The World of the Early Church

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

Dive into the history of the church as we look at the culture, governments, historical events and social shifts that shaped its first 500 years!

The parallels between the church of the second and third centuries and the global church today give us a glimpse of how we can live as Christians of conviction in a pagan world.


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Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before. And they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here, and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian.

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Verity podcast. I am so stoked for Episode 2 of the 1st section of our church history series. We are in the early church portion of this series, and there will be 8 episodes for each section. So in this episode, we’re going to be talking about the world of the early church. What was going on contextually at the time of the church’s formation. And as they were beginning to grow and spread throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. 

So this is my 1st time doing this, So please bear with me. Consolidating all of this information is a lot of work, and I’m trying to make it as interesting as possible for you. I think it’s fascinating, but I know that I have some people in the crowd who maybe aren’t super into history. Bear with me. I think you’re going to find this more enjoyable and more interesting than you might think at first.

Here’s the exciting thing about this history. There’s stuff that you don’t know that isn’t written down in scripture because the people who received scripture knew their own context. So if you were to receive a letter from your pastor, he would probably mention a variety of things that he takes for granted you know. So he might mention your iPhone or Instagram. Maybe he’ll mention a nearby city that he knows you’re familiar with. He’s mentioning these things because they’re relevant to his discipleship of you, but he knows he doesn’t have to explain what an iPhone is. He doesn’t have to explain what your nearby city is. He knows that your context helps you understand those words.

And so when we read scripture, a lot of times we miss the historical and cultural context because it’s not our context. And Paul and the other writers will mention things that we don’t understand or we even ignore because this isn’t our context. So when we’re looking at the history and the world of the early church, we get back some of that context that is missing. So we’re going to be looking at the world of the early church from about AD 33 when Jesus ascends to heaven to 8500. So we’re going to be covering a lot of ground, and I’m going to move in kind of a sweeping general look at the movements of history in Rome, Greece, and Israel during that time. Now I Am going to do separate episodes on figures of the early church, creeds and councils, and mission movements into Africa, Asia and Europe. So do not fear. We will do a little bit of a deeper dive into those things. This is just a general peek at what it was like to live during the time of the early church. 

So let’s start with what we have depicted in scripture. We’re gonna start with the age of the apostles. This would be from about Jesus’ birth to 100 AD. Some significant events that happened during this time would be the death of Jesus followed by Pentecost, the persecution of Christians by Paul. So this is in the 30’s AD. Around 40 AD, we believe that Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt. This is the beginning of the Coptic church. And in orthodoxy, so Eastern and Russian orthodoxy, Saint Mark is seen as the patriarch of the Eastern church. 

Around 45 AD is the death of Stephen, estimated. And then in 60 AD, the emperor Nero comes to power, and 70 AD is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and approximately the time of the death of Paul in Rome. So we’re going to look at some of these things and look at the general culture of what was happening as we move into the 200’s and the 300’s in a few minutes. 

So The ascension of Jesus, if we go to the end of Matthew or you go to the beginning of Acts, we see the ascension of Christ with his disciples, he tells them he’s going to the father, and he leaves them with a mission, a great commission. He says, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in name of the father and the son and the holy spirit, and I’m with you always to the end of the age.

So Jesus gives us command. It is his last command. It is to make disciples, and that’s going to be important in a few minutes. So keep that tucked away. He ascends to heaven, and the disciples are told to wait in Jerusalem for the promised holy spirit. So they go, they wait in Jerusalem. And in Acts 2 through 3, we see what happens at the festival of Pentecost. So this is a Jewish festival. They’re waiting and praying, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them like tongues of fire, and they go out and they begin sharing the gospel in all of these different languages. Well, there’s Jews from all around the world gathered in Jerusalem for the festival.

They’ve made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and they’ve been living in other countries, so they speak other languages. But they’re there for the festival, so these are Hellenistic Jews. These are Jews from Africa. These are Jews from all over the world. And in their present, they’re hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, the messianic promise to the Jews, they’re hearing it at Pentecost from the early church. And so Peter preaches this message from the rooftop to the people and 3,000 people come to believe in the Jewish Messiah that day. Massive conversion. Now all of these people were not going to be staying in the Jerusalem church. They’re going to return home after the festival taking the gospel with them.

So this is the very, very first Missions movement. Right out of the gate, Jesus has ascended 6 weeks later. The church preaches the gospel in many tongues. These people take the message back to their countries. This is a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy in Joel where it says your young men will have visions. Your young women will dream dreams, and they’ll speak in many tongues and prophesy, and that is a prophecy that Peter quotes during his sermon. So this is the beginning of the spread of Christianity.

Now what it also does is it grows the church. Right? So the church begins to grow in Jerusalem, and now we already know that Jesus was killed by the Jewish leaders. This would be the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, conservative and liberal factions of the Jewish Leadership. We know they already have their eye on the apostles because the apostles throughout the book of Acts continue to be persecuted. But as we see the spread of the church and the growth of the church, now they really have their eye on the apostles, including a man named Stephen. So as the book of Acts unfolds, as we see what the apostles are doing and how the church is gathering and growing and ministering together, Stephen catches the eye of the Pharisees, and he is the 1st martyr. He is killed for his faith by the Jewish leaders. And this is the beginning of a rift between the Jews and the Christians.

