1. The Apostolic Period
|Key Dates #||
|30||Death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ
Day of Pentecost
|33||Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
|44||Death of Herod Agrippa
|47, 48||Paul's First Missionary Journey
|49||Council of Jerusalem
|49-52||Paul's second missionary journey
|51||Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome becomes so disruptive that the Jews are
expelled from the city
|52-56||Paul's third missionary journey
|57||Paul's arrest in Jerusalem
|57-59||Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea
|60-62||Paul under house arrest in Rome
|62-64||Paul at liberty again
|64||Fire of Rome. Emperor Nero blames the fire on the Christians. He persecutes the
church ruthlessly, and uses Christians as candles to light his garden. It is likely that
both Peter and Paul were executed during this persecution
|65||Death of Paul
|68||End of Nero's reign (he committed suicide and was succeeded by four Caesars in
one year, with Vespasian taking over in 69AD)
|70||Destruction of Jerusalem by Titus (became Emperor in 79AD, when his father
Vespasian died); Josephus records the events in detail in The Wars of the Jews;
historians claim more than a million died in the siege and 97,000 were taken away
|81-96||Reign of Domitian. As Emperor, he persecuted both Jews and Christians; he
demanded to be worshipped as "Lord and God"; those who denied his deity were
persecuted; his reign degenerated until he was assassinated in 96AD
|96||Death of Clement of Rome. He wrote a number of influential epistles to Corinth
|98||Trajan becomes Emperor. Trajan eventually instituted a policy toward Christians
that stayed in effect until the time of Aurelius. His policy was not to seek
Christians out, but if they were brought before the authorities they were to be
punished, usually executed, for being Christians
|100||Death of the Apostle John
|108||Ignatius led to Rome and martyred
|#||These dates are approximate. They are difficult to ascertain precisely, however
most historians agree on a range of only one or two years. Note that the birth of
Jesus was est. 3-4 BC.
The Apostolic Period started with the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. It
continued through the Day of Pentecost (sometimes called "The Birthday of the Church),
establishment of the church community in Jerusalem, the first wave of directed persecution,
Christian witness in Samaria, Antioch and other parts of the ancient world. Many of the events
of this period were recorded by Luke and published in a letter to a friend, that is known to us as
The Acts of the Apostles (some prefer the title The Acts of the Holy Spirit):
"In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach
until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles he had chosen." (Acts 1:1, 2).
The launch of the church occurred at a critical time:
- much of the known world was subject to a single empire, which meant that
communications were more viable than during any previous period in history
- a more or less united cultural and legal framework, the so-called "pax Romana" ("Roman
peace") extended across much of the known world from Italy to India
- Greek and Latin unified millions traditionally divided by common, written languages
(making mission easier to accomplish)
- Gentile "God fearers" (who lived by Jewish standards but were not circumcised)
influenced non-Jewish communities
- international trade flourished and travel was easier than ever before (note the range of
cultures described in connection with the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2).
Some first century churches were strictly Jewish, in both composition and praxis, eg the early
church leaders in Jerusalem, led by James.
While models for church life in our contemporary world often cite the first chapters of Acts, this
can be misleading. Christian communities in the (predominantly Gentile) Empire did not
necessarily reflect what church life in Jerusalem looked like structurally or in terms of worship
practices. It is important to read and interpret the New Testament contextually.
Acts and the New Testament
Acts depicts events in the life of the early church, the extension of the message to the Gentiles,
the intersection between Christianity and the Hellenic/Roman world. It shows us some of the
early cultural clashes between the followers of Christ and the other religions of the day (eg Acts
19:27). It points to growing opposition to Christianity, that would lead to widespread, officially
sanctioned/motivated persecution. Acts is a record of a tiny slice of Christian mission.
The rest of the New Testament is a collection of letters from Paul, Peter, James, John and
others, that address a range of matters concerning faith, doctrine, church life and the future
state of the church and the world.
The Apostolic period is so called because of the impact of the Apostles on the establishment and
spread of the early church, accelerated in part by persecution of Christians in Jerusalem (Acts
8:1). It covers the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. It extends slightly beyond the lives of the key
personalities of Acts.
