The Church and the Empire

Key Points During this Time

  • Popular opinion responded negatively to Christian aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and Christians’ unwillingness to worship pagan gods. Imperial authorities were bothered by the apparent obstinacy of Christian subjects unwilling to show political loyalty by worshipping the emperor and the gods of Rome.
  • Roman persecution of the church prior to the mid-3rd century was sporadic and localized, not systematic.
  • Christian apologists of the 2nd century responded to both popular and philosophical accusations against Christianity, employing the philosophy and rhetoric of the day in order to rebut accusations and promote Christian belief and practice.
  • The logos Christology of the 2nd-century apologists supplied Christian intellectuals with a way to address non-Christian concerns about Christian teaching, as well as providing the foundation for later Trinitarian speculation.
  • The surviving literature of 2nd-century martyrdom supplied stories and themes that permanently shaped the self-understanding of the Christian church.
  • A developing theology of martyrdom was expressed through several characteristic motifs, many of which helped connect the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ.


Although persecution of Christians in the second century was sporadic and localized, the threat and occasional reality of its occurrence contributed greatly to the formation of early Christian identity. Popular opinion responded negatively to Christians for a number of reasons, including their aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and especially their refusal to honor the gods of Rome and the surrounding culture. Many non-Christian intellectuals found Christian belief to be ridiculous and criticized the social composition of the church. Imperial authorities were bothered by Christian stubbornness in refusing to demonstrate their allegiance to Rome by the usual means, i.e. worshiping the genius of the emperor and the gods of Rome. The legal basis for Roman persecution expressed Roman sensibilities of justice, but also strict Roman insistence on submission to imperial authority.

Christian apologists sought to respond to the critics of Christianity in a variety of ways, relying mainly on the philosophy of the day as a means by which to explain Christian belief. Some sought to clear up misunderstandings about Christian practice, stressing the virtues by which Christians lived. Others upheld the moral superiority of Christianity in comparison to pagan culture. Justin Martyr laid aside numerous popular charges against Christianity, sought to explain Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and advocated an understanding of Jesus Christ that connected him to the principle of the Logos. This gave non-Christian intellectuals a framework in which to understand the significance of Christ and shaped early Christian belief.

Although martyrdoms were sporadic, their occurrence led to the celebration of their faithful acts, especially in the composition of accounts of their martyrdoms. These circulated throughout the churches, shaping Christian theology and liturgy as the church connected the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ. Martyrs were understood to be faithful witnesses and heroic athletes, and the descriptions of their deeds were tinged with commonly occurring motifs, such as grace, Eucharist, baptism, the Holy Spirit, and eschatological hope. Christian self-understanding came to be pervaded by the ideals conveyed by descriptions of martyrs’ deeds.


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.


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.

Jesus & the Church

Key Points During this Time

  • Christianity developed within the community of Jesus’ earliest disciples on the basis of core Jewish beliefs, as interpreted and exemplified according to Jesus’ teaching, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.
  • The most significant controversy in the very early Christian church concerned the terms by which Gentiles would be accepted into the community.
  • With the church’s expansion from Jerusalem, traditions about the work of particular apostles became associated with specific locales by the end of the first century, most notably: James in Jerusalem; Peter and Paul in Rome; John in Ephesus; and Thomas in Syria.
  • Early Christianity was not uniform, yet a common faith in Jesus and a common core of apostolic traditions helped shape a specifically Christian set of doctrinal commitments, worship practices, and ethical expectations.
The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul

Jesus’ first-century ministry of healing and teaching not only attracted large crowds, but he also gathered a number of disciples with whom he worked closely. Many acclaimed him as the Messiah, the Lord’s “anointed” who would deliver God’s people, Israel. After the Romans put Jesus to death as a political threat, reports of his resurrection led his disciples to become convinced that God had vindicated him as Messiah (Christ), and the events of Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection became the pillars of Christian faith. Early Christian beliefs, worship, and ethical practices owed much to the traditions of Judaism, to which were added distinctive Christian convictions about the role of Jesus Christ as the world’s savior.

The early church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of Jewish believers, though they were a diverse lot; some were Judaean, but many were Hellenistic Jews from the Diaspora. They looked to Peter and then James, the brother of Jesus, for leadership. Once persecution at the hands of the Jewish establishment broke out against Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, the Hellenists in particular were scattered, taking the message of Jesus’ gospel (or euangelion, meaning “good news”) into the synagogues of many different cities of the Roman world. Soon, even large numbers of Gentiles were being attracted by the Christian message and lifestyle, causing the most significant controversy for the church of that era: the terms by which Gentiles should be received into the church. The Apostle Paul effectively championed a liberal position on the issue, with the result that Gentile Christians were in the majority by the end of the first century.

Fairly strong evidence supports the tradition that both Paul and Peter ended up in Rome and were martyred there under the emperor Nero. Peter probably played a significant leading role in the church at Rome, though the claims that Peter was the “pope” are anachronistic. Other locations came to be associated with the work of specific apostles, namely John in Ephesus and Thomas in Syria. The church at Ephesus may have been the most influential church of the mid- to late-first century, very likely the point of origin of some or all of the Johaninne literature of the New Testament. Strong traditions also place Jesus’ mother Mary in Ephesus, under the care of John. East of Antioch, the gospel spread among communities of Syriac-speaking people, whose traditions preserved certain Semitic features and a literature with strong ties to the name of the Apostle Thomas.

First-century Christian communities were diverse. Yet they enjoyed a significant measure of unity, due to a common faith in Jesus, a shared heritage in Judaism, a core of apostolic teaching, and habits of frequent travel and communication between churches. Out of this matrix arose characteristics that would come to distinguish churches far and wide, such as a shared commitment to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in light of Christ, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday assemblies, and moral emphases.

Roman, Greek, and Jewish Worlds Set the Setting

  • Christianity began in a cultural setting defined by three circles of influence: Roman law and government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.
  • Christian attitudes, practices, and social norms showed the influence of pre-existing cultures, yet were worked out within a distinctively Christian frame of reference
  • Judaism provided the immediate religious context for Christianity

Alexander the Great

The setting in which Christianity began was primarily shaped by three key influences: the political rule of the Roman Empire, the cultural impact of Greek expansion, and the religious legacy of Judaism. These three not only shaped the world in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died; they also provided the setting in which Early Christianity grew and flourished. The Roman Empire defined the political and legal environment of the early church. Christians faced charges in Roman courts and their cases were adjudicated by Roman appointed judges. Latin was the official language of government and was especially in use in the western part of the empire. Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek (Hellenistic) culture spread over much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Greek was the language most commonly used throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Hellenistic standards were the primary influences on education, literature, and philosophy. As Christians developed their own theology, they did so mainly using the categories and terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. Christian practices were deeply shaped by the practices of the broader culture.

Jesus was born a Jew and his earliest followers were Jews. Although the Jewish homeland (Israel) was the scene of a number of revolts against Rome and was eventually taken away from the Jews, the principal elements of the Christian faith found their original significance in expectations shared by many Jews regarding the Messiah. Early Christian worship and leadership were modeled on that of the synagogue, and Christians used the Jewish scriptures, especially the Greek Septuagint. Christian ethics owed a great deal to Jewish principles. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of the church is to be seen in the transformation of a movement centered on a person of Jesus’ humble origins, to become the official religion of the empire and a decisive influence on western civilization and the world.