Early Christian Writings page two



Overview of Early Texts compiled by LEE CANTELON
chronological summary of early Christian texts

AD 50 - 80  Paul's letter to the Collosians
This letter was sent while Paul was in prison in Rome (59-61 CE). Since the apostle gives no indication that he will be released soon (contra Philippians), it is likely that this was written before the end of his imprisonment. Further, it is obvious that it was sent along with the letter to the Ephesians and the letter to Philemon. Once the occasion for the writing of Colossians/ Philemon is established, it can be reasonably supposed that all three letters were written sometime during the middle of Paul’s imprisonment.

Paul outlines three areas in which Christ’s sufficiency does enable and should motivate believers to grow in grace. Although Paul packages this entire section with imperatives, beneath the surface is the fact of Christ’s sufficiency for sanctification (or else the commands would be irrelevant). (1) His sufficiency enables believers to grow individually—that is, in relation to the flesh (3:5-17). This is because believers have already put off the old man (3:5-11; cf. 3:9) and have put on the new man (3:12-17; cf. 3:10). Thus, their battle against sin is rooted in their changed nature—a direct result of the sufficiency of Christ applied. (2) Christ’s sufficiency enables believers to act responsibly in the extended home (3:18–4:1). Wives should submit to their husbands (3:18) and husbands should love their wives (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20) and fathers must not embitter their children (3:21); slaves should obey their masters (3:22-25) and masters should take care of their slaves properly (4:1). (3) Christ’s sufficiency enables believers to focus on the needs of others (4:2-6). Thus, they are required to be devoted to prayer for Paul and his companions—especially that they might gain opportunity in their evangelistic efforts (4:2-4); and believers should themselves make the most of their opportunities in sharing their faith (4:5-6).

AD 50 - 95  The Book of Hebrews
The theme of Hebrews, quite simply, is “the absolute supremacy of Christ—a supremacy which allows no challenge, whether from human or angelic beings.”

The author of this work does not state his name, though he assumes that the audience knows him (cf. 13:19, 22, 23). Most likely, the reason the author’s name is not appended is because this epistle was published on a scroll. Ancient papyrus scrolls frequently listed author and addressee on the verso side, while the text was written on the recto side. If this letter was written in such a manner, it is easy to see how the author/addressee would not have been copied; in fact, such a “label” could easily have been lost, smudged, etc., shortly after reaching its destination.3 Thus all of our primary evidence for authorship has to come from within the book itself, coupled with heavy conjecture based on what we know about possible candidates.

The first author to cite this epistle was Clement (c. 96 CE),4 though he does not say who wrote the book. It is omitted from both the Marcionite Canon and the Muratorian Canon. From the earliest times in church history, there has been great dispute as to authorship. A number of different authors were proposed, though Paul headed the list (so Clement of Alexandria, etc.). Yet Pauline authorship was explicitly denied by Origen, the successor to Clement, who uttered his now-famous agnostic confession: “Whoever wrote the epistle, God only knows for sure.” Other names were suggested. Tertullian was the first to suggest Barnabas; Luther, the first to suggest Apollos.

The occasion for this epistle may well be the influence of Judaizers on the Jewish Christians whom Barnabas had evangelized in the Lycus Valley. These Judaizers had almost certainly gained strength after the death of Paul and arrest of Timothy, for their influence, based as it was in Ephesus, had a powerful effect on all of Asia Minor. Although Barnabas’ churches were perhaps largely Jewish, his gospel was the same as Paul’s. With Paul’s death, however, the Judaizers could attack with a vengeance—even to the point of claiming that the Gentile mission had no basis at all.

AD 50 - 120  Didache
The Didache (from a Greek word related to "doctrine," "didactic," etc.), which was revised over time into varying forms at various places, seems to have been a sort of church manual for primitive Christians, probably in rural areas dependent mostly on itinerant ministers.
The only known complete Didache in Greek is the Codex Hierosolymitanus, which was first published by Bryennios in 1883. The Greek Oxyrhynchus Papyrus No. 1782, dating from the late fourth century, contained fragments of a codex that preserved Didache 1:3b-4a and 2:7b to 3:2a in slightly variant and expanded form. A Coptic fragment from the fifth century contains Didache 10:3b through 12:1b,2a, and appends a prayer for oil at 10:8.

