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The best books about early Christianity, according to experts


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John Burger - published on 09/18/20

Want to expand your knowledge of the early Church, beyond the Acts of the Apostles? Try these works.

Is the history of early Christianity so remote for you that you don’t know much about anything after Pentecost? Are you curious about what happened to each of the Apostles, and how the Church spread from Jerusalem to various parts of the world?

We’re reached out to a number of prominent Catholics, authors and intellectuals to get a run-down on what resources are available for the unenlightened, the curious, and those who want to broaden their horizons on the history of the Church in the first few centuries. Here is Aleteia’s guide to the Best Books on Early Christian History:

The Didache

To go right to a primary source, apart from the New Testament, have a look at the brief Didache, also commonly referred to as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles. “This is a short book, easy read, that gives a snippet of a glimpse into the thinking and practices of the Church at the end of the first century,” says John Martignoni, Founder and President of the Bible Christian Society. “It contains a brief treatise on the Two Ways — the way of life and the way of death — and also talks about various sins, fasting and prayer, Baptism and the Eucharist, and several other topics, including the end times.”

Ecclesiastical History, by Eusebius

“Eusebius’ Church History is generally regarded as the first work of the history of the Church, beginning with Our Lord and continuing into the fourth century (when the work was written),” said Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation. “One of its key features is that Eusebius presents detailed lines of succession of the bishops of all the major sees. … At times, Eusebius diverges from what we today might expect of an historian as he moves more into the mode of a hagiographer. That said, it is still a most worthwhile and important text, a genuine starting point for anyone who wants to learn about the Church’s origins.”

Martignoni, who is also Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, and Host of EWTN Radio’s Open Line Monday, adds that Eusebius also gives “fascinating accounts of the Apostles, the martyrs, and other prominent figures of the early Church as well as more background on some of the characters that receive just passing mention in the New Testament.”

City of God, by St. Augustine of Hippo

“This historical and theological classic by St. Augustine of Hippo is considered to be one of the greatest works of Western literature for a good reason,” said Fr. Avelino Gonzalez, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who works at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “It was written in a very precarious, and I would say relevant, moment in the history of Western civilization, the Fall of the Roman Empire (410 A.D.). The book presents the first attempt at a philosophy of history. It presents human history as a cosmic conflict between two cohorts or groups of people. One group belongs to the City of Man and consists of members of the human race dedicated to earthly appetites and the pleasures of the passing world. The second group consists of the City of God or members of humanity dedicated to eternal truths of God, and following the incarnate Word of God and Redeemer of Mankind, Jesus Christ. History itself is presented as the unfolding of God’s divine plan for the salvation and happiness of the human race. Only those who make up the society within the City of God will be saved.

“In this interpretation of salvation history, St. Augustine argues that paganism or the sin of idolatry practiced in the Roman Empire contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction, that is, that the City of Man was inherently nihilistic,” Fr. Gonzalez continues. “A question for the contemporary reader is why does it seem that more people throughout history seem to choose the City of Man rather than the City of God, when self-annihilation is inevitable in the former.”

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection

Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., founding prior of the Monastery of San Benedetto, located in Norcia, Italy, the birthplace of St. Benedict, says that this work is “profound, easy to read and readily available.”

“The desert fathers (and mothers) are larger-than-life heroes of the fourth to fifth centuries, whose radical way of life and pithy sayings cut to the quick,” Fr. Folsom says. “Their insights are timeless. By reading them, we are inspired to follow Christ more boldly.

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