aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
Early Years of Christianity: The Apostolic Era.
« Prev § IV. The Church at Jerusalem at the time of the… Next »

§ IV. The Church at Jerusalem at the time of the First Mission beyond Judæa.

The Christians who had remained at Jeursalem had experienced no change in their religious convictions. They had taken no part in the missionary work in Samaria, Antioch, and Cæsarea. Living in the center of Judaism, in the immediate neighborhood of the temple, where they daily offered the sacrifices commanded by the law, it would cost them much to shake off their national prejudices. Thus they learned with astonishment that Peter had entered the house of a Gentile, had eaten with him, and treated him as a brother. They reproached him sharply. "Thou wentest in," they said, "unto men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them." Acts xi, 3. In other words: "Thou hast trampled under foot the most sacred prescriptions of the law; thou hast denied the religion of thy fathers, which, as a fundamental principle, commands absolute separation from strangers." Peter replied to the charge by an account of the conversion of Cornelius and of the foregoing revelations, setting before his brethren the same effectual demonstration which God had used to convince him, and which is the sovereign logic of One whose word gives its own translation in marvelous and undeniable miracles. What answer could there be to such arguments, powerfully summed up in the words, "Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, what was I, that I could withstand God?" Acts xi, 17. The Christians at Jerusalem were convinced. It must not be supposed, however, that the question was finally settled, and all dissent made impossible. We must ever remember the instability of the human mind, its vacillations and inconsistencies. First impressions rapidly wear off, and others come in their stead. The sacred story, by preserving the trace of these fluctuations of opinion in the primitive Church, gives a strong proof of its historical truthfulness. Let us further observe that the admission of Gentiles into the Church did not necessarily involve the complete abrogation of all distinctions of nationality under the new law. It was necessary to know if circumcision was or was not obligatory on all the new converts. This was the point of the question, and it was not yet ripe for solution. The acute dialectics of Paul, the broad discussions of the Council at Jerusalem, and the ardent polemics of the succeeding period, were all needed before its final decision.

The simple machinery of the primitive Church had just been completed at Jerusalem. A new office had been created—that of elders. Acts xi, 30. It is of great moment to us to determine exactly its origin and its functions; only by this means can we judge fairly the pretensions of the various ecclesiastical systems. The office of elder was not without precedent. We find it in those numerous synagogues in which the Jews, distant from Jerusalem, met on the Sabbath to read the Scriptures. We have elsewhere spoken of the simple and democratic constitution of the synagogues. Each one was governed by a sort of senate or council, whose authority was much like that of the judges appointed in each town on the conquest of the promised land. Deut. xvi, 18. The functions of this council were clearly defined. It was to regulate authoritatively all matters relating to worship, and was not restricted to simply administrative measures. The reading and explanation of the holy books belonged by right to its members. These were called "zakanim," or elders. This appellation, we learn from positive statements, indicated not so much maturity of age as of wisdom and intellectual merit.6464"Nullus est senex nisi qui sibi acquisivit sapientiam." Vitringa, "De Synag.," III, c. i, p. 616. The council of the synagogue had a president, called the ruler of the synagogue, or master, or rabbi; his influence was very great wherever the council was small, as in towns where there was but an insignificant colony of Jews.6565Vitringa, II, 10. But the ruler of the synagogue had no peculiar dignity which raised him above his colleagues in the hierarchy. He was the first among his peers, primus inter pares. Unquestionable passages prove that the same synagogue often had several rulers or presidents.6666In Matt. ix, 18, we read of one of the rulers of the synagogue. So in Acts xviii, 8, 17, the rulers of the synagogue are mentioned at Corinth, where there was only one synagogue. (Vitringa "De Synag. Vetere," pp. 584, 585.) See also Justin Martyr, " Dial. cum Trypho," p. 366. Ὁποῖα διδάσκυσιν οἱ Ἀρχισυνάγωγοι ὑμῶν μετὰ τὴν προσευχήν.. Traces of this identity of the rulers of the synagogue and the elders are met with in the "Theodosian Code." There we find these words: "Neque licentiam habebunt hi qui ab iis majores omnibus Archiphericitæ aut presbyteri, forsitan vel magistri, appellantur anathematismis hoc prohibere." Vitringa, "De Synagog. Vetere," page 590. All the elders probably occupied the position in turn. Such an organization was essentially democratic; it presents no analogy with the Levitical priesthood, or the episcopacy of the third century.

