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Early Christian Doctrine on Jesus Christ
This essay addresses some prominent stages in the development of doctrine about Jesus Christ during the period preceding the Church Councils of late antiquity. How did the early Church define its beliefs that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he was the Son of God? How were these beliefs reflected and preserved in the structures of organization and authority that arose in the first five centuries following the death of Jesus?
Early Christian doctrines developed and were shaped over time; they were neither fixed nor stable. Once a doctrine was established it often necessitated a subsequent doctrine to define more precisely what was meant and to clarify the subtle nuances. Lived experience and understanding was the basis for the emergence of forming and re-forming doctrine. In other words, the need to develop doctrine about Jesus Christ emerged from the need to sort out what was truly Christian experience and life. In the words of the early church historian, Joseph Kelly:
The story of the Church begins at Pentecost with a frightened group of disciples wondering what will happen to them; it progresses through an almost frenetic attempt to win over the outside world before the Second Coming; it focuses on an epic struggle with the most powerful empire of the ancient world; it reaches its high point with the conversion of that empire to the new faith; it closes with the gradual decline of a great civilization and the emergence of a new world. It has a large canvas and broad brush strokes. While we must pay meticulous attention to the particulars, we must never forget the general(Kelly, "Why Study Early Church History?" 5)
Three areas are addressed with regard to the formation of doctrine on Jesus Christ in this essay: the controversy over Christ's Resurrection, the controversy over the True Church, and the controversy over Persecution and Martyrdom.
The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection
How did Christians understand that Christ rose from the dead? What were the social, religious, and political ramifications of these competing understandings of the resurrection?
Images of resurrection (Dan. 12:1-2; 2 Macc. 7) and of immortality (Wisdom of Solomon 2:23; 4 Maccabees) are found in several apocryphal texts. Jesus' own defense of resurrection against the Sadducees in Mark 12:18-27 suggests that the topic remained open to debate. Thus, it is not surprising that there is significant variance between the gospel accounts of Jesus' resurrection. References to appearances of Jesus differ widely (Mk. 16:7; Mt. 28:9-10; Jn 20:11-18; Lk 24:13 49; Jn 20: 19-29) These passages offer different witnesses to the resurrection and different accounts of what was seen. The empty tomb, as in Gal. 1:16; 1 Cor. 15:3-10, "only confirms a faith in Jesus' resurrection that had its origins in independent acts of divine revelation." (Pheme Perkins, "Resurrection," 781) It is no surprise that speculation about the nature of his resurrected body was one result: was it a physical/bodily resurrection or a spiritual one?
In her work, The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels has argued that the debate over the nature of the resurrection of Christ centered on interpretation of two specific Biblical references: Lk 24:36-43; Jn 20: 19-29.
While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and though that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. (Lk. 24: 36-43, NOAB, 1994)
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." (Jn. 20:24-27, NOAB, 1994)
Pagels writes that "what makes these Christian accounts so extraordinary is not the claim that his friends had 'seen' Jesus after his death-ghost stories, hallucinations, and visions were even more commonplace then than now-but that they saw an actual human being." (The Gnostic Gospels, 3)
Several prominent figures from the early church community such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen argued for the literal view of resurrection. These men created an explicit connection between the resurrected body and a doctrine of soteriology. Irenaeus, for instance, in his work Against Heresies, insists that the New Testament taught that the resurrection implied transformation of the body (5.7.1-2; 5.13.1).
The majority of gnostic Christians rejected the theory of a bodily resurrection and argued that the risen Lord was a purely divine, spiritual being and that resurrection of the faithful meant ascent of the soul to that heavenly status, not transformation of the embodied person. To them, the resurrection was not a unique event in the past: instead, it symbolized how Christ's presence could be experienced in the present. What mattered was not literal seeing, but spiritual vision. They pointed out that many who witnessed the events of Jesus' life remained blind to their meaning. The disciples themselves often misunderstood what Jesus said: those who announced that their dead master had come back physically to life mistook a spiritual truth for an actual event. But the true disciple may never have seen the earthly Jesus, having been born of the wrong time, as Paul said of himself (1 Cor. 15:8). Yet this physical disability may become a spiritual advantage: such persons, like Paul, may encounter Christ first on the level of inner experience. (Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, 12)
The gnostic treatise, the Apocalypse of Peter, suggests that there was a disjunction between Jesus and Christ, that the death of body did not imply a suffering of spirit, and that "spiritual vision" played a key role in whether a person would be able to experience the resurrected Christ.
The legacy of Plato also influenced those who posited a view distinct from that of a bodily resurrection. Plato's argument for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo is indicative of the prevalent philosophical position that the soul was immortal while the body was not. Because the essence of the soul is that it is "that which gives life," and because the soul can never admit of its opposite, it is deathless; what is deathless is indestructible, so the soul is indestructible-it is immortal. Justin Martyr, in his work, On the Resurrection, counters this view through the assertion that the "image of God" in Genesis included the body, so God's creative power could transform it to receive immortality along with the soul.
By the beginning of the third century, the position of Justin Martyr and of others that advanced a view of bodily resurrection prevailed. The triumph of this view was assisted by the lack of effort to achieve coherency in doctrine, organization, and authority among gnostic groups (which, by nature, tended to be factious and guided by the teachings of a specific leader). By the time of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE belief in a bodily resurrection will become a component of a creedal formula.
The Controversy over the True Church
Many pagan intellectuals of the second and third centuries, like Galen and Celsus, claimed that Christianity was unreasonable and unsound. Two prominent Christians in this period, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, sought to address the reasonableness of Christian faith and doctrine as a way of navigating the tension between Christianity and Roman society, between religion and culture.
Galen was born in Pergamum in western Asia Minor (ca. 130). He studied philosophy and then medicine in Alexandria; after these studies he settled in Rome. His criticism of Christianity is essentially philosophical; he attacks the soundness of the doctrines of a contemporary philosophical school (in this case, a way of life).
It is in this sense that Galen identified the early Christian movement as a philosophical school. Christians led people to embrace lives of discipline and self-control, to pursue justice, to overcome the fear of death. Though they did not provide men and women with intellectual foundations for their beliefs, they did achieve a way of life not inferior to that led by 'those who are truly philosophers.' (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 82)
Galen's critique of Christian doctrines is found in his work, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body (ca. 170 CE). Among many other teachings, the creation account in the book of Genesis receives treatment. Here, Galen objects to the implication that God brought things into being solely by an act of will without regard to any prior act of reasoning or foresight. He also objects to the implication in the Genesis account that the world was created out of what did not already exist.
The idea that the world came into existence out of non-being was abhorrent to the Greeks. For Aristotle, it is axiomatic that 'nothing can come out of what does not exist.' Likewise, Plutarch writes: 'The substance or matter out of which [the kosmos] has come into being did not come to be but was always available to the demiurge to whom it submitted itself for disposing and ordering, for the source of what comes into being is not what does not exist, but as in the case of a house and a garment and a statue, what is not in good and sufficient condition.' (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 90)
Justin Martyr was a contemporary of Galen who attempted to present the reasonableness of the Christian faith. Justin was educated at Ephesus where he studied philosophy. He underwent a profound conversion experience and wrote with zeal in support of his new religious faith. This experience is recorded in his work, Dialogues with Trypho (c. 160). It is an interesting account, in part, because he equates his conversion to Christianity as a conversion to philosophy. As an adult, he moved to Rome where he carried on a long teaching ministry during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161). He addressed two apologies for Christianity (the First Apology was addressed to this emperor, ca. 151; the Second Apology was addressed to the Roman senate). He appeals to the common reason of his audiences in their judgment of the Christian faith; he beseeches them to avoid believing slanders against Christians until they have been proven true. Furthermore, Justin called for judgement of Christians to be grounded in precisely that which Galen valued about the faith, namely, the virtuous life of the Christian. In response to charges that Christian teachings are unreasonable, Justin selectively spoke of Christ in philosophical terms by referring to Christ as the Logos (Word/Reason). In the Second Apology Justin writes: "And [God's] Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Logos, who was also with him and was begotten before the works [of creation], when at first he created and arranged all things by him [the Logos], is called Christ." Justin
uses the concept of the divine Logos or Reason both to explain how the transcendent Father of all deals with the inferior, created order of things, and to justify his faith in the revelation made by God through the prophets and in Christ. The divine Logos inspired the prophets, he says, and was present in its entirety in Jesus Christ. This inspiring activity and its culmination in the actual incarnation are special cases of divine immanence.(Chadwick, The Early Church, 77)
Justin Martyr subordinated Christ as Logos to God the Father in order to preserve the Judaic concept of monotheism, the oneness of God the Father, and to distinguish God the Father from all that he was not.
In his work, True Doctrine, the late 2C philosopher Celsus proffered what has been called "the earliest extended, systematic treatment of Christianity by an outsider" (Gary Burke, "Celsus," 188). Celsus was familiar with the work of Justin Martyr, had read many Christian writings, and had observed Christians. Celsus charged that Christianity was an unreasonable faith on the basis of its doctrines, its founder, and its spilt from the tradition of Judaism. One of the doctrines under his scrutiny was the belief in a bodily resurrection. Celsus' critique pointed out that "instead of recognizing that God was subject to the laws of nature and of reason, Christians believed in a God who stood above and beyond nature and who was capable of doing whatever at will. A God who is contrary to reason is not a fit object of devotion." (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 106) The grounds for believing this, and many other Christian doctrines, lay in faith that fails to be grounded in reason and in proof. Regarding Christ, Celsus addressed Christian claims about the virgin birth, the baptism by John, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the miracles and teachings of Jesus. The basis for the critique in each of these areas is the fact that the only source upon which evidence rests is the gospels and that these are based on hearsay and are unverifiable. Finally, Celsus argued that the Christian repudiation of its origin proved the illegitimacy of the new movement. Christianity had deserted its mother tradition. "Christians may have claimed to have the correct interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures, but on those points which were clearly set forth in the Scripture-such as circumcision and the keeping of the Sabbath, the festivals and the food laws-Christians wantonly disregarded the meaning of the very books they claimed as their own." (Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 116) Christianity consciously chose to divorce itself from the two traditions of antiquity through which it would have gained credibilty: Roman religion and Judaism.
Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 115-ca. 202 CE) supplies one response to Celsus' attacks.
Irenaeus was born in Asia Minor, and went to southern Gaul as a missionary; in 177-178 CE, as a priest, he went to the bishop of Rome to intercede on behalf of the martyr church of Gaul. Irenaeus felt that the diversification of doctrines, groups, and sects was a threat to the Christian message and to the universal church. He was aware that responses to charges by pagans such as Celsus necessitated a strong, unified, front. In his work, Against Heresies, he constructs an argument for the Christian church by indicating those features by which the true church must be recognized: ministry, canon, creed. Irenaeus stressed on the equation: apostolic succession=authority.
Of whom did the Lord declare, 'Who then shall be a faithful steward (actor), good and wise, whom the Lord sets over His household?' Paul the, teaching us where one may find such, says, 'God has placed in the Church first apostles; secondly, prophets; thirdly, teachers.' Where the gifts of the Lord have been placed there it behooves us to learn the truth, [namely] from those who possess the succession of the Church which is from the apostles(Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book IV, chapter 26, section 5)
Christians must refer back to the tradition of the apostles, and this has been handed down in the churches where it is possible to trace the line back to the apostles through the succession of bishops.
These churches are the sole safeguard of Scripture, or the authoritative canon of the New Testament. Authority to determine the authentic teaching of the church is vested in those who derive from apostolic succession. Irenaeus decreed that no heed be paid to the scriptures that were handed down outside the apostolic succession. As far as Irenaeus was concerned, four Gospels were universally recognized and no more. Directly or indirectly they were the work of one of the four great apostles, as were the other books he recognized: Matthew (Gospel), Peter (Epistle, Gospel of Mark), Paul (Epistles, Gospel of Luke and Acts), John (Gospel, Revelation, Epistles).
But that these Gospels alone are true and reliable, and admit neither an increase nor a diminution of the aforesaid number, I have proved by so many and such [arguments]. For, since God made all things in due proportion and adaptation, it was fit also that the outward aspect of the Gospel should be well arranged and harmonized." (Book III, chapter 11, section 9)
Finally, the true church proclaims an identical message throughout the world.
The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvationand the passion, and the death and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord (Book I, chapter 10, section 1)
Irenaeus taught that this Rule of Faith is what the bishops teach now and therefore comes down from the apostles. The Council of Nicea in 325 CE will prove to create a creed and to enforce a governing hierarchical structure that emulate much of what Irenaeus advocates; as well, the prevailing controversy over Arianism, which forms the basis for this ecumenical gathering, will take up the issue the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ proposed by Justin Martyr.
The Controversy over Martyrdom and Persecution
How did the private and public dimensions of persecution and martyrdom supply a means by which early Christians could identify with Jesus Christ? From the perspective of philosophical and pagan critics like Galen, Celsus, and Porphyry, Christians maintained unreasonable doctrine and recruited from the dregs of society, namely, the ignorant and poor. Common slanders against Christians varied. There is evidence of Christians being criticized as bad citizens for their refusal to partake in imperial cult and of charges that Christians were practitioners of incest and of cannibalism. Roman attitudes toward religion were governed by pietas (duty) and by pragmatism. Citizens were required to partake in practice of the state religion; worship of the emperor and of the state-sanctioned gods was a political duty.
