The Full Deposit of Faith
Our Christian faith, regardless of denominational affiliations, is essentially an ancient religion seeking to express itself in the modern world. In the vast religious and spiritual landscape of the modern world, it can be difficult to attain a firm grasp on any given doctrinal position or spiritual issue.
Fortunately, we are not alone in interpreting biblical passages or grounding ourselves in Christian doctrine, as there is an ancient and valuable deposit of the Faith which was, as the blessed Apostle Jude explains, “once for all delivered to the saints.” Jude 1:3 RSV
Most patristic scholars and historians distinguish between various eras in history when patristic thought took certain ideological shifts or expressions.
This form of identification revolves around the advent of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., which sought to establish an ecumenical consensus on certain matters through an assembly of church leaders representing the entire body of Christ at that time.
Although the major issues settled by this council were related to Christological matters such as the distinction between the twofold nature of Jesus Christ (being both fully human and fully divine), and the formulation of the Nicene Creed, the emergence of a more developed and articulate style of theology and practice can be found after the proclamations made in this ecumenical council.
The Context of the Early Church
The Hellenistic Context
When Alexander the Great conquered the entire known world in the 4th century BCE, Greek expanse and colonization initiated an ongoing process of change in the realm of language, spirituality, and culture. This phenomenon is referred to as Hellenization, and one can easily witness its effect on Jewish life in the Bible in two respects: 1) its composition, and 2) its content.
As the majority of the Hebrew people, including the clergy, began to speak Greek, a translation of the traditional Hebrew Scriptures was in order so that the faithful were able to possess the Scriptures in the vernacular.
This translation was called the Septuagint (“Translation of the Seventy”) and is often referred to as the LXX due a peculiar tradition which claimed that seventy Hebrew scribes each individually translated the Pentateuch in isolation from each other, and as they emerged from their abodes, were astonished to find that their translations were all in absolute agreement with each other.
This Greek Old Testament is considered by many textual critics to be a major source of Old Testament citation within the New. Whenever the apostolic authors quoted the Jewish Scriptures or recorded Jesus as quoting them, they nearly exclusively refer to this Greek translation, asserting its validity as a canonical text.
Hellenistic Judaism is witnessed in the Scriptures themselves, with a group of Judeo-Christian Hellenists rising against traditional Hebrew-speaking Jews concerning the neglect of widows by the Jewish church (Acts 6:1).
A non-Christian group of Hellenistic Jews are also confronted by Paul concerning the gospel, and a debate incurred which resulted in violent intentions on their part (Acts 9:29).
Although not explicitly stated in the Scriptures, some scholars have suggested that the Apostle Paul himself was a Hellenistic Jew based on his familiarity in the realm of Greek theology and scholarship. (Kaufmann Kohler, “Saul of Tarsus,” Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 11, 79-87.)
To some extent, all of Judaism during the inception of Christianity Hellenized; however, the precise definition of this is difficult to quantify. It seems to mean, in the most conservative of definitions, that the Jewish faithful possessed a universal awareness of Greek religion, philosophy, and culture.
These Greek identifiers were accompanied by Hebrew assessments of them, whether positive or negative, and whether its relationship to Judaism was an aid or a threat. Often, being a Hellenistic Jew simply meant that one lived as a Jew within the larger Greek world, interacting with this world even if such interaction is closing the door to it.
In this manner of speaking, it is somewhat inaccurate to use the designation “Hebraic Judaism” in opposition to it, and it is difficult to find any scholar who does so, for even the revival movements within Judaism (such as the Jesus movement in the first century) are themselves Hellenistic insofar as they take place in this unique age of connectivity with Hellenistic thought, influence, and culture.
In addition to the Septuagint translation, most the New Testament is written in Greek, an example of Hellenism within 1st century Israel. Apart from portions written in Aramaic and the Book of Hebrews, Greek is the main language employed in the gospels and epistles and is typically done so in a conversational level, with the exception of John, whose gospel is unique in its cosmologically poetic nature.