When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, without further explanation, that the Church of Jerusalem appointed for itself elders, it is clear that the office in question must be one already known, and the name of which would convey distinct ideas. Had it been otherwise, the sacred historian would have used a new word to designate an entirely new institution; he certainly would not have connected the sacerdotal hierarchy in the Church with the democratic rule of the synagogue, when it would have been so easy to borrow from the Jewish priesthood its honorable titles. To suppose, as do the advocates of hierarchical theories, that the first elders were probably the first converted priests, who received a fresh ordination from the hands of the Apostles, is to build the whole sacerdotal system upon a pure hypothesis.6767Thiersch, work quoted, p. 78.

The sacred historian gives no details of the nomination of the first elders. We may hence conclude that there was no formal institution of the office. The Apostles were often called away from Jerusalem. The young Church, though richly supplied with the gifts of the Spirit, could not dispense with some direction in its daily progress and in its worship. The wisest step was to borrow from the synagogue the institution of elders, so admirably adapted to the new dispensation. Besides, the seven deacons first appointed had been more than deacons. They had taught with power, and fulfilled by anticipation the office of elders. Just as the diaconate had grown out of the apostolate, so the office of elders was in part an offshoot from the primitive diaconate, and thus the organization of the Church went on perfecting itself by the division of labor. The Apostles gave their sanction to the creation of the new office, but the narrative contains no trace of any solemn institution or special revelation. The Church had, in this respect, no other revelation to await than that of its own needs. It was not creating either a priesthood or a clergy, but simply a ministry adapted to the spirit of the new dispensation. It was doubtless acting in obedience to its guiding inspiration, but no direct intervention of God was necessary, as though a new priesthood was to be instituted. It is beyond question that the elders, like the deacons, were chosen by the whole assembly. Their part in the Church at Jerusalem cannot be exactly defined: they formed its council; they directed without coercing it; they read and explained the Scriptures, at times when no extraordinary gifts were manifested. In the second period of the apostolic age we shall find their functions assuming more importance. At that stage, also, the question of the identity of the bishop and the elder will come before us for solution. At Jerusalem, as in all the Churches of Jewish origin, elders alone were known. The name bishop appears only in the Churches of Greek origin.

Side by side with the elders we find the prophets. The gift of prophecy was distinguished from the other operations of the Spirit by its sudden and powerful character. The prophets of the primitive Church were not called only to communicate to the Church revelations as to the future, such as those put into the mouth of Agabus. Acts xi, 28. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, they addressed themselves to the hearts and consciences of their hearers; the prophetic character manifested itself in the remarkable efficacy of their words. Barnabas, placed among the prophets, had been surnamed "The Son of Consolation." Edifying and consoling sermons were thus accounted as prophecies when they were accompanied with peculiar power.6868Neander, "Pflanz.," p. 59.

A short time after the return of Peter to Jerusalem persecution broke out anew, raised this time, not by the priests or the rabbis, but by the King, Herod Agrippa; it was employed by him as a means of gaining popularity. This prince succeeded in uniting under his scepter all the countries over which his uncle, Herod the Great, had reigned. Having crept to the throne by flattery, he kept his seat by the same means, servilely pandering to vulgar prejudices. The time was gone when the Church was in favor with all the people; persecution was beginning to become popular; it was to retain this character during three centuries, for nothing is more odious to the great mass of men than the law of holiness when its requirements are once rightly understood. James, the son of Zebedee, was beheaded by the King's commandment. Acts xii, 1, 2. He was the first apostle-martyr. His place was not filled up. Eusebius relates, on the authority of Clement of Alexandria, an incident of his martyrdom, which we see no reason to discredit. The false witness, who had deposed against James, was touched by the sight of the courage and constancy of the Apostle; he avowed himself a Christian, and was visited with the same sentence. As he was being led forth with James to death, he asked his forgiveness. The Apostle looked at him for some moments, then embracing him, said, "Peace be with thee." Both perished together by the sword.6969Ὀ δὲ ὁλίγον σκεψάμενος, εἰρήνη συὶ εἶπε, καὶ κατεφίλησεν αὐτόν. Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 9.

Herod was anxious next to strike a blow at the Apostle who had most powerfully drawn upon himself the attention of the people, and had thus enkindled the most bitter hatred. He caused Peter to be thrown into prison and condemned to speedy death. The alarmed disciples gathered in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark, to entreat help from God in this terrible crisis. Threatened with a blow which would overturn one of the pillars of the Church, they lift up earnest prayers to Heaven. Suddenly Peter himself, delivered by a miracle, knocks at the door of the house, and comes to teach them the omnipotence of prayer, which they were yet slow to believe, as their incredulity of his presence proves. Soon after Herod died, smitten with righteous judgment from God. He had gone to Cæsarea to decide some differences with the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon, and to celebrate games in honor of the recovery of Claudius. He was received with the utmost enthusiasm. Appearing on the second day of the games arrayed in a silver tunic, on which the rays of the early morning shed a dazzling brightness, he excited universal admiration, and his flatterers even carried their adulation so far as to call him a god. In that very moment he was smitten with a loathsome disease; eaten of worms, he died, exclaiming, "I, the god, am about to die; death has already seized him whom men called immortal."7070Καὶ ὁ κληθεὶς ἀθάνατος ἤδη θανὼν ἀπάγομαι. Josephus, "Antiq.," XIX, c. viii, 2. Josephus states that Herod, at the moment he was hailed as a god, saw a screech-owl, which he regarded as an omen of evil. This event produced a deep impression upon the Church, which saw in it the direct intervention of God for its protection and the chastisement of its enemies.

According to tradition, St. Peter went to Rome after his deliverance, and the excitement caused in the Jewish colony by his preaching provoked the severe measures taken by Claudius against the Jews.7171Thiersch's work quoted, p. 97. Baronius, "Annals," i, 273. Lenain de Tillemont (i, p. 70) places the journey of the Apostle to Rome before his imprisonment; but how then explain the silence of the Acts? The testimony of the "Fathers" on this point is altogether wanting in precision. Eusebius, (ii, 14, 15,) in order to prove the presence of Peter at Rome in the time of Claudius, rests upon the tradition (proved to be untrue) of his contest with Simon Magus. The "Liber Pontificalis" declares explicitly that he did not go to Rome under Claudius. "Hic Petrus ingressus in urbem Romam sub Nerone Cæsare."—"Liber Pontificalis," p. 11. But the presence of Peter in the Council at Jerusalem, which took place very shortly after, disproves this assertion. He probably continued to preach the Gospel through all the regions of Asia Minor, where his influence was still so great during the following period. The defenders of the hierarchy affirm that after the persecution under Herod Agrippa, the Apostles divided the world among them, and drew their field of labor by lot.7272Leo, "Sermo," I. Baronius, "Annals," i, 273. To what lengths will not the desire lead to paint the past with the colors of the present, and to substitute for the spirituality of the early days an official character and the machinery of a hierarchy! It is not possible to go further than this in the untrue rendering of facts. The opinion which attributes to the Apostles, at the same time, the compilation of the creed which bears their name, is equally without foundation. The day of Pentecost was not yet far enough removed for the reduction of faith to rule.

