History of Early Church & Rise of Roman Catholics

council of nicea

History of the First Church in Jerusalem

After Jesus ascended to heaven, Christianity emerged as a sect of Judaism. The first Christians were Jews called followers of “the Way” (ἡ ὁδός). The church was loosely organized. Eventually, it divided into two major “catholic” (meaning universal) factions in 451 and 1054 A.D.

The Five Sees: Oldest Christian churches in the world, established by the apostolic fathers

First Christian church

Naturally, the first church is the “First Church of Jerusalem.” Leaders were James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and John the Apostle (Galatians 2:9, Acts 1:13). The rest like Paul was on a missionary journey outside Jerusalem. (Acts 15)

RENAMING JERUSALEM: Around 135 A.D., Emperor Hadrian enraged by Jewish resistance he renamed Judea to Syria Palaestina (after the enemies of the Jews, the Syrians, and Philistines) and banished all Jews from the region. The Christian church of Jerusalem was forever lost. [Palestine]

First Bishop of Jerusalem

Peter left Jerusalem after Herod Agrippa I tried to kill him. According to Eusebius, Peter asked James the Just (son of Zebedee brother of Apostle John) to be the leader in Jerusalem, hence the first bishop. Clement of Alexandria (150–215) also referred to James as the first Bishop of Jerusalem.

Second Bishop of Jerusalem

When James died in 69 A.D., historian Eusebius said, “Simeon of Jerusalem” (Symeon the Zealot) chosen as successor (second Bishop), shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Antioch, the Cradle of Christianity

After Stephen’s stoning in 36 A.D., Some followers of “the Way” went to Phoenicia and Greek cities Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews.

Those who went to Antioch shared the Gospel in Greek. Barnabas sent to organize a new church in Antioch (with Saul), in 42 A.D. (Acts 11:19-26)

They were called Christians for the first time in Antioch. The Holy Spirit called Paul and Barnabas to take the gospel beyond, making Antioch the early “missionary sending” church (Acts 13:2–3). The gentile converts spoke Greek critical in expanding the gospel.

The church Pillars: The first council of Jerusalem

In 50 A.D., Barnabas and Paul returned to Jerusalem to meet with James, Peter, and John (the council of Jerusalem). It confirmed the legitimacy of Barnabas and Paul’s mission to the gentiles.

First 100 Years, the five ‘Apostolic See’

The ‘Apostolic See’ are churches established by the apostles or their close associates. At least 25 churches were established during the apostolic age. Author Tertullian wrote in 180 A.D. four—Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus, and Rome (Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D.).

List of early (mostly independent) Christian centers established during the apostolic years

Alexandria (Eygpt)
Antioch (Turkey)
Arabian Peninsula
Asia Minor
Carthage (Tunisia)
Corinth (Greece)
Ephesus (Turkey)
Georgia (Iberia)
Italy (Outside Rome)
Mesopotamia (Edessa)
Persia and Central Asia
Philippi (Greece)
Southern Gaul
Thessaloniki (Greece)

Tens of thousands of Coptic Christians held overnight vigil in Cairo to mourn Pope Shenouda III.

From the early apostolic churches came three division of Christianity, all claiming roots from the apostles

  • Oriental Orthodox Church
  • Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Roman Catholicism

Beginnings of Roman Catholicism

Christianity’s presence in Rome by 40 A.D. was evident. Like most Christians in the ancient world, the Roman Christians were small Jewish and gentile groups that began in house churches. (Read Papacy of Rome)

Paul and Peter in Rome

Irenaeus of Lyons said Paul and Peter founded the Church in Rome. They appointed Linus (67 A.D.) as its first bishop. Paul sent to Rome in house arrest. From there, he trained church leaders (Acts 25:8-12). Tradition holds Paul beheaded in Rome as well as Peter, martyred in the city.

Early churches (Orthodox and Roman Churches) generally referred to as “Catholics.” Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (108-149 A.D.) first used “katholikos” to describe the “universal church.” Hence, to say, “Catholic” includes the different branches of Christianity. One of them is Roman Catholicism.

Roman Catholicism is the largest Christian church organization today with 1.2 Billion members.

