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Thursday, May 2, 2024

First Century Christianity: Putting Together the Available Evidence

Over the ten plus years of this blog's existence, I have put together a narrative about what happened within the Christian community of the First Century. To be clear, my narrative is very different from the one put forward by Herbert Armstrong, his successors, and most Sabbatarian Christians. And, although my narrative draws upon the evidence provided by Scripture, Josephus, the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Catholic scholars, modern Biblical scholars (like Gerd Ludemann, Bart Ehrman, James Tabor, etc.), secular history, and Roman Catholic scholars, I believe that the narrative provided here is unique and distinctive from the ones provided by all of them individually. In short, I do NOT believe that the available evidence supports the narrative of a Christianity hijacked by Gentiles or pagans, or a Church imposing its beliefs on a diverse and growing movement (NO grand conspiracy theories here).

According to the Gospels, Christ appeared to a small, core group of his disciples after his resurrection and told them to carry the message of his kingdom to the ends of the earth (a message that focused on the salvation that was available to all through him). Moreover, as the Gospels make very clear, an important part of that message was the fact that God had resurrected Jesus after the Sabbath, during the dark portion of the Jews' first day of the week - the one that the Romans called Sunday (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-2, Luke 24:1-2, and John 20:1). Nevertheless, it is the "Acts of the Apostles" which recounts the story of what happened within the movement during the first four decades of its existence. From this historical narrative (in conjunction with the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and John), we can piece together the story of what was really going on within the movement. 

Thus, the narrative begins with a small group of people who were wholly Jewish in their ethnicity, religion, and culture. Like Jesus, it is important to understand that these original disciples of his were observant Jews. In other words, they were accustomed to observing the Sabbath, Holy Days, clean and unclean, etc.. In short, they were familiar with Torah and had always employed it as the standard for their lives. Moreover, it is clear that this continued to be the case throughout the first decade of the movement's existence. Indeed, the book of Acts portrays a rather insular group which had little interest in expanding outside of the Roman province of Judea.

According to the Gospels, however, this was not what God and Christ had in mind for the people of the New Covenant. After all, Jesus had told his disciples at the conclusion of his own ministry: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20, ESV) Indeed, the inertia was so strong within the early Church, that we are informed that Peter was given a special vision to accept Gentiles into the movement (Acts 10). Interestingly, just prior to this event, we are informed that a Jew named Saul (who had been enthusiastically persecuting Christ's disciples) was converted and welcomed into the Church (Acts 9:1-30). This man, of course, went on to become the Apostle Paul - the apostle to the Gentiles.

Initially, the book of Acts informs us that Paul preached in synagogues around the Eastern Mediterranean provinces of the Roman Empire (Acts 13 and 14). Eventually, however, there was a backlash against Paul and his associates within the Jewish community, and the Gentile audience for their message increased over time. Now, as more and more of these non-Jewish people came into the Church, some of the Jewish Christians became disenchanted with the fact that these folks weren't observing the tenets of God's Covenant with Israel (as outlined in Torah). Sure, they had accepted Christ, been baptized, and received God's Spirit; but they were ignoring circumcision, the Sabbath, and a host of other commandments. These circumstances enraged some of the Jewish Christians within the Church (mainly those who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees).

Hence, we read in the fifteenth chapter of Acts: "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, 'It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.'" (Acts 15:1-5, ESV) Clearly, the question before the gathering was: Will the Gentile believers be required to adopt the tenets of God's covenant with Israel?

The account continued: "The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, 'Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.'" (Acts 15:6-11, ESV)

Notice first, that Peter spoke "after there had been much debate." This was NOT an easily settled question. Obviously, both sides of the debate recognized that the stakes were high - that the theological questions which this debate had engendered went to the very heart of the nature of the new faith. Next, Peter pointed out that God had already made the decision to give his message to the Gentiles, draw them into his Church, and had given them his Holy Spirit. Then Peter reminded his mostly Jewish audience that Christ had been the only Israelite who had ever successfully borne the yoke of Torah. As a consequence, Peter concluded that BOTH Jews and Gentiles "will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus."

