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We are not surprised to read in the Acts of the arrival of a counter-mission in Antioch from the more conservative Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who insisted that 'you cannot be saved unless you are circumcised according to the Law of Moses'. It seemed to be the logical position to adopt, since the gospel movement regarded itself as the perfect form of the old Jewish revelation of God on earth. It had not dreamed of separating from it. What it had done was to draw into its fellowship of faith the 'God-fearing' Gentiles who were already adherents of the synagogue, and along with them other Gentiles who thus came into an analogous relationship.
It was maintained by Paul that these Gentiles, having been united with the Messiah, were Israelites now, and nothing further was necessary. What comes into view is an enlarged and transformed Judaism, whose essence consisted in recognition by faith of the Jewish Messiah; and this took the place in Paul's mind of the submission to the Law of Moses which had constituted the essence of Judaism for him prior to the Messiah's appearance. He therefore adopted the shocking policy that it would be wrong for the Gentile converts to be circumcised.
There was a political side to this argument, since Gentiles who submitted to circumcision after their baptism would have become Israelites in all respects; to use a modernism, they would have forfeited their old nationality. Paul held that in some sense they had done this by their baptism. They were seed of Abraham. He developed this idea in Ephesians.
There was no small argument, it says in Acts, with Paul and Barnabas; but we learn more about this controversy from the Epistle to the |88 Galatians which we place at this point. Many scholars place it about five years later; but if this is done, it is not possible to reconcile its evidence with that of Acts; and certain features in Galatians itself are more readily explained on the hypothesis of the earlier date.
We learn from this Epistle that an emissary of the circumcision party had arrived among the Galatian churches and had met with some success; which of course Paul may have over-estimated. He marvels that the 'foolish Galatians', as he calls them in all tenderness, have been 'bewitched' by this exponent of a more fully Jewish gospel, and have turned so soon from the gospel of pure faith by which they had received the spirit of liberty, to 'another gospel', which insisted on obedience to the Law of Moses which he regards now as a species of slavery. He weeps for their simplicity, and his love for them overflows as he writes. They are his own dear children in Christ, and once again he is in pain and labour in bringing them to birth in the gospel as he understands it. There was scope, no doubt, for a mission of this kind in Galatia. It would serve to reassure the local Jews who had been shocked by Paul's radicalism. It was admitted, apparently, that he was an apostle, but not an apostle of Jesus Christ in the highest sense; he was an envoy sent out by church authorities, and he had exceeded his instructions by dispensing his Gentile converts from obedience to the Law of Moses. He was taking the easier way, and courting popularity. Nor was he consistent. There were cases, it was hinted, in which he had himself ' preached circumcision'; the case of Titus may have been in their minds, in which a concession of some sort may have been made. They were not entirely unsuccessful. They may have planted churches of their own sort in the Phrygian cities, where Jews were numerous; for Christians of this sort appear as far west as Philadelphia in the writings of John and Ignatius; and there was no stopping them presenting their case in the Jewish synagogues after the reading of the Law and the Prophets; or even in the new Christian communities which were probably organized along synagogue lines.
On the other hand, they had done wrong in invading the apostolate of another man; for it had been agreed that Paul had been entrusted with the apostolate of the Gentile world.
Paul does not hesitate to assert his authority. The Epistle was a powerful weapon. We make a great mistake if we think of it simply as a piece of personal correspondence, or even as a literary contribution to
|89 a theological controversy. It was a powerful intervention by the apostolic founder. It laid down a firm decision that it would be a denial of the gospel, and a repudiation of the Holy Spirit, and an act of apostasy to the faith, to yield to the new propaganda and receive circumcision. It even spoke of the 'anathema', the spiritual censure of the church, with its dreaded effects upon soul and body. Its words were officially read in the churches of Galatia by the ministers who carried the Epistle; who they were, we are not told; and it was preserved in the churches and continued to be read in them as an authoritative document; otherwise we would not have it today. Paul had acted with peremptory decisiveness.
A second point which we learn from the Epistle is that the controversy in Antioch itself was so severe that Peter came down and took part in a conference, or what developed into a conference. His attitude, Paul tells us, was favourable to the Gentiles; he joined in their sacred and sacramental meals; he lived like a Gentile rather than a Jew. He admitted that Christians were ' justified' by faith in the Messiah Jesus, and not by works of the Law. All this was common ground between the two great apostles.