The first Pope of Roman Catholicism

Only the Roman Catholics (RC) affirm Apostle Peter as the first Bishop of Rome (Petrine theory). RC also misinterprets Matthew 15:18 to elevate Peter as vicar of Christ, making the Pope vicar of Christ as well—with no solid Biblical basis.

The Petrine Theory: A Roman Catholic doctrine on papal primacy, resting on Christ’s bestowing the “keys of the Kingdom” on Peter. They misinterpreted Matthew 15:18 to support their political supremacy. [Read commentary]

Linus, the first Bishop of Rome appointed by the apostles

The earliest witness that Linus was the first bishop (Catholics call pope) was Greek Bishop Irenaeus (130–202 A.D.). He wrote in 180 A.D. the following:

"The blessed apostles (Paul and Peter)... committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate (Bishop); succeeded by Anacletus; the third place from the apostles, Clement (35-134 A.D.) allotted the bishopric." [Ireneus: Against Heresies 3; Read commentary]

Tertullian from the early third century appears to say Clement was the first bishop—appointed by Peter himself. He said the following:

"...the church of Smyrna, which records that Polycarp was placed therein by John; as also the church of Rome, which makes Clement to have been ordained in like manner by Peter." [Tertullian: Prescription of the Heretics 32]

Eusebius appears to agree that Linus was the first bishop of Rome, after the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. He said the following:

"After the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, Linus was the first to obtain the episcopate of the church at Rome..." [Eusebius: Church History, 3, 2] "Linus, whom he (Paul) mentions in 2 Timothy 4:21 as his companion at Rome, was Peter's successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown." [Eusebius: Church History, 4, 9]

Confusing and conflicting as it may seem, the point of these testimonies indicates Peter was never referred to as the “first bishop” of Rome. In addition, Paul and Peter were both instrumental in establishing the church of Rome.

The early fathers were called “Saint” Scriptures do not give titles like “Saint or Pope.” All these are traditions of both Orthodox and Roman churches. Likewise, early church fathers called priests, which doesn’t mean they were “Roman Catholic priests.” Canonization practiced by both Orthodox and Catholics.

Important periods leading to the rise of Roman Catholicism

  • 313 Edict of Milan: Emperor Constantine, upon his conversion, lifted the ban on Christianity in the Roman Empire.
  • 325 Council of Nicaea: First ecumenical Council, Constantine tried to unify Christianity and resolve issues that divided the church by establishing the Nicene Creed, convened by himself.
  • 380 Edict of Thessalonica: Christianity declared the state religion of the Roman Empire.
  • 381 Council of Constantinople: (Second Ecumenical Council)
  • 392 Roman Catholicism: Declared official religion in Rome
  • 395 Collapse of the Roman Empire: Theodosius I died, the empire divided to east and west.
  • 431 Council of Ephesus: Roman Catholicism recognized as the “pentarchy” by the Council.
  • 451 Council of Chalcedon: (The First Schism) Catholics (general term for the universal church) not divided until the division ignited during the Council. It was attended by 520 Bishops around the world to settle a unified doctrine. The Oriental Orthodox Catholic Church and Western Roman Catholic Church split.
  • 553 Council of Constantinople II
  • 680 Council of Constantinople III
  • 787 Council of Nicaea II
  • 1054 The Great Schism: Split between Eastern Catholics (Orthodox) and Western Catholics (Roman)

Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D.

The “see of Constantinople” elevated to jurisdictional prominence not on the grounds of apostolic origin but for political importance as the capital of the Roman Empire. The Council of Constantinople held a political capital. [Jurisdictional authority]

The Edict of Thessaloniki in 380 A.D. and the First Council of Constantinople the next year catapulted Roman Catholicism to political dominance over its equal Bishoprics.

The Great Schism of 1054 A.D.

The great schism was the formal split between Eastern Catholics (Greek Orthodox) and Western Catholics (Roman Catholics). The word “catholic” means universal. They have similarities such as canonization, rituals, relics, but differ in principle for the most part.

On July 16, 1054, the Patriarch of Constantinople ex-communication (by Rome) became the breaking point of tension between the church based in Rome and the Byzantine church based in Constantinople.

