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THE first century of the existence of Gentile Christian communities is particularly characterised by the following features:

I. The rapid disappearance of Jewish Christianity.142142This fact must have been apparent as early as the year too. The first direct evidence of it is in Justin (Apol. I. 53).

II. The enthusiastic character of the religious temper: the Charismatic teachers and the appeal to the Spirit.143143Every individual was, or at least should have been conscious, as a Christian, of having received the πνεῦμα θεοῦ, though that does not exclude spiritual grades. A special peculiarity of the enthusiastic nature of the religious temper is that it does not allow reflection as to the authenticity of the faith in which a man lives. As to the Charismatic teaching, see my edition of the Didache (Texte u. Unters. II. 1. 2. p. 93 ff.).

III. The strength of the hopes for the future, Chiliasm.144144The hope of the approaching end of the world and the glorious kingdom of Christ still determined men’s heart; though exhortations against theoretical and practical scepticism became more and more necessary. On the other hand, after the Epistles to the Thessalonians, there were not wanting exhortations to continue sober and diligent.

IV. The rigorous endeavour to fulfil the moral precepts of Christ, and truly represent the holy and heavenly community of God in abstinence from everything unclean, and in love to God and the brethren here on earth “in these last days.145145There was a strong consciousness that the Christian Church is, above all, a union for a holy life, as well as a consciousness of the obligation to help one another, and use all the blessings bestowed by God in the service of our neighbours. Justin (2 Apol. in Euseb. H. E. IV. 17. 10) calls Christianity τὸ διδασκάλιον τῆς θείας ἀρετῆς.


V. The want of a fixed doctrinal form in relation to the abstract statement of the faith, and the corresponding variety and freedom of Christian preaching on the basis of clear formulæ and an increasingly rich tradition.

VI. The want of a clearly defined external authority in the communities, sure in its application, and the corresponding independence and freedom of the individual Christian in relation to the expression of the ideas, beliefs and hopes of faith.146146The existing authorities (Old Testament, sayings of the Lord, words of Apostles) did not necessarily require to be taken into account; for the living acting Spirit, partly attesting himself also to the senses, gave new revelations. The validity of these authorities therefore held good only in theory, and might in practice be completely set aside. (Cf., above all, the Shepherd of Hermas.)

VII. The want of a fixed political union of the several communities with each other—every ecclesia is an image complete in itself, and an embodiment of the whole heavenly Church—while the consciousness of the unity of the holy Church of Christ which has the spirit in its midst, found strong expression.147147Zahn remarks (Ignatius. v. A. p. VII.): “I do not believe it to be the business of that province of historical investigation which is dependent on the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers as main sources, to explain the origin of the universal Church in any sense of the term; for that Church existed before Clement and Hermas, before Ignatius and Polycarp. But an explanatory answer is needed for the question: By what means did the consciousness of the “universal Church,” so little favoured by our circumstances, maintain itself unbroken in the post-Apostolic communities? This way of stating it obscures, at least, the problem which here lies before us, for it does not take account of the changes which the idea “universal Church” underwent up to the middle of the third century—besides, we do not find the title before Ignatius. In so far as the “universal Church” is set forth as an earthly power recognisable in a doctrine or in political forms, the question as to the origin of the idea is not only allowable, but must be regarded as one of the most important. On the earliest conception of the “Ecclesia” and its realisation, see the fine investigations of Sohm “Kirchenrecht,” I. p. 1 ff., which, however, suffer from being a little overdriven.

VIII. A quite unique literature in which were manufactured facts for the past and for the future, and which did not submit to the usual literary rules and forms, but came forward with the loftiest pretensions.148148See the important essay of Overbeck: Ueber die Anfänge d. patrist. Litteratur (Hist. Ztschr. N. F. Bd. XII. pp. 417-472). Early Christian literature, as a rule, claims to be inspired writing. One can see, for example, in the history of the resurrection in the recently discovered Gospel of Peter (fragment) how facts were remodelled or created.


IX. The reproduction of particular sayings and arguments of Apostolic Teachers with an uncertain understanding of them.149149The writings of men of the Apostolic period, and that immediately succeeding, attained in part a wide circulation, and in some portions of them, often of course incorrectly understood, very great influence. How rapidly this literature was diffused, even the letters, may be studied in the history of the Epistles of Paul, the first Epistle of Clement, and other writings.

X. The rise of tendencies which endeavoured to hasten in every respect the inevitable process of fusing the Gospel with the spiritual and religious interests of the time, viz., the Hellenic, as well as attempts to separate the Gospel from its origins and provide for it quite foreign presuppositions. To the latter belongs, above all, the Hellenic idea that knowledge is not a charismatic supplement to the faith, or an outgrowth of faith alongside of others, but that it coincides with the essence of faith itself.150150That which is here mentioned is of the greatest importance; it is not a mere reference to the so-called Gnostics. The foundations for the Hellenising of the Gospel in the Church were already laid in the first century (50-150).

The sources for this period are few, as there was not much written, and the following period did not lay itself out for preserving a great part of the literary monuments of that epoch. Still we do possess a considerable number of writings and important fragments,151151We should not over-estimate the extent of early Christian literature. It is very probable that we know, so far as the titles of hooks are concerned, nearly all that was effective, and the greater part, by very diverse means, has also been preserved to us. We except, of course, the so-called Gnostic literature of which we have only a few fragments. Only from the time of Commodus, as Eusebius H. E. V. 21. 27, has remarked, did the great Church preserve an extensive literature. and further important inferences here are rendered possible by the monuments of the following period, since the conditions of the first century were not changed in a moment, but were partly, at least, long preserved, especially in certain national Churches and in remote communities.152152It is therefore important to note the locality in which a document orginates, and the more so the earlier the document is. In the earliest period, in which the history of the Church was more uniform, and the influence from without relatively less, the differences are still in the background. Yet the spirit of Rome already announces itself in the Epistle of Clement, that of Alexandria in the Epistle of Barnabas, that of the East in the Epistles of Ignatius.


Supplement.—The main features of the message concerning Christ, of the matter of the Evangelic history, were fixed in the first and second generations of believers, and on Palestinian soil. But yet, up to the middle of the second century, this matter was in many ways increased in Gentile Christian regions, revised from new points of view, handed down in very diverse forms, and systematically allegorised by individual teachers. As a whole, the Evangelic history certainly appears to have been completed at the beginning of the second century. But in detail, much that was new was produced at a later period—and not only in Gnostic circles—and the old tradition was recast or rejected.153153The history of the genesis of the four Canonical Gospels, or the comparison of them, is instructive on this point. Then we must bear in mind the old Apocryphal Gospels, and the way in which the so-called Apostolic Fathers and Justin attest the Evangelic history, and in part reproduce it independently; the Gospels of Peter, of the Egyptians, and of Marcion; the Diatesseron of Tatian; the Gnostic Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, etc. The greatest gap in our knowledge consists in the fact, that we know so little about the course of things from about the year 61 to the beginning of the reign of Trajan. The consolidating and remodelling process must, for the most part, have taken place in this period. We possess probably not a few writings which belong to that period; but how are we to prove this? how are they to be arranged? Here lies the cause of most of the differences, combinations and uncertainties; many scholars, therefore, actually leave these 40 years out of account, and seek to place everything in the first three decennia of the second century.

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