Back to the Beginning: A Brief Introduction to the Ancient Catholic Church

In his famous review of Leopold von Ranke’s History of the Popes, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the great Victorian essayist, launches into a purple passage that Catholic students once knew by heart. It is one of the great set pieces of English writing. In it he voices the opinion that there is no subject more worthy of study than the Roman Catholic Church. “The history of that Church,” he writes, “joins together the two great ages of human civilization. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon…. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs.”

Macaulay keeps laying it on, awestruck by the Church’s perdurance through the centuries. The rhetorical excess is particularly striking coming from an agnostic who regarded history as a steady climb from religious obscurantism to secular enlightenment. But Macaulay’s point is always worth making: No institution in history is remotely comparable to the Catholic Church. It is a subject that well repays study. And yet most Catholics know very little about their own history.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, but especially today, when a dinner-party conversation can suddenly turn to some specious best-seller that presumes to rewrite Church history. The culture is now flooded with bogus scholarship whose main purpose is to put Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism—on the defensive. But most Catholics have no idea how to respond, and more than a few take these books and documentaries at face value. After all, they have the imprimatur of the History Channel or a large publishing house like Doubleday.

The new wave of anti-Catholic “scholarship” predictably revisits hot-button topics like the Inquisition and Galileo; but increasingly its focus is on the first centuries of Christianity. Its object is to make the early Church look like a bad mistake, a betrayal of Jesus’ intentions, a conspiracy of dead white males obsessed with controlling their followers and, even worse, putting a lid on everyone’s sexual fulfillment. Post-apostolic Christianity is portrayed as elitist, anti-feminist, and intent on mindless conformity—in contrast, say, to the second-century Gnostics, who apparently were as sexually enlightened as any modern professor who contributes to the Jesus Seminar.

The media have a sharp appetite for this recycling of 19th-century, anti-clerical scholarship, and so books by scholars like Gary Wills and Elaine Pagels get maximum exposure. And then there is The Da Vinci Code, which has sold a staggering nine million copies. Both the New York Times and National Public Radio seem to think that it is based on historical fact. Even its author appears to think so. But a book that claims that Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ until the fourth century, that a Roman emperor chose the four Gospels, that the Church executed five million witches, and that Opus Dei has monks is obviously little more than a farrago of nonsense.

We live in a sea of false historiography, and so it is worth asking: What exactly happened during the first centuries of Christianity? How did a small band of believers, starting out in a despised outpost of the Roman Empire, end up the dominant institution of the Mediterranean world? What was “primitive Christianity”? John Henry Newman became a Catholic in the course of answering that question. History, he said, is the enemy of Protestantism. It is also the enemy of the newly vigorous anti-Catholicism that circulates among our cultural elites.

In the Beginning

The word gospel means “good news,” and the first thing to say about the early Church is that its members had an urgent message for a civilization that already contained the seeds of its own demise. Early Christianity was above all a missionary enterprise, an evangelical movement in a world ripe for its teachings. At the end of his public life Christ had said to His disciples, “Go”; and, in addition to the journeys recorded in the New Testament, tradition has the apostles spreading all over the map: Thomas to Parthia and India, Andrew and John to Asia Minor, Bartholomew to south Arabia. Each may have undergone exploits as spectacular as St. Paul’s, but unfortunately there was no St. Luke to record them.

Early Church Fathers like St. Augustine believed that Providence had arranged ancient history so that Christianity could spread as rapidly as possible. The Pax Romana was a remarkable achievement, and the general law and order, combined with Roman road-building, made it easier to get around Europe at the time of Tiberius and Claudius than it would be a thousand years later. There was also a widespread Hellenistic culture, which meant that many people spoke Greek. This was the legacy of Alexander the Great, who not only spread a common tongue but, like other rulers of that era, had a mania for building cities. The large concentration of urban dwellers made evangelization more efficient, and within the space of about a century we find Christianity flourishing in all the vital nerve-centers of the Roman empire, which had a population of about 60 million.

The great tipping points of history often occur beneath the radar, and it is doubtful that anyone in the year 51 noticed an itinerant rabbi from Tarsus crossing the Aegean Sea into Macedonia. But this was Christianity’s entrance into Western Europe, with incalculable consequences for the future. Christopher Dawson writes that Paul’s passage from Troas in Asia Minor to Philippi did more to shape the subsequent history of Europe than anything recorded by the great historians of the day. Put simply: The Faith created modern Europe, and Europe created the modern world.

