EARLY CHRISTIAN HISTORY
AS SEEN BY CONSERVATIVE PROTESTANTS
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
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.
||The 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
the death of Herod (44 CE):
||The selection of by lot Matthias to replace Judas and restore the total number of disciples
||The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This is regarded by
most as the founding of the Christian church.|
||Peter's impassioned sermon.|
||Regular meetings of the 12 apostles in the Temple court at Jerusalem, and the forming of
a tightly knit, mutually supportive community of Jewish Christians.|
||A number of miraculous healings of the sick from Jerusalem and surrounding towns.|
||Interrogation of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish
||The curse of Ananias and Sapphira and their subsequent death
through Peter's use of sorcery.|
||The arrest, jailing, and sentencing of apostles by the Sanhedrin.|
||The selection of 7 assistants to oversee administrative matters.|
||The arrest, trial and execution by stoning of Stephen.|
||The systematic persecution of the church by Saul.|
||The spreading of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, into the rest of Judea and Samaria.|
||The baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip.|
||An overwhelming religious conversion experienced by Saul, a main Jewish persecutor of the Jewish Christians, on the road to Damascus.|
||By this point, the gospel has been preached only to:|
||Proselytes (converts to Judaism),
||God fearers (persons who attended Jewish services but who had
not been circumcised), and
||Samaritans (quasi-Jews who lived north of Judea, observed the
Law of Moses, but which were isolated from and despised by the
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.
||Some 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.|
||James, one of the inner circle of apostles, and leader of the Jewish Christians
at Jerusalem is
||Peter is thrown in prison, but escapes with the help of an angel.|
||Herod dies in 44 CE.|
||Acts is essentially silent about the activities of the Jewish
Christians after this time. |
||The 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
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:
||Saul (now called Paul) and Barbabas start the first missionary journey to the island of
Cyprus, and to Pisidia and Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey).
||Paul, Timothy and Silas start the second missionary journey throughout parts of
present-day Turkey and Greece, including Athens and Corinth.
||Paul 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.
||Paul 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.
||Friction is experienced with the Jewish Christians, who believe that Paul is teaching
Christians of Jewish origin to abandon the Mosaic law and circumcision.
||Paul 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.
||Paul is put under house arrest, with a soldier to guard him.
||The 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
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
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.
Rackman, "The Acts of the Apostles," Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, (1964),
J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament
Volume.", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL
W. Baird, "The Acts of the Apostles", essay in C.M.
Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN
(1991), Pages to 729 to 767.
F.A. Norwood, "The early history of the church", essay in C.M.
Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN
(1991), Pages 1045 to 1053.
Copyright © 2001 to 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2001-DEC-31
Latest update: 2004-OCT-23
Author: B.A. Robinson