Early Church History Timeline

This early church history timeline, in my opinion, addresses issues that ought to be of concern to all Christians.

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We are told to "contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered  to the saints" (Jude 3). How are we to do that if we don't know what that faith is?

Most Protestants will claim that the historic Christian faith can be determined from the Bible, but a simple comparison of the multitude of doctrines taught by Protestants makes it clear this is not true.

The terrible result of this is that early church history is left far too often to the revisionist history of the Roman Catholics. The world is in desperate need of a testimony like that of the apostles and their churches!

Fortunately, numerous writings have been left to us from all periods of the church, even the earliest, and it is not difficult to determine what was important to the churches the apostles started. Further, as we see doctrines introduced at later periods into the teaching of the churches, we can conclude that those doctrines are not apostolic.

After the reign of Constantine and the first general council of the church at Nicea, two very significant events occurred.

One, the churches now had an official means to decree doctrine. Doctrines that were universal in the church before that time were very likely to have come from a common source, the apostles, because there was no hierarchy to establish new doctrines universally.

Two, most of the citizens of the Roman empire became Christians, making it almost impossible after Nicea to find anything resembling the churches before Nicea. No longer were the churches gatherings of those who had chosen the Christian faith against what was accepted in society. Now, the churches consisted mostly of those who were just doing what everyone else was doing. (This is evidenced by the awful behavior of the churches and their leaders after Nicea.)

Jesus said that prophets were to be judged by their fruit. In early church history it is possible not just to see the apostolic or non-apostolic origin of doctrines, it's also possible to see the fruit of new doctrines as they arrived on the scene.

First Century:  A.D. 1 – 100

  • 10 to 3 B.C.: Jesus is born in Bethlehem.

It may seem strange that Jesus was born at least three years "Before Christ," (before himself?), but it's easily explained. The method for counting years that we use today was not developed until A.D. 525, by a monk named Dionysius Exeguus. Using unknown calculations, Dionysius stated it had been 525 years since Jesus was born.

He was wrong, but we've never stopped using his calculations.

We know he was wrong. King Herod almost certainly died in 4 BC, for which there is strong evidence. Since Josephus tied Herod's death to an eclipse, it might also have been 1 BC, but other evidence makes the 1 BC date less likely. Most scholars are settled on 4 BC for Herod's death.

This means Jesus could not have been born later than this.

Herod ordered the death of all children under 2 years old in Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary narrowly escaped this, and they went to Egypt until Herod died (Matt. 2:15). How long this was, we don't know. Generally, I've heard that Jesus was born in 6 BC at the latest to allow time for these events.

Luke does offer a clue to Jesus' age. He says that John began to baptize in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. That year was from Sept., A.D. 28 to Sept., A.D. 29. He adds that Jesus was "about" 30 years old (Luke 3:1,23).

Thirty years runs us back to 3 BC. The problem is that Luke was writing (by the most conservative estimates) decades after the events he describes, and he says Jesus was "about" 30. That's not very precise dating.

I have chosen to list Jesus' birth as happening between 10 and 3 BC to encompass two extremes. At one extreme I'm using Luke's dating as exact and assuming Herod died in 1 BC. At the other extreme I'm using Irenaeus' (writing A.D. 185) suggestion that Jesus lived to be over 40 (based on Jn. 8:57). Jesus would then have been 6 years old when Herod died and Joseph returned from Egypt.

Irenaeus argues that the Jews told Jesus he was "not yet 50" in John 8:57. Why wouldn't they have said "not yet 40," if Jesus had been only 32 or 33 at the time? Interesting point, in my opinion, but I've never found anyone who agrees with him, although he claims (Against Heresies II:22:5) that he was told Jesus broke 40 years of age by elders who knew the apostles.

  • A.D. 30 or 33: Jesus is crucified and rises from the dead.

It is likely that Nisan 14 (Passover) occurred on a Thursday evening, Friday day in A.D. 30 or 33, making one of those years the death of Christ. If it was A.D. 30, then Jesus' ministry was less than two years (counting from the beginning of Tiberius' 15th year to Spring of A.D. 30). If it was A.D. 33, then his ministry was 4 years, plus or minus six months.

There is no Scripture that says Jesus' ministry was 3 years, as commonly supposed.

As in the case of many points of early history, there's a lot of room for argument here.

