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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Sabbatarian Christians vs Sunday Christians

In my last post, we established that there were two varieties of Christianity extant in the First Century - one which adhered to Jewish laws, rituals and traditions and another which did not. We observed how Christ's original apostles and his brother James came to lead and represent the Jewish branch of the faith, and how Paul came to represent and lead the Gentile branch of the faith. We also looked at a great deal of evidence which suggested the presence of tensions (and even open hostility) between the two branches at various times. Nevertheless, although the question of whether an irreconcilable breach developed between the two camps was discussed in some of the commentary which followed that post's publishing on Banned by HWA, I felt that it would be instructive for many of the former and current Armstrongites who make up my audience to directly address that topic in another post.

For, while it may be clear that the arguments between Torah Christians and Sunday Christians began in the First Century, it may not be as clear to us exactly when the two perspectives diverged enough that they began to regard each other as not representing a legitimate variety of their shared faith in Christ. Today, of course, we take it for granted that Sunday Christians regard Sabbatarian Christians as heretical and vice versa; but our examination of the evidence in the previous post implies that that was not always the case. Moreover, tracing the historical origins of this breach has a much more practical application than merely satisfying our intellectual curiosity about it, we intuitively comprehend that a better understanding of those events will help us to clarify our own thinking on the subject and make us more tolerant of each other going forward.

For starters, it is critical that we understand that these two branches of the Christian faith arose as a natural consequence of its expansion - NOT as some grand Satanic conspiracy of the Roman emperor and church! It is indisputable that Christ, his apostles (including Paul) and the earliest Christians were Jewish (encompassing all that that designation suggests like circumcision, Sabbath and Holy Day observances, the Temple at Jerusalem, synagogues, clean and unclean meats, etc.). After the previous post in this series, it should also be apparent that Gentile Christians did not have this background, and that the overwhelming majority of them NEVER adopted those Jewish laws, rituals and traditions.

However, just as the accounts which we have in the Christian canon demonstrate the genesis of the two branches of the Christian faith and give us a window into some of the tensions and hostilities which developed between the two camps, they also demonstrate that most of these early Christians tried very hard to tolerate and accommodate each other. Hence, the question arises: When did the breach between these two branches of the Christian faith become irreconcilable?

In attempting to answer that question, most biblical scholars and students try very hard not to project our own experiences, views and prejudices onto the people and events of the past. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we are often not successful in this regard.

At the end of my last post, I referenced a number of biblical scholars whom I believe have made significant contributions to our understanding of First Century Christianity. One of those scholars, a professor by the name of James Tabor (who was formerly associated with Armstrong's Ambassador College), was particularly helpful in summarizing many of the findings which some of our finest modern scholars have contributed to our understanding of this period of Christian history. Even so, in reviewing the same evidence, I also find myself in disagreement with some of Professor Tabor's answers to our question about the timing of the irreconcilable breach.

In his book Paul and Jesus, Tabor contended that the irreconcilable breach happened in the lifetime of the apostles (Paul, Peter, James and John). Tabor sets up his final chapter (The "Battle of the Apostles") with some remarks about Paul's views of the Torah. He concluded that "it should not surprise us that Paul ended up in a bitter struggle with Peter, James, and the original apostles, who claimed to faithfully carry on the message of Jesus." Tabor continued: "We have only Paul's side of that conflict, and his decisive break with Jerusalem is glossed over in Acts, but there is enough evidence still to piece together the story."

Is that true? Did Peter, James and Paul end their lives as "bitter rivals" - as suggested by Tabor?

While my previous post suggests my broad agreement with the scholarly narrative about the differences which existed between the Jewish and Gentile varieties of early Christianity (and the eventual triumph of the Pauline Gentile variety), I do NOT believe that the evidence points to an irreconcilable break in the time of the apostles. Once again, both accounts of the Jerusalem Council (Acts and Galatians) reflect the fact that some kind of accommodation was reached between the two branches of the faith. Moreover, I don't buy Tabor's contention that Paul's theology was so radically different (in conjunction with the evidence provided by Paul's second epistle to the saints of Corinth and James more general epistle) that it eventually proved to be the death knell for that "understanding" reached at Jerusalem. In other words, while I believe that the evidence demonstrates tensions (which on occasion bubbled to the surface as open hostility) existed between Paul and the original apostles, I don't believe the evidence supports the proposition that those differences ever provoked a clean break between the apostles.

