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  • Writer's pictureMarco Inniss

Who Were the Very First Christians?

Following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, thousands of Jews became believers. The period from roughly A.D. 30 to 100 saw the glory of the first Pentecost, the struggle of the church to organize for mission, the conversion of Saul (Paul), the mission to the Gentiles, and the spread of the faith to Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, the three greatest cities of the Roman Empire.

The day of Pentecost came 50 days after the offering of the first grain (Leviticus 23:10, 15, 16) at the Passover observances. It was a celebration of the wheat harvest, with pilgrims gathering from various nations of the Roman world. The crowd included Jews living outside of the Holy Land, as well as Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish faith. Luke lists their homelands beginning in the East, then in Asia Minor, and on to other Mediterranean areas—North Africa, Rome, and Crete (Acts 2:9-11).

The Pentecost was quickly followed by the birth of the church, as distinct from a mere Jewish sect. The Good News also spread beyond Jerusalem with believers meeting in the temple courts, Jewish synagogues, and in private homes.

Philip and the Samaritan

The Samaritans were the first non-Jews to be evangelized by the early church. Philip “proclaimed the Messiah” to the Samaritans (Acts 8:5) and their reception of Philip’s message about the kingdom of God and about Jesus Christ was a significant step in the spread of the gospel. Samaritans were considered heretics by orthodox Jews, and they were receiving the gospel. Perhaps the Samaritans accepted the gospel more readily than Jews because they did not have to unlearn previous misconceptions about the coming Messiah. As the apostles continued to preach in many villages of Samaria, Samaritans became an accepted part of the church (Acts 8:25).

Kandake’s Ethiopian Eunich Believes

Luke gives us much information about the person that Philip evangelized and eventually baptized. The man was from Ethiopia, was a eunuch, served a queen as her treasurer, and had gone to worship in Jerusalem (Acts 8:27). This new convert’s background makes his conversion to Christianity significant.

God himself made it clear that Gentiles should be included in his church. Ethiopia was an area south of Egypt. Because Ethiopia (Cush) and Egypt were so close geographically, they are often mentioned together in Scripture (see Psalm 68:31; Ezekiel 30:4; Nahum3:9). But Ethiopia is not close to Jerusalem, so Kandake’s eunuch had traveled from a distant location.

Kandake is not a personal name but a title, like pharaoh. As the pharaoh was king of Egypt, so the Kandake was queen of Meroe, a kingdom on the Nile River south of Egypt. From Acts 8:27 it appears that “Kandake” could be used as a name for Meroe’s queens just as “Pharaoh” was used as a name for Egypt’s kings. The eunuch worked for someone of high authority.

His position added to his status since as the queen’s treasurer he exercised great authority. It was common in Eastern countries for eunuchs to hold positions of high authority in a queen’s court. This eunuch was an important person.

Nevertheless, he was a eunuch, and eunuchs were excluded from religious service in Israel  (Deuteronomy 23:1). The law prohibited them from serving as priests, who were required to have a whole body, free from blemishes (Leviticus 21:17– 20). The eunuch could worship in Jerusalem and read the sacred Scriptures (Acts 8:28) but could not be a full member of the Jewish religion.

This eunuch represents a significant conversion to Christianity. With him, the Christian faith reached out to a distant land, to someone in the service of a queen, to someone who himself had high position. More importantly, it reached out to one who previously was an “outsider” to Israel’s religion.

The God-Fearing Cornelius

Caesarea Maritima, the home of Cornelius, served as the capital for the province of Judea. The city contained the residence for the Roman governor of Judea, as well as a regular Roman garrison (Acts 10:1). A legion of the Roman army was comprised of ten cohorts; five cohorts of about 600 soldiers each were stationed at Caesarea, while another cohort remained garrisoned on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Centurions like Cornelius commanded units, called centuries, that generally averaged 80 men. In contrast to high-class Romans who aspired to higher offices, centurions usually began as regular soldiers and worked their way up through the ranks. Army service for males usually began around age 17, and roughly half of the enlisters who survived the required 20 years of service were highly rewarded.

The devout Cornelius (Acts 10:2) was a member of the “God fearers,” a class of religious people named in many ancient Jewish sources. God-fearers, while not full converts to Judaism, did respect Israel’s God and his teachings. Inscriptions reveal that many soldiers were interested in foreign religions like Judaism.

Roman custom expected members of a household (whether wives and children or servants) to follow the religion of the head of the household. It was thus natural for Cornelius to have spread his faith to “all his family” (Acts 10:2).

It’s not exactly clear who was part of Cornelius’s household since Roman regulations prohibited soldiers from marrying. Officials usually looked the other way while soldiers stationed in various places held illegal concubines, but centurions, who were moved more frequently, probably developed fewer relationships even with concubines. Unless Cornelius was retired or, as often happened, was breaking official rules, his household may have consisted primarily of servants (Acts 10:7).

Peter’s ministry to the Gentile household of Cornelius was accepted by the Jerusalem church only after Peter convinced them that the Gentiles had become believers in the same sense as had Jesus’ followers, who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 11:1– 18).

The First Gentile Church

The first church to include Gentile Christians was the church at Antioch (Acts 11:26). More innovative than the Jerusalem church, Antioch became the center of missionary outreach to Gentiles, yet still maintained close ties with Jerusalem. Eventually, the Jerusalem church acknowledged acceptance of Gentiles (Acts 11:18), and Antioch became a center of the Gentile church.

It was in Antioch that the disciples were identified with the term “Christian,” (Acts 11:22-24), a term appearing only twice elsewhere in Scripture (Acts 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16). The term “Christian” likely originated with the Gentile population in Antioch, rather than with the followers of Christ themselves. The Gentiles, being unfamiliar with Jewish religion, could have thought “Christ” was a name, rather than recognizing it as a title for the Messiah. Thus, by about A.D. 46, the Antiochan Gentiles had distinguished the “Christians” from both Jews and pagans.

Drawn from study notes in the NIV Chronological Study Bible.

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