The same preconception, and the same disposition to transfer the institutions of the third century of the Church into the first, have led to an imaginary recognition of the episcopate in the entirely moral preeminence which James,7373The question whether James, the Lord's brother, is another than James the son of Alpheus, one of the twelve Apostles, is one of the most controverted points of criticism. In maintaining the identity of the two it is urged that James the son of Alpheus, being clearly related to Jesus Christ, through his mother, (John xix, 25,) the name of brother may be only an extension of the term of kindred. Galatians i, 19, is also brought forward, in which James, the brother of the Lord, is named among the Apostles. But these reasons appear to us insufficient. It is evidently a dogmatic bias which has led to the attempt to change the natural signification of the word ἀδελφός. As to the designation "Apostle," applied by St. Paul to James, it presents no difficulty if the gradual extension of the ideas of the apostolate be admitted. The oldest tradition in the Church favors our opinion: it represents James as the Lord's own brother. Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl.," ii, 25) is as explicit as possible upon this point. James, in his Epistle, does not describe himself as an Apostle. John says that the Lord's brethren had not believed on him when James, the son of Alpheus, was already in the ranks of the Apostles. John vii, 5. Finally, in Acts i, 13, 14, the brethren of the Lord are distinctly mentioned in addition to the Apostles, consequently they were not one and the same. See Winer "Realworterbuch," vol. i, p. 217. the Lord's brother, enjoyed in the Church at Jerusalem. This, however, is capable of a most simple explanation. His relationship to Jesus Christ had an inestimable value in the eyes of the first Christians, who felt themselves under no obligation to repudiate the natural and indestructible feelings of the human heart. The character of James, his piety, and the very form which it assumed, all contributed to increase his influence at Jerusalem. Profoundly attached to the religion of his fathers, he had watched, not without alarm, the first contests between Jesus Christ and the representatives of the ancient worship. He had only gradually learned to take broader views; the resurrection of the Saviour seems to have vanquished his latent hesitation; but this hesitation did not spring from pride or obstinacy; his scruples were those of a strong but unenlightened piety, which was startled by any change introduced into the order established by God. The testimony concerning James of an old historian of the Church gives us a key to the position he filled. "James, the brother of the Lord," we read in Eusebius, who quotes Hegesippus,7474Διαδέχεται τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 23. "known universally by the surname of 'The Just,' shared with the Apostles the direction of the Church. He was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, and abstained from all meat. . . . He alone might enter into the holy place;7575Τούτῳ μόνῳ εξῆν εἰς τὰ ἀγια εἰσιέναι "Hist. Eccl.," ii, 23. for his raiment was simply of linen. He was accustomed to go into the temple alone. There he was found prostrate before God, seeking forgiveness for the sins of the people. His knees were worn like those of a camel, so constantly were they bent before God in intercession for the people. Because of the excellence of his justice he was surnamed 'The Just,' the Oblias,7676Διὰ τὴν ύπερβυλὴν εῦς δικαιοσύνης αὐτοῦ ἐκαλεῖτο Δίκαιος καὶ Ὠβλιάς. Ibid. which signifies the bulwark of the people, and righteousness." Those who pretend that Christianity was originally very little distinguished from Judaism lay much stress on this passage.7777Schwegler, "Nachapost. Zeitalt.," i, 137. They forget that Hegesippus is unfolding before us the whole life of James from his childhood to his death. Set apart as a Nazarite from his earliest years, he adhered scrupulously to the practices of the sect. But there is nothing in the description of Hegesippus to forbid the supposition that after his conversion he may have used greater freedom, though he, with the whole Church of Hebrew origin, continued to observe the institutions of Moses. His conduct in the Council at Jerusalem, and his Epistle, abundantly prove that, in his view, the Christian was not in all points like the Nazarite. It is, nevertheless, certain that he remained in heart attached to Judaism, and that the new religion was primarily, in his eyes, a fulfillment of prophecy. His patriotism was wholly unlike that of the proud Pharisees of the time, for he was best known by his fervent prayers for Jerusalem, and his tears over the sins of his people. He was a determined enemy of false Judaism, a true child of Abraham, one of those who yearned for the divine Isaac. None was a more forcible preacher of repentance than he. James was, in a manner, the John the Baptist of the apostolic age—a new forerunner making the paths straight for the law of liberty. He was a Jew after God's own heart, gladly accepting the realization of his promises, and thus accomplishing the transition from Judaism to Christianity. He is, in fact, the purest type we have of the Israelite indeed; he thus truly belongs to the new covenant, the mission of which is to bring to perfection all that existed in germ in the old. The Lord's brother repeats, in his life, the Sermon on the Mount; by holiness he prepared the way for progress, freeing the law of the spirit from the law of the letter, as the ripened grain shakes off the enveloping husk.

It is not then necessary, in order to explain the influence of such a man, to have recourse to apostolic investiture.7878This is the assumption of Thiersch. Respected and beloved by the people, who witnessed his zeal in the temple, he exercised great moral authority over the Church at Jerusalem, of which he was in truth the representative. According to Clement of Alexandria, James was like a ruler of the synagogue in the Church at Jerusalem—that is to say, the first among his equals. It is probable that he obtained this consideration by the sole ascendency of his piety. Hegesippus clearly states that he took part in the government of the Church at the same time with Peter and John. His right was equal to theirs; and it did not need for its exercise either a constituted hierarchy or apostolic succession.

The Church at Jerusalem continues, during this period, a religious center for all the Christians. From it go. forth the first missionaries; it sends spontaneously delegates into the countries where the Gospel has already gained some ground, as in Samaria and at Antioch. In later times important conferences on the question of the admission to baptism of Gentile converts will be held within it. It could hardly have been otherwise in the first period. This central position resulted from the situation of the new Churches, from their weakness and inexperience. But it would be a grave misconception to regard Jerusalem as the Rome of the first century; this would be to forget altogether the difference of the times.

We have seen, after the brief phase of the Church's history when all was miraculous and supernatural, the commencement of internal division. The teaching and martyrdom of Stephen, the mission in Samaria, the formation of the Church at Antioch, the conversion of Cornelius, all these events, which followed each other rapidly, brought into full view the question of the relations of Christianity with Judaism. The discussion is to take still broader ground, through the influence of St. Paul; it will be at times envenomed by the evil passions of the false teachers of Galatia and the schismatics of Corinth, but we shall see it, nevertheless, steadily advancing to its solution, by means of wholesome experience and brotherly consultations, in which the free and living character of the inspiration of the new covenant will strikingly appear; but we shall find no radical opposition between the disputants; and the theories which suppose two irreconcilable forms of Christianity in the apostolic Church will prove to be as fabulous as the legends of tradition.


« Prev § IV. The Church at Jerusalem at the time of the… Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |