Religio Philologi: The Gentile Church, B:

Thriving on Controversies

Instead of celebrating the Jewish Sabbath (the seventh day of the week), the faithful gradually broke with Jewish custom and assembled, instead, on the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, which they identified with the first day of Creation.  They came together to sing hymns, hear the good news preached, make common prayers, and partake of communion.  As Adrian Fortescue has shown, these primitive liturgies, however diverse they might have been, consisted of common elements. Even before there were written Gospels, stories of Christ’s life and teachings as told by the apostles were recited, and letters from Paul and, later, of Clement and Barnabas, were read aloud.  Some of these stories were not incorporated directly into the Gospels, but they continued to be told in the major churches that had received the teachings of the apostles.

Most of the earliest followers of Christ were Jewish and naturally continued to live as Jews, observing all the dietary and ritual prohibitions.  The gentiles whom Paul converted were naturally reluctant to observe the same rules, much less to submit to circumcision.  Troublemakers from Judaea insisted that these gentiles were not true Christians unless they became Jews, while Paul and Barnabas defended their gentile converts (though Paul would later have Timothy circumcised to make him a more effective preacher to the Jews).  

A council of the Church was convened in Jerusalem at which the legalists (probably Pharisees), who insisted on circumcision, were challenged by Peter, one of the first to have preached to a gentile,  Cornelius the centurion.  (Philip had also explained the good news to a God-fearing Ethiopian.)   Peter argued that it was unnecessary to impose such a burden on gentile converts.  James the Just, who presided and served as arbitrator, gave the verdict to Peter and Paul, and the apostles and elders collectively sent out an apostolic letter to other congregations, saying, 

“It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things,” that is, to abstain from idolatry and fornication.  

Once again, we see the model of the Church.  The leaders—and not just those in Jerusalem—assemble to discuss the question.  A consensus is reached, though probably not to everyone’s satisfaction, and the decision is given by the presiding officer in the name of both the apostles and the Holy Ghost.  The early Church, then, although it listened to both sides, was not democratic, nor was it local and congregational.  Once the decision was made by the council, it was made for the entire Church.

The problem, however, did not go away.  Judeo-Christians continued to complain that Paul was turning his back on Judaism, and the dispute became serious in Antioch.  When Peter arrived, he joined Paul in common meals with gentile Christians, but when messengers came from Jerusalem complaining about their behavior, Peter withdrew, and Barnabas, Paul’s collaborator, went with him.  As we used to say in the South, Paul rose up and stuck it into Peter and broke it off in him.  In telling this story to the Galatians, the Apostle makes a clean break with Judaism and demands the same of all Christians: “For I testify to every man that is circumcised that he is a debtor to the whole law.  Christ is become of no effect to you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.”  Contemporary Christians who make a show of keeping Jewish customs are, therefore, defying Paul, and, according to Paul himself, annulling the crucifixion.

Defenders of the Faith

Apart from the Gospels, the earliest Christian writings are for the most part epistles, both of the apostles and later Church leaders, directed primarily at Christians and sympathetic “fellow-travelers.”  These writings include not only the scriptures of the New Testament, but also the writings of early Apostolic Fathers, who continued Paul’s work of clarifying doctrine and rectifying abuses.  One of the most important of these early Fathers was Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who lived in the second half of the First Century.  Ignatius emphasized the unity of the Church and the importance of respect for the bishops, who ruled over Christian communities like so many captains of ships. 

Antioch was a great Hellenized city (that is, the people had adopted Greek language and culture) in Syria, where the name “Christian” was first used, perhaps because most of the converts in Antioch were non-Jewish and needed a specific name.  Ignatius warned against one of the perennial temptations—to impose Jewish customs on the Church: “It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize.  For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God.” [Magnesians 10] Ignatius also warned against the poison of heretics who denied the reality of Christ’s passion. [Trallians 11]

One of these early attempts to defend the faith in public is the letter of the “Mathetes” (Greek for Disciple) addressed to Diognetus, a pagan intellectual.  The Disciple clearly distinguishes Christians both from idolatrous Greeks and from Jews, whose kosher laws he describes as superstitious and even blasphemous.  “For, to accept some of those things which have been formed by God for the use of men as properly formed, and to reject others as useless and redundant—how can this be lawful?  And to speak falsely of God, as if He forbade us to do what is good on the Sabbath-days—how is not this impious? And to glory in the circumcision of the flesh as a proof of election, and as if, on account of it, they were specially beloved by God—how is it not a subject of ridicule.”

