Each bishop presided over several churches. Each church was under the care of a priest (Greek, presbyteros, or “elder”) who had been qualified by special training and by a ceremony of ordination. The area served by each church and its priest came to be known as the parish. In the early church the office of deacon had much importance. Before long, then, a distinction between those who were merely faithful worshipers (the laity) and those who conducted the worship and administered the affairs of the church (the clergy) became well defined.
Judaism and Christianity
To maintain order, the Christian community needed some authority to discipline or even oust those who misbehaved. It had to organize to survive in the midst of an empire originally committed in principle to its suppression. Prophets, or teachers, appeared in the very first churches, the informal groups of Christians organized by the missionaries; soon elders, overseers, and presidents followed.
In 312, the year before he associated himself with the edict of toleration, Constantine had a religious experience akin to that of Paul. Just before going into battle against his rival Maxentius, the emperor supposedly saw in the heavens the sign of a cross against the sun and the words, “Conquer in this sign.” He put the sign on the battle standards of his army, won the battle, and attributed the victory to the Christian god.
What to Christians was persecution, to the Roman authorities was simply the performance of their duty as defenders of public order against those who seemed to be traitors to the Empire or irresponsible madmen. The Christians ran afoul of Roman civil law not so much for their beliefs and practices as for their refusal to make concessions to paganism. To cultivated Greeks and Romans, Christians seemed wild enthusiasts; to the masses they were disturbers, cranks, revolutionaries.
Paul taught that “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). The Jewish law had been a forerunner, a tutor: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free” (1 Corinthians 12:13). The Christian was to be saved, not by the letter of the Jewish law, but by the spirit of the Jewish faith in a righteous God.
There are no historical sources contemporary with Jesus himself from which to draw an account of his life and teaching. Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians were written about A.D. 55, the Acts of the Apostles about 60-62, and the four Gospels between 70 and 100. Late in the second century or early in the third these texts were revised in Alexandria.