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Landmarks in the History of Early Christianity



According to Acts the result of the persecution of Stephen was the spread of Christianity outside Palestine. As the narrative stands it seems to imply that before this time there had been no Christian propaganda outside Jerusalem. But significant details show that this impression is wrong and merely due to the fact that the writer gives no account of the earlier stages.

After the death of Stephen Paul appears to have continued his persecuting zeal, and obtained authority to go to Damascus and prosecute the Christians resident there. Obviously, then, the Christian movement had already spread to Damascus, but there is no hint in Acts as to how it did so. That in so doing it had advanced beyond the limits of the Synagogue is not clear, but Damascus was essentially a Gentile city, and the following considerations suggest that it had done so. We know that the Jews of the Diaspora at this period were filled with a proselytising zeal of which the fact is more certain than the details. It is also tolerably plain from Philo that there was a strong tendency to Hellenise and go further than orthodox Jews were willing to tolerate. It is also certain that the outcry against the Christians in Jerusalem which led to the death of Stephen did not start among the native Jews but among the Hellenists—those who belonged to the synagogues of the freedmen and of the Cyrenaeans, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asians, who


had synagogues in Jerusalem.1 In addition to this, though Acts suggests that the origin of the Seven was the necessity of administering the funds of the community, it is clear that in point of fact it was their preaching which made them prominent. Finally, it is clear from Acts that Philip began to preach to the Gentiles as soon as he left Jerusalem, and that some of the Cypriots and Cyrenaeans did the same.

There is thus considerable though not overwhelming evidence that preaching to the Gentiles began somewhat sooner than is popularly supposed, and that before the conversion of Paul near Damascus by the vision of the risen Lord, or before the conversion of Peter by the episode of Cornelius, there was already a Christian mission to the Gentiles. The importance of this is that it enables us to see the history of the early Church in a somewhat different perspective. It shows that Paul was not the first, though he was undoubtedly the greatest, of the Christians who preached to the Gentiles. He was a part of Hellenistic Christianity, and probably, as will be seen later, not the most extreme of its adherents.

We have, then, to imagine the gradual rise of a Hellenising movement among the Christians, of which the Seven were probably the original leaders in Jerusalem, while unknown disciples, of whom we only know that they were successful in Damascus, were carrying it on in other places. The Twelve appear to have regarded the movement with doubt and suspicion, and the Jews in Jerusalem always distinguished between the original disciples and the Hellenists. Gradually, however, the opposition of the Twelve and their followers crumbled away. The final defection, from the point of view of Judaism, was that of Peter. To judge from Acts he had undertaken a mission in Palestine, following up the work of Philip and probably

1 It is probable that Paul was at this time settled in Damascus rather than Jerusalem. If so, which synagogue in Jerusalem did he frequent? That of the Cilicians as a native of Tarsus?


of others, but the story brings to notice one of the characteristic weaknesses of Acts as history. It always omits or minimises differences of opinion and quarrels among Christians. We know this by comparing the Epistles with the Acts. It is therefore perfectly legitimate to suppose that there may well have been far more friction at first between the Hellenist missionaries and the Twelve than Acts suggests. But in the end Peter had a vision at Joppa which convinced him that he was wrong, and he accepted Cornelius as a brother Christian. Acts would have us understand that the whole Church at Jerusalem accepted Peter's position, but in view of the Judaistic controversy, which continued to rage much later than this time, it is certain that this is not in accordance with fact. It is significant that soon after this Peter was put in prison, and on his escape from prison left Jerusalem.1

From this time on, if not before, the undoubted head of the Church in Jerusalem was James, the brother of the Lord. What was his attitude towards the Hellenising Christians? Acts would have us understand that he was always on perfectly good terms with Peter, and later on with Paul. But that is hardly the impression given by the Pauline epistles, which very clearly distinguish Peter from James and his emissaries. Paul's view is that Peter was in principle on the same side as himself, and that he therefore had no right to yield to the representatives of James; but he never suggests that James and he were on the same side. Nor had the Jews in Jerusalem any illusions on the subject; when Paul appeared in the temple he was promptly arrested, but not until the popular madness of the year 66 did any of the orthodox Jews think of interfering with James, the head of the Christians in Jerusalem.

Thus Acts plainly has understated the amount of controversy between the Hellenising Christians and the origi-

1 Unless this story is misplaced and ought to come before Acts ix. 32.


nal community. Failure to see this is due to the ultimately complete triumph of the Hellenistic party, who naturally looked on what was really the conservative position as Judaising, whereas the truth was that they themselves were Hellenising. According to Acts the most successful centre of Hellenistic Christianity was Antioch. Here, too, it is possible that the picture presented by it is one-sided, owing to the fact that, at least in many places, Acts reproduces the tradition of Antioch. Doubtless there were other centres equally important. Neither Ephesus nor Rome seems to have been founded by missionaries from Antioch, though Paul and the other Antiochean missionaries came into their history at an early date.