A nineteenth-century manuscript preserved at Constantinople contains a complete Georgian version of the Didache, the translation of which may be as early as the fifth century.

AD 65 - 80  The Gospel of Mark
This shortest of all New Testament gospels is likely the first to have been written, yet it often tells of Jesus' ministry in more detail than either Matthew or Luke (for example, the miracle stories at Mark 5:1-20 or Mark 9:14-29). It recounts what Jesus did in a vivid style, where one incident follows directly upon another. In this almost breathless narrative, Mark stresses Jesus' message about the kingdom of God now breaking into human life as good news (Mark 1:14-15) and Jesus himself as the gospel of God (Mark 1:1; 8:35; 10:29). Jesus is the Son whom God has sent to rescue humanity by serving and by sacrificing his life (Mark 10:45).

AD 70 - 100  The Epistle of James
The person to whom this letter is ascribed can scarcely be one of the two members of the Twelve who bore the name James (see Matthew 10:2-3; Mark 3:17-18; Luke 6:14-15), for he is not identified as an apostle but only as "slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1). This designation most probably refers to the third New Testament personage named James, a relative of Jesus who is usually called "brother of the Lord" (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). He was the leader of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem whom Paul acknowledged as one of the "pillars" (Gal 2:9). In Acts he appears as the authorized spokesman for the Jewish Christian position in the early Church (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21). According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20, 9, 1 ¶201-203), he was stoned to death by the Jews under the high priest Ananus II in A.D. 62.

The letter is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the dispersion." In Old Testament terminology the term "twelve tribes" designates the people of Israel; the "dispersion" or "diaspora" refers to the non-Palestinian Jews who had settled throughout the Greco- Roman world (see John 7:35). The letter is markedly Jewish in character. Since in Christian thought the church is the new Israel, the address probably designates the Jewish Christian churches located in Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere. Perhaps the letter is meant more generally for all Christian communities, and the "dispersion" has the symbolic meaning of exile from our true home, as it has in the address of 1 Peter (1 Peter 1:1).

AD 80 - 100  Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians
This letter is addressed to the same church as the letter that precedes it in the canon and contains many expressions parallel to those in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, indeed verbatim with them. Yet other aspects of the contents of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians suggest a more impersonal tone and changed circumstances in the situation at Thessalonica.

The opening thanksgiving and prayer (2 Thes 1:3-12) speak of their increasing faith and love in the face of outside persecution. God's eventual judgment against persecutors and his salvation for the faithful are already evidenced by the very fact of persecution.

Paul counters their preoccupation with the date of the parousia (or coming again of the Lord Jesus from heaven, 2 Thes 2:1) by recalling his teaching concerning what must happen first and by going on to describe what will happen at the Lord's coming (2 Thes 2:8); he indicates the twofold process by which the "activity of Satan" and God's actions (2 Thes 2:9-11) are working out, namely, a growing division between believers and those who succumb to false prophecy and "the lie." He concludes by insisting that they pray for divine strength (2 Thes 2:13-17). The closing part of the letter (2 Thes 3:1-16) deals in particular with the apostle's directives and model style of life and with correction of disorderly elements within the community.

AD 80 - 100  Paul's letter to the Ephesians
Ephesians is the great Pauline letter about the church. It deals, however, not so much with a congregation in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor as with the worldwide church, the head of which is Christ (Eph 4:15), the purpose of which is to be the instrument for making God's plan of salvation known throughout the universe (Eph 3:9-10). Yet this ecclesiology is anchored in God's saving love, shown in Jesus Christ (Eph 2:4-10), and the whole of redemption is rooted in the plan and accomplishment of the triune God (Eph 1:3-14). The language is often that of doxology (Eph 1:3-14) and prayer (cf Eph 1:15-23; 3:14-19), indeed of liturgy and hymns (Eph 3:20-21; 5:14).

