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I read one of your articles which stated that Catholicism was the first Christian religion. I was under the impression that the Chalcedonians and Armenians both predate Catholicism and the Orthodox Church. They were apparently Jewish either by birth or conversion. Where do they fit in? I understood that the aforementioned Catholic branches did not evolve until the Great Schism in 1050, and were not actually official until Constantine's reign.

marked as duplicate by ThaddeusB, Mr. Bultitude, El'endia Starman Oct 25 '15 at 0:42

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To add to curiousdannii's excellent answer, I would like to add a few details from the perspective of the Catholic Church itself.

First of all, Constantine the Great (272-337, reigned 306-337) in 313 merely legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and granted it some favors (by granting certain privileges to the clergy, and by building some basilicas), but the universal Church had been in continuous existence since Pentecost.

The kingdom of Armenia legalized Christianity before Constantine did, in 301; indeed, it went much further, making the Church the official religion.

In Constantine’s day, virtually all Christians viewed themselves as members of the universal (“Catholic”) Church, even though the first great schism—the Arian controversy—was brewing. The term “Catholic,” which comes from the Greek expression kata holou, or “according to the whole,” was actually applied to the Church long before Constantine’s day. Already in A.D. 107, St. Ignatius of Antioch (member of the church in which the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians”) writes

Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church [ἐκεῖ ἡ καθολικὴ ἐκκλησία] (Letter to the Smyrneans, ch. 8).

Moreover, the Church that St. Ignatius knew was hierarchical and sacramental like the modern Catholic Church: it had the three clerical ranks of bishop, presbyter (“priest”), and deacon, and Ignatius records that the bishops and presbyters celebrated the Eucharist. (See Chapters 7 and 8 of the same letter, for example).

Although we have no way of knowing exactly when the church of the city of Rome was founded, the epistles of St. Paul and the Acts of the Apostles record that St. Paul knew that Church (evidently, he even wrote an entire epistle to that church), and ancient extra-biblical sources record that both he and St. Peter were martyred there.

The most important reference is probably from St. Irenaeus of Lyon, who wrote his Adversus Haereses around A.D. 190:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we … [indicate] that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul….

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric [and Irenaeus goes on to list the bishops of Rome from the beginning up to his own time] (Adv. haer. III, iii, 2).

As can be seen, Irenaeus, in order to refute his adversaries’ claims that Christianity is a human invention, goes to great pains to show that the Church comes directly from the Apostles, and he seems to think it natural to choose the Church of Rome as the best example (even though he was from Asia Minor and serving as the bishop of Lyon).

That the authority in Rome ultimately resided in Peter, not Paul, can be seen from other writings, for example the list of bishops of Rome made by the historian Eusebius of Caeserea, written in 312:

Paul testifies that Crescens was sent to Gaul, but Linus, whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21] as his companion at Rome, was Peter’s successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown. Clement also, who was appointed third bishop of the church at Rome, was, as Paul testifies, his co-laborer and fellow-soldier (Ecclesiastical History III, iv, 9-10).

Based in part on historical evidence like this, the Catholic Church claims continuity with the Church that the Apostles founded. It claims that the chief of the Apostles, St. Peter, became the first Bishop of Rome, one of the most ancient historical churches in the world (even if Christians lived in the city before he came, and even if St. Paul came to visit them before he did).

None of the later developments in doctrine and practice, the Catholic Church would say, is in contradiction with the doctrine and practice of the ancient Christians—indeed, the practice is different only in externals, and the doctrine is now better understood than it was then, but it has never fundamentally changed.

In summary, then, the Catholic Church (which comprises all the Churches in communion with the See of Peter, not just the church of Rome) would argue that it is the only Church that can claim complete historical continuity with the Church that Jesus founded; hence, in that sense, it is the “oldest” Church. (Or else, in the more technical language of the Second Vatican Council, “the one Church of Christ … subsists in the Catholic Church;” Lumen Gentium 8.)

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It looks like you're a bit muddled up with your history! Here's a quick explanation of some of the branches you mentioned, but you should also read through the Wikipedia article on Christian denominations or get a church history book if you want to know more.

A diagram from Wikipedia showing the major church branches

So the real first church must of course be the church of Jerusalem, which began on the day Jesus was resurrected (or a few weeks later at Pentecost, depending how you want to think about it.) Christianity spread widely, and within a couple of decades there were churches all around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The first church in Rome would probably have been started between 40-50 AD.

In the early church the bishops of each church/city were to a large extent autonomous, though the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome were the most prominent; these five were later called Patriarchs. There is debate over this of course, but in this period the Roman pope was at most a first-among-equals. The authority lay in the collective authority of general councils like Nicaea, Ephesus and Chalcedon. There were times when the other bishops overruled the bishop of Rome, and some were even declared heretics.

The diagram shows how the branches formed. When Nestorianism was rejected at the Council of Ephesus, the Assyrian Church of the East broke ties with the rest of Christendom. Similarly at the Council of Chalcedon, the non-Chalcedonian Miaphysites broke communion with the Chalcedonian churches, and we now call them the Oriental Orthodox. The Armenian church is one of these Oriental Orthodox churches.

What we now think of as the Roman Catholic Church developed over the almost two millennia since it started. While its character and doctrines have been developed, it is indisputably very old, but as with all the other old churches, no claims for founding dates can be verified (except Jerusalem of course.)

  • "...real first church must of course be the church of Jerusalem, which began on the day Jesus was resurrected..." I believe they still considered themselves Jewish at that point. – The Freemason Oct 20 '15 at 13:32
  • That is correct. The stages of the earliest of early Christians were 1) Jews following Jesus 2) Gentiles following Jesus through Peter & Paul 3) Council of Jerusalem following the Peter v Paul incident in Antioch 4) Paul continuing to spread the concept of Antinomianism. All of that happened before the emergence of Luke/Acts starting in AD 60. However, the two groups were still 'Jews' in the eyes of the Romans until around AD 90 under emperor Nerva's use of the 'fiscus judaicus', the post-revolt Jewish capitation tax. – Vogie Oct 22 '15 at 15:08
  • While you're both correct, I don't really see the relevance to this answer? – curiousdannii Oct 22 '15 at 15:13

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