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The phrase Apostolic Age is derived from ἀπόστολος, G693, (Ezra 7:14; Dan 5:24). Translated “apostle” seventy-eight times, “messenger” two and “he that is sent” once in the NT. Meaning: that period of Early Church history during the life and work of the original apostles, which extended from the day of Pentecost (c. A.D. 33; Acts 2, to the death of John, c. A.D. 100). The main sources for the period are the Book of Acts and the NT letters. This is when the Church was under the guidance of Paul (till his death) and the apostles, especially Peter and John.
Brief Overview of the Beginning: When the disciples realized that they had seen the risen Christ for the last time and that it had now become their duty to spread His message, they gathered themselves together and restored the number of “witnesses” to the appointed Twelve. Immediately afterward, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave them the signal to begin work. At first, this work was rigidly centered in Jerusalem, and the first journeyings were the result of forcible dispersion and not of planned effort (Acts 11:19). But pilgrims to the feasts had carried away the gospel with them, and in this way Christianity had been spread at least as far as Damascus (9:2, 19). The dispersion itself widened the circle to Cyprus and to Antioch and marked the beginning of the gentile work (11:19f).
The extreme prominence of Paul’s ministry in the NT should not obscure the success of the other missionaries. When the apostles began their journeys we do not know, but at the time of Gal. 1:19 only Peter represented the Twelve in Jerusalem. Paul mentions their extended work in 1 Cor. 9:5f, and it seems certain that Peter was in Rome shortly before his death. The troubles caused Paul by the Judaizers at least give evidence of the missionary zeal of the latter. Barnabas and Mark worked after their separation from Paul (Acts 15:39), and gentile Christianity existed in Rome long before Paul’s arrival there (Rom. 1:13). By the year 100 it appears that Christianity extended around the Mediterranean from Alexandria to Rome (and doubtless farther, although data are scanty), while Asia Minor was especially pervaded by it.
Many factors cooperated to help the work. Peace was universal and communication was easy. Greek was spoken everywhere. The protection given Judaism sheltered from civil interference. The presence of Judaism insured hospitality and hearers for at least the first efforts to convert. The Jews’ proselytizing zeal (Mt. 23:15) had prepared Gentiles to receive Christianity. And not the least element was the break-up of the old religions and the general looking to the East for religious satisfaction.
Paul’s procedure is probably typical. Avoiding the smaller places, he devoted himself to the cities as the strategic points and traveled in a direct route, without side-journeys. In this way a “line of fire” (Harnack) was traced, and the flame could be trusted to spread of its own accord to each side of the road. So as fruits of Paul’s work at Ephesus there appear churches at Colossae and Laodicea some 120 mi (200 km) away (Col. 2:1; 4:16). The churches founded needed revisiting and confirming; but when the apostle felt that they could shift for themselves, he felt also that his work in the East was over (Rom. 15:23).
(1.) The inauguration of the Apostolic Age (c. A.D. 33; Acts 2). The success of Christianity in the Apostolic Age is due to the initial effusion of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s 120 disciples at the Jewish Feast of Pentecost in fulfillment of the prior divine promises (Joel 2:28-32; Matt 3:11; John 14:26; 16:7-11; Acts 1:8). The Holy Spirit became the “other self of the Christ” at Pentecost (Chadwick, p. 21), indwelling the disciples for the completion of the work begun by Christ Himself (Acts 1:1, 2, 8). An analysis of this historic event (2:1-4) reveals a fourfold divine provision, as suggested by the symbolism employed: (1) “rushing mighty wind”—divine power (v. 2; cf. Acts 1:8), (2) “tongues of fire”—divine purification (v. 3; cf. Deut 4:24; Isa 6:5-8; 10:16; 30:27-30; Matt 3:11, 12; 5:22; Acts 15:1-9; Heb 12:29); (3) “all filled”—divine possession (Acts 2:4a); and (4) “began to speak with other tongues”—divinely inspired proclamation (v. 4b).
