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This early church history timeline, in my opinion, addresses issues that ought to be of concern to all Christians.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is another very important date because it's a certain one.
Historians are guessing here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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).
"Homoousios," or same substance, would eventually be the main issue at the Council of Nicea in 325, a major early church controversy.
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.
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.
Tertullian was bothered by a lack of separation from the world in some Christians, so he wrote tracts on numerous subjects. He wrote on avoiding the Roman games, not wearing a crown, and other issues. He also wrote against the Roman religion, against various gnostics, and against heretics in general. His Apology is a terrific description of the early church as it entered the 3rd century.
His Against Praxeas is the most thorough description of the Trinity in the early Christian writings, and he's the first to use the term Trinity.
Tertullian was extremely caustic and sarcastic. He pulled no punches, and he didn't try to be nice. It makes his writings very interesting, but I'm not sure how effective they were. He got so frustrated with what he considered a lack of holiness that he joined the Montanist sect, which emphasized prophecy and had some very strict rules. Eventually he repented and returned to the catholic churches. (Catholic, in this context, just means the united early churches started by the apostles, not the Roman Catholic Church, which did not yet exist.)
The early church grew larger and more organized during this period. During times of peace, they brought in a large number of members, not all of whom were fully active or committed, like the smaller, 2nd century churches were. Thus, when periods of persecution arose, a lot of Christians fell away, either sacrificing to the Roman gods or purchasing a certificate saying that they had.
Later, when the persecution ended, many of them asked to be readmitted to the church. This caused a lot of strife, and a new set of churches, believing all the same things as the catholics, arose under a Roman teacher named Novatian.
The Novatianist churches refused to admit those that had lapsed during persecution. After 325, when all persecution stopped, Novatianist churches slowly melded back into the catholic churches.
An emperor named Diocletian ordered an empire-wide persecution of the early church in 303. In 305, he retired, the only Roman emperor ever to do so, and Galerius continued his policy of persecution for 6 more years. There were up to 4 emperors during this time, and the emperors in the west didn't always carry out the policy of persecution, but Galerius did in the east.
In 311, Galerius issued the Edict of Toleration, and the persecution ended.
In 312, one of the emperors, Constantine the Great, on his way to fight his co-emperor Maxentius, had a vision of a cross with the words, "In this sign conquer," written under it. He won the battle and attributed his victory to the Christian God. Becoming a supporter of the early church, in 313, he and his co-emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, restoring Christianity to favor.
Constantine and Licinius then rebuilt the destroyed church buildings of the early church and restored all possessions confiscated during the persecution.
Constantine was received with great joy by the early churches, which were grateful that he had not only ended persecution but granted them favor. Roman citizens flocked into the churches, even though Constantine remained the head of the Roman pagan religion as well.
In 318 an elder by the name of Arius came up with a slightly different explanation of Jesus' divinity and his relationship with God the Father. When he was corrected he refused to back down, so he was excommunicated by his church in Alexandria, Egypt in 321.
This did no good. A Middle Eastern bishop by the name of Eusebius, from Nicomedia, took Arius in and promoted his doctrines. Arius began writing jingles and teaching them to children, tradesman, and sailors. His doctrines began to spread, threatening to cause a split in the church.
Constantine was involved in a civil war with Licinius at the time. In 324 he was victorius, uniting the empire. He was terrified, however, that the Arian controversy would split not only the church but his newly united empire, so he called all the bishops of the early churches to Nicea, in modern Turkey, to resolve the dispute.
Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea, a different Eusebius than the one from Nicomedia, is perhaps the most important book in Christian history. It quotes extensively from earlier writings, preserving some and helping us identify others that we would otherwise know nothing about. It is to this day the best overview of the first three centuries of Christianity.
Almost as important as the council itself is the fact that Constantine sat as a moderator. This intimate interaction between emperor and early churches would carry on into the middle ages without cessation.
The Council of Nicea issued an official creed, based on the early church's rule of faith. It also directly condemned the tentes of Arianism, though the Arian controversy would not be fully resolved until the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Another important issue at the Council of Nicea was the official approval of "patriarchs." These were the bishops of Alexandria, Rome, and Antioch, who were given authority over very large provinces. This would lead eventually to the bishop of Rome becoming pope of the Roman Catholic Church in the west. The other patriarchs—several have been added since—are still leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is basically the Catholic Church of the east.
Unfortunately, the Council of Nicea did almost nothing to resolve the Arian controversy. Arius was banished from the empire, but he eventually appealed to Constantine. Constantine ordered the church in Alexandria to begin reconciling with him, but when Arius went to Alexandria he died under unknown, and thus suspicious, circumstances.
Histories of Christianity written in the 5th century (400 to 499) let us know that murdering Arius would not have been outside what early churches would do in the 4th century. The difference between Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (323) and later histories is marked. Violence, political intrigue, warfare, deceit, and murder happened regularly after the emperors became involved in Christianity.
The problem was that now almost everyone was a "Christian," but it was still the few that really wanted to follow Christ. Those that did want to follow Christ often formed communities of committed disciples, the first monks. Others simply left the cities to live alone in the desert. These were the first Christian hermits, and there are many legends of miraculous powers among the hermits. (Those are probably just legends.)
During the 4th century and throughout the Middle Ages there was great political power in being a bishop. Thus, it was common for ambitious and unholy men to push their way into that position, or even to pay some important government official or bishop for the position. This led to great corruption in the church. In fact, it would be fair to say the Church fell during this period, and the holy testimony of the pre-Nicene churches has never been known since.
During this entire time there continued to be "Nicene" and "Arian" bishops, depending on whether they supported Arius or the Council of Nicea. Most of the political intrigue and even violence during the 4th century was over this issue.
A man named Athanasius took up the cause of the Nicene doctrine after the Council of Nicea. He was banished from the eastern empire by the emperor for his efforts no less than 5 times. He stuck it out, however, and he can be credited with the triumph of the Nicene doctrine. He can also be credited with changing it over the decades after Nicea. From a Nicene doctrine teaching that there was one God, the Father, with a divine Son of the same essence, he helped create a Triune God consisting of three co-equal persons. While the Orthodox churches of the east continues to believe in a Trinity much like that taught in Nicea, most western Christians, Catholic or Protestant, have never even heard the Nicene doctrine, and they have no idea that the Council of Nicea taught something different than they believe.
All of this was finally put to rest at the Council of Constantinople in 381. That Council declared all general church councils to be authoritative, requiring all Christians to agree with whatever such a council decided. That decision stuck, and the Arian controversy was put to rest (except that barbarian Germanic tribes continued to be Arian until the 6th century when they started fully submitting to the pope).
Again, this is a nice overview, but if you want the "feel" of early Christianity, there's nothing like the Octavius debate. Or use the link below to return to the early Christianity page.
My newest book, Rome's Audacious Claim, was released December 1. See synopsis and reviews on Amazon.