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The Church of the First Century -
Chapter 2 in A Catechism of Church History

Preaching Christ crucified appeared as foolishness to the proud and immoral pagans. Few disciples were found — though many enemies were. But those who received the faith were often heroic and suffered for it, and the blood of the martyrs became the seed of Christianity. How else can one explain the rapid spread of the Church to the nations of the world, when everything natural and the civil powers were opposed?

1. Do any writers besides Christian writers speak of Jesus Christ in the first century?

Yes, non-Christian writers described the belief of Christians in the Christ whom they believed to be God made Man. The Jewi

Catholic Church History

sh historian Josephus writes of Christ in this manner. Pliny, governor of Bithynia, sent a report to the emperor Trajan telling how Christians "honor Christ, their God."

2. At the coming of Jesus Christ, what was the world of Jewry like?

The Jewish people were no longer fully established in Palestine, the land which God had assigned to them. Many of their sons and daughters were dispersed throughout the world. Jesus did not preach the Good News to these dispersed Jews, nor to the pagans. Judea was subject to many rulers but the Roman power was dominant. The various rulers, Roman and Herodian, and Jewish high priests overlapped in authority. At the same time, the different peoples who had occupied the country, one after another, had each imposed some of its cults and civilization upon the Jews.

Many souls were "hard soil" and the faith could not take deep root in them. Nevertheless, there were Israelites, such as Nathanael, "in whom there was no guile" (Jn 1:47). There were among these chosen people the apostles, even if one, Judas, betrayed Jesus. There was Mary of Bethany, who broke the alabaster box to pour the most precious perfumes generously upon his head. There was, of course, their most noble member, the Mother of Jesus, the woman of faith.

Unfortunately, the pride of race, which perverts true religion, was operative, so that John the Baptist had warned: "Think not to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham" (Mr 3:9-10). The apostles, finally, had to go to the Gentiles to preach the gospel and spread the Church when the majority of God's first chosen people rejected them.

3. When did the Church begin to convert many souls?

After Jesus ascended into heaven to be with his heavenly Father, Jesus kept his promise to send the Paraclete, the Spirit. On Pentecost Sunday the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit as they prayed in the "upper room" with the Mother of Jesus. Pentecost is often called the "birthday of the Church," for then the Holy Spirit, the soul of the Church and the spirit of truth, empowered the apostles in a special way, with truth and courage, to profess the divine faith in Jesus Christ. With the special assistance and power of the Holy Spirit, thousands were soon converted. Believers in Christ Jesus increased daily. The Church spread over Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and into all the surrounding countries. It was at Antioch, the capital of Syria, that the faithful were first called Christians, because they were believers in Christ, sealed in him as their Lord and master.

4. To whom did Jesus Christ command the Apostles to preach the gospel?

Christ commanded the apostles to preach the Good News to all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike. Beginning at Pentecost, they were gifted to preach in tongues so that people of different nations understood them, each in his own language. At first it was difficult for the apostles (in some cases) to understand the command to preach to non-Jews. St. Peter had a heavenly vision to baptize Cornelius, a Gentile. The apostles called a council at Jerusalem among themselves, about the year 51, and decided that converted Gentiles did not have to observe the Mosaic rites but were nonetheless fully Christian. From the very beginning, then, the mark of Catholicity was to characterize the Church of Christ for all the nations.

5. Where did the Apostles preach when they went to the nations to carry out the command of Christ?

St. Peter first preached in Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. The other apostles immediately recognized that Peter had been placed as their head by Christ Jesus, and, therefore, he was in charge of the election to fill the vacancy left by Judas, when Matthias succeeded the traitor apostle. St. Peter also presided over the first council at Jerusalem. He established his see of authority at Antioch but went to Rome about A.D. 42. Rome, the capital of the world, seemed the best place to establish the chief see of authority for the Church which Christ had established for all the nations.

According to traditions (with many reliable proofs), St. John, the "beloved apostle" of the Lord, became the bishop of Ephesus and was in charge of the local churches of Asia Minor. Also, according to tradition, St. James, the brother of St. John, first preached in Judea and finally went to Spain. At Santiago, to the present day, Spanish people come from all over the world to pay reverence to his bodily remains at the Cathedral of St. James, where they believe his relics lie in a silver casket.

