JESUS CHRIST AND THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
"You should know how to behave in the household of God,
which is the church of the living God,
the pillar and foundation of truth."
I Timothy 3:15
JESUS CHRIST AND THE APOSTLES
The point of origin of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ.
This page reviews the transmission of the Christian faith from Jesus Christ and the Apostles through the Traditions of the early Christian Church and the formation of the Canon of the New Testament of the Bible.
God has revealed himself to man through Divine Revelation, by sending us his beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. God chose to reveal himself to us so that we may become partakers of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God first made himself known by creating our first parents, Adam and Eve, in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). Following the Fall of Adam and Eve through original sin, God's promise of Redemption gave them the hope of salvation (Genesis 3:15). In preparing for the redemption of the human race, God made covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses and the people and prophets of Israel. Salvation history is fulfilled through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word made Flesh.
Our appropriate personal response in our relationship with Christ Jesus is what St. Paul calls "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5, 16:26)!
There were three stages in the formation of the Gospels: the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, the Oral Tradition of the Apostles, and the Written Word.
THE LIFE AND TEACHINGS OF JESUS CHRIST
In the narrative Gospel of Mark, Jesus of Nazareth called his first four Apostles, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, and then formed the Twelve. The first twelve Apostles followed him from the beginning, hearing his words and seeing his deeds (Luke 1:2). He taught them through parables and performed miracles. Christ Jesus is the mediator and fullness of all revelation.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper and directed his Twelve Apostles (Luke 22:19) to
"Do this in memory of me."
Jesus Christ suffered and died on the Cross for our Redemption. Following his Resurrection, Jesus spent 40 days instructing his Apostles and speaking about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3) before his Ascension. He informed them that they will "receive power from the Holy Spirit" to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Paschal Mystery of Christ refers to his Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, through which he accomplished our salvation. Christ's life, teaching and miracles formed the faith of his Apostles and disciples, and inspired them to hand on his message of salvation to future generations.
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?"
Gospel of Matthew 16:24-26
And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them
in all the scriptures the things referring to himself.
Gospel of Luke 24:27
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written,
I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
Gospel of John 21:25
But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years,
and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness,
but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Second Peter 3:8-9
THE ORAL TRADITION OF THE APOSTLES
The Holy Spirit appeared at Pentecost, ten days after the Ascension of Jesus, to the Apostles and disciples in the Upper Room, and inspired them to proclaim the faith (Acts 1:13-2:4). The Twelve Apostles at the Pentecost were Peter, Andrew, James and John, Matthew, Philip, Thomas, Nathaniel Bartholomew, James son of Alpheus, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, and Matthias. There were about one hundred and twenty persons gathered together in the Upper Room. This community of disciples of Jesus was the beginning of our Church. The oral tradition of the Apostles was established in the infancy period of the Church, from the time of Jesus to the written Gospels. During this period the Christian faith was transmitted by word of mouth (Romans 10:14-15).
The Acts of the Apostles describes the emergence of Christianity beginning with the mission in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. St. Luke portrays the actions of the Apostles, focusing primarily on Peter, upon whom Jesus founded his Church, and Paul, who was converted when he saw the risen Christ. Acts describes Peter's early leadership and ministry, such as his powerful speeches in Jerusalem (Acts 2-5), the healings of Aeneas and Tabitha (Acts 9), his mission to the Gentiles and return to Jerusalem (Acts 10-12), and his presiding at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Following his conversion (Acts 9:1-9), Paul first preached in Damascus, Syria, traveled to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus where he stayed for three years (Galatians 1:17-18). Peter and Paul met in Antioch (Galatians 2:11). Peter then went to Rome, while Paul made three missionary journeys from Antioch, traveling as far as Dalmatia or "Illyricum" (Romans 15:19). During Paul's second missionary journey (Acts 16:7-12), the Spirit of Jesus redirected Paul and Luke to Macedonia, a journey which was the first recorded introduction of Christianity into Europe! The Acts of the Apostles concludes with Paul's fourth missionary journey to Malta and Rome as a prisoner in chains.
Heeding the message of Jesus Christ to Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), the Apostles traveled to all parts of the known world to proclaim Christianity. Andrew, Peter's brother, evangelized Byzantium, appointed Stachys (Romans 16:9) the first Bishop of Byzantium, and was crucified in Patras, Greece. James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, is believed to have preached in Spain; he is the only Apostle to have his martyrdom recorded in the Bible (Acts 12:2). John, the son of Zebedee and the brother of James, was the "one Jesus loved." He is called the Theologian for his mystical writings - the Gospel of John, three Letters, and the Book of Revelation. Christ on the Cross entrusted his mother Mary to John (John 19:26-27), who took her with him to Ephesus; he was later exiled to the island of Patmos. James, son of Alphaeus, played an important role as head of the Church of Jerusalem and writer of the Letter of James in the Bible. According to the historian Flavius Josephus, he was stoned to death in 62 AD. Tradition has it that Matthew went to Antioch and wrote his Gospel there in Hebrew or Aramaic. Philip preached the Gospel in Phrygia, Asia Minor and was martyred in Hierapolis. Nathaniel, Son of Talmay, or in Aramaic Nathaniel Bartholomew, and Jude Thaddeus, the author of the Letter of Jude, brought the faith to Armenia. Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin, is known as Doubting Thomas for questioning the Lord's Resurrection. But when he put his hand in the Lord's side, he reacted with a beautiful profession of faith: "My Lord and My God" (John 20:28). Thomas traveled through Chaldea all the way to India!
And I say also unto thee, that 'thou art Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven;
and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people;
and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians.
Acts of the Apostles 11:26
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?
And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?
And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?
As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
Letter of Paul to the Romans 10:14-15
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’
In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying,
‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians 11:23-26
THE WRITTEN WORD
In order to fulfill Christ's commission to make disciples of all nations, some Apostles under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to the written Word. It is believed that the first Christian Letters were composed by St. Paul in the mid-first century AD.
Apostolic writings were considered Scripture in the early Church. For instance, I Timothy 5:18 refers to Luke 10:7, and II Peter 3:15-16 refers to Paul's writings as Scripture. Since no original manuscript by the author of a biblical book has yet been discovered, we cannot truly say when Apostolic writings were actually composed. An important observation is that not one Christian writer recorded the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Matthew 24:1, Mark 13:1, and Luke 21:5-6 recount the prediction of the destruction of the Temple. According to the prologue of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of Luke was written before Acts. It is noted that Acts ended abruptly with St. Paul under house arrest around 62 AD, with no mention of his trial or his subsequent activities. Furthermore, Luke did not mention the Roman persecution of Christians or the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in the mid-60s, the leading figures in Acts. Thus it is possible that the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, the Pauline writings, and First Peter may have been composed prior to 70 AD.
Mention of Apostolic writings began to appear with the approach of the second century. The Apostolic Fathers were the next generation of Church leaders who received the Faith directly from the Apostles. St. Clement (Philippians 4:3), the Bishop of Rome in his Epistle to Corinth in 96 AD, referred to Paul's Letter to the Corinthians (47). St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven Letters circa 110 AD on the road to martyrdom in Rome and was one of the first to distinguish between the writings of the prophets and the Gospel; he often referred to the sayings of Matthew. A disciple of the Apostle John, St. Polycarp became the Bishop of Smyrna in the second century AD and quoted the writings of Peter, Paul, and John. St. Justin Martyr placed the memoirs of the Apostles on equal footing with the writings of the Prophets in 155 AD.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;
but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that believing you may have life in his name.
Gospel of John 20:30-31
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which
you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.
Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians 2:15
What was from the beginning, what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life -
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us -
what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.
First Letter of John 1:1-4
Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation,
for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God.
Second Peter 1:20-21
THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH
The heart of Christian tradition and the Christian way of life is Jesus Christ.
The Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:24) and provides continuity for the Word of God.
Transmission of the Christian faith was dependent on Traditions in the Early Christian Church, which included the Memorial of the Last Supper - the Mass or Divine Liturgy with the celebration of the Eucharist or Communion, on Sunday the Lord's Day (Revelation 1:10), and Prayer, such as the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed, a profession of faith during Baptism.
The early Christian Church fell under intense persecution from the Roman Empire, beginning with Nero in 64 AD. Early Christianity, in spite of persecution, flourished primarily in five centers: Jerusalem, the birthplace of Christianity, and Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Byzantium. But it was the powerful witness of Christian martyrdom that led to continued spread of the faith. Persecution of Christianity under Roman rulers lasted for 300 years, until the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which mandated complete toleration of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches originate from the Eastern centers of Antioch, Alexandria, and Byzantium, while the Western Latin rite originates from Rome.
