Introduction to early church history of Catholic Church 3

Introduction to early church history 3
 Jean Paul

From the last lecture: the environment in which the early church developed was the Greco-Roman empire, Greek culture and the Roman political system.  The welfare of the state and rulers depended on the right worship of the gods.  An example: when a Roman general was granted a victory parade the procession began at the Via Appia to the Coliseum onto the sacred way to the temples on the Palantine Hill to offer sacrifice to Jupiter.

The religion did not require belief and the void was filled with various superstitious practices and mystical religions.

Political figures

Julius Caesar was consul (never emperor) between 49 and 44BC
He was assassinated by members of the senate on the ides of March 44BC (not in the senate building as that had been damaged in an earthquake - the senate were meeting in a theatre).

A triumvirate then ruled Rome: Ocatavian (Caesar’s nephew), Mark Anthony and Pompeii.
There was civil war as the triumvirate fought amongst themselves for control - ultimately Octavian becomes sole ruler in 31 BC.

In 27BC Octavian accepted the title Imperator (Emperor) taking the name Augustus - this marks the start of the Roman Empire that was to survive in one form or another until 1456 AD in Constantinople.

Augustus died in 14AD.
Tiberius becomes emperor 14-37AD - he is probably poisoned by his wife.
Caligula (which was a nick-name) becomes emperor - he’s a nasty character and is assassinated in 41AD
Claudius - Caligula’s elderly uncle - becomes emperor , he is also poisoned by his wife (his 3rd) in 54AD
Her son Nero becomes emperor (he was not related to Claudius or the line from Caesar) he rules up to 68AD and it is during his reign that the great fire of Rome happens - this event had major implications for the early Christians.

Development of the Centre of Christianity

Most of our knowledge of the early church comes from the book of Acts.

In Acts the centre of the church was initially Jerusalem.

Acts describes the first 15 years of the church and covers the origin and growth of the Christian community during that period.  There was a gradual change in the mission of the early church - initially the message was preached to the Jewish peoples but after this was rejected there is a change of emphasis to preach to the  gentiles, there are various passages in Acts to discuss this (eg Peter’s vision or dream at Jappa).  Even Paul initially preached in the Synagogues and only after the message is rejected does he turn to the gentiles.  Beyond the Jewish people the message was initially preaching was to the so-called God-Fearers who were gentiles that were attracted to Jewish teaching on Monotheism, before being spread to the wider gentile peoples.

By the time of the reorganisation of Judaism in 70AD a curse was inserted into the benedictions - aimed at the Christians - against heretics and those that caused division.  This action effectively stopped Christians from taking part in Jewish worship, who would have had to curse themselves in saying the benedictions.

In Acts 7:1-6 there’s the first stage of setting up the institutions of the Church - with the appointment of the seven to look after the practical needs of the people (feeding the poor for example) allowing the Apostles to continue preaching the word.  Today the seven are identified with Deacons because of the work they carried out but this title is not given to them in the book of Acts.

All of the seven had Greek sounding names and probably came from the Greek speaking Diaspora.  By the time Stephen is martyred they are reported as preaching in various parts of Judea and Samaria.

In 42 or 43 AD James the Elder and Peter are arrested in Jerusalem - James, who led the Christian community, is killed.  Leadership then passed to James the Younger.  Note: the leadership of this group was not with Peter.

Peter leaves Jerusalem in 43AD he goes to another place (where is not recorded - later in Acts he was in Antioch so he may have gone there).  .

There is only one other mention of any activity by Peter in Jerusalem after this during which the second church institution is formed  A gathering called a synodus or council was held in Jerusalem around 50AD (Acts 15).  This gathering considered how much of the Jewish law should apply to gentile converts.  Peter was involved in this and the recorded speech by him led away from the idea of salvation through keeping the Jewish law but instead through faith.  Peter’s approach was supported by Paul and Barnabas (also present).  At the end of the council James summed up and he (not Peter) made a judgement on the issue.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians (chapter 2) James, Peter and John are mentioned as the three pillars of the church - note the ordering of the names.

For the 20 years following the death of James the Elder the Church was allowed a peaceful development.  James dies in 62AD.

This peaceful period ends with the first Jewish revolt against the Romans.  Christians refused to side with the zealots and instead flee to Pella (East of the Jordan).

Peter is then recorded as being in Antioch.

Galatians chapter 2 records further controversy about the association of Jewish converts with gentile converts, men acting under the authority of James led the Jewish converts to stop eating with gentile converts.  This action lead to a major argument between Peter and Paul.  In the letter Paul now makes a clear distinction between himself and Peter (he is sent to the gentiles, Peter to the Jews). 

