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Christian History

The first three centuries of Christianity,
as seen by religious liberals and historians

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First century CE:

During the first six decades of the first century CE, Judaism was composed of about two dozen competing factions: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, followers of Yeshua of Nazareth (Iesous in Greek, Iesus in Latin, Jesus in English), followers of other charismatic leaders, etc. All followed common Jewish practices, such as observing dietary restrictions, worshiping at the Jerusalem temple, sacrificing animals, observing weekly sabbaths, etc.

Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ) conducted a short ministry (one year, in the Galillee according to the synoptic gospels; perhaps three years, mainly in Judea according to the Gospel of John). His teachings closely matched those of Beit Hillel (the House of Hillel). Hillel was a great Jewish rabbi who lived in the second half of the 1st century BCE one or two generations before Yeshua's birth.

Yeshua was charged with what would be called "aggravated assault" under today's law, for his attack on merchants in the Temple. This was apparently considered treason or insurrection by the occupying Roman forces. (Crucifixion, when used on a non-slave such as Jesus, was restricted to these two crimes.) He was executed by a detail of Roman soldiers, perhaps during the springtime, sometime in the very late 20's or early 30's CE. Nodoby seems to have recorded the year in a way that survived to the present time. Most historians date the event in April of either the year 30 or 33.  According to the Gospels, his disciples initially returned to their homeland of Galilee immediately following their leader's death.

Four decades later, in 70 CE the Roman Army attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the central focus of Jewish life: the temple. This was an absolutely devastating blow at the time; Jewish life was totally disrupted. Jews were no longer able to worship at the Temple. Out of this disaster emerged two main movements: rabbinical Judaism centered in local synagogues, and the Christian movement.

There was great diversity within the Christian movement during the first few decades after Jesus' execution. Some of Jesus' followers (and those who never met Jesus but who were inspired by his teachings) settled in Jerusalem. But others spread across the known world, teaching very different messages. "Even in the same geographical area and sometimes in the same cities, different Christian teachers taught quite different gospels and had quite different views of who Jesus was and what he did." 1  

During the latter part of the first century CE, the three largest groups within the primitive Christian movement were:

  1. Jewish Christian movement:  Jesus disciples and other followers who fled to the Galilee after Jesus' execution appear to have regrouped in Jerusalem under the leadership of James, one of Jesus' brothers. The group viewed themselves as a reform movement within Judaism. They organized a synagogue, worshiped and brought animals for ritual sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple. They observed the Jewish holy days, practiced circumcision of their male children, strictly followed Kosher dietary laws, and practiced the teachings of Jesus as they interpreted them to be. They are frequently referred to today as the Jewish Christians. (These should not be confused with followers of modern-day Messianic Judaism who follow an evangelical Christian belief system) 2

    The Jewish Christians under James included many members who had had close relationship with Jesus. They believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. They viewed Jesus as a great prophet and rabbi, but not as a deity. There are many references in the New Testament to conflicts between the followers of Paul and the Jewish Christians. 8

    Jewish Christians were killed, enslaved, or scattered during the Roman attack on Jerusalem in 70 CE.

    Some theologians note that members of the Jewish Christian movement had a close and lengthy association with Jesus, whereas Paul never met Jesus. In cases of conflict between the teachings of Paul and the beliefs of James' group, the latter might more accurately reflect Jesus' original teachings. 8
  2. Pauline Christianity: Saul, a Jew from Tarsus, originally prosecuted the Jewish Christians on behalf of the priests at the Jerusalem Temple . He experienced a powerful religious conversion, after which, he departed for places unknown for three years. Later, having changed his name to Paul, he became the single most active Christian missionary, from about 36 CE until his execution by the Romans in the mid-60's. He created a new Christian movement, containing elements from many forms of Paganism: Greek, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, etc. He included the concept of Jesus as "The Word", as a god-man -- the savior of humanity, who was executed, resurrected and ascended into heaven. These additions were absolutely required if his version of Christianity was to succeed in the Roman Empire in competition of many Pagan and Mystery Religions. Many of the events which the Bible describes as happening to Jesus appear to have been copied from the stories of various God-men from Egypt to India, in particular the life of Krishna, the God-man and second member of the Hindu trinity. Paul abandoned most of the Laws of Moses and rejected many of the Jewish behavioral rules that Jesus and his disciples had followed during his ministry. Paul taught that God had unilaterally abrogated his covenants with the Jews and transferred them to his own Christian groups. 

    Paul went on a series of missionary journeys around the eastern Mediterranean and attracted many Gentiles (non-Jews) to his movement. He was assisted by many co-workers, both male and female. Paul organized churches in many of the areas' urban centers, in competition with Greek Paganism, Mithraism, Mystery Religions, Judaism, many competing Christian movements, and other religions. His Epistles record how he and his movement were in continual theological conflict with the Jewish Christian movement centered in Jerusalem, and with Gnostic Christians. Paul ran afoul of the Roman Empire, was arrested, and was transported to Rome where he was held under house arrest. He was executed there about 65 CE. Paul's churches survived his death and flourished. Some of his letters to various of his church groups were later accepted into the canon of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament).

    Christian groups typically met in the homes of individual believers, much like home churches and cell churches do today. Leaders were both men and women. There was no central authority, no standard style of organization at the local level, no dedicated church buildings or cathedrals. The Greek words episkopos (bishop, overseer), presbuteros (elder, presbyter) and poimen (pastor, shepherd) were originally synonymous terms which referred to the leader of a group of believers. Ordination of priests and consecration of bishops was to come later in the history of Christianity. 3
  3. Gnostic Christianity: Gnosticism is a philosophical and religious movement with roots in pre-Christian times. Gnostics combined elements taken from Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek and Syrian pagan religions, from astrology, and from Judaism and Christianity. "Among Gnostic Christians there were communities under the name of John and Thomas and many other lesser and later disciples." 6 They claimed to have secret knowledge about God, humanity, and the rest of the universe of which the general population was unaware. They were/are noted for their:
    bullet Novel interpretations of the Bible, the world and the rest of the universe.
    bullet Belief that the Jehovah of the Hebrew Scripture (Old Testament) was a defective, inferior Creator-God, also known as the Demiurge. He was viewed as fundamentally evil, jealous, rigid, lacking in compassion and prone to committing genocide.
    bullet Tolerance of different religious beliefs within and outside of Gnosticism.
    bullet Lack of discrimination against women.

Some Gnostics formed separate congregations. Others joined existing Pauline Christian groups. Still others were solitary practitioners.

In addition to the above three main groups, there were many smaller religious communities, which have been referred to as Matthean Christianity, Johannine Christianity, etc. "Among Jews especially in the East there were Christian communities and literature under the name of Peter and James that stood in opposition to Paul and John." 6 Together produced many dozens of gospels and hundreds of Epistles (letters). "Many of these other Gospels outside the New Testament had very different views of Jesus, produced in communities that held widely different understandings of Jesus." 7

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Second and third centuries CE:

The three groups within the primitive Christian movement survived into the early second century. One died out and the other two expanded:

  1. The Jewish Christian movement: The failure of the Bar Kochba revolt (132 - 135 CE) was devastating for the Jewish people, including the Jewish Christians. Any Jews who remained in Palestine in 135 CE were killed, enslaved or permanently driven from the land. The Jewish Christian movement had a brief resurgence during the 2nd century CE, and then disappeared from the pages of history.
  2. Pauline Christianity continued to spread across the known world. It started to develop a formal theology, a set of doctrines, and an unofficial canon of writings which were later to become the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). From the enormous supply of Christian gospels and epistles (letters) they chose a few that more-or-less matched the theology of the developing church. Admittance of the Gospel of John into the official canon had to overcome a great deal of resistance; many in the church felt that it had too much Gnostic content. The canon accepted:
    bullet Four gospels, written by unknown authors, but attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
    bullet Acts of the Apostles, apparently written by the same author as who wrote Luke.
    bullet Thirteen Pauline Epistles -- letters which claim that they were written by Paul. Religious liberals accept that seven were written by Paul, one may have been written by him, and 5 were by unknown authors -- mostly from the second century many decades after Paul's death.
    bullet Eight general Epistles -- James, John, Peter, Hebrews and Jude, -- all by anonymous authors with the possible exception of Hebrews which may have written by Priscilla.
    bullet Revelation, a book about apocalyptic events at the end of the world, which was expected in the second century CE.
  3. Gnostic Christianity consisted of many separate groups with no appreciable central organization. Each group was under the leadership of a Gnostic teacher like Marcion, Valentinus, and Carpocrates. These groups shared some core beliefs, but otherwise differed greatly from each other. The Gnostic movement initially expanded, and at one point was the primary form of Christianity in the eastern Mediterranean. However, due to programs of persecution and extermination by Pauline Christians, it later went into a steep decline, and ceased being a significant force by the 6th century.

After the deaths of the Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers were looked upon for guidance. They included a number of teachers and bishops: e.g. Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Polycarp, Tertullian. A hierarchical organizational structure called the "monarchial episcopate" then developed in which the individual congregational leaders recognized the authority of their area bishop in matters of doctrine and faith. There was no person or group who could speak for the church as a whole. It was only in 325 CE that bishops from throughout the Christian movement would be able to meet at the Council of Nicea and attempt to start resolving differences in Christian beliefs.

Related menu on this web site:

bullet Menu: Very early church history as seen by various groups (Roman Catholic, Protestants)

References used:

  1. Gregory J. Riley, "One Jesus, many Christs," Harper SanFrancisco, (1997), Page 4. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  2. Messianic Judaism, a new religious movement, is sometimes referred to as Jewish Christianity. Their theological beliefs match those of modern-day Evangelical Christianity, and bear little resemblance to the Jewish Christianity of the 1st century CE. Both groups are often referred to by the same name.
  3. G.A. Mather & L.A. Nichols, "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult," Zondervan, (1993), Pages 59 to 72.
  4. David Levinson, "Religion: A cross cultural dictionary," Oxford University Press, (1996). Topics: Eastern Orthodoxy & Roman Catholicism.
  5. "Constantine, the first Christian emperor," Antiquity Online, at:
  6. Gregory J. Riley, "The River of God," HarperSanFrancisco, (2001). Page 8. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  7. Ibid, Page 7.
  8. Barrie Wilson, "How Jesus became Christian," St. Martin's Press, (2008). Read reviews or order this book

Useful books on the early Christian movement:

bullet Bart D. Ehrman, "Lost Christianities: The battle for Scripture and the faiths we never knew," Oxford University Press, (2003) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
bullet Charles Freeman, "A new history of early Christianity," Yale University Press, (2009).  Read reviews or order this book
bullet Gregory J. Riley, "One Jesus, many Christs," Harper SanFrancisco, (1997), Page 4. Read reviews or order this book
bullet Barrie Wilson, "How Jesus became Christian," St. Martin's Press, (2008) Read reviews or order this book

Copyright 2000 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-JUL-30
Latest update: 2009-NOV-06
Author: B.A. Robinson

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