The advent of the Spirit at this time was most opportune. The importance of the Jewish Temple in centralizing and unifying Hellenic with Judean Judaism in the 1st cent. is emphasized by the vast patronage of the diaspora Jews. While Josephus’ estimate of three million attending a single Passover is likely an exaggeration (Crownfield, p. 230), it nevertheless points up the cultural and spiritual unity of all Judaism. Through the Spirit-animated witness of the apostles, 3,000 Jews, mostly Hellenists, were converted to Christianity (2:41), with an increase to at least 5,000 soon after (4:4). The genuineness and influence of this spiritual occurrence is attested by the quality of its converts (2:41-47; 4:32-37). With the return of the Hellenist converts to their respective locations (2:5-11) following Pentecost, they carried their witness with them and thus disseminated widely the Gospel to such outlying centers as Damascus, Antioch of Syria, Cyprus, Cyrene and even Rome (11:20). There were doubtless many other locations of which those recorded are representative.
(2.) The martyrdom of Stephen (7; 8:1, 2). At the outset Christianity was recognized as only a new-life movement within Judaism. The Christians continued worshiping in the Temple and observed the regular Jewish ceremonials (3:1). Little opposition was manifested by the Jews until Christianity was recognized as a distinct religion and the Hellenists, esp. Stephen, began to insinuate the universality of Christianity, and that it would supplant Judaism, for which insinuations he became the first Christian martyr (7; 8:1). The full fury of Jewish persecution broke upon the Christians, but esp. upon the Hellenists following Stephen’s martyrdom, and consequently the Gospel spread afar through the witness of these dispersed Hellenist disciples (8:1, 4). Thus it was the martyrdom of Stephen that shattered the bars of legalistic Judaism and set Christianity free for its universal mission. The apostles and Jewish Christians remained to constitute the Jerusalem mother church (8:1) and afford a central nucleus and base of authority for the church until the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 68.
(3.) The conversion of Saul (8:3; 9:1-22; 22:6-16; 26:9-23). In the first stage of the Apostolic Age Peter and Stephen dominated the scene (1-8:1); in the second, Peter, Philip and Barnabas were prominent (9:27; 12); but in the third, it was Paul (chs. 13-28). With the conversion of Saul, the archenemy of Christianity (9:1, 2), a new era dawned upon the young church. From vicious persecutor of the church because of the universal implications of its message, Saul became the great apostle to the Gentiles (Gal 1:23). A period of peace and spiritual prosperity for the church followed Saul’s conversion (9:31). Paul (his Rom. name), himself a Hellenist Jew with Rom. citizenship from Tarsus in Cilicia, was educated in Jerusalem under the relatively liberal-minded Gamaliel (22:3) and was thus better able to understand and appreciate the Hellenist stance than were the other apostles. Paul was present at the martyrdom of Stephen and approved his death sentence as well as that of other Christians (7:58; 8:1; 22:20; 26:10). He was prob. one of those from Cilicia who could not cope with Stephen’s “wisdom and the spirit” (6:9, 10). He was never able to free himself from the influence of Stephen’s message and martyrdom. All of his recorded addresses reflect the influence of Stephen’s arguments. With the conversion and subsequent leadership of Paul, the Christian Gospel passed into its world-wide Gentile mission.
The generous attitude of Rome toward the Christians was due to the allowance of freedom granted all approved religions within the empire. Judaism was such a religion, and since Christianity had flowered from Judaism Rome appears not to have distinguished between the two (18:1, 2, 12-17). Actually Christianity enjoyed the protection of Rome until about the time of Paul’s first imprisonment under Nero when the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clearer, and the Christians became convenient scapegoats for Nero. The martyrdom of James under Herod (12:1-5) should prob. be understood in the light of Herod’s Jewish connections and his desire to curry favor with the Jews, rather than as a hostile act of Rome toward Christianity.
