A commonly held myth among Christians is the concept that there was basic uniformity among Christians in the early church. [Referring to this conviction as a myth in no way is intended as an attack on the sincerity of the Christians who hold this view.] This conviction is typically broken down into these understandings. (1) God’s concept of the church was perfect. (2) The objective of the apostles was to convey God’s concept of the church to believers. (3) The apostles were successful in this objective. (4) While there were congregations of Christians existing in ignorance or defiance [like those in the congregation at Corinth], such congregations were the exception rather than the rule. (5) Overall, the apostles were successful in producing unity in the worldwide Christian community. (6) The end result was a uniformity which made all knowledgeable Christians alike in all religious things. (7) One of the major objectives of the church today is to reproduce the uniformity of the first century church.
What is the myth? The myth is that the church of the first century achieved uniformity among Christians. Typically this myth gives God’s grace a unique definition, or it disregards the concept of God’s grace.
Consider from the scripture a reality in the first century church. People were converted to the crucified, resurrected Jesus as Lord and Christ for the first time in Acts 2 (Acts 2:36). This first presentation of the saving power of the resurrected Jesus occurred in Jerusalem on the occasion of Jewish Pentecost. Only a Jewish audience that included those who were converted to Judaism heard this presentation (Acts 2:10). [Proselytes were people who had no Jewish ancestry but converted to Judaism as a religion. They adopted Jewish traditions as their lifestyle.]
At first there was enormous joy and sharing among the Jews and proselytes converted to Jesus Christ. Read Acts 2:41-47. Daily they devoted themselves to togetherness in Christ as they learned more completely about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s promised Jewish Messiah had come! They were filled with awe as they witnessed the Jewish apostles perform miracles. An incredible togetherness characterized all Jewish believers and proselyte believers who accepted the resurrected Jesus as the Christ.
These Jewish believers realized God’s original intent in Israel should characterize Christian relationships between Jewish and proselyte believers who accepted the crucified, resurrected Jesus as God’s Christ promised to Israel. Read Deuteronomy 15:1-11. Compare that Deuteronomy emphasis to the events mentioned in Acts 2:43-47 characterizing this first congregation [a Jewish congregation] and to the statement in Acts 4:34-35.
Local believers provided for the needs of pilgrim believers who wished to prolong their visit to Jerusalem. Pilgrim converts to Christ originally planned their pilgrimage to Jerusalem by calculating the expenses of their trip. They did not have our modern methods of acquiring more funds to prolong their visit [no ATM machines, no telephones to contact extended family back home, no wired money vouchers, etc.] Because of this new spirit among Jewish Christians, pilgrim believers wanted to stay in Jerusalem in order to learn more about Jesus Christ and better understand the teachings of the Messiah.
The Complexity of the Situation in the First Congregation
Speaking in broad terms, there were four categories of converts among the early believers in Jesus as the Christ in the first congregation. There were Jewish converts whose families had been residents of Palestine for generations. These people had not lived outside of Palestine for generations. Aramaic was their primary language. Their culture was basically a product of life and experience in Palestine rooted in the ancient traditions of the Jewish homeland.
There were Jews who had relocated to Palestine. Their families had generations of Jewish experiences in the Jewish communities in other countries. There are indications that these Jewish people had more contact and interaction with gentile people in their country of origin. Because of their ethical values and moral standards, Jewish people in other countries at times were desired by gentile people to fill roles in which integrity was critical. These people spoke Greek as their primary language. To retire to or to be able financially to move to the Jewish homeland was a dream of some of the diaspora [Jews living in communities outside Palestine].
There were pilgrim Jews who made the infrequent [perhaps the ‘once in a lifetime’] pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Conversion to Jesus as the Christ made it desirable for them to extend their pilgrimage. Perhaps some of them even relocated to the Jerusalem area.
There were proselytes. Prior to conversion to Jesus as the Christ, these gentile people had converted to Judaism. They were circumcised believers in Jehovah God who adopted Jewish ways and traditions as their lifestyle. For the greater majority of them, the language of their original country was their primary language, but they spoke the international language of Greek.
Please note one of the miracles on the Acts 2 occasion: the apostles [Galilean Jews] spoke to the crowd from which the first converts came. Without the aid of interpreters, every immigrant Jew, pilgrim Jew, and proselyte heard the apostles’ message in their own primary language.
The initial reaction of the converts to Jesus as the resurrected Christ was this: (1) “God has kept His ancient promise to send the Messiah [‘Christ’ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’]. (2) The message of the Jewish prophets about the future of Israel is at this moment coming true. (3) The time of Israel’s renewal is here!” The initial reaction of Jewish converts to Jesus as the resurrected Messiah was closely related to what American Christians would consider a restoration movement. The gospel could go into all the world [the Mediterranean world to us] with a message to the diaspora [scattered Jews located in Jewish communities in all major cities] about God sending the promised Messiah to the nation of Israel.
While most American Christians see the scope of Christianity as universal in concept, this first congregation saw the scope of Christianity in nationalistic terms.
Consider this diagram as an illustration:
Isaac → Jacob → 12 sons → 12 tribes → Israel [nation] ← Christians
(vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (divine goal)
Compare the above concept to this:
Isaac → Jacob → 12 sons → 12 tribes → Israel [nation] →Israel [universal]
(vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (vehicle) (divine goal)
In the Jerusalem congregation, most early converts did not look at Israel as a means for God to use to achieve His goal. They looked at the redeemed nation of Israel as God’s goal. The objective was to call Jews to fulfillment and divine reformation in the nation of Israel through the resurrected Jesus who was [is] the Messiah. The objective was to call gentiles to proselytism to Judaism and then to Christ.
It is simple to see how Jewish converts could hold this view of the Messiah’s mission. (1) Israel was composed of God’s chosen people (Exodus 19:5, 6; Deuteronomy 7:6-8; 9:5) (2) Israel existed and was blessed by God’s powerful acts [performing ten miraculous deeds to release them from slavery; crossing the Red Sea; sustaining them in the wilderness; giving them Canaan as a homeland; etc.]. (3) God promised them the Messiah. (4) John called Israel to repentance to prepare them for the Christ. (5) Jesus’ earthly ministry was confined primarily to the Jewish people (Matthew 10:5-7; Mark 7:27).
The concept that all who place an obedient trust in Jesus as the resurrected Christ were accepted by God as citizens in the universal Israel [regardless of the believing person’s ancestry] was an unthinkable concept to most Jewish Christians. Peter’s realization in Acts 10:34-35 was grasped with great personal difficulty. It certainly was not held by Jewish Christians in the Jerusalem congregation! (Consider Acts 11:2, 3, 16-18; 15:5.) It certainly was not held by the delegation of Jewish Christians sent from Jerusalem by James to the gentile congregations in Galatia! (Consider Galatians 1:6, 7; 2:11-14; 4:7; 4:21-31.) Yet, the Jewish Christians Peter (Acts 10:34, 35), Stephen (Acts 7:48), and Paul (Romans 11; Galatians 6:16) grasped the fact that God’s goal was much larger than physical Israel. Paul declared that God’s Israel is not a matter of ancestry but a matter of faith in Jesus as the Christ (Acts 13:42-49; Romans 9:6-8).
Many first century Jewish people including many Jewish Christians reacted against this understanding, some violently. Prior to conversion, Paul regarded Christianity as a grave threat to the nation of Israel and used violence in an effort to destroy this threat (Acts 8:1-3; 26:9-12; 1 Timothy 1:12-14). Some in the Jewish congregation in Jerusalem feared that accepting gentiles who were not proselytes into Christianity seriously threatened the future existence of Judaism (Acts 15:19-21). The book of Galatians documents the fact that the congregation in Jerusalem sent delegations to gentile congregations existing outside Jewish influence to impose Jewish practices on gentile converts.
The first problem
Pilgrim Jews who came to Jerusalem and became believers in the resurrected Jesus Christ had limited funds. Soon these pilgrim believers faced a crisis. Since their original plans did not include extending their Jerusalem visit past Pentecost, leaving was a necessity instead of a decision. Ordinarily in pilgrimages, remaining in Jerusalem past the planned departure time was not an option.
If these Jewish pilgrim converts were to remain in Jerusalem, local Jewish Christians must supply their physical needs—and local Jewish Christians did! Properties and possessions were sold. Sharing was common. Needs were addressed. Each day, local Christians fed pilgrim Christians as all of them shared a spirit of joy. All of them focused existence in Jesus Christ with gladness. God was praised for all they received in Jesus Christ. Even those Jews who did not believe in Jesus regarded Christian Jews as an asset (Acts 2:47).
It is likely (see Leviticus 25:35-38; Deuteronomy 15:1-11) that a fund existed in Jerusalem to help Jews facing physical necessity. That such a fund existed in the Jerusalem congregation is verified by Acts 2:45, 4:36, 37; 5:1-11; 6:1. At first the fund was more than adequate for assisting relocated Jewish Christians and pilgrim Jewish Christians. With Christians selling possessions to address the physical needs of converts, the fund likely grew at first. However, the needs were continuous and the fund became stressed. In time, there was little more to sell. Yet, needs increased as the congregation grew.
As anyone experienced in benevolent activity understands, there must be criteria to determine (1) who is to receive help and (2) who is at the top of the list to be helped. Language is the primary vehicle of culture. Even today, it often is a primary means for establishing a line of distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Too often language is one of the gauges for determining who receives benevolent help.
The Jews who accepted Jesus as the Christ increased in number daily. Two things attracted Jewish people to those who accepted Jesus as the promised Christ: (1) Jesus’ resurrection and (2) the positive impact believing in Jesus Christ had on believer-believer relationships. This good development placed more stress on the benevolent fund.
Human flaws eventually prevailed. Acts 6 referred to the local Christians who for generations lived in the Palestine area as Hebrews. It referred to diaspora Jewish residents and pilgrim Christians as Hellenists. A dividing line separated Hebrew and Hellenist Christians! Though both groups were Jewish in ancestry, they significantly differed (1) in language and (2) in some synagogue procedures. While likely all [or most] of the Jews spoke common Greek [the almost universal language of market places], the regional language of Jews native to Palestine was Aramaic.
A human flaw frequently reveals itself when different primary languages and differences in religious procedures exist. The vehicle of this human flaw is favoritism. Virtually all humans prefer humans who are like them. Prejudice, even among Jewish Christians, eventually won!
In Acts 6 the congregation that began with opening homes and selling possessions to help needy believers found itself on the brink of major division. This Jewish congregation was accused of partiality by some of its own members! This problem was internal, not external! The Hebrew Jewish Christians were indicted for neglecting some Hellenist Jewish Christians in the distribution of food to needy widows.
Perhaps by this occasion many of the Jewish converts to Christ at Pentecost had relocated to Jerusalem to be part of the Jerusalem church. Such relocation truly would have stressed benevolent resources. The fact that the Messiah had come would have been a powerful draw to Jerusalem!
Please note the fact that this problem existed. The apostles had to address the problem in this first congregation composed only of Jews and proselytes. The problem constituted a serious threat to Christian fellowship in this first congregation. The problem could not be ignored! Please understand this is a problem among Jewish Christians in the first congregation at the center of Christianity prior to the existence of gentile believers in Jesus Christ who were converted from gentile idol worship.
The fact the problem existed declares uniformity did not exist among Christians when the church was only Jewish. Differences were real! Real differences easily escalated to the status of serious problem.
Glimpses of the Picture in the Puzzle
This section seeks to address an enormous challenge. Perhaps it is comparable to looking at the unassembled pieces of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. About two-thirds of the puzzle is unassembled on a table picture up. About a third of the puzzle is still jumbled together in the box. Were it not for the picture on the front of the box, one would have no idea of what the picture on the puzzle should look like.
In recent decades more and more pieces of puzzle revealing the ‘picture’ of the first century Christian community have been identified or recognized. In the past, people often thought they had all the pieces and knew what the picture should be. To form that picture, people often ‘forced’ pieces to fit together to conform to a predetermined, accepted picture. The procedure said, (1) “This is what the first century Christian community looked like. (2) The puzzle pieces we possess must fit together to produce that picture. (3) If a piece must be ‘forced’ to fit the picture, so be it. The picture determines the role of the pieces rather than properly fitting pieces forming the picture.” With a little thought, it should be evident this is ‘backwards’ thinking. The correct picture is formed when (1) all the pieces (2) fit together correctly (3) without having to be ‘forced’ into places they do not fit.
When it comes to the first century Christian community, we still find and ‘turn up’ pieces of the puzzle. Unfortunately, we do not have a ‘picture on the box’ as a reference. The Bible is the box, but it has no ‘picture of the first century Christian community’ on its lid. More and more, pieces long unrecognized or ignored are becoming evident.
The sole objective [it is the only objective!] of these observations is to note the complexities of the Jewish community when Christianity began in Jerusalem. The purpose is simple: to stress the fact that those complexities had a definite impact on the Christian community before first century Christianity became a movement among gentiles in the first century world.