Several early Christian apologists headed a movement to counter such attacks. The most prominent of these is Justin Martyr. In his letters to the Senate and to the Emperor, noted above, Justin is at pains to appeal to the reason of these bodies in their decisions about the reasonableness of Christian doctrine and practice. He counters the philosophical and common slanders of the Romans with a succinct statement: Christians are not a secret society with unreasonable doctrines and practices (illustrated by one of the earliest expressions of sacramental theology concerning the practices of baptism and eucharist); Christians are, in fact, good citizens as they comply with obligations to pray for (although not to) the Emperor, to obey the dictates of the Emperor, and to pay taxes.
Yet, despite the work of apologists, like Justin, Christianity was the object of sporadic, localized persecutions over the course of the first several centuries. Occasional persecution occurred under Emperors Nero (64 CE), Domitian (81-96 CE), Trajan (98-117 CE), and Marcus Aurelius (161 180 CE). Empire-wide persecution is implemented under the rule of Emperors Diocletian and Galerius.
There is little evidence for many of these early persecutions. The Roman historian, Tacitus, records that persecution under Emperor Nero was due to his blaming the impurity of the Christians in Rome for the burning of that city in 64 CE. Persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian revolved around charges that they refused to worship an image of the emperor as "Lord and God."
A letter dated ca. 112 CE from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia (northern Asia Minor), seeks the advice of Emperor Trajan on how to handle the Christians in the area. Pliny explains that Christianity had spread widely in the towns and countryside of his province and that its spread has resulted in empty pagan temples. Several concerned citizens had appealed to Pliny who decided to execute some Christians who were not Roman citizens and to arrest and send to Rome for trial other Christians who were Roman citizens. Should the mere profession of Christianity have been sufficient grounds for the deaths of these persons? Could a Christian be forgiven after recanting? Pliny is certain that his course of action thus far has been appropriate. He writes that the killing of Christians was merited by the simple fact that they had been stubborn in their refusal to recant and, in this, failed to obey political authority. Trajan's response leaves too many of Pliny's queries unanswered. Trajan tells Pliny to persecute Christians only under the following conditions: if a Roman citizen charged someone with being a Christian, the accused could be tried and punished if found guilty. Pardon should be granted for those accused who offer prayers to the gods.
The Martyrdom of Polycarp, the oldest account of a Christian martyrdom outside of the New Testament, is a letter recounting the death of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who is believed to have died during persecution of Christians under Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The displeasure of the local gods at Lyons and Vienne due to Christian impiety was the motive for persecution.
When Diocletian (284-305 CE) became emperor, the Roman Empire had undergone many years of chaos and instability. Diocletian sought to change this. He issued a major reorganization of the empire along with a restructuring of defense, currency, pricing, and taxation. An implacable tax system closed in on the citizens because of the need to finance a sizeable army and huge building spree. Furthermore, Diocletian sought to unify the citizens of his empire through appeal to their religious sensibilities. Under Diocletian, emperor worship peaked: Diocletian wore a diadem and carried a sceptre, and every loyal citizen was expected to adore him.
In order to ensure political stability, Diocletian divided the empire into four regions (called a tetrarchy-rule by four men), with two Emperors in the East (an augusti and a caesar) and two Emperors in the West (an augusti and a caesar). In order for the government to be passed along smoothly in case of the death of one of the Augusti, each Augustus appointed a Caesar who was designated to replace him should he die or abdicate. In theory the four emperors ruled as colleagues and all official pronouncements were issued in their joint names. In practice they administered separate zones with their own governments and armies. The tetrarchy did produce the desired stability. The ninety-six provinces of the Empire were grouped into twelve dioceses.
2 Augusti: Diocletian (Sirmium) and Maximian (n. Italy)
2 Caesars: Galerius (Nicomedia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt) and Constantius (Gaul, Britain, Trier)
After securing the boundaries of the empire, Diocletian tried to revive the ancient pagan religion of Rome; he believed that uniting the country under one religion would make it stronger. This belief led him to enact a series of edicts of persecution against the Christians. Eusebius of Caesarea, an early church historian and author of the Ecclesiastical History tells us that in 303 CE the question of loyalty in the army was raised; many thought that Christians were responsible for citing disloyalty. Diocletian and his caesar, Galerius, consulted the augurs in the nearby pagan temple (in Nicomedia) and it was revealed that during the consultation some of the Christians were blessing themselves by making the sign of the cross; as a result, the augurs could not "read" the sacrifice. Diocletian then consulted Apollo who told him that the Christians had caused the false oracles.
