Early Christianity

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

As early Christianity or Early Christianity historical research indicates the early days of Christianity since the public appearance of Jesus of Nazareth (about 28 to 30) up to the drafting of the last writings of the later New Testament (NT) and separation of Christians from Judaism (by 135 ).


The expression "primitive Christianity" was first found in German-language literature of the Enlightenment from around 1770 . It contains an image of history, according to which the original was free of later alienation and should therefore be contrasted as a normative ideal with the following church history . Despite this theory of decay, the term was accepted in historical research as a designation for the epoch of Christianity. In order to avoid the valuation contained therein, some historians prefer the term "early Christianity". However, both terms are used synonymously. The exact delimitation of the epoch is controversial regardless of the term used.

Critics of undesirable developments in church history often fall back on early Christianity and its writings, which were collected in the NT and understood as the normative word of God . Many Christian denominations and sects claim knowledge of early Christianity for themselves in order to legitimize their claim to truth against other Christian tendencies.

Delimitation of epochs

The work of Jesus of Nazareth is mostly classified as a prerequisite, not part of early Christianity, since Jesus was a Jew from Galilee who wanted to reform Judaism. The Jesus movement was one of the “inner-Jewish renewal movements”. Faith in Jesus Christ only arose after Jesus died. Since the founders of the Jerusalem early church and authors of the oldest NT texts (confessional formulas, source of the Logia , pre-Markan Passion report) emerged from the first followers of Jesus , no strict demarcation from the appearance of Jesus is possible.

The epoch of early Christianity is often equated with the time the NT scriptures were written, also because of the interest in distinguishing the NT canon from the following church history. The equation is problematic because some early Christian scriptures were not included in the NT and most of the authors of the NT scriptures belonged to the second or third generation of Christians. Therefore an attempt was made to differentiate the "Apostolic Age" of the Apostles from the "Early Catholicism" of later NT authors. However, the transitions to ecclesiastical structures in early Christianity were fluid, so that "early Catholicism" was not a suitable epoch designation. Often the early Christianity is equated with the epoch to which the Acts of the Apostles of Luke and the pastoral letters look back and from which they distinguish their own time. Then the early Christianity ends around 100 and does not include the later NT scriptures. The Gospel according to John, which was also written around 100, is then often the end point of the epoch .

Others see the final separation of early Christianity from Judaism as the boundary of the epoch. This took place with the Bar Kochba uprising (135), as a result of which the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and forbade Jews to settle there. With this, early Christianity had also lost its previous center. By now the Romans recognized the Christians as a separate religious group from Judaism.


The knowledge about early Christianity comes almost exclusively from the writings of early Christians, who are shaped by their missionary and preaching intentions and were later transferred to the normative collection of the NT: above all from the letters of Paul , the three synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles of Luke . This historical work, which was written around 100, is a main source for the early Jerusalem community founded after Jesus' death up to the apostolic council (around 48) and for Paul's missionary journeys up to his ministry in Rome (around 60). It describes the conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians and their conflicts with other groups of Judaism in the Roman Empire , when the ecclesia of Jesus Christ still saw itself as part of Judaism. It represents the view of a student of Paulus of Tarsus , who affirmed his mission to the peoples in the entire eastern Mediterranean area and wanted to expand it in Europe with his writing.

The early Catholic letters , the later Gospel of John and the Revelation of John already reflect a stage when the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity as part of ruled Judaism and others (see Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ).

The NT became the document of Christianity through the formation of canons in the second century. It claims and has retained its normative character for most of the Christian directions of the subsequent period. However, apart from the real Pauline letters, the author and circumstances of the drafting of any NT script are unequivocally known. The historical data can usually only be assumed indirectly from these writings themselves.

