Early Christian Writings page three



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

AD 80 - 140  I Clement
The letter from the Christians in Rome to their fellow believers in Corinth known as I Clement is one of the earliest extant Christian documents outside the New Testament. There is widespread agreement in dating this letter 95-96 CE, in the year of the emperor Domitian or the first of his successor, Nerva. The letter reveals something of both the circumstances and attitudes of the Roman Christians, and how they differ from those of their fellow Christians in Asia Minor to whom the Revelation of John was addressed. Whereas in the Revelation of John, Rome is presented as the great harlot whose attacks upon the Church must be resisted, in I Clement one finds a much more positive view of the Roman government, and the elements of peace, harmony, and order that are so important to the author of this letter reflect some of the fundamental values of Roman society.

While the letter, which was sent on behalf of the whole church, does not name its writer, well-attested ancient tradition identifies it as the work of Clement, although precisely who he is is not clear. Tradition identifies him as the 3rd bishop of Rome after Peter.

AD 90 - 95  The Apocalypse of John
The Apocalypse, or Revelation to John, the last book of the Bible, is one of the most difficult to understand because it abounds in unfamiliar and extravagant symbolism, which at best appears unusual to the modern reader. Symbolic language, however, is one of the chief characteristics of apocalyptic literature, of which this book is an outstanding example. Such literature enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles from ca. 200 B.C. to A.D. 200.

This book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language similar to the language of the Old Testament prophets, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel.

The Book of Revelation had its origin in a time of crisis, but it remains valid and meaningful for Christians of all time. In the face of apparently insuperable evil, either from within or from without, all Christians are called to trust in Jesus' promise, "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Those who remain steadfast in their faith and confidence in the risen Lord need have no fear. Suffering, persecution, even death by martyrdom, though remaining impenetrable mysteries of evil, do not comprise an absurd dead end. No matter what adversity or sacrifice Christians may endure, they will in the end triumph over Satan and his forces because of their fidelity to Christ the victor. This is the enduring message of the book; it is a message of hope and consolation and challenge for all who dare to believe.

AD 90 - 120  The Gospel of John
The Gospel according to John is quite different in character from the three synoptic gospels. It is highly literary and symbolic. It does not follow the same order or reproduce the same stories as the synoptic gospels. To a much greater degree, it is the product of a developed theological reflection and grows out of a different circle and tradition. It was probably written in the 90s of the first century.

The Gospel of John begins with a magnificent prologue, which states many of the major themes and motifs of the gospel, much as an overture does for a musical work. The prologue proclaims Jesus as the preexistent and incarnate Word of God who has revealed the Father to us. The rest of the first chapter forms the introduction to the gospel proper and consists of the Baptist's testimony about Jesus (there is no baptism of Jesus in this gospel--John simply points him out as the Lamb of God), followed by stories of the call of the first disciples, in which various titles predicated of Jesus in the early church are presented.

The fourth gospel is not simply history; the narrative has been organized and adapted to serve the evangelist's theological purposes as well. Among them are the opposition to the synagogue of the day and to John the Baptist's followers, who tried to exalt their master at Jesus' expense, the desire to show that Jesus was the Messiah, and the desire to convince Christians that their religious belief and practice must be rooted in Jesus. Such theological purposes have impelled the evangelist to emphasize motifs that were not so clear in the synoptic account of Jesus' ministry, e.g., the explicit emphasis on his divinity.

AD 90 - 120  The first, second, and third Epistles of John
Early Christian tradition identified these works as letters of John the apostle. Because of their resemblance to the fourth gospel in style, vocabulary, and ideas, it is generally agreed that the works are the product of the same school of Johannine Christianity.

The structure and language of the letters are straightforward. The author sets forth the striking contrasts between light and darkness, Christians and the world, and truth and error to illustrate the threats and responsibilities of Christian life. The result is not one of theological argument but one of intense religious conviction expressed in simple truths. The letters are of particular value for their declaration of the humanity and divinity of Christ as an apostolic teaching and for their development of the intrinsic connection between Christian moral conduct and Christian doctrine.

AD 93 Flavius Josephus
The works of the first-century historian Josephus have been held in high regard by Christians throughout history. The early church, Schreckenberg writes, saw Josephus as "a kind of fifth gospel" and a "little Bible" [Feld.JosJes, 317] , because his works "appeared to Christian theologians to be a commentary or a historic appendix to the New Testament." (ibid., 319) The church's love for Josephus "assured him an ongoing role in Western tradition." [Maso.JosNT, 8] Closer to modern times, households in France, Holland and England were known to present newborns with inscribed copies of Josephus, right along with the Bible.

AD 90 - 120  The Epistle of Jude
This letter is by its address attributed to "Jude, a slave of Jesus Christ and brother of James" (Jude 1:1). Since he is not identified as an apostle, this designation can hardly be meant to refer to the Jude or Judas who is listed as one of the Twelve (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; cf John 14:22). The person intended is almost certainly the other Jude, named in the gospels among the relatives of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3), and the James who is listed there as his brother is the one to whom the Letter of James is attributed (see the Introduction to James). Nothing else is known of this Jude, and the apparent need to identify him by reference to his better-known brother indicates that he was a rather obscure personage in the early church.

The letter is addressed in the most general terms to "those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ" (Jude 1:1), hence apparently to all Christians.

AD 80 - 150  Paul's letters to Timothy, and Titus
The three letters, First and Second Timothy and Titus, form a distinct group within the Pauline letters. All three suggest they were written late in Paul's career. The opponents are not "Judaizers" as in Galatians but false teachers stressing "knowledge" (gnosis; see the note on 1 Tim 6:20-21). Attention is given especially to correct doctrine and church organization. Jesus' second coming recedes into the background compared to references in Paul's earlier letters (though not Colossians and Ephesians). The three letters are addressed not to congregations but to those who shepherd congregations (Latin, pastores). These letters were first named "Pastoral Epistles" in the eighteenth century because they all are concerned with the work of a pastor in caring for the community or communities under his charge.

AD 110 - 140  Polycarp to the Phillipians
Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna in the first half of the second century, and was martyred, in all probability, on February 23rd, 155 A.D., at the age of eighty-six. He had been a disciple of John, and opinions differ as to whether this John was the son of Zebedee, or John the Presbyter.
According to Irenaeus [Adv. Haer. v. 33. 4] Polycarp wrote several epistles, but only one is extant. This is the epistle sent to the Philippians in connection with Ignatius.

The object of the epistle is apparently partly to warn the Philippians against certain disorders in the Church at Philippi, and especially against apostasy; but it appears to have been immediately called for by the desire of the Philippians to make a collection of the letters of Ignatius. They had written to Polycarp to help him in this task, and the letter to the Philippians is, as we should say, a "covering letter" for the copies which Polycarp sends of all the Ignatian epistles to which he have access.

AD 150 - 160  Justin Martyr
Justin was a Gentile, but born in Samaria, near Jacob's well. He must have been well educated: he had traveled extensively, and he seems to have been a person enjoying at least a competence. After trying all other systems, his elevated tastes and refined perceptions made him a disciple of Socrates and Plato. So he climbed towards Christ. As he himself narrates the story of his conversion, it need not be anticipated here. What Plato was feeling after, he found in Jesus of Nazareth. The conversion of such a man marks a new era in the gospel history. The subapostolic age begins with the first Christian author,-the founder of theological literature. It introduced to mankind, as the mother of true philosophy, the despised teaching of those Galileans to whom their Master had said, "Ye are the light of the world."

And this is the epoch which forced this great truth upon the attention of contemplative minds. It was more than a hundred years since the angels had sung "Good-will to men; "and that song had now been heard for successive generations, breaking forth from the lips of sufferers on the cross, among lions, and amid blazing faggots. Here was a nobler Stoicism that needed interpretation. Not only choice spirits, despising the herd and boasting of a loftier intellectual sphere, were its professors; but thousands of men, women, and children, withdrawing themselves not at all from the ordinary and humble lot of the people, were inspired by it to live and die heroically and sublimely,-exhibiting a superiority to revenge and hate entirely unaccountable, praying for their enemies, and seeking to glorify their God by love to their fellow-men.