The majestic chapters of Ephesians emphasize the unity in the church of Christ that has come about for both Jews and Gentiles within God's household (Eph 1:15-2:22, especially Eph 2:11-22) and indeed the "seven unities" of church, Spirit, hope; one Lord, faith, and baptism; and the one God (Eph 4:4-6). Yet the concern is not with the church for its own sake but rather as the means for mission in the world (Eph 3:1-4:24). The gifts Christ gives its members are to lead to growth and renewal (Eph 4:7-24). Ethical admonition is not lacking either; all aspects of human life and relationships are illumined by the light of Christ (Eph 4:25-6:20).

AD 80 - 100  The Gospel of Matthew
The position of the Gospel according to Matthew as the first of the four gospels in the New Testament reflects both the view that it was the first to be written, a view that goes back to the late second century A.D., and the esteem in which it was held by the church; no other was so frequently quoted in the noncanonical literature of earliest Christianity. The high estimation of this work remains through history, and the reason for that becomes clear upon study of the way in which Matthew presents his story of Jesus, the demands of Christian discipleship, and the breaking-in of the new and final age through the ministry but particularly through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The gospel begins with a narrative prologue (Matthew 1:1-2:23), the first part of which is a genealogy of Jesus starting with Abraham, the father of Israel (Matthew 1:1-17). Yet at the beginning of that genealogy Jesus is designated as "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matthew 1:1). The kingly ancestor who lived about a thousand years after Abraham is named first, for this is the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the royal anointed one (Matthew 1:16). In the first of the episodes of the infancy narrative that follow the genealogy, the mystery of Jesus' person is declared. He is conceived of a virgin by the power of the Spirit of God (Matthew 1:18-25). The first of the gospel's fulfillment citations, whose purpose it is to show that he was the one to whom the prophecies of Israel were pointing, occurs here (Matthew 1:23): he shall be named Emmanuel, for in him God is with us.

AD 80 - 110  The first Epistle of Peter
The letter begins with an address by Peter to Christian communities located in five provinces of Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1), including areas evangelized by Paul (Acts 16:6-7; 18:23). Christians there are encouraged to remain faithful to their standards of belief and conduct in spite of threats of persecution. Numerous allusions in the letter suggest that the churches addressed were largely of Gentile composition (1 Peter 1:14, 18; 2:9-10; 4:3-4), though considerable use is made of the Old Testament (1 Peter 1:24; 2:6-7, 9-10, 22; 3:10-12).

The contents following the address both inspire and admonish these "chosen sojourners" (1 Peter 1:1) who, in seeking to live as God's people, feel an alienation from their previous religious roots and the society around them. Appeal is made to Christ's resurrection and the future hope it provides (1 Peter 1:3-5) and to the experience of baptism as new birth (1 Peter 1:3, 23-25; 3:21). The suffering and death of Christ serve as both source of salvation and example (1 Peter 1:19; 2:21-25; 3:18). What Christians are in Christ, as a people who have received mercy and are to proclaim and live according to God's call (1 Peter 2:9-10), is repeatedly spelled out for all sorts of situations in society (1 Peter 2:11-17), work (even as slaves, 1 Peter 2:18-20), the home (1 Peter 3:1-7), and general conduct (1 Peter 3:8-12; 4, 1-11). But over all hangs the possibility of suffering as a Christian (1 Peter 3:13-17). In 1 Peter 4:12-19 persecution is described as already occurring, so that some have supposed the letter was addressed both to places where such a "trial by fire" was already present and to places where it might break out.

The letter constantly mingles moral exhortation (paraklesis) with its catechetical summaries of mercies in Christ. Encouragement to fidelity in spite of suffering is based upon a vision of the meaning of Christian existence. The emphasis on baptism and allusions to various features of the baptismal liturgy suggest that the author has incorporated into his exposition numerous homiletic, credal, hymnic, and sacramental elements of the baptismal rite that had already become traditional at this early date.

AD 80 - 130  The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel according to Luke is the first part of a two-volume work that continues the biblical history of God's dealings with humanity found in the Old Testament, showing how God's promises to Israel have been fulfilled in Jesus and how the salvation promised to Israel and accomplished by Jesus has been extended to the Gentiles. The stated purpose of the two volumes is to provide Theophilus and others like him with certainty--assurance--about earlier instruction they have received (Luke 1:4). To accomplish his purpose, Luke shows that the preaching and teaching of the representatives of the early church are grounded in the preaching and teaching of Jesus, who during his historical ministry (Acts 1:21-22) prepared his specially chosen followers and commissioned them to be witnesses to his resurrection and to all else that he did (Acts 10:37-42). This continuity between the historical ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles is Luke's way of guaranteeing the fidelity of the Church's teaching to the teaching of Jesus.

Luke's story of Jesus and the church is dominated by a historical perspective. This history is first of all salvation history. God's divine plan for human salvation was accomplished during the period of Jesus, who through the events of his life (Luke 22:22) fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies (Luke 4:21; 18:31; 22:37; 24:26-27, 44), and this salvation is now extended to all humanity in the period of the church (Acts 4:12). Luke is also concerned with presenting Christianity as a legitimate form of worship in the Roman world, a religion that is capable of meeting the spiritual needs of a world empire like that of Rome. To this end, Luke depicts the Roman governor Pilate declaring Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing three times (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). He argues in Acts that Christianity is the logical development and proper fulfillment of Judaism and is therefore deserving of the same toleration and freedom traditionally accorded Judaism by Rome (Acts 13:16-41; 23:6-9; 24:10-21; 26:2-23).

The prominence given to the period of the church in the story has important consequences for Luke's interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. By presenting the time of the church as a distinct phase of salvation history, Luke accordingly shifts the early Christian emphasis away from the expectation of an imminent parousia (return of Christ) to the day-to-day concerns of the Christian community in the world. He does this in the gospel by regularly emphasizing the words "each day" (Luke 9:23; cf Mark 8:34; Luke 11:3; Luke 16:19; Luke 19:47) in the sayings of Jesus. Although Luke still believes the parousia to be a reality that will come unexpectedly (Luke 12:38, 45-46), he is more concerned with presenting the words and deeds of Jesus as guides for the conduct of Christian disciples in the interim period between the ascension and the parousia and with presenting Jesus himself as the model of Christian life and piety.

AD 80 - 130  The Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles, the second volume of Luke's two-volume work, continues Luke's presentation of biblical history, describing how the salvation promised to Israel in the Old Testament and accomplished by Jesus has now under the guidance of the holy Spirit been extended to the Gentiles. This was accomplished through the divinely chosen representatives (Acts 10:41) whom Jesus prepared during his historical ministry (Acts 1:21-22) and commissioned after his resurrection as witnesses to all that he taught (Acts 1:8; 10:37-43; Luke 24:48). Luke's preoccupation with the Christian community as the Spirit-guided bearer of the word of salvation rules out of his book detailed histories of the activity of most of the preachers. Only the main lines of the roles of Peter and Paul serve Luke's interest.

In Acts, Luke has provided a broad survey of the church's development from the resurrection of Jesus to Paul's first Roman imprisonment, the point at which the book ends. In telling this story, Luke describes the emergence of Christianity from its origins in Judaism to its position as a religion of worldwide status and appeal. Originally a Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem, the church was placed in circumstances impelling it to include within its membership people of other cultures: the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25), at first an occasional Gentile (Acts 8:26-30; 10:1-48), and finally the Gentiles on principle (Acts 11:20-21). Fear on the part of the Jewish people that Christianity, particularly as preached to the Gentiles, threatened their own cultural heritage caused them to be suspicious of Paul's gospel (Acts 13:42-45; 15:1-5; 28:17-24). The inability of Christian missionaries to allay this apprehension inevitably created a situation in which the gospel was preached more and more to the Gentiles. Toward the end of Paul's career, the Christian communities, with the exception of those in Palestine itself (Acts 9:31), were mainly of Gentile membership. In tracing the emergence of Christianity from Judaism, Luke is insistent upon the prominence of Israel in the divine plan of salvation (see the note on Acts 1:26; see also Acts 2:5-6; 3:13-15; 10:36; l3:16-41; 24:14-15) and that the extension of salvation to the Gentiles has been a part of the divine plan from the beginning (see Acts 15:13-18; 26:22-23).

Apocalypse of John, Gospel of John, I and II Timothy, Titus...

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