Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

First Century
The Apostles and their Disciples

The Foundation of the Church

The Divine Founder and the Head of the Church is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. During the three years of Our Lord's public life He gathered around Him a band of faithful disciples whom He instructed. From among these, Our Divine Master chose twelve men, whom He called

Apostles :
Peter, Andrew, James, John his brother, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James of Alpheus, Thaddeus or Jude, and Simon his brother, and Judas Iscariot.

Powers of the Apostles.
To bring the fruits of redemption to mankind, Christ gave to the Apostles and their successors a threefold power:

  • Mission—To teach all nations His divine truth. (Matt., 28: 19-20.)
  • Orders—To dispense His grace through the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar and the Sacraments. (St. Luke, 22: 19; St. Matt., 28: 19; St. John, 20:23.)
  • Authority—To guide and rule the lambs and sheep of His flock. (John. 21:17.)

Visible Head of the Church.
Our Lord appointed St. Peter the chief of the Apostles. He was the first pope, shepherd, and teacher of the flock of Christ. To him Christ gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and to him He promised infallibility. "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church." (Matt., 16: 18.)

Divine Assistance.
That the teaching of the Apostles might remain always the same, Christ promised that the Holy Ghost would teach them all truth, and that He Himself would abide forever with His Church. (St. John, 14: 16; Matt., 28: 13.)

The Apostles, therefore, and their legitimate successors, are the persons to whom Christ entrusted the duty of forming in His name, among all nations and in all ages, a spiritual society—the Church.

The Ascension of Our Lord

On the fortieth day after the resurrection our Blessed Lord, in the sight of the Apostles, ascended into heaven from Mount Olivet. The Apostles immediately went back to Jerusalem, filled with great joy. They assembled around our Blessed Lady in the supper room which had witnessed the institution of the Blessed Eucharist, and where, in prayer and meditation, they awaited the coming of the Holy Ghost.

Election of Matthias.
While awaiting the coming of the Holy Ghost, Peter proposed that they should choose some one to supply the place of Judas. Asking God to guide them, they drew lots between Barnabas and Matthias. The choice fell upon Matthias.

Descent of the Holy Ghost

On the tenth day after Christ's ascension, the day of Pentecost, while they were "all together in one place, there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming; parted tongues, as it were of fire sat upon every one of them; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost." They immediately "began to speak with divers tongues," and to declare the wonderful works of God, "according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak." Their souls were replenished with knowledge and with grace. They were no longer a mere assembly of individuals, but became the one mystical body of Christ, the Church of the living God.

Preaching of the Apostles and Extension of the Church

The preaching of the Apostles was confirmed by miracles, by the sublime holiness of their lives, their sacrifices, and especially by the shedding of their blood in testimony of the truth.

Although many of the Jews were converted, the leaders of the nation not only remained obstinate, but even persecuted the Christians. Therefore the Jewish nation was rejected by God and delivered into the hands of the Romans. In the year 70 A.D. Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus.

Among the heathens the Apostles made numerous converts. In the principal cities of the Roman Empire they formed congregations over which the Apostles placed their disciples as bishops and priests. Such wonderful success could come from God alone, for to the proud and immoral heathen the doctrine of Christ crucified seemed folly, and the practice of Christian virtues a moral impossibility.

The life of the first Christians was so perfect that it influenced both Jew and Gentile even more than the miracles of the Apostles. The Sacrifice of the Mass was daily offered and all received Holy Communion. There were no poor among them. The rich sold their possessions and shared the price with those who had nothing. (Ananias and Sapphira.)

The Deacons.
As the number of the Christians increased, the Apostles chose seven holy men to help in the ministry. At first these deacons had charge of the poor, but later they assisted the priest at the altar during the celebration of Holy Mass.

St. Stephen.
St. Stephen was the first of the deacons. The splendor of his miracles, the zeal of his preaching, and the numerous conversions he wrought, drew upon him the special hatred of the unbelieving Jews. He was brought before the high priest on the charge of blasphemy. He confounded his accusers by words of divine wisdom and power, and boldly proclaimed the divinity of the Lord Jesus. The Jews drew him without the city, and stoned him to death. St. Stephen's last words were a prayer for his murderers, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." The fruit of this prayer was the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the great Apostle St. Paul.

Conversion of St. Paul, A.D. 37.
The martyrdom of St. Stephen was the signal for a general persecution of the infant Church. Owing to the efforts of Saul, the persecutions continued with such force that the Faithful were dispersed throughout Palestine. They diffused the light of faith wherever they went.

Saul went to the high priest and begged to be sent to Damascus to search for the Christians living there, that he might bring them before the Jewish courts. While on his way he was suddenly dazzled by a great light, and he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" He fell to the ground in terror, and asked humbly, "Who art Thou, Lord?" The voice answered, "I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest." And Saul, trembling, asked, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" And the Lord said to him, " Arise and go into the city, and there it will be told thee what thou must do." Saul was led to Damascus, where he was instructed and baptized by Ananias, one of the seventy-two disciples. He soon went to Jerusalem, and St. Peter received him into the number of the Apostles.

Conversion of the Ethiopian.
St. Philip, the Deacon, baptized many of the inhabitants of Samaria, and St. Peter and St. John went down from Jerusalem to confirm them. An angel told St. Philip to go from Samaria into the desert south of Jerusalem. Here he met and converted an Ethiopian officer returning from the Pasch. St. Philip explained a prophecy of Isaias, and then, at his request, baptized the officer in a stream of water running by the road-side.

Simon Magus.
A magician, Simon Magus, seeing the Holy Ghost descending upon the Faithful at the imposition of hands, offered money to the Apostles to purchase for himself the power of giving the Holy Ghost. St. Peter rebuked him. The sin of buying or selling spiritual things has ever since been known as Simony.

First Gentile Convert.
There was in Caesarea a Roman Centurion named Cornelius. One day, while he was praying, an angel appeared to him, declaring that "his prayers and his alms had ascended for a memorial in the sight of God." "And now," continued the heavenly messenger, "send to Joppa for a man called Peter, and he will tell you all that you must do to be saved." Cornelius sent three soldiers in search of the wonderful man. At the same time St. Peter had a vision which prepared him for this visit. He saw clean and unclean animals let down from heaven in a sheet, while a voice was heard saying, "Kill and eat." By this the Apostle understood from God that he was to receive the Gentiles into the Church. St. Peter went with the messengers, and Cornelius and his family were all baptized and received the Holy Ghost visibly.

This event shows that the uncircumcised Gentile was admitted to the Church without submitting to the Mosaic ceremonial law. The act of St. Peter was disapproved of by the Jewish Christians, but the matter was finally settled at the council of Jerusalem.

Labors of the Apostles

St. Peter.—Symbol, one or two keys.

  • Founded the Church in Jerusalem.
  • Fixed his see at Antioch.
  • Preached through Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor.
  • Transferred his bishopric to Rome, 42 A.D.
  • Presided at the Council of Jerusalem, 50—51 A.D.
  • Was martyred on the Vatican Hill, being crucified with his head downward, 67 A.D.

St. John.—Symbol, a chalice.

  • Became bishop of Ephesus.
  • Preached in Asia Minor.
  • Thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, but was miraculously saved, and was later banished to the Island of Patmos. Here he had the revelations which he has left us in his Apocalypse.
  • Died at the age of one hundred years.

St. James the Greater.—Symbol, staff and wallet.

  • Preached in Palestine and the surrounding countries.
  • First of the Apostles to receive the crown of martyrdom, being beheaded by King Herod Agrippa, 44 A.D.
  • Tradition says that he visited Spain, and his body is still kept in the Church at Compostella.

St. Andrew.—Symbol, an oblique cross.

  • Preached in Scythia (Russia and Greece).
  • Was martyred by crucifixion at Patrx, in Greece.
  • St. Matthew.—Symbol, a short sword.
  • Preached among the Ethiopians, Persians, and Parthians.
  • Wrote for the Jewish converts the first of the Four Gospels.
  • Was martyred at Parthia.

St. James the Less.—Symbol, a fuller's bat.

  • Made bishop of Jerusalem soon after the Ascension.
  • Wrote one Epistle to the Jews scattered over the world.
  • He was stoned to death, A.D. 63.

St. Thomas.—Symbol, a spear or arrow.

  • Preached in Parthia, India, Media, and Persia.
  • Was martyred near Madras in India.

St. Philip.—Symbol, a double cross.

  • Preached in Phrygia and Scythia.
  • Was crucified at Hieropolis.

St. Bartholomew.—Symbol, a knife.

  • Preached in India, Arabia, Assyria, and Scythia.
  • Was flayed alive and crucified in Armenia.

St. Simon.—Symbol, a saw.

  • Preached in North Africa.
  • Was martyred in Persia.

St. Jude or Thaddeus.—Symbol, a club.

  • Preached in Samaria, Idumea, and Syria.
  • Was martyred in Persia.
  • Left an Epistle called the "Catholic Epistle."

St. Matthias.—Symbol, a lance.

  • Preached the Gospel in Ethiopia.
  • Some think he was martyred at Sebastopolis.

St. Paul.—Symbol, a sword.

  • After his conversion, St. Paul preached the word of God in the synagogues, to the astonishment of all who knew him and who had witnessed his bitter persecutions of the Christians.
  • His conversion and the number of the converts which he made angered the Jews, and they persecuted St. Paul so that he was obliged to leave first Damascus and later Jerusalem.
  • First Great Mission:  Accompanied by Barnabas, St. Paul preached in Cyprus and the southern part of Asia Minor. He returned to Jerusalem for the Council held there in 50 A.D.
  • Second Great Mission:About the year 52, St. Paul, with Silas, preached the gospel in Syria and nearly all Asia Minor. At Lystra he took St. Timothy as his disciple, and at Troas he was joined by St. Luke, who became his chronicler and evangelist. At Athens he preached the "Unknown God" adored by the Greeks.
  • Third Great Mission:  In his third mission, St. Paul revisited the churches he had founded in Asia Minor. Upon his return to Jerusalem he was arrested, but claimed the rights of a Roman citizen, and so was sent to Rome to be judged, A.D. 61.
  • During his two years' captivity he was allowed to preach freely.
  • A.D. 65, he was arrested and thrown into prison by Nero.
  • He was martyred on the same day as St. Peter.
  • St. Paul wrote fourteen epistles.
[Illustration] from Compendium of Church History by Notre Dame
[Illustration] from Compendium of Church History by Notre Dame

Writings of the Apostles and Evangelists.