So at the very beginning, the Orthodox Jews were persecuting the Christian Jews. So from the Roman perspective, so the Romans are the lords of the land at the time. From the Roman perspective, Christians were just a sect of the Jewish religion. And as long as that was the case, the Romans really didn’t care what the Christians did because the Jews had some protections over their religious observance. We’re gonna talk more about this in a second. But in Rome, the worship of the emperor and giving incense to the gods, sacrificing to the gods, sacrificing to the emperor was a part of what they considered a stable government. You had to worship the emperor to show your loyalty. You had to worship the Greek gods because if you didn’t, you would upset them or the Roman gods, you would upset them and that could destabilize the government.

And if you know anything about the Roman governmental history, even just a quick glance will tell you they were plagued with uprisings, civil wars, all kinds of unrest. So it’s in their best interest to keep unrest at a minimum. And one of the ways they did that with the Jews was to allow them to worship their God and not have to sacrifice incense to the emperor because that was a major issue for the Jews. They would not do it. So as long as Christians were just a sect of the Jews, then it was like, it’s fine. The Jews do their thing. They worship. They stayed to themselves.

They basically want to live separate from everyone else, and they don’t evangelize. That was another thing. They’re not trying to get other people to join them in their worship ritual to this one true God. But the Christians were different. They were evangelizing. And we’re going to circle back to that in a little bit.

So Christianity at the very beginning was called the Way, capital W, the way. But later on, a word began to be used for the gathering or assembly of believers, and it was called Ecclesia. This is where we get the word Ecclesiology or the theology of the church. So the gathering or assembly of believers were those who were confirmed by baptism, which is a symbol of the new covenant. The old covenant is circumcision. The new covenant is baptism, and also the celebration of the Eucharist or communion in which they commemorate the covenant that they made. If you remember Jesus at the Passover meal, he says, this is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me as a sign of the new covenant in his blood. And so every time we take communion or Eucharist, we are confirming the covenant that we are under in Christ’s blood. 

And so these gatherings of believers typically happened late on Saturday night. So after the end of the Jewish Sabbath, it would gather super late like midnight. And then as the Church became more and more Gentile, so not Jewish. It moved to early Sunday morning before the chores would have begun because the Gentiles didn’t have a Sabbath. They didn’t have the privilege of observing a full day of rest. They were not Jewish, so they’re they were in industries and they were enslaved in houses that would not have allowed them to take a day off during the week. 

So as the church becomes more gentile, they begin gathering either continue gathering late Saturday night after the Sabbath is over for the Jews or early Sunday morning for Gentiles. So We have the Way. Christianity is the Way. This gathering or assembly of believers confirmed by baptism and communion. And although baptism was not new, the purpose of it and the purpose of the Lord’s table made Christianity distinct from Judaism. And this is when the Romans started to see, oh, wait a minute. The Jews actually aren’t happy about what the Christians are doing. So maybe these people aren’t actually part of Judaism, and they began to catch more notice with Rome. 

Now persecution of the Christians increased as tension between the Greek Jews, these are called Hellenist Jews, and Palestinian Jews arose. So the Palestinian Jews would be the Jews in Israel proper. Hellenistic Jews would be those who were living dispersed in the the Greek lands. And when they would come back to Palestine, they would have a lot of conflict. And so the Hellenists fled to other parts of the Middle East and Egypt, and the ones who were messianic, the ones that were Christianized, took the gospel with them. So you see a continued spread of the gospel after Pentecost. 

So as the Christians were persecuted by the Jews, the gospel began to spread to the Gentiles, and more and more of a divide began to grow between messianic Jewish practice, so the Christian Jews, in the Gentile Christian practice. And so one example of this is the gathering or assembly of the church moving away from the synagogue to just a celebration of the Gentiles. They didn’t attend the synagogue. They’re Gentiles. So they’re gathering in their own Christian gathering, which eventually we would call church.

So as the Gentile church grows, we watch in the book of Acts, Gentile missions take off. And the place where this happens in the book of Acts is Antioch, which is the 3rd largest city in the Roman Empire. This is also where the followers of the Way were first called Christians. It was an insult originally, and then it simply became the name that they took. It’s kind of like in America. There’s that song Yankee Doodle that makes fun of Americans saying that they were, like, ridiculous and silly. But the Yankees, the Americans, ended up taking it as their name and wearing it proudly. Kind of the same thing.

Christians were being insulted and eventually took it on as their name. So when Paul, the apostle Paul, originally Saul, experienced his conversion. So he used to persecute the Christians as a leader in the Sanhedrin, Jewish leader. He then meets Christ through a vision, comes to Christ, and becomes a missionary to the Gentiles specifically. Paul was very unique. He was Jewish, and he was extremely educated, but he also knew Greek, and he was a Roman citizen. He was uniquely fitted to have greater access to the people of the Roman Empire.

 He could travel around. He could speak both Greek and Aramaic, understand Hebrew. He could communicate very clearly, and this is one of the gifts of the apostle Paul. Another thing that made it easy for Gentile missions to expand in the early church was the Roman road system because this made it very easy to travel between the 3 continents. We also know that the land of Israel is uniquely fitted in its location to reach all 3 of these continents. It’s like a land bridge. So you can reach Europe, you can reach Asia, and you can reach Africa, which we’ll talk about when we go on to the episode about ministering to those 3 continents. 