(4.) The Council at Jerusalem (c. A.D. 48 or 49; Acts 15). The first general council of the Christian Church prob. occurred between the first and second missionary journeys of Paul. The principal issue was the condition required of the Gentiles for membership in the church. The decision reached by the council was one of the most momentous of all church history as it saved the young movement from a Jew-Gentile schism. It also established salvation by grace without legalism (for a full treatment of this subject see Council of Jerusalem).
(5.) The mission to the Gentile world (chs. 13-28). (1) Whatever social, economic, political or other implications the Gospel may have had, the primary and distinctive aim of the 1st cent. Christians was to make Christ known to all the world as Savior and Lord. Christ’s universal lordship is linked inseparably with His saviorhood (110 times in Acts His lordship is emphasized). (2) For the apostolic Christians, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord was absolute (4:12). (3) The responsibility for the universal witness was obligatory upon each believer and not just upon the apostles and leaders. (4) Apostolic methods were considered means to make Christ known and never ends in themselves. Important items were: a). personal witness to Christ through social intercourse; b). miraculous acts of God that inspired faith in Christ as Savior; c). oral preaching; d). itineration; e). charities; f). church organization and supervision; g). training of promising converts; h). planting of the Gospel in strategic centers; and i). writing and circulation of Christian letters, from which all of the NT letters came. (5) Simplicity characterized Christianity in the apostolic era. There were no church buildings as such (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19; Philem 2), government was at a minimum, and generally worship was patterned after the informal synagogue. (6) Christianity was considered to be a spiritual life movement rather than an organization or an institution. Christians were the people of the Way (Way is capitalized six times in Acts KJV), “the new and living way” (Heb 10:20). (7) The full extent of the gospel outreach in the 1st cent. cannot be determined with certainty. However, some idea can be gained from the representatives of the fifteen nations mentioned as present at Pentecost, which included most of the Middle E and Rome (Acts 2:7-11). Paul’s missionary journeys took him through Palestine, Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and to Rome. He further mentioned Illyricum (Rom 15:19), and even Spain was a possibility (15:24). Peter may have reached Babylon (1 Pet 5:13), and there is a strong tradition that Thomas went to India. Paul boldly wrote to the Romans within thirty years of Pentecost: “…your faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8), and to the Colossians: “…the gospel…in the whole world…is bearing fruit and growing” (Col 1:5, 6). Reliable extra-Biblical witnesses support Paul’s claims, including Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Lactantius, Clemens Romanus, Ignatius and Hermas (Harnack, II, 4, 5, 7, 16, 24). Harnack says, “This belief that the original apostles had already preached the gospel to the whole world, is…extremely old….The belief would never have arisen unless some definite knowledge of the apostles’ labors and whereabouts (i.e., in the majority of cases) had been current….Hermas is exceptionally clear and definite; and this evidence…is all the more weighty, as he may invariably be assumed to voice opinions which were widely spread and commonly received” (ibid).
The members of the earliest Jerusalem church thought of themselves simply as Jews who had a true understanding of the Messiah and so constituting a new “way” or “party” (hardly “sect”) in Judaism (Acts 22:4, esp.). At first they were allowed to grow unmolested, and their right to exist was apparently unquestioned, for the Sadducean actions of Acts 4:1; 5:17 were in the nature of police precautions. And it is significant that the first attack was made on a foreigner, Stephen. He seems to have angered the crowds by preaching the impending destruction of the temple, although he was martyred for ascribing (practically) divine honors to Jesus (7:56). Yet the apostles were not driven from the city (8:1) and the church was able to continue its development.