  • 33 to 44: The Gospel reaches the Samaritans and Gentiles; Saul is converted, and after A.D. 44, on his first missionary journey, takes the name Paul
  • 33 to 44: Simon Magus is falsely converted in Samaria, rejected by Peter, and founds the Gnostics

This is an extremely signficant event. According to early church apologists, Simon went to Rome and claimed that the spirit of Christ had left Jesus and come to him after the crucifixion. All the elaborate and unusual versions of gnosticism then spread from that source.

Gnostic teachings would make their way into the early church, and it would take nearly a century for Christians to drive them out. As late as the second half of the second century, Tatian—a disciple of Justin Martyr—fell away to gnosticism, and Irenaeus had to rescue a Roman bishop from gnostic Valentinian influence.

  • 44: Herod Agrippa dies, and Barnabas and Paul begin traveling soon after (Acts 12:21-13:1).

This is another very important date because it's a certain one.

  • 49: Paul writes his first letter, either Galatians or 1 Thessalonians.

Historians are guessing here.

  • 51 or 52: Paul appears before the Proconsul Gallio in Corinth after spending 18 months in the city (Acts 18:11-12).

This is of signficance because it's the most firmly dated event in Paul's life. Gallio would only have been proconsul for a year, and there are fragments extant of a letter written by Claudius Caesar dating his proconsulate to A.D. 51 or 52.

  • 54: 1 Corinthians is written, containing the first reference to gnostic teachings in the early church (1 Cor. 15:12)
  • 64 to 67: Paul and Peter put to death by Nero (probably).

There's a lot of later tradition about the death of Paul and Peter, but no 1st century testimonies. Tacitus does say that Nero persecuted Christians after the great fire of A.D. 64.

Some give a date as early as A.D. 60, but I'm convinced that Paul's captivity at the end of the Book of Acts ended in his release. There is much early church testimony that Paul went west to Spain and possibly England and was only later put to death.

  • 70: Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman general and future emperor, Titus.
  • 96: Clement of Rome writes a letter to the Corinthians.

Chances are, this is the earliest Christian letter outside the New Testament (NT). The Didache, The Letter of Barnabas, and the anonymous Letter to Diognetus could all be earlier, but their dates are uncertain. First Clement, as this letter from Rome to Corinth is known, has the earliest certain date for Christian writing outside the NT.

The letter is from the church at Rome, not Clement himself, but it has always been attributed to Clement specifically.

  • 98: First year of the emperor Trajan; John dies soon after.

Irenaeus (Against Heresies II:22:5, c. A.D. 185) says that John lived until the times of Trajan. Irenaeus sat at the feet of Polycarp, and Polycarp was appointed bishop of Smyrna by John. Thus, Irenaeus' testimony on this matter carries some weight. Clement of Alexandria says the same in his Who Is the Rich Man Who Will Be Saved.

It is a long standing tradition that John lived to be a hundred years old.

  • 99: All New Testament writings are finished.

John, who according to early church testimony was the last of the four evangelists to write his Gospel, lived into the times of Trajan. Thus, it is possible that his Gospel and even his letters were not written until around this time.

The Book of Revelation was completed much earlier, and is usually dated to before A.D. 70. There is some question as to whether the apostle wrote it, and some suggest it was written by an elder from Ephesus that was also named John.

Dionysius, a 3rd century bishop from Alexandria, writes:

That this person was called John, therefore, and that this was the writing of a John, I do not deny. And I admit further, that it was also the work of some holy and inspired man. But I could not so easily admit that this was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, and the same person with him who wrote the Gospel which bears the title according to John, and the catholic epistle.

   But from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the whole disposition and execution of the book, I draw the conclusion that the authorship is not his. For the evangelist nowhere else subjoins his name, and he never proclaims himself either in the Gospel or in the epistle. … 

   And furthermore, on the ground of difference in diction, it is possible to prove a distinction between the Gospel and the Epistle on the one hand, and the Revelation on the other. For the former are written not only without actual error as regards the Greek language, but also with the greatest elegance, both in their expressions and in their reasonings, and in the whole structure of their style. They are very far indeed from betraying any barbarism or solecism [i.e., nonstandard or ungrammatical usage], or any sort of vulgarism, in their diction. … That the author of the latter, however, saw a revelation, and received knowledge and prophecy, I do not deny. Only I perceive that his dialect and language are not of the exact Greek type, and that he employs barbarous idioms, and in some places also solecisms. (Fragments from the two books on the promises; Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI)

  • 100: The Jewish canon is limited to the 39 books of the Masoretic Text

No one knows exactly how or when this happened, but scholars seem certain the Jewish canon was set by A.D. 100.

