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Who Were the First Christians?

Several months ago (March 2010, written Jan 2011),  our Sunday School class decided to have an open forum in which all attendees could ask questions related to Christian doctrine, difficult passages in the Bible, or any other moral, ethical or family related issue.  Several very interesting debates came out of these sessions.  We've already written about the “Was Jesus Perfect?” discussions.  During another class, the question  were asked, “Were Catholics the original or earliest Christians?”  After some dialogue involving clarifications and debate, the more general question of “Who was the first Christian or Christians?” was asked.  We will address these inquiries in this article.

Who was the First Christian(s)?

The “Catholic” Question

We must first note that the word “catholic” (derived from the Greek katholikos) means “universal”, but can refer to either the universal (or general) church or the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).  The intended meaning should either be clear from the context or specified by the author.

The origin of the Roman Catholic Church has been the subject of much debate.  According to the RCC, the church began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2) in 30 or 33 AD.  The RCC also teaches that Peter became the first pope at Rome, and by maintaining a continuous succession of popes, the Roman Church is the true church.  However, there is no mention of papacy in the New Testament and, in the early years of Christianity, there were four other Patriarchates in addition to Rome who could also claim to originate from Pentecost.  These were Jerusalem (headed by James, the brother of Jesus), Antioch (home church of Paul at which believers were first called “Christians”), Constantinople (which later became the head of the Eastern Orthodox churches), and Alexandria on the north African coast, all of whom were built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20).

A more detailed analysis will have to wait until another article, but I think a brief historical summary may help.  Shortly after Pentecost, the church was opened to non-Jews.  Throughout the second and third centuries, as the church numbers increased, so did the hierarchy of its leadership.  During this period of intensifying persecutions, the NT canon was being formed and various heresies opposed and refuted.  In 313 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine officially legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan.  He then called the Council of Nicea in 325 in an attempt to unify Christianity, thinking that religion might also unite a Roman Empire that was beginning to fragment and weaken.  Some historians see the Constantine era as the birth of the RCC, but we know of several earlier church fathers in Rome, including St Clement in the late first century.  Other early prominent Church fathers were Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna (student of the Apostle John) in the first century, and Justin Martyr (early church apologist), Irenaeus of Lyons, and Tertullian of Alexandria in the second century.  After the Muslim uprisings centuries later, only Rome and Constantinople survived as major centers for the church.  After existing in an almost continuous state of disagreement, the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox Church (EOC) formally separated in 1054 AD, mutually excommunicating each other’s papacy.  In the sixteenth century, a series of reformations took place, thus splitting off the Protestants from the Roman Catholics.

So, we can say that the earliest Christians could be considered, not only the forefathers of the RCC, but of other early regional church organizations as well.

What is a Christian, and Who was the First?

This leads us to our second question, “Who was the first Christian or Christians?”  For our discussion to have any value, we must establish what is meant by the word “Christian”.

The term “Christian(s)” (Gk Christianoi) appears three times in the NT.  The first occurrence was used as an intended insult to the disciples at Antioch (Ac 11:26), probably in the early to mid 40s AD, and possibly by a Roman official since Antioch operated as a Roman headquarters for the surrounding area at the time.  Herod Agrippa II used the term in a conversation with Paul (Ac 26:28), and Peter encourages believers not to be troubled if the name is applied to them (1Pe 4:14-16).  The Scriptures merely records the use of the term without offering a definition, but in each instance, it is applied to those perceived as believers.  The first known recorded use of the term “Christianity” as a self-reference is by Ignatius of Antioch around the end of the first century AD.

I’ve seen many definitions and connotations of the word “Christian” over the years, and I believe a good case can be made for several persons or groups, depending upon the precise definition chosen.  Let’s see if we can break the term down and explore the possibilities.  The main root portion “Christ” refers of course, to the title of Jesus, which derives from the Greek Christós, meaning the “Anointed One”.  It is also a translation of the Hebrew word Mashi'ah (or Mashiach), or “Messiah” in English.  Jesus became so identified with His title that it became a part of His name, and was even used interchangeably by the inspired authors of the NT.  The word’s suffix “ian” stems from the Latin “iani” and the Greek “ianoi”, and means “belonging to the party of”, similar to the modern English suffixes “er” and “ite”.  It was commonly used to designate followers of a particular person, such as Caesariani or Herodiani.  Other meanings of the suffix “ian” can be “pertaining to”, “coming from”, “being involved with”, or even “being like”.  Therefore, Christians belong to, and should be like Christ.

Another common definition of “Christian” is simply to adhere to Christianity.  We can identify “Christianity” as a monotheistic system of beliefs and practices based upon the example and teachings of Jesus.  According to this description, a Christian would be an individual who attempts to live his or her life according to the principles and values that Jesus taught and demonstrated.  This is somewhat insufficient, since we must add that a Christian must believe that Jesus is the Christ, trust in Him alone for one’s salvation, thus having a personal relationship with Him.  Living a Christian life without this relationship, which also involves the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is impossible.

With these delineations in mind, we can now embark on our evaluation of several prospective candidates, beginning by contending that the Antioch believers who were present during the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost were among the first Christians.  They would however, have no stronger claim than the other initial converts who were also present at this event in 30 or 33 AD, which is considered the birth of the Church (Gk ekklesia).  We should mention that these converts were Jews and proselytes (Gentile converts to Judaism), so Christianity was initially thought of as a Jewish sect, even though much of their teaching varied drastically from the established factions (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes).  That said, we must not forget the Jewish roots of Christianity.  Without a working knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT), our understanding of Christianity is severely limited.

Continuing our journey in reverse chronological order, we next contemplate the question of whether the Apostles became Christians prior to Pentecost.  In considering the Apostles, we can go back approximately seven weeks before Pentecost.  On the evening of his resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples (except for Thomas) and commissions them to continue His work.  He then breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit” (Jn 19-23).  Exactly what was this “receiving of the Spirit” and how does it relate to the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost?  Interpretation varies widely among scholars regarding this very difficult passage.  Some see this as the full receiving of the Spirit while others consider it a promise or foretaste of Pentecost.

I highly respect many of the scholars on all sides of this debate, so I’ll just offer my own analysis.  The Greek wording is very similar to the Hebrew in Genesis 2:7, where God breathed the breath of life into Adam (see also 1Cor 15:45).  This breath of life is also required for all who are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:5).  So, this “receiving” in John is probably more than a mere promise.  In Luke’s version of this appearance however, he records Jesus commanding the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they are clothed with power from on high (Lk 24:49), so the fullest extent of the Spirit would not come until Pentecost.  In addition, John previously records that the Spirit would not be given until Jesus had been glorified (Jn 7:39).  This is not to say that the Spirit was not previously at work.  We know the Spirit was present from creation (Gen 1:2), and came upon OT believers as required for specific tasks.  Perhaps, therein lays the answer; that Jesus gave the Spirit to the disciples to equip them for their immediate tasks prior to receiving the Spirit at Pentecost in the fullest and most powerful sense that was promised and required for the new covenant era.

That said, we can probably even consider the Apostles to be Christians at some point before the Resurrection.  John records that the disciples "believed in" Jesus after the first sign, turning the water to wine at the wedding at Cana.  Peter later confessed Jesus as the Christ (Mt 16:16, Mk 8:29, Lk 9:20) at Caesarea Philippi, and yet, there were instances of doubt and misunderstandings.  We could also consider the seventy two others sent out to the Gentiles (Lk 10:1-12).  Upon returning, they joyfully proclaimed their mission a success, saying that even the demons had been subject to them in Jesus' Name.  Jesus then tells them not to rejoice in this, but to "rejoice that your names are written in heaven" (Lk 10:17-20), a reference to the Book of Life.

Just prior to the calling of the disciples however, we meet John the Baptist, of whom a claim can also be made of being the first Christian.  He believed and acknowledged Jesus as being the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the Son of God (Jn 1:29-34).  He probably did not fully understand Jesus’ role as the Messiah (not unlike the Apostles), as evidenced by his inquiries from prison (Mt 11:1-15).  Regarding John’s followers, no doubt many later became Christians, but John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance to prepare a person for the coming Messiah, rather than a baptism of the Spirit.

We next continue our pursuit by going back over thirty years to before Jesus’ birth (~6-4 BC).  After the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will be the mother of the Son of God who would save the people from their sins, she responds in faith to Gabriel’s proclamation (Lk 1:26-38, see also Mary’s Magnificat – Lk 1:46-55).  We could also make mention of the parents of John the Baptist.  Elisabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43), and Zechariah confesses the coming Messiah (Lk 1:67-79).

It would appear that our search for the earliest Christians has come to an end, now that we’ve reached the beginning of the NT.  We’ve identified several contenders, but our final choice will depend on the exact criterion selected with regard to our definition or description of identifying a Christian.  For example, Mary was the first to acknowledge Jesus as the coming Messiah, but didn’t begin to follow His teachings (Mk 3:21,31-35, Jn 7:5) until later.  If we require the full indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant sense, we must select those present at Pentecost.

Can OT Prophets and Saints be considered Christians?

Yet, in another sense, we can continue our quest back into the OT, and consider the prophets and saints of the old covenant.  We typically limit the Christian label to those under the new covenant, although in the strictest sense, this would disqualify John the Baptist and all others before the cross.  In spite of this, I think we can ascertain that the old covenant believers meet many of the aspects of our definition.

First, the OT prophets looked forward to, and even searched and longed for, the coming of the Christ (1Pe 1:10-12).  Although they didn’t fully understand the “who” and “when” of their prophecies, they knew that the Messiah would suffer and be glorified.

Second, the OT saints possessed faith (Hebrews 11).  Paul writes that Abraham was justified by faith, and that God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants came not through the law, but through the “righteousness of faith (Rom 4).  Regarding the OT saints, the author of Hebrews writes, All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Heb 11:13-16).

Finally, and most important, the objective basis for salvation under the old covenant is the same as under the new covenant: the atoning work of Christ.  The OT sacrificing of animals didn’t atone for anyone.  Instead God temporarily left their sins unpunished as the sacrifices pointed forward to the cross (Rom 3:21-26).  Just as the new covenant saint is saved by looking back in faith to the cross, so was the old covenant saint by looking forward to the same event, even though Jesus’ work had not yet been accomplished at the time.  In addition, we see several references to the aforementioned Book of Life in the OT (Ps 69:28; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Mal 3:16).

Some may be thinking, “What about that component in our definition of Christianity about following the teaching of Christ?  How could the OT saints follow the teaching of Christ before His incarnation?”  To address these questions, we return to the association between the eastern and western branches of the early church, where we find a disagreement regarding the Holy Spirit’s relationship within the Trinity.  In the original version of the Nicene Creed (325 AD), we find the phrase, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem: qui ex Patre procedit (Latin - And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father).  At the First Council of Contantinople (381 AD), the western RCC attempted to modify the latter portion of the phrase to qui ex Patre Filioque procedit, adding the word filioque (Latin for and [from] the Son), giving “And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son”.  This insertion was protested by the eastern (EOC) branch, so the wording was not officially added until the Third Council of Toledo in 589 AD.  In a nutshell, both parties viewed the three persons of the Trinity as equal in status, but the EOC claimed the Spirit and the Son proceeded from the Father, while the RCC held that the Spirit proceeded from the Father and from the Son.  This disagreement, known as the “Filioque Controversy”, was a major source of the conflicts which led to the schism of 1054, and continued to be an obstacle in the later unsuccessful attempts to re-unify the RCC and the EOC.

On this issue, the Holy Scriptures clearly favor the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which is also held by the Protestants and the Anglicans (Church of England).  Paul and Peter both speak of the Spirit of Christ (Php 1:19, 1Pe 3:10-11), and Paul even uses the indwelling of the “Spirit of God” and the “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably (Rom 8:9).

So, since the Holy Spirit is the divine author of the Bible (1Cor 2:9-13, 1Th 2:13, 2Tim 3:16, 1Pe 1:20-21), and the Spirit proceeds from Jesus, then in the ultimate sense, all Scripture is the teaching of Jesus, not just the portion in the “red letters”.  Thus, all old covenant believers held to the teachings of Jesus that had been revealed up until their time.

We should also note that many scholars believe that, between the moment of Jesus’ death and his resurrection, he emptied the OT saints from “Abraham’s bosom” and led them to heaven, while their spiritual bodies await Christ’s second coming (1Th 4:13-18, 1Cor 15).  Although Ephesians 4:8-10 is not an absolute proof-text for this belief, it strongly supports this viewpoint.

Other Vital Questions

In conclusion, we’ve seen that there are numerous viable choices that we could select as being the first “Christian”.  While it’s profitable to examine the Scriptures while speculating on “Who was the first Christians”, a much more important question that we need to ask ourselves is, “Am I a Christian?”  For those who can’t answer positively, see our How to be Sure article.  For those who are assured of our own salvation, the more important question becomes “Who will be the next Christian?” as we strive to do our part in bringing another lost sheep home and setting off another joyous celebration in heaven (Lk 15).

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