The Apostolic Age is traditionally the period of the Twelve Apostles, from the Crucifixion of Jesus (c. 26-36) and the Great Commission until the death of John the Apostle (c. 110), considered the last of the twelve to die. Since it is believed John lived so long, there is some overlap with the age of the Apostolic Fathers, the first Church Fathers. It holds special significance in Christian tradition as the age of the direct followers of Jesus Christ. The followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic Jewish sect during the late Second Temple period of the 1st century. Some groups that followed Jesus were strictly Jewish, such as the Ebionites, as were the church leaders in Jerusalem, collectively called Jewish Christians. During this period, they were led by James the Just. Paul of Tarsus, however, had better success proselytizing among the Gentiles, and persuaded the leaders of the Jerusalem Church to allow Gentile converts exemption from most Jewish law. Jews who did not convert to Christianity and the growing Christian community gradually became more hostile toward each other, see also List of events in early Christianity. After the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70, Jerusalem ceased to be the center of the Christian church and of Jewish religious life. Christianity established itself as a predominantly Gentile religion that spanned the Roman Empire and beyond.
The unique character of the New Testament writings, and their period of origin, is highlighted by the paucity of the literary form in later writing. Once the canon of the New Testament was determined, the style ceased to be used on a regular basis. Noncanonical writings persisted, but died out within a historically short period of time. Early patristic literature is dominated by apologetics and makes use of other literary forms borrowed from non-Christian sources.
The relatives of Jesus lived in Nazareth since the first century. Some of them were prominent early Christians. Among those named in the New Testament are his mother and four of his brothers: James, Simeon, Joseph and Jude. According to the Gospels, some of the family were opposed to the mission and religion of Jesus. The relatives of Jesus were accorded a special position within the early church, as displayed by the leadership of James in Jerusalem.
According to 19th century German theologian F. C. Baur early Christianity was dominated by the conflict between Peter who was law observant and Paul who advocated freedom from the law. Later findings contradicted this theory. The allegedly continuous conflict was not supported by the available evidence. However, theological conflict between Paul and Peter is recorded in the New Testament and was widely discussed in the early church. Marcion and his followers stated that the polemic against false apostles in Galatians was aimed at Peter, James and John, the "Pillars of the Church", as well as the "false" gospels circulating through the churches at the time. Irenaeus and Tertullian argued against Marcionism's elevation of Paul and stated that Peter and Paul were equals among the apostles. Passages from Galatians were used to show that Paul respected Peter's office and acknowledged a shared faith.
Scholar James D. G. Dunn has proposed that Peter was the "bridge-man" between the two other prominent leaders: Paul and James the Just. Paul and James were both heavily identified with their own "brands" of Christianity. Peter showed a desire to hold onto his Jewish identity, in contrast with Paul. He simultaneously showed a flexibility towards the desires of the broader Christian community, in contrast to James. (This balance is illustrated in the Antioch episode related in .) Thus, Peter became a unifying force in the church.
The religious climate of first century Judea was quite diverse with numerous variations of Judaic doctrine, many attempts to establish an ideal holy community and divergent ideas about Israel's future hopes. Modern scholars place normative Rabbinic Judaism after the time of Jesus. The Pharisees did not have the overwhelming influence in first century Judea traditionally attributed to them. The ancient historian Josephus noted four prominent groups in the Judaism of the time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. Jesus dealt with a variety of sects, most prominently discussing the Law with Pharisees and debating about bodily resurrection with the Sadducees. Jesus also directly associated with John the Baptist, who is often associated with the Essenes.
Some scholars, such as Carsten Peter Thiede, dispute this presentation. Early Christian leaders did not have to visit Qumran to have heard of Essene beliefs and read their texts. The various Jewish groups, including Christians and Essenes, were interconnected and simultaneously adopted some practices and beliefs while rejecting others. While some similarities exist, there are many differences and similar parallels can be also drawn between the early Christians and Pharisees, and other Jewish sects. Many features of Christian faith have no parallels in the texts from Qumran, and some that do are fundamentally distinct from Essene practices and beliefs. Notably, John's act of penitent baptism bears little resemblance to the daily baptismal ritual of the Essenes.
The Roman centurion Cornelius is traditionally considered the first Gentile convert. His conversion, as documented in , carries great significance. Cornelius was referenced by both Peter and James in arguing for the inclusion of Gentiles in the Council of Jerusalem. His conversion is broadly considered to have been the beginning of a broader mission to the Gentiles, who would come to eclipse the Jews among Christians.
The story of Cornelius' conversion is thematically connected with, and parallels, the conversion stories of the Samaritans, Paul of Tarsus and an Ethiopian eunuch in Luke-Acts. The Ethiopian was an outsider and castrated, whose presence in worship assembly would have been prohibited under the Mosaic law (). This is consistent with the message of Luke, advocating a "universal" faith and mission. Ethiopia was considered in antiquity to be the southernmost end of the world. Thus, the Ethiopian's conversion can also be interpreted as a partial fulfillment of the mission presented in to bring the Gospel to the "ends of the earth". Some scholars assert that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first Gentile convert, stating that those resisting this conclusion are doing so to preserve the traditional interpretation of Cornelius as the first convert. Regardless of the primacy of either convert, this episode relates Luke's view of how (through Phillip) the Gospel reached the "ends of the earth" and the mission to the Gentiles was initiated.
Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. Alister McGrath stated that many of the Jewish Christians were fully faithful religious Jews, only differing in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. As such, they believed that circumcision and other requirements of the Mosaic law were required for salvation. The increasing number of Gentile converts came under pressure from Jewish Christians to be circumcised in accordance with Abrahamic tradition. The issue was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem where Saint Paul made an argument that circumcision was not a necessary practice, vocally supported by Peter, as documented in . This position received widespread support and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch.
While the issue was theoretically resolved, it continued to be a recurring issue among Christians. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. There was a burgeoning movement of Judaizers in the area that advocated adherence to traditional Mosaic laws, including circumcision. According to McGrath, Paul identified James the Just as the motivating force behind the movement. Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith and addressed the issue with great detail in .