In 41, the Roman representatives gave way to the pharisaically inclined Agrippa I, and (for reasons that are not clear) persecution broke out in which James was martyred and Peter delivered only by a miracle (Acts 12). With the resumption of Roman rule in 44 the persecution ceased. Some peaceable mode of living was devised, as appears from the absence of further allusions to troubles (cf Acts 21:17–26) and from the accounts of Josephus and Hegesippus of the esteem in which James the Lord’s brother was held. His martyrdom (in 62?) was due to the tension that preceded the final revolt against Rome, in which the Christians of Jerusalem took no part Instead, they retired across the Jordan to Pella (Rev. 12:13–17), where they formed a close, intensely Jewish body under the rule of the descendants of Christ’s brethren according to the flesh. Some mission work was done farther to the east, but in the 2nd cent. they either were absorbed in normal Christianity or became one of the factors that produced Ebionism.
Many members of this body (and, doubtless, other Jewish Christians outside it) showed various degrees of inability to understand the gentile work. The acceptance of an uncircumcised Christian as “saved” offered fairly slight difficulty (Gal. 2:3; Acts 15). But to eat with him was another thing and one that was an offense to many who accepted his salvation (Gal. 2:12f). The rigorous conclusion that the Law bound no Christian was still another thing and one that even James could not accept (Acts 21:21). At the time of Gal. 2:9, the “pillars” were as yet not thinking of doing gentile work. Paul’s controversies are familiar, and probably the last friction did not end until the fall of Jerusalem. But the difficulties grew gradually less, and 1 Peter is evidence that Peter himself finally accepted the full status of Gentiles.
Relations with Rome
From the Roman power Christianity was safe at first, as the distinctions from Judaism were thought too slight to notice (Acts 18:14–16; 25:19). (Troubles such as those of Acts 17:9 were due to disturbance of the peace.) So the government was thought of as a protector (2 Thess. 2:7) and spoken of in the highest terms (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13f). But, while absolute isolation was not observed (1 Cor. 10:27), yet the Christians tended more and more to draw themselves into bodies with little contact with the world around them (1 Pet. 4:3–5), so provoking suspicion and hostility from their neighbors. Hence they were a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the burning of Rome. It is uncertain how far his persecution spread or how far persecutions occurred from his time until the end of the reign of Domitian (see Peter, First Epistle of II), but in Revelation Rome has become the symbol for all that is hostile to Christ.
Influence of the “pagan” religions on Christianity is not very perceptible in the 1st century. But syncretism was the fashion of the day and many converts must have attempted to combine the new religion with views that they held already (or that they learned still later). Apparently little attention was paid to this attempt if it was restricted to entirely minor details (1 Cor. 15:29?), but in Col. 2:8–23 a vital matter is touched. The danger appears more acute in the Pastorals (1 Tim. 1:4; 4:3; Tit. 3:9), and according to Rev. 2 great harm was being done. Also, Jude, 2 Peter, and 1 John contain direct polemics against the systems so arising, the beginnings of what in the 2nd cent. appeared as Gnosticism.
By B. S. Easton
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 B. W. Robinson, The Life of Paul (1918); F. J. F. Jackson and K. Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, Pt. I, “The Acts of the Apostles” (1920); B. S. Easton, “The Apostolic Age,” ISBE, Vol. I (1939); W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (rep. 1949); F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (1953); W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire (rep. 1954); H. J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (1955); F. R. Crownfield, An Historical Approach to the New Testament (1960); G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. I (1964); S. Neill, Christian Missions (1964); C. W. Carter, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. IV (1964); J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (1964). L. W. Barnard, Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and their Background (1966): C. K. Barrett, NT Background: Selected Documents (1956); F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (1932); CAH, XII (1939); T. R. Glover, Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire (10th ed. 1923); C. G. A. von Harnack, Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, I, II (Eng. tr. 1904, 1905); H. Lietzmann, History of the Early Church (Eng. tr., 2nd ed. 1949–1950); E. Lohse, NT Environment (Eng. tr. 1976); A. C. McGiffert, History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age (1897); G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (1927); K. von Weizsäcker, Apostolic Age of the Christian Church, I, II (Eng. tr., 3rd ed. 1907, 1912). B. S. Easton, “Apostolic Age,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988)