- Jesus Christ
- Saul/Paul and his Jewish/Gentile friends/converts
- Ignatius (not mentioned in the New Testament, but a contemporary
- the spread of Christianity, the message of the suffering/resurrection and ongoing ministry of the Messiah/suffering servant/Son of God
- the impact of the message on Jewish society
- the reach of the Gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jews), starting with the household of Cornelius - this was consistent with God's call to Abraham (Genesis 18:18 and Galatians 3:8, 9) and the last recorded commandment of Jesus (the so-called Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20)
- attempts by Judaisers to retain Christianity as a branch of Judaism
- clashes between Christianity and Hellenic culture and Roman provincial governments
- Gnostic belief and tradition
- the impulse and impact of global mission
- theological matters in individual, diverse church communities/localities
- the humanity/deity of Jesus Christ (this debate continued over several centuries)
- persecution - the Roman historian and senator Tacitus (56-117) called Christianity a "most
mischievous superstition"; he accused Christians of all sorts of "abominations" and
claimed that they were "put to death as enemies of mankind"
- Apostolic authority and succession; the doctrine of apostolic succession is predicated on
the belief that the Apostles passed on their authority to successors. The Roman Catholic
Church regards Peter as the leader of the apostles, and that his successors carry the
greatest authority in Christendom and the representatives (vicars) of Christ. They believe
Peter became the first bishop of Rome, and that Roman bishops who followed him were
accepted by the early church as God's authority on earth. Nowhere in the Bible is any of
the apostles recorded as passing on their authority. The Biblical teaching is that
ministries in the church come from the purpose of Christ alone (Ephesians 4:11-16)
The Council of Jerusalem
The first church was located within the Jewish faith. Jesus was a Jew. Almost all of the first
Christians were Jews, who read the Torah (the Law), observed Jewish holy days, went to the
temple or synagogue, and celebrated Jesus as the Christ (Hebrew: Messiah). Peter was a strong
observer of the Law. It seems he never really broke away from this tradition in the way Paul and
many of his friends did. Paul advocated freedom from the Law for as a way of salvation (Romans
8:3). The church at Antioch sent Paul to Jerusalem to meet with the leaders of the movement
and settle the issue once and for all. It is clear from the New Testament that Peter and Paul saw
their primary mission calls being to evangelize Jews and Gentiles respectively (Galatians 2:7-10).
At the Council, Paul and Barnabas described what God had done through their missionary work
among the Gentiles. Peter described his encounter with Cornelius. Paul persuaded the leaders
of the Jerusalem church to exempt Gentile Christians from most Jewish commandments/
traditions. Jesus' brother James concluded, on behalf of the leadership (using Old Testament
Scripture to do so), that the law was unable to save and that Gentile Christians should not be
bound by Jewish traditions; they did not need to be circumcised (in the Abrahamic tradition) or
adhere strictly to the Law of Moses in order to become Christians. The only caveat was that
(apart from the foundational requirement of faith in Jesus Christ) Gentile believers were to
"abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from
sexual immorality" (Acts 15:29).
Within just 20 years of the birth of the church, its influence was being felt across much of the
empire. In part this was made possible by the (predominantly Jewish) initial wave of Christian
leadership aiming first to reach the Jewish diaspora with a Messianic message with which it
would have been broadly familiar; this gave them unparalleled entrees to communities that
might otherwise have been closed due to cultural differences. It was not long before the
number of Gentile Christians outnumbered Jewish Christians. Antioch (an important trading hub
between east and west) became the centre of Christianity outside of Jerusalem. It was at
Antioch that followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians.
The fall of Jerusalem in 70AD forced the remaining Christians out of the old city (many recalled
Jesus' prophecy about the impending destruction of the city and left before it was too late); as
they dispersed they carried the Gospel with them.
This is the name given to a number of "dualistic" movements that were a threat to early
Christian belief. Gnosticism combined Christian teaching with Greek philosophy. Gnostics
taught that a perfect God could never have created an evil physical world, or come in the flesh,
in the person of Jesus Christ. They believed that flesh is evil, trapping a divine spark in people
and that genuine salvation only comes from "knowledge" (superior enlightenment through
special experiences with God that most people do not have) and ritual. Gnostics taught that
salvation comes through overcoming matter, asceticism, not being contaminated by contact with
the world. Jesus, on the other hand, is not ashamed to call us (physical beings) His brothers (1
The New Testament writers taught unequivocally in the following terms:
"Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He
appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached
among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory" (1 Timothy
Ignatius of Antioch is held to have been the third Bishop of Antioch and a disciple of the Apostle
John. When he was an old man, he met the Emperor Trajan who was on his way to the Parthian
War in 107 AD. Trajan ordered that he be taken in chains to Rome and thrown to the wild beasts
for the entertainment of the people. While travelling to Rome Ignatius wrote a series of letters
that have been preserved as examples early church life, and role of Christian leaders
("bishops"). He taught the importance of living in the imitation of Jesus Christ. His "Rome
Epistles" describe his arrest and journey to Rome. His surviving writings stress the roles of
bishops and presbyters, indicating that leadership roles (and the supremacy of particular
leaders) in the church were becoming institutionalised. (See The Epistle of Ignatius to the
Ephesians: Ignatius cites the letters of Paul in various places, but also writes that, "We should
look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself".)
According to Christian tradition Ignatius died in the Colosseum in Rome in 108 AD.