In terms of Tabor's assertions about just how radically different Paul's theology was from the Jerusalem apostles, an example will demonstrate my departure from Tabor's narrative. Tabor asserted that Paul's understanding of the Eucharist was very different from that of the Jewish apostles. According to him, the three earliest gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) derived their accounts of the Last Supper from Paul. He reasoned that, because Paul's account of the Last Supper in his first epistle to the saints at Corinth (see I Corinthians 10:16-21 and 11:23-20) predated the finished gospel accounts by ten to twenty years. it is clear that they derived their narratives from him.

For the sake of argument, we will set aside the fact that Tabor himself admits that those three gospel accounts were derived in part from earlier sources and focus instead on his "evidence" for an alternative narrative regarding the Last Supper. He pointed out that John's gospel didn't mention the bread and the wine in its narrative about that event, and that The Didache seems to present a different understanding of the symbolism surrounding those elements. Hence, in fairness to Tabor and the integrity of our search for the truth, we must examine both of these documents to ascertain whether or not they support his narrative about Paul's Last Supper.

First, while it is true that the gospel attributed to John does not include the elements of the bread and the wine in its account of the Last Supper (see John 13), we must not forget that "Paul's elements" are an integral part of this gospel's narrative. In fact, as part of the account of Christ's message to his disciples that evening, Jesus is said to have referred to himself as "the true grapevine" (see John 15:1-8, NLT). According to this account, he went on to tell them that "apart from me you can do nothing" (the clear implication being that Christ is the vine that makes their salvation possible). Moreover, we should also remember that using grapevines and their fruit in such a symbolic manner was not foreign to either Jews or Jewish Christians as Tabor seems to imply (see Genesis 49:11 and Revelation 14). But what about the bread?

Earlier in that same Gospel, we read that Christ declared: "I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:48-51, KJV) And, lest there be any doubt that John's gospel is placing the exact same language which Paul and the other gospels employed in Christ's mouth, the account continues: "The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever." (John 6:52-58, KJV)

What about The Didache? In the section of that document dealing with the Eucharist, we read: "Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." So, we clearly have the elements of the bread and wine included in this early "Jewish Christian" account of the teachings of the apostles.

Moreover, lest there be any doubt about the symbolism being tied to Jesus Christ, these instructions were followed by a Eucharist prayer to be used in Christian worship services. We read: "But after you are filled, give thanks this way: We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen." Hence, we can see that both John's gospel and The Didache employed the same kind of language and symbolism with regard to the Eucharist/Last Supper which Paul and the other gospels used in their accounts of those events.

Well, maybe they weren't as far apart in their theology as Tabor suggested, but what about the evidence he cited from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians and James' general epistle? Let's begin our evaluation of Professor Tabor's evidence by addressing Paul's second epistle to the saints of Corinth.

However, before we address the actual language of this second epistle to the Corinthians, I would like to remind my readers that Paul was not bashful about naming names in either his first epistle to the Corinthians (see I Corinthians 1:11-12) or his letter to the saints of Galatia. In fact, while expressing his anger over a similar situation (Jewish Christians trying to require his converts to observe the tenets of the Torah) at Galatia, Paul says that he had to confront Peter over his behavior. (see Galatians 2:11-14)

Hence, as almost all biblical scholars acknowledge this second epistle to the saints of Corinth as one of the undisputed writings of the apostle, it seems odd that Paul never mentioned Peter, James and John in connection with his angry rant about "false" and "super" apostles. (see II Corinthians 11 and 12) Thus, while it is clear that the false apostles which he was referring to in this passage were Jewish Christians (see II Corinthians 11:22), it is also clear that Paul was employing hyperbolic language to defend his own apostolic office and authority. In other words, he was only interested in their claims in so far as they related to his own claims vis-à-vis the Corinthians. And, finally, if this is the evidence of a final split between the leading figures of the two branches of the Christian Church, we must insist that some explanation be forthcoming in relation to the fact that Paul was soliciting an offering on behalf of those Jewish Christians in the passages immediately preceding these. (see II Corinthians 9, NLT)

