After Pentecost

In the post-Pentecost situation, the first Christians expected the risen Christ's glorious second coming, and formed a messianic, millennial group within Judaism. They fashioned their proclamation and interpretation of Jesus by putting together two elements: on the one hand, their experience of the events in which Jesus was the central protagonist and, on the other, the images, concepts, expectations, and practices that they found to be relevant and illuminating within the Jewish scriptures. To articulate their convictions about Jesus and his role in fulfilling the divine purposes, they depended in part upon their Jewish background. Thus the initiation rite of baptism took over some values from the purificatory rites of Judaism, not least from the baptism for the forgiveness of sins practised by John the Baptist. All Jesus' followers continued to find in the Jewish psalms their main prayer-book—something that was to be anathema in the second century to Marcion, who, as we shall see, wanted to eliminate the OT altogether. Some or even many of them continued to worship as Jews or in the Jerusalem Temple until excommunicated from Palestinian (and other?) synagogues towards the end of the first century. At least to begin with, Jesus' followers were unsure about the need to observe the Torah or Jewish law (especially on

2 Since here and in some later chapters we draw on the Gospels, we want to make some points clear from the outset. (1) We agree with the widely accepted scheme that there were three stages in the transmission of Jesus' words and deeds: the initial stage of his sayings and doings in his public ministry; the handing on, by word of mouth or in writing, of traditions about him; the authorial work of the four evangelists. (2) We also agree that one can use such criteria as multiple attestation or multiple witness in arguing that the accounts of certain words and deeds go back substantially to the first stage: i.e. to Jesus himself. (3) When we draw on the Gospels, we will indicate whether we understand some passage to report what Jesus said or did at stage one (e.g. in his choice of the Twelve), or whether we use the passage to illustrate how a particular evangelist at stage three (and/or the tradition behind him at stage two) understood Jesus' identity or work. (4) We cannot stop every time to justify why we and others hold some saying or deed to have its historical origin in what Jesus said or did.

circumcision and dietary requirements) and to proclaim the good news of the risen Christ to the Gentiles. Paul's letters (e.g. Romans and Galatians) and the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. Acts 10: 1—11: 18; 15: 1—39) reflect these initial hesitations. But Jesus' followers differed from (other) devout Jews by administering baptism 'in the name of Jesus' (e.g. Acts 2: 38) and celebrating together 'the breaking of the bread' or the Eucharist (e.g. Acts 2: 42, 45).

In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells the story of the origins and early spread of Christian faith. Among Jesus' disciples the first prominent figure is St Peter, who functions as the head of the twelve apostles, the core group of public witnesses to Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. With his dramatic calling or conversion on the road to Damascus around AD 36, St Paul enters the Acts of the Apostles in ch. 9 and takes over the narrative from ch. 15. According to that book, when Paul returns to Jerusalem in ch. 21, he meets St James and 'all the elders'. But there is no mention of Peter still being in Jerusalem. Acts ends with Paul arriving in Rome several years before he and Peter died there as martyrs, some time between AD 64 and 67. In 62 James, the leader of the Mother Church, had already been martyred in Jerusalem.

These first decades of Christian history featured the tension between two 'constituencies', the foundational Jerusalem Church with its vision of a Torah-observant community and the non-Torah-focused vision of Paul and others. The latter vision shaped the Catholic or universal identity of the early Church and lifted it beyond being merely a millennial group within Judaism. Paul loved the Jerusalem community, and showed that love by collecting money for the Mother Church from other (local) churches (e.g. 2 Cor. 8: 1—9: 15). Nevertheless, as Raymond Brown and John Meier showed, Catholic identity in Antioch, Rome, and other centres was formed in tensional relationship with the Jerusalem community.3

Paul spearheaded missionary activity around the Mediterranean world, and spread faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Luke understands this original Christian expansion as opening up an indefinitely long period which will close when Jesus appears again in his glory. In the meantime, as Acts repeatedly indicates, the risen Jesus and his Holy Spirit constantly guide and empower Christian life and mission. But by the 60s, despite

See R. E. Brown and J. P. Meier, Antioch and Rome (New York: Paulist Press, 1983).

some optimistic statistics from Luke (Acts 2: 41; 4: 4), there were probably not more than three thousand Christians.4

By then Jesus' followers had come to be called 'Christians' (Acts 11: 26). Through baptism 'in the name of Jesus Christ' (Acts 2: 38) they knew their sins to be forgiven, received the Holy Spirit, entered the community of the Church, and celebrated the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11: 23—6). When praying, they used not only the psalms but also the Lord's Prayer and other such prayers as the Benedictus and the Magnificat (Luke 1: 46—55, 68—79), which were originally in Greek like the rest of Luke's Gospel but were subsequently known by Latin titles. They learned the teaching of Jesus that reached them through their apostolic leaders. The risen and exalted Jesus, now confessed as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God, was together with God the Father, experienced as having sent the Holy Spirit into the world. Luke names devout people from different parts of the known world—from 'Parthians, Medes, and Elamites' to 'Cretans and Arabs' (Acts 2: 9—11) as key spectators of Pentecost. Luke knows that the Spirit is offered to all peoples; salvation no longer requires circumcision and the practice of the Mosaic law in all its details.

Paul's letters likewise defend God's gift of salvation to all alike; justification is not gained through human efforts at fulfilling the law. Faith and baptism incorporate people into the Church, the body of Christ, and put an end to distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female (Gal. 3: 26—9). Faith in God the Father, in Jesus as Son of God and divine Lord, and in the Holy Spirit brings all believers together in the unity of baptism, the Eucharist, and a common life. The apostle insists that sharing in the one eucharistic bread and in the one cup entails belonging to the one body of Christ (1 Cor. 10: 16—17). A fifth-century prayer (from the Liturgy of St Basil) expresses beautifully Paul's desire for Catholic unity: 'May all of us who partake of this one bread and chalice be united to one another in the communion of the same Holy Spirit.'

R. Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 185. On the rise of Christianity see also D. Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); P. Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom. Triumph and Diversity A.D. 200—1000 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); C. M. Cusack, The Rise of Christianity in Northern Europe, 300—1000 (London: Cassell, 1998); P. F. Esler (ed.), The Early Christian World , 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 2000); H.-J. Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity (Edinburgh: T. & T. , 2000); J. T. Sanders, Charisma, Converts, Competitors (London: SCM Press, 2000). On Stark's book see the symposium in Religious Studies Review , 25 (1999), 127—39. Not all reviewers have been persuaded by Stark's numerical estimates and interpretation of Christianity's development.

In emphasizing the holy unity of the baptized, the apostle's letters, even more than the Acts of the Apostles, let us glimpse the moral failures of early Christians. The First Letter to the Corinthians reveals how some suffered from factionalism, indulged doubts over the central truth of the resurrection, committed fornication, incest, and drunkenness, and showed a selfish unconcern towards poorer Christians. The reproaches coming from Paul challenge illusions about a hypothetical golden age of Catholic Christianity which practised heroic ideals on all sides. From its outset the Church suffered from scandals and divisions. The Book of Revelation, with its opening letters to the seven churches, joins the apostle in testifying to the mixture of holiness and sinfulness that characterized Christianity from the beginning (Rev 2: 1—3: 22). The Gospels also repeatedly imply and even frankly point to sinful conduct to be found in the early communities; even prophets, exorcists, and miracle-workers could do evil and fail to follow the will of God (Matt. 7: 15-23).

Along with holiness and sinfulness, after the initial hesitations (see above) a missionary outreach characterized early Christianity. The Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters name with respect missionaries who spread the good news about Jesus as Saviour of the world: Barnabas, Epaphroditus, Timothy, Titus, and, not least, Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila. This married couple, when they lived in Ephesus and Rome, gathered believers in their home, and were also known to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor. 16: 19; Acts 18: 2-3, 26). Paul calls this couple his 'fellow workers' (Rom. 16: 3). When listing other collaborators on the mission for Christ, he names Andronicus and Junia (another married couple?) as 'distinguished among the apostles' (Rom. 16: 7). Unlike Luke, who generally identifies 'apostles' with the twelve, Paul also gives the former title to itinerant evangelists who are commissioned, sent by a church, and found another (local) church, as apparently Prisca did in Corinth with her husband Aquila.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment