Most Protestants interested in church history know the Reformation fairly well and likely know the history of their group or denomination well. And most also have a smattering of knowledge of the pre-Reformation church. But there is much more to the story of early Christian history than most of us realize.
These are eight significant things about the first eight centuries of the church you probably didn’t know.
1. You may think of early Christianity as being a Roman phenomenon; and if so, you’re right that most early Christians lived within the Roman Empire. But you probably didn’t know Christianity was also present outside the Roman Empire almost from the beginning. The gospel reached the edges of the Persian Empire, in what is today eastern Turkey, by the mid-second century, if not the first. It reached India by at least the fourth century, and perhaps even the second or maybe even the first. It reached into Africa beyond the Roman Empire (into modern Ethiopia) by the fourth century. And by the fourth century it reached beyond the Alps into northern Europe and as far away as Ireland, outside the Roman Empire. During the entire first millennium, more Christians lived in Africa and Asia than in Europe.
During the entire first millennium, more Christians lived in Africa and Asia than in Europe.
2. You may have heard the early church was persecuted by the Romans and forced to worship in secret in the catacombs. This is true but misleading, since persecution was very sporadic in the first three centuries, varying widely from place to place and time to time. But what you probably didn’t know is that by far the worst persecution of Christians in the early centuries came in the Persian Empire, not the Roman. In the first three centuries, since the Romans did not like Christians, the Persians tolerated them. (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” says the ancient Sanskrit proverb.) But after the conversion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century (see below), the Persians began to persecute Christians—precisely because their enemies the Romans now called themselves Christians. The Great Persian Persecution took place from 339 until about 370, at the same time Christians were gaining favored status within the Roman Empire.
3. You may know the conversion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century was a watershed moment in Christian history. But you probably didn’t know Rome was only one of four kingdoms to convert to Christianity at that time. The others were Armenia, Georgia, and Aksum (northern Ethiopia and Yemen today). In fact, it’s possible a small kingdom in modern eastern Turkey—Osrhoene—became officially Christian in the late second century, 120 years before Armenia. Osrhoene remained an important Christian center for centuries, but it didn’t remain an independent kingdom. It was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 216, and so we don’t think of it as being an officially Christian kingdom. Rome was by far the largest kingdom to convert to Christianity, but hardly the only one.
4. You may have heard of the Nicene Creed, which was completed in Greek at a council in Constantinople in 381. This became the standard creed for all churches in the Roman Empire. But you probably didn’t know it was also adopted by the church in Persia in 410 and later by the churches in Georgia, Aksum, and Armenia, and even as far away as India. To this day, it is the only post-biblical writing accepted by the entire Christian church. (In contrast, the Apostles’ Creed was never officially approved by a church council. It simply held traditional respect in the Latin-speaking church of the West.)
5. You may know of John Wycliffe, the 14th-century Englishman who championed the right of the people to read the Bible in their language. Of course, Wycliffe Bible Translators is named after him. But you probably didn’t know Wycliffe was a thousand years late to the Bible translation party. In eastern Africa and western Asia, there was a vast level of Bible translation in the early Christian centuries. By the fifth century, the Bible was translated into Syriac (a language spoken in western Asia, akin to the Aramaic Jesus spoke), into the African dialects of Coptic (spoken in Egypt) and Ge’etz (spoken in Ethiopia), and into Armenian and Georgian. In fact, at the end of the fourth century a brilliant Armenian linguist named Mesrop Mashtots was the first person ever to devise an alphabet (Armenian) explicitly for the purpose of Bible translation, and he was later involved in developing the Georgian alphabet as well. They could have called the great modern Bible-translation agency “Mashtots Bible Translators.”
Wycliffe was a thousand years late to the Bible translation party. . . . In eastern Africa and western Asia, there was a vast level of Bible translation in the early Christian centuries.
6. You may know about the Irish monks Columba, Columbanus, and Boniface, who evangelized much of northern Europe in the sixth and seventh centuries. But you probably haven’t heard that at the same time, Persian Christian monks were traveling the Silk Road east to spread the gospel. By 600 they had established Christian centers throughout Sogdia (in what is today the former Soviet Central Asian republics), and they even reached the Chinese capital of Chang-an (current-day Xi’an) in 635.
7. You may have heard of the Battle of Tours in 732, at which Frankish warriors defeated Muslim forces and pushed them back over the Pyrenees into Spain, thus “saving” European Christian civilization from Islam. But you probably didn’t know a far more important battle to “save” Europe took place earlier in the eighth century. At the time, Constantinople was the most prized possession of the entire world, and Arab Muslims dearly wanted it and spent 80 years trying to capture it. Their climactic attempt was a combined land-sea assault that began in 717, but the Byzantines prevailed after more than a year of fighting. And you surely didn’t know the crowning battle of the Arab conquests was the Battle of Talas (in modern Tajikistan) in 751, at which the Arabs defeated the Chinese and became the greatest power on earth. The Arab conquest of Africa and Asia, and their lack of success in Europe, redrew the map of the world. Europe was largely spared, and only then did it begin its road to becoming the center of Christianity.
8. You may have heard of small Christian groups that have been present throughout the Middle East during the entire Islamic period. These groups have been the most persecuted Christians in history in the 20th and 21st centuries. But you probably didn’t realize the ancestors of these groups were once the majority of the population in Arab-ruled Syria, Persia, and Central Asia. And even though Christians were decidedly second-class citizens under the Arabs, they took an active part in the life of their communities and bore witness to the faith among their Muslim neighbors. They wrote apologetic treatises in Arabic geared toward Muslims and even held public disputations with Muslim leaders to discuss the Trinity and the incarnation. These writings make for enlightening reading for those of us who interact with Muslims today.
Why didn’t we know these things? Because if we have heard much about pre-Reformation Christian history at all, what we have learned has come from the Western church and the medieval Roman Catholic Church as background to the Reformation. In other words, we have learned the history that led to and connected with our branch of the Christian church. But that has never been the whole history, and the rest of the early Christian story holds many valuable and fascinating lessons for us today.
The Lord has been at work through more people groups, in more parts of the world, at a far earlier date, than we as Protestants tend to realize. The story of early Christians in Africa and Asia—just as much as in Europe—is part of our story.