Conflicts between Jewish and gentile Christians had obviously not disappeared after the Council of Jerusalem, especially in Asia Minor and Syria.  Ignatius and the Disciple were concerned to make it clear that Christianity had gone beyond Judaism.  One of their reasons was the fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed.  Jews had become increasingly militant against the Roman Empire, and when they rose up in rebellion in the late 60’s, Vespasian was sent by Nero to put it down.  When the war was finished by Vespasian’s son Titus, Vespasian (now the emperor) had the temple destroyed.  Problems continued until another major rebellion, led by a false messiah, broke out in the reign of Hadrian.  Hadrian’s generals not only crushed the rebellion but expelled the Jews from Jerusalem and much of Judaea.  Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina, and it would be several centuries before the Church in Jerusalem, no longer made up of Jewish Christians, would play a major role.  During this difficult period, then, Christians wanted to show that they were not Jews, but good citizens of the Empire.

This concern may explain why the Disciple is so eager to portray the Christians as good citizens who do not make trouble:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe.  For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity…inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners.  As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners.  Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. .. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives.  They love all men, and are persecuted.

By the Age of the Antonines, Christianity had attracted enough attention that pagan intellectuals were able to distinguish Christianity from Judaism.  

Many of the same charges continued to be made: Christians were immoral, unpatriotic, and cannibalistic.  The philosopher Celsus, later refuted by Origen, ridiculed the beliefs of Christians as a mishmash of lies, false history, and traditions borrowed from Jews, Greeks, and other nations.  

Christians, at this same time, were beginning to feel confident enough to address a series of “apologies,” that is, philosophical explanations in defense of their faith, to the emperors.  The first to survive (discovered at the end of the 19th Century in an Armenian version) is from Aristides of Athens and addressed to Emperor Hadrian.  

All these early defenders of the faith underlined the importance of the moral virtues.  Christians are just like other citizens of the empire, paying taxes and serving in the army.  Their only distinction is that they abide by their oaths and do not rob or cheat in business; they do not fornicate or commit adultery or waste time on drunken rioting.   As the Disciple says, “They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy the fetuses.”   In other words, they did not abort or expose their children.  Aristides of Athens also points out another vice not practiced by Christians:  homosexuality.

But Christian morality is not just a series of “Thou shalt nots.”  It is a positive moral code.  Christians, says Aristides:

honor father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them.. ; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly…and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others….And their oppressors they comfort and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest….

Christians practice charity not only among themselves but even to pagan strangers.

Justin Martyr is undoubtedly the greatest of the early apologists.  Born in Samaria to a Greek pagan family, Justin sought wisdom in the different schools of  philosophy before becoming a Christian convert.   He defended his new faith against the attacks of Trypho, a Jewish critic, and came to Rome about 150, during the reign of Antoninus Pius.  He addressed his two Apologies to the Emperor and to his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius, who was already known for his devotion to philosophy.  In his Apologies, Justin proves that the true wisdom and piety that Marcus is studying in Greek philosophy has been achieved by ordinary, uneducated Christians, who are the true representatives of Greco-Roman civilization. [Daniélou and Marrou I, p. 92.]  Justin’s arguments would not save him from execution.  Marcus, who probably never heard of much less read Justin, viewed Christians as stubborn and perverse, and their heroism in facing death was the proof.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Robert Peters says:

    As a Christian, I have long wished that Marcus Aurelius had converted. Since he did not convert, the next best thing he could have done was to have strangled Commodus in the cradle.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, indeed, but which of us could do such a thing? Succession problems are the plague of all political systems. If Marcus had arranged for an adopted son to succeed, Commodus would have been at the center of every rebellion. In European monarchies, where primogeniture determined the heir, they had to put up with fools and villains. In America, where we elect our dictators from a list approved by our masters, we are hardly any better off.