The Roman Catholic church became the “New Roman Empire”

The Roman Empire (Western) fell in 476, and by 800 A.D., Pope Leo III (crowned Charlemagne) became the “Holy Roman Emperor.” The Roman Catholic Church replaced the Roman identity, which still exists through its remaining vestige—the Byzantine empire located in Constantinople.

The split between the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople and Roman Catholic in Rome

The Eastern Orthodox church in Constantinople* refused the need for two emperors to sit under the Roman Empire (Roman Empire was divided into Byzantine Eastern Empire or and Rome’s Western Empire which already collapsed).

Constantinople was the seat of the Byzantine Empire. It was the Greek city of Byzantium. When the capital of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium in 330 A.D., it became known as Nova Roma (New Rome) or ‘Eastern Rome.’ From Byzantium, it was renamed Constantinople after its first Emperor, Constantine I.

The Byzantine Empire still existed with its own patriarch. Hence, the relationship turned sour because the Western Roman church positioned itself above the other.

In addition, the Orthodox church saw Rome veering away from apostolic teachings. The Pope being declared as “Holy Emperor,” taking the title Pontificus Maximus was a threat.

To add to the rift, the Byzantine iconoclasm (destruction of religious icons and images) that lasted for a century widened the gap between the two.

Language also became a barrier. Greek Orthodox in Constantinople found it difficult to read Latin. Likewise, Roman Catholics in Rome found it difficult to read Greek.

As a result, the European Christian churches divided into two major branches: the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church, known as the “Great Schism.”

edict of thessalonica
Saint Ambrose forces Emperor Theodosius I to make penance for the Thessaloniki massacre. Rome collapsed after he died and the Holy Church became the Neo-Roman Empire.

The Rise of Roman Catholicism

In 380 A.D., Roman Emperors Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II declared the “Nicene Christianity” the official state religion of the Roman Empire—known as the Edict of Thessalonica. The Pope, or “Bishop of Rome,” operated as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

The collapse of the Roman Empire in 395 A.D.

As the empire disintegrated, the papacy took on the title of “Pontifex Maximus” (supreme priest) traditionally belonged to the Emperors of Rome. The Emperor was the supreme religious head of the College of Pontiff, and now it’s the Pope.

The papacy became the “Neo-Emperors”; hence, Roman Catholicism became the “New Roman Empire” with great power and influence.

papacy took on the title of “Pontifex Maximus,” traditionally belonged to the Emperor.

The Latin Vulgate and First Christian Bible

The Gospel preached orally and written in Aramaic and Greek languages. The Bible, as we know it today, is a collection of Hebrew manuscripts, letters, and writings attributed to the Apostles. Latin manuscripts like the Roman Catholic Vulgate came 300 years later.

In 382, Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to produce a Latin version of the Bible from the various translations then being used. The Latin Vulgate completed in 405 A.D., recognized as the official Roman Catholic Bible.

William Tyndale was responsible for the first English Bible. Like Jerome, he used directly Hebrew & Greek texts, and other manuscripts older than the Vulgate. In 1611, The King James Bible (KJV) published as the Protestant’s own Bible. Therefore, Tyndale and KJV are NOT translations of the Catholic’s Latin Vulgate. [Bible translation to trust]

Tyndale and KJV are NOT translations of the Catholic’s Latin Vulgate.

Four branches of Christianity today

Three recognized divisions of Christianity stemmed from “Jewish-Christians” of the first church in Jerusalem (Book of Acts). I have listed four because of the significant impact of non-protestant and non-Catholic (non-denominational) mega-churches today.

  • Orthodox Catholics
  • Roman Catholicism
  • Protestantism (Reformed Catholics)
  • Non-denominational Christians (Holy Spirit movement)

Non-denominational Evangelicalism

The growing appeal of “Reformed tradition” gained momentum in the last few decades. A fitting “resistance” to the growing threat of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and Christian humanists—which are classified as non-denominational evangelical churches today.

Albert is an academic researcher and UX/UI content manager. He is a graduate of Asian Studies and went to the Asian Bible Seminary and Trinity College of Music. He is happily married with three lovable teenagers.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here