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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
     An unnoticed event
     The first Christians
     The first martyr
     The mission to the Gentiles
     St Peter and St Paul

1st - 3rd century
4th century
5th century
6th - 10th century
11th-13th century
14th - 15th century
16th century
17th - 18th century
To be completed

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An unnoticed event: AD c.33

At some time during the ten years in which Pontius Pilate is administering the small Roman province of Judaea, he reluctantly authorizes the death by crucifixion of a religious agitator in Jerusalem.

This would have gone unnoticed by historians, for there is no trace of it in official records, but for the fact that the man's followers campaign energetically in his memory. Some forty or fifty years after the event they write down, in the Gospels, their account of what happened.


They say that the crucified man was known to the authorities as Jesus of Nazareth, and that he was killed for claiming to be the King of the Jews - a political affront in Roman terms and a religious one to the Jews. But to them he is Christ, a word with the same meaning as Messiah ('anointed').

They say also that he spent the last years of his life in Galilee and Jerusalem working miracles, mainly medical in kind, and preaching that the kingdom of God will soon come - and that only those who repent of their sins and follow him (for he is himself the son of God) will enter this kingdom. (See the ministry of Jesus)


The first Christians: AD c.29-35

The followers of Jesus, soon to be known as Christians, also say that on the third day after the Crucifixion his tomb was found to be empty. He had risen from the dead, and this resurrection and victory over the shame and apparent finality of his death is felt to be profoundly encouraging.

People hearing the story begin to join those who knew and loved Jesus. The good news of what he has promised spreads from Jerusalem to similar groups of enthusiasts in nearby cities such as Damascus and Antioch.


In the first years after the Crucifixion the apostles, led by St Peter, find administering the little Christian community in Jerusalem an increasing burden. It distracts them from their tasks of prayer and preaching. It is not reasonable, they say, 'that we should leave the word of God and serve tables'.

So they arrange for the election of seven men (the same number as the elders in a Jewish synagogue), who will be responsible for all practical matters concerning the small Christian community.


The first martyr: AD c.35

The first named of the seven is Stephen. He thus becomes identified as the leader of this troublesome sect which teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, whose second coming will involve the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

As the focus of official Jewish hostility, Stephen is taken outside the city walls and is stoned to death. He is the first Christian martyr.


The mission to the Gentiles: 1st century AD

One of the witnesses of Stephen's violent death, bestowing on it his full approval, is a keen upholder of Jewish orthodoxy - Saul of Tarsus. More familiar now as St Paul, he becomes after a dramatic conversion the first great Christian missionary.

He introduces to Christianity one startling new element, as he travels through Turkey and Greece. The early Christians are all Jews. But Paul now begins to convert people of non-Jewish descent - known collectively as Gentiles.


Gentile converts to Christianity face one very real problem. They are joining a Jewish sect, and to be Jewish involves circumcision - an unappealing rite of initiation for any adult male convert.

Their dilemma poses, in an oblique way, a crucial doctrinal question: is the new religion to be just for Jews or for everyone? The issue is discussed at a gathering of the leaders of the early church in Jerusalem in about the year 50.


Both Peter and Paul are in favour of relaxing the requirements for Gentiles, and their arguments carry the day. It is agreed that circumcision and the full Jewish dietary restrictions are not compulsory for Christians. A letter to this effect is sent to all Gentile Christians.

When it is read out aloud to each assembled community, the Gentiles 'rejoice for the consolation'. It is a turning point for the growing church.


Saint Peter and Saint Paul: AD c.62-64

Early Christian tradition states that both Paul and Peter meet their deaths in Rome during the 60s, becoming the two saints most associated with the city. Paul may have been executed as a result of the charges laid against him, since Luke says that he lived in Rome for two years - till about 62.

But if Peter comes to Rome and is martyred there, upside down on a cross as tradition states, it is more likely that he is a victim of the first persecution of the Christians, carried out by Nero after the Fire of Rome in 64. This traditional link between St Peter and Rome underpins the subsequent status of the papacy.


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