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?
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 today's version match that of the apostles?
- Does any version come from the apostles?
- When did today's version first appear?
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":
Let them give credit to the Creed of the Apostles, which the Roman Church has always kept and preserved undefiled.1
Rufinus relates a tradition of the creed's origin, that it was developed by the Apostles at Pentecost:
Being on the eve therefore of departing from one another, they first mutually agreed upon a standard of their future preaching, lest haply, when separated, they might in any instance vary in the statements which they should make to those whom they should invite to believe in Christ. Being all therefore met together, and being filled with the Holy Ghost, they composed, as we have said, this brief formulary of their future preaching, each contributing his several sentence to one common summary: and they ordained that the rule thus framed should be given to those who believe.2
However, this tradition is now largely discredited. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
Rufinus was therefore wrong when he declared that the Apostles themselves had "for many just reasons" selected this very term ["Symbol"]. This fact, joined with the intrinsic improbability of the story, and the surprising silence of the New Testament and of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, leaves us no choice but to regard the circumstantial narrative of Rufinus as unhistorical.3
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):
Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.5
Traces of the "rule of faith" can also be discerned in the writings of Justin Martyr (d. 165):
What sober-minded man, then, will not acknowledge that we are not atheists, worshipping as we do the Maker of this universe [...]. Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove.6
Irenaeus, around AD 200, presents a statement of faith "received from the apostles" that more closely resembles the current creed:
[The Church believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father [...] and that He should execute just judgment towards all; [...] but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous7
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:
- "invisible and impassible" instead of "maker of heaven and earth"
- No "suffered" or "dead" (only "crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried")
- No "of God" or "almighty" (only "he sits at the right hand of the Father")
- No "catholic" or "communion of saints" (only "the Holy Church")
- Different wording for "resurrection of the body" (hujus carnis instead of merely carnis)
- No "life everlasting"
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:
- 325: (Original) Nicene Creed
- 381: Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (Amended Nicene Creed)
- 451: Definition of Chalcedon
- 440–520: Athanasian Creed10
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:
Modern-day scholarship tends to affirm that the account of the assembly of the twelve apostles to compose the Apostles’ Creed was most likely a pious invention, but the ancient conviction that the regula fidei went back to the apostles contains an element of truth.4
- Ambrose, Letter 42.5
- Rufinus, A Commentary on the Apostles' Creed, Section 2
- Catholic Encyclopedia entry on the Apostles' Creed
- Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity entry on the Apostles' Creed
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter IX. See also his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Chapter 1 for similar language.
- Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter XIII
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 1, Chapter X
- For example, Against Praxeas, Chapter II.
- Schaff dates Priminus's text to 750, but more recent scholarship (J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creed) dates it to 710–724. Kelly says that there is "no serious doubt" about this evidence for the origin of the received text. (page 398)
- Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, entry on Creeds and Confessions of Faith.
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:
CCC 194 The Apostles' Creed is so called because it is rightly considered to be a faithful summary of the apostles' faith. It is the ancient baptismal symbol of the Church of Rome. Its great authority arises from this fact: it is "the Creed of the Roman Church, the See of Peter the first of the apostles, to which he brought the common faith". [St. Ambrose, Expl. symb. 7: PL 17,1196.]
The Apostles' Creed, or Symbolum Apostolicum, is, as to its form, not the production of the apostles, as was formerly believed, but an admirable popular summary of the apostolic teaching, and in full harmony with the spirit and even the letter of the New Testament.
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).