This is significant because it means the early churches had no set canon, even for the Old Testament. Even Augustine, near A.D. 400, says there are books accepted by some churches but rejected by others.

2nd Century: A.D. 101 – 200

  • 107 to 116: Ignatius is martyred and writes seven letters.

There is controversy about all of this. Not much is known of Ignatius except what is contained in his letters and The Martyrdom of Ignatius. Generally, though, most scholars accept Ignatius' seven letters, in their shorter version, as genuine.

Some, though, give 116 as the year of his martyrdom, and others say that the description of the travels in The Martyrdom of Ignatius are impossible. Personally, I think most of the "that's impossible" statements about history are unreliable. We don't have enough knowledge of ancient times to be declaring something impossible that a contemporary witness says happened.

  • 107 to 155: Polycarp is bishop of Smyrna.

Polycarp is an interesting character who wrote a beautiful letter to the Philippians sometime during this period.

We have a minimum start and end date for Polycarp's ministry as bishop. He is said to have been appointed by John, and he is addressed as bishop in two letters by Ignatius (A.D. 107 or 116). His martyrdom took place around A.D. 155 (I've since read 165).

The story of his martyrdom is preserved by Eusebius in his Church History, a history of the early church through 323. It lets us know that the text we have is reasonably accurate, though there have been several interpolations of miraculous events that did not happen. [Don't write me an email about that. I believe in miracles. In this case, there's evidence that these extreme miracles were just later stories.]

  • A.D. 125: Aristides writes the first early church "Apology," a defense of the faith presented to the emperor Hadrian.
  • 132 to 136 – Jewish Insurrection [Bar-Kokhba] against Hadrian

This insurrection is significant for several reasons. Though the temple and Jerusalem had fallen to Titus in A.D. 70, it was the Bar-Kokhba rebellion that ended all Jewish claim to Israel and Jerusalem for many centuries.

It was a difficult war, and an angry Hadrian had Jerusalem plowed with oxen; deported many Jews or sold them into slavery; built a new city in Jerusalem's place; and he renamed Israel as Syria Palestina. He then began to persecute Jews, forbidding Sabbath observance, circumcision, and numerous other uniquely Jewish rituals.

The insurrection under Hadrian is useful for dating some early church writings. The Letter of Barnabas, for example, deals in great length with the Law of Moses. It mentions the destruction of the temple (ch. 16), thus dating it after A.D. 70, but it seems unlikely he knew of the destruction and persecution under Hadrian, else he would have mentioned it. The result is that we can date The Letter of Barnabas before 130.

  • 155: Justin Martyr writes his First Apology

Justin was a prolific writer, and I personally believe his Dialogue with Trypho preserves much of Jesus' teaching on the road to Emmaus, where Jesus expounded "the things concerning himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27). Justin inaugurates the age of the apologists, and he is ably followed by Theophilus (168), Athenagoras (177), Irenaeus (c. 185), and Tertullian (200 - 220), as well as by his eventually apostate disciple Tatian (c. 165).

  • 155 to 165: Polycarp is martyred.
  • 168: Theophilus dates the creation of Adam and thus predicts the fall of Rome 300 years in advance.
  • 177: Athenagoras' A Plea for the Christians contains a description of the Trinity that mentions the "same substance" of the Father and Son.

"Homoousios," or same substance, would eventually be the main issue at the Council of Nicea in 325, a major early church controversy.

"We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter, and the natures of the two. For, as we acknowledge a God, and a Son his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence." (ch. 24)

  • 183 to 186: Irenaeus writes Against Heresies, the most thorough book on gnosticism ever written.

Irenaeus' tome is a terrific glimpse of early church theology. It pulls back the curtains like no other writing of its time. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who knew John, so he's the strongest witness to the apostolic age of his time period.

  • 190 to 200: Clement of Alexandria teaches new Christians in Alexandria and leaves us copious writings.

Clement wrote on EVERYTHING. He talks about exercise—men should strip and wrestle, and women should clean house—clothing, drinking alcohol, music, manners, and anything else you could possible think of. These are covered in Miscellanies and The Instructor.

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