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The history of the Church properly begins at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles. However, much of what happened after Christ's ascension into Heaven (A.D. 33) up to the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) has already been discussed in Part B of the Summary of Bible History—New Testament (based on the Acts of the Apostles)—and will not be repeated here. The Roman persecution that led to the execution of Saints Peter and Paul would be a good place to continue the story of Christianity during the first century.

Roman Persecutions in the First Century

After the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, many of the Jewish Christians became captives in Rome, but others settled in other areas of the Roman Empire. (See Map of the Roman Empire.) Meanwhile, the Romans continued to be concerned by the increasing number of Christian converts. It wasn’t because the Christians posed a threat to their political and military power, but because the ideals of Christianity were opposed to their idolatry and immorality. Thus, while the Christians were first persecuted by the Jews during the time of the Apostles, now they faced the prospect of even greater persecution by the pagan Romans.

The systematic persecution of Christians by the Romans was begun by Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68). Note that the date ranges given here and in the following paragraphs are the dates when these Roman leaders reigned as emperors, not the dates when the persecutions happened. 


In A.D. 64, Emperor Nero set the city of Rome on fire and falsely accused the Christians of starting it. Thereafter Christians were seized, cast into prison, exiled, or else put to death. It was under the reign of Emperor Nero that St. John the Evangelist was plunged into a cauldron of boiling oil but came out unhurt. (This incident was not recorded anywhere in the New Testament, but we know this from Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, Chapter 36.) After escaping death from the boiling oil, Saint John was probably also exiled around A.D. 64 to the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9), where he wrote the Book of Revelation. 

"At his [Nero's] hands he received the crown of martyrdom being nailed to the cross with his head towards the ground and his feet raised on high, asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord." - St. Jerome, De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Ch. 1.

The Crucifixion of St. Peter

A painting by Guido Reni (1575-1642)

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In A.D. 65, Emperor Nero executed Saints Peter and Paul in Rome. St. Peter was crucified upside down, and St. Paul was beheaded on the same day. The intense persecution of Christians abated when Nero died, but it continued under Emperor Domitian (A.D. 81–96). This cruel emperor targeted the Roman upper class, which converted either to Judaism or Christianity. Among those whom he persecuted was his cousin, Titus Flavius Clemens, a Roman senator. At the end of Domitian's reign (in A.D. 96), St. John the Apostle returned to Ephesus under Emperor Nerva. In A.D. 100, he died at Ephesus and was the last Apostle to die. However, other emperors continued to persecute Christians even into the second and third centuries. There were ten waves of such persecution, with periods of peace in between. See the Ten Waves of Roman Persecutions.



The Sacred Books

The world reached the end of the first century. At this time, all the books of the Bible had already been written. The last gospel was written by St. John the Evangelist in A.D. 96, and with his death, no more new revelation was expected to be given. But, although all the books of the Bible had been written, the canon of the Holy Scripture was still neither fully enunciated nor defined. Even the Fathers of the Church were still at odds as to which book that claimed to be inspired belonged to the canon. The Bible, as it is known today, with its listing of 46 books (or 45 if Lamentations is regarded as part of Jeremiah) in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament, did not yet exist. And the canon would not be enunciated for about three more centuries. Meanwhile, together with the Gospels of the evangelists and the Epistles of the Apostles, numerous apocryphal and heretical books proliferated in Palestine and the Roman Empire, all competing for recognition as sacred writing.


In retrospect, the beginning of the Church could be seen as nothing short of miraculous. For, unlike the great Alexander and the Caesars of Rome, the Apostles did not have an army, nor did they have a great education. They taught doctrines that were incredible by human criteria and a morally demanding way of life that the world hated. They encountered hostilities from Jewish leaders and Roman Emperors, and the faithful did not have a definitive Bible that they could use to direct their faith. Yet, the Church beat the odds and survived its challenges. That is because the Church is God’s work, not man’s.

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