It was natural that the first major conflict within the Church should be over the issue of whether Christianity should remain within Judaism as one of the many sects of that faith, or whether its genius demanded that it become an independent and distinct religion. If Christianity were simply a variant of Judaism, Gentile converts to it should submit themselves to circumcision as an accepted initiatory step for admission to the Jewish community and as essential to sharing in the special covenant which Jews believed had been made between God and their progenitor. They should also observe all aspects of the Jewish law, including the Sabbath and the distinctions between clean and unclean foods. This was the conviction, held in moderation by their leaders but more extremely by others, of the majority of the Christian community which remained in Jerusalem after the persecution which began with the stoning of Stephen. On the other hand, an increasing number of Christians, of whom Paul was the outstanding spokesman, maintained that to insist that disciples of Christ become members of the Jewish community and submit themselves to the Jewish law was utterly to fail to grasp the essence of the Gospel. They declared that in Christ and the Gospel God had done something quite new, foretold, to be sure, in the Jewish scriptures, but a fresh and unique act. They said that men were to enter into the fullness of life, not by earning it through the observance of God's commands as expressed in the Jewish law, but by faith in the love and forgiveness of God as seen in the death and the resurrection of Jesus. That faith would issue in gratitude and love towards God, and God's commands would be obeyed out of love and with no thought of winning a reward from Him. Many Christians in practice took positions between these two extremes.
Attempts were made to reach an agreement and maintain unity. Paul and his companion missionary, Barnabas, journeyed to Jerusalem to consult with the leaders of the Christians in that city, for that church, as the mother body, had, as we have seen, a degree of prestige. A compromise was reached which yielded most of what Paul had stood for. It did not demand circumcision.
The overwhelming majority of Christians took a view which claimed loyalty to Paul but which in practice had legalistic features and held to some aspects of Judaism. Indeed, for many of its adherents Christianity seemed to be primarily obedience to a moral code, a code which embraced some of the Jewish law, but which went beyond it and was, therefore, higher. Such, for instance, was the implication of The Epistle of James in the New Testament, of the Didache, and of other writings of the first generations of Christians.
Waning minorities, probably overwhelmingly Jewish in ancestry, clung to one or another variation of the conviction that disciples of Jesus should remain within the Jewish fold. The church in Jerusalem, headed by James the brother of Jesus, tended to do so. Indeed, early tradition declares him to have been highly regarded by the Jews. But he is said to have suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Jews in the year 62 and to have been succeeded in the leadership of the church at Jerusalem by another blood relation of Jesus. The church moved to Pella, a Gentile city cast of the Jordan, and there survived for a time. Some of the Jewish Christians, referred to by one or more early Christian writers as Nazarenes, held that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that his teachings are superior to those of Moses and the prophets, but that Christians of Jewish descent should observe the Jewish laws of circumcision, Sabbath observance, and foods. Others, called the Ebionites, maintained that Jesus was merely a man, a prophet, a spokesman for God, as were the great Hebrew prophets of the past. Although some of them accepted the virgin birth of Jesus, others are said to have taught that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, that at his baptism Christ descended upon him in the form of a dove, that he then proclaimed the unknown Father, but that Christ, who could not suffer, departed from him before his crucifixion and resurrection. The Ebionites repudiated Paul, declaring him to be an apostate from the law. They used a Hebrew gospel of Matthew. There were several kinds of them. Some of these may have been continuations of pre-Christian varieties of Judaism. They persisted, as small minorities, until at least the latter part of the fourth century and perhaps much longer.
The waning and disappearance of the groups of Christians who sought to remain within Judaism made it clear that the radical newness of the Gospel was not to be obscured by reducing Christianity to a Jewish sect. Christianity was now unmistakably a separate religion, having rootage in Judaism and honouring the Jewish scriptures, but interpreting them as preparing for the basic and revolutionary novelty of Jesus and the Gospel.
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