Monday, 5 April 2021

Why study early church history?

 Why study church history?

I would say that we should study church history for love and for lessons. 

We study church history for love because this is our family history.  Many of the people that we shall look at in our studies are our brothers and sisters in Jesus.  We should also study to learn from the past.  It has often been said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.  We can learn from the triumphs and failures of those who have gone before us.  Sometimes they have worked through issues that arise today, and so we don’t need to start our theology from scratch.

Patristic period

The period of church history before the middle ages is known as the Patristic period.  The word patristic comes from a word for father.  This is seen as the time of the early fathers of the church.  The fathers still have a special place in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.  The reformers tried to show that their teachings were sympathetic to the church fathers.  The church fathers are a mixed bag and at times we can feel frustrated that some of their theology seems so off the mark.  The church fathers are divided into western fathers (in the western part of the empire) who mostly wrote their theology in Latin and the eastern fathers (in the eastern part of the empire) who wrote their theology mostly in Greek. 

Important events at the end of the first century

There are a few historical events that took place at the end of the first century that are of considerable interest to Christians.

The fire of Rome

For example, there is the fire of Rome (64).  In Rome houses were built of wood and were close together.  If a fire started it would spread rapidly.  It is not certain how the fire started, but it did suit the emperor Nero’s purposes.  He wanted to clear parts of Rome and build palatial gardens.  But Nero needed a scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians for the fire.  This led to a period of intense persecution.  One of his methods of torturing Christians was to entertain his guests by wrapping Christians around stakes, covering them in oil and burning them in his garden.


Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100) was born in Jerusalem and fought in the Jewish War, until surrendering in 67 to Roman forces led by Vespasian.  Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave.  After Vespasian became emperor (69), he granted Josephus his freedom.  He was granted Roman citizenship.  He became advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus, serving as translator when Titus led the siege of Jerusalem.  He recorded history of this time.       

The fall of Jerusalem

In 67 an event occurred that Jesus had prophesied about (e.g. Mark 13).  The Jews rose up against the Romans and were crushed.  This led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.

The army were led by Titus, the son of the emperor, who would later become emperor.  The Arch of Titus (81) celebrating the sack of Jerusalem still stands in Rome.

Rebels held out, including a Masada.  In 73 the Romans breached the walls of Masada and captured the for fortress.  The historian Josephus claims that nearly all of the defenders committed mass suicide prior to the entry of the Romans.

Post-apostolic church

We refer to the period immediately after the apostles as the post-apostolic period.  This lasts to around 150.

Clement of Rome

One of the apostolic fathers was Clement of Rome (not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria).  Clement was an associate of Paul.  He wrote to the church at Corinth.  As we know from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, this was a troubled church.  There troubles had continued after Paul’s time.

Clement has to address the issue of leaders that had fallen into serious sin.  The issue was whether they should be restored when they repented.  Of course, those who are repentant should be brought back into the fellowship of the church (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).

Ignatius of Antioch (died around 110)

Ignatius (not to be confused with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits) was an early leader in the church.  His writings confirm to us that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God the Son.  To the church in Ephesus he writes, ‘There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassable, even Jesus Christ our Lord.’ 

This is significant as some uniformed people may try to tell you that the deity of Christ was not really accepted until the Council of Nicaea. 

The Didache (lit. ‘the teaching’)

The Didache is the most famous writing associated with the post-apostolic period.  It is an anonymous writing dated to the end of the first century.  It deals with issues like baptism, the Lord’s supper and fasting.  Some if the later church fathers actually thought this work should be a part of the Scriptures.  One of the things that I was interested to learn about the Didache was it deals with the issue of abortion.  The Christian opposition to abortion goes right back to the start of the church.

The Diatessaron (a musical term) (160-175)

This is the most prominent of the early harmonies of the four gospels.  Created by the apologist Tatian. 

Marcion (85-160)

In the early couple of centuries there was not a universal consensus on what books should be included in the Christian Bible.  Into this vacuum stepped a troublemaker called Marcion.  Marcion did not like the God of the Old Testament or anything Jewish in the New Testament.  He suggested that the Christian Scriptures should not contain the Old Testament.  The books he considered to be Christian Scriptures were limited to an edited version of Luke (the only non-Jewish gospel writer) and edited versions of most of Paul’s letters.

