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Early Church History: Part 3, Meet the Cast of Characters

Jul 27, 2007

Yesterday I wrote incorrectly that Josephus connected the fall of Jerusalem with the death of James. That connection is made by Eusebius, not Josephus--at least not in the copies we have at our disposal today. Josephus does indeed mention James as one of the many causes of the war, but does not state this directly.

Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in the 4th century, tells us the story of James' martyrdom in Eccl. Hist., II, xxiii. His actual statement reads,

"This is the full account which, in agreement with Clement, is given by Hegesippus. So remarkable a person must James have been, so universally esteemed for righteousness, that even those more intelligent Jews felt that this was why his martyrdom was immediately followed by the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them for no other reason than the wicked crime of which he had been the victim. And indeed Josephus did not hesitate to write this down in so many words: 'These things happened to the Jews in requital for James the Righteous, who was a brother of Jesus known as Christ, for though he was the most righteous of men, the Jews put him to death'."

The present version we have of Josephus does not word it quite this way, though it does refer to James as "the brother of Jesus who was called Christ."

In other apostolic news . . .

The Gospel also spread to Egypt under the ministry of Mark, at least until Peter had need of him in his first trip to Rome, after fleeing Jerusalem in 44 A.D. (Acts 12:17).

Eusebius tells us that at some point, Peter went to Rome to preach and to confront Simon Magus for the second time (since the earlier confrontation in Samaria--Acts 8:20). He took Mark with him, and when it came time for Peter to leave Rome, he instructed Mark to write his Gospel as a summary, so that the people in Rome would have something in writing. This is said to be the earliest Gospel.

It is significant, then, that Mark tells the story of Peter's denial of Christ (Mark 14:68-72). Written under Peter's instructions, it shows that Peter was not interested in hiding his past sin, but in teaching others the right way by his own negative example.

"It is also recorded that under Claudius, Philo came to Rome to have conversations with Peter," says Eusebius (Eccl. Hist., II, xvii). Philo was a very important Jewish philosopher of the day. He lived from about 20 B.C. to about 50 A.D., so Peter must have preached in Rome in the mid-40's A.D. after fleeing from Jerusalem (Acts 12).

Mark seems to have returned to Alexandria, Egypt, however, for he was replaced as bishop by Annianus in the eighth year of Nero (i.e., 61 or 62 A.D.). [Eccl. Hist., II, xxiv]

"Meanwhile, the holy apostles and disciples of our Saviour were scattered over the whole world. Thomas, tradition tells us, was chosen for Parthia. Andrew for Scythia, John for Asia, where he remained till his death at Ephesus." [Eccl. Hist., III, i]

Edessa, a prominent city in Syria, was converted wholesale when its King Abgar was healed and converted to Christ through the ministry of Thaddeus. Abgar had written to Jesus earlier and asked him to come and heal him, telling him that He would be well protected in his city. But Jesus wrote back and told him that He could not come, but would later send a disciple. Thus, Thaddeus was sent some time after the day of Pentecost, and the whole city was converted. The full story is told in Eusebius' Eccl. Hist., I, xiii.

Eusebius also mentions "Timothy, stated to have been the first bishop appointed to the see of Ephesus, as was Titus to the churches of Crete." [Eccl. Hist., III, iv]

In Eccl. Hist. III, iv we also read: "Luke, by birth an Antiochene and by profession a physician, was for long periods a companion of Paul and was closely associate with the other apostles as well. . . It is actually suggested that Paul was in the habit of referring to Luke's gospel whenever he said, as if writing of some Gospel of his own: 'According to my gospel'." [Note: Rom. 2:16, 16:25; and 2 Tim. 2:8]

Meanwhile, a man named Evodius was the first bishop in Antioch. One of the young men in that Church was Ignatius, reputed to be one of the children Jesus blessed as an illustration of how to enter the Kingdom (Mark 10:16). He was about three years old at the time, but even at that young age, he was one of the 500 witnesses [1 Cor. 15:6] who saw Jesus after His resurrection. He later became the famous and influential bishop of Antioch, and finally died in an unshakable faith as a martyr in 107 A.D. during the reign of Trajan.

Paul, of course, of whom we have said little up to this point, began his ministry in 47 after he and Barnabas returned from their trip to Jerusalem to bring financial aid to the believers there (Acts 11:30). This took place in conjunction with the famine that took place in the days of Claudius (47 A.D.) It was also the 14th year since Paul's conversion in 33 A.D. (Gal. 2:1).

Paul ministered in Asia (modern Turkey) until he was taken prisoner to Rome about 60 or 61 A.D. He remained in Rome two years before Nero acquitted him through the influence of his Nero's tutor, Seneca, the Roman lawyer, who was also Paul's friend and fellow philosopher. Paul then went to Spain and to Britain, and when he returned in 64 A.D., both he and Peter were condemned to death together under Nero, for by this time Seneca had fallen out of favor with Nero.

As a Roman citizen, Paul was beheaded. Peter, who did not enjoy Roman citizenship, was crucified upside down--at his own request, not feeling worthy to suffer in the same way as Jesus had before him. Both Paul and Peter were originally buried in Rome, but later, in 656 A.D., according to Bede, a devout Roman Catholic historian, Pope Vitalian sent their remains to Britain upon request from England's King Oswy. [Bedoe hist. lib. iii, c. 29] Bede lived just a century later, so this historical fact was (to him) recent history.

King Oswy had been instrumental in bringing England's Church into submission to Rome, and they were rewarded with the bodies of St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, St. Lawrence, St. Gregory, and St. Pancras. [St. Paul in Britain, Rev. W. Morgan, footnote, p. 125]

Yet even before the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Peter's wife was put to death on account of her witness. Eusebius quotes Clement's Miscellanies, Book VII, saying,

"We are told that when blessed Peter saw his wife led away to death, he was glad that her call had come and that she was returning home, and spoke to her in the most encouraging and comforting tones, addressing her by name: 'My dear, remember the Lord.' Such was the marriage of the blessed, and their consummate feeling towards their dearest." [Eccl. Hist. III, xxx]

In those days, men and women alike were equally among the martyrs for the witness of Christ. Rome apparently recognized that in Christ there was neither male nor female, for they treated them equally in this respect. Peter's wife's mother is mentioned in Mark 1:30, 31 when Jesus healed her of a fever.

This is but a partial list of the characters, and yet they help us to bring the early Church to life. This is not mere history, but a record of real people who lived, who loved, and who died in Christ. It would be a tragedy if their stories were lost, for their memories should live on in us to inspire future generations.


This is the third part of a series titled "Early Church History." To view all parts, click the link below.

Early Church History


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Dr. Stephen Jones


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