  • Four gospels by St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John.
  • The Acts of the Apostles by St. Luke.
  • Fourteen epistles by St. Paul:
    • 1 to the Romans
    • 1 to the Ephesians
    • 2 to the Corinthians
    • 1 to the Philippians
    • 1 to the Galatians
    • 1 to the Colossians
    • 2 to the Thessalonians
    • 1 to Philemon
    • 2 to Timothy
    • 1 to the Hebrews
    • 1 to Titus
  • One epistle of St. James.
  • Two epistles of St. Peter.
  • Three epistles of St. John.
  • One epistle of St. Jude.
  • The Apocalypse of St. John.

The writings of these Apostles and their Disciples form the New Testament.

The earliest witnesses of tradition which we have are the writings of some of the disciples of the Apostles. Among these the most noted are St. Clement, of Rome; St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch; St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna; and St. Barnabas.

Symbols of the Evangelists.

St. Matthew  youth    His Gospel speaks of the human generation of Christ.
St. Mark    lion    His Gospel begins with St. John in the desert, and treats of the kingship of Christ.
St. Luke    ox    He opens his Gospel with an account of sacrifice, and treats of the priesthood of Christ.
St. John     eagle   He soars unto the Divinity.

The Fall of Jerusalem

During forty years after the death of our Lord, the Jews continued to persecute the Christians; but they themselves were constantly treated with great cruelty by the Roman Governors. At last an awful day came when the punishment foretold by our Savior overtook the guilty nation. According to Josephus, the Jews rose against their harsh Roman rulers and massacred great numbers of the soldiers. A terrible and bloody revenge was taken by the Romans. The Christians withdrew to Pella, a little town beyond the Jordan. A large army commanded by Vespasian and his son Titus was sent against Palestine, and gradually advanced to Jerusalem, capturing the cities on their route. The Jews fought among themselves, and after two years of struggle, famine overtook them just as the Romans under Titus began the siege of Jerusalem.

Titus, drawing his army close around the city, unconsciously fulfilled our Lord's words: " And when you shall see Jerusalem compassed about with an army, then know that the desolation thereof is at hand." (Luke, 2I:20.) All the Jews captured were crucified outside the city walls, while within the city the multitude suffered from the most cruel famine.

In spite of these calamities daily sacrifices were offered in the Temple, until after a siege of five months the Romans succeeded in capturing the fort called Antonia, that overlooked the Temple. Thousands took refuge in the Holy Place, which Titus ordered to be spared; but a soldier threw into the interior a flaming brand which at once set it on fire. Thus the Temple was destroyed and a terrible massacre followed. It is estimated that nearly a million persons perished in the siege. Jerusalem was leveled to the ground as our Blessed Lord had foretold. From that day to this the Jews have had no Sovereign, no Temple, no Nation. They are found scattered through every land.

Persecutions of the First Century

1. The Jews.
The first persecution against the Church was waged by the Jews. The Council ordered the disciples to be imprisoned, forbade them to preach the gospel, had them scourged, and sent Jewish minions into every town and district to bring the Faithful in chains to Jerusalem. They stoned St. Stephen; put to death St. James the Greater and St. James the Less; incited the heathen mob at Lystra to stone St. Paul. The instruments chosen by God to inflict punishment on the Jews were the Romans, and thus was avenged the blood of the Prophets, as well as that of the world's Redeemer and of His saints.

2. The Pagans.
The pagans lived only for pleasure. Vice was deified in its most repulsive forms. Poverty was deemed a crime. More than half the population consisted of slaves, who were treated as mere animals.

The Christians did the contrary of all this. They imitated our Blessed Lord, Who became poor for us. They helped all those who were suffering from want and poverty. They lived mortified lives. This brought down on them the anger of the rulers and the mockery and insults of the priests of the false gods. Nero and Domitian persecuted the Christians during the first century.

Heresies of the First Century

1. Cerinthians.
The Cerinthians took their name from Cerinthus, who denied the divinity of Christ. St. John wrote his Gospel against this sect.

Cerinthus distinguished between Jesus and Christ. Jesus was mere man, though eminently holy. Christ, or the Holy Ghost, dwelt in Jesus from the moment of his baptism until the Passion, when Jesus suffers alone and Christ returns to heaven.

2. Simonians.
The Simonians followed the teachings of Simon Magus. He claimed to be the Messiah, and separated from the Church after being rebuked by St. Peter.

The heresies of the Apostolic Age, as well as those of the two following centuries, lacked the support of temporal power, and disappeared under the anathemas of the Church. The Cerinthians, Simonians, Gnostics, and Nazarenes—in fact, all the early Eastern sects—were but fanciful speculators whose tenets soon lost their hold on the minds of the people.