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Early Christianity: The Pre-Nicene Era

Early Christianity is easily the most important and exciting area of Christian history. The Church was young, on fire for God, and confident they would change the world.


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Battles raged with both heretics and Roman persecutors.

The Christians loved it:

It's a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain.

   When he faces threats, punishments and tortures by mocking death and treading underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his freedom in Christ as a standard before kings and princes; when he yields to God alone, and—triumphant and victorious—he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced the sentence upon him.

   God finds all these things beautiful. (Minucius Felix, The Octavius 37)

There are links below to biographies and writings of the early churches.

There is a second bried description from the early Christians themselves at my Beginning of Christianity Page.

The Scriptures say, "The righteous are bold as a lion" (Prov. 28:1). The early Christians must have been righteous because they were most certainly bold.

How many of our people have borne that not their right hand only, but their whole body, should be burned … without any cries of pain. …

   Do I compare men with [your Roman heroes]? Boys and young women among us treat with contempt crosses and tortures, wild beasts, and all the bugbears of punishment with the inspired patience of suffering. (ibid.)

Polycarp of SmyrnaPolycarp of Smyrna

But it was not just boys and young women … 

The Bold Martyrdom
Polycarp of Smyrna

Polycarp was 86 years old when he stood before a Roman proconsul, condemned to die. The proconsul felt sorry for him. He gave him repeated instructions on how to avoid the punishment in store for him.

Polycarp was unimpressed.

Since you keep wasting your time urging me on … and pretend not to know who and what I am, listen to me announce with boldness: "I am a Christian.

   "But if you want to learn what the doctrines of Christianity are, appoint me a day, and you shall hear them."

While we're on early Christianity, I have got to tell you this story about the apostle John!

This irritated the proconsul. He decided to put a little pressure on the old man.

"I have wild beasts at hand. I will throw you to them if you don't repent."

No effect.

"Call them, then. We're not used to repenting of what is good in order to adopt what is evil."

That was enough for the proconsul. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

"If you won't repent, I'll have you burned with fire, since you have no regard for the wild beasts!"

No better. The 86-year-old Polycarp was up to a face-to-face confrontation.

Pliny the Younger's Epistle to Trajan

It's exciting that there is still extant a letter from a Roman governor to the emperor concerning the treatment of Christians.

It talks about the way they should be tried (an example of which we have here with Polycarp), what should be done with them, and—best of all—the extent of their influence.

It was written between A.D. 110 and 120, a whole generation before Polycarp's trial!

"You threaten me with fire that burns for an hour, then goes out after a little while. You're ignorant, however, of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly.

 "What are you waiting for? Bring out whatever you want."

The Martyrdom of Polycarp, from which I've gotten this story, adds:

When he spoke these things, and many others like them, he was filled with confidence and joy. His face was so full of grace that not only did it seem like he wasn't troubled by anything said to him, but the proconsul was astonished.

The proconsul really couldn't take any more, and he turned Polycarp over to the stadium crowd, which Polycarp had insulted minutes earlier. He had called the people atheists and told the proconsul that they weren't worthy to hear the doctrines of Christianity. The crowd, in a fevered rage, brought enough wood to build a bonfire, and Polycarp was burned alive at the stake.

That, my friends, is early Christianity.

Pencil drawing of AntiochAncient Antioch

Did you think early Christianity was boring?

Were you thinking of liturgies, boys choirs, and old men in robes and mitres?

Far from it!

Who are the early church fathers?

I've made pages on most of the 2nd century Christian writers. The dates given are the dates of the writing(s) they left us.

The texts of all the writings of these men can be obtained online for free from Christian Ethereal Library. Or you can purchase paper versions from my online bookstore, powered by Amazon.

I have created a timeline of early church history. It's a nice overview, but to really get a feel for early Christianity I recommend starting with this debate between an early Christian and a Roman.

You really have to read it to pick up all the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the way the early Christians would address persecution and slander and the way we do.

There is a lot of other information in addition:

The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying one house, carefully preserves it. She believes these things … and she proclaims them, teaches them, and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (Against Heresies, I:10:2)

Some Other Early Christianity Links

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Early Church History Newsletter

You will be notified of new articles, and I send teachings based on the pre-Nicene fathers intermittently.

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