In the account, Peter's remarks gave Paul and Barnabas the space they needed to recount the story of what God had used them to do among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). When they had finished, we are told that James addressed the assembly (Acts 15:13). He began by reminding them about what Peter had told them about God making the decision to make these Gentiles part of his people (Acts 15:14). Next, James pointed out that the prophets of old had predicted that David's heir (Christ) would make it possible for Gentiles to seek the Lord (Acts 15:15-18). According to the account, James then concluded his remarks with his own judgment of the matter: "Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood." (Acts 15:19-20, ESV) The account in Acts ends with the assembly writing a letter to the Gentile Christians which encouraged them to "abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." (Acts 15:22-29) In other words, they gave them a short list of things that would distinguish them from the Gentiles around them and make them less likely to offend the sensibilities of their Jewish brethren. They would NOT, however, be forced to become Torah observant Jews.

Now, although Acts gives us the impression that this settled the matter, we know from Paul's letter to the Galatians that some of the Jewish Christians continued to advocate for Gentiles to obey the commandments of Torah. Even though almost two thousand years have elapsed since Paul wrote this epistle, his anger and frustration with those Jewish Christians is still palpable. In the letter, Paul recounted the story of his and Barnabas' trip to Jerusalem. He wrote: "because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do." (Galatians 2:4-10, ESV) Once again, the leadership among the Jewish part of the Church are portrayed here as accepting Paul and Barnabas and their work among the Gentiles.

Even so, Paul went on to give an account of a previous confrontation he had with Peter over his hypocritical behavior in front of those Jewish Christians who advocated Torah for Gentile Christians (Galatians 2:11-14). For Paul, these folks were clearly NOT to be appeased - this went to the very heart of his message about salvation through Christ. He wrote: "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose." (Galatians 2:15-21, ESV)

For Paul, Gentile Christians trying to obey Torah was akin to a freeman submitting to slavery. He summarized his position: "For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." (Galatians 5:1-6, ESV) Paul believed that Christ had fulfilled Torah, and that any Christian (Jew or Gentile) who was actively trying to be justified before God by obeying the Law had effectively severed him/herself from participating in salvation through Jesus Christ!

So, this was the situation within the Church about twenty years prior to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Over the previous twenty years, there had been a large influx of Gentiles into the Church - people who had little to no familiarity with Torah and no tradition of practicing its tenets. Nevertheless, there was still a substantial group of Jewish Christians - both within Judea and in the synagogues of Gentile cities around the empire. Within that camp, there was also a small but vocal group of people who continued to believe that Christians were obligated to obey the commandments of Torah (Sabbath and Holy Day observance, circumcision, clean and unclean, etc.).

Within the Church as a whole, there were also a number of elements of the faith that had become universal (practiced by both Jewish and Gentile Christians). For example, both the Gospels and Paul's epistles make very plain that things like baptism, the Eucharist, and Christ's resurrection were held in high esteem by all. Indeed, in this connection, both the writings of the New Testament and of the people who immediately followed the apostles (the so-called Ante-Nicene Fathers), affirm that Sunday was a day highly regarded by ALL Christians by the close of the First Century. It was, after all, the day upon which Christ had been resurrected, and the Church had been founded (Pentecost). Moreover, as I have pointed out many times over the years, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, it became physically impossible to observe the tenets of Torah in the manner prescribed by those writings. The old priesthood ceased to function. The Law of the Central Sanctuary was now defunct (there wasn't any Temple). Over the years that followed, Jews were forced to reimagine and reinterpret Torah in the light of their new circumstances.

In short, at the dawn of the Second Century, what had formerly been a wholly Jewish institution had been transformed into a Gentile one. The Jewish roots and traditions of those original disciples were replaced by the new and universal elements of the new faith. The Ekklesia of God was no longer an appendage or sect of the Jewish religion. Instead, it was now composed mostly of non-Jewish people and was rapidly expanding in reach and popularity within the Roman Empire. There hadn't been any Grand Conspiracy or deception, just the natural evolution of a new faith centered on the person of Jesus of Nazareth.


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