There are also a few extra-biblical early Christian writings, including the Apocrypha . Together they provide information about the internal and external development of this new religion in late antiquity . The works of the " Apostolic Fathers " belong to the early Christian writings outside of the NT , which flow over into the patristic :

An important source is the church history of Eusebius of Caesarea (324), citing the writings of various authors, some of which have been lost, of varying value, including the notes of Hegesippus (approx. 180) as well as notes on the origin of the Gospels in Papias von Hierapolis (around 150).

However, there are no sources for entire phases and regions of early Christianity, for example for the early Jerusalem community from the apostolic council to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 and for the spread of early Christianity in North Africa .

Time frames and dates

Unlike other contemporary sources, the NT shows no interest in exact dates. The only fixed date it names the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius , in which John the Baptist appeared, according to extra-biblical information, the year 28 ( Lk 3.1  EU ). According to the NT, the day of Jesus' death was the day before a Sabbath during a Passover festival : for the synoptics on the main festival day after the Seder evening , i.e. the 15th Nisan in the Jewish calendar , for the Gospel of John it was on the Friday before the Sabbath, on the 14th Nisan. According to calendar and astronomical calculations, the 15th Nisan fell in the years 31 and 34, while the 14th Nisan fell on a Friday between 30 and 33. Many researchers consider the Johannine chronology today to be "historically more credible". Most theologians consider 30 the more appropriate year of death because Paul became a Christian between 32 and 35, which means 33 overlap. Accordingly, the formation of the early church was preceded by two to five years of a journey of Jesus with his disciples in Galilee and Judea.

Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus, 1st century AD

This brief earthly activity of Jesus is usually not counted as early Christianity, but as one of the conditions under which it came into being.

His following story falls in the reign of the Roman emperors Tiberius and Claudius as well as their governors Felix and Festus in Judea and the proconsul Gallio in Corinth, which the NT calls. With the help of this and other information, some data can be roughly determined:

In addition, there are extra-biblical data:

The origin: the resurrection experiences

An exact date of origin of Christianity cannot be given. For some New Testament scholars it began with Jesus' first discipleship at the Sea of ​​Galilee , for many with the first time a disciple called Jesus the “ Messiah ” (Greek “ Christos ”) ( Mk 8.29  EU ). Others point out that Simon Peter still understood this Messiah confession just like the Zealots of that time as earthly liberation from foreign rule ( Lk 24.21  EU ). Christianity only began after Easter with the foundation of the early community. Formerly, its emergence was set even later, namely with the apostles' council , which approved the national mission of Paul of Tarsus and thus initiated and made the separation of an inner-Jewish Christ sect from Judaism possible.

The development between these individual stations was fluid. The decisive turning point were the two basic dates of the early Christian faith, which the oldest creed formulas of the NT always name together and which narrate the four canonical Gospels in a broad narrative: Jesus' death and resurrection.

His crucifixion was a catastrophe for his first successors, who had hoped for an inner historical liberation from him ( Lk 24.21  EU ). Because they were all Jews, for whom this type of death meant a divine judgment on Jesus' claim to bring God's kingdom : A dead Messiah without a messianic age of universal peace was considered a finally failed Messiah, his opponents were therefore right. This, as well as the danger of being executed with him as a follower of an alleged Zealot leader, makes her escape when Jesus was arrested plausible ( Mk 14.50  EU ). Although the texts do not expressly state this, their return to their homeland Galilee is likely after Jesus' burial at the latest. This ended the community that Jesus had established among them.

Soon afterwards, however, in the capital of Judea , which as a temple city was also the cult center of all Judaism, the followers proclaimed that Jesus was Kyrios Christ , who was raised by God to save all people (Acts 2,36). According to the NT, early Christians believed that Jesus himself brought about this belief in him by revealing himself to his disciples after his death as (by God) "one who was raised". The oldest creed formulas of the NT refer to this, which only formulate this one statement variably:

"He was risen on the third day according to the scriptures ..." ( 1 Cor 15.4  EU )
"Kyrios really rose from the dead and appeared to Simon ..." ( Lk 24.34  EU )
"He is risen, he is not here." ( Mk 16.6  EU )

Resurrection ” or “resurrection” in the Jewish context does not mean a spiritual life after death, but a radical, bodily re-creation of the dead; In addition, their strictly monotheistic religion makes it impossible for them to worship a person or a Messiah as God; all of the Torah is on this main theme.

In Christianity, spiritual survival after death does not mean continuing to live in death. In the Apostles' Creed it is clearly stated: "Resurrection of the flesh". So a resurrection is believed that is also a new creation.

According to early Christian tales, James, Jesus' brother who did not follow him during his lifetime, and bitter opponents of the early Christians like Paul, who had neither seen his appearance nor his death, would have had a physical encounter or visions with Jesus after his death. In addition, reports of encounters with the risen Jesus extend over a longer period of time: Paul reports of "500 brothers" who had seen him and some of whom were still alive, so that he presented them to the Corinthians around 55 as questionable eyewitnesses ( 1 Cor 15 , 6  EU ).

Only later Christians had such encounters. Therefore, even non-Christian historians assume mostly subjective experiences of some early Christians . However, according to the NT reports, it is not clear to whom the risen Jesus appeared first. According to a story by later writers about a list of eyewitnesses in the early church, he first appeared to Simon Peter , then to the assembled disciples ( 1 Cor 15: 5-6  EU ). According to Jn 20 : 11-18  EU , he first appeared to Mary Magdalene ; according to Lk 24 : 13–35  EU two unknown disciples. None of the later Gospels say that 500 saw him as well (Paul). The conclusion of the Gospel of Mark ( Mk 16.9–20  EU ), which is regarded as the later editing, brings the present reports into a sequence that contradicts the list of witnesses.

In any case, Peter and some of the women from Galilee played an important role in bringing the remaining followers back together and bringing them back to Jerusalem to plant a Christian community there. According to the Lukan representation, their leaders are said to have been identical to the circle of the twelve first called. All the Gospels attribute their authority to a common encounter with the risen Christ, at which the disciples are said to have received their universal missionary mandate. Where this took place is also contradicting records (Mt / Mk: in Galilee; Lk / Jh: in Jerusalem).

The Passion Report

The resurrection experience was the core and starting point of the apostolic message of Jesus Christ: It first confronted Jesus' followers with the question of the meaning of his violent death and opened up a new perspective for them to interpret it. With the help of the memory of Jesus' self-proclamation, his crucifixion was interpreted as a vicarious atoning death , the ultimate takeover of God's final judgment and a gracious invitation to repentance . That is why the cross and the resurrection (resurrection) are closely connected in all early Christian creeds. They form the main common content of the post-Easter proclamation.

From this crystallization nucleus, the previous life of Jesus was apparently soon retold based on the central salvation dates, his death and resurrection. This is how the pre-Markine Passion Report was written in Jerusalem as early as the first decade, and the first evangelist incorporated it into his Gospel of Mark . It is considered the oldest of the four gospels of the NT, which gave them their basic structure.

Early Christian communities in Galilee and Syria

At the same time, Christian communities must also have sprung up very early in Galilee. An early Christian pilgrimage site was found in Capernaum . She is identified with the former home of Peter, where the first Jesus followers met. According to Mk 16.7  EU , disciples' encounters with the resurrected one took place in Galilee; this confirms Mt 28 : 16-20  EU and Joh 21  EU .

Galilean followers of Jesus also collected speeches, arguments, and parables attributed to Jesus. This collection was first handed down orally, then in writing and later included in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as a common source of logia .

According to Gal. 1.17  EU and Acts 9.2 ff.  EU, a Christian community already existed in Damascus before Paul's calling (around 32–35). It is assumed that this was probably founded by followers of the early Christian Stephen who were persecuted in Jerusalem .

The missionary order

The task of the disciples and apostles was now to preach not only the teachings of the traveling preacher from Nazareth, but also the “good news” (Gospel) of his resurrection. The first church that was committed to this mission was that early church in Jerusalem . Here the so-called “pillars” Peter, James and John ( Gal 2.9  EU ; Mk 5.37  EU and others) formed the center of the Jewish movement. Its first speaker was Peter, who was presumably replaced by James later. Peter could then have reached Asia Minor via Syria , where another large congregation had arisen in Antioch , and finally to Rome, where an early Christian congregation was presumably already established in the 1940s, to which Paul also addressed his letter to the Romans .

The missionary mandate was initially carried out among the Jews and later extended to the Gentiles.

The expectation of the Second Coming ( Parousia ) of Jesus as Messiah was decisive both in the early Jerusalem church and in the congregations and circles that joined it , but this has no basis in the Jewish scriptures, since his followers still saw him as the Christian Messiah. All early congregations also consisted of Jewish Christians and qualified converted, circumcised Gentiles and were part of Judaism, as the observance of the mitzvot and the temple service of the Jerusalem early Christians illustrate. In addition, there were Greek-speaking early Christians, the so-called Hellenists , who were critical of the temple and who were persecuted by the Jewish rulers for this reason. Even within the early Christian community they got economic problems because they had no access to the poor relief of the temple: This was the background to the election of the seven deacons ( ActsEU ).

The Apostles' Council

Against the initial resistance of conservative Jewish Christian circles in the early Jerusalem community, it was agreed during an apostolic council (between 44 and 49) that the pagan mission emanating from the Antiochian community was accepted as a consensus of early Christianity. Beginning with the conversion of Diaspora Jews ( Gal 2.9  EU ) and Roman-Greek pagans , predominantly Gentile Christian communities outside Palestine such as Antioch gained in number and importance in the early Christian sect. Paul and his helpers shaped the theology of these new churches. The new Pauline theology was spread throughout the Mediterranean . In retrospect, the emergence of a new world religion was initiated. A total detachment of the early Christian sect from Judaism and the turning away of the New Testament faith from the religious traditions and teachings of Judaism - which had now been accomplished - was what the Hellenized Jew and Roman citizen Paul , as the main exponent of the Gentile mission and founder of the resurrection myth, initially had excluded ( Rom 9–11  EU ).

The end of the early church

As early as 62 with the death of James the Righteous and only around 30 years after Jesus' death, the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem lost its leadership role in early Christianity. At the Jewish revolt of 66 the Jerusalem Christians refused participation. During the further uprising of Simon Bar Kochbas (132), the early community therefore had to flee to the East Jordanian Pella . With the failure of this last Jewish attempt at uprising, their existence came to an end. The congregations in Syria and in the East Bank, influenced by it, were already considered by some of the leading church fathers in the 2nd century as the " heresy " of Christianity. At the latest with the emergence of Islam , the last remnants of Middle Eastern Jewish Christianity perished.

Development of church offices

The small (heathen) Christian communities became all the more visible. The canonized and non-canonized letters of the first Christians report on their problems and disputes . Paul himself wrote the first of these letters , which date from 50 to 64. Bishop Clemens of Rome , who died a martyr's death in 99, wrote the first letters that were no longer included in the New Testament. During this period of time, the apostles , prophets and evangelists (1 Clem 37: 3) increasingly disappeared as dignitaries and authorities. And even if Clemens still demanded: “Hold on to the saints” (1. Clem 46.2), Paul was already warned against so-called “false saints” (cf. Eph 7.1  EU ; Acts 15.1  EU ) .

The practice of fraternal instruction ( Mt 18 : 15–18  EU ) shifted to the “first fruits”, the first baptized of a congregation, and finally the first emerging offices: episcopes (= rulers, bishops) (cf. Eph 4.1  EU ), presbyters and deacons replaced the charismatic offices and consolidated the still autonomous communities. In the attempt to depict the uniqueness of Jesus in the earthly hierarchy, only one bishop was found. The presbyters (often based on the number of apostles: twelve) were subordinate to this monarchan bishop to help with the liturgy. Presbyter was still an honorary post here and was only later given his own parish-like obligations. The practical work was then incumbent on the deacons, of whom a certain number is not attested.