The controversy between the school of James and the Hellenistic Christians appears to have been very acute in Antioch, but the details are extremely obscure. Acts represents the beginning of the Church at Antioch as due to Hellenistic Christians who left Jerusalem after the death of Stephen. Nor is there any reason to doubt the correctness of this tradition, which is probably that of Antioch itself. A little later Barnabas came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. Acts does not state, but seems to imply, that he came down, as Peter had come to Samaria, in order to criticise and control Hellenistic enthusiasm. But, like Peter at Caesarea, he was converted by the Hellenists, and stayed to help their mission. He went further than this: hearing apparently of the success of Paul at Tarsus he sent for him and co-opted him into the service of the Church at Antioch. It is worth noting in passing that the complete absence of any details as to Paul's work in Tarsus, and the silence concerning his movements from the time he left Jerusalem soon after his conversion, proves that this part of Acts is an Antiochean rather than a Pauline tradition. Soon after this more missionaries arrived from Jerusalem. They do not appear to have been active propa-


gandists, but brought with them a sad story of approaching destitution in the famine which was at hand. The Church at Antioch rose to the necessity and sent Paul and Barnabas with relief.1 Acts tells us nothing more of what happened, but that soon after Paul and Barnabas, having returned to Antioch, started on the "First Missionary Journey."2 On their return, however, a mission of protest against their methods arrived from Jerusalem. Paul, Barnabas, and some others went up to Jerusalem; a meeting of the representatives of the two churches was held, and an amicable agreement which was in the main a triumph for Antioch was arrived at.3

This appears to be Paul's third visit to Jerusalem after his conversion; but this raises difficulties, and has led to considerable critical investigation and not a little controversy. It had always been supposed that this visit of Paul to Jerusalem was identical with that described in the second chapter of Galatians, but in that chapter Paul, calling God to witness that he is not lying, makes a statement which loses all its point if it was not his second visit. Various attempts to explain this difficulty have been made. One solution of the problem is that the visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians ii. is not identical with that of Acts xv., but is an episode connected with the visit in the time of the famine relief, which the writer of Acts had either not known or thought it unnecessary to recount.1 According to this theory the visit described in Acts xv. took place after the visit in Galatians had been written. But this theory does not answer the difficulty that the apostolic decrees are not mentioned in the Epistles to the Corinthians, and that it is incredible that they could have been overlooked by Paul if the account in Acts xv. were

1 Acts xi. 27 ff.

2 Acts xii. 25-xiv. 28.

3 Acts xv.

4 See especially C. W. Emmet, The Eschatological Question in the Gospels and other Studies, pp. 191 ff., and K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, pp. 274 ff.


wholly correct. It seems better to accept the suggestion that the solution of the problem is to be found in the source-criticism of Acts.

The source-criticism of Acts has passed through three more or less spasmodic stages.1 The first was early in the nineteenth century when a number of scholars endeavoured to analyse the book. Their efforts were not very successful, though they unearthed a great many interesting phenomena. Later on, in the 'nineties, another series of efforts were made with, on the whole, even less success than before. Finally, in our own time there have been some interesting suggestions by Harnack, Schwartz, and Torrey.2

The last named has shown extremely good reason for thinking that there is an Aramaic source behind the first fifteen chapters of Acts.3 He is less convincing when he tries to prove that this was a single document, and that it was faithfully translated without addition or change by the editor of Acts. It seems more probable that there was more than one Aramaic source, and that it was often changed and interpolated by the editor.

Harnack skillfully tries to distinguish two main lines of tradition, that of Antioch and that of Jerusalem. He

1 The most important names in the first period are Konigsmann, Schleiermacher, Gfrorer, and Schwanbeck, especially the last; in the second period B. Weiss, Wendt, Sorof, Jiingst, J. Weiss, Spitta, Clemen, Hilgenfeld. In general the work of this group is inferior in value to that of their predecessors. A clear and invaluable summary of both is given by W. Heitmuller in the Theologische Rundschau for 1899, pp. 47 ff.

2 Perhaps Norden's name should be added, but interesting and stimulating though his book Agnostos Theosbe, it suffers from ignorance of early Christianity, and has little permanent value for the criticism of Acts.