The harmony was disturbed by the arrival of a new delegation from Jerusalem which claimed to have the authority of James the brother of the Lord. They were men whose strict adhesion to the Law made it impossible for them to join in table-fellowship with Gentiles of any sort, even if they were baptized; but it is not necessary to infer that James himself had dictated this policy. They were in a position to bring considerable pressure to bear upon Peter, who was obviously anxious to occupy a position of mediation, and to keep in touch with both sides. If he continued to mix with the Gentile believers, he would find himself debarred from intercourse with his old Jerusalem associates. He would have defiled himself by eating and drinking with' sinners'; for this word was undoubtedly bandied about in the heat of the argument. The consequence was that he ceased to attend the Gentile gatherings. 'He began to draw back and separate himself, Paul says, adding with some bitterness that Barnabas was involved in the same hypocrisy.
These were hard words; but it was natural that Peter and Barnabas |90 should act as they did in order to establish contact with the Jerusalem Christians. After all, Peter was the apostle of the circumcision; the situation was more complex for him than it was for Paul. But it was equally natural for Paul to feel as he did about their action, and entirely in accordance with his impulsive nature to tax Peter publicly with his inconsistency, and to say that Peter was not 'walking straight' in regard to the truth of the gospel.
It is necessary to go very thoroughly into this painful episode, in order to make it clear that the inconsistency of the older apostles, if it was an inconsistency, was a matter of accommodation to circumstances rather than a matter of principle; for Paul clears Peter on that account; he regards his actions as inconsistent with the principles on which both apostles agreed. There was nothing here which could not be mended on the assumption that Peter and Paul were Christian men; but Galatians does not tell the sequel of the argument; it breaks off into further argument without finishing the story; and the simplest explanation of the failure to finish the story is that it was written when the argument was still at its height.
The Epistle to the Galatians was composed in a remarkable flow of passionate eloquence. Paul may have written it right through with his own hand, which was an unusual thing for him; at any rate he added a personal message in his own handwriting; the large handwriting which is often characteristic of men and women with indomitable character and large ideas and considerable self-confidence.
See with what large letters I write to you with my own hand. ... Those who are forcing circumcision upon you, want to make a good show in the flesh. They are doing it to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. ... But henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear in my body the scars of the Lord Jesus.
(Galatians vi. 11ff.)
He had suffered much at the hands of his own nation, and would suffer more as the hostility to him grew more intense. His readers would remember the persecutions in Little Antioch and the stones at Lystra which nearly ended his life, as he did himself years later when he was facing martyrdom in Rome. It was the unanswerable argument which demonstrated his complete sincerity. The gospel was written in his flesh and blood.
We have adopted the early date for Galatians, and have constructed our history on this basis. The question has been debated among scholars for two full generations, and agreement has not been registered; but it is a fact that, with the early date, every event falls naturally into place. Those who adopt the later date are obliged to identify Paul's visit to Jerusalem in Galatians ii with the Jerusalem council of Acts xv (which we now proceed to discuss) instead of the earlier visit of Acts xii (which Paul fails to mention on this hypothesis). It introduces confusions and difficulty at many points. The arguments which perplexed the older theologians and still go on in the schools were due in no small degree to the fact that they accepted the later date of Galatians, which was traditional in their time; yet the earlier date which we have adopted was suggested four centuries ago by John Calvin. It has many advocates today, and gives perfectly satisfactory results.
We must not leave the Epistle to the Galatians with the suggestion that its value was purely controversial. It is the first great exercise in the dialectic of the gospel as the supreme saving power, and the Spirit as a personal gift; and it is by far the greatest. Its logic is rapid and its style compressed; and yet it as clear as crystal. It may be compared with a great revolutionary manifesto. Its use of the Old Testament is not in accordance with modern critical principles; but that is a small matter; it used Rabbinic argumentation to convince Rabbinic men; and it probably drew on the treasury of 'testimonies' which was generally accepted in the church. It lays down, with the help of this allegorical exegesis, the principles of a free spiritual religion, lived by faith, and it abounds in great epigrams which have inspired heroic men and women in all ages.
I am crucified with Christ: I live no longer myself but Christ lives in me.
Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female; but all one man in Christ Jesus.
Circumcision has no value and neither has uncircumcision, but only faith which operates through love.
And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faith, humility, self-control: against these things there is no Law.
We will not go far wrong in placing the mission to Galatia in 47 and the counter-mission in 48, and there is very general agreement in placing the council or conference at Jerusalem in 49, probably at the midsummer festival of Pentecost, so that the Antioch conference may have taken place at Passover in the same year. It thus took place under the new procurator Ventidius Cumanus who was appointed in 48; he seems to have been a bad man and a bad governor, so that disturbances among the Jews increased under his rule; there were also riots in the Jewish quarter in Rome. They had to do with a certain 'Chrestus'.
Herod Agrippa II, the son of Herod Agrippa I, succeeded his uncle about this time as king of Chalcis, an unimportant principality in the Lebanon; it was no doubt a concession to the Jewish national feeling, since he was given a protectorate over the Temple in Jerusalem. He deposed the high priest Joseph ben Cami, and appointed Ananias ben Nebediah, one of the most unprincipled men who ever held that position.
We turn now to the pages of the Acts for the story of the council. Luke is still using his Antiochene source, which he edits no doubt for his purpose. It tells how Paul and Barnabas passed along the Syrian sea-coast, traversing Phoenicia and Samaria, and giving their report of the foundation of the Galatian churches. When they reached Jerusalem, this report was presented to the 'apostles and elders'. The Pharisee party in the church responded to it by urging their contention that the Gentile converts should be circumcised and instructed to observe the Law of Moses; and there was an assembly of apostles and elders 'to see about the matter'. This body is sometimes regarded as a formal council of the Jerusalem church, which had been formed on the model of the Jewish sanhedrin, with James the brother of the Lord as its president; and such a development had no doubt taken place; but it is also possible that widely representative conferences were held at Pentecost or other festivals, when pilgrims came up to Jerusalem.
We are now told that Peter was present, an interesting point, as this is the last time that he is mentioned in Acts. He made a short speech in which he pointed out that he had initiated the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles by the baptism of Cornelius in Caesarea; he asserted the |93 equal status of Gentiles and Jews under the gospel, guaranteed as it was by their equal reception of the Holy Spirit; 'Why, then, should we lay a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear?'
It was a strong speech, and it seems to be entirely in accord with what we know of the position of Peter, both from Acts and from Galatians; but it does not appear to be very much more than a summary of his position. Luke has already related in some detail the events at Caesarea to which he referred, and does not need to repeat them now; but it is likely that Peter related the story in full; for Barnabas and Paul had related the story of the foundation of their churches in Galatia. We see now why Luke has given such a detailed account of both missionary journeys; they were required as an introduction to the story of the council; they were indeed the material on which the council was asked to make up its mind. The apostles rested their case, so far as we can see, not on general theological reasoning, but on the record of actual work which God had done through their labours; for their actions had been sealed by the approval of the Holy Spirit. Yet there was a 'theological' principle on which they both agreed, the complete sufficiency of faith in the Messiah as a saving power; but this was a pragmatic fact of the apostolic mission.
Conversely, the story of the council enables us to see why these reports of missionary journeys were composed, written down and preserved.
We are on controversial ground in a double sense at this point, for the radical wing in modern criticism is more than dubious about the historicity of Luke's reconstruction of the story of the council. They doubt whether Peter and Paul were so closely in accord; they doubt whether the council was so harmonious as appears; they even doubt whether there was a council at all; or they turn to Galatians ii for the true picture of it. These views are not unconnected with modern theological controversies; they require a drastic criticism of the evidence; and they have little respect for the historical ability of the author of Acts or the intelligence of his readers. It is regrettable, perhaps, that it is not possible to survey the literature on the subject in detail; all that seems possible is to adopt a moderate position which does |94 justice to the evidence, the trustworthiness of which there is no real reason to doubt.
The story of the council appears in a source or series of sources, which begins as early as chapter xii, and is connected with Antioch; and this is natural, since Antioch was vitally concerned in its outcome. But it is quite possible that the author of Acts took a good deal of trouble in writing up the council and reconstructing it from various accounts which he had received. In particular he may have composed the 'speeches'.
It does not seem possible or necessary to accept the speeches in Acts as verbatim records of what was said by the speaker on the occasion, though this may come near to being the truth in some instances. On the other hand, no reason has appeared for regarding them as free compositions after the manner of Thucydides and other Greek historians: speeches, that is, which were never actually delivered. One can test this very simply by reading the numerous speeches in Josephus which were produced in this way, to be put into the mouth of some ancient person of Old Testament times or even some contemporary person of note such as the Emperor Titus or King Herod Agrippa II. They are all alike, all written in one style, all products of the workshop of Josephus. He makes no attempt to vary their style or to fit them to the character of the person speaking. This does not mean, of course, that they do not contain sentiments appropriate to the speaker, or even matter which he did include in a speech on the occasion under consideration; but this is not always so; the speeches are often quite unreal.
