Introduction to the Early Christian Writings
What Are the Early Christian Writings?
There are volumes of writings by early Christians which have survived to today. Obviously there are the writings which became the New Testament of the Christian Bible. However, in addition to those, there are many more from about the same time and from the following generations which are still available today. These writings take on different forms: some are instructions on how to live and what to believe; some are prophetic revelation; some are letters of correction or encouragement; some are introductions to Christianity to interested seekers; some are defences of Christianity to Roman authorities; some are commentary on the Bible; some are accounts of early Christian martyrs; there is even a message which was spoken to a group of early Christians in one of their gatherings.
This website is dedicated to the writings of the early Christians in the first few generations after Jesus. The first few centuries of Christian history has been commonly divided up into the time before the council of Nicaea (Pre-Nicene or Ante-Nicene) and the time after this (Post-Nicene). The council of Nicaea was a large council called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. and repesents a time when a corrupted form of Christianity was strongly connected with the Roman state. The Christian groups had initially been small, persecuted groups of disciples of Jesus. As these groups grew much larger, they started to gain wealth and power. Eventually they became involved with the Roman state. At that point it is obvious to see that the nature of the dominant expression of Christianity changed dramatically in many ways. This makes it hard to trust much of what was written after that point as being a reliable guide to what Christianity had originally been. However, just dividing up history into arbitrary periods is overly simplistic. Most changes do not happen suddenly and human history is not just a simple progression. Rather it is a complex interaction of many people making choices and interacting with each other. It is the sum of innumerable small choices. Because of this, it is overly simplistic to view everything written before an arbitrary point as a faithful representation of Christianity as Jesus started it. Likewise, it is overly simplistic to view everything written after an arbitrary point of time as been unfaithful. However, it is reasonable to assume that, in general, those writings which are written earlier are more likely to be reliable witnesses to what Jesus first established. Because of that, the focus of this website will be on earlier writings and post-Nicene writings will generally not be included. The only exception to this will be some printed volumes of Ante-Nicene writings which are hosted here which intentionally or unintentionally include Post-Nicene writings.
This website also does not generally include writings which clearly come from Gnostic sects, even though they also claimed to be following Jesus. Some exceptions to this may be contained in large collections of early Christian writings hosted on this website in which the authors chose to include some Gnostic writings.
Why Read the Early Christian Writings?
The one important reason to read the early Christian writings is to point us back to Jesus and his way. Without this intention, the early Christian writings will at best be a historical curiosity. At worst, it will provide just another distraction from taking seriously the amazing and radical things that Jesus taught. Reading these writings just to gain knowledge, win arguments or impress people will surely just produce more pride, which none of us need.
We have, in the early Christian writings, a great treasure. Those writings which are in the New Testament of the Christian Bible are generally the oldest. They were also written be people who Jesus personally appointed to announce his message or by their close associates. Given the important and reliable witnesses we already have in the New Testament, why read Christian writings more removed from Jesus? One important reason is to test our biases. Few people read the New Testament without any preconceived ideas. Most people read the writings by Jesus’s first disciples in a context where they are being taught both how to read them and how to understand them. This is not necessarily bad but it generally forces people into a certain way of thinking which emphasizes certain things and deemphasizes others. With a collection of writings as large and complex as the New Testament, it is easy to take the understanding and application of these writings in many different directions. The multitude of groups with many different views, all claiming to faithfully represent the teachings of the New Testament, are a clear demonstration of this. The writings of the early Christians show how they viewed the topics covered in the New Testament and, in some cases, how they viewed the New Testament writings and the words of Jesus. This allows us to examine our biases against their understanding. If they understood something very differently than we do, it could reveal to us where our preconceived ideas are keeping us from seeing things the way they did. In cases where many of these writers are in agreement on a point and where we can trace an idea back to the earliest Christians, this presents a very compelling case which can not easily be brushed aside if we are humble.
Where to Start Reading the Early Christian Writings?
If you have not already read all the of the writings in the New Testament, this is the best place to start to understand early Christianity.
If you are already familiar with the New Testament, start with reading some of the earliest writings after the New Testament. Two e-books hosted on this site which contain some of the earliest writings outside the New Testament are “The Apostolic Fathers–An American Translation” and “Early Christian Fathers”. The translations in both books are fairly easily readable.