Now, we come at last to the epistle of James. First, it should be noted that most biblical scholars either attribute this writing to the brother of Jesus by that name, or some anonymous person writing in his name (and I concur with this conclusion). Hence, I would not dispute Tabor's assertion that this letter is connected to that leader of the Jewish Christians mentioned in the account of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. However, when the professor goes on to imply that the epistle's references to faith without works and controlling one's tongue was really directed at the apostle Paul, we are forced to ask where's the evidence for supposing this? After all, the author of the epistle states that he is addressing "the twelve tribes - Jewish believers scattered abroad." (see James 1:1, NLT)

In fact, it is here that Tabor's narrative about the breach demands the greatest leap of faith. He implies that James and Paul are being very careful to cover up their breach, and that other writers of the period have conspired to conceal the breach. I will simply state what others before me have observed: The claim of such an extraordinary conspiracy requires extraordinary proof! Following this line of reasoning, we are led to believe that the statement in the second epistle attributed to Peter was written to further this conspiracy. (see II Peter 3:15-16)

Finally, although the New Testament is devoid of any mention of the fate of these men, tradition informs us that Peter, James and Paul all suffered martyrdom as a consequence of their faith in Jesus Christ. Hence, while I accept much of Tabor's narrative about the differences between Paul's brand of Christianity and the one practiced by Peter and James, I simply do not believe that the evidence supports an irreconcilable breach between the men. While I see ample evidence of the tensions (and sometimes open hostility) between these men, I do not see the proof that they died enemies.

On the contrary, both from the perspective of the New Testament and the writings of the generations which followed them, it appears that the irreconcilable breach between the two branches of Christianity happened sometime after the deaths of these men. And, while I am confident that the Roman suppressions of the Jewish rebellions and subsequent persecution of them exacerbated the tensions and animosities which were already apparent between the two groups, it is clear to me that the thing most responsible for that final breach was a hardening of attitudes within the groups themselves. Over time, many of the folks within both camps simply decided that the folks in the other camp had strayed too far from the principles of their faith to continue to be regarded as brothers in Christ!

In this respect, Herbert Armstrong and his followers have been very much like the Jewish Christians still extant at the close of the First Century and the beginning of the Second Century. They have decided that they are keeping the flame of the "original" Christian Church alive, and that Protestants and Catholics are all apostates - not really Christians at all! Likewise, many Catholic and Protestant Christians see their Sabbatarian brethren in exactly the same light - heretics that cannot really be considered Christians!

However, after a careful examination of the evidence available to us, I am hopeful that modern Christians will take a page out of the playbook of those First Century Christians. I'm hopeful that the Christians of our day will remember a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians not only tolerated each other, but also sought to accommodate each other's practice of their shared faith in Jesus Christ. What do you think?


***I know that this is a long treatise, but James Tabor did write an entire book on the subject! Moreover, I don't think that anyone who is truly interested in the subject will mind the longer post (and I am willing to discuss the thesis presented here in even more detail for those who may be interested in doing so). Thank you for your time and attention!***    

5 comments:

  1. Lonnie,
    I agree with some of what you say, but not all. The Sabbath was sanctified at creation for all of mankind, not the Jews. Israel became the chosen people, and carried it on. It was never changed by God, just traditions of men.

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    1. Thanks for commenting - it may help others to arrive at their own conclusions about this topic. While Genesis does tell us that the Sabbath was sanctified at creation, it does not say that anyone observed it until it was introduced to the Israelites and included as a tenet of God's covenant with them (As far as we know, the patriarchs didn't even observe it). The Jerusalem Council didn't change the Sabbath (or any other tenets of the Torah), but it did clearly exempt Gentiles from any obligation to observe it. I continue to observe the Sabbath (I also have Ashkenazi DNA), but I'm not under any illusion that physical Sabbath observance is a requirement for folks who are part of the New Covenant. Anyway, that's my perspective. I do understand where you are coming from though, and I respect your opinion.