Although Latin would eventually dominate the Western Christian world by the late fourth-century due to the work of St. Jerome, Greek was the language which was nearly universally used in ante-Nicene Christian literature, and it is this context that the early Church found itself in.
Second Temple Judaism
In the earliest period of recorded Christian development, taken from the apostolic and post-apostolic writings, Christianity was considered by its Jewish adherents to be a form of Second Temple Judaism.
The Gentile dimension of this Messianic Jewish movement, first called “Christianity” in Acts 11:26, reflected this conviction in the essence of its faith; however, it was only aware of it insofar as it continued to have a living connection to Jewish Christian communities.
Many of the significant trademarks of definitive Christian theology, including subjects which are commonly thought of as quintessentially Christian such as Trinitarianism, were initially derived from the matrix of Second Temple Judaism.
It took a considerable amount of time for Christianity as a unique institutional organism to separate from its Jewish predecessor and establish itself as a concretely distinct community, and this separation was only completely achieved by the extinction of the Jewish Christian Nazarenes.
A considerable amount of patristic references available regarding the Jewish Christian successors in the Jerusalem Church and the early Nazarene communities are inherently condemnatory, which can be considered peculiar considering that the Church Fathers nevertheless recognized that the Nazarenes were Christologically orthodox.
These Nazarene communities possibly survived to see the rise of Islam since Muslim literature such as the Quran, Hadith, and other early texts express an awareness of them.
In other words, it isn’t intellectually honest to assert that Second Temple Judaism was merely an influence on Christianity; rather, Christianity, in its bones and sinews, Second Temple Judaism just as Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism had been.
This conscious of that connection eventually left Christian thought, however, as did the living Jewish presence and witness within the Christian Church.
The Roman Empire
Before His crucifixion, Christ is recorded to have warned the Twelve about the future persecution of the Church, claiming that because they had been chosen out of the world, the world would hate and persecute them for holding firm to the Christian faith (Jn. 15: 18-25).
Just as Jesus Himself was put to death under the administration of the Roman official Pontius Pilate, the apostles themselves would be subjected to imprisonment, torture, and death.
Interestingly, however, the traditional pagan religion of the Roman Empire was not intrinsically intolerant, for it had adopted a variety of pantheons respective to the various religions adhered to by its conquered peoples.
As is witnessed in the New Testament, Judaism itself is permitted insofar as it submits to the authority of the Roman Empire on both a local and universal level.
In this context, it is jarring to see instances like that of the second century, where a certain Roman governor issued capital punishment as a retribution for adhering to the Christian faith. This tradition can be traced to Emperor Nero.
When a fire broke out in the prestigious city of Rome, its citizens instantly blamed the emperor for the disaster, who immediately turned around and claimed that the catastrophe was the work of Christians.
Deflecting the blame, a substantial number of the Christian faithful, including the Apostle Peter, were seized, tortured, and murdered on the grounds of treason. Whether Nero was guilty of the fire or not has never been formally proven.
Writing in the early 2nd century, only several years after the (surprisingly natural) death of John, the pagan Cornelius Tacitus records that he had considered the way Christians were subjected to death and punishment to be unnecessarily cruel and heinous despite his disagreement with the Christian religion itself.
The practice of Emperor Nero became a recurring reality in the Roman world for centuries to come, and although the persecution found in the New Testament was not always so severe—for some emperors were less concerned with the religious status of the people than others—it would not be completely abrogated until the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the official legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the first quarter of the 4th century A.D.
As Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, He left with His followers the divine command to disperse and evangelize all nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” (Matt. 28:19).
The apostles submitted to this command by Christ and proceeded to found various patriarchates or “sees,” considered by the early Church as prominent places of the Christian faith.
Portions of these apostolic missions are recorded in the Book of Acts, where James is recorded to have presided over the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the first center of Christianity.
It is in this apostolic see that the first Christian council was held at the insistence of Jewish Christians in order to enforce Gentile Christians to conform to the Jewish custom of circumcision.