The fish became a symbol of the Christian faith, adorning the catacombs and early Christian Churches. In a time when professing the Christian faith was an invitation to death, the fish became a secret code to introduce one Christian to another. One Christian would draw a curve representing half of the symbol, and the other one would complete the cryptic symbol by drawing the second curve (see image).
The fish captures the central meaning, the essential creed of the Christian faith, for the Greek word for fish is ιχθυς or ichthus, an acronym or acrostic for
Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
The statement "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" captures both the person of Christ and his mission.
Who Christ is, the Son of God, and His mission, Savior, are both expressed by the ancient symbol of the fish.
St. Ignatius of Antioch circa 11O AD described the transmission of the Christian faith through the bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon, who received their authority through Apostolic succession. The possession of sacred texts in times of persecution could mean discovery, imprisonment, and death. Also, it was common for people of that time to be illiterate. In addition, production of written Scripture was a monumental task in itself, as each page of any text had to be hand-written on papyrus scrolls (Luke 4:16-20) and later parchment codices (II Timothy 4:13)! Written Scripture was in the hands of only a few. Thus the oral Tradition of the Church through the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer, Baptism and the Apostles' Creed was vitally important to teach and guide the early Christian community.
THE LITURGY OF THE EUCHARIST
The traditions of the early Church were passed on to the faithful followers of Jesus Christ at Sunday service from the very beginning of the Church at Pentecost. The Celebration would include the teaching of the Word followed by the Eucharist, the Memorial of the Last Supper of Our Lord with the reception of Communion. Thus the Church celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ by which He accomplished the work of our salvation.
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life."
The community would gather on Sunday in divine worship in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Church assembly would first have the Liturgy of the Word with readings and then a homily or sermon. This was followed by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, as described by St. Justin Martyr as early as 155 AD in his First Apology: "And this food is called among us eucharistia - εὐχαριστία. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word...is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh." (66). The assembly then received Communion. Justin Martyr continued to describe the Memorial of the Last Supper, one that would be called the Divine Liturgy in the East and the Mass in the West, and one that remains the same to this day.
On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place.
The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read.
When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.
Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss.
Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren.
He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.
When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded 'Amen', those whom we call deacons give to those present the 'eucharisted' bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 67, 155 AD
PRAYER AND BAPTISM
Jesus teaches us to pray - "All that you ask for in prayer, believe that you will receive it and it shall be yours" (Mark 11:24). The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) was taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and continues the tradition of prayer found in Hebrew Scripture, our Old Testament of the Bible, exemplified by the Patriarchs of Israel such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. The Didache, written around the end of the First Century AD, advised one to say the Lord's Prayer three times a day!
The Sacrament of Baptism followed the instruction of Jesus to his disciples to "teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20)." The Sacrament of Baptism in itself is a handing on of the Christian faith from generation to generation. In accordance with this, the person about to be baptized was asked three questions: "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty...? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord...? Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church...?" The person being baptized would answer "I believe."
Jesus Christ himself was baptized in the Jordan River by John (Mark 1:9). On the way to martyrdom to Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Letter to the Ephesians (18): "For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost. He was born and baptized, that by His passion He might purify the water."
The Apostles' Creed arose in the early Christian Church during Baptism as a way of passing on the Christian Faith. The Didache noted: "And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in living water."
A creed is a willful and brief summary statement or profession of the Christian faith. The word "Creed" comes from the Latin word Credo, which means "I believe." Examples include the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. They are also known as symbols of faith. The Creed, or rule of faith, was also an important guide to presbyters as well in interpretation of Scripture. The three-part profession of faith resembling our present form of the Apostles' Creed was recorded by early Church Fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, and Tertullian of Carthage, and was evident by the third century AD.
The Apostles' Creed is presented here in 12 lines, representing 12 Articles of Faith for the Christian.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended to hell. On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven and is seated
at the right hand of the Father.
From thence He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and life everlasting. Amen.
THE CANON OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
There were eight named writers of the New Testament: Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. The Canon of the New Testament was formalized within the early Christian community, the Church. The Church Fathers were important to the early Church, for they were the ones who had an important role in the process of the formation of the canon of the New Testament, as well as the interpretation of Scripture. Their objective was to choose those written books which were truly inspired by the Holy Spirit and best reflected the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, as understood within the Tradition of the Church. Consistent with the rule of faith and the books read within the Church as Scripture, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, France first proposed the four Gospels as the canon of the New Testament in his work Against Heresies in 180 AD. Three Fathers of the Church - Athanasius of Alexandria in his Letter of 367, Jerome in Bethlehem with the completion of his Latin New Testament in 384, and Augustine at the Council of Hippo in 393 - agreed that 27 Books were the inspired Word of God. The Canon of the New Testament of the Bible was confirmed at the Third Council of Carthage in 397 AD.
The canon of the New Testament is exactly the same for all of Christianity! There are 27 Books in the New Testament: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles, the fourteen Letters of the Pauline corpus, the seven catholic or universal Letters, and the Book of Revelation.
The New Testament writers accorded to the Old Testament the value of Divine Revelation. They proclaimed this revelation found its fulfillment in the life and teaching, and above all, in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, source of forgiveness and of everlasting life. They frequently drew upon the Old Testament writings, primarily to confirm Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or to serve as a source for moral instruction, or for the interpretation of events. Typology in Biblical studies finds an Old Testament story serving as a prefigurement or symbol for an event in the New Testament. Referring to Christ, Paul called Adam "a type of the one who is to come" (Romans 5:14). In Hebrews 12:24 the blood of Abel speaks to the "blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant." Peter saw the flood during the times of Noah as a figure of baptism (I Peter 3:20-22). In reading Scripture one looks beyond the Literal sense, the genuine meaning, and searches for the "spirit in the letter," the Spiritual sense of Scripture.
"The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
Gospel of John 6:63
"You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry,
written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God,
not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts."
Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:3
"He also it is who has made us fit ministers of the new covenant,
not of the letter, but of the spirit;
for the letter brings death, but the spirit gives life."
Second Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 3:6
"All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,
for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."
Second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy 3:16-17
Thus the Word of God was written within the Church, the Body of Christ,
flowing from the authority and teachings of Jesus Christ
and the oral traditions and writings of the Apostles in the early Christian community.
Tradition and Scripture form a unity of the faith experience.
Scripture and Tradition go hand in hand in understanding the Word of God!
1 Navarre New Testament Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible. Four Courts Press, Dublin Ireland, 2001.
2 Andrew Minto. Biblical Foundations and The Apostolic Fathers. Course Lectures, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2001 and 2002.
3 Frances M. Young. Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. Cambridge University Press, London, 1997.
4 The Apostolic Fathers, Translated by Kirsopp Lake. Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1912.
5 The Didache and Early Christian Writings. Ancient Christian Writers, Paulist Press, New York, 1948.
6 St. Justin Martyr. The First and Second Apologies. Ancient Christian Writers. Paulist Press, New York, 1997.
7 Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies, in The Apostolic Fathers, Coxe AC (ed). Edinburgh: American Edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1885.
8 Eusebius of Caesarea. Ecclesiastical History, circa 325 AD. Translated by Kirsopp Lake. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1926.
9 Pope Benedict XVl. The Apostles. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Our Sunday Visitor, Huntingdon, Indiana, 2007.
10 Clayton Jefford. Reading the Apostolic Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996.
11 Rod Bennett. Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2002.
12 Pontifical Biblical Commission. The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church. Pauline Books & Media, Boston, 1993.
"Augustine of Denmark composed the following medieval couplet to explain the senses: the Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; the Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny."
13 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. "Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis." Origins 17(35):593-601, February 11, 1988.
14 Regis Martin. Theological Foundations. Course Lectures and Texts, Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, 2003.
15 Joseph T. Lienhard. The Bible, the Church, and Authority. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1995.
16 Ignace de la Potterie. "Reading Holy Scripture in the Spirit." Communio 13(4):308-325, Winter 1986.
17 Dei Verbum. Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council, Pauline Books & Media, Boston, November 1965.
18 Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: its origin, development, and significance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
19 Avery Cardinal Dulles. Models of the Church, Expanded Edition. Image Classics, New York, 2002.
20 St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 1920. Reprinted by Christian Classics of Allen, Texas, 1981.
St. Thomas Aquinas on Biblical Interpretation