      --Lonnie

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  2. Miller:

    There is something mysterious to me in the historical content of the New Testament. And it may involve Late Second Temple Judaism. The NT is not a comprehensive presentation of the Christian faith. It is silent on many topics that one would find in a standard systematic theology.

    For instance, what do we know about life after death? This seems like it would be a fundamental topic to be addressed. Why didn't the Twelve ask Jesus any questions about it? Why does Paul only hint at it? The Twelve were with Jesus throughout his ministry and they believed he was God. Yet they asked him no questions about a topic that directly connects to our salvific outcome, our personal eschatology.

    I have two theories. One is that the Twelve had a baseline of theological understanding that came from Late Second Temple Judaism. Therefore, they understood what heaven was about, they assumed, and did not query Jesus on the topic. They just believed that heaven was what Late Second Temple Judaism said it was. And Jesus was fine with letting them believe that.

    The second is that kenosis, Jesus emptying himself, was more extensive than we might think. He actually didn't know what heaven was about in his incarnate state. The Twelve may have asked him all about heaven many times, but if he just said "I don't really know," it is unlikely that they would have recorded this kind of answer for posterity.

    The first theory has lots of problems with it. What it would suggest is that somehow Judaism evolved in the Intertestamental Period into a pretty close approximation of reality even on esoteric topics. So much so that there were a whole range of topics that Jesus did not need to address because his disciples already had that knowledge from the synagogue. But what is that body of knowledge? There were many Jewish factions such as the Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Which body of knowledge was assumed as the foundation on which Christ built? Apparently, at that time, Judaism was inflenced by such writings as the Book of Enoch. The Book claims that heaven consists of ten levels. Was that acceptable to Jesus? Why wouldn't Jesus just state that the Book of Enoch is malarkey and have this recorded. Instead we find Enoch cited in the Epistle of Jude. So for this theory we have an unknown body of theological knowldge. And we don't know what it includes and excludes. A conundrum.

    The first theory is so difficult to subscribe to I am left to believe that the second theory, the kenosis theory, makes more sense. Jesus lost a lot when he stepped into a human body. Including knowledge about some fundamental concepts that everyone would be avidly interested in. This would account for the many blank spaces in the NT. In this rendition, the Twelve and other disciples would just come to the recognition that these questions would be unanswered this side of the afterlife. They might know that Late Second Temple Judaism could not be trusted but they would not know what was right because Jesus could not tell them. Paul said they saw through a glass darkly and you wonder why when they had been in the presence of the Great Light.

    Both theories are audacious - not a comforting condition. But the actual phenomenon these theories seek to explain is real. Silence needs to be exegeted as much as text.

    When I was writing my opinion piece on Armstrongism's connection to the Jerusalem Church, I would have included a link to your cognate work, but it slipped by me.

    Neo

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    1. Fundamentalists demand an inerrant text without any inconsistencies. We want a more comprehensive and systematic Christian theology. We have what we have.

      Of course, Luke and Acts were penned for someone named Theophilus (not us), and I'm quite certain that Paul never imagined that his various epistles would end up in a New Testament canon. My favorite NT book is Hebrews - anonymous. We have no idea who wrote it, but it is an excellent First Century Christian perspective on the Torah. The Didache is our earliest summary of Christian teachings.

      As for what happens when we die, I think James Tabor does a pretty good job outlining Paul's views on the resurrection, and how they compared to those of First Century Judaism (he even dabbles in making some differentiations in the sects you mentioned in your above comment). Moreover, Clement's epistle gives us some insight into early Christian notions about the resurrection (citing the Phoenix as an emblem of the resurrection). Of course, it's all made even more complex because we know that the Jews absorbed some of the notions of the Greeks (and others) regarding the afterlife.

      Once again, I enjoyed your piece over at Banned by HWA. I think you're asking the right questions, and your presentations are always plausible (and very often compatible with my own views).

      Lonnie

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  3. For more extensive commentary on this post, see https://armstrongismlibrary.blogspot.com/2021/06/the-irreconcilable-breach-between.html

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