AD 180 - 185  Theophilus of Antioch
Eusebius praises the pastoral fidelity of the primitive pastors, in their unwearied labours to protect their flocks from the heresies with which Satan contrived to endanger the souls of believers. By exhortations and admonitions, and then again by oral discussions and refutations, contending with the heretics themselves, they were prompt to ward off the devouring beasts from the fold of Christ. Such is the praise due to Theophilus, in his opinion; and he cites especially his lost work against Marcion as "of no mean character."1 He was one of the earliest commentators upon the Gospels, if not the first; and he seems to have been the earliest Christian historian of the Church of the Old Testament. His only remaining work, here presented, seems to have originated in an "oral discussion," such as Eusebius instances. But nobody seems to accord him due praise as the founder of the science of Biblical Chronology among Christians, save that his great successor in modern times, Abp. Usher, has not forgotten to pay him this tribute in the Prolegomena of his Annals. (Ed. Paris, 1673.)

Theophilus occupies an interesting position, after Ignatius, in the succession of faithful men who represented Barnabas and other prophets and teachers of Antioch,2 in that ancient seat, from which comes our name as Christians. I cannot forbear another reference to those recent authors who have so brilliantly illustrated and depicted the Antioch of the early Christians;3 because, if we wish to understand Autolycus, we must feel the state of society which at once fascinated him, and disgusted Theophilus. The Fathers are dry to those only who lack imagination to reproduce their age, or who fail to study them geographically and chronologically. Besides this, one should bring to the study of their works, that sympathy springing from a burning love to Christ, which borrows its motto, in slightly altered words, from the noble saying of the African poet: "I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself."

AD 203 - 250  Origin
Easily the most prolific & most influential Christian writer prior to the legalization of Christianity. Much of the credit for the intellectual triumph of catholic Christianity over gnosticism & paganism within a half century after Origen's death is rightfully his. By personal example & vision of this world as a school to discipline souls for salvation, he developed the model for Christian monasticism. His ideas set the agenda for the doctrinal controversies about Christology & salvation that embroiled Greek & Latin churches for the next three centuries. The 4th c. Greek Christian annalist Eusebius of Caesarea devoted most of book 6 of his 10 volume Ecclesiastical History to him; and even a hostile pagan philosopher like Porphyry (biographer of Plotinus, the founder of neo-Platonism) granted his intellectual prowess [quoted by Eusebius, Eccles. Hist. 6.19].

The persecution of Christians under Severus (201-202 CE) propelled Origen to an early prominence, when the bishop of Alexandria (Demetrius) appointed him to succeed Clement as headmaster of the city's catechetical school. The youthful teacher of rhetoric soon distinguished himself not only as an eloquent preacher & energetic model of personal asceticism, but as a more innovative scholar & systematic thinker than others of his generation (with the possible exception of Plotinus).

With the aid of a corps of stenographers supplied by a wealthy patron, Origen produced a prodigious number of works, much of it aimed at refuting disciples of Valentinus (an influential gnostic of the previous generation): notably, a 30 volume commentary on John & the first systematic Christian theology (On First Principles). In opposition to the gnostic view of predestined good & evil, Origen preached a good Creator & creation in which sin & salvation depend on free will. As his reputation spread he was invited to Rome, Antioch & Greece to counter prominent gnostics. In an unprecedented endorsement he was ordained presbyter at a city other than his own (Caesarea, Palestine). His independence of thought & this breach of protocol led to a lasting rift with the leaders of his home church, Alexandria.

So, Origen relocated first to Caesarea & then to Cappodocia (Asia Minor). He continued to attract brilliant students wherever he went, many of whom became leaders in the next generation. But he also produced powerful enemies, particularly in Alexandria. His notoriety led to imprisonment & torture during the persecution of Christians under Decius (250 CE). So later supporters considered him a martyr & a saint. His tomb at Tyre (Lebanon) was a site of pilgrimage clear down to the time of the crusades. But because many of his supporters, like Eusebius, actively resisted the imposition of the Nicene creed (325 CE), the man who was primarily responsible for the triumph of catholic Christianity over sectarian gnosticism was himself condemned as a heretic a century after his death. As a result most of his works were destroyed. Those that survive are only fragments of the original Greek, or Latin paraphrases by Rufinus. Only two works survive intact: a treatise defending prayer & a refutation of a pagan critic of Christians (Against Celsus).

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