But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. | Acts 1:8
To the ends of the earth. Jesus’ final command before his ascension must have been incomprehensible to His followers. Jesus’ ministry was exclusively contained in Palestine, and His interactions with Gentiles were few and far between. The narrative of the Apostolic Age is largely concerned with early followers of Christ attempting to discern God’s will for worship from all peoples, and the challenging decisions that led to that transition. Additionally, the Apostolic Age carries significant importance for Restorationist, or “New Testament pattern” philosophy. Many modern Christians look to the Apostolic Age as an era of theological and ecclesiastic purity to be emulated today, and understanding of the evolution and application of the Apostles’ theology during this period is critical to implementing this mindset.
Acts of the Apostles
Luke’s documentation of events in the book of Acts, coupled with selected passages from certain New Testament epistles, does a thorough job of communicating the narrative of the formative church. Where Luke’s documentation falls short is in the lack of information about the ministry of the Twelve Apostles to the Jews after Paul the Apostle’s ministry to the Gentiles gains momentum. Additionally, Luke only reports events until approximately 62 CE (when Paul is under house arrest in Rome). The Apostolic Age technically continued until 100 CE, when John died in exile on Patmos/Anatolia.
One particular event of importance is the controversy that culminated in the Jerusalem Council around 50 CE, described in Acts and Galatians 2. Here we see the intersection of two perspectives on the Christian movement: the view that ‘the Way’ was to be a continuation of Judaism (heralded by James the Just, bishop of the Church of Jerusalem and Jesus’ brother), and the view that this new movement was distinct from Second Temple Judaism and the Mosaic Law (spearheaded by Paul). Peter seems to be caught in between these views, having been given revelation from God in Acts 10 regarding cleanliness of both food and people, yet still succumbing to pressure from James and the circumcision party in Galatians 2. This tension resulted in the first Christian council, the Jerusalem Council, depicted in Acts 15. Here, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas vigorously attempted to quench the Judaizer movement by describing their experiences in evangelism among the Gentiles.
Beyond the Bible
Another event of note is the formation of the Church of Rome. In the 2nd century, Iranaeus of Lyons believed that Peter and Paul had founded this church, with Peter as one of the first bishops. Paul heavily ministered to the Church of Rome through his epistle to the Romans and during his house arrest. The two apostles reportedly passed down leadership to Linus (2 Timothy 4:21), and the line of bishops of Rome was born. The papacy traces its history to this lineage. Later, when Jerusalem was overtaken by the Romans, Rome was thought to be the center of Christianity, since it was the capital of the known world, in addition to heavy influence by Peter (“the rock”) and Paul (Apostle to the Gentiles).
Even during the Apostolic Age, Jesus’ mission to reach the ends of the earth was achieved. In Acts 8, Philip shared the Gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch, who would return to his home country (Ethiopia was considered one of the southernmost populated regions at the time). Another significant Christian movement was the Apostle Thomas’ mission to the Malabar Coast of India in 52 CE, resulting in the formation of the Saint Thomas Christian community. This community retained a unique Christian identity separate from mainstream Church development until Portuguese Catholic missions the 17th century.
In 66 CE, the Jews rose up against Rome, resulting in a four-year conflict. The conflict culminated in Rome’s destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE, marking a transition in the Judeo-Christian narrative. Jesus had used the analogy of the temple’s destruction to refer to His death, and the temple’s physical demise is thought by Christians to have been the punctuation mark on temple worship, to be replaced with the worship by the metaphorical temple of the Church. Once the Jewish temple was destroyed, the Christian movement no longer had to be centralized in Jerusalem. Rather, it began to become primarily a Gentile religion. In fact, after the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 CE, Hadrian banned Jews from Jerusalem, and the Church of Jerusalem was subsequently led by Gentiles.
A Peculiar Precedent
Both biblical and extra-biblical sources corroborate a narrative of the early church that is peculiar, if not miraculous. A ragtag assortment of squabbling, mostly uneducated laborers propagated a movement unique from every other philosophical movement of the time. Even in these first few years, the apostles successfully obeyed Jesus’ command to reach the ends of the earth. The Jewish center of worship was destroyed in this time, leaving Jews who hadn’t joined the Jesus movement wondering what their future would entail. The Apostolic Age set a precedent for the rest of the Christian Church to follow: