How did Christians come to know Our Lord in the first 400 years after Christ?
The Holy Scriptures have long been a source of edification for Christians. In many Christian communities, this inspired text is considered to be the sole authority given to the faithful by God Himself.
But did the early Christians have access to a complete Bible as we have today?
We must first concede that the Bible, and all of its books, were not “dropped from the heavens” in one complete (and printed) volume. In actuality, there is about a 1,500-year writing span between the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation. No author begins to pen the New Testament until 45 A.D. The complete Bible was not officially canonized until the year 397 at the Council of Carthage.
So, how did Christians come to know Our Lord in the first 400 years after Christ?
To answer this, we must look to the early Apostles and their successors, as instituted by Christ on the Rock of St. Peter (Matt 16:18).
Early Christians begin teaching from a book called The Didache (60-90). This early catechism book outlines the basic moral codes of Christianity: “Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not deal in magic; do not kill a fetus by abortion; seek daily contact with the saints; do not start a schism; hold fast to the traditions; in church, confess your sins.”
Jesus sends his Apostles to “teach them everything that I have commanded.” (Matt 28:20). Naturally, it was the Apostles’ intention to teach, not to write Holy Scripture. Writing became a necessity in order to answer growing questions about faith, morals, and worship.
Early Christians address each of the following topics:
“They then receive washing in water in the name of God the Father, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” -Justin Martyr, Apologia, Written between 153-155 AD (JM,A)
“And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together in one place, and the memoirs of the Apostles are read.” (JM,A)
“Then when the reader has finished, the Ruler [of the Brethren] in a discourse instructs and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (JM,A)
Bread and wine offerings
“Then there is brought bread and a cup of wine, and he taking them sends up praise and glory to the Father of the Universe through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (JM,A)
Prayers over the bread and wine
“The Lord be with you.” And all shall respond, “And with your spirit.” “Hearts aloft!” “We keep them with the Lord.” “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” “It is right and just.” (JM,A)
Intercession of Mary and the Saints
“[Christ] was made flesh and was manifested as your Son, born of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin … Gather [your people] as one in the fullness of the Holy Spirit your saints who participate.” (JM,A)
“And the deacons give to each of those present a portion of the eucharistized bread and wine, and they carry it away to those who are absent. And this food is called among us Eucharist.” (JM,A)
Receiving the Eucharist
“[The bishop] shall say: “Heavenly Bread in Christ Jesus!” And he that receives shall answer: “Amen!” -Hippolytus of Rome (d.236 AD)
Clarifying the True Presence to non-believers
“From Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” -Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans
Interpretive authority of Scripture
“In order that we may judge to have the truth [of Scripture],—we walk in the rule which the Churches have handed down from the Apostles, the Apostles from Christ, and Christ from God.” -Tertullian of Carthage (TC, d.240)
“If the Lord Jesus Christ sent the Apostles to preach, no others ought to be received except those appointed by Christ: For no one knows the Father except the Son.” (TC).
It is clear that without the complete volume of the New Testament, the earliest Christians relied on the teaching Church, and all of her Apostles, bishops, priests, and deacons. This teaching continues to be active today through the Magisterium (teaching office) of the Catholic Church.
The term “Catholic Church” (“Katholikē Ekklesia,” meaning “the original church known everywhere”) is first introduced by Ignatius of Antioch in his Second Letter to the Philadelphians in the year 107: “Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
Jesus himself never writes anything down, and He never instructs His disciples to read scripture as a sole authority. He sends His Apostles to all nations to “teach.”
May we all partake in his holiness (Heb 12:10).