The Subapostolic Age

Key Points During this Time

  • “Jewish Christianity” became less prominent during the subapostolic era due to mutual rejection of each other by many Gentile and Jewish believers, though distinctive strands of Jewish Christianity persisted briefly in such groups as the Ebionites, Nazoraeans, and Elkesaites.
  • The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” consist of a loose corpus of texts in different genres composed in the subapostolic era, addressing various issues of identity, moral practice, and church life.
  • Apocryphal literature and other forms of early Christian literature attest to the range of popular piety and doctrinal convictions of early Christian communities.
  • Debate exists as to whether the subapostolic literatures are best understood as testifying to the decay in the vitality of apostolic faith or simply as distinct adaptations to changing circumstance.

Summary

The deaths of key Jewish Christian leaders and the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in Palestine brought a new situation for the church in the last part of the first century. The proportion of Gentile Christian believers grew, as Jewish synagogues took steps to exclude Christians and the more extreme elements within each group polarized to the extent that common ground was difficult to find. By the middle of the second century, even the church in Palestine was largely Gentile. However, three strands of Jewish Christianity survived for at least a few generations, each characterized by distinctive features. The Ebionites, whose name was probably based on the Hebrew expression for “the poor,” revered Jesus as a prophet and Messiah, but denied the virgin birth. They observed ascetic practices and were concerned with purity issues. They expected Gentile believers to follow the Law of Moses. The Nazoraeans followed the Law of Moses but did not expect Gentile believers to do so. The Elkesaites followed the Gnostic revelations of the prophet Elkesai. Within orthodox Gentile churches, the influence of Jewish Christianity may also be seen in the use of texts heavily influenced by Jewish Christianity, including the Didache, the Pseudo-Clementines, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Oracles.

Out of the subapostolic period of the late first and early second centuries a number of texts collectively known as the Apostolic Fathers survive, supplying unique insight into early Christian thought and practice after the passing of the apostles. The Didache is a manual of church life. Dating from about the end of the first century, probably from Syria, this text focuses mainly on moral instruction for new converts and instruction regarding the conduct of worship practices and church order. Epistle of Barnabas dates from the first half of the second century and is primarily concerned with Christian identity. Barnabas argues that Christians are the legitimate heirs to the Old Testament covenant, particularly due to their figural interpretation of it, in contrast to the Jewish literal interpretation. 1 Clement was written in the 90s by one of the presbyters of the church in Rome, in response to leadership conflict in Corinth. The letter emphasizes the importance of stability and respect for appointed authority and includes rich imagery and theological reflection. 2 Clement is not actually by Clement, but is a homily of moral exhortation composed by an unknown author in the second century.

Shepherd of Hermas is a composite apocalyptic text from second-century Rome. It supplies helpful information about the organization and social location of the Roman church, but focuses on the issue of how to address post-baptismal sin. Ignatius was a bishop of Syrian Antioch who wrote a series of letters to different churches in the early second century, while en route to Rome to face trial and probable martyrdom. The letters depict a leader eager to offer testimony to his faith in the face of suffering and death, who is also concerned with stressing the importance of church unity in response to the threats of divergent beliefs. He is the first writer to attest to a three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons in each congregation. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians in response to Ignatius; the letter is saturated with New Testament language. Papias of Hierapolis wrote five books of Explanations, commenting on the oracles of Jesus. Only fragments survive, offering a tantalizing glimpse into early traditions regarding the composition of the Gospels.

The second and third generations of Christianity also saw the production of New Testament Apocrypha—texts purporting to be from the time of the apostles, yet manifestly from different times and contexts. These include texts of various genres—Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, for which a few examples illustrate the breadth of the literature. The Gospel of Thomas is an early collection of Jesus’ sayings, displaying an Encratite or Gnostic bent. The Gospel of Peter is a passion narrative with Docetic leanings. The Protoevangelium of James expands the narrative of Jesus’ birth, focusing on traditions regarding the Holy Family, especially Mary. Apocryphal Acts focus on the careers of the apostles, preserving early traditions about their ministries and deaths and often displaying ascetic tendencies. The anti-Gnostic 3 Corinthians was normally included with the Acts of Paul. In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus is depicted as offering a graphic description of the torments of the wicked in the afterlife. These texts provide insight into the popular piety of the second and third centuries, as well as clarifying the significant diversity that existed among Jesus’ followers.

Some debate exists as to the significance and use of the subapostolic literature. For some, they show the continuing development of Christian belief and practice along a consistent trajectory from the New Testament period. For others, they betray a decline in vitality and imagination, as church leaders focus more on structures, moralism, and legalism. In either case, they attest to the ongoing devotion of committed followers of Jesus, responding to changing circumstances and new situations.

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