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Studying The Early Christians: The Introduction to We Look For the Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | Carl J. Sommer | Page 1 | Page 2

The heretical and historically unreliable writings have to be used with great circumspection. I have used them only in those instances where they might provide a window into the practices prevalent in the time when they were written, not the time about which they purport to write. For instance, the Acts of Barnabas purports to be about the life of the Barnabas mentioned in the New Testament, but it was most likely written in Egypt in the third century. It is probably completely worthless in reconstructing the life of the real Barnabas but, if used carefully, can shed light on the beliefs and practices of Christians in third-century Egypt.

I regard the writings of the New Testament to be historically accurate, if one takes into consideration the unique purposes of each book. One will gain very little of direct historical information from the Book of Revelation, for instance, but the book can be helpful to historians in understanding the sitz im leben of the community that produced that book. On the other hand, I regard all the Epistles traditionally assigned to Paul as being written while Paul was still alive, either at Paul's dictation, or by his close associates and with Paul's full approval. I also think that the two Letters traditionally ascribed to Peter were produced while Peter was alive and accurately reflect his thought. These are positions held by a minority. Most contemporary scholars think that 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, Philippians, and other Epistles of the New Testament were not written by the authors to whom they were traditionally ascribed.

The question is important and deserves more space than I can devote to it here. For now, I will only observe that my reading of the Christian writers immediately after the New Testament period has convinced me that the early Church placed such an emphasis on apostolic authority that if the apostles were not the authorities responsible for these Letters, all forms of orthodox Christianity have nothing on which to base their authority. The early Christians insisted on concrete historicity. They insisted on the historicity of Christ, in an age uninterested in historicity. And they made arguments based on historicity, arguments that were central to their own authority. Furthermore, they were arguments that in some cases could be verified or contradicted by living witnesses.

For instance, in A.D. 96, when Clement of Rome, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, wrote that the apostles had personally appointed bishops and deacons, and that these authorities should be obeyed, he was making an assertion about which many people would know the truth or falsity. Since this assertion was central to the conclusion of his argument, it must have been believed to be true by his readers. Similarly, when, in A.D. 107, Ignatius of Antioch repeatedly wrote that Christians should be obedient to their bishops, there would have been people still alive who had known the apostles, and they would have known if Ignatius' letters accurately reflected the true intentions of the apostles. For this reason, this present work "privileges" the authentic writings of Clement of Rome, the Didache, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus of Lyons (who knew men who knew the Apostle John; Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in the immediate aftermath of a horrific persecution in Lyons). The writings of Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, and Cyprian of Carthage will also receive prominence because they testified to the shaping of the ongoing tradition, handed on from the apostles to the earliest bishops, despite the fact that these writers were not in a position personally to know the truth, and in some cases did not undergo martyrdom.

Returning to the heretical writings, one final point needs to be made. It must be acknowledged that many authors deemed heretical were in fact martyred for their beliefs. We should acknowledge this fact and honor these martyrs. But the simple fact is that they were not in a position to know the truth. Despite some of the more extravagant claims made regarding the Gospel of Thomas, all the so-called Gnostic texts were most likely the product of that unique period of history from the middle of the second to the middle of the third century. [2] It is highly unlikely that any of the Gnostic writings go back to the first century, as most of the New Testament and some of the postapostolic writings do. Therefore, these writings are given a secondary status in this work.

In many ways, the pagan documents are the most useful to historians of the early Church, if used carefully. In the satirical writings, the authors often thought they were making fun of the Christians, but they were actually providing the highest praise. For instance, Lucian of Antioch made fun of the Christians by writing a satire about a group of Christians who provided charity for a charlatan named Peregrinus. The satire was designed to show how nave the Christians were, but what we learn is how widespread and systematic the charitable actions of the early Church were.

From pagan historians and official documents we gain a certain amount of useful information about Christians, but primarily we learn what the Romans thought about the Christians, particularly their misconceptions about Christianity. We also gain valuable insight into the motivation behind the various persecutions the Church experienced. Archaeological data also have to be handled with care. Archaeology is a relatively young discipline, existing for fewer than three hundred years. Nevertheless, in that short period of time archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of ancient cities, uncovering enormous amounts of information about the ancient world. This information can be used quite profitably in reconstructing the everyday lives of the people of the Roman Empire, and quite a bit of this information actually can shed light on the lives of the early Christians. However, for the reasons mentioned above, I am hesitant to use the archaeological data without documentary evidence to accompany it.

