The Swarming of the Prophets (A.D. 40 — A.D. 130) — Couchoud contd.

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Apostles receive the gift of tongues ...
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The previous three posts in this series covered section one of P. L. Couchoud’s The Creation of Christ: An Outline of the Beginnings of Christianity that was headed The Apocalypses (168 B.C. – A. D. 40):

  1. Pre-Christian Foundations
  2. John the Baptist and the Foundation of Christianity
  3. First Signs of Christianity

These posts covered the first seven chapters and the foreword.

The next section is headed The Prophets (A.D. 40 — A. D. 130). The chapters here are titled:

  • The Swarming of the Prophets (an introduction to the remainder of the section)
  • Divisions
  • Struggles and Sufferings of St. Paul
  • The Crucified God
  • The Sacrificed Lamb

Following this Couchoud addresses the development of the Gospels, and it was in the midst of that section that I began this series of posts.  It is interesting to look at how Couchoud imagined Christian origins, but it is only an overview leaving many details tantalizingly unexplained in the depth some of us would like. The subtitle does say “an outline” after all. I have my own questions and disagreements with aspects of Couchoud’s arguments and others have commented with their own on this blog. That does not detract from much that is of interest in his views, and I try to keep many of my own thoughts to myself as I outline Couchoud’s outline.

The Swarming of the Prophets

This is an introduction to the remainder of the section covering the period from 40 to 130 c.e. All the quotations are from pages 39 to 41 and all bold type, emphasis etc is mine.

The theme of this chapter is the origin of the key concepts “gospel” and “church assemblies, the makeup of those early churches and the nature and results of the zealous expectation of the end of the age.

One of the most astonishing episodes in history is that of the Christian prophets. . . . In but a few years the new religion had penetrated throughout the eastern parts of the Empire and reached Rome itself. Whereas in A. D. 40 there were some five hundred adherents in Palestine only, seventy years later the Roman Governor [Pliny] . . . wrote to the Emperor Trajan that “the superstitious contagion is invading not only the towns, but the villages and fields” . . . and, moreover, emptied the temples and ruined the business of the victims.

This “victory” was attributed by the Christians to “the spirit”.

This “spirit” is a mysterious power which takes possession of men, causes them to stammer out strange words, impels them to utter prophecies without fear or secrecy, unrolls before their eyes revelations, reveals mysteries by means of their tongues, and performs miracles by means of their hands. This “spirit” dwells within a man, yet it is superior to him. It is of God. As St. Paul declares, this Spirit is the Lord (2 Cor. iii. 17), it is Jesus. As the wars of the Hebrews were the wars of Jahweh, so the conquests of the Christians are the victories of Christ.

Christians of the first century were first and foremost prophets.

I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. (1 Corinthians 14:5)

Joel’s prophecy was thought to be undergoing fulfilment. The end of the world was at hand and everyone was being possessed with the spirit:

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit.
(Joel 2:28-29)

Luke quotes this passage in Acts 2:17-23 and adds to the last line the phrase, “and they shall prophecy“.

But there was a hierarchy. Above the prophets were the apostles, “upper prophets who had received their mission from Christ himself in the days of his appearance on earth.”

“Simple prophets” are said to have ministered single congregations while apostles went from community to community “as messengers from the Lord himself, who was in his turn the messenger of God.

The whole body of the saints — the whole body of Christ itself — also included below the prophets

  • teachers (a more modest form of prophet)
  • miracle-makers
  • healers (prophets in action)
  • helpers and administrators
  • speakers in unknown tongues and interpreters

Two words were borrowed from this same Joel which became technical terms — “evangel” and “church.” In the Greek version of Joel ii. 32 (Septuagint) occur the lines

Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall by saved . . . they evangelize those whom the Lord shall call (εὐαγγελιζόμενοι)

By  this St. Paul understood that those who invoke the name of Jesus shall be saved, and they must carry the good news, the evangel, to these predestined by Jesus (Rom. x. 13). The good news was that the last days were come (Rev. xiv. 6-7), the εὐαγγέλιον announced to all that the hour of Judgment is come). Salvation was to be obtained by the death and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such was the Gospel which the apostles and the prophets were to proclaim throughout the world.

The ancient Book of Joel declared to the men of the latter days that they should “gather the people, sanctify a congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, etc.” (Joel ii. 16, Septuagint, ἁγιάσατε ἐκκλησίαν). This assembly — in Greek ekklesia . . . . — was in each town or hamlet the community of Saved, or Saints. It is sanctified in readiness for the Coming, like a chaste Bride for the Celestial Bridegroom. . . .

The ekklesia chose elders or presbyters as its leaders (they later developed into priests). Neophytes, the “children”, could only handle the simplest form of doctrine (1 Corinthians 3:1).

One was admitted into this ekklesia through the rite of baptism

The blood which Christ spilt in expiation for your sins makes you a Saint. In giving you a part in the Spirit, it makes of you a Prophet. You are a Saint, it is your duty to spread the Good News and to build up the ekklesia by your prophecy . . .

The Christian system has been at once simple and potent, for it bore the mark of feverish haste. The urgent vision of what was about to befall the world gave it the power to dare all. In the utmost urgency and compelling need of the last days, the impossible was performed. St. Paul believed it possible to evangelize the whole Roman Empire in a few years, and then to behold the Coming of the Lord. Anxious not to overlook a single one of those called by Jesus, the Christian prophets swiftly sped over the roads and winnowed the towns of the Roman East.

It is not brought out here by Couchoud himself, but I think it is significant that not only do we find the details of the Gospel itself drawn from spiritual insights into (revelation of) the Scriptures, but also the basic terminology and key concepts embraced by the faithful for their own methods of operations.

To be continued, with the next chapter, “Divisions” . . . .

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Neil Godfrey

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