An edict against Christians was then posted in Nicomedia on February 23, 303 CE, calling for the destruction of all churches, the surrender of all Bibles and liturgical books, the confiscation of sacred vessels, and the prohibition of Christian worship.
Several months later, a second edict was issued, once again confined to the East. It ordered for the arrest of the clergy. However, due to the large numbers of Christians, an amnesty was granted on condition of sacrifice.
In 304 CE, a third edict was issued that all citizens of the Empire were required to sacrifice on pain of death. However, although this edict was empire-wide, in reality its impact was limited to the East. Persecution did not strike all of the Empire equally: Constantius (in Gaul, Britain, and Trier) failed to execute anyone but did destroy some churches.
In 304/305 CE, Diocletian and Maximian retired from service and Galerius and Constantius were elevated to the rank of Augusti.
: 2 Augusti: Galerius (Sirmium) and Constantius (n. Italy)
2 Caesars: Maximin Daia (Nicomedia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt) and Constantine (Gaul, Britain, Trier)
In 305 CE, Galerius and Maxmin Daia "produce a minor blood bath" (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, ch.122). In 311 CE, while Galerius was on his deathbed dying in great pain, he issued an edict in which he explains that he had tried to persuade the Christians to return to the religion of their forefathers, but that "very many persisted in their determination," and that he now grants them toleration and the right of assembly in return for which he begs them to pray for his health and for the defense of the State. Galerius died less than a year later (312 CE); Maximin Daia became Augustus of the East.
In 306 CE, Constantius died and his son, Constantine (271-337 CE), assumed the charge as Augustus of the Western half of the Roman Empire. Upon coming to power Constantine provided for restitution to Christians. His personal devotions, however, he offered first to Mars and then increasingly to Apollo. He also confronted a rival to the title Augustus in the Western half of the Roman Empire. Maxentius, son of Maximian, had himself declared Augustus in Rome on October 28, 306. Open hostilities and tensions between them were finally resolved at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.
According to Lactantius (a pagan whom Constantine appointed tutor of his son), Constantine was commanded in a dream to place the sign of Christ on the shields of his soldiers and it was this sign which was deemed responsible for his victory. Twenty-five years later the Church historian, Eusebius, gives us a different picture (more elaborate and less convincing) in his Life of Constantine. Here, when Constantine and his army were on the march toward Rome-neither the time nor the location is specified-they observed in broad daylight a strange phenomenon in the sky: a cross of light and the words "by this sign you will be victor." During the next night, so Eusebius' account continues, Christ appeared to Constantine and instructed him to place the heavenly sign on the battle standards of his army.
Whatever vision, if any, Constantine experienced the accounts of Lactantius and Eusebius insist that he attributed his victory to the power of "the Gods of the Christians." The context of this "battle" is noteworthy: in reality, it was more probably a siege. Because Maxentius' army was not prepared, many of his soldiers fled. It is likely, then, that Constantine proclaimed his allegiance to the Christian god before a battle he knew that he would win.
While he was fighting his battle in the western half of the empire, in 312 CE, there was civil war in the eastern part of the empire; Licinius defeated Maximin Daia to become sole ruler of the eastern part of the empire.
Shortly after, in 313 CE, in Milan, Constantine and Licinius issued a joint policy of religious freedom for all citizens of the empire, pagan and Christian alike, and called for the restoration of all property, whether belonging to individual Christians or to churches as corporations that was removed during time of persecution. This document is called the Edict of Toleration or the Edict of Milan.
In 324 CE, Licinius and Constantine went to war. Constantine was victorious, thereby becoming the sole ruler of the entire Roman Empire. He made Constantinople (ancient Greek city of Byzantium) his capital and, within a year of his victory, he was called to enter ecclesiastical politics by resolving the dispute that led to the first ecumenical church council, the Council of Nicea (325 CE).
Burke, Gary. "Celsus," in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, edited by Everett
Ferguson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.), pp. 188-189.
Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church (New York: Viking Penguin, 1967).
Kelly, Joseph. "Why Study Early Church History?" in Early Christianity: Origins and
Evolution to A. D. 600, edited by Ian Hazlett (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991)
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1981).
Perkins, Pheme. "Resurrection," in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, edited by Everett
Ferguson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.), pp. 780-782.
Wilken, Robert. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University
-by Bernadette McNary-Zak
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