What Paul and other missionaries found everywhere in the Roman Empire was a spiritual vacuum: The Roman gods, practically speaking, were dead, the victims of much scoffing from intellectuals and poets. The upper orders had turned to Stoicism—self-cultivating itself in aristocratic isolation—but this spoke only to a small minority. Others with spiritual hankerings went to more dubious sources: mystery cults, Asiatic magic, exotic neo-Platonisms, whose goal was ecstatic visions and emotional release. There was a lot of philosophical mumbo jumbo in an atmosphere of tent revivalism, with a dash of emperor worship on the side. But no matter where it turned for solace, the late classical mind was steeped in melancholy, a kind of glacial sadness; it was utterly lacking in what Catholics would call the theological virtue of hope.

Apart from offering infinitely greater spiritual riches, Christianity gave the ancient world what might be called a New Deal. In the year that Paul arrived in Rome, there was a sensational incident, the sort of thing that today would make the cover of the New York Post. The prefect of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, was murdered by a slave who was jealous of his master’s attention to a slave girl. According to Roman law, all the slaves in the household were to be put to death—which in this case meant more than 400 slaves. There were protests, but the emperor and Senate went ahead with the executions. It is not surprising, then, that the “have-nots,” who constituted most of the empire, responded to the Christian message that every person has an equal and inherent dignity, and that even the emperor (as St. Ambrose would later explain to Theodosius) was within and not above the law.

Since The Da Vinci Code and other dubious best-sellers claim that early Christianity was anti-feminist, it’s worth recalling that large numbers of women during these centuries thought otherwise. The Church’s teachings about marriage and family, along with its strictures against divorce, abortion, and the exposure of newborn babies—all of which a pagan husband could force his wife to do, no questions asked—resonated with women who were treated like chattel under the old dispensation. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke goes out of his way to mention female converts like Lydia and Damaris. Even at this early date, women played a key role in the Church’s evangelical mission. No world religion has ever given women a more important place than Roman Catholicism. Even Protestantism would turn out to be largely a male enterprise.

Preserving the Traditions

These early Christians were conscious of a single responsibility that transcended and sustained all others. They were bound to preserve with the utmost fidelity what had been taught by the apostles. Long before there was a New Testament, there was a deposit of faith concerning the nature of God, His threefold personality, His purpose in making man, the Incarnation. It is already presupposed in the early letters of Paul as well as ancient documents like the Didache. Any departure from these teachings provoked the strongest possible response, and the Acts of the Apostles and most of Paul’s letters show the Church facing her first doctrinal and disciplinary problems.

The determination to hold fast to “what has been handed on” (tradere, hence “tradition”) is one explanation for the early Christian’s veneration of the episcopal office. If there has been a revelation, then there must be an authoritative teaching office to tell us what it is. And so the role of bishops—whose job was, and still is, to teach, govern, and sanctify—was crucial from the beginning.

We do not know the precise details of how the Church’s internal authority evolved in the first century. It is one of the most debated points of Church history. Protestants have an obvious bias toward an early congregationalism, but there is little evidence for this. We do know that from the original “twelve” there soon emerged a hierarchical church divided into clergy and laity. It seems that at first there were apostolic delegates, people like Timothy and Titus, who derived their authority from one of the apostles—in this case, Paul. These men governed the local churches under the apostles’ direction, and, while some apostles were still on the scene, this arrangement naturally evolved into the college of bishops.

The seven great letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written around the year 106 while on his way to Rome to be thrown to the beasts, take for granted the existence of local hierarchical churches, ruled by bishops who are assisted by priests and deacons. Ignatius, a living disciple of John the Apostle, writes that “Jesus Christ…is the will of the Father, just as the bishops, who have been appointed throughout the world, are the will of Jesus Christ. Let us be careful, then, if we would be submissive to God, not to oppose the bishop.”

Within each city there was a single church under a bishop, who in turn was assisted by priests in the spiritual realm and deacons in the administrative. The latter devoted themselves especially to alms-giving, and a striking feature of primitive Christianity is its organized benevolence. These local churches were largely self-sufficient but would group around a mother church in the region—Antioch, Alexandria, Rome—and the bishops of each region would occasionally meet in councils. But they all considered themselves part of a universal Church—the Catholic Church, as Ignatius first called it—united in belief, ritual, and regulation.

From the earliest times we find one of these churches exercising a special role, acting as a higher authority and final court of appeal. We don’t know much about the early development of the Roman church, and the lists of the first popes are not always consistent. But we do know that around the year 90 a three-man embassy bearing a letter from Rome traveled to Corinth, where there were dissensions in the local church. In that letter, Pope St. Clement speaks with authority, giving instructions in a tone of voice that expects to be obeyed. The interesting point is that the apostle John was still living in Ephesus, which is closer than Rome to Corinth. But it was Rome (at the time, a smaller diocese) that dealt with the problem. Here was the prototype of all future Roman interventions.

It is not difficult to find even liberal Catholic scholars who endorse the early primacy of Rome. In his popular history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners, Eamon Duffy writes that the apostolic succession of the Chair of Peter “rests on traditions which stretch back to the very beginning of the written records of Christianity.” Around the year 180, St. Irenaeus, battling heretics who presumed to correct and supplement the Faith with their Gnostic speculations, wrote that if anyone wishes to know true Christian doctrine, he has only to find those churches with a line of bishops going back to one of the apostles. But it is simpler, and suffices, to find out the teaching of the Roman see: “For with this Church all other churches must bring themselves into line, on account of its superior authority.”

Worship in the Ancient Church

The early Church was not only hierarchical, it was liturgical and sacramental. But it was above all Eucharistic. St. Ignatius, in his letter to the church at Smyrna, attacks local heretics who “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of Our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins….” By the year 150, when St. Justin Martyr described the Sunday liturgy in some detail, all the principal elements of the Mass are in place: Scriptural readings, prayers of intercession, offertory, Eucharistic prayer, and communion. There was no need back then to remind the faithful that Sunday Mass attendance was obligatory, since they regarded the liturgy as absolutely central to their lives as Christians. It would not have occurred to them to forgo Sunday Mass for a brunch date or ballgame.

The readings at these early Masses were from both the Old Testament (then simply called “Scripture”) and from many (but not all) of the documents that eventually would comprise the New Testament. And how did the New Testament canon come together? Although some Protestants seem to think otherwise, this was not a spontaneous process. Humanly speaking, it involved a lot of institutional machinery. The 27 books themselves were a kind of providential accident. Christ Himself did not write anything, nor (so far as we know) did He tell His disciples to write anything. There is, after all, something about hearing, rather than just reading, the Christian message. “Faith comes by hearing,” writes Paul, who, even though a scholar, does not say “by reading.” Books are wonderful evangelical tools, but it is still true that most conversions are brought about by personal witness.

In the ancient Middle East, the preferred medium for passing on the teachings of a religious master was oral, and people had strongly trained memories. Christ spoke in the traditional rhythms of Jewish speech, often using parallelisms that are easy to remember: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The Old Testament is shot through with this kind of mnemonic device. Christ’s immediate disciples probably did not write down His words during His lifetime. Being a close-knit Jewish community with a strong oral tradition, they didn’t have to.

But as time went by and the Church spread out, the danger of inaccurate reporting grew. This was especially true when Christianity moved into the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor and Macedon, where the habit of oral transmission was not strong. So the practice of giving the earliest Christian missionaries little books, or manuals, with the sayings and miracles of Jesus may have arisen. If there was such a document, it has not survived. Yet scholars reasonably posit an ur-document they call Q, which is said to be a sourcebook for the Gospels.

So far so good. But now the mischief begins. For heterodox academics, Q is a wonderfully convenient document. Since we don’t have a copy, they can ascribe to it whatever they think authentic in the four Gospels and dismiss everything else as later interpolations. According to this scenario, the Gospel writers took a hard historical document and added a lot of mythology. The Jesus Seminar, which plays the media like a wind instrument, assumes a priori that Jesus was not divine, did not perform miracles, never intended to found a church, and did not take a hard line on extramarital sex. And so it flatly asserts that none of these things was in Q. According to this view, the later Gospels, with their miracles and claims of Christ’s divinity, were concocted for self-aggrandizing purposes by power-hungry churchmen.

But we may leave the Jesus Seminar to find out what really happened. First, the scholarly consensus is that the three synoptic Gospels were written much earlier than heterodox “experts” wish us to think: Between 50 and 65 A.D. John’s Gospel was written last, perhaps as late as 95, when John, the only apostle not martyred, was a very old man. More than any documents in history, these four books have been the target of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is therefore worth pointing out that the four evangelists were closer to their material than were most ancient historians. The biographers of the caesars—Tacitus and Suetonius—were not better placed to get accurate information about their subject than were the evangelists about the life of Christ.

Even though the four Gospel writers differ markedly from one another and have diverse agendas—Matthew is proselytizing his fellow Jews, Luke is fact-gathering for Gentile converts, Mark relates Peter’s version of events, John is responding to heresies that deny the Incarnation— the striking thing is how strong, consistent, and identifiable the personality of Christ is in all four books. C. S. Lewis remarks that in all the world’s narrative literature, there are three personalities you can identify immediately if given a random and even partial quotation: Plato’s Socrates, Boswell’s Johnson, and Jesus Christ of the Gospels.

