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Church of the First Century -
Chapter 2 in A Catechism of Church History
FR. ROBERT J. FOX
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Did the Apostles offer the divine liturgy of the Mass and the
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).
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
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."
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
Did the Apostles have to struggle against false teachers within the
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.
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
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
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. Constantine
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.
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
- Describe the world into
which Jesus was born and in which he taught.
- Why do you think many of
the chosen people could not accept Jesus as the promised Messiah?
- Did Jesus establish the
Bible as the foundation of his Church? Explain your answer.
- Which came first, the Bible
or the Church? Explain your answer.
- Show how the Church of the
first century had a hierarchical structure of authority, much as we
- What evidence do we have
that the primacy of Peter was recognized from the days of Christ Jesus?
- To what would you attribute
the success of the early Church, in spite of all natural obstacles?
- What evidence exists, even
today, that the first pope, Peter, went to Rome and taught and died
- What are some of the
special, supernatural helps the apostles received in spreading the true
- Did the Church encourage
use of the Bible in the first centuries? Indicate how.
- 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.
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