So as the church is persecuted by the Jewish leaders, they spread. It becomes Gentile dominant. The church expands wildly to the non Jewish populations and grows more and more Gentile, and it begins to attract the attention of Rome. Because now they know this is not a sect of the Jewish religion. This is its own thing. So around AD 60, We see persecution of the Christians increase under Nero. 

So Nero is known as one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. He’s notorious for his cruelty and his debauchery. He came to power around AD54. He was only 16 years old, And he died at 30 years old, so he only reigned for 14 years. He also ruled at a time of enormous social and political change. So he was overseeing these massive events such as the great fire of Rome and also a rebellion in Britain. He is said to have killed his mother and 2 of his wives. And it’s also reputed that he only cared about his art, and he had very little interest in ruling the empire. 

So around AD 60 to 61, to talk more about what was going on in the world at the time of early church’s spread, There was a rebellion in Britain where one of the tribes in Britain led a revolt against the Romans and basically attacked them for exploiting the newly conquered British territory. So this is under the reign of Nero, something that he had to be paying attention to. And it’s fascinating to me that this was happening because not too much later, there would be a mission to reach Britain with Christianity, but we’ll get to that in a future episode. 

In July of 64 AD is the great fire of Rome. So this fire begins, breaks out. There’d been fires before in Rome, but so much of the city burned that it gets the name, the Great Fire. Nero blames the Christians for the fire, probably to kind of find a scapegoat for what happened. And this is where the phrase fiddle while Rome burns comes from because the legend is that while Rome was burning, Nero was up on a rooftop playing his leer and doing his art and music instead of tending to the city that he ruled. A historian Tacitus says this, that after the fire, the Christians were seized and blamed for the fire by Nero. Quote, first, those were seized who admitted their faith, and then using the information they provided, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much for the crime of burning the city, but for hatred of the human race. And perishing, they were additionally made into sports. They were killed by dogs by having the hides of beasts attached to them, or they were nailed to crosses or set a flame. And when the daylight passed away, they were used as nighttime lamps. Nero gave his own gardens for this spectacle and performed a circus game in the habit of a charioteer mixing with the plebs or driving about the race course. Even though they were clearly guilty and merited being made the most recent example of the consequences of crime. People began to pity these sufferers because they were consumed not for the public good, but on the account of the fierceness of 1 man, end quote.

So this quote reveals the general Roman attitude towards Christians. He says that they were clearly guilty and merited being made into a spectacle. But people began to pity them because it really wasn’t about the consequences of a crime so much as Nero’s own ugliness and his own desire to make them into a spectacle. And so the Christians are persecuted heavily under Nero, falsely accused and blamed, and this is not the end of their persecution, we will see a series of persecutions in the near future.

We’re now going to move back over to Israel and look at the destruction of the temple in AD 70. This is a massive, massive historical event because the destruction of this temple removed a temple from Jewish culture and heritage forever. They still don’t have a temple, and the temple mount currently has a mosque on top of it. So this ended the sacrificial system. It ended the ability to go to the temple and worship there. It took away this historical central piece of Judaic worship. It’s a extremely significant event. 

But before AD 70, there was a Jewish rebellion in AD 66. And this ignited a war with Rome. Judaism was at the time a legal religion in Roman Empire, and even Nero’s own wife was interested in it. The Jews had been patient with Rome for a long time. But when Gessius Florus became the procurator, the Zealots in Jerusalem, which was the 4th party of the Jews. There were 4 parties, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. According to Josephus, the Zealots led a rebellion. 

So when they led this rebellion, They incited Rome. And there’s a whole long story of exactly what happened and how the temple was destroyed. I won’t get into all of that here, but just know that this was extremely significant. And from the Christian perspective or the messianic perspective, one of the reasons It is believed that the temple was destroyed was that the sacrificial system had been ended by Christ. And this was exemplified when Jesus went into the temple at the beginning and the end of his ministry and cleansed the temple courts. It wasn’t just that he was mad at the money changers in the temple. That was wrong, but it was the sign of him ending the sacrificial system because his sacrifice was enough. It was the ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices. And so in the interpretation of scripture from a Christian perspective, The destruction of the temple was the final fulfillment of the of the ending of the sacrificial system.

So before this war breaks out between the Jews and the Romans. 4 years before, JamesTthe Just of Jerusalem, He’s the 1st Christian bishop of Jerusalem according to Acts 15 and church history scholar Eusebius was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin. So James The Just, also called Adelphos, was Jesus’ brother, bishop of Jerusalem. In Galatians, Paul lists James with Cephas or Peter and John as the 3 pillars of the church who will minister to the circumcised, that is the Jews in Jerusalem. So in Galatians, he’s saying there’s Peter, there’s John, and there’s James. 

They are going to minister to the Jews in Jerusalem, and James is the bishop of Jerusalem. It is James who led the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 to focus on the three fundamental values of Christian life with all of the new Gentile converts. If you go to Acts 15, you’ll see that he tells the early church leaders, We need to disciple these new converts, these Gentile converts into Christianity in 3 fundamentals that they are 4 fundamentals that they should not consume blood. So don’t eat meat with blood in it. Don’t eat or drink blood at all. Remain sexually moral according to the Jewish standard of what that was, which was covenant sexuality between a man and a woman in marriage. And then finally, abstain from idols. So don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols. Don’t worship idols. Don’t consume blood, and abstain from sexual immorality. And these 3 fundamentals that you know, there’s 4 commands, but they’re basically 3 fundamentals. Sanctity of worship, only God, sanctity of sex, and sanctity of life. Honoring sexual ethic, the life ethic, and the worship ethic, exclusivity of Christ.

