It would doubtless be an exaggeration to state that the empire had been shaken by the appearance of the new religious force. Three generations after the death of its founder, Christianity represented a barely visible minority (some 50,000 members at most). Yet that minority was rather diverse (they did not seem to agree on the real meaning of the gospel) and remarkably dynamic. Christians seemed to want to take on the entire inhabited world. First excited by the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, they progressively formed themselves into a less apocalyptic congregation, and went on teaching ways of virtuous life appropriate to various callings in a civilized society. Harassed in Palestine, they moved in all directions, intent on gathering the Gentiles into the “new Israel.” They were soon found in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Rome, where they suffered sporadic persecutions.
At a time when the great majority of people lived a rural life, Christians appeared in cities, recruiting first of all among artisans and tradesmen and their households, that is, among humble persons. In Rome and Corinth, though, they had wealthy patrons, and converts included some people of substance. Outside Palestine they first used the Greek language in its international form called koine (common tongue); in the second century in Rome and Africa they adopted the Latin language and remade it into an instrument suited to their needs.
Very early they had leaders—bishops, presbyters/elders, and deacons, all insisting that they had received their mandate from Jesus through the “apostles.” Leaders presided at the worship of the community, cared for the well-being of its members, encouraged them by words and letters to lead a good life and—a shock to the “respectable pagan”—to shun distinctions between Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, slaves and freemen, men and women.
The first half of the second century saw the first writers appear, who, distinct from the authors of both the “canonical” books of the New Testament and the Christian “apocryphal” literature, were to be called “fathers,” in the present case “apostolic fathers,” because they were in a position to have known personally some of the apostles. Ignatius of Antioch (about 69-112/125) is the most typical among them. As bishop of Antioch, he wrote a series of letters of encouragement to various communities when he was taken as a prisoner to Rome, where he was to be put to death early in the second century.One important role of the apostolic fathers, traditionally seven in number, must be emphasized. They reflect the first developments beyond the New Testament writings in matters of church order, life practices, language, and theology. Beyond insisting on obedience to the leaders of the community and warning against heresies and schisms, they offer an initial delimitation of normative Christianity as regards its faith and its literature. They witness to the reception of certain “apostolic” writings as particularly treasured and deserving the name of “scripture”: authentic holy books held to be depository of Christian truth and worthy to be used in the public proclamation of the church. Initiated at that time, the process toward the fixation of the canon of New Testament writings was to be essentially completed by the end of the second century, prompted by the controversies of the period; yet the final determination of the canonical list of twenty-seven books constituting the New Testament took place only in the fourth century, which explains minor variations encountered in various communities or regions. Other Christian writings of the first centuries (gospels, letters, stories and legends, secret revelations), which, though received by groups as authoritative and apostolic yet were denied inclusion in the canon, came to be called “apocryphal,” that is, secret and not quite reliable. All the same, because of their form, content, and intention of supplementing the canonical works, they are also relevant to an understanding of the faith of the early Christians. More precisely, on the basis of their proximity to the New Testament writings, their study belongs to biblical studies, but to the extent that they were used by the church fathers, they fall under patristics. Taken together, the New Testament books, apocryphal writings, and the first patristic works are our main sources of information on the manifold diversity of early Christian piety and thought.