As a general rule, archaeological evidence will be used with great circumspection. For example, in ancient Herculaneum, a house has been discovered with a cross-shaped indentation in the plaster in one of its rooms. When it was first discovered, this house created ripples of excitement in Christian circles. The part of Herculaneum that contained this particular house had been destroyed in A.D. 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Could there have been Christians in southern Italy in 79, with crosses mounted in the wall of their home? The thought thrills the imagination. The problem is that there could be other reasons for this particular indentation (a wooden frame could have been sunk into the plaster to allow a cabinet to be mounted, for instance). Also, we have no other reason to think the household was Christian (no artwork, no fish symbols, etc.). Furthermore, there are no other examples of people sinking crosses into the wall plaster of their houses. (Why not simply hang the cross on the wall, rather than sink it into the plaster?)

While I still consider it possible that this house had a Christian symbol, I do not include this particular house in my analysis of early Christian life. The objections are serious enough to raise doubts about what really happened in the house in Herculaneum. It may be that in a few years new evidence will be discovered that will make it more likely that this house contained dedicated Christians, but for now I cannot seriously consider this piece of evidence. For these reasons, this work relies on both archaeological and documentary evidence to reconstruct the lives of the early Christians. I am not averse to using unorthodox sources to illustrate the lives of the early Christians, but only within certain carefully delineated boundaries. Generally speaking, these documents will be used to shed light on the period in which the work was written, not the period about which it purports to write.

Negative evidence will also be considered; if an author condemns a certain practice, I will be willing at least to consider the possibility that some Christians were engaged in that practice. If a pagan author criticizes Christian behavior that would be considered admirable today, that pagan author will be taken at face value.

The Boundaries of This Study

It is fashionable, in scholarly circles today, to emphasize the diversity of early Christianity: If these scholars are correct, my task is even more difficult. Rather than describing one set of belief and practices, I would be forced to describe dozens, or perhaps even hundreds. Fortunately for me, these modern scholars are only partly right. When they are arguing for the diversity of the early Church, they are including in their definition of Christianity certain heretical groups such as Gnostics, Marcionites, Montanists, and a host of other groups that at one point or another were found to be in heresy. In this study, for purposes of convenience and personal inclination, I have chosen to consider only those Christian communities that later became the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. It will be necessary, on occasion, to mention the beliefs and practices of the heretical communities, but my main focus will be on those branches of Christianity that maintained apostolic succession and orthodox teachings about Christ and the Church.

Some readers will be disappointed to find that my primary focus is not on the New Testament Church, but rather on the two hundred years following the death of the last apostle. Naturally, New Testament data will be included in this work, but my primary focus will be on how the Christians from A.D. 100 to 313 understood the teachings of Christ and the apostles. There have been numerous works, by far better scholars than I, exploring the period of the New Testament. I am interested in the two-hundred-year period immediately following the writing of the New Testament, because the Church of this period was closer to the time when Christ and the apostles walked the earth than the Church is today. [3] We should at least consider the possibility that they understood the teachings of the New Testament better than we do today.

I am also interested in this period because one can clearly trace the development of certain Catholic ideas such as apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the sacraments of baptism, holy orders, and matrimony. At this point, I should make clear my personal presumption: my study of the early Church has convinced me that the first Christians were essentially Catholic in their outlook. All branches of orthodox Christianity (and by this I mean all branches of modern Christianity that adhere to the tenets of the Nicene Creed) owe their basic beliefs and even their canon of Scripture to the proto-Catholics of A.D. 100-313. For this reason alone, the beliefs and practices of the early Christians are worth studying.

It is my hope to introduce the treasures of early Christianity to a large number of people. This work is directed to a nonscholarly audience. I have made few assumptions about the level of historical knowledge of my readership. For this reason, I have included several aids throughout the work. At the end of Chapter 1, you will find a historical timeline that might be helpful. Also, at the end of the work, you will find an appendix giving a brief description of the most important figures mentioned in this work.

But I would urge my readers not to focus too heavily on the historical details of the period and concentrate instead on what we can learn from the lives of the early Christians. They were ordinary people, to be sure, but their lives were touched by grace, and many of them achieved a level of spiritual grandeur we can only marvel at today.


[1] This position is admirably summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 355-61.

[2] See Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), for a summary of the reasons the Gnostic writings should be dated to this later period.

[3] Moreover, this is the period in which Christianity was transformed from a sparse, regional religion into a significant presence in the Roman world.

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Carl J. Sommer holds a Master's Degree in Historical Theology. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and two children.

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