James, who presided over the council as a significant authority and would later be reckoned as the founder of the Church in Jerusalem itself, is recorded to have decreed that the Mosaic law of circumcision was binding only for Jewish men and that Gentile converts were not required to conform to Jewish customs (see Acts 15).
By the early 4th century, a universally acknowledged ecclesiological system was in place, where each city or province was subjected under the authority of a single bishop who maintained a historical line of succession to the apostles themselves, retaining the example of ecclesiology contained in the Council of Jerusalem.
The apostle Peter is recorded to have founded two sees: 1) Antioch and 2) Rome. Despite popular belief that Peter was only the founder of Rome, Peter is considered to be the first bishop of Antioch as well, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians,” (Acts 11:26).
The prolific Ignatius of Antioch would eventually become the third bishop, and its jurisdiction was recognized by the First Ecumenical Council as a significant Christian center in 325 AD. It was in this patriarchate that the “incident at Antioch” took place; that is when an apostolic dispute occurred between Peter and Paul concerning Peter’s separation from the Gentiles when confronted by the Jews (Gal. 2:11-13).
It is somewhat difficult to discern exactly when a Christian presence in Rome was first established, but in the Book of Acts, a Christian couple name Priscilla and Aquilla are recorded to have traveled from Rome to Corinth in the middle of the first century (Acts 18:1-2).
Irenaeus of Lyons later recorded the both Peter and Paul had founded the See of Rome, but a significant tradition states that the apostle Peter was its first bishop, later to be succeeded by significant patristic figures such as Clement I and Pius I.
The Christian presence in Rome faced heavy persecution during various times, but its presence always remained undefiled in the face of oppression and violence.
According to tradition, Mark the Evangelist—the author of the gospel with the same name—founded the Patriarchate of Alexandria during the 1st century when the gospel was brought to Egypt.
The Alexandrian Christians were some of the most prominent biblical scholars in the first several centuries concerned with biblical exegeses and included a profound school for Christian theologians called the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
The first dean of this theological powerhouse is recorded to have been Athenagoras of Athens, a Greek apologist who lived in the second half of the 2nd century and wrote a significant treatise in defense of the resurrection of the dead.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople is an interesting subject, as the city as it existed during its promulgation to a patriarchate did not exist during the ministry of the apostles.
Its recognition as one of the initial five patriarchal sees finds its origin in early Byzantine Christianity, when the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I (d. 565) composited a source of Constantinople’s ecclesiological theory which was later received canonical sanction during the Council of Trullo in 692, granting the city a place of honor secondary to that of Rome, formally ranking the honor and authority of five patriarchates thusly: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.
The founder of the Church in Constantinople is traditionally ascribed to be the Apostle Andrew, who is recorded by various historical sources to have preached in Scythia, along the Black Sea (including certain Slavic countries such as Kiev), and establishing the apostolic See of Byzantium as early as 38 AD which would later evolve into the imperial and religious See of Constantinople.
Church history can seem somewhat disheartening to individuals who feel as if Christianity has become something unrecognizable from that of the apostolic age.
Certainly, a unique sense of urgency to evangelize the nations and fulfill the Lord’s command to preach the gospel to every living creature sustained the apostolic ministry in such a way that has gone unparalleled in modern times.
Furthermore, the Church during the patristic age was inarguably a single organism, unafflicted by schisms or denominationalism. This is testified by the eventual emergence of Ecumenical Councils, where representatives of every ecclesiastical jurisdiction collaborated to make dogmatic decisions to define the Christian faith.
But let’s not allow the unity of the early Church to dampen our thirst for unity and strength within Christendom; rather, let the apostles, their successors, and the multitude of Church Fathers upon whom our Church is built upon, bear witness to the beauty and ideal state of Christ’s bride. In the words of our Lord, “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one,” (Jn. 17:22).
United with you in Christ,
Mind On Jesus