EARLY CHURCH HISTORY
Written by: North, Dr. James B. Posted on: 04/10/2003
EARLY CHURCH HISTORY
A Study of the History of the Early Church
in the First Six Centuries
Notes from a course taught by
Dr. James B. North
Cincinnati Bible Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio
NOTE: The class notes are preceded by a general outline/table of contents. Much more detailed
notes follow this introductory section.
I. First Century Context ..................................... 6
A. Christianity and Other Religions.
2. Mystery Religions.
B. Spread of Christianity.
C. Organization of early Church.
D. Relations with the Roman Empire.
1. Religio licita/illicita.
2. Nero (54-68).
3. Domitian (81-96).
II. Imperial Persecution (96-202) ............................. 10
A. Nerva (96-98).
B. Trajan (98-117).
C. Hadrian (117-138).
D. Antonius Pius (138-160).
2. The Apologists.
a. Justin Martyr (100-165).
b. Athenagoras (176).
c. Epistle to Diognetus.
E. Marcus Aurelius (160-180).
1. Thundering Legion.
2. End of the Pax Romana.
F. Commodus (180-192).
G. Septimus Severus (193-211).
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III. Bishop, Creed, and Canon .................................. 15
A. Office of Bishop.
1. Ignatius (30-107/115).
3. Irenaeus (130-200).
1. Marcion (144).
2. Muratorian Fragment (170).
IV. Early Third Century: Heresy and Order ..................... 19
1. Philo (20 BC--50 AD).
2. Pantaenus (?-190).
3. Clement (150-215).
4. Origen (184-254).
B. The West.
1. Easter controversies.
2. Monarchians--Sabellius (215 ?).
3. Hippolytus (170-236).
4. Callistus (217-222).
5. Tertullian (160-220).
V. Later Persecution ......................................... 23
A. Decius (249-251).
2. Cyprian (?-258).
B. Valerian (253-260).
C. Diocletian (284-305).
1. Tetrarchy formed.
2. Persecution in 303.
D. Galerius (305-311).
VI. Constantine ............................................... 27
A. Political Background.
1. Rise to become Augustus.
2. Disputes and wars.
3. Constantine's victory in the West.
4. Constantine and the Church.
5. Battles with Licinius.
B. Was Constantine a Christian?
1. Favors granted to the Church.
2. Developing Church structure.
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1. Background in Africa.
2. Attempts at resolution.
VII. Arianism and Nicaea ....................................... 33
A. Arius (250-336).
B. Council of Nicaea.
1. Called by Constantine.
2. Nicene Creed.
C. Later Troubles.
2. Athanasius (296-373).
a. Eustathius of Antioch (324-330).
b. Marcellus of Ancyra (? - 374).
VIII. From Constantine to Theodosius ............................ 37
A. Division of the Empire.
1. Political reunification.
2. Religious problems.
a. "Dedication" Council.
b. Council of Sardica.
B. Julian (361-363).
2. Cappadocian theologians.
C. Jovian (363-364).
D. Valentinian (364-375).
1. Valens (364-378).
2. Theodosius (379-395).
E. Gratian (375-383).
F. Valentinian II (383-391).
G. Council of Constantinople.
2. Justina and chapel.
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a. Monks at Callinicum
b. Mob at Thessalonica.
IX. Monasticism ............................................... 42
A. Impulses of Monasticism.
2. Greek philosophy.
3. White martyrdom.
B. Monasticism in the East.
1. Anthony (251-356).
2. Pachomius (290-346).
a. Coenobitic monasticism.
b. Vow of obedience.
3. Basil (330-379).
a. Rule of Basil.
b. Extreme severities.
4. Simeon Stylites (390-459).
C. Monasticism in the West.
1. Jerome (342-420).
2. Martin of Tours (335-397).
3. Honoratus (350-429).
4. Benedict of Nursia (480-550).
5. Cassiodorus (485-580).
X. Augustine and the Fifth Century ........................... 47
A. Augustine (354-430).
1. Political division and the sack of Rome.
2. Augustine's early life.
3. Pelagius (? - 419).
4. City of God.
B. Roman Claims.
C. Theological controversy.
XI. Celtic Christianity ....................................... 53
2. Christianity in Gaul.
3. Christianity in Britain.
4. Ninian (360-432).
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5. Patrick (389-461).
B. Political Pressures.
1. Roman needs.
2. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.
3. Gildas (500-570) and Ambrosius Aurelianus.
C. Form of Christianity.
1. Different cultural base.
2. Celtic monasticism.
5. Love of books--Columban (521-597).
6. Columbanus (550-615).
XII. Christianity and the German Tribes ......................... 57
A. Early German activity.
1. Work of Ulfilas.
2. Visigoths--Alaric, Aistulf.
3. Vandals--Gaiseric (428-477).
4. Burgundians--Gundobad (480-516).
5. Franks--Clovis (481-511).
1. Emperor Honorius (395-423).
2. Aetius and the Huns.
3. Ricimer (456-472).
4. Odovacer (476-493).
1. Zeno (474-491).
2. Acacian schism (482-519).
3. Ostrogoths--Theodoric (475-526).
XIII. Justinian and the Byzantine Empire ......................... 60
A. Eastern politics.
2. Anastasius I (491-518).
3. Justin I (518-527).
B. Justinian (527-565).
1. End of Acacian schism.
2. Theodora (500-547).
3. Reconquest of the West.
6. Fifth Ecumenical Council.
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XIV. Gregory the Great .......................................... 65
A. Empire Affairs.
1. Justin II (565-578).
B. Gregory the Great and His Times.
1. Early life.
2. Gregory's career as a diplomat.
3. Gregory's career as a churchman.
4. Ways Gregory exercised leadership.
5. Gregory the Great's diverse roles.
C. Transition to the Middle Ages.
EARLY CHURCH HISTORY NOTES
I. FIRST CENTURY CONTEXT.
A. Christianity and Other Religions.
a. Judaism of 1st century was not monolithic.
1) Variety of sects w/i 1st century Judaism.
a) Basic Info.: Monastic, ascetic, arose ca.
150 B.C. & lasted about 200 yrs. Never left
Palestine. Josephus first mention. Qumran
a center. Est. 4,000 members. Dualistic
theology; Teacher of Righteousness.
b) Alleged Relation to Christianity: John in
Wilderness of Judea; Jesus tempted in
Wilderness--near Qumran. Is Essene Judaism
the backdrop of Christianity? Is Jesus
following model of Teacher of Righteousness?
Consensus is there are similarities but not
a direct relationship.
b. Other characteristics of 1st century Judaism:
1) Since captivity Judaism steered clear of
2) Diaspora Judaism with synagogues was a recent
3) Strong anti-Semitism (Jews clannish, monotheism).
4) Some attracted to Judaism and monotheism.
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2. Mystery Religions.
a. Widespread in Empire but associated with specific
1) Phrygia ... Attis, Cybele.
2) Egypt ..... Serapis, Isis, Osiris.
3) Persia .... Mithraism.
b. Items in Common:
1) Secret initiation ceremony (cf. Masonic orders).
2) Promise of salvation through particular deity
3) Promised the initiate contact ("personal
relationship") with deity.
4) Focus on young god (m/f) who dies and is brought
back to life, bringing great blessings.
5) Cult of Magna Mater--Taurobolium ceremony: Bull
is sacrificed on grate over pit. In pit priest
or initiate "baptized" in blood, thus partaking
of strength & vitality of deity. Phrase, "Reborn
from eternity" popular terminology.
c. Relationship to early Christianity.
1) In 1920s many noticed similarities--Christianity
original or borrow from mystery religions?
2) Since WW II known that most evidence for mystery
religions is post-Christian.
a) 1st evidence for Taurobolium ceremony is not
until A.D. 143.
b) First citation of "Reborn from Eternity"
phrase is not until 4th century.
3) Similarities suggest Mystery Religions borrowed
a. Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Atomism.
b. Asked big questions--What is life and its meaning?
c. Growing dissatisfaction with philosophy in classical
period (e.g. Lucretius).
1) Pessimism; religious options not answering big
2) Seneca (4 B.C.--A.D. 65): Many obsessed with
death; pervasive air of despair.
d. Many early X's spoke kindly of philosophy as
preparation for greater revelation of Christ.
a. General information:
1) Complex system; embryo state in 1st century.
2) Recognizable only in X'n form--Gnostics thought
of themselves as only true X's.
3) Major threat to 2nd century X'ty; nearly won out!
4) Significant teachers: Valentinus, Basilides,
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b. GNOSTIC THEOLOGY: Dualistic; spiritual superior to
physical. Hierarchy with emanations (aeons) between
God and Demiurge or lesser god who created world.
People are combination of flesh and spirit. Gnostic
theology an attempt to explain and deal with that
fact. A-historical; purely speculative. Jesus came
with special gnosis which will free man from body
and help him ascend to God. Salvation by knowledge,
not atonement. Jesus less savior than a teacher.
Some Gnostics thought early church corrupted pure
teaching of Jesus--others thought apostles themselves
c. Gnostics and the Incarnation.
1) Docetism--Jesus only seemed to be human (1 John
seems--no pun intended--to address this heresy).
2) Cerinthus (1st century Gnostic):
a) Jesus human with Spirit inhabiting him at
b) Spirit left before death on cross (instead
of "My God, my God ..."-"My power, my power
why have you forsaken me?"
c) John and Cerinthus at baths (Papias via
d. Belief that flesh is evil led to 2 tendencies in
1) Ascetic--body must be conquered.
2) Libertine--body evil; indulge; "it doesn't
B. Spread of Christianity.
1. The "fullness of times" (Gal. 4:4).
a. Unified empire--no customs/passport barriers.
b. Latin official language; Greek language of commerce.
c. Jewish concentrations in every major city.
d. General dissatisfaction with philosophy.
2. Major Cities--Christianity prob. there by mid-century
(Ephesus, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome).
3. Apostolic travels (acc. to tradition):
a. Thomas to India.
b. James to Spain (buried Campostello?; San Diego = St.
c. James, Paul, Joseph of Arimathea to Great Britain.
d. Peter to Rome.
e. Note 1 Cor. 9:5--"Right to lead wife as Peter & other
1) Some married.
2) They traveled.
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f. Adolph Harnack in MISSION AND EXPANSION OF EARLY
CHURCH says X'ty pops up everywhere but with no
documented origins. Result of "small people"--
businessmen, soldiers, etc.
4. Christianity an urban phenomenon.
a. Urban for most part with exception of Palestine.
b. Paul went to cities and their synagogues for an
c. Urban vs. Rural populations:
1) Urban populations more receptive to change.
2) Rural population held longer to paganism; paganus
--word itself means "rural dweller!" Paganism
was religion of countryside. May have been due
to Christianity conquering the cities.
C. Organization of the Early Church.
1. General Officers: Authority throughout church (cf. Gal. 1).
c. Evangelists (itinerant).
d. Teachers (itinerant--cf. 3 John's mention of
2. Local Officers: Authority only in local church (cf. Phil.
a. Bishops/Elders: Same office, always plural, used
interchangeably in NT (Acts 20; 1 Pt. 5; 1 Tim. 3).
b. Deacons: Servants of the church.
3. Problem: General officers died out fairly soon--what then?
D. Relations with the Empire.
1. Christianity first viewed as sect within Judaism.
a. Roman tolerance--accepted religions of new regions
b. Religio licita--a "licensed religion."
1) Judaism accepted because of antiquity.
2) Concern about resistance movements cloaked in
3) New religions unlicensed because
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