When we turn to the speeches in Acts, if we may so call them, it becomes clear at once that the precedent of Thucydides may be forgotten. Their style, their matter, and their personal character, vary from one to another. The kerugmata of Peter, for instance (if we may use this plural form), contain material of an Aramaic character, which shows some signs of poetic diction, and possibly of rhythm. The defence of Stephen consists for the most part of theological argument of a connected character. The word of exhortation given by Paul at Little Antioch consists of rather conventional kerugma, which reminds us sometimes of Peter and sometimes of Stephen; though it lacks the poetic diction of the former, and the forceful argumentation of the latter. His appeal at Lystra is of quite another type.
|95 It seems natural to suppose that the author of Acts (or the composer of his sources) was making a sincere effort to give the matter or substance of what Peter or Paul or Stephen had to say on the occasion. He thought he had a good idea of what it was, but preferred to express it, as the ancients commonly did, in direct speech, that is to say in the form of an address delivered in the first person. If this impression is correct, there are two factors to be considered; one is the excellence of the sources or other information at the author's disposal, and the other is his skill and judgement in working them up so as to fall into line with the course of his narrative.
The question then arises, can they be used with confidence by the modern historian in constructing a historical record? And the answer will depend on the degree of confidence which he has in the dependability of Luke as a historian. This dependability may be checked in three ways. The first is by comparing his narrative, where this can be done, with the course of events as it may be inferred from the Epistles of Paul; a comparison which gives us the high degree of historical certainty which arises from the cross-fire of two independent witnesses who sometimes disagree with one another on matters of detail or judgement. We have already made use of this double witness to give stability to our reconstruction of the story in one or two instances, and have found that it coheres very well in spite of the minor divergences which always appear in the evidence of honest independent witnesses. We have indicated, however, that there is an alternative arrangement of the evidence which does not cohere so well.
The second is the testing of his accuracy with regard to local background in the light of the evidence which has been derived from other ancient authors, archaeology, and kindred researches; and the Acts has passed through this trial so triumphantly, especially in the light of modern discoveries due to excavation, that it stands high today as a historical work, even though it is not written in the manner of the incomparable Thucydides.
The author of Acts can make mistakes, no doubt, on small matters of fact. He may be at fault, for instance, in the chronology of events in Jewish history prior to his own generation. He can over-emphasize one clement in a situation or under-emphasize another. There are gaps in his information which he does not know how to fill. But the fact remains that he took the trouble to find good sources of information, |96 that he judged and arranged them well, and that his own personality appears in the telling as that of an observer with a balanced mind and a just appreciation of the human factor. Has any other book of the same size handled so successfully so many different scenes and characters?
There is a third way, actually, in which his fidelity may be tested, and that is his reproduction of passages from Mark in his Gospel. These stories are re-told; the Marcan style and manner has disappeared; but they are faithfully reproduced.
This disquisition is necessary in passing from the speech attributed to Peter to the speech attributed to James; but the name of James raises further questions. Why is it that Acts has so little to say about this important man whose stature we must now recognize? We know from the writings of Paul that he was the brother of the Lord and had seen him after his resurrection; why does Luke fail to mention either of these points, either in his Gospel or in the Acts? or tell by what steps he became the bishop of the Jerusalem church? And why does he now bring him into sudden prominence without any adequate preparation? His position as a pillar of the church (we use the language of St Paul) seems to be taken for granted as if every one would know it; just as it seems to be in the epistle which goes out under his name but without any identifying title. The mere name of James is all that is given in either document. It is the other James (or Jameses) who require some identifying epithet.
The brother of Jesus was not one of the Twelve; he had not followed Jesus in the Galilean days; but he could not fail to have a commanding position in the church, once his standing in the evangelical tradition was secure. He left behind him in the Jewish church an effective memory which was quite equal to that of Paul or Peter or John. The Jewish Christians looked back to him as their patron saint, superior possibly to Peter himself. His figure assumed legendary proportions, and he was honoured as a paragon of the ascetic life after the style of John the Baptist. This tradition was preserved by Hegesippus, who received the Jewish-Christian traditions early in the second century. He said that James had been given the title of 'the Righteous' or 'the Just', from the times of the Lord. |97
Holy was he from the womb of his mother,
Wine and strong drink he drank not,
Nor ate animate food.
The razor went not up upon his head;
With oil he anointed not nor used the bath-house.
For him alone it was lawful to enter the holy places:
Nor did he wear wool but linens;
And he entered alone into the sanctuary,
And was found kneeling upon his knees,
And asking forgiveness for the sins of his people,
Till his knees were hardened like the knees of a camel.
(Hegesippus, Note-books: in Eusebius, E.H. II. 23, 5-7.)
He was a Nazirite, therefore, and his title of the Just, or the Righteous, was not given him on account of any devotion to Pharisee legalism, but because he was a holy man and ascetic; and so he was known, says Hegesippus, even in the lifetime of Jesus. The tradition has acquired a legendary character; it cannot be taken literally, since no one but the high priest could go into the actual sanctuary; but it preserves a mode of thought about James and his position in the church in which he was compared to the high priest.