These were the fundamentals that were taught to new converts to Christianity in terms of Christian ethics. And it was James The Just who led that. So Josephus, Eusebius, and the early church father, Clement, All state that the Pharisees murdered James for his teachings, and that happened about 4 years before the outbreak of the war between the Jews and the Romans, which eventually led to the burning of the Jewish temple in AD 70. 

Eusebius goes on to say that the Christians were warned by an oracle to flee Jerusalem sometime before the war’s outbreak. So they evacuated to Pella and other cities north of Jerusalem and escaped the Roman siege and conquest in Jerusalem. Because they left Israel and Jerusalem, they spread again much more quickly to the regions outside of it. This scenario, this scene from Jewish history and Christian history in AD70 could be what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 24.

Here’s what Jesus says. Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call attention to its buildings. Do you see all these things? Jesus asked. Truly, I tell you, not 1 stone here will be left on another. Everyone will be thrown down. So when you see standing in the holy place, the abomination that causes desolation spoken of through the prophet Daniel, let the reader understand, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, end quote. So before the Jewish War, before the uprising in AD 66. In AD 40, so not that long after Jesus had died, Caius Caligula issued a peremptory decree ordering the erection and worship of his statue in the Jewish temple.

Agrippa the first appealed for him to rescind this order in order to keep peace with the Jews, And some scholars believe that this was a cue to the Christians in Jerusalem aligning with Matthew 24 where it said, if you see the abomination that causes desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, it was a cue to Christians that this great persecution was coming and that the temple would be destroyed. The temple was destroyed in fulfillment of Jesus’ words and the sacrificial system was ended. And to this day, Jewish worship can only take place in synagogues since the Temple Mount became a temple to Jupiter and then now a mosque. So the previous central authority of the temple was now transformed into a regional authority of the synagogue, and this tradition has remained to the present day. 

The Everywoman A Theologian winter collection is here, and I am so excited for all of our new offerings. We launched the week before Thanksgiving, and there is still time to place an order and grab your goodies in time for Christmas. We have some new books such as The Sex Talk You Never Had, which is an updated and revised version of my popular book on purity, pornography, in a biblical sexual ethic called Christian Cosmo. We also have our new offering from Jeremy Jenkins of all things, all people called should Christians Practice yoga. This is a part of our quick theology series, a series of little booklets that are only $6 in the print version, $3 for the ebook version, and I know you’re going to love Jeremy’s balanced and wise approach to this topic. You can also check out Good News is Coming by my friend, Preselis Perrault Dominguez. This is an amazing children’s book about the gospel, and it’s in both English and Spanish. These are just the books, you guys. We also have all of our great Verity home offerings, all of our Bible in the Year products, you’ve got to check it out, and you can head over to, and it will take you straight to the winter collection. We can’t wait to ship out your orders. Be sure to order before December 5th if you want it in time for Christmas. 

So that is from AD 33 to AD 70. Now we’re going to move to the age of Catholic Christianity or universal Christianity, the collective whole church. That’s what Catholic means. It means universal. AD 70 to AD 316. 

There are a variety of very significant events that happen in this span of time. It’s so much, you guys. I couldn’t fit it all, so I tried to hit the main points. But at this point, we’ve seen the spread of Christianity to the Gentile nations. We’ve seen that the Christian Jews have fled from Jerusalem. Many of them have gone south into Africa, Egypt and before them, the Hellenistic Jews had had gone and fled as well. And so Christianity is spreading throughout all 3 continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. And now as we move to this new chunk of history. There are some changes in the culture surrounding the church as it becomes more well known, more established. People are more aware of Christianity, and not as a sect of Judaism, but as its own religion. And there’s also the growth of some new ideologies or some syncretism in the church. People trying to take Greek philosophy and blend it with Christianity.

Remember too that This religion, Christianity, grew out of Judaism because our faith is in the Jewish Messiah. But as a division between the Jews and the Greeks and Romans, the Gentile nations, as a division grew because they could not stay unified in how to celebrate and even their cultures and their and their schedules, didn’t allow for as many communal worship practices. There came to be a division between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians. So you’re seeing a distinction being made. There’s Judaism and there’s Christianity. Rome is aware of this, and There are plenty of people who are in the pagan nations who are trying to kinda join in but bring their own ideologies with them.

 One of those ideologies is Gnosticism. This began very early right around that turn of the century, 100 AD. We start to see the influence of gnosticism on the church and the church’s resistance to that influence. I want to take one quick little note here to talk about orthodoxy and the formation of orthodoxy in the early church. If you’re like, what on earth is orthodoxy? It’s essentially sound teaching. And what that simply means is the core doctrines of Christianity as passed down from the apostles to the disciples and on and on through church history. 

At the time of the early church, the earliest earliest church, so right after Jesus ascends to the father, They just have the gospel and the moral behavior that Christ has has said is paired with the gospel. So this is linked to the 10 Commandments. This is list linked to the old testament. It’s integral. It’s all, you know, connected, which is why as Christians, we have the old testament, old covenant, and the new testament, the new covenant. But there had to be a way to pass this down. And so as they’re passing this down and teaching new converts and teaching their children, what’s happening is we have this this issue of these false teachings coming into the church. And so the church had to basically, clarify what they believed, what Jesus had given them over and over and over against all of these false doctrines. And they just keep coming in. Gnosticism and Arianism and Docetism. 

There’s so many different isms that start to come in and say, well, Jesus wasn’t fully god or Jesus wasn’t fully man or we can worship the emperor and we can worship Jesus or, you know, Jesus was a sort of spirit ghost, but he’s one of many gods. So all of these different ideologies start pouring in and the church has to defend their theology, which is simply the rational way of thinking about their faith, to their culture.

And they have to begin to sift out what is and what is not true. And the defense of that and the formation of it is orthodoxy. So what we have today as orthodox Christianity, soundly taught Christianity was hammered out in these 1st 5 centuries of the church as all of these different doctrines were thrown at the church. And they said, oh, wait. No. This is not what Jesus taught. Nope. That’s not it either. Nope. That’s not it either. And we see these councils in the formation of the creeds, like the apostle’s creed and the Nicene Creed during this time. So that all said, let’s talk a little bit about because this is going to sound very familiar to you. 

Gnosticism was this movement, but it didn’t really have a unity to it. It was kind of like whatever you want it to be, it can be. Bruce Shelley says that it offered some way of enlightenment prescribed by a philosopher or a guru who possessed knowledge of the way of life. This special knowledge of the spiritual world posed a major threat to apostolic Christianity, end quote.

So the gnostic schools kind of developed along this line of an idea of salvation or a fulfilled life, a supreme deity, heavenly beings at work in the universe. So there was some commonality and they would kinda hang out in the edges of Christianity or kind of even sneak into these gatherings of Christians because they could use a lot of the same language. They believed in dualism. Basically, that there’s 2 cosmic forces in the universe, good and evil. Very much Greek philosophy. They saw evil as the same as matter. So it’s the the good in the universe is spirit. The bad is physical.

Okay. So The ultimate deity in gnosticism isn’t really engaged with the material world because, again, they think that matter is evil and the spirit is good. And so these gnostic schools basically liked the idea of God and him sending Christ, but they did not believe that he had a human body. They did not believe that he physically died on a cross because he couldn’t be physical. He had to be only spiritual. They didn’t want a human savior. They just wanted this kind of spiritual reality. And so in gnosticism, you have this unnamed father, spiritual and good, and then you have the world, which is material and evil. And it’s kind of like yin and yang, like they’re to opposite, you know, forces or or entities. And then you have these mediators, which are called aons or eons, And these might be female or or male eons that kind of mediate the knowledge to people. 

Here’s why this was such a big deal. It sounded good. It sounded similar. Right? It sounded like they were saying the same things as the Christians, but they were trying to get out of a human savior. They really weren’t interested in a savior who paid for the sins of his people because they did not think that they needed a savior. They thought spiritual reality is inherently good. I don’t need this savior who dies on a cross because the physical world is lesser, and we don’t want to participate in it. Gnosticism is the mother of the New Age movement. Everything Gnosticism taught is now being repackaged and sold as the new age, And this is not something that Christians are noticing. This is something that the New Age movement actually owns and accepts. 

There are books out there saying that the new age movement is the new Gnosticism. It’s completely blatant. And this goes to show us that All of these early heresies, as we will see, especially when we look at the councils of the early church, all of these early heresies, they’re just recycled throughout history over and over and over again. And so as gnosticism begins to rise, the church begins to take this more seriously and begin to confront the lies of gnosticism in their ranks.

Simultaneously, Rome, because they have their eye on the Christians, begin to suspect them. And there are a couple reasons why. They noticed that the Christians are meeting in secret, and, obviously, secret meetings lead to speculation, and it led to a lot of speculation. But there’s also the talk about communion. Christians would gather for these love feasts is what they called them, agape feasts, which were just them gathering to worship and fellowship together, but they’re also taking communion in which they’re saying, this is the body and the blood of Christ. 

So the Romans began to think that Christians were cannibals, and they were hosting sexual parties at their gathering. So, like, 2 immoral behaviors is what they accused the Christians of. Now the irony of this is that the Romans and the Greeks were extremely sexually promiscuous in absolutely every way. They endorsed all kinds of sexual exploration. If you were to go look at the art that was found in Pompeii when it was excavated, I’m not gonna describe it to you, but you can look it up. The erotic art that was found describing the different sexual acts that the Romans would and Greeks would engage in proves to us that this was something that was practiced by the Romans. So it’s kind of silly that they’re accusing the Christians of it, but we all like to see that, you know, our morals are better, and that was what the culture was doing. 

They had moralized their own sexual acts, and then they were Looking at the Christians with skepticism because the Christians would not participate in Roman culture, and we’re gonna talk about that more at the end. But they would not participate in the worship of the emperor, the worship of the gods. They would not participate in the sexual culture, and even some of the governmental culture and the games, these violent gladiator games, Christians, stood against them because of their ethic of life. They also rescued babies who are left to die in the wilderness because Rome practice both abortion and infanticide as well as contraception, And Christians did not participate in these things.

