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First-century Ecumenism

The biblioblogging discussion of New Testament unity and diversity continues, and James McGrath has a new update of links, as well as the heartbreaking and/or liberating news that all of us who have participated in this discussion have now been excommunicated for our sectarian views.

One of the (legitimate) criticisms of my suggested “genealogical” chart of early Christian diversity was that it didn’t fully account for all of the diversity that was there. There are a number of reasons for this. First, although I tried to locate every New Testament document (and most of the Apostolic Fathers) on a spectrum, I largely passed over strands of tradition that did not leave a first-century paper trail. Second, as I mentioned in a comment at Euangelion, a series of overlapping circles would be a more apt graphic representation of what I think the first-century situation was—but I’m just not that great a designer!

Anyway, I don’t dispute that there was an unexpected diversity already present within the Jesus movement within just a decade or so of its founding. The evidence of this is there to see in the book of Acts. There, one can find evidence of several broad groupings of Jesus-followers that all existed before the death of Herod Agrippa I (AD 44, Acts 12).

The Jerusalem Church

Within the Jerusalem church itself, the book of Acts notes the following groups or constituencies:

The Community around the “Jerusalem Pillars”

Paul referred to Peter, James, and John as “acknowledged pillars” of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9). The context of Galatians 2 suggests that this was a term conferred on them by others and not Paul’s invention. In fact, he subtly distanced himself from it in verse 6. No doubt the main body of Jerusalem believers looked to the original circle of Jesus’ followers, and to these three in particular, for leadership.

Although Luke clearly distinguishes between “the apostles” and “the brothers of the Lord” (Acts 1:14-15), the primary sources do not indicate any fundamental rifts between the two, and Paul recognized members of both groups as comprising the acknowledged leadership of the Jerusalem church.

Hellenistic-Jewish Believers

Acts 6 reports frictions in the Jerusalem church between the “Hebrews” and the “Hellenists.” Literally from the beginning (Acts 2), the Jerusalem community was made up both of native Judean and Galilean Jews, who spoke Aramaic, and immigrant, Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews. It was this Hellenistic contingent that first pushed the Jesus movement beyond the walls of Jerusalem and into the wider world. The speech of Stephen (Acts 7) gives a thumbnail sketch of at least one brand of Hellenistic-Jewish theology, which sought to extract the Jesus movement from over-reliance on the temple and other traditional accouterments of the Jewish religion and make it a truly universal Gospel. After Stephen’s martyrdom, we see Hellenistic Jews preaching Jesus to Samaritans and an Ethiopian (Philip, Acts 8), and ultimately to the Gentile population of Antioch (Acts 13).

The presence of large numbers of Hellenistic Jews within the Jerusalem community provided an impetus for collecting the sayings of Jesus and translating them into Greek in the very first months after Pentecost.

A Priestly Contingent

In Acts 6:7, “a great many of the priests” are said to have become members of the Nazorean community. Were these priests affiliated with the Sadducees? The acceptance of Hellenistic Jews within the community (or perhaps the establishment of an alternative Hellenistic-Jewish wing of the church) may have attracted the Sadducees—the most Hellenized Jewish faction in Eretz Israel—to the Jesus movement. Furthermore, since many priestly families were in fact quite poor, the community’s manifest concern for its most helpless members may have been a factor in winning over certain priests who had been shut out of the positions of influence enjoyed by the high priestly families and those connected to them.

It is also possible that these priestly converts were Essenes. The Essenes of Qumran were led by dissident members of the Levitical priesthood who had separated themselves from the Jerusalem cultus. While Sadducean priests might have felt most at home in the Hellenistic-Jewish wing of the community, converted Essene priests might have more naturally gravitated to the more thorough Hebraic “Jerusalem pillars.” At any event, there is no indication in Acts that these priests formed a distinct community. At the same time, they may well have imported some of their religiosity, whatever it may have been, into the Nazorean movement at this early period.

The “Circumcised Believers”

This group is first mentioned in Acts 11:1, but they almost certainly existed from the beginning. They only surfaced when the first tentative steps at reaching out to non-Jews forced on the community the question of maintaining the Jewish identity that the community had previously taken for granted.

The “circumcised believers” were Nazoreans for whom circumcision and the other marks of Jewish identity were of particular importance. In Acts 11, they are distinguished from the apostles and the wider group of Judean believers mentioned in verse 1. Evidently, they felt non-Jews who professed faith in Jesus should do so by converting to Judaism according to the accepted proselyte procedure. They were almost certainly the believers mentioned in 15:5, who belonged to the Pharisees and demanded that Gentiles be circumcised and keep the Torah. Their perspective is understandable, “given that at this point Christianity was still seen as a movement within Judaism” (John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary [Broadman, 1992] 266).

It is not accurate, however, to see them as a well defined sect or “denomination,” at least at this early point. Even so, “The clear implication of Luke’s wording … is that their circumcised state was fundamental to their identity, hence, literally, ‘those of/from circumcision’” (James D. G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, Narrative Commentaries [Trinity Press, 1996] 149). And, Dunn reminds us, “They should not be demonized or caricatured: Peter had shared their viewpoint and only been changed by extraordinary signs of God’s will!” (Ibid.).

Other Communities

Eventually, the Jesus movement spread beyond the walls of Jerusalem. Other communities with close ties to the original Jerusalem community soon spread as far as Galilee and Syria. Again from the early chapters of Acts, we note the following constituencies:

Judean Communities

Acts 8:1 describes how the early Nazoreans spread out after the death of Stephen “throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.” In particular, Acts 9:32-35 names three Judean villages with a Nazorean presence: Lydda, Sharon, and Joppa. We may assume that these areas were evangelized principally by Hellenistic-Jewish believers, although Luke was quick to establish a connection between the new Judean and Samarian converts and the “Jerusalem pillars.” Peter is depicted ministering in these cities and, along with John, endorsing Philip’s work among the Samaritans.

Samaritan Communities

If the Jerusalem church was made up of “Messianic Jews,” these were “Messianic Samaritans.” Acts 8 records how they began after the death of Stephen under the guidance of Philip and with the endorsement of the Jerusalem establishment. Later Christian anti-heretical writers often identified Simon the Magician from Acts 8:9-13, 18-24 as the fount from which the Gnostic heresy began. Luke  never does so.

Like the Essenes, Samaritans rejected the primacy of the Jerusalem temple. In many particulars, they observed the Mosaic law more strictly than the Pharisees, and like the Sadducees they accepted only the Pentateuch as inspired Scripture. They expected a messianic figure called the Taheb, whom they interpreted mainly in light of the “prophet like Moses” predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18.

Galilean communities

Acts 9:31 describes how the Jesus movement spread “throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee,” although nothing is narrated about the evangelization of Galilee. It is possible that a Galilean community of Jesus-followers sprung up independently of the “Jerusalem pillars.” Julius Africanus (early 3rd century) names Kokhaba and Nazareth as important centers from which members of the family of Jesus ministered as traveling preachers. If these villages were in fact ancestral hometowns of the family of Jesus, they may well have been Natzraye centers from the first century—perhaps even from the time of Jesus’ Galilean ministry.

Contrary to much scholarly speculation, it is not accurate to suppose that Galilee was a thoroughly Hellenized region in the time of Jesus. In Archeology and the Galilean Jesus (Trinity Press, 2000), Reed examines the archeological evidence for the culture of Galilee and finds that the religious and ethnic identity of that region was thoroughly Jewish with very few Gentile influences.

Many speculate that the hypothetical document “Q” was associated with a Galilean community with traditions distinct from those in Jerusalem. Scholars who accept the existence of Q see it as an important piece of evidence for the earliest picture of Jesus in the communities that grew up around him.

Although I remain a Q agnostic, the Synoptic Gospels provide us with a possible Sitz im Leben within Jesus’ ministry for the creation of such a document. Mark 6, Matthew 10, and Luke 9 report Jesus’ sending of the disciples throughout Galilee to preach and heal. Furthermore, in Luke 10 Jesus sent seventy evangelists with the same mission.

These missions would have created the need for some sort of summary of Jesus’ teachings, and it is at least possible that this summary would have eventually been committed to writing. If so, it would have looked quite a bit like the conventional scholarly reconstruction of Q. Namely,

  • It would be a “sayings source,” focusing mainly on Jesus’ teachings.
  • It would not have included a passion or resurrection narrative: these events had not yet taken place.
  • It would have given evidence of Galilean provenance.

Syrian Communities

According to Acts 9:1, Saul went as far as Damascus looking for “followers of the Way.” Acts 9:10 reports the presence of disciples there in the person of Ananias.

Early church fathers give evidence that Nazorean communities persisted in Syria into the third and fourth centuries. Syria is a possible locale for the writing and early ecclesiastical use of the Gospel of Matthew, which (by the majority scholarly opinion) made use of the (Galilean) sayings Gospel Q. It is beyond dispute that the Nazoreans used either Matthew or an apocryphal Gospel derivative of Matthew in their communities.

The Gospel of Thomas is associated with Syria as well. In Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (T & T Clark, 2005), DeConick argues that the Gospel of Thomas is an example of a “rolling corpus” of materials drawn originally from oral sources, that was shaped and reinterpreted over time to meet the changing needs of the community. She suggests that the “kernel” of Thomas comprised apocalyptic sayings of Jesus very much at home in the Jewish milieu and later adjusted in light of dashed eschatological hopes of the “Thomasine” community (summary and review here).

Finally, it should be noted that medieval sources indicate the existence of three bishops of Seleucia-Ctesiphon in the second century who claimed descent from the family of Jesus.

Followers of John the Baptist

Luke describes certain followers of John the Baptist whom Paul encountered on his travels. In Acts 18:24-27 recounts the story of Apollos, an eloquent, enthusiastic Alexandrian preacher, “instructed in the way of the Lord” but knowing only the baptism of John. In Acts 19:1-7, Paul runs into some “disciples” who were “baptized…into John’s baptism.”

Properly speaking, these followers of John come from a period after the death of Agrippa I, but they obviously provide evidence for a continued devotion to John in pockets of the Hellenistic world. It is noteworthy that, while Paul deemed that the disciples he met in Ephesus needed to be re-baptized “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” Priscilla and Aquila imposed no such condition on Apollos. It was sufficient for him to be instructed more accurately in the way of God.

Conclusion

A face-value reading of Acts indicates that the earliest Christian communities were quite diverse, although Luke describes the disparate constituencies managing to maintain a degree of “intercommunion.” Individual readers can decide for themselves how much “spin” they want to read into Luke’s representation of Christian unity in the 30s and early 40s, but chronological proximity to the life and teachings of Jesus inclines me to take Luke’s report seriously as a genuine historical recollection.

In any case, I would say that, rather than a monolithic “church,” we have in Acts a broad “ecumenical movement” encompassing several different brands of Jesus-followers. Certain fracture points are already apparent in the Acts narrative, most obviously questions about attitudes toward the Torah and the mechanism(s) for admitting non-Jewish converts into the community.

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