He had another claim, however, upon the devotion of the Jewish people, which was of a more substantial character; he was a successor with Jesus of the royal line of David. Jewish Christianity boasted two lines of succession from Jesus; one was the royal succession in the family of David, the other was the apostolic succession from Peter and the Twelve. There has been considerable discussion in modern times on the question of who 'presided' in the council of Jerusalem; but actually the text of Acts does not answer this question. Both successions were represented by their chiefs. Peter, for his tradition, laid down the principle that Gentile converts should not be obliged to keep the Law; James, for his tradition, assented to this principle, but added n 'judgement' or decision or suggestion as to the terms on which intercommunion would be possible between the divergent parties. The council as a whole accepted their views.
The speech which Luke puts into the mouth of James is exceedingly interesting, even if it only represents his own summary of what the position of James was. It is the point on which the whole structure of the Acts turns.
The descent of Jesus from David was an element in his claim to be the Messiah which was not emphasized at all in Galilee so far as we know; but it was the popular cry in Jerusalem. It was an important point in the kerugmata of Peter, in which he quotes verses from the Psalms of David which appear to have some reference to the death and resurrection of the Messiah or anointed king. It passed into the general tradition of the church, and was included in the sermon which Paul preached in the synagogue at Little Antioch; and a report of this mission had just been presented to the council. It is not surprising, therefore, that James takes it up. He quotes an oracle from the prophet Amos which declares that the rallying-point for the 'residue of mankind' will be the 'tabernacle of David', which had fallen down but was to be restored and rebuilt, so that the Gentiles might resort to it; and this suggests that the Gentiles ought to find their way to the God of Israel, not merely by turning to the Messiah Jesus, but by turning to the tradition of the royal line of David, which James also represented. Now Jerusalem was in some sense the mother-church;it was the primary centre of the apostolic mission to all Christians everywhere; it had a claim upon the loyalty of the Gentile churches which Paul himself recognized by periodical pilgrimages with offerings. The speech was very apt to the character of the speaker and the circumstances under which he spoke.
The quotation from Amos is given according to the Septuagint version, and James may have used this well-known Greek translation at this mixed gathering, or else some Hebrew text on which it was based; but it is quite possible that Luke has substituted the accepted translation in writing up his Greek narrative. The Hebrew text in the surviving manuscripts says that the house of David will ' possess the remnant of Edom, and all the nations on whom the Lord s name is called'. If this is what James said, it is even more apposite, since the Jews commonly used the name of Edom to refer to Rome.
|99 The 'judgement' of James was not to lay unnecessary burdens upon the Gentiles who were turning to God, but to be content with directing them to abstain from the abomination of idols and from fornication and from blood; we shall discuss this recommendation later; at present we turn our attention to the interesting remark with which the speech closes, to the effect that Moses, 'from of old has his preachers in every city in the synagogues, being read every sabbath'.
This looks like another echo from the report of the preaching at Little Antioch, which speaks twice of the reading of the prophets on the Sabbath in the synagogue. James disclaims for Christian evangelists the duty of preaching the Law of Moses, since ample provision has been made for that throughout the world; but we can hardly avoid making the inference that, in his opinion, the Gentile believers would hear it preached by qualified persons. It may even have been his hope that they would accept it. Certainly the diehard Pharisee Christians, who wanted all the Gentile converts to be circumcised, would have derived very little comfort from his argument unless such an idea could be read into it.
It would seem that as James looked out upon the Jewish and Christian dispersion, he saw the Gentile converts listening to the Law of Moses on the Sabbath in the synagogue. Either they were attending the orthodox Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath, which hardly seems likely; or their own places of assembly were called synagogues, and the Law was read there; or he may make no clear distinction. The Gentile fringe of the synagogues of the dispersion (Christian or otherwise) may not have been thought of by him as a distinct group. They might approximate in his mind to the 'god-fearers' who formed a fringe to the old orthodox Judaism; though, indeed, separate Gentile churches had now been formed.
Modern controversy and discussion have been so much occupied with the true text and true interpretation of the clauses about idolatry, fornication, and blood, that it is hard for those who have followed them closely to realize that they were not the most important work of the council. The most important work of the council was the settlement of the circumcision question. The Epistle which it issued makes this quite clear, and here we have definite documentary evidence, unless indeed |100 we are to suppose that it was composed by the author of Acts: a very arbitrary proceeding.
(1) It was sent out under the authority of the apostles and elders, and expressed their full confidence in the devoted work of Barnabas and Paul.
(2) It was addressed to the brethren in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, the churches of Cyprus and Galatia not being mentioned. We may suppose that it would be for the Antiochene church to communicate with them, as indeed it proceeded to do.
(3) It repudiated the Jewish-Christian counter-mission; and this was a victory of great magnitude for Paul and his party.
(4) It associated with Barnabas and Paul two leading men of the Jerusalem church, Judas and Silas, who were to carry the letter, and support it by their personal testimony. These men were prophets, a fact which shows that the prophetic movement in the Jerusalem church, as we would expect, supported the policy of a free Gentile Christianity.
(5) It left the Gentile believers free from any obligation to the Law of Moses, except for three necessary points: the abstinence from things offered to idols, from fornication, from things strangled and from blood; 'If you keep yourselves from these,' the Epistle concludes, 'you will do well. Farewell.'
This letter was read to the church at Antioch, and there were great rejoicings, in which we recognize the end of a controversy, and also the end of a source which Luke has been using, the Antiochene source which began with apostles and prophets going down from Jerusalem to Antioch, and ends with apostles and prophets going down from Jerusalem to Antioch.
However artificial we may consider Luke's reconstruction of the council to be, we must recognize two points about it. The first is that it is the climax of the first half of the Acts, and is presented as an event of great historical importance. The second is that it satisfactorily accounts for the form which historical Christianity actually took.
The Christian churches in the Gentile world inherited from their founders a tradition which cannot be explained simply as the work of St Paul, though he was the pioneer apostle and herald of the gospel as |101 it made its way westward. It may be described perhaps as a Petro-Pauline synthesis, and so it appears in the very earliest records, in Syria, in Asia Minor, and in Rome. But this Petro-Pauline synthesis is always found operating within a historical and liturgical tradition of a Jewish character with which the apostolic gospel is fully integrated. The Gentile churches resemble Jewish synagogues which have been transformed by the action of the gospel and the Spirit and the apostolate. Their structure and worship is a form of Hebrew structure and worship; their Bible is the Hebrew Bible; their theology is a Hebrew theology; their ancestors are the Hebrew patriarchs; they are the true descendants of the ancient Israel. There is no sign of any argument or difficulty or protest about this matter until we come to the heresiarchs of the second century.
The substance of Christian worship and piety and catechism and church order was Jewish. The old-fashioned Jewish piety flowed right on into Christianity without a break. It was the main current of the succession which carried along with it all the other successions, and formed the medium in which the gospel displayed its creative power. It was the historical basis of the existence of Christianity in the world. How astonishing, therefore, is the complementary fact that the Law of Moses was not binding in these Gentile churches.... There is no argument about this either. At some period early in the first century, in the height of the apostolic period itself, a universal agreement had been come to that the Law of Moses had ceased to be effective. It had receded into the past, so far as the Gentile Christian churches were concerned.
We have suggested two formulas which may help us to understand the genesis of what came to be called the catholic church. One is the Petro-Pauline synthesis,the other is the Judaeo-Christian tradition; both hyphenated phrases implying solidarity, not co-existence. There is a third formula which helps to unify them; it is the Jewish diaspora, a word which includes all the synagogues of the Hellenistic world, with their fringe of devout Gentile adherents who were moving on in theory towards full acceptance of the Law. There was established in the Roman empire long before the arrival of the gospel, a Hellenistic Judaism in which a genuine Jewish piety was cultivated, in close |102 relation with the synagogue order but without the legalities of the Mosaic revelation; it accepted all that mass of liturgy, Bible, catechism, prophecy, apocalypse, and so forth, which passed on without a break into the Christian church; but it stopped short at circumcision, the Sabbath, laws of clean and unclean, and so forth. It was Jewish, but not nationally Jewish or legally Jewish. The apostolic gospel united itself with this kind of Judaism in the Gentile mission, and the apostolic Christianity of the Roman world naturally followed this form.
This is not to say that the Law of Moses left no mark or inheritance in the church. Far from it. It was a revelation of the will of God for the Israelites in the desert who received it, and for the Jewish nation itself; and many of the principles to which it gave symbolic form were regarded as being more perfectly exemplified in the Christian mysteries; a process which we can see at work five years after the council, in St Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians. Nevertheless, wherever Gentile and Jewish Christians came into social or sacramental contact, as they did in Antioch, it was necessary for the Gentile Christians to accept a certain quantity of the Levitical discipline in order to remove difficulties in the way of intercommunion, and so avoid a schism in the ranks of the believers.
James the Just had suggested that they should be asked to abstain from the sources of defilement connected with idolatry, from fornication, [from things strangled] and from blood. These conditions were incorporated into the conciliar epistle, and laid down as 'necessary'.
The precise meaning of this formula will probably never be discovered, and may not have been clear at the time. The council may have grasped at it when it was proposed without pausing to define it clearly; local authorities would have to work out its implications in view of local conditions.
It is possible that similar requirements had already been laid down in the synagogues of the diaspora for the devout Gentile adherents; for they could hardly have been attached to the synagogue without accepting some minimum obligations of this sort; less stringent of course in the Gentile world than they would be in Palestine. Here, too, without serious doubt, the Christian mission could make use of a Jewish |103 tradition which already existed, the tradition which is sometimes called catechism.
The general reader today is rather at a disadvantage in not knowing the extent to which the worship of pagan deities was mixed up with sexual licence of the most shocking kind. In the world-famed groves of Daphne, for instance, at Antioch, the rites of Apollo were celebrated as a matter of religion with every circumstance of beauty, luxury and licence. The festivals of the gods were occasions for banquets which were marked by drunkenness, obscenity and immorality. It was perfectly obvious that' things offered to idols and fornication' had to be renounced, to use a word which found its way into the later baptismal rites; but the renunciation of 'blood' is a more difficult matter.
This renunciation seems to refer to certain rules which were imposed upon the Israelites in the seventeenth chapter of Leviticus, which is part of a section of that book which is known as the ' Law of Holiness'. This portion of the book deals with the prohibition of blood, the rite of immersion in water by which defilement is cleansed, and various forms of prohibited sexual intercourse. This rite of immersion (' tebi-lah') seems to be the Jewish antecedent of Christian baptism, and it is followed by a general exhortation on the subject of religious duties in the nineteenth chapter which has left a distinct mark on the Christian catechetical documents; it contains the famous command to love one's neighbour as oneself. It would seem very probable that James had this whole section of Leviticus in mind; and it is a curious fact that the passage from Amos which he quoted in his speech is set in the Hebrew lectionary as the appropriate 'haftarah' or prophetic lection to be read after it. Hebrew scholars do not think that the system of prophetic lections was fixed as early as this; but nobody knows how old such associations may be.
According to the 'Law of Holiness', the blood was to be drained from the carcass after the animal was killed, and poured out on the ground as an offering to the Lord; it was the life of the creature and belonged to the Lord. Meat killed in this way is called kosher, and it is the only kind that devout Jews will touch. If the Gentile believer would abstain from meat which had the blood in it, and from meat which had been killed for a pagan sacrifice, many of the difficulties which were felt by pious Jews in mixing with them would automatically disappear.
|104 The addition of the words 'and from things strangled', which appear in some manuscripts, would seem to be intended to clarify the text of the decree by interpreting it in this way; but it is not likely that they are
An alternative explanation of the shorter text has been proposed by some modern scholars. It is suggested that the word 'blood' means murder, and if so we have a reference to the three major sins of idolatry, fornication, and murder. This cannot be said to be a natural interpretation, but it has its attractions, since Jewish moral theology did often speak of this triad of deadly sins which defile the land and cause the glory to depart. If we could accept this view, there would be no reference to Jewish ritual at all, but only to what could be regarded as the fundamental moral and spiritual law. It seems practically certain, however, that the formula belongs to the category of ecclesiastical order, and was designed to ease the situation at Antioch and elsewhere, where there was real difficulty over the question of relations between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Understood in this way, the formula offered terms of intercommunion which would make it possible to grant the Gentile converts the freedom from the Law of Moses as a whole, which is what Paul was fighting for. It would hardly be possible for him to refuse so reasonable a condition. He could accept it for the sake of peace in mixed communities like that at Antioch, though not of course as an essential part of the gospel; nor are we surprised if it does not appear in the fully Gentile communities which grew up farther west. Syrian Christianity had a form and character of its own which was distinct from that of Asia Minor or Greece.
It is agreed that this formula was put forth from Jerusalem at some time, and did make its way into various parts of the church. It must have been so accepted, for instance, in the communities for which the Acts was written. It is alluded to in the Revelation, and it appears that there were Christians as far away as Gaul and Africa and Alexandria who were still abstaining from meat with the blood in it, late in the second century. The variations in the text of the Acts seem to show that it was not interpreted everywhere in the same way, however.
There was another way by which the difficulty could be evaded, and that was by not eating flesh meat at all; and this was already the practice among ascetic sects among the Jews. It was the practice of John |105 the Baptist, and of James the Just according to the tradition quoted from Hegesippus. We learn from the Epistle to the Romans that there were Christians in Rome who adhered to this rule of abstinence, and Paul himself once swore that he would never eat flesh meat again if that would save a brother from taking offence. It was part of that strong vein of asceticism which appears in some of the Jewish and Jewish-Christian sects; but it receives no encouragement in the gospels. Jesus had differed from John the Baptist on the subject of asceticism. The whole subject is obviously much more complicated than we can gather from the notices in the existing documents.
The formula as a whole helped to fix the character of historic Christianity. The Gentile Christians were to repudiate their old way of life; they were to break with the cult of idols and with the sexual excesses which they had thought of as natural and normal; there come into sight those great denials of the world and the flesh which run through the epistolary literature, the catechisms, the baptismal rites, and even the martyr's witness: the whole conflict with a pagan society. Only the reference to kosher food seems strange and unreal to the modern Christian; it is an archaic touch. Paul did not carry it with him into the life of his new churches. He left it behind.
We are unable to say how long these tempests continued to agitate the church, how soon they subsided, or to what extent they subsided, or in what localities they continued to rage. We may be sure that complete calm was not established all at once even by an apostolic concordat, which was capable apparently of more than one interpretation; a concordat which only concerned Antioch and Syria and Cilicia according to the terms of the epistle.
The author of Acts has placed all his Antiochene material in chapters xii-xv and he has nothing to tell us about Syrian Christianity except what he gives there. It contains two accounts of visits to Jerusalem by Barnabas and Paul, in both of which the name of James the Just appears. There is a great deal of coming and going. Numerous high-ranking visitors from Jerusalem descend upon the Antiochenes, and Antioch is obviously much indebted to Jerusalem. There is a sharp controversy which divides the church in both cities; but it is not |106 a controversy between Jerusalem and Antioch; it reaches an acute stage in Antioch, and it is settled in Jerusalem.
In the Epistle to the Galatians we have a few vivid pictures of the same controversy taken from a particular point of view. We have the same phenomena; a visit by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem; the stream of visitors from Jerusalem to Antioch; the strong position of James; and the acute controversy. But it breaks off here. We are left with the two great apostles confronting one another; and if we accept the later date for Galatians, the controversy was not settled at the Jerusalem council, for the argument between Peter and Paul at Antioch broke out after it; and it was as much as five years later still that the circumcision party descended upon Galatia, and provoked Paul's great epistle. In this case the story in the Acts has been very highly idealized indeed; it has even been distorted, and it took much longer for the apostolic consolidation to be effected. Indeed, it is thought by a few that it never was effected.
The consolidation in question is a fact of history, however. Controversy of various kinds continued, but not the controversy about the circumcision of the Gentiles. It was possible for Jewish 'apostles', only five years later, to invade Paul's Corinthian church and attack his theology and belittle his standing as an apostle; it was possible for parties in that church to invoke the authority of Peter against the authority of Paul; but it is significant that they did not argue that Gentile Christians should be circumcised and keep the Law. Jewish Christian teachers continued to invade Paul's territory, and promote their peculiar views, but this kind of propaganda is not heard of again. The question had been settled, somehow or other.
We know no more about the movements of Peter except that he reached Rome at last and died there as a martyr. The so-called tradition that he visited the imperial city as early as the forties is exceedingly late and has no claims to serious consideration.
Vacant periods can be found, of course, when he could have done so. There are the years between his escape from prison in 44 and his appearance at the council in Jerusalem in 49, for instance; but if Peter preached the Gospel in Rome at this time, it seems impossible to explain |107 why the story is omitted from the Acts, and why the Acts is constructed as it is.
It seems certain, however, that the gospel had reached Rome by this time in some shape or form. There were riots in the Jewish quarter which roused the anger of the Emperor Claudius, who banished the Jews from Rome, as Luke and Suetonius and Dion Cassius all report. Orosius, in the fifth century, gives the date of this edict as the ninth year of Claudius, which is 49, the year of the council. Suetonius, who is the earliest non-Christian writer to mention it, gives the name of the leader of these riots as Chrestus; and it looks very much as if he has made an error. The gospel may have reached the Jewish synagogues with its usual results. The Romans may have heard the name of Christus or Chrestus bandied about and taken it to be the name of the person who was stirring up the trouble. The two names were pronounced in much the same way.
There must, of course, have been individual Christians in Rome, but we shall be wise to accept the general picture which we receive from the Acts, which is that the official apostolic mission and the formation of recognized churches had not proceeded so far or so fast. At any rate the only line of expansion which the writer follows in the remaining ten years of his narrative is the Pauline progress through Asia and into Greece and back to Asia again, of which he had his own first-hand knowledge.
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