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Apostolic Age

APOSTOLIC AGE. The period in the history of the Christian church when the apostles were alive, beginning with the Day of Pentecost and ending with the death of the apostle John near the end of the first century. Our only source for the period is the NT, especially Acts and the Epistles.

APOSTOLIC AGE. Derived from ἀπόστολος, G693, (Ezra 7:14; Dan 5:24). Translated “apostle” seventy-eight times, “messenger” two and “he that is sent” once in the NT. Meaning: that period of Early Church history during the life and work of the original apostles which extended from the day of Pentecost (c. a.d. 30-33; Acts 2, to the death of John, c. a.d. 100). The main sources for the period are the Book of Acts and the NT letters.

The inauguration of the Apostolic Age

The advent of the Spirit at this time was most opportune. The importance of the Jewish Temple in centralizing and unifying Hellenic with Judean Judaism in the 1st cent. is emphasized by the vast patronage of the diaspora Jews. While Josephus’ estimate of three million attending a single Passover is likely an exaggeration (Crownfield, p. 230), it nevertheless points up the cultural and spiritual unity of all Judaism. Through the Spirit-animated witness of the apostles, 3,000 Jews, mostly Hellenists, were converted to Christianity (2:41), with an increase to at least 5,000 soon after (4:4). The genuineness and influence of this spiritual occurrence is attested by the quality of its converts (2:41-47; 4:32-37). With the return of the Hellenist converts to their respective locations (2:5-11) following Pentecost, they carried their witness with them and thus disseminated widely the Gospel to such outlying centers as Damascus, Antioch of Syria, Cyprus, Cyrene and even Rome (11:20). There were doubtless many other locations of which those recorded are representative.

The martyrdom of Stephen

The conversion of Saul

The generous attitude of Rome toward the Christians was due to the allowance of freedom granted all approved religions within the empire. Judaism was such a religion, and since Christianity had flowered from Judaism Rome appears not to have distinguished between the two (18:1, 2, 12-17). Actually Christianity enjoyed the protection of Rome until about the time of Paul’s first imprisonment under Nero when the distinction between Judaism and Christianity became clearer, and the Christians became convenient scapegoats for Nero. The martyrdom of James under Herod (12:1-5) should prob. be understood in the light of Herod’s Jewish connections and his desire to curry favor with the Jews, rather than as a hostile act of Rome toward Christianity.

The Council at Jerusalem

(c. a.d. 48 or 49; Acts 15). The first general council of the Christian Church prob. occured between the first and second missionary journeys of Paul. The principal issue was the condition required of the Gentiles for membership in the church. The decision reached by the council was one of the most momentous of all church history as it saved the young movement from a Jew-Gentile schism. It also established salvation by grace without legalism (for a full treatment of this subject see Council of Jerusalem).

The mission to the Gentile world


B. W. Robinson, The Life of Paul (1918); F. J. F. Jackson and K. Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, Pt. I, “The Acts of the Apostles” (1920); B. S. Easton, “The Apostolic Age,” ISBE, Vol. I (1939); W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (rep. 1949); F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (1953); W. M. Ramsay, The Church in the Roman Empire (rep. 1954); H. J. Cadbury, The Book of Acts in History (1955); F. R. Crownfield, An Historical Approach to the New Testament (1960); G. Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. I (1964); S. Neill, Christian Missions (1964); C. W. Carter, “The Acts of the Apostles,” The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. IV (1964); J. Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. The Mission:

(1) When the disciples realized that they had seen the risen Christ for the last time and that it had now become their duty to spread His message, they gathered themselves together and restored the number of "witnesses" to the appointed Twelve. Immediately afterward the outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave them the signal to begin work. At first this work was rigidly centered in Jerusalem, and the first journeyings were the result of forcible dispersion and not of planned effort (Ac 11:19). But pilgrims to the feasts had carried away the gospel with them, and in this way Christianity had been spread at least as far as Damascus (Ac 9:2,19). The dispersion itself widened the circle to Cyprus and to Antioch and marked the beginning of the Gentilework (Ac 11:19-20). Here the extreme prominence of Paul’s ministry in the New Testament should not obscure the success of the other missionaries.

When the apostles began their journeys we do not know but at the time of Ga 1:19 only Peter represented the Twelve in Jerusalem. Paul mentions their extended work in 1Co 9:5,6 and it seems certain that Peter was in Rome shortly before his death. The troubles caused Paul by the Judaizers at least give evidence of the missionary zeal of the latter. Barnabas and Mark worked after their separation from Paul (Ac 15:39) and GentileChristianity existed in Rome long before the latter’s arrival there (Ro 1:13). By the year 100 it appears that Christianity extended around the Mediterranean from Alexandria to Rome (and doubtless farther, although data are scanty), while Asia Minor was especially pervaded by it.