3 A. von Harnack, Untersuchungen zu den Schriften des Lukas; E. Schwartz, "Zur Chronologie des Paulus," in the Oottinyische Nachrichtm, 1907, pp. 263 ff.; C. C. Torrey, "The Composition and Date of Acts," in the Harvard Theological Studies, i. The most damaging criticism of Torrey is that of F. C. Burkitt in the Journal of Theological Studies, Oct. 1919, but I do not think that he answers Torrey's case.


also thinks the Jerusalem tradition existed in two forms, which can be distinguished as doublets in Acts i.-v. He attaches Acts xv. to the tradition of Antioch, but it seems more probable that it belongs to the Jerusalem tradition. The truth may be as follows: soon after the time when Barnabas had gone over to the Hellenistic party another body of Christians from Jerusalem came to Antioch. In the years which followed there grew up two traditions of what happened next. The tradition at Antioch was that the Christians from Jerusalem had been chiefly concerned with the physical necessities of their Church, though they were undoubtedly men possessed of a prophetic gift. They had so worked on the sympathy of Antioch that it had accepted the needs of the poor saints in Jerusalem as a responsibility laid on it by heaven. This tradition is preserved in a short form in Acts xi., and in the Epistle to the Galatians Paul energetically sustained its correctness, incidentally mentioning some other events connected with his stay at Jerusalem, the perversion of which, as he maintained, had given rise to the tradition of Jerusalem. This latter tradition the editor of Acts had found preserved in the document which he has used as the basis of Acts xv., and if any one will read Galatians ii. alongside of Acts xv., not in order to see how much they agree or differ, but rather to note how far they might be different accounts of the same series of events, he will see that Paul's chief contention is that he only saw the leaders of the community at Jerusalem in private, and that they at no time succeeded in imposing any regulations on him. The vigour of his protestations seems to indicate that his opponents had maintained that the meeting was an official one, and that it had imposed regulations, namely, should the theory which is being suggested be correct, the Apostolic Decrees.

The two traditions are naturally quite contradictory; but human nature is so constituted that it is not impossible for two sets of people, especially after some lapse of


time, to give entirely different accounts of the same events and to do so in perfectly good faith. The editor of Acts, however, did not realise that the two traditions referred to the same event, and made a mistake in thinking that the meeting which he found described in the Jerusalem source came after and not before the first missionary journey. Ed. Schwartz goes further. He points out that the first missionary journey follows the account of the meeting in Jerusalem given in Acts xi., and that the second journey follows the account given in Acts xv. If there was really only one meeting, was there not really only one journey, which the editor of Acts, or his sources, converted into two?

However this may be, and no agreement among critics is ever likely to be reached, it is at least certain that there was considerable friction between Jerusalem and Antioch, and that Antioch wholly refused to accept the dictation of Jerusalem. On the contrary, it undertook wide-reaching missions, of one of which Paul became the leader, founding churches in Galatia, Asia, and Achaea. Of his career we have an obviously good account, so far as the sequence of events is concerned, in the second part of Acts, and some interesting sidelights on its difficulties and trials in the Pauline epistles.

What were the main characteristics of the preaching to the Gentiles which thus found a centre in Antioch? Its basis was the intellectual heritage from Jerusalem which made the Christians teach that the God of the Jews was the only true God, and that Jesus had been appointed by him as the Man who would judge the world at the end of the age. This represents the teaching in Marcan tradition as to the Son of Man, but Paul also accepted the view that Jesus was the Son of David, though he seems to have eliminated the purely national character of the expected restoration of the kingdom of the Jews under a Davidic king.

The only complete evidence as to the exact form of the


expectation which played a part in the teaching of Paul, and presumably in that of the Church of Antioch as a whole, is the invaluable description given in the Epistles1 of the sequence of events to which Paul looked forward. According to this he expected that Jesus would come on the clouds of heaven; Christians who had died would be raised up, and the rest would be changed, so that they would no longer consist of flesh and blood, but of spirit. But, just as in 4 Ezra, the reign of the Messiah is limited; a time will come when he will deliver up his dominion to God. Then comes "the End," and Paul takes the picture no further. Is it too much to suppose that, like 4 Ezra, he thought that at the End the whole of the present order would cease, and that after it would come the general resurrection and judgement, to which he frequently alludes, followed by the life of the Age to Come? In any case the idea of the limited reign of the Messiah, and the increased emphasis on the descent of Jesus from David, are points of contact with 4 Ezra, and thus make it increasingly possible that Paul thought that the resurrection of Christians to life would be separate from the final resurrection of all to judgement.

This original Christian teaching was essentially Jewish, but much of the phraseology in which it would have been expressed by Jews must have been unintelligible to Greek ears. It therefore soon either disappeared or was transformed. The Kingdom of God, for instance, is as rarely mentioned in the Pauline epistles as it is frequent in the earliest part of the gospels. The word "Christ," translating the Hebrew adjective "anointed," was entirely unintelligible to Greek ears, and became a proper name. "Son of Man" or "Man" would have been even more unintelligible; Paul never used "Son of Man," and it is doubtful whether he uses the word "Man" in the technical apocalyptic sense. But though the words were unintelligible the ideas had not disappeared. The functions

1 Especially 1 Cor. xv. and 1 Thess. iv.


attributed to the Son of Man in the gospels still remain attributed to Jesus in the Pauline epistles, though they are scarcely so much emphasised.

The Antiochean missionaries seem to have adopted a new word to take the place of the unintelligible "Messiah" and "Son of Man," and called Jesus "Lord." It is made tolerably certain by comparing the oldest strata of the gospels with the more recent that this word was not used in Jerusalem or in Galilee as a title of Jesus. It may have been used occasionally in Aramaic-speaking circles, but it became dominant in Greek. Its extreme importance is that it was already familiar to the Greek-speaking world in connection with religion. It had become the typical title for the God of one of the Graeco-Oriental cults which offered private salvation1 to individuals. It was therefore inevitable that whatever the Jews may have meant when they called Jesus Lord, their Greek converts interpreted it in the sense in which the word had become familiar to them, and thought in consequence that Jesus was the divine head of a cult by which each individual might obtain salvation. The full importance of this became obvious in a purely Greek centre such as Corinth, but the process began in Antioch.

This change in the significance attached to Jesus had its correlative effect on the position which the Christians ascribed to themselves. They came inevitably to regard themselves as the members of a new cult which was superior to all others. Only by joining their number was salvation to be found. In this sense they began to interpret the phrase "Kingdom of God," which in many parts of the gospels very obviously means the Christian Church. Few things, however, are more certain than that Jesus had no intention of founding a new society outside the Jewish Church, and none of these passages can with any probability be ascribed to him, even though at least one

1 See p. 58.


can, on mechanical grounds, make out a fair case for inclusion in Q.

A correlative change was introduced into the attitude adopted towards the Old Testament. The Antiochean Christians refused to accept it as an obligatory law of conduct; but more and more was it interpreted as prophetic of Jesus, and not only of him but also of the Christian Church. In this way everything that was said of ancient Israel, and all the promises made to it, were transferred to the Christians, who claimed that they, and not the Jews, were the ancient People of God. The complete fulfilment of this process did not, it is true, take place in the time of Paul, but it was not long in coming, and even in the epistles there are many places which show that the Christians regarded themselves as the true heirs of the promise.

This transference of the Jewish scriptures to the Christian Church was probably almost as important for the future history of Christianity as the change which made Jesus the centre of a cult offering private salvation, instead of the prophetic herald of the Kingdom of Heaven, destined by God to be his representative at the End of the Age. It meant that Christianity shared with Judaism the advantage, which no other religion in the Empire had, of being a religion with a Book. Nevertheless the obvious fact that the Book was not originally Christian was destined in the long run to lead to considerable difficulty. Though the Old Testament is not always susceptible of the meaning given to it by Jewish rabbis, it is essentially a Jewish book, and the attempt to find in it a series of prophecies foretelling the coming of Jesus was radically wrong. It could not be supported by any straightforward interpretation, which gave to the Old Testament its original historical meaning. The result was the inevitable growth of an unnatural symbolical interpretation which had little difficulty in extracting anything from anything. It is difficult to estimate whether the result has been more good or evil. It produced good, in that it very soon neces-


sitated the growth of a Christian canon—the New Testament added to the Old—and this preserved much great literature for the advantage of future generations, and was a check upon extravagances of thought. Perhaps most important of all, it provided an ethical standard which successive generations of Christians have never succeeded in practising. They have indeed frequently tried to explain away the contrast between their scriptures and their deeds when it became too oppressive, but they have never quite succeeded, or been able entirely to satisfy themselves by these methods: the letter of scripture has constantly remained a salutary protest against the interpretation put upon it. All this has been of enormous advantage for the Christian Church. But on the other hand the infallibility ascribed to the Bible has been an easy weapon for obscurantism, and a drag on intellectual progress. It has prevented the Church from adopting the discoveries of science and criticism in such a way as to make them applicable to religious life. Bible Christianity1 in some of its more recent forms has become a serious danger, and in moments of depression a student is apt to ask whether in the irony of history the Bible, which strengthened and supported the Church in its early history, and helped it in many generations to moral reformation, is destined to become an instrument for preventing the adaptation of Christianity to the needs of today, and to drive the spirit of religion, which is eternal, from organised Christianity to take refuge once more in some newer forms, more receptive of truth, and less tenacious of error.

1 The reference is to certain American institutions, connected in the main with evangelising movements.

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