"I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake,
if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to
be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God's wheat, and I
am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of
Christ." (letter to the Romans - while the "Epistles of Ignatius" are highly regarded by
Episcopalians, for their teaching value, they have never been accepted as Scripture;
some historians regard works attributed to Ignatius as forgeries).
Many Gnostics in the first century held that Jesus Christ did not have a real body; he only
appeared to be human. John spoke against this heresy in his epistles 2 and 3 John. Ignatius also
combatted Gnosticism (and Docetism, which also denied the coming of Christ in a human body)
by teaching that Christ was God and that he had truly come in the flesh: "Jesus Christ was of
the race of David, the child of Mary, who was truly born and ate and drank, was truly persecuted
under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died".
- If Jesus had not come as a human He would not have been able to be our representative,
standing in our place, facing temptation, suffering, separation from God because of the
weight of sin; we could never hope to become like Him, following the example of His life
on earth. The Epistle to the Hebrews has a lot to say about the implications of the
Themes of the New Testament
ROMANS ("The Gospel According to Paul")
Writing to Christians at Rome, whom he hoped to visit, Paul presents his understanding of
the Christian faith: the universality of sin; the powerlessness of the law as a way of
salvation; the nature of God's saving grace in Christ, and its application in life.
Addresses doctrinal and ethical problems that were disturbing the Corinthian church.
Writing from Ephesus Paul addresses the significance of the new life in Christ,
demonstrated in Christian fellowship. He advises them about the use of spiritual gifts,
Christian love, and the implications of the Resurrection.
Often called "the hard letter", it recounts the difficulties and hardships Paul has endured
in the service of Christ and deals with some difficult character issues in the church. (It is
clear a third epistle was written by Paul to the Corinthians, but is has been lost.)
Paul's great letter on Christian freedom, versus Judaisers who insisted that Gentiles
needed to observe the Law in order to be saved. The overall emphasis is similar to
Romans. The doctrinal section is followed by instructions in practical Christian living
One of Paul's four "Imprisonment Letters" - Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon being
the others. This letter is generally believed to have been a circular discussing the
Christian's position in Christ, the Church as the body of Christ, its relationship to God,
and practical outworking of the Gospel and Christian faith.
A letter of "joy". Paul expresses his gratitude for the Philippians' love and material help.
He declares the primacy of Christ, above all things. The epistle presents the humility of
Jesus. It is also practical, cf Paul's advice to Euodia and Syntyche.
Known for its doctrine. Paul insists upon the deity and Lordship of Christ. Addresses the
impact of non-Christian philosophies, including Gnosticism.
I & II THESSALONIANS
Paul's answers to some basic challenges in the church at Thessalonica. The main themes
are the last days and the return of Christ, but they letters contains pithy remarks on
successful Christian living.
I & II TIMOTHY
Along with Titus, these two personal letters (to Timothy) are known as Paul's "pastoral
epistles", providing teaching on Christian leadership (standards, appointments, roles,
ministry challenges and advice). The letters discuss the duties and qualifications of
church officers, the inspiration of the Bible, the treatment of widows and others in the
church, interpersonal relationships between Christians and the expectation of a future
reward in Christ.
A letter from Paul to a young Christian leader minister whom he had left in Crete to
establish the church and its leadership structure. A practical epistle, it discusses
everyday problems faced by leaders in the Christian community.
Addressed to Philemon, a friend of Paul. Paul asks Philemon, the master of Onesimus, a
runaway slave whom he has led to Christ in Rome, to receive him back as a brother. The
epistle shows a practical demonstration of brotherhood in Christ that challenged many
Roman traditions, biases and the institution of slavery.
Authorship uncertain. Written to encourage Christians under pressure not to backslide
and revert to the law for salvation. Draws heavily on typology in the Old Testament to
portray Jesus, who performed the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Defines and exemplifies
faith and the finality of the person and work of Christ.
Usually identified with James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in
Jerusalem. Addressed to the "the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad", it is the
most Jewish epistle in the New Testament. Deals with Christian living and ethics. James
insists that works, not words alone, are the true evidence of faith in Christ.
Written by Peter. Reflects a time of suffering and trial facing the church everywhere, in
the context of widespread persecution of the Christians by the Romans, especially under
Nero. Emphasis a life of purity, godly living, faithfulness to Christ.
A "reminder" of the truth of the Gospel, against the attacks of false teachers. A call to
remain faithful to Him even in times of persecution. God will keep His promises.
Christians should be pure as they await the return of Christ.
JOHN I, II and III
Written around 90-95 AD. Focus on the love of God, the certainty of eternal life and
warnings against false teaching.
A warning against false teaching and backsliding. Also a warning against antinomianism,
teachers who used the freedom and grace of the Gospel as licences to sin.