So the Romans were skeptical of them because the Christians were very separate and different in their ethic. But the Christians were also not separate in terms of their evangelism. Christians were actively evangelizing, but their ethic was contrary to the culture at large. So Rome begins to be upset at them. So I’m gonna read you another quote. This is from Pliny who was a Roman governor who was slandering the Christians and upset at the Christians and how they were causing this rift among the Roman people. So about AD 112, Pliny writes to the emperor Trajan to ask his advice about the best way to deal with followers of Christ. Quote, I do not know just what to do with the Christians, for I have never been present at one of their trials. Is just being a Christian enough to punish, or must something bad actually have been done? What I have done in the case of those who admitted they were Christians was to order them sent to Rome if citizens, if not to have them killed. I was sure they deserve to be punished because they were so stubborn, end quote. 

This is not the 1st time you’re going to hear the Romans complain about the stubbornness of Christians. Another quote says that they’re obstinate, and they’re obstinate and unmoving in their conviction. They will not worship the emperor. They will not participate in what is normative for the Roman government and society. And because of that, they were killed.

So let’s talk a little bit about emperor Trajan. So under Trajan, the Roman Empire reaches its greatest size by 117 AD. There were 46 provinces under Trajan, 96 by the time of Diocletian in the 200. So during this time under Trajan, the Jews of Jerusalem rise up again in rebellion in 132 AD. This is after the Romans built a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jewish temple. If you would like to learn more about the Temple of Jupiter and more about the sites related to the Jewish temple and even the tomb of Jesus. Fascinating YouTube channel is Expedition Bible. I absolutely love it, and he goes into the archeology behind all of these places, and I would highly recommend watching his videos. 

So Jupiter the temple to Jupiter is built on top of the Jewish temple. And in 132 AD, a revolt is led by Simon Bar Kokhba and rabbi Eleazar, and it achieved Some success early on, the Romans were forced out of Jerusalem and most of Judea, but 3 years later, Roman armies under the command of Julius Severus retook Jerusalem and completely sacked it. Bar Kokhba is killed at the village of Bethel. And under the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Jerusalem is completely leveled, and the Jews are forbidden to live there. The Jerusalem church after the Bar Kokhba revolt was now composed almost entirely of Gentiles. In his church history, Eusebius lists 12 gentile bishops of Jerusalem after this revolt. 

So this is another example of the changes to the church in those 1st few centuries and why we started to see a shift. I get questions a lot from people asking why don’t we celebrate the Jewish festivals? Well, This is why the church became primarily Gentile very early on and the Jewish believers were not okay. The Orthodox Jewish believers, the ones that were not messianic, or not okay with Gentile Christians celebrating their Jewish holidays.

So the church calendar was born. We have our own rich legacy of Christian holidays, not because Christians hated the Jews, but because of that early separation between the 2 groups. And so we have holidays that parallel some of the Jewish festivals, But we also have holidays distinctly Christian in celebration. This is also why there was the shift from a Saturday Sabbath to Sunday worship. Christians never saw Sunday as a Sabbath day of rest until Constantine made it a day of rest in the 300. But they did see it as their day of worship and immediately, like, right after the resurrection, it was seen as the day of the Lord. Sunday was the day of the Lord, so it was a day of worship for Christians. And that was, again, another distinctive between Jewish practice and and gentile practice.

So In 161 AD, Marcus Aurelius persecutes Christians for obstinacy. This is another example. A new emperor comes after Trajan, And he persecutes Christians. He doesn’t really have much of a reason. He actually has agreed with Christians on on a lot of ethical things. But because they’re so stubborn and they will not participate in Roman culture and worship, he persecutes them for their obstinacy and their stubbornness. In 305 AD, so we’re jumping ahead a little bit, Diocletian persecutes the Christians. Galleria, the Roman Augustus, convince Diocletian to begin a general persecution of Christians in an attempt to stop the growth of the religion.

Hopefully, by now, you’ve grasped why. They’re divisive. They are subversive to the Roman order. Churches were burned, clergy were imprisoned, And persecution decreased in the Western Empire by 305 AD, but then ended in the east in 313 AD, which is when Constantine became the Roman Empire. Quick little pause in between persecutions. There is a fragment that we use. It’s called the Meritorian Canon, and this is a document which is probably written in Greek dated to about AD 180, And it lists 22 of the 27 books that were included in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The reason why this fragment is so important is because it shows us that within a 150 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the core writings of the New Testament were already deemed authoritative by early Christians. So these books were a unified message on the person of Christ. They were understood by the early church. They were used and passed around by the early church. The New Testament canon was solidified very, very early, And so that was around 180 AD. 

So let’s head back into the 300’s. Diocletian is persecuting. He is continuing the work of Marcus Aurelius, the work of Trajan, the work of Nero. The church is having to practice its gatherings in secret. It’s constantly having to take care of its own. And what’s fascinating about the early church in terms of their ethics is that they were radical in their opposition to what the culture deemed normal. It was normal to go to the gladiator games and watch someone be murdered in the ring. It was normal to have sexual relationships with anyone you wanted. It was normal to leave your baby to die in the wilderness because you didn’t wanna take care of it or because it was illegitimate. It was normal to use poisoners for contraception and to abort pregnancies because of the sexual lifestyle of the people, especially the wealthy in Roman culture. This was normal, but the Christians stood against it, and not just against contraception by poisoning, abortion, infanticide, the gladiator games. They also stood against war.

Christians in the 1st 3 centuries were anti-war. Until Augustine came up with the Just War Theory in the 400, most Christians actually encouraged their converts and people who came into Christianity if they were a soldier to try to leave the service. And this was very difficult because serving in the Roman army was, I believe, and I should confirm this. I believe at one point in history, it was required of young men. And if not required, getting out of it, if you converted, would be very, very difficult. 

So you have this culture that is violent. It’s sexually promiscuous. It kills the least of these. Like, the wealthy could pay their way to get a better or fairer trial so their justice system wasn’t even just, and the Christians were living completely countercultural to this. They were radical. Their life ethic was extreme because they truly believed that it was wrong to kill the unborn, to kill an infant, to kill even a criminal publicly by murder as a spectacle they would not attend. And I think understanding Roman culture and how similar it is to today, our obsession, our worship of sports, our worship of media, our willingness to consume murder on TV and stand witness to it. Our willingness to make excuses for our sexual ethical beliefs and our double standards when it comes to abortion and contraception, all of these things were issues that the early church dealt with. The early church faced. We are not alone as Christians in our culture today having to think about these ethical issues because Christians were facing them then. 

In 313 AD, Constantine comes to power. Now there are multiple stories about Constantine’s conversion. I actually went to Rome in April to the Vatican Museum, and I got to see the famous painting of Constantine’s battle and his conversion. In reality, Constantine most likely converted, if it was genuine on his deathbed. But one thing that he did do was as a pagan king, he legalized Christianity. He made the emperor the empire tolerant of Christianity so the Christians could no longer be persecuted. This was a significant shift. For the last 300 years, Christians have been persecuted and chased down, and all of a sudden, they are accepted. This is extremely significant.

Because at this point and I’m not getting into all of the story of Constantine and everything that he did, but it leads to a shift in church structure. It leads to a more public practice of church, and it even leads to clergymen going from people who are being persecuted and killed to becoming people in positions of governmental power. And we’ll talk about that in the next section. So 500 to 1000 AD is when we’ll talk about that. So we see from 361 AD to 395 AD. A lot of upset in the world of the early church. 

At 361 AD, at the battle of Argenturatum, The Roman general, Julian, drove the Franks from Gaul, and this then leads to Julian becoming the next Roman emperor. Julian is best known for his attempt to reinstitute paganism into Rome. So this is a fascinating kind of adaptation given that Christianity was legalized. 376 AD, the Huns, a Mongol people, sweep in from Asia, defeat the Ostrogoth Empire, and brought an end to the empire that dominated Eastern Europe for 200 years. So that’s up in the northern part of the empire. And then in 395 AD, the Roman Empire splits. When Emperor Theodosius died in 395, the Roman Empire splits and he is succeeded by his sons, Arcadius, who ruled the eastern portion, and Honorius, who ruled the western portion.

So we’re now moving to the age of Christian Rome. So we have this, You know, massive change under Constantine for better or for worse. He is probably not a genuine Christian till the end of his life, but he protects the Christians, and it allows them a time of peace.

One of the most significant dates in this section is in 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea. This council was called for by Constantine, and it dealt with the Arian controversy. Now here are some things that did not happen at the Council of Nicaea. They did not compile a Bible. This was not the first time the New Testament appeared or the Bible was put together. They did not invent Christ’s deity. This was understood and accepted since Jesus ascended. 

Here’s what did happen. Arius, an elder of a church in Alexandria, announced in 318 AD that, quote, the son being begotten apart from time by the father and being created and founded before ages did not exist before his generation or before his birth. The son is not eternal or coequal or co-unoriginate with the father, end quote. What Arius is saying is that Jesus was created by God. He is not coequal with God. He is not equal with the father. He was created by the father, and because of that, he is a lesser god. Arius was taking some of the work of Origen, an early church father, and kind of playing it out to a new conclusion. And so at the Council of Nicaea, A creed is created that we now know as the Nicene Creed.

It expanded on the Apostle’s Creed which was shorter, And it outlined the relationship between the father and the son, articulating that Jesus is of one substance with the father, And the father is not more God than the son. I’m going to read you a quote by Justin Holcomb on this topic. Quote, If Christianity had agreed with Arius that Jesus could be a lesser god, if it had failed to defend monotheism, if it had fallen to the trench of professing 3 unrelated deities, it may have dissolved into the religion of Rome and its pantheons of false gods, end quote.

 So this was a very significant moment. And even though, you know, Constantin calls for it, it doesn’t mean Constantin knew what was even going on or that he was theologically astute. He most likely wasn’t. He’s thinking, I want unity in my empire. I don’t want divisions in my empire because that causes unrest. It causes civil war. It causes a lack of security and stability. I need a stable empire, so I need this church to deal with this heresy so that we don’t end up with all of these splits because now the church is much more influential under peace. Right? It’s been 12 years since you legalized Christianity. So they have gained more influence. They’ve gained more power, and so they have more effect on the empire. So the council is called, and in the process of God raising up this pagan king, he led the church to solidify some very important doctrines.