St. James the Less became bishop of Jerusalem. He is also called St. James the just because of his holiness.

St. Andrew went to southern Russia to preach, and to the coast of the Black Sea.

St. Philip died at Hierapolis in Phrygia, Asia Minor, and St. Bartholomew went to Armenia. St. Thomas is believed to have gone to India to spread the faith of Christ Jesus. St. Simon went to Egypt, North Africa, and Babylon. St. Jude Thaddeus went to Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia. St. Matthias is believed to have gone into countries south of the Caucasus, and St. Matthew to countries south of the Caspian Sea.

6. Were the Apostles well received wherever they preached the Gospel?

Just as Jesus Christ was crucified and put to death for preaching the gospel, the apostles of Jesus were persecuted and put to death. St. John alone, to whom Jesus entrusted the Blessed Virgin Mary, died a natural death about 100, although attempts were made on his life.

7. Did St. Paul have great success in preaching the Gospel?

Yes. This saint, formerly called Saul, was not one of the original twelve Apostles. He wrote many of the New Testament epistles of the Bible and is known as the Apostle of the Gentiles. He was born around A.D. 5-10 at Tarsus in Cilicia, a Roman colony in Asia Minor. By trade, he was a tent maker. He studied in Jerusalem at the rabbinical school of Hillel.

About the year 36 he stood by at the stoning to death of the deacon Stephen, the first martyr of the Church. After this, on the road to Damascus, Saul was converted as a dazzling light blinded him and he heard the voice of Jesus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (cf. Acts 9:3-9).

After his conversion, St. Paul went on three famous missionary journeys, in 45-49, 50-52, and 53-58. He thereby established local churches throughout Asia Minor.

This man, called an apostle because he too had seen the Lord, wrote fourteen epistles. He was beheaded in Rome in the year 67.

8. Did Jesus help the apostles in any special way to establish the Church?

Yes. As mentioned, he instigated the gift of tongues on Pentecost. The preaching of the apostles was also testified as true by miracles that accompanied the Good News. The holiness of the apostles, as the Holy Spirit worked in them to witness Christ, had a great effect on conversions, and the shedding of their blood in martyrdom became the seed for more conversions.

9. Did the Apostles preach to the Jews?

Yes, but for the most part they were not accepted. It was the will of God that the gospel first be preached to God's chosen people, as Christ Jesus himself did. Many Jews were converted but usually not from the leaders, who persecuted the Christians (as Saul did before his conversion). Christ had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Roman army, under Titus, in the year 70 destroyed Jerusalem. The destruction of the temple, the center of God's worship in the old covenant, signified the end of both the old law and the unity of the chosen people who did not accept Christ.

10. Did the Apostles offer the divine liturgy of the Mass and the sacraments?

Yes. The Acts of the Apostles in the Bible gives us a short view of the first establishment of the Christian Church. Acts is a history of the early Church, although it does not tell us what was done by all the apostles. We are told that the essentials of the Mass and the sacraments were present and were essential to early Christian life.

Acts 2:42 says: "They were persevering in the doctrines of the apostles and in the communication of the breaking of bread and in prayers."

Acts 8:17 and 19:6 tell us that after baptism the sacrament of confirmation was administered by imposing an Apostle's hands and invoking the Holy Spirit, as St. Peter and St. John did in Samaria and St. Paul in Ephesus.

Acts 19:18 says: "Many of them that believed came confessing and declaring their deeds."

Acts 13:3 says: "One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, 'I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.' So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off. " (This formula is still used in the rite of ordination.)

Ephesians 5:32 speaks of the mystery (sacrament) of matrimony.

Some books of the Bible are historical books, as well as the word of God, and give testimony to the various sacraments, such as the anointing of the sick (Jas 5:14) and penance (Jn 20:21-23).

l1. Did the early Church have a hierarchy of authority?

Yes. The Bible clearly — in more than one way — signals the special authority of St. Peter, the first pope. Peter presided over special functions of the apostles. The early Church had deacons, priests, and bishops, as well as the pope as visible head.

St. Ignatius, writing in 107, said: "Let all be obedient to the bishop as Jesus to the Father, to the priests as to the apostles, and to the deacons as God's law." Writing just after the close of the first century, he looks to the Church at Rome as the head of the whole Church. St. Ignatius said to the Philadelphians: "Partake of the one Eucharist; for one is the body of the Lord Jesus Christ and one is the chalice of his blood, one altar and one bishop with the priests and the deacons."

12. Do we have any writings from the immediate disciples of the apostles?

Yes. St. Clement of Rome, who was the third successor of St. Peter and fourth Pope (88-97), wrote a letter to the Corinthians. St. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John and bishop of Antioch, and history records seven of his letters. Another disciple of John, St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter. St. Barnabas, early companion of St. Paul, left a letter that is recorded in history.

St. Barnabus wrote about changing the Lord's day from Saturday to Sunday: "But we celebrate with festive joy the eighth day on which Jesus rose from the dead."

St. Ignatius wrote further about Sunday: "They [the Christians] have the new hope and do not keep the Sabbath but regulate their lives according to the Lord's day."

13. Did all twelve apostles leave sacred writings of the Bible?

Not all of them. Jesus commanded the apostles to go forth and preach to all nations, but did not command them to write a book (or any writings) as such. However, these apostles wrote: Saints Peter and Paul, John, Matthew, James, and Jude Thaddeus. Also the two evangelists who were disciples of the apostles, viz., St. Luke and St. Mark.

The writings of these apostles and evangelists make up the New Testament of the Bible. The authority of the Catholic Church has declared their writings the inspired word of God. Their writings form the books of the "canon~' of the New Testament.

The New Testament of the Bible is a Church book, written by churchmen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the Church's use, to assist it in its duty of preaching God's word.

It was the Church's Council of Carthage (in North Africa) that published a canonical list of the sacred scriptures. The Church existed before the world had the Bible as we know it. The Church was in existence after Pentecost, before the last of the New Testament was written. The Church existed hundreds of years before the world knew the Bible, with its many books, as we do today.

The chief work of the apostles, upon whom Christ built his Church with Peter as the "rock," was to preach and establish the Church throughout the world through the living, spoken word through which faith comes. "Faith comes by hearing."

The Gospel of St. Matthew was not compiled until about the year 50, several years after the Ascension and Pentecost. St. John is credited with having written his gospel about the year 97.

14. Where did the Catholic Church get its canon of Old Testament books?

The Church looked to ancient Jewish tradition for authentic writings before Christ's coming. Jesus Christ himself and his apostles respected the ancient Jewish traditions regarding the scriptures and quoted them. The Septuagint, or Greek translation of the Old Testament, made about 200 years before the coming of Christ, was used by the apostles and the first Christians.

The canon of both the Old and the New Testaments was defined in a council of the Church at Rome under Pope Damasus in 374 and again at the African councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397.

15. Did the Church make efforts in the First century to translate the Bible?

The Church of the first century did not have a bible with its canons of the Old and New Testaments, as it was near the end of the first century before the last part of the New Testament was written. The canons of these two testaments had not yet been clearly defined by the Church.

Once the authority of the Church had more clearly defined the texts which were truly the inspired word of God (spurious writings, claiming to be inspired, also circulated in the early Christian world), the Catholic Church authorized translations from the original Hebrew and Greek texts.

A Latin translation was made for the Christians of the Roman Empire, called Itala. An Egyptian or Coptic translation was in use as early as the second century, even though the canon was not yet clearly determined. By the fourth and fifth centuries, Ethiopian and Armenian translations of the Bible were in use.

Partial or total translations were made following the conversion of the barbarian nations of Europe. Bishop Ulfila, who invented the Gothic alphabet, made a Gothic translation about 360. The Bible was translated into Slavic by Saints Methodius and Cyril, apostles of the Slavs, for whom they invented the alphabet. Venerable Bede, a Benedictine monk in England, finished an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Gospel of St. John on his deathbed in 735.

16. Did the Apostles have to struggle against false teachers within the Church?

Yes. Christ promised the Holy Spirit to keep the Church one in divine truth in faith and morals; but individual teachers, not teaching in harmony with the Pope, can go astray. St. John wrote his gospel because Corinth and other localities were attacking the divinity of Jesus Christ. St. Peter condemned the teaching and practices of Simon Magus, who is called the Father of Heresy. The term "simony" comes from Simon, who offered money to St. Peter to obtain the power of imparting the gifts of the Holy Spirit. He was told: "Keep your money to yourself to perish with you." St. Paul also had to warn against false teachers.

Christ had predicted that false teachers would arise. At the Last Supper, Jesus prayed for unity in his Church.

17. Was the primacy of Peter's authority recognized in the first century?

Yes, and by the apostles as well as by the Christians of the first and succeeding centuries. Peter was the first apostle publicly to profess his faith in Jesus Christ, and Jesus promised Peter the primacy in the Church (Mt 16:16-19). After the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, this promise was fulfilled when Peter made his threefold profession of love for Jesus (Jn 21:15 ff.).

Peter acted as the leader of the first Christian community after Jesus ascended into heaven. He presided at the election of Matthias, and gave the first sermon on Pentecost as chief spokesman for the new Church. He was the first apostle to perform a miracle. Peter also pronounced the sentence on Anania and Sapphira and Simon Magus.

Peter and Paul had their differences over methods of evangelizing but they did not disagree on doctrine, as Paul too recognized the primacy of Peter in teaching. Paul referred to Peter as Kephas, "rock," which indicates that this great missionary-apostle accepted Peter as the foundation stone or rock of the Church.

18. Did the persecutions of the Roman emperors against the spread of Christianity begin when the Apostles were still alive?

Yes. Peter had left Jerusalem and begun his apostolic journeys, which finally took him to Rome. The first persecution was under Nero, beginning about the year 64. It was during the persecution under Nero that Peter, the first pope, was crucified. Peter, according to tradition, was buried at the foot of Vatican Hill. ConstaFatima Family Apostolate Book Storentine built a basilica over the site, which was replaced by the present St. Peter's Basilica at Vatican City in Rome.

It was in Rome that St. Peter wrote his two epistles, addressing them to new converts in Asia Minor. Through these epistles the first pope sought to strengthen the faith of the Christians and to encourage them in the practice of virtue. Christ had given Peter the command to strengthen the faith of his brethren.

St. Paul also died in the persecution under Nero. Nero set Rome afire and blamed the Christians for it. Christians were killed by the thousands in the streets and others were tortured in various ways, such as being covered with pitch and burned alive to entertain Nero at his nightly garden feasts.

St. John, the beloved apostle of Christ, was the youngest of the apostles when he was chosen. He grew to an old age, and according to tradition was cast into a caldron of boiling oil in the second persecution under the emperor Domitian. Miraculously, John was saved from death. He was then sent in exile to the island of Patmos, where he received divine revelations about the future of the Church and the glory of eternal life in heaven. He then wrote the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse).

St. James the Greater was beheaded under King Herod Agrippa in 43. St. James the Less, according to tradition, was cast from the wall of the temple in Jerusalem and killed with a club in the year 63. St.Andrew was crucified at Patras in Greece. St. Philip died at Hierapolis in Phrygia, Asia Minor. St. Bartholomew was flayed alive in Armenia.

19. Is there evidence in modern times that St. Peter was actually buried at Vatican Hill, where the Basilica now stands in his honor?

Yes. Pope Pius XII ordered excavations by archeologists under the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica. Scientists, after much study, agree that there is sufficient evidence in the archeological findings to point to this site as the burial place of St. Peter's body, over which the largest church building in Christendom was built. Archeologists in the twentieth century uncovered evidence that St. Peter in fact went to Rome and was buried on Vatican Hill. SUMMARY

By the year 150 St. Justin could write: "There is no people, neither among the barbarians, nor the Greeks, nor any known tribe, where prayers and thanksgivings are not offered to God in the name of Christ crucified." By the end of the first century the Church was already called "catholic."

Preaching Christ crucified appeared as foolishness to the proud and immoral pagans, and even the Jews of the dispersion were not in most cases willing to accept the Redeemer. On their journeys, the apostles of Christ everywhere found racial brethren who should have been the first disciples of the Messiah. But few disciples were found among them — in fact, many enemies. But those who received the faith were often heroic and suffered for it, and the blood of the martyrs became the seed of Christianity. How else can one explain the rapid spread of the Church to the nations of the world, when everything natural and the civil powers were opposed?

There is a lesson in this for our modern materialistic, pleasure-saturated society. For example, St. Paul, when invited to preach the faith before Felix, pagan governor of Syria, chose to treat of justice and chastity and the judgment to come. The governor was frightened at such teachings and ordered him away. Without openness to humility, purity, and Christian morality without compromise — regardless of what age or century — Christ and his church, which is his Mystical Body, will not be welcomed and embraced.

Christ Jesus came to establish the kingdom of God on earth and to bring it to its completion in heaven. The apostles, and the Church today, continue the mission of Christ. As many did not welcome Christ or his apostles and disciples, the same struggle goes on. The cross is a mystery of faith, and it is perpetuated in Catholic worship in the Mass. It is carried in our daily lives as we witness for Christ Jesus.

The apostolic age of the first century left the mark of apostolicity upon the Church. The four marks of the true Church have long been listed as (1) one, (2) holy, (3) catholic, and (4) apostolic. The Catholic Church is truly apostolic, for its history reaches back to the original apostles upon whom Christ founded hi! Church, with Peter, the rock, primary in teaching and ruling authority.


  1. Describe the world into which Jesus was born and in which he taught.
  2. Why do you think many of the chosen people could not accept Jesus as the promised Messiah?
  3. Did Jesus establish the Bible as the foundation of his Church? Explain your answer.
  4. Which came first, the Bible or the Church? Explain your answer.
  5. Show how the Church of the first century had a hierarchical structure of authority, much as we know today.
  6. What evidence do we have that the primacy of Peter was recognized from the days of Christ Jesus?
  7. To what would you attribute the success of the early Church, in spite of all natural obstacles?
  8. What evidence exists, even today, that the first pope, Peter, went to Rome and taught and died there?
  9. What are some of the special, supernatural helps the apostles received in spreading the true faith?
  10. Did the Church encourage use of the Bible in the first centuries? Indicate how.
  11. Can the Bible itself be considered a history book?

Fox, Rev. Robert J. "The Catholic Church in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." A Catechism of Church History: 2,000 Years of Faith and Tradition (Park Press Quality Printing, Jubilee 2000 Edition),

Reprinted by permission of the publisher and by the author, Fr. Robert J. Fox.


Father Robert J. Fox is the director of the Fatima Family Apostolate and editor of the Immaculate Heart Messenger. Before founding his own Apostolate and editing his own magazine Father Robert J. Fox for many years was a columnist with leading Catholic magazines, newspapers, and journals in the United States. In addition to being a retiired pastor from the Diocess of South Dakota and now lives in Hanceville, Alabama and offers daily Mass at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady's of Angels Monastery home Mother Angelica and the Poor Clare Nuns.

Category:  Catholic Doctrine
Published: Fatima Family Apostolate ( Non-Profit)
Publish Date: 2000 4th Edition
Nihl Obstat: Rev James N Joyce
Imprimatar: Most Rev. Paul V. Dudley
Pages: 296
Binding: Paperback
Dimensions: 9 L x 6 W x 3/4 H
Price: $9.95

Publisher Official Website: www.fatimafamily.org

Fatima Family Apostolate is dedicated to the sanctification of the family and the individual through spreading the Fatima message.  A non-profit Catholic missionary apostolate specializing in the publishing and distribution of Catholic books designed to aid Catholics on their journey towards heaven.

The Fatima Family Apostolate was started at the encouragement of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and is endorsed by the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family. It is now an international Apostolate, having members all over the world and publishes a
52-page quarterly magazine called the Immaculate Heart Messenger.

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