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The Apostolic Era.

This being so, our brief survey of the long and complex evolution of Orthodox Christianity begins with the first Pentecost in Jerusalem and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ's small circle of disciples. It is then that the Orthodox Church was born - the second largest organized body of Christians in the world. The Apostles, it is true, had been historic witnesses to Christ's messianic ministry and resurrection before the Spirit of God descended on them. Still, it was only with this event that they felt authorized to preach the Gospel to the world. Only then were the uncomprehending fishermen able to fully understand the mystery of Easter, that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and had begun their mission. The expansion of the early Christian movement, however, was not without its problems, nor was it spontaneous. Persecution and martyrdom awaited virtually all of its initial members. The aggressive new missionary community, nevertheless, was destined to survive and grow in numbers. By the third century it had, in fact, become a "mass phenomenon." Though unevenly scattered, it constituted possibly as much as ten percent of the total population of the Roman Empire. As such, it was sufficiently strong to compel the Roman emperors to end the persecutions. The Church, quite simply, could no longer be ignored - numerically or ideologically; hence the legal recognition of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century (312), and its subsequent recognition as the official religion of the empire by the end, under Theodosius (392).

Persecution and Success.

The causes of this success are understandably complex. The disciplined close-knit structure of the Church, its social solidarity and internal cohesion, its care for the poor and the deprived did not go unnoticed. Both the hostile critic and the ordinary pagan observer were aware of them. Furthermore, the persecution and martyrdom of Christians - despite the streak of cruelty in some who observed these punishments - could not but raise doubts and questions in many an individual conscience. Nor did Christianity's message of equality before God, cutting as it did across the social fabric, fail to make its impression of the stratified urban population of the ancient world. Finally, Christianity's exclusiveness, the intimate sense of belonging which it gave its members, as well as its universality attracted new adherents. Ultimately and at a deeper level, however, it was the saving message of the Gospel that was the principal cause of Christian expansion. This message promised not only reconciliation and forgiveness of sin, but liberation from the bondage of death and corruption. "Christians were Christians," as one scholar has put it, "only because Christianity brought to them liberation from death." That is to say, through Christ's own resurrection man's own incorruptibility, his own future physical resurrection and deification, was assured. To be in Christ, as St. Paul says, is to be a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is to the simple appeal of the primitive message or kerygma that we must turn for the more probable cause of Christian expansion.

The Impact of Christian Victory.

Whatever the case, those remarkable first four centuries are among the most creative in the history of the infant Church. The Christian victory was undeniably revolutionary both for the Roman Empire and the European civilization that followed. From the Church's own perspective and internal life the period was even more significant. For it is then that the Church achieved a certain self-identity, a kind of self awareness which has since remained normative for Eastern Orthodoxy. Two illustrations which affected its self understanding - one institutional and the other doctrinal - will suffice. The Church was initially without a New Testament. "Scripture" for the primitive Church simply meant the Old Testament. Gradually however, the Church saw the need to bring together all the writings of apostolic origin or inspiration into a canon. This collection of twenty-seven books still constitutes the total apostolic witness for the Church and is identical with our present New Testament. In sum, one of the most significant events in the history of Christianity during this period was its transformation, to borrow Harnack's phrase, into a religion of two Testaments. These writings, it is worth pointing out, were received and acknowledged by the Christian community precisely because they coincided with the Tradition which it had always possessed since the day of Pentecost, and which was nothing less than the faithful indwelling of the Spirit in its midst. Strictly speaking, the Church lived solely by this Tradition decades before the contents of the New Testament were determined. As a result, Scripture in Orthodoxy has always been interpreted within the context of Tradition, for it alone, as the Church's very memory, can disclose its authentic message.

Early Administrative Structure.

Equally crucial for the life of the Church was the formation of its administrative structure. We are reasonably certain that St. Peter, followed by St. James, presided over the Church in Jerusalem. The ministry of the Apostles, however, was itinerant, not stationary. After founding a community they would depart for another mission, leaving behind others to administer the new congregation and preside over the Eucharist and Baptism. In effect, a local hierarchy developed whose functions were stationary, administrative, and sacramental, in contrast with the mobile authority of the Apostles. The presiding officer of each community, especially at each Sunday eucharistic meal, was the episcopos or bishop, who was assisted by priests and deacons. At the outset of the second century, this threefold pattern of bishops, priests, deacons was already in place in many areas. There was nothing unusual in this development. As a matter of fact, the Last Supper, as the first liturgy, could not have taken place without the Lord's presiding presence. From the beginning, then, the sacramental and eucharistic fellowships of the Church took for granted the existence of a presiding head. For this same reason, the establishment of a local "monarchical" episcopate is still at the very center of Orthodox sacramental life and ecclesiology.

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According to its tradition, the Coptic Church was established by Saint Mark , an apostle and evangelist , in the middle of the 1st century (approximately AD 42). [1]


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