The Big Picture of Early Christian History

In his 1914 book on Clement of Alexandria, R B Tollinton wrote the following words as he surveyed the earliest centuries of Christian history.

“If a line can be drawn at any date between the period of its [Christian] ‘Origins’ and that of its ‘Development’, this must be done at the close of the second century, rather than at the end of the Apostolic age, or at the period of Constantine’s Edict and the Council of Nicaea.

Thus, on the one hand, the Church of Clement’s day [c.200 AD] had attained its complete independence of Judaism. On the other, it was already too powerful to be permanently suppressed or controlled by the forces of the Empire.”

R B Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria, A Study in Christian Liberalism, 1914 (85).

This short quote, written over 100 years ago, throws up some interesting insights into the church of the second century. A hundred years from the Apostolic Era, and nearly 150 years before the famous Council of Nicaea, what was the Church really like?

“Complete independence of Judaism…”

Tollinton suggests that we ought to draw a line between the missional expansion of the first century, and the huge growth of the second. Over 150 years since Christ ascended to Heaven, the ‘Origins’ period of Church History ought to be closed off, now we reach a period he labels ‘Development.’ In part, he suggests, this is because the faith has escaped its Jewish roots.

When Christianity first began to spread, it was very much seen as a product of the Jewish faith. Originating from the Jewish communities of ancient Palestine, with a first generation leadership comprised almost entirely of Jewish males, it was a label the faith found hard to shake. Ancient commentators repeatedly grouped these two strange ‘non-Roman’ faiths together. An example of this is seen in a fragment of Tacitus preserved in the Sacred History of Sulpicius Severus.

“Titus himself thought that the temple ought specially to be overthrown, in order that the religion of the Jews and of the Christians might more thoroughly be subverted; for that these religions, although contrary to each other, had nevertheless proceeded from the same authors; that the Christians had sprung up from among the Jews; and that, if the root were extirpated, the offshoot would speedily perish.

Sulpicius Severus, Sacred History, 30.2.6 (quoting Tacitus).

Tacitus wrote at the end of the first century, and his surviving works are an invaluable source for both Imperial history and the rise of Christianity over the first few decades of this new faith. He gives us a clear example of how Christianity was then viewed: the offshoot of the Jewish faith.

Yet as the second century progressed, these Jewish roots were further and further removed from the identity of the Early Church. As we read in the New Testament, efforts were quickly made to establish churches in towns and cities across the Empire, and non-Jewish converts are repeatedly found in the pages of Scripture. But over the next century or so, this spread only increased. Though the faith originated in the Jewish heartland of ancient Palestine, it quickly outgrew its roots. Such that, writing at the end of the second century, the apologist Tertullian could say:

“The outcry is… that both sexes, every age and condition, even high rank, are passing over to the profession of the Christian faith.”

Tertullian, Apology, 1.

By the end of the second century the Jewish roots of the Christian faith had been thoroughly outgrown. Men and women from across the Empire, from every class and status, were joining this young faith. Tollinton is quite correct, the ‘Origin’ of the faith is over, and we are very much in an early phase of ‘Development’.

“… too powerful to be permanently suppressed or controlled by the forces of the Empire.

Tollinton’s second point is that the faith was too wide-spread and too well established to be suppressed by Imperial intention. This again is certainly backed up by the historical situation at the end of the second century.

Based on numbers alone, we can see that the development and close of the second century offers a turning point in Early Church History. In AD 40, shortly after the death and resurrection of Christ, it is estimated that there were only a few thousand believers. By 100 AD there may have been around 7000 – 10000 Christians in an Empire of around 60 million. By 200 AD there were around 200 000. By 250 AD, 1.1 million. By the time of Constantine’s famous ‘conversion’ in 312 AD, there were nearly 9 million Christian believers in the Empire. (Numbers based on the work of R Stark, Cities of God, 2006 p67.)

None of these figures show that Christianity was anywhere near being the majority faith in the Empire by the time the reign of Constantine began in 312 AD, but they do illustrate that from humble beginnings in the Imperial backwaters of Judea, a movement grew. Men and women across the Emperor, as Tertullian tells us, had passed over to the Christian faith.

Conclusion

Tollinton is certainly right: it is too late to say that, come Constantine, Christianity has only just moved out of the ‘Origin’ phase of its history. To view Church History through this broad lens risks missing so much of what God did in the intervening years. In a hostile Empire and a lost world, the Lord was faithful to grow His church during those first centuries. The history of the Early Church is a great testament to the work of God at keeping and growing His Church. We shouldn’t write off the first centuries of Christian history as simply a protracted ‘Origin’, there is much that happened, and much worth looking into.

On the flip side of this, how incredible is it to look at these first centuries and see God at work? From just a handful of believers in Jerusalem to millions across the globe. Our God did this, in the face of one of the greatest superpowers the world has ever known. Let’s not forget how great our God of history is.

Want some more reasons to study Early Church History? Try these 10.

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