from the




a.d. 100–325.




"The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church"














from the




a.d. 100–325.




 § 1. Literature on the Ante-Nicene Age


I. Sources

1. The writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and all the ecclesiastical authors of the 2nd and 3rd, and to some extent of the 4th and 5th centuries; particularly Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Jerome, Epiphanius, and Theodoret.

2. The writings of the numerous heretics, mostly extant only in fragments.

3. The works of the pagan opponents of Christianity, as Celsus, Lucian, Porphyry, Julian the Apostate.

4. The occasional notices of Christianity, in the contemporary classical authors, Tacitus, Suetonius, the younger Pliny, Dion Cassius.


II. Collections of Sources, (besides those included in the comprehensive Patristic Libraries):

Gebhardt, Harnack, and Zahn: Patrum Apostolicorum Opera. Lips., 1876; second ed. 1878 sqq.

Fr. Xav. Funk (R.C.): Opera Patrum Apost. Tübing., 1878, 1881, 1887, 2 vols. The last edition includes the Didache.

I. C. Th. Otto: Corpus Apologetarum Christianorum saeculi secundi. Jenae, 1841 sqq., in 9 vols.; 2nd ed. 1847–1861; 3rd ed. 1876 sqq. ("plurimum aucta et emendata").

Roberts And Donaldson: Ante-Nicene Christian Library. Edinburgh (T.& T. Clark), 1868–’72, 25 volumes. American edition, chronologically arranged and enlarged by Bishop A. C. Coxe, D. D., with a valuable Bibliographical Synopsis by E. C. Richardson. New York (Christian Literature Company), 1885–’87, 9 large vols.


The fragments of the earliest Christian writers, whose works are lost, may be found collected in Grabe: Spicilegium Patrum ut et Haereticorum Saeculi I. II. et III. (Oxon. 1700; new ed. Oxf. 1714, 3 vols.); in Routh: Reliquiae Sacrae, sive auctorum fere jam perditorum secundi, tertiique saeculi fragmenta quae supersunt (Oxon. 1814 sqq. 4 vols.; 2nd ed. enlarged, 5 vols. Oxf. 1846–48); and in Dom. I. B. Pitra (O. S. B., a French Cardinal since 1863): Spicilegium Solesmense, complectens sanctorum patrum scriptorumque eccles. anecdota hactenus opera, selecta e Graecis, Orientialibus et Latinis codicibus (Paris, 1852–’60, 5 vols.). Comp. also Bunsen: Christianity and Mankind, etc. Lond. 1854, vols. V., VI. and VII., which contain the Analecta Ante-Nicaena (reliquicae literariae, canonicae, liturgicae).

The haereseological writings of Epiphanius, Philastrius, Pseudo-Tertullian, etc. are collected in Franc. Oehler: Corpus haereseologicum. Berol. 1856–61, 3 vols. They belong more to the next period.

The Jewish and Heathen Testimonies are collected by N. Lardner, 1764, new ed. by Kippis, Lond. 1838.


III. Histories.

1. Ancient Historians.

Hegesippus (a Jewish Christian of the middle of the second century):  JUpomnhvmata tw'n ejkklhsiastikw'n pravxewn (quoted under the title pevnte uJpomnhvmata and pevnte suggravmmata). These ecclesiastical Memorials are only preserved in fragments (on the martyrdom of James of Jerusalem, the rise of heresies, etc.) in Eusebius H. Eccl., collected by Grabe (Spicileg. II. 203–214), Routh (Reliqu. Sacrae, vol. I. 209–219), and Hilgenfeld ("Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theol." 1876, pp. 179 sqq.). See art. of Weizsäcker in Herzog, 2nd ed., V. 695; and of Milligan in Smith & Wace, II. 875. The work was still extant in the 16th century, and may be discovered yet; see Hilgenfeld’s "Zeitschrift" for 1880, p. 127. It is strongly Jewish-Christian, yet not Ebionite, but Catholic.

*Eusebius (bishop of Caesarea in Palestine since 315, died 340, "the father of Church History," "the Christian Herodotus," confidential friend, adviser, and eulogist of Constantine the Great):  jEkklhsiastikh; iJstoriva, from the incarnation to the defeat and death of Licinius 324. Chief edd. by Stephens, Paris 1544 (ed. princeps); Valesius (with the other Greek church historians), Par. 1659; Reading, Cambr. 1720; Zimmermann, Francof. 1822; Burton, Oxon. 1838 and 1845 (2 vols.); Schwegler, Tüb. 1852; Lämmer, Scaphus. 1862 (important for the text); F. A. Heinichen, Lips. 1827, second ed. improved 1868–’70, 3 vols. (the most complete and useful edition of all the Scripta Historica of Eus.); G. Dindorf, Lips., 1871. Several versions(German, French, and English); one by Hanmer (Cambridge; 1683, etc.); another by C. F. Crusé (an Am. Episc., London, 1842, Phil., 1860, included in Bagster’s edition of the Greek Eccles. Historians, London, 1847, and in Bohn’s Eccles. Library); the best with commentary by A. C. McGiffert (to be published by "The Christian Lit. Comp.," New York, 1890).

The other historical writings of Eusebius, including his Chronicle, his Life of Constantine, and his Martyrs of Palestine, are found in Heinichen’s ed., and also in the ed. of his Opera omnia, by Migne, "Patrol. Graeca," Par. 1857, 5 vols. Best ed. of his Chronicle, by Alfred Schöne, Berlin, 1866 and 1875, 2 vols.

Whatever may be said of the defects of Eusebius as an historical critic and writer, his learning and industry are unquestionable, and his Church History and Chronicle will always remain an invaluable collection of information not attainable in any other ancient author. The sarcastic contempt of Gibbon and charge of willful suppression of truth are not justified, except against his laudatory over-estimate of Constantine, whose splendid services to the church blinded his vision. For a just estimate of Eusebius see the exhaustive article of Bishop Lightfoot in Smith & Wace, II. 308–348.


2. Modern Historians.

William Cave, (died 1713): Primitive Christianity. Lond. 4th ed. 1682, in 3 parts. The same: Lives of the most eminent Fathers of the Church that flourished in the first four centuries, 1677–’83, 2 vols.; revised by ed. H. Carey, Oxford, 1840, in 3 vols. Comp. also Cave’s Scriptorum ecclesiasticorum historia literaria, a Christo nato usque ad saeculum  XIV; best ed. Oxford 1740–’43, 2 vols. fol.

*J. L. Mosheim: Commentarii de rebus Christianis ante Constantinum M. Helmst. 1753. The same in English by Vidal, 1813 sqq., 3 vols., and by Murdock, New Haven, 1852, 2 vols.

*Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London, 1776–’88, 6 vols.; best edd. by Milman, with his own, Guizot’s and Wenck’s notes, and by William Smith, including the notes of Milman, etc. Reprinted, London, 1872, 8 vols., New York, Harpers, 1880, in 6 vols. In Chs. 15 and 16, and throughout his great work, Gibbon dwells on the outside, and on the defects rather than the virtues of ecclesiastical Christianity, without entering into the heart of spiritual Christianity which continued beating through all ages; but for fullness and general accuracy of information and artistic representation his work is still unsurpassed.

H. G. Tzschirner: Der Fall des Heidenthums. Leipz. 1829.

Edw. Burton: Lectures upon the Ecclesiastical History of the first three Centuries. Oxf. 1833, in 3 parts (in 1 vol. 1845). He made also collections of the ante-Nicene testimonies to the Divinity of Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Henry H. Milman: The History of Christianity from the Birth of Christ to the Abolition of Paganism in the Roman Empire. Lond. 1840. 3 vols.; 2nd ed. 1866. Comp. also the first book of his History of Latin Christianity, 2d ed. London and New York, 1860, in 8 vols.

John Kaye (Bishop of Lincoln, d. 1853). Ecclesiastical History of the Second and Third Centuries, illustrated from the writinqs of Tertullian. Lond. 1845. Comp. also his books on Justin Martyr, Clement of Alex., and the Council of Nicaea (1853).

F. D. Maurice: Lectures on the Eccles. Hist. of the First and Second Cent.  Cambr. 1854.

*A. Ritschl: Die Entstehung der alt-katholischen Kirche. Bonn, 1850; 2nd ed. 1857. The second edition is partly reconstructed and more positive.

*E. de Pressensé (French Protestant): Histoire de trois premiers siècles de l’église chrétienne.  Par. 1858 sqq. The same in German trans. by E. Fabarius. Leipz. 1862–’63, 4 vols. English transl. by Annie Harwood Holmden, under the title: The Early Years of Christianity.  A Comprehensive History of the First Three Centuries of the Christian Church, 4 vols. Vol. I. The Apost. Age; vol. II. Martyrs and Apologists; vol. III. Heresy and Christian Doctrine; vol. IV. Christian Life and Practice. London (Hodder & Stoughton), 1870 sqq., cheaper ed., 1879. Revised edition of the original, Paris, 1887 sqq.

W. D. Killen (Presbyterian): The Ancient Church traced for the first three centuries. Edinb. and New York, 1859. New ed. N. Y., 1883.

Ambrose Manahan (R. Cath.): Triumph of the Catholic Church in the Early Ages. New York, 1859.

Alvan Lamson (Unitarian): The Church of the First Three Centuries, with special reference to the doctrine of the Trinity; illustrating its late origin and gradual formation. Boston, 1860.

Milo Mahan (Episcopalian): A Church History of the First Three centuries. N. York, 1860. Second ed., 1878 (enlarged).

J. J. Blunt: History of the Christian Church during the first three centuries. London, 1861.

Jos. Schwane (R.C.): Dogmengeschichte der vornicänischen Zeit. Münster, 1862.

Th. W. Mossman: History of the Cath. Church of J. Christ from the death of John to the middle of the second century. Lond. 1873.

*Ernest Renan: L’ Histoire des origines du Christianisme. Paris, 1863–1882, 7 vols. The last two vols., I’ église Chrétienne, 1879, and Marc Aurèle, 1882, belong to this period. Learned, critical, and brilliant, but thoroughly secular, and skeptical.

*Gerhard Uhlhorn: Der Kampf des Christenthums mit dem Heidenthum. 3d improved ed. Stuttgart, 1879. English transl. by Profs. Egbert C. Smyth and C. J. H. Ropes: The Conflict of Christianity, etc. N. York, 1879. An admirable translation of a graphic and inspiring, account of the heroic conflict of Christianity with heathen Rome.

*Theod. Keim, (d. 1879): Rom und das Christenthum. Ed. from the author’s MSS. by H. Ziegler. Berlin, 1881. (667 pages).

Chr. Wordsworth (Bishop of Lincoln): A Church History to the Council of Nicea, a.d. 325. Lond. and N. York, 1881. Anglo-Catholic.

A. Plummer: The Church of the Early Fathers, London, 1887.

Of the general works on Church History, those of Baronius, Tillemont (R.C.), Schröckh, Gieseler, Neander, and Baur. (the third revised ed. of vol. 1st, Tüb. 1853, pp. 175–527; the same also transl. into English) should be noticed throughout on this period; but all these books are partly superseded by more recent discoveries and discussions of special points, which will be noticed in the respective sections.


 § 2. General Character of Ante-Nicene Christianity.


We now descend from the primitive apostolic church to the Graeco-Roman; from the scene of creation to the work of preservation; from the fountain of divine revelation to the stream of human development; from the inspirations of the apostles and prophets to the productions of enlightened but fallible teachers. The hand of God has drawn a bold line of demarcation between the century of miracles and the succeeding ages, to show, by the abrupt transition and the striking contrast, the difference between the work of God and the work of man, and to impress us the more deeply with the supernatural origin of Christianity and the incomparable value of the New Testament. There is no other transition in history so radical and sudden, and yet so silent and secret. The stream of divine life in its passage from the mountain of inspiration to the valley of tradition is for a short time lost to our view, and seems to run under ground. Hence the close of the first and the beginning of the second centuries, or the age of the Apostolic Fathers is often regarded as a period for critical conjecture and doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversy rather than for historical narration.