(2) Many factors cooperated to help the work: Peace was universal and communication was easy. Greek was spoken everywhere. The protection given Judaism sheltered from civil interference. The presence of Judaism insured hospitality and hearers for at least the first efforts to convert. The Jews’ own proselytizing zeal (Mt 23:15) had prepared Gentiles to receive Christianity. And not the least element was the break-up of the old religions and the general looking to the East for religious satisfaction.

(3) For the methods, Paul’s procedure is probably typical. Avoiding the smaller places, he devoted himself to the cities as the strategic points and traveled in a direct route, without side-journeys. In this way a "line of fire" (Harnack) was traced, and the flame could be trusted to spread of its own accord to each side of the road. So as fruits of Paul’s work at Ephesus there appear churches at Colosse and Laodicea some hundred and twenty miles away (Col 2:1; 4:16). The churches founded needed revisiting and confirming, but when the apostle felt that they could shift for themselves, he felt also that his work in the East was over (Ro 15:23).

2. Jerusalem Church:

The members of the earliest Jerusalem church thought of themselves simply as Jews who had a true understanding of the Messiah and so constituting a new "way" or "party" (hardly "sect") in Judaism (Ac 22:4, especially). At first they were suffered to grow unmolested and their right to exist was apparently unquestioned, for the Sadducean actions of Ac 4:1; 5:17 were in the nature of police precautions. And it is significant that the first attack was made on a foreigner, Stephen. He seems to have angered the crowds by preaching the impending destruction of the Temple, although he was martyred for ascribing (practically) Divine honors to Jesus (Ac 7:56). Yet the apostles were not driven from the city (Ac 8:1) and the church was able to continue its development. In 41 AD, the Roman representatives gave way to the Pharisaically inclined Agrippa I and (for reasons that are not clear) persecution broke out in which James was martyred and Peter delivered only by a miracle (Ac 12). With the resumption of Roman rule in 44 AD the persecution ceased.

Some peaceable mode of living was devised, as appears from the absence of further allusions to troubles (compare Ac 21:17-26) and from the accounts of Josephus and Hegesippus of the esteem in which James the Lord’s brother was held. His martyrdom (in 62 AD?) was due to the tension that preceded the final revolt against Rome, in which the Christians of Jerusalem took no part. Instead, they retired across the Jordan to Pella (Re 12:13-17), where they formed a close, intensely Jewish body under the rule of the descendants of Christ’s brethren according to the flesh. Some mission work was done farther to the east but in the 2nd century they either were absorbed in normal Christianity or became one of the factors that produced Ebionism.

3. Judaists:

Many members of this body (and, doubtless, other Jewish Christians outside it) showed various degrees of inability to understand the Gentile work. The acceptance of an uncircumcised Christian as "saved" offered fairly slight difficulty (Ga 2:3; Ac 15). But to eat with him was another thing and one that was an offense to many who accepted his salvation (Ga 2:12,13). The rigorous conclusion that the Law bound no Christian was still another thing and one that even James could not accept (Ac 21:21). At the time of Ga 2:9, the "pillars" were as yet not thinking of doing Gentilework. Paul’s controversies are familiar and probably the last friction did not end until the fall of Jerusalem. But the difficulties grew gradually less and 1 Peter is evidence that Peter himself finally accepted the full status of Gentiles.

4. Relations with Rome:

5. "Hellenism":

Influence of the "pagan" religions on Christianity is not very perceptible in the 1st century. But syncretism was the fashion of the day and many converts must have attempted to combine the new religion with views that they held already (or that they learned still later). Apparently little attention was paid to this attempt, if restricted to entirely minor details (1Co 15:29), but in Col 2:8-23 a vital matter is touched. The danger is more acute in the Pastorals (1Ti 1:4; 4:3; Titus 3:9) and in Re 2 great harm is being done. And Jude, 2 Peter, and 1 John contain direct polemics against the systems so arising, the beginnings of what in the 2nd century appeared as Gnosticism.

For further details see the separate articles, especially MINISTRY; NEW TESTAMENT CANON; and (for life in the Apostolic Age) SPIRITUAL GIFTS.

LITERATURE. See the separate articles. Works with the title Apostolic Age are by Gilbert (brief), Bartlet (useful), Purves (very conservative), Ropes, McGiffert, and Weizsacker. The last three are for critical study.