Written by the Apostle John who had been exiled to the Greek island of Patmos because
of his faith. Addressed to seven specific churches in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Revelation
warns against spiritual complacency and urges believers to remain true to Christ despite
false teaching or persecution. Full of symbolism. Not easy to understand (and subject of
debate for centuries), but the central message is Christ and His ultimate victories.
What Happened to the Apostles and Other Leaders?
The only apostle whose death is recorded in the New Testament is James (Acts 12:2), whom King
Herod "put to death with the sword," (probably beheaded).
Details of the deaths of most (not all) of the other apostles are subject of church traditions, with
little or no contestable evidence:
- Peter - crucified upside-down in Rome in fulfilment of Jesus' prophecy (John 21:18) -
there is no conclusive evidence that Peter was ever in Rome
- Matthew - martyred in Ethiopia, beheaded with a sword
- John - boiled in a vat of oil during a wave of persecution; he was saved from death by a
miracle, subsequently sentenced to the prison island of Patmos, where he had a vision/s
and wrote Revelation; he was later freed and returned to lead a Christian community in
Ephesus, in what is now Turkey, where he eventually died peacefully as an old man
- James, the brother of Jesus (not officially an apostle) - thrown from the southeast
pinnacle of the temple, then beaten to death with a club
- Mark - died in Alexandria, Egypt after being dragged by horses through the streets
- Bartholomew (Nathanael) - a missionary to Asia; martyred in Armenia, by being flayed to
death by a whip
- Andrew - crucified on an x-shaped cross in Greece
- Jude - killed with arrows when he refused to renounce his faith in Christ
- Thomas - stabbed with a spear in India during a missionary trip to establish the church
there (Thomasine Christianity is still widespread in southern India)
- Matthias -stoned, then beheaded
- Paul - tortured and then beheaded by Nero in Rome in A.D. 67
- Phillip - crucified
Results of the Apostolic Period
"These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here" (Acts 17:6 - Paul
and his companions in Thessalonica).
Unlike Judaism, which was exclusive, Christianity was proclaimed as the message of God for
salvation to the entire world. By the end of the first century, the Gospel had spread a long way
from Jerusalem. It withstood persecution and false teaching and survived (triumphed) the
deaths of the first wave of leaders. It spread to Mesopotamia and Parthia, Gaul and Spain,
across the north of Africa, Asia Minor, and southern Europe.
Christianity impacted the entire world. It brought together races of people who had no
traditional ties. It brought rulers, merchants, slaves, men and women into relationship as never
before. The message was:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you
are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28).
"The Christians are not separated from other men by earthly abode, by language, or by
customs. They dwell nowhere in cities by themselves; they do not use a different
language, or affect a singular mode of life. They dwell in the cities of the Greeks, and of
the barbarians, each as his lot has been cast; and while they conform to the usages of the
country, in respect to dress, food, and other things pertaining to the outward life, they
yet show a peculiarity of conduct wonderful and striking to all. They obey the existing
laws, and conquer the laws by their own living." (Letter to Digonet, early 2nd century;
cited in "General History of the Christian Religion and Church," Dr Augustus Neander
(translation by Joseph Torrey), Vol. 1, sec. 1, p. 69. Boston: Crocker and Brewster,1854.)
The early Christian community proclaimed God's command to live blameless lives, in preparation
for the return of Christ. The Christian message challenged other religions and outlasted them.
It proclaimed a risen Saviour and an eternal hope, for all people. This would appeal to men and
women in every age, but it would also lead to enduring persecution. Only the Holy Spirit could
give men and women the power to proclaim the message and to live it.
The underlying focus of activity and theology during the Apostolic Period was the personal
relationship the Apostles and other leaders of the Christian community had with Jesus Christ,
during his earthly ministry (many of them had been with Him from the outset), Passion and
resurrection life. Many of them were in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost and were
foundational to His mission of reaching out to the surrounding world, establishing and building
His church. Those who did not know Jesus personally knew those who did. However, by the
beginning of the second century Jesus had not returned, all of the Apostles had passed on and
the baton had been transferred to a new generation who relied instead on word of mouth and
tradition. The various histories of the life of Jesus (the Gospels and Acts) and letters written by
his followers to new Christians and church communities (Romans to Revelation) had not yet been
assembled into what we now take for granted as the New Testament. As we move from the
Apostolic Period to future generations we pass an important watershed. Would the Christian
church remain faithful to the Gospel? Would the mission of world evangelism and discipleship
continue, cease or be changed?
Barclay, W - The Mind of St Paul; The Master's Men
Renwick, AM, The Story of the Church
A Lion Handbook, 1990, The History of Christianity
Miller, A, Miller's Church History: From the First to the TwentiethCentury
The Fall of Jerusalem