Like I said earlier, the church dealt with Gnosticism. Now it’s dealing with Arianism, also dealing with Docetism. These other isms that are all trying to twist the gospel just a little. And so the Nicene Council led to The creation of the Nicene Creed and helped lay the groundwork for future councils and the movement to protecting the core doctrines of the faith.

Now let’s look at a quick glance of what else was happening during the early church. In 410 AD, after being weakened by the Huns, weakened, by the split of the Roman Empire in 395 AD. In 410, The sack of Rome happens by the Vandals. The barbarians sweep in and sack it. In 431 AD is the Council of Ephesus. We will talk about that another time in the council’s episode, and this is followed in 451 AD by the Council of Chalcedon. And then in 476 AD is the fall of Rome. And the last Roman emperor of France is defeated by Clovis the first, the king of the Franks in 486 AD.

Clovis is then baptized in 508 AD, leading us a little bit further down this path of Kings being baptized, becoming Christians, or converting to a form of Christianity. I will always be a skeptic when it comes to emperors becoming Christians. Because one other thing that hasn’t changed throughout history is that when the church is entwined with the government, it is appealing as an emperor, as a governor to do what the people want, appeal to the people, participate in the system in order to bring unity and stability to the government. And God uses pagan kings all the time, even lying kings, even those who pretend to be Christians and are not. He uses them, and he uses them for good because God raises up leaders and he lowers them. But at the same time, I think it should be perhaps a bit encouraging to know that over the course of history, there have been kings and leaders who have tried to use Christianity as a means to power. That is not new. 

Alright. Ending at 500 AD because that’s our section for this 8 part series. I want to read a quote From Timothy Paul Jones, one of my favorite scholars, where he’s talking about the 2nd century world. Talking about the early church and what it was like for Christians and how the 2nd century apologists and leaders and, lay Christians, give us a framework for how we can live our faith today. Quote, The 2nd century world, Carl Trueman notes in the rise and triumph of the modern self, is in some ways our world. His primary point seems to be that in the 2nd century, it was not primarily the miraculous claims of Christianity that offended non Christians, and so it has become again. What was repulsive and even subversive to those outside the 2nd century church was not the miracle working deity that Christians proclaimed, but the way of life that the church practiced. Truman puts it like this. In the 2nd century, the church was under suspicion, not because her central dogmas were supernatural, but rather because she appeared subversive in claiming Jesus as king and was viewed as immoral in her talk of eating and drinking human flesh and blood and expressing incestuous sounding love between brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, Christianity flourished by existing a close knit doctrinally bound community that required her members to act consistently with their faith and to be good citizens of the earthly city as far as good citizenship was compatible with faithfulness to Christ. 

What makes Christianity most offensive in secularizing Western cultures today is not the church’s claim that Jesus stilled the seas, healed the disease, or rose from the dead. It is the moral claim that our allegiance to Christ excludes participation in the practices by which the world around us is being catechized, which was precisely the challenge that Christians face in the 2nd century. It is in this sense that the 2nd century world is also our world, end quote. 

When you’re listening to an episode like this about the world of the early church, about the fast paced changes that came. All the new leaders constantly coming in. The persecution that increased and then decreased. And then going from massive persecution and then overnight, suddenly, Christianity is legal and at peace. But now there’s a new problem. Now they’re intertwined with the government, and now we have to figure out how do we move forward here. All of these things are relatable to us today. All of these things are issues that we face. Whether you’re in America or you’re in the United Kingdom or you’re in Africa, some piece of this is going to resonate with your existence.

Some part of this story is part of your story, and knowing how the Christians stood on their faith, stood on their ethics. Both. Not 1 or the other. Not just ethics with no core gospel and not just a core gospel with no ethics, but both intertwined gives us an example for how we can do that also today. Now I want to conclude with a quote that I thought was really echoing what Timothy Paul Jones was saying. And this is from Bruce Shelley’s church history in plain language, where he’s talking again about the cause for the hatred of early Christians in Roman society. Quote, the main cause of the hatred of early Christians in Roman society lies in their distinctive lifestyle. Quote, we have the reputation, said Tertullian in his apology, of living aloof from crowds, end quote. The word used to describe the Christian in the New Testament is highly significant. It is a term, Hagios, often translated saints. It means holy ones, but its root suggests different. So a holy thing is different from other things. The temple is holy because it is different from other buildings. The Sabbath day is holy because it is different from other days. The Christian, therefore, is a person who is fundamentally different. Men always view a suspicion people who are different. Conformity, not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble free life. So the more early Christians took their faith seriously, the more they were in danger of crowd reaction. Thus, simply by living according to the teachings of Jesus. The Christian was a constant unspoken condemnation of the pagan way of life. It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life, end quote. 

Shelley is describing our existence today, becoming more so every day. And regardless of your eschatology, whether you think that the end is coming or this is just another cycle of persecution, this reality is our reality. The mere existence of being a Christian who stands on ethics and gospel is a criticism of pagan life. It should not surprise us that our culture misrepresents us, misinterprets us, doesn’t like us, pushes back against us, lies about us. They did all those things to our lord. But now that you know what was going on in the 1st 500 years of church history, I hope that you’re encouraged that the world of the early church is also your world and that the church was victorious then, and it will be victorious again. 

Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity and about Every Woman a Theologian as a ministry in a shop. We appreciate you, and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s word and the heart of Jesus Christ.


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