The elaboration of the hierarchy and church structure proved to be all the more necessary as the expectation of the near end of the world and the second coming of Christ ( Parousia ), which the disciples still seemed to be shaped by, was not fulfilled. The phase of the so-called “ parousia delay ” was not seen as the end of the eschatological perspective, but understood as an extended time for the preparations. The values ​​cultivated should prove this in “deed and truth” ( 1 Jn 3:18  EU ): the service to and for the community was emphasized, as was hospitality , prayer and fasting . The love meal ( Jn 13.34  EU ) and the love service (agape) thus gained greater significance.

It is precisely in this combination of ascetic precepts, which related to the Christians themselves and which did not break even before their own death (martyrdom), and the practical charity that is focused on serving the poor , sick and abandoned, widows and orphans and slaves took place, not only the followers of the new religion to the near end were preparing, but this community also won outward enormous appeal. Paul already recognized this in the beginning and therefore preferred not the larger cities themselves, but rather their poor suburbs, for the beginning of a local mission.

When the persecution of Christians under Domitian (81–96) made mission difficult, the organized church as a whole was able to assert itself, strengthen its cohesion and even increase its membership. The persecuted and killed Christians were recognized and venerated as martyrs (blood witnesses) of Christ, whose confessional death promised them salvation in the final judgment. This increased the attractiveness of young Christianity.

At the latest with the conclusion of the Gospel of John (around 130), early Christianity ended. Its author introduced the logos into Christian doctrine and thus prepared the ground for the coming Christology and for the acceptance of (middle) Platonism in Christian theology. The post-apostolic period of the 2nd century is counted as part of the early church . It was determined by questions about the position of the Son of God , by the conflict with Gnosticism , Marcion and Montanism , which promoted the formation of church leadership positions and unified dogmas.


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr: Basic information New Testament. A biblical-theological introduction. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2020, ISBN 3-8252-5376-7 , p. 382
  2. Gerd Theißen: Studies on the sociology of early Christianity. Mohr, Tübingen 1989, ISBN 3-16-145448-0 , p. 36.
  3. ^ Hans Conzelmann: History of early Christianity. 4th edition, Göttingen 1978, p. 1.
  4. ^ A b Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr: Basic Information New Testament , Göttingen 2020, p. 383
  5. ^ Hans Conzelmann, Andreas Lindemann: Arbeitsbuch zum New Testament. 14th edition, Stuttgart 2004, p. 373.
  6. Karl Martin Fischer : Das Urchristentum, Volume 1/1. Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1985, p. 130.
  7. Udo Schnelle: Introduction to the New Testament. 3rd edition Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, pp. 276-292.
  8. Michael Theobald: The Lord's Supper in the New Testament , in: Theologische Quartalsschrift 183/2003, p. 261.
  9. Gerd Theißen, Annette Merz: The historical Jesus , p. 152ff.
  10. “At the time of the emperor Augustus , Jesus of Nazareth preached in Judea, in today's Israel. For the Jewish priests, his gospel (good news) was blasphemy . They ensured that Jesus was sentenced to death . ”Hagen Schneider in: Das Römische Weltreich - Christianity ; P. 62; Discovering and Understanding - Workbooks, Book 1: From Prehistory to the Early Middle Ages; Cornelsen Verlag, 2007. Workbook on: Discovering and Understanding - Primary School Berlin and Brandenburg: 5./6. School year: From prehistory to the beginning of the Middle Ages: Student book: History book for elementary schools ; ibid 2004.
  11. ^ Rainer Gugl: On the exciting juxtaposition of Greco-Roman and Christian religiosity in ancient households. Protocols to the Bible 25 (2016) 97–118 ( [1] on protocolzurbibel.at)