-witness of Jesus on earth. He met Jesus through visions. His letters give no indication that he had any familiarity with the Gospels nor any details of Jesus' life.

Paul would have spent between ten and fifteen years as a missionary before he died. They were busy years, but there were really only a few churches he formed. He stayed in Corinth for 18 months and Ephesus for 3 years. It was common for him to take time and build the churches he began.

Were Timothy and Titus Pastors?

The fact that Timothy and Titus were left to appoint elders indicates that they were not elders themselves. Elders were the pastors of the early churches.

On top of this, 1 Thess. 1:1 & 2:6 indicates that Timothy was considered an apostle, not a pastor, as is commonly supposed. Titus would have been in the same position.

Later, he would leave men like Timothy and Titus to build the churches until elders could be appointed (1 Tim. 3:1ff; Tit. 1:5ff; see sidebar).

Paul, as we know from Acts, wound up imprisoned in Rome. 2nd century Christians seem convinced that he was freed from that imprisonment and went west, possible even to Great Britain.

The Other Apostles

Peter, according to tradition, went to Rome (and possibly according to the reference to Babylon in 1 Pet. 5:13), and he brought Mark with him there. Eventually, Mark's Gospel would be accepted into the canon of the Church because Mark was Peter's companion.

Luke's was accepted by the church for similar reasons. He was Paul's companion.

Tradition has it that the other apostles spread widely during the apostolic era. Thaddeus went to Syria and Thomas to India. Several early Christians mention that Paul was released and went to Spain and England before returning to be martyred by the emperor Nero around A.D. 64.

Mark, though not an apostle, wound up in Alexandria.

The apostles established churches, taught those churches the Gospel and how to follow Christ, and then turned them over to appointed elders, whose job was to care for the Church and to safeguard the apostolic message, the Gospel of Christ, as the churches left the apostolic era.

See also the quotes page on apostolic succession and apostolic tradition.

That last point is extremely important. The apostles job was to give the message of Christ to the churches, and the churches to preserve that Gospel so that it could shine throughout the world.

Since the Lord Jesus Christ sent the apostles to preach, no others ought to be received as preachers than those whom Christ appointed … 

   It is equally apparent that all doctrine which agrees with the apostolic churches, those molds and original sources of the faith, must be reckoned for truth, as undoubtedly containing that which the churches received from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God. In the same way, all doctrine must be prejudged as false which savors of disagreement with the truth of the church and apostles of Christ and God. (Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics 21, c. A.D. 200)

It is this tradition that carries us out of the apostolic era and into our next era, the Pre-Nicene.

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