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EARLY CHRISTIAN HISTORY

AS SEEN BY CONSERVATIVE PROTESTANTS

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Source of information about the early church:

The leaders of the early Christian movement wrote over 80 Christian gospels, hundreds of epistles, and other writings. Conservative Christians generally accept as valid only the material that forms the official canon: (four gospels, 21 epistles, and the books of Acts and Revelation). They view this material, and only this material, as having been inspired by God and thus inerrant. The other Christian writings are considered worthless at best, or heretical, deceptive, and false at worst. This simplifies their the task of determining the history of the early Christian movement.

Conservative Christians generally regard all scripture, as it was originally written, to be useful for guidance and spiritual development. All passages are totally consistent, although many apparently conflicting passages need to be carefully harmonized. All of the text is true. Thus, the Acts (a.k.a. Acts of the Apostles) is without error in its precise description of the events in the early Christian church and the activities of Peter, Paul and other apostles.

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First century CE: Contents of the book of Acts:

The book was written to record the development of two groups within the early Christian community after the execution of Jesus. It includes a description of the activities of Stephen, Philip, Peter and Paul. Acts is an extremely valuable document, because it gives a glimpse into early Christian history.

bulletThe Jewish Christian movement, also known as "The Way," was headed by James, the brother of Jesus. The disciples John and Peter were very influential in the group. It initially included the eleven surviving disciples and many of Jesus' other followers. This group was centered in Jerusalem and viewed itself as a reform movement within Judaism. They required their members to follow Jewish dietary laws, arrange for ritual killing of animals as sacrifices in the temple and to have their male children circumcised.

In Acts, 1 to 12, "Luke" describes a number of events covering the time interval from the execution of Jesus (circa 30 CE) to the death of Herod (44 CE):
bulletThe selection of by lot Matthias to replace Judas and restore the total number of disciples to twelve.
bulletThe arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is regarded by most as the founding of the Christian church.
bulletPeter's impassioned sermon.
bulletRegular meetings of the 12 apostles in the Temple court at Jerusalem, and the forming of a tightly knit, mutually supportive community of Jewish Christians.
bulletA number of miraculous healings of the sick from Jerusalem and surrounding towns.
bulletInterrogation of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.
bulletThe curse of Ananias and Sapphira and their subsequent death through Peter's use of sorcery.
bulletThe arrest, jailing, and sentencing of apostles by the Sanhedrin.
bulletThe selection of 7 assistants to oversee administrative matters.
bulletThe arrest, trial and execution by stoning of Stephen.
bulletThe systematic persecution of the church by Saul.
bulletThe spreading of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, into the rest of Judea and Samaria.
bulletThe baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip.
bulletAn overwhelming religious conversion experienced by Saul, a main Jewish persecutor of the Jewish Christians, on the road to Damascus.
bulletBy this point, the gospel has been preached only to:
bulletJews,
bulletProselytes (converts to Judaism),
bulletGod fearers (persons who attended Jewish services but who had not been circumcised), and
bulletSamaritans (quasi-Jews who lived north of Judea, observed the Law of Moses, but which were isolated from and despised by the regular Jews.)

Peter and Cornelius (a Gentile) meet and a second Pentecost experience occurs. This time, Gentiles are also filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter realizes that God's intent is that the gospel is to be spread to both Jew and Gentile alike. Peter convinced at least some of the Jewish Christians to accept this new development.

bulletSome Jewish Christians who were scattered as a result of Stephen's persecution traveled to Antioch, Cyprus, and Phoenicia. At first, they preached only to Jews. Later, some spread the gospel to some Greeks at Antioch, and a number were converted.
bulletJames, one of the inner circle of apostles, and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem is executed.
bulletPeter is thrown in prison, but escapes with the help of an angel.
bulletHerod dies in 44 CE.
bulletActs is essentially silent about the activities of the Jewish Christians after this time.

bulletThe Gentile Christians were led by Paul who went on three missionary journeys, founded many churches, and preached the gospel throughout much of  the Roman Empire. "Luke" describes Paul's conversion to Christianity in Acts 9. Throughout his career, Paul experiences continual of conflict with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Paul was spreading the gospel to Gentiles, but without requiring that they be circumcised or follow the dietary and behavioral rules of the Mosaic law. "Luke" covers Paul's missionary activities in Acts 13 to 28 over the time period circa 35 to 63 CE. and describes:
bulletSaul (now called Paul) and Barbabas start the first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus, and to Pisidia and Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey).
bulletPaul, Timothy and Silas start the second missionary journey throughout parts of present-day Turkey and Greece, including Athens and Corinth.
bulletPaul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem (circa 46 CE) for a heated discussion with Jewish Christians, led by James. They discussed whether male Gentile converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised. At the insistence of Paul, they reluctantly decided that Gentiles need not be circumcised, but they had to obey certain dietary laws. 
bulletPaul returns to Antioch, and starts the third missionary journey. He probably founded the 7 churches mentioned in Revelation 1:11 during this trip. He also visited Ephesus and other centers in what is now Turkey and Greece.
bulletFriction is experienced with the Jewish Christians, who believe that Paul is teaching Christians of Jewish origin to abandon the Mosaic law and circumcision.
bulletPaul returns to Jerusalem and is almost killed by a mob. He is arrested by the Roman garrison. He spends two years in custody in Caesarea, and is finally shipped to Rome. He survives a ship wreck.
bulletPaul is put under house arrest, with a soldier to guard him.
bulletThe book ends with Paul still under arrest, and actively preaching the gospel.

Acts appears to refer to Gnostic Christians in Acts 8:9-24. One of the Gnostic leaders, Simon Magus, may have been the Simon in that passage. Simon believed in Jesus and was baptized with a group of other believers. But none had received the Holy Spirit until Peter and John placed their hands on the new converts. Simon asked for the laying on of the apostles' hands and even offered money. Peter refused, because he judged that Simon's heart was not right with God. This passage might have been a disguised criticism of the Gnostic Christians.

Many, if not most of the Jewish Christians died in the year 70 CE when the Roman Army invaded and destroyed Jerusalem. 6 Eusebius, a fourth century church historian, reported that some Jewish Christians had escaped across the Jordan to Pella.

There were rumors that the original disciples met and divided the known world among them. Then each contributed a phrase or two to create the Apostle's Creed. Then they went out into the mission field throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Thomas is alleged to have made it all the way to India where he founded a church.  Many of the Eastern Orthodox churches teach that they were founded by one of the original Apostles. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Peter was the first pope. No substantial historical evidence exists to support these statements. In fact, essentially nothing is known about Christian missionary work and expansion during the second half of the first century, except the events recorded in Acts.

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References:

  1. Rackman, "The Acts of the Apostles," Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, (1964), Page xix.
  2. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament Volume.", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
  3. H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
  4. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL (1990)
  5. W. Baird, "The Acts of the Apostles", essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991), Pages to 729 to 767.
  6. F.A. Norwood, "The early history of the church", essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991), Pages 1045 to 1053.

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Copyright © 2001 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-DEC-31
Latest update: 2004-OCT-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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