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§ III. Foundation of the Church of Antioch, and Conversion of the Centurion Cornelius.
The dispersion of the Christians not only carried the Gospel into Samaria, but into the surrounding countries. Its seeds were scattered in many cities. Damascus, so important both from its geographical position and from its history, contained within its walls a strong Jewish colony. It is not surprising that Christianity should have there early gathered a large number of adherents, and that its progress should have alarmed the Sanhedrim. Acts ix, 2. The new religion had also disciples at Lydda and Joppa, maritime towns of Phœnicia. Acts ix, 35, 36. Some unknown Christians had even carried it into the Isle of Cyprus, so famous for its worship of Venus; they had thus planted the religion of holiness in one of the most infamous hot-beds of pagan corruption. Acts xi, 19. But in all these different places the new faith had been cradled in the synagogue. It had not yet come into direct contact with the pagan world; its first step in this direction was taken at Samaria, the second was at Antioch. The foundation of the Church of that city is a leading event, the consequences of which to the early Church were incalculable. Antioch, the ancient residence of the Kings of Syria, built on the banks of the river Orontes, in a fertile plain, had become one of the capitals of pagan civilization, one of the great centers where East and West mingled their brilliant and refined culture. The beauty of its buildings, its large population, its wide commerce, its artistic advancement and its wealth, made it, according to Josephus, the third city in the empire.5858Josephus, "Bell. Judaic," Book III, c. xxiv. It was, on the testimony of Cicero, a city where men of cultivation abounded and where the liberal arts flourished.5959"Celeber quondam urbs et copiosa, atque eruditissimis hominibus liberalissimisque studiis affluens." Cicero "Pro. Arch. Poeta," c. iii. The Jews had there, as in all other places, founded a colony, but the Christian mission did not confine itself within the bounds of the synagogue. It was undertaken by some of those Hellenist Jews who had been converted on the day of Pentecost. The Gospel was preached at Antioch by disciples from Cyprus and from Cyrene, (Acts xi, 19, 20; comp. Acts ii, 10,) who belonged to the most liberal section of the Church at Jerusalem, and who had probably been especially attached to Stephen. The direct inheritors of the great thought which had animated the proto-martyr, they perceived, as he had done, that the new covenant rested upon a wider basis than the old. Thus they went at once to the heathen. "They spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus." Acts xi, 20. These were soon converted in large numbers, and the first Church outside of Judaism was founded. Thus the world's gates were opened to the Christian mission—those gates which, until then, Jewish prejudice had kept closed. From this day the new religion takes its true position; it invites Hellenism as freely as Judaism, the West no less than the East, and it rises for the first time to the comprehension of those words of the Master, "The field is the world." On the other hand, the foundation of the Church at Antioch foreshadows the transformation, or rather the development, of the primitive apostolate. It was founded without the assistance of the twelve Apostles. The opinion that Peter was the first Bishop of Antioch has no foundation,6060The tradition which attributes to Peter the foundation and government of the Church at Antioch is of very ancient date. Eusebius records it, ("H. E.," ii, 36,) and St. Jerome also ("De viris illustribus, 1;) and Origen confirmed it in these words: "Ignatium dico episcopum Antiochiæ post Petrum secundum." ("In Luc.," Homily I, vol. iii.) The "Liber Pontificalis" only copies the "Fathers," as does Baronius, ("Annals," i, 245,) and with him all the Catholic writers, (Lenain de Tillemont, "Mémoires," i, p. I67.) But the silence of the writer of the Acts invalidates all these witnesses. We shall show presently that the episcopate did not exist at this period. The origin of the legend is easily explicable. Episcopal notions soon necessitated the retrospective regularization of the Church at Antioch. From a hierarchical point of view it was impossible to adhere to the narrative in the Acts, which attributed the foundation of that Church to mere Evangelists. It was known that Peter had at the same period traveled into the neighboring countries. What more natural than to make him the first Bishop of Antioch? and must be ascribed to episcopal preconceptions. According to St. Luke, the Church at Antioch owed its origin to the Hellenist Jews of Cyprus and Cyrene; the Church at Jerusalem did not send an Apostle to it, but a simple Evangelist, Barnabas. God designed thus to show that the apostolate of the twelve was not the only and necessary channel of his grace, but that Christian activity, putting forth its strength and evidencing its lawfulness by great and splendid results, received in those very results divine sanction. This new apostolate is conferred directly by the Holy Spirit, and is independent ofany special institution. Stephen had already been invested with it; St. Paul was soon to unite in one person all its gifts, and to claim all its privileges; the Church was destined to see it perpetuated from age to age, less richly endowed, but still powerful to reform and to renew.6161See Baumgarten, "Die Apost. Kirche von Jerusalem bis Rom.," i, p. 257.
The Church of Antioch was early distinguished for the abundance of its extraordinary gifts. It had numerous prophets. The new religion, released from the restraints of Judaism, there expanded in all its freedom and beauty. At Antioch it first became known by its true name. This was doubtless given it by the multitude, who witnessed its development and progress. The name Christian showed the dawning comprehension that the Church was not simply a Jewish sect. No one at Jerusalem, seeing the disciples in the temple, had thought of seeking for them a new name. This new name revealed the greatness of the revolution just wrought. It is important to observe that the earliest Church called out of the midst of paganism was the first to bear it. It was also from Antioch, as we shall see, that Paul set forth on his missionary journeys. Antioch was, in a manner, the Jerusalem of the Gentile world.
At this very time the Apostle Peter was led, by a miraculous dispensation of God, to shake off the yoke of Jewish exclusiveness. Notwithstanding the success of his mission in Samaria, he had not abjured his old notions; he still thought that all the prescriptions of the Mosaic law were in force. It was of the utmost importance that the Apostle whose activity and influence were paramount at this period, should be won over to the cause of a world-wide Christianity. God brought about this result in a most remarkable manner, by the coincident illumination of a special revelation and of personal experience. There lived at this time in the town of Cæsarea a Roman centurion named Cornelius, belonging to the Italian cohort, which maintained in those countries the authority of Rome. A heathen by birth, but conscious, like so many of his contemporaries, of unsatisfied religious needs, Cornelius had, from his first contact with the synagogue, forsaken the worship of false gods, and embraced the Jewish faith. Acts x, 1. But he had not found even in it satisfaction of heart. His upright and pious soul sought and required a more complete response to its cravings. It is probable that Cornelius may have already heard of the new religion and of St. Peter, for the angel who appears to him merely mentions the name of the Apostle, and Cornelius understands without further explanation. The vague rumor of Christianity which had reached him had perhaps rendered his prayers more fervent. However this may be, as he was in prayer, he suddenly saw in a vision an angel of God, who told him that his prayers were heard, and bade him send for the Apostle Peter. Acts x, 3-8. At the same moment Peter, who was at Joppa, received a revelation which was to prepare him to accede to the request of Cornelius.
This revelation seems, at the first glance, to have reference only to the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Acts x, 10-17. But all the institutions of Judaism were closely connected. The distinction between animals rested on the same principle as the distinction between days, places, and men. Till redemption had been wrought out, the original taint infected every thing in a world under the curse. It was only by exception that certain men, certain days, certain fruits of the ground, certain animals, were raised in part above the universal defilement. The Jewish people was the only fraction of humanity which was not profane; the distinction between the clean and unclean animals symbolized, therefore, one far more important, namely, the distinction between men. When Peter says, "I have never eaten any thing common or unclean," he speaks as a Jew; he is pointing to the legal distinction between men and things. The reply which he receives shows him the meaning of the new covenant. God, by the blood of redemption, has in truth purified all that was defiled. The distinction between a holy people and an unholy race is done away, like that between animals clean and unclean; and thus Peter may and must go and preach the Gospel to Cornelius the Roman.
We know what were the results of his preaching. The miracle of Pentecost was wrought afresh on these converts from heathenism, and Peter exclaimed, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? Acts x, 47. In these words he boldly proclaimed Christianity to be wide as the world. The death of Stephen was bearing its fruits, and a career, wide as the world, was opening to apostolic missions. Paul had only to go forth into it. Thus the Church made progress, step by step, in its path of light, guided by the Holy Spirit, and taught by the lessons of experience. Revelation seemed at the same moment to come down from heaven, and to spring up in human hearts; so true is it that the Spirit of God, ever secure of attaining its ends without the aid of magic, never consents to do violence to that noblest of instruments, human freedom. But though gained at Antioch and at Cæsarea, the cause of Gentile Christianity was not yet triumphant at Jerusalem. We must now follow the discussion which arose on the conversion of the Centurion Cornelius.6262Difficulties have been raised about the liberal action of Peter at Cæsarea and the timidity subsequently shown by him at Antioch, when he was reproved by St. Paul. From this contradiction it has been attempted to draw arguments against the authenticity of the narrative. Surely this is to lose sight of the inconsistency so characteristic of all human actions.6363
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