December 03, 2013
This is Part 11 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here.
Facts don’t normally make for reading that is as interesting as stories, but sometimes facts are the best way to tell a story. Or perhaps, facts are the best way to expose the need to change the way we tell a familiar story. Such is the case with our understanding of the early church. Even though we know that Christianity arose in what is today the Middle East, we tend to think that the early church was primarily a European phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon limited to the Roman Empire. Some pertinent facts (or at least likely facts—there is controversy about some of them) quickly show the problem with that version of the early Christian story:
- There was a significant Christian presence in Egypt in the first century and in what is today Iraq in the second. In most parts of the “Muslim” Middle East and North Africa, there have been substantial Christian minorities for the entire history of the church, and these Christian populations began to decline only in the last 100 years or so.
- There was certainly a Christian presence in India by the third century and likely by the first. There has been a continuous Christian presence in India for at least 1700 years.
- The Roman Empire was probably only the fourth kingdom to espouse Christianity as its official religion. Armenia and Georgia (both in the Transcaucasus between present-day Russia and Turkey) and Aksum (modern Ethiopia) preceded it.
- The greatest intellectual centers of the early Christian church were Alexandria and Carthage, both located in Africa. It would be well past the year 500 before the cities of Rome and Constantinople would match the intellectual stature of the two African cities.
- We all hear that the office of the Pope in Rome, called the “Chair of St. Peter,” has been continually occupied since the first century. But the title of the patriarchate of Alexandria is the “Chair of St. Mark,” and that chair has been continually occupied for more than 1900 years as well. The holder of that chair is still called “Pope” in Egypt today.
- There has been a continuous Christian history in black Africa (in Ethiopia) since the 330s. The modern Ethiopian Tawehedo Church (often mislabeled as “Coptic” by Westerners) is the heir of that history.
- By the year 500, in the Middle East and Africa, the Bible had already been translated from Greek into Coptic (spoken in Egypt), Ge’etz (spoken in Ethiopia), Syriac (spoken throughout the Middle East), Armenian, Georgian, and Nubian (spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Translation into Arabic followed in the eighth century. During the same time period, the only translation into a northern European language was the Gothic translation done in the fourth century (by an Arian missionary!), and it would be 1000 years later before the next northern European translations began to appear.
- Christianity had demonstrably reached China by the end of the eighth century, although it lasted no more than two centuries there before dying out, not to be revived until the modern period.
- It was at least the ninth century (and some argue as late as the fourteenth) before the majority of Christians were located in Europe. (And today, the majority of Christians are again found outside the Western world.)
Again, there is controversy about some of these “facts,” but with that caveat registered, it is still clear that Christianity has—from the very beginning—been a faith for the whole world. The details of the story of Christianity outside of Europe are largely unknown to us in the West, but that is changing today. As the contemporary Christian world is more and more centered outside the West, the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia is garnering increasing—and long overdue—attention. Ancient works never before available in “Western” languages are being translated, and the rest of the early Christian story is coming to our notice.
What will our story of the early church look like 50 years from now? Well, many elements familiar to Westerners will be the same, but a whole new dimension to the story will likely become familiar, giving us an ever fuller glimpse of the vastness of what the Lord has done in leading his people through the ages.
Author: Donald Fairbairn