Note though that Peter did not lead either community - the role of Peter developed in the tradition of the church over time.  When Peter led one of the house churches of Rome he could best be thought of as First amongst equals (the church in the East still has this understanding) rather than the monarchical view we see in the West  today.  The development of the institutions of the church was very fluid in the first years and there’s no real documentation to show the primacy of Peter within them.  The Gospels were written around 70AD and are coloured by some of the tradition that had grown up.

So the centre of the church had moved to Antioch  - this was a mixed community of Jewish and gentile converts (Jerusalem was largely Jewish converts).  Peter, Paul and a number of others were based at Antioch.  At Antioch the leader was a Levite from Cyprus called Barnabas (again not Peter).

At Antioch the term Christians was first used, however there was a second  term used by the Jewish enemies of the faith - Nazarenes.  Although initially used by the enemies of the church it was also used by members of the Syrian churches to describe themselves.

Antioch was only a transitional centre - the centre then moved to Rome.

Peter probably ended up in Rome - although there is no firm evidence in the book of Acts to say that he did - the tradition of the church has recorded this.

In the letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans written around 110AD chapter 4 verse 3:
“I do not command you as Peter and Paul did”.  Both were remembered as being figures of authority who could command the Roman Church.

Parts of other documents also record Peter as being in Rome:
The Apocalypse of Peter (an Apocryphal text written around 100AD) the reported words of Christ to Peter are:
“See Peter to you have I revealed and explained all things, go to the City of Fornication and drink the chalice I foretold”.

This refers to the end of John’s gospel were Jesus foretells the martyrdom of Peter.  John doesn’t mention where Peter would die.  However the term ‘City of Fornication’ can be understood as Rome.

At the end of the first letter of Peter there is a reference to the letter being written in the city of Babylon - Babylon itself no longer existed by this time so again this will refer to Rome (the same reference is made in various places in the book of the Apocalypse - Rome is clearly the world power hostile to the Church at this time).

Rome was by now considered to be the centre of the church.  The first letter of Clement to the Corinthians mentions this - written by Clement around 96AD from Rome as an Encyclical letter.

The mission to the gentiles had become increasingly important and this was marked be the shift of the centre of the church to Rome - here both Peter and Paul seemed to have had their greatest authority.

Acts doesn’t mention the presence of Peter in Rome - possibly because Luke was with Paul rather than Peter.

In St Paul’s Basilica there is a marble tomb engraved  for Paul the Apostle, it is likely therefore that this is the tomb of Paul.  However there’s no clear evidence that Peter was buried in Rome.  A tomb was built over a pauper’s grave where he was thought to have been buried, there’s no inscription to Peter just his name scraped in the plaster.  Excavations have found some bone fragments but we have no real proof that this was Peter’s tomb and some parts of the protestant churches deny that it is where Peter was buried.

Identity crisis of early Christianity

The identity crisis revolved around how Jewish or non-Jewish the church should be.  The crisis is evident in the works of the early Church Fathers - known as the Apostolic Fathers.

Some of the Apostolic Fathers work was accepted as being inspired and part of the scriptures, an early criteria for inclusion in the scripture was texts were read in church - examples of this were: Clements first letter to the Romans, the Shepherd  of Hermas (a compilation of various apocalyptic visions), the letter of Barnabas.  Two of the earliest manuscripts include some of these writings with the rest of the New Testament - a Codex from Alexandria and another from Mount Sinai.

The works of the Apostolic Fathers shows a move away from the Semitic influence of Jerusalem and Antioch towards the Greco-Roman world.  The works can be divided into two parts: Jewish-Christian and Hellenistic.

Examples of Jewish-Christian works:
Didache (100-110AD)
Shepherd of Hermas (around 140AD)
Papius - collection of oracles, sayings of the Lord, which survives only in fragments (120-138AD).
Letter of Barnabas - probably not written by Barnabas, some of the text is in common with the Did ache (chapters 1-6 which correspond to chapters 18 to 20 in the Barnabas letter).  The letter is a critical analysis of the Old Testament law and discusses some of the Messianic texts - it also includes an anti-cultic polemic against Judaism.  The author was influenced by Judaism but was critical of it.

The 1st letter of Clement is borderline between the two cultures.

Examples of Hellenistic texts:

Letters of St Ignatius of Antioch - written on his way to Rome between (110 - 115AD), he was on his way to die at the Coliseum by being thrown to wild animals.  His letters contain imagery from the Hellenistic world.

2nd Letter of St Clement - really a homily preached at Antioch.

Letter of Polycarp - actually 2 letters that have been joined together written in 110 and 130AD.

Martyrdom of Polycarp - which contains imagery of Polycarp being burnt at the stake - likening him to a loaf being baked in the oven.  In the text he recites a Eucharistic prayer.

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