Begin by considering the Hebraist. The area of the first century homeland of the Jewish people had numerous gentile peoples living in it. For centuries the Jewish homeland was located on a major land trade route connecting Egypt with the east. For hundreds of years this small country [smaller than many states in the United States of America] was invaded by foreign influences [through commerce and military campaigns] that intruded on their isolationist culture: such as the Assyrians, the Babylonians, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, and the Romans. The Hebraist maintained an existence of isolation in a sea of foreign influences. They had as little contact as possible with foreign influences, yet expedience and necessity made some contact necessary. However, they maintained their own traditions, their own worship practices at their sacrificial worship site, and their own language to preserve [in their concept] the covenant God made with Abraham.
Generally, they had little social contact with gentile people (Matthew 10:5; 15:21-28; John 4:9; 8:48; 18:28; Acts 10:28; 11:3). It is that reality that makes statements found in Matthew 8:5-13 [the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant], Luke 7:4, 5 [a Jewish plea to grant a gentile’s request], and Matthew 5:41 [the instruction to carry a Roman soldier’s pack a second mile] both insightful and fascinating.
There were also Hellenist Jews who resettled in or near Jerusalem as residents of the Jewish homeland. Aramaic was not their first language. Greek was. They established and attended a Hellenist synagogue in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9). They felt more comfortable studying, worshipping, and socializing with ‘Jews like us’. Because Hellenist Jews came from cities in countries where interaction between the Jewish community and the gentile residents of the place was more likely, they viewed gentiles a little differently—many Hellenists were not as committed to isolation.
This does not imply that there was a discernible fault line based on differing theological views between Hebraists and Hellenists that threatened to produce an earthquake between the two groups in the Jerusalem community. The differences likely were subtle, but differences existed. Often people tolerate major differences more easily than subtle differences. When major differences exist, one is expected ‘to be different’. When subtle differences exist, one is expected ‘to be just like me’. Often, the more subtle the differences are, the greater the suspicions.
In the homeland, in the mix of Aramaic speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews, there were numerous Jewish sects. Each sect attempted to define and defend ‘the central issue’ confronting their homeland. The Essenes regarded Jewish society and the temple as so corrupt that they refused to interact with Jewish society or worship in the Jewish temple. They lived in a self-imposed exile in isolated communities. The Zealots believed that any rule over the Jewish homeland that was not Jewish defied God Himself as the genuine King of Israel. Thus assassination of Jews [like the tax collectors] who assisted non-Jewish people was an act of devotion to God. The Pharisees wanted Jewish society to return to the old paths that properly followed ancient Jewish traditions and practiced ritual purity [such as hand washing, eating authorized foods, and Sabbath practices]. The Sadducees believed that God rewarded people here and now in physical terms (see Acts 23:6-9).
As though things were not complex enough among the first century Jews, there was a group of Jews who advocated that the Jewish society become part of the ‘now’ world by assimilating foreign practices into Jewish society. It is possible that the Pharisees gained their influence in Jewish society as a reaction to the influence of this faction.
Also, there was a group of Jews known as the sinners (Matthew 9:10-11, 13; 11:19; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32; 6:32-34; 7:34; 13:1, 2; 15:1, 2: John 9:31). The Jewish community considered irreligious Jews to be sinners. Perhaps these Jews committed some moral offense. Perhaps they did not wish to be a part of Jewish institutions or felt unwelcome in Jewish institutions. Whatever their offense, they were regarded by acceptable Jewish society as undesirables and outcasts.
Then there was the unusual. Paul [a Jew] was born in Tarsus, Cilicia (Acts 22:3) far removed from Palestine. Yet, at an early age, he traveled to Jerusalem to study as a student under the well known rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), as a devout Jewish traditionalist (Acts 22:3; Galatians 1:14). His father was a Pharisee, and he was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). He spoke Aramaic (Acts 22:2), was a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:25-29), and originally regarded belief in Jesus as the Christ as treason against Israel. Thus he felt it appropriate to persecute and kill Jewish Christians (Acts 8:3; 26:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:13), and intended to carry his campaign to Jewish communities outside of Palestine (Acts 9:2). As unlikely as it would seem, after conversion this man became God’s appointed apostle to the gentiles (Acts 9:15, 16; Galatians 2:8, 9).
These are not all the pieces of the puzzle of first century Jewish society. However, they are some obvious pieces. Where and how do these fit into the picture? The Christian community began in a complex social and religious situation. The attitudes behind those social complexities definitely impacted the Christian community shortly after it came into existence.
Chapter Two Chapter Four