Can we really know the First Christians?

In our ‘post-truth’ world, history is approached through a hyper-critical lens. In light of that, can we have any confidence in the record of the early years of the Christian faith?

Let’s briefly consider the evidence we do have, and let’s compare it to contemporary religious groups from the first/second century Roman world.

Early Christian Evidence

By the middle of the first century multiple letters from early Christian writers that have begun to circulate. Most significant in these are the epistles of Paul. Written between 50 AD and c.64 AD, these letters are a wonderful insight into the first years of this new faith, and their historical transmission gives us confidence in both their content and authorship. Other New Testament epistles, such as 1 and 2 Peter, most likely written in the mid 60s AD, provide further insights.

Alongside these letters we have multiple historical sources, four Gospels and the book of Acts, all rich in accurate and detailed historical information. These books contain places, officials, names, events and many more details that help us affirm their accuracy and legitimacy as early historical records.

Outside of Scripture, the first Christians were remarkable because they wrote so much. Early Christian writings such as the letters of 1 and 2 Clement, the Epistle to Diognetus, Shepherd of Hermas and the extant writings of Ignatius of Antioch mean that by the early years of the second century this fledgling faith had amassed a huge amount of written material.

As the second century unfolds Christian writers developed the apologetic genre – written defences of the faith to an unbelieving audience. The likes of Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Minucius Felix and Tertullian all wrote an Apology, alongside other texts, during the second century. These works are often lengthy, and detail both attacks made against the Early Church, and the defence they have against them.

All in all, there is a wealth of authentic early literature from within the Christian faith (not to mention significant references to Christians in secular historians such as Josephus or Tacitus) that allow us to gain a significant understanding of the beliefs and practice of these first Christians. Indeed, the amount of evidence that survives is remarkable.

Evidence for Contemporary Religious Belief

Christianity did not arise in a vacuum, but in a world already full of gods. Yet aside from major civic quasi-religious practices, there is surprisingly little we can say about many contemporary religious beliefs.

Mithraism, known to be immensely popular, is a great mystery to the modern scholar as little evidence of their beliefs and activities survive. We have material remains (including temple structures – known as a Mithraeum) that give us some indication, but next to no written evidence. Of the popular Isis cults again little is also known, and we would know next to nothing were it not for information provided in Apuleius’ ancient novel (c.175 AD) The Golden Ass. These cults, and other largely unknown religious groups of the time, are often termed ‘mystery cults’ and this name betrays the lack of clarity as to what went on in their meetings and initiations. By contrast, Christian meetings, initiations and lifestyles are all well documented by the rich variety of contemporary sources, both Christian and pagan.

What is the difference between the first Christians and these other groups? It is fundamentally clear that Christians wrote, a lot. Being a word-based faith it is hardly surprising that great value was placed on the written word, but this immense library of Early Christian texts helps us understand the world, beliefs and activities of the first Christians. We can examine the Early Church with confidence because the evidence is remarkably well-preserved. Of course, there are many texts that we both know about and will never know about that are lost to us, and there is a great deal more we would love to know, but it is a blessing and a joy that we can be confident in the history of the first Christians.

If you have any questions on whether we can trust the historical record, do feel free to get in touch. If you have questions about Scripture in particular, I commend Pete William’s excellent book: ‘Can We Trust the Gospels?

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