Still, notwithstanding the striking difference, the church of the second and third centuries is a legitimate continuation of that of the primitive age. While far inferior in originality, purity, energy, and freshness, it is distinguished for conscientious fidelity in preserving and propagating the sacred writings and traditions of the apostles, and for untiring zeal in imitating their holy lives amidst the greatest difficulties and dangers, when the religion of Christ was prohibited by law and the profession of it punished as a political crime.

The second period, from the death of the apostle John to the end of the persecutions, or to the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is the classic age of the ecclesia pressa, of heathen persecution, and of Christian martyrdom and heroism, of cheerful sacrifice of possessions and life itself for the inheritance of heaven. It furnishes a continuous commentary on the Saviour’s words: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword."1 To merely human religion could have stood such an ordeal of fire for three hundred years. The final victory of Christianity over Judaism and heathenism, and the mightiest empire of the ancient world, a victory gained without physical force, but by the moral power of patience and perseverance, of faith and love, is one of the sublimest spectacles in history, and one of the strongest evidences of the divinity and indestructible life of our religion.

But equally sublime and significant are the intellectual and spiritual victories of the church in this period over the science and art of heathenism, and over the assaults of Gnostic and Ebionitic heresy, with the copious vindication and development of the Christian truth, which the great mental conflict with those open and secret enemies called forth.

The church of this period appears poor in earthly possessions and honors, but rich in heavenly grace, in world-conquering faith, love, and hope; unpopular, even outlawed, hated, and persecuted, yet far more vigorous and expansive than the philosophies of Greece or the empire of Rome; composed chiefly of persons of the lower social ranks, yet attracting the noblest and deepest minds of the age, and bearing, in her bosom the hope of the world; "as unknown, yet well-known, as dying, and behold it lives;" conquering by apparent defeat, and growing on the blood of her martyrs; great in deeds, greater in sufferings, greatest in death for the honor of Christ and the benefit of generations to come.2

The condition and manners of the Christians in this age are most beautifully described by the unknown author of the "Epistola ad Diognetum" in the early part of the second century.3 "The Christians," he says, "are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and are made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are calumniated, and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell. In short, what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is diffused through all the members of the body, and the Christians are spread through the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; so the Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, invisible, keeps watch in the visible body; so also the Christians are seen to live in the world, but their piety is invisible. The flesh hates and wars against the soul, suffering no wrong from it, but because it resists fleshly pleasures; and the world hates the Christians with no reason, but that they resist its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh and members, by which it is hated; so the Christians love their haters. The soul is inclosed in the body, but holds the body together; so the Christians are detained in the world as in a prison; but they contain the world. Immortal, the soul dwells in the mortal body; so the Christians dwell in the corruptible, but look for incorruption in heaven. The soul is the better for restriction in food and drink; and the Christians increase, though daily punished. This lot God has assigned to the Christians in the world; and it cannot be taken from them."

The community of Christians thus from the first felt itself, in distinction from Judaism and from heathenism, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city of God set on a hill, the immortal soul in a dying body; and this its impression respecting itself was no proud conceit, but truth and reality, acting in life and in death, and opening the way through hatred and persecution even to an outward victory over the world.

The ante-Nicene age has been ever since the Reformation a battle-field between Catholic and Evangelical historians and polemics, and is claimed by both for their respective creeds. But it is a sectarian abuse of history to identify the Christianity of this martyr period either with Catholicism, or with Protestantism. It is rather the common root out of which both have sprung, Catholicism (Greek and Roman) first, and Protestantism afterwards. It is the natural transition from the apostolic age to the Nicene age, yet leaving behind many important truths of the former (especially the Pauline doctrines) which were to be derived and explored in future ages. We can trace in it the elementary forms of the Catholic creed, organization and worship, and also the germs of nearly all the corruptions of Greek and Roman Christianity.

In its relation to the secular power, the ante-Nicene church is simply the continuation of the apostolic period, and has nothing in common either with the hierarchical, or with the Erastian systems. It was not opposed to the secular government in its proper sphere, but the secular heathenism of the government was opposed to Christianity. The church was altogether based upon the voluntary principle, as a self-supporting and self-governing body. In this respect it may be compared to the church in the United States, but with this essential difference that in America the secular government, instead of persecuting Christianity, recognizes and protects it by law, and secures to it full freedom of public worship and in all its activities at home and abroad.

The theology of the second and third centuries was mainly apologetic against the paganism of Greece and Rome, and polemic against the various forms of the Gnostic heresy. In this conflict it brings out, with great force and freshness, the principal arguments for the divine origin and character of the Christian religion and the outlines of the true doctrine of Christ and the holy trinity, as afterwards more fully developed in the Nicene and post-Nicene ages.

The organization of this period may be termed primitive episcopacy, as distinct from the apostolic order which preceded, and the metropolitan and patriarchal hierarchy which succeeded it. In worship it forms likewise the transition from apostolic simplicity to the liturgical and ceremonial splendor of full-grown Catholicism.

The first half of the second century is comparatively veiled in obscurity, although considerable light has been shed over it by recent discoveries and investigations. After the death of John only a few witnesses remain to testify of the wonders of the apostolic days, and their writings are few in number, short in compass and partly of doubtful origin: a volume of letters and historical fragments, accounts of martyrdom, the pleadings of two or three apologists; to which must be added the rude epitaphs, faded pictures, and broken sculptures of the subterranean church in the catacombs. The men of that generation were more skilled in acting out Christianity in life and death, than in its literary defence. After the intense commotion of the apostolic age there was a breathing spell, a season of unpretending but fruitful preparation for a new productive epoch. But the soil of heathenism had been broken up, and the new seed planted by the hands of the apostles gradually took root.

Then came the great literary conflict of the apologists and doctrinal polemics in the second half of the same century; and towards the middle of the third the theological schools of Alexandria, and northern Africa, laying the foundation the one for the theology of the Greek, the other for that of the Latin church. At the beginning of the fourth century the church east and west was already so well consolidated in doctrine and discipline that it easily survived the shock of the last and most terrible persecution, and could enter upon the fruits of its long-continued sufferings and take the reins of government in the old Roman empire.



* Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997. This material has been carefully compared, corrected¸ and emended (according to the 1910 edition of Charles Scribner's Sons) by The Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, TX, 1998.

1  Comp. Matt. 10:17-39; 5:10, 12; 13:21; 16:24; 20:22 sq.; 1 Cor. 15:31; 2 Cor. 4:10; Rom. 8:36; Phil. 3:10 sq. Col. 1:24 sq.; 1 Pet. 2:21

2  Isaac Taylor, in his Ancient Christianity, which is expressly written against a superstitious over-valuation of the patristic age, nevertheless admits (vol. i p. 37): "Our brethren of the early church challenge our respect, as well as affection; for theirs was the fervor of a steady faith in things unseen and eternal; theirs, often, a meek patience under the most grievous wrongs; theirs the courage to maintain a good profession before the frowning face of philosophy, of secular tyranny, and of splendid superstition; theirs was abstractedness from the world and a painful self-denial; theirs the most arduous and costly labors of love; theirs a munificence in charity, altogether without example; theirs was a reverent and scrupulous care of the sacred writings; and this one merit, if they had no other, is of a superlative degree, and should entitle them to the veneration and grateful regards of the modern church. How little do many readers of the Bible, nowadays, think of what it cost the Christians of the second and third centuries, merely to rescue and hide the sacred treasures from the rage of the heathen!"

3  C. 5 and 6 (p. 69 sq. ed. Otto. Lips. 1852).