The Apostles' Creed is perhaps the oldest statement of faith in the Christian tradition. Is there any evidence that it was used by Jesus' first followers? If not, when did it originate?
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It was a creed that was developed by the early church. It came into existence after the age of the apostles. However, it finds its biblical basis in the apostles.
The Nicene Creed (since that's the next question) was first formed at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, while the Old Roman Creed was probably formed before that (in the 2nd century).
However, having said all of this, it seems the exact origins are unknown. But it seems that this was definitely not something directly from the apostles.
A satisfactory answer requires that we examine the development of the Apostles' Creed through history. We'll deal with the question in three parts:
Does the current form of the creed come from the apostles?
The strongest evidence that the current creed dates to the time of the apostles comes from 4th century statements by Ambrose and Rufinus. Ambrose (390) is the first to refer to the creed specifically as the "Creed of the Apostles":
Rufinus relates a tradition of the creed's origin, that it was developed by the Apostles at Pentecost:
However, this tradition is now largely discredited. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
Similarly, the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity informs us that this view "enjoyed a consensus during the entire Middle Ages" but since the Reformation it has been "considered apocryphal by all scholars."4
Does some form of the creed go back to the time of the apostles?
Does the above mean that the Apostles' Creed was an invention of 4th century or later theologians? No: the creed is commonly thought to have developed from the regla fidei, "rule of faith," a brief summary of Christian belief thought to be associated with baptism. These rules of faith can be traced back to at least the 2nd century, and hints of them appear even earlier, such as in Ignatius (d. 110):
Traces of the "rule of faith" can also be discerned in the writings of Justin Martyr (d. 165):
Irenaeus, around AD 200, presents a statement of faith "received from the apostles" that more closely resembles the current creed:
Other ~AD 200 renditions with similar degrees of variation exist in the writings of Tertullian.8
The earliest copy of the "received text," that is, the version of the creed that matches what we use today, comes from Priminius in the early 8th century. Over the centuries between Irenaeus and Priminius, the text gradually came to resemble the received text more and more. For example, in the AD 400 Rufinus version of the creed, the language is much closer than that of Irenaeus, though it still varies in some particulars:
Other versions of this era do not include the "he descended into hell" phrase (e.g., Augustine; see this question for more on that clause). For an overview of the historical development of the creed, see Philip Schaff's helpful table in his Creeds of Christendom.
By the AD 650 version Sacramentarium Gallicanum, most of these variations had been dealt with, though some minor wording differences remained even then. Scholars thus point to the text of Priminius, dated to the early 8th century, as the earliest copy of the received text of the creed.9
Historical context and other creeds
While the Apostles' Creed was developing, other creeds were being written, challenged, and defended. For comparison purposes, the dates of the major ones follow:
Comparing these dates with the ones we have discussed above, we can see that the "rules of faith" and other rudimentary, early versions of the Apostles' Creed predate all the other major creeds. The more standardized versions of Rufinus and Augustine appear around the same time as the amended Nicene Creed, but the final, received version of the Apostles' Creed is 200 years more recent than even the latest suggested dates for the Athanasian Creed.
In its current form, the Apostles' Creed dates to the early Middle Ages, not the apostolic era. But, as the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity summarizes, its roots can be seen in the earliest days of the church:
Did the Apostles write the Apostles' Creed in its current form?
No! But it appears ALL of its articles in its current form were orally taught by the Apostles and the faithful were to commit this teaching to mind and heart.
What support is there that the Apostles taught all the articles of the Apostles' Creed?
1) From Church teaching:
Therefore if the question
Did the Apostles' Creed originate with the Apostles?
Is taken to mean they composed it exactly in this form or wrote it exactly in this form, the answer is NO!
And if it is taken to mean that ALL of its articles originated from the Apostles themselves and the current form is a summary of their teaching and the answer is YES!
As to the dates of the written form we have from Philip Schaff's work the original Roman creed, as given by Rufinus in Latin (about A.D. 390), and by Marcellus in Greek (A.D. 336–341).