Marcionism is alive and well today.  I remember hearing a minister in another denomination ask, ‘sure, who preaches the Old Testament today?’  The same minister said that he had not preached from the Old Testament for years.  Similarly, a leader in America suggested that the Old Testament was not helpful in reaching the non-Christian and that we need to ‘unhinge ourselves from the Old Testament.’

Pliny the Younger tells us about what he thought of the Christians

Pliny the Younger (61-113) was a Roman magistrate.  He served under the emperor Trajan (98-117).  As Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus (now in modern Turkey), he wrote a letter to Trajan (around 112) asking for advice on how to deal with Christians.  Pliny saved the letters between himself and Trajan and these are the earliest surviving Roman documents that refer to the Christian community.  Pliny has come across the Christians as a result of anonymous accusations, has interviewed them, and want to know what to do about them.  His letter tells us something about their practices:

‘…They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath … not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food … I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.’

The Epistle to Diognetes (130)

It is not known who wrote this description of the early Christians, but it gives us a great insight into their early practices:

"They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all others; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death and restored to life. They are poor yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of and yet are justified; they are reviled and bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honour; they do good yet are punished as evildoers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. To sum it all up in one word – what the soul is to the body, that are Christians in the world."


Notice the reference to not destroying their offering.  The life of an infant was not highly valued in the Roman world.  The Romans practiced what is referred to as exposure.  This involved abandoning unwanted infants.  It is called exposure because they were literally exposed to the elements.  Not all these infants died.  Some were picked up by families who wanted an enslaved person.

Exposure was permitted because it enabled poor people get rid of an extra mouth to feed—especially baby girls who would need to come with a dowry if they were to be married.  Infants may have been exposed because they had a disability.  As well as exposure the Romans also practiced abortions.

The poor weren’t allowed sell their babies formally, which encouraged the practice of exposure.  So, the first Christian emperor, Constantine (in 313), authorised the sale of infants in an effort to reduce exposures.  We know that by about 374 it had been legally forbidden.


Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna (now in modern Turkey) and was eight-six at the time he was martyred on 2nd February in 156.

Polycarp had fled from the city at the pleading of his own congregation.  He was tracked down to his hiding place.  He made no attempt to flee.  Instead he offered food and drink to his captors and asked for permission to spend some time in prayer.  He prayed for two hours. 

As they travelled to the city, the officer in charge of him urged him to recant.  ‘What harm can it do,’ the officer said, ‘to sacrifice to the emperor?’

On arrival at the place of his execution Polycarp was roughly pushed out of the carriage and brought before the proconsul in the amphitheatre.  ‘Respect your years,’ the proconsul said, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar … and I will release you.  Revile Christ.’

Polycarp replied: ‘For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my God who saved me?’

The proconsul insisted, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar, I have wild beasts. If you will do not change your mind, I will throw you to them.’

‘Call them’, Polycarp replied.

‘Since you make light of the beasts, I will destroy by fire, unless you change your mind.’

The angry crowd gathered wood for the pile.

Polycarp stood by the stake, asking not to be fastened to it, and prayed, ‘O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the numbers of you martyrs.’ 

The fire was lit but the wind drove the flams away and prolonged his suffering.   A soldier put an end to his pain with a sword.


In the second century there arose criticisms that the Christians had to respond to.  These Christians who defended the faith are referred to as apologists.

Some of these might seem very odd to us.  For example, the Christians were accused of atheism.  How could they be accused of atheism?  Well, in the Roman world people believed in many gods.  To have one god seemed very minimalistic and then there was the fact that this God had no statue with it.  The Christians could have agreed to have a statue of Jesus put among the pantheon of gods in Rome and they would not have suffered persecution.  However, the Christians insisted that there was only one God.  In fact, they said that there is no other name given that people must be saved other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).  To a people who worshipped a whole plethora of gods the idea of people worshipping just one seemed like atheism.

Another charge that was made against the Christians was that they were cannibals.  This charge was rooted in misinformation about what the Christians did in their meetings.  People heard the rumours relating sharing in the body and blood of Jesus.

Justin Martyr

Justin is the most famous of the second-century apologists.  He is referred to as Justin Martyr because his life ended with being executed with his students for his faith.  Justin grew up as a pagan who grew up in southern Palestine.  He experimented with a number of philosophies but then met a man on a beach who told him that it was Christ that he was looking for.  He went on to be a great intellectual defender of the faith.


During the first and second centuries, persecution of the church tended to be localised, sporadic and sometimes intense as opposed to the state-sponsored and systematic persecution that was to come later.

No comments: