Almost all the information about Jesus himself and about early Christianity comes from those who claimed to be his followers. Because they wrote to persuade believers rather than to satisfy historical curiosity, this information often raises more questions than it answers, and no one has ever succeeded in harmonizing all of it into a coherent and completely satisfying chronological account. Because of the nature of these sources, it is impossible, except in a highly tentative way, to distinguish between the original teachings of Jesus and the developing teachings about Jesus in early Christian communities.
What is known is that the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth early attracted a following of those who believed him to be a new prophet. Their recollections of his words and deeds, transmitted to posterity through those who eventually composed the Gospels, recall Jesus’ days on earth in the light of experiences identified by early Christians with the miracle of his resurrection from the dead on the first Easter. They concluded that what he had shown himself to be by the resurrection, he must have been already when he walked among the inhabitants of Palestine—and, indeed, must have been even before he was born of Mary, in the very being of God from eternity. They drew upon the language of their Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible, which Christians came to call the Old Testament) to give an account of the reality, “ever ancient, ever new,” that they had learned to know as the apostles of Jesus Christ. Believing that it had been his will and command that they should band together in a new community, as the saving remnant of the people of Israel, these Jewish Christians became the first church, in Jerusalem. There it was that they believed themselves to be receiving his promised gift of the Holy Spirit and of a new power.
A. The Beginnings of the Church
Jerusalem was the center of the Christian movement, at least until its destruction by Roman armies in AD 70, but from this center Christianity radiated to other cities and towns in Palestine and beyond. At first, its appeal was largely, although not completely, confined to the adherents of Judaism, to whom it presented itself as “new,” not in the sense of novel and brand-new, but in the sense of continuing and fulfilling what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Already in its very beginnings, therefore, Christianity manifested a dual relation to the Jewish faith, a relation of continuity and yet of fulfillment, of antithesis and yet of affirmation. The forced conversions of Jews in the Middle Ages and the history of anti-Semitism (despite official condemnations of both by church leaders) are evidence that the antithesis could easily overshadow the affirmation. The fateful loss of continuity with Judaism has, however, never been total. Above all, the presence of so many elements of Judaism in the Christian Bible has acted to remind Christians that he whom they worshipped as their Lord was himself a Jew, and that the New Testament did not stand on its own but was appended to the Old.
An important source of the alienation of Christianity from its Jewish roots was the change in the membership of the church that took place by the end of the 2nd century (just when, and how, is uncertain). At some point, Christians with Gentile backgrounds began to outnumber Jewish Christians. Clearly, the work of the apostle Paul was influential. Born a Jew, he was deeply involved in the destiny of Judaism, but as a result of his conversion, he believed that he was the “chosen instrument” to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles. He was the one who formulated, in his Epistles (see Epistle) to several early Christian congregations, many of the ideas and terms that were to constitute the core of Christian belief. He deserves the title of the “first Christian theologian,” and most theologians who came after him based their concepts and systems on his Epistles, now collected and codified in the New Testament. See also Paul, Saint.
From these Epistles and from other sources in the first two centuries it is possible to gain some notion of how the early congregations were organized. The Epistles to Timothy and to Titus bearing the name of Paul (although many biblical scholars now find his authorship of these letters implausible) show the beginnings of an organization based on an orderly transmission of leadership from the generation of the first apostles (including Paul himself) to subsequent “bishops,” but the fluid use of such terms as bishop, presbyter, and deacon in the documents precludes identification of a single and uniform policy. By the 3rd century agreement was widespread about the authority of the bishop as the link with the apostles. He was such a link, however, only if in his life and teaching he adhered to the teaching of the apostles as this was laid down in the New Testament and in the “deposit of faith” transmitted by the apostolic churches.