In the beginning nothing was written down because the life of Jesus was viewed as an apocalyptic event by his followers. The travels of Paul began the real history when he wrote to the congregations he had established throughout the near east. Paul's life became the center of the debate between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians about the intentions of Jesus.
For this post, as the introduction to Christianity in the time of the empire, I created a reference frame for further discussions. That reference frame is in the form of a chronology -- a set of milestones in early Christian history related to the Roman emperor in power at the time of the event. This timeline is not exhaustive because there is no way to provide a complete picture in such a small space. It is intended only to provide a sense of the forces at work during the time when the Christian church was becoming established.
Before we discuss the timeline, however, I think it’s important to define my position on the subject matter to be presented here. The reader must understand that I am approaching this subject strictly from a historian’s standpoint, separated from my own religious beliefs. All facts included in this and future discussions are true in my judgment, based on the sources I have consulted. For example, I believe Paul’s travels and his letters are factual historical events. But there are difficulties when we approach the early Christian writers, such as Eusebius, because the zeal they express for their beliefs blurs the history and forces us to apply a filter. What you will read are the facts that made it through the filter.
|Caligula (37-41)||37-40||Paul In Damascus|
|Nero (54-69)||60?||Gospel Mark written|
|65||Peter and Paul martyred|
|Vespasian (69-79)||70||Jewish Revolt|
|70?||Gospel Matthew/Luke written|
|Domitian (81-96)||Pope Clement(88-97) writes to Corinth|
|Trajan (98-117)||95?||Gospel of John written|
|108||Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch martyred|
|Hadrian (117-138)||132||Jewish Revolt, Jerusalem destroyed|
|Antonius Pius (138-161)||150||Bishopic system in place|
|Marcus Aurelius (161-180)||165||Justin Martyr (100-165)|
|177||Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (140-202?)|
|Septimius Severus dies||211||Break in Persecutions|
|Decius (249-251)||250||Renewed persecutions|
|250||Origen (185-253) attack on pagan thought|
|Valerian (253-260)||258||Massacre of priests and deacons|
|Diocletian (284-305)||303||Diocletian persecution|
|Constantine (306-337)||325||First Council of Nicea|
|326||First St. Peter's basilica consecrated|
|Eusebius (260-341) History of the church|
|Julian (360-363)||360||Re-institute Pagan gods|
|Valentinian (364-375)||364||Council of Laodicea (rest on the sabbath)|
|Theodosius (379-395)||380||Theodosius I baptized|
|382||Catholic council of Rome sets Biblical canon|
|385||Pricillian executed as a heretic|
|391||Outlaws pagan rituals|
|Honorius (393-423)||420||Jerome (340-420) and the vulgate|
|Valentinian III (424-455)||430||Augustine (354-430)|
|451||Pope Leo (440-461) negotiated with|
The above chronology highlights the time sequence of six major threads that stretch through the period:
1. Christians struggle to define themselves
2. Christian apologists and their efforts to defend what they had created
3. Gentile Christian attacks on Jewish Christians during their period of rivalry.
4. Christian attacks on paganism, directed against the Greeks as rivals
5. The creation of Catholic dogma and attacks against heretics
6. Persecutions by the Romans
Most persecutions occurred prior to the reign of Constantine, who changed the course of Christianity by legitimizing it and protecting it from attack. The first persecutions were derived from disgust and misunderstanding of the Christians (they drink blood). Later ones were derived from the political threats perceived by the Romans when Christians refused to obey Roman law. Also embedded in the early period was a hysterical desire for martyrdom which saw many Christians actively seeking death in imitation of their savior.
The first few entries on the chronology show the initial period when Christianity was established. Its rapid expansion was a result of Paul’s work and the inherent attractiveness of the religion. The reference to Pope Clement shows how early the Bishop of Rome was communicating to his people and instructing them.
Major figures in the early church are bolded beginning with St. Ignatius.
In the year 132 A.D, Jerusalem was leveled by Hadrian, ending any significance it may have had as the home base of Christianity. Most Jewish Christians had, in fact, died in the 70 A.D. revolt when Jerusalem was sacked and burned.
By 150 A.D. we have evidence at the Bishopic system is in place and functioning. There are bishops in Rome, Corinth, Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria among others. That same year saw the Gnostic theologian, Valentinius, active. The Gnostic sect was one of the most troublesome Christian splinter groups.
In the year 177 A.D. we note Irenaeus as the Bishop of Lyon. I find this interesting because it shows how early the “barbarian” territories had been converted. This is also the time of Tertullian who along with Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, were important early theologians – on the defense as apologists and on the attack against the Jews, pagans, and heretics.
With the death of Septimius Severus in 211 A.D. there was a pause in the persecution of Christians that lasted for 38 years. Then, during the time of renewed persecutions under Decius, Origen was attacking pagan thought and philosophy as an important Christian apologist.
The period from 284-324 A.D. saw the storms of Diocletian give way to the sunny days of Constantine who embraced Christianity from an early age and protected it with all of his might. As the founder of Constantinople, he created a base for the eastern empire and the future Eastern Orthodox Church.
Eusebius was a prominent theologian in the period after Constantine’s death who wrote The History of the Church. He was Bishop of Caesarea, a town located on the coastline of northern Israel.
You can read the rest of the chronology for yourself. As you scan the entire list, try to get a sense of the time and place of the forces at work. Christianity saw some 260 years of growth before its acceptance, followed by another 150 years when it was embraced and became strong enough to outlast the empire. During the early period, the church built an administrative apparatus that rivaled or exceeded that of Rome – the same apparatus that is still in operation today.