Most of the documents in the New Testament are ad hoc, they address specific issues that arose in the early Church, and none claims to present the whole of Christian revelation. It’s doubtful that Paul even suspected that his short letter to Philemon begging pardon for a renegade slave would someday be read as Holy Scripture. Moreover, there is no list of canonical books anywhere in the Bible, nor does any book (with the exception of John’s apocalypse) claim to be inspired.

Who, then, decided that these books were Scripture? The Catholic Church. And it took several centuries to do so. It was not until the letters and decrees of two popes and three regional councils near the end of the fourth century that the Catholic Church had a fixed canon. Prior to that date, scores of spurious gospels and “apostolic” writings were circulating around the Mediterranean basin: The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans, and so forth. Moreover, some texts later judged to be inspired, such as the Letter to the Hebrews, were controverted, and there were also cogent arguments to jettison the Old Testament. All these issues were sorted out by the hierarchy, and, as Augustine logically remarks, it is only on the authority of the Catholic Church that we accept any book of Scripture.

A Theological Parasite

One set of writings that did not make the canon were the so-called Gnostic gospels, which get such loving attention in PBS documentaries. Ancient Gnosticism is enjoying a bull market among modern intellectuals, but the early Church fought it tooth-and-nail because it correctly perceived how dangerous it was. It was an amorphous creed—an intellectual atmosphere, really—that had its roots in India and Persia. It purported to be a way of knowledge (gnosis), of seizing divine secrets and harnessing divine energies. It solved the problem of evil by claiming that the universe was not God’s creation, but the work of a demiurge—some lower god or angel up to no good—and that all physical creation, especially the human body, is intrinsically evil.

Mired in the evil of creation, the Gnostic sought liberation by joining an elite band of believers who through gnosis—arcane speculation, philosophical pirouetting, secret verbal formulas—sought to obtain Promethean control of the spiritual realm. The object was a mystical knowledge that separated the believer not only from the corrupt world but also (and even better) from his neighbors. The initiate, moreover, was above sexual taboos, since the body is of no account. The resulting mixture of hedonism and mystical exclusivity was heady stuff, and the power of Gnosticism to assimilate elements from any source—Platonism, Persian dualism, even Judaism—made it very dangerous when it encountered Christianity and tried to subsume it into a higher and more beguiling synthesis.

Gnosticism’s attempt to insert itself into Christianity involved the production of its own scripture, which it tried to smuggle into the Christian canon. The most famous Gnostic text, the Gospel of Thomas, comprises 114 “secret” sayings of Jesus. You don’t have to read more than a few of them to recognize that the author has simply skimmed material from the original Gospels and given it a strange “spiritual” twist. Christ is now something of a Magus, a shadowy dispenser of puzzles and gnomic utterances. He bears no resemblance to the Christ of the four evangelists.

In her best-selling books, Pagels makes much of these “forbidden gospels” whose message—despite the occasional anti-feminist hiccup—gives her a fuzzy inner feeling. It seems that the modern Gnostic can retreat into a cozy realm of the spirit and then do whatever he or she pleases. There are no dogmas or commandments to scandalize the post-Christian academic mind. Pagels plays down the intellectual rubbish in these documents, and she’s not entirely forthcoming about their elitism and anti-Jewish bias. And finally, it’s ridiculous to speak of the Church’s exclusion of these spurious second-century documents as a power play by a self-appointed male hierarchy bent on eliminating genuine spiritual impulses. Pagels ought to read the lives of the saints, which include not a few early popes and bishops.

How the Church Saved Civilization

The Church did Western civilization a huge favor in beating back these esoteric, anti-humanist ideas, as it would in the 13th century when it crushed the Cathar heresy, another nihilistic doctrine that had blown into Europe on the winds from Persia. In fact, no institution has done more for the surrounding culture than the Catholic Church. And it is identifiably itself from the beginning. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, there was no such thing as a religion called “primitive Christianity.” There is and always has been the Church, founded by Christ around the year 30 A.D. That Church has always been hierarchical and sacramental. And it saved Western Europe from both pagan barbarism and Eastern nihilism.

In fact, almost everything we value in our civilization— hospitals, museums, universities, the idea of human rights—is by origin Catholic. These things did not come from the Vikings or northern German tribes; they certainly did not come from the Gnostics. But our modern secular culture displays a willful amnesia on the subject of our Catholic patrimony. The technocrats currently drafting a new constitution for the European Union don’t even want to hear about it. As Chesterton quipped, first Catholic, then forgotten. Perhaps we can change that by getting out a clearer picture of the splendors and perils of the early Church.

  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of "Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution" (Our Sunday Visitor).

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