Earliest divisions in the Christian movement (Couchoud continued)

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by Neil Godfrey

I liked this novel better than Couchoud’s “Divisions” chapter. I suspect it gives some more realistic aspects of these early Christian years.

Unfortunately this is not my favourite chapter in Couchoud’s book The Creation Of Christ. But I’ve set myself a target and I have to get through this one to finish the book, so here goes. (The series is archived here.) (I personally suspect the stories in Acts are inspired more by Old Testament and Classical analogues than historical reminiscences, and motivated more by anti-Marcionite/pro-Catholic interests than disinterested archival dedication — though not totally bereft of historical re-writing at points here and there, but this post is for Couchoud so I’ll get out of the way for now.  Except to say I believe Earl Doherty’s model is a much more satisfactory explanation for the “riotous diversity” that characterized what emerged as “earliest Christianity”.)

But one point in C’s favour is his attempt to synchronize what he reads in Paul and Acts with political events in the broader empire.

Once again any emphases etc in the quotations is my own.

Couchoud says the apparitions of the Lord Jesus can be dated (via the writings of Paul) to the beginning of the reign of the reputedly “mad” Roman emperor Caligula  — 37-38 c.e.

These visions, he continues, all occurred in Palestine. Paul’s was the exception — and it was subject to doubt among his critics. (The last of the visions, according to Paul — says C — is to be dated 14 years before his own journey to Jerusalem, i.e. around 51 – 52 c.e.)

Of these visionary experiences, Couchoud suggests they conferred on the Jerusalem pillars a unique status:

They conferred on the community at Jerusalem and on its chiefs, Kephas, James, the Twelve, an unequalled title and right to decide all that might be postulated in the name of the Lord Jesus.

We know the names of some of these earliest visionaries:

  • Kephas – Peter — the first to have a vision of the Lord. He made several missionary journeys “of which we know but little”.
  • Silas
  • Judas Barsabas
  • Joseph Barnabas

All these above names undertook missionary journeys.

  • James — this one “remained on the hill of Sion and exercised there a permanent authority.

This group named themselves “The Poor” — that is, the name used by the OT Psalmists and readers of the apocalypses.

As for Jerusalem and its leaders and community:

That paradoxical city of Jerusalem has ever dwelt on its arid hill in an atmosphere of mendicancy. So it was established that the new community in exchange for the precious gift of faith. In the very early days Barnabas, who was a native of Cyprus, brought an offering from Antioch. [C says that the Acts  11:30 / 4:36 account has interpolated Paul for Barnabas.] Moreover, the faithful undertook to support Kephas, the “brothers of the Lord,” and any other legates from Jerusalem, as well as their wives [“sisters” – 1 Cor. 9:5] whenever they sojourned with them. The priests and the Levites, who had formed a sort of sacerdotal proletariat about the Temple, flocked in numbers to the Poor of Jesus. [c.f. Acts 6:7]

Couchoud next suggests that each of these Palestinian communities was divided between Aramaic and Greek speakers. Differences of language spawns differences of thought spawns division. So the Greek speakers are said to have drawn apart from their “Hebrew” brethren and elected for themselves seven leaders, the most prominent being Stephen.

The first of these divisions of thought and teaching concerned the role of the Temple in the community. James, the leader, and the Hebrew/Aramaic speakers assiduously prayed daily in the Temple. The Greek-speakers saw no place for the Temple that they understood was about to be destroyed by God in judgment anyway.

Any expression of anti-Temple sentiment was considered suicidal among Jews in Palestine of the day. When Caligula attempted to intrude his statue into the sacred precincts we read (Philo) that Jews of all backgrounds massed to defend the area with their lives.

So when Stephen denounced the Temple he stood no chance in that environment. But notice what sustained him at the moment of his stoning: a vision of the Celestial Man:

Behold, I see the heavens opened,
And the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55-58)

(To be fair to Couchoud he does remark that Stephen’s speech as we read it in Acts is “factitious” and that the brief note on Paul standing by as an observer is a later interpolation.)

The Greek Christians were driven forth, some to Phoenicia, some to Cyprus, and others to Samaria. Many went to Antioch, the home of Nicholas, where they formed a community in opposition to that of Jerusalem.

As for Kephas-Peter and the Hebrews, they would have nothing to do with their audacious brethren, and remained in the shadow of the Temple, but good Jews looked on them with doubt. (p. 44)

41 c.e. saw the assassination of the emperor Caligula. This put an end to any threat that the Temple would be profaned by an imperial statue.

The new emperor, Claudius, made Herod Agrippa the new king of the Jews. It was a time of Jewish uprisings and their repression. Claudius crushed these in both Rome and Alexandria, but Herod Agrippa mollified this people by having James, the son of Zebedee, beheaded and Peter imprisoned. James, the one with the highest reputation even among Jews, was not touched, however. (C describes him as “that camel of piety” by referencing his legendary knees said to be “like a camel’s” for his frequent praying.)

Herod Agrippa died in 44 c.e., but a new positive for the Jews was celebrated  — the conversion of the royal family of Adiabene to Judaism.

That was it — the Jews were then left in peace — at least till the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66 c.e.

We still have not arrived at the apostle John. His exaltation followed, it is suggested, the death of his brother James at the hands of Herod Agrippa. Peter and [the other] James were both martyred. Paul, too. John was for long the “sole survivor” who found refuge in Asia Minor. He was the last who could claim to have “seen the Lord”, and

he became the greatest authority on the revelation of Christ Jesus . . .

Then along came the gentiles!

In splendid Antioch, whither the Orontes bore all the superstitions of the East, the Grecian community, rich in prophets of their own and enriched by the presence of Barnabas, had done a bold thing. They had revealed to the heathen the mystery of the Lord Jesus. They had admitted to their ekklesia by baptism people who were in no way Jews.

Now this posed a difficulty. Ever since the “Maccabean rebellion” it had been well understood that there could be no such thing as a compromise between Jewish and pagan life. Yet belief in the Heavenly Son implied a belief in the Jewish god Jahweh, and therefore a belief in Jewish ways.

What Jewish practices were indispensable? This was to create a gulf between Jerusalem and Antioch. (p. 45)

Jewish law required circumcision. But Roman law forbade circumcision of non-Jews!

The compromise reached was that the gentile convert had to observe but only one precept, and that was the one given by Noah for all mankind — abstain from consuming blood. This, says C, extended to eating kosher meat. In most gentile towns the only butcher was the one who killed for temple-idol sacrifices. This meant that gentile Christians had to remove themselves from eating with their gentile associates. But “extremists” claimed that the Spirit of God released the new-born in Christ from these strictures. One in particular who taught this liberating doctrine was Nicholas of Antioch, friend of Stephen.

Another problem was marriage. (Ain’t it always! — my remark, not C’s) What happened if a Christian convert was married to a resolute pagan? Again Nicholas comes in to the scene. He is said to have left his wife — a most devout decision since she no doubt remained unconverted. So at Antioch Christians married to the unconverted had “no problems” — though this was regarded as “fornication”, apparently, by the “Hebrew” brethren.

Couchoud references the Acts of Paul and Thecla (a second century composition) as an indicator of tensions that apparently arose when a young Gentile Christian woman wanted to remove herself from family pressures to devote herself to the worship of the Lord. She would be “entrusted to the care of an unmarried brother”(!) who would be allowed to marry her if he couldn’t control his sexual cravings. (I am paraphrasing Couchoud here, and his reference to 1 Cor. 7:36-38.  But an interesting analogue is to be found in Vardis Fisher’s novel, A Goat for Azazel.)

Christiani and Nazoraeans

All that the Hebrews of Jerusalem could perceive in the sage doctrines of Nicholas of Antioch was abomination and fornication. Eating idols’ meat and fornicating are the charges repeatedly made by John in Revelation against the Nicolaitanes. At Antioch the mixed believers in the Christ Jesus, who must not be confused with the Jews, were called Christians (christiani). The Hebrews at Jerusalem who were expecting the coming of Jesus were known as the disciples of John the Baptist, the Nazoraeans. [Acts 11:26,  “Christians”; Acts 24:5, “Nazoraeans”, an affectation of archaism in the mouth of an advocate of Jerusalem.]

Enter Paul

Barnabas brought back from Tarsus to the prophets of Antioch a little, sickly fellow, probably epileptic, [Gal. 4:14, “ye did not spit” — “it was customary to spit on epileptics to prevent contagion” according to Pliny, Hist. Nat. 28:7] possessed by electric energy and by quivering pride. In earlier days he had been the scourge of the believers in Arabia. Jesus Christ had been revealed to him and the Spirit was strong in him. He had lately returned from proclaiming Jesus throughout Arabia, Syria, and Cilicia. He felt capable of proclaiming him from Jerusalem to the utmost ends of the West; nothing was impossible for his faith. A Jew, to the Jews he was known as Saul, and a Roman citizen, he called himself Paul. (p. 47)

This brings us to C’s next chapter on Paul, the one he says “stamped on Christianity the seal of his genius.”

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Earliest divisions in the Christian movement (Couchoud continued)”

  1. Yes, but it’s a pity (and instructive) that the Westar Institute is largely dismissed as “not being persuasive”, etc. It is astonishing (I think, anyway) how often one sees scholars assuming historicity behind Acts. A little while ago I posted a series on Richard Pervo’s work showing the Acts to be largely made up of Hellenistic novelistic components. I like Bonz’s idea — though she does not prove it — that Acts is modelled on the myth of Virgil’s Aeneid. The early scenes of idyllic communism being gradually corrupted are straight from ancient utopian (platonic) myths and the tale of the migration of the spiritual centre of the world from the Jerusalem Temple — via Troy — to Rome is certainly reminiscent of the travels and mission of Aeneas and the founding of Rome.

  2. I must admit, I have not studied Mediterranean culture of the first and second centuries but it does fascinate me. I listen to Philip Harland’s (a professor at York University in Toronto) podcast he produces which is always interesting. I also work at a bible software company (Logos Bible Software) and speak to pastor’s and people who work with our program on an “academic level.” I’m increasingly amazed at the enormous gulf between those who study the bible and its cultural influences in the university and those preachers who don’t bother taking that into effect and are more, to varying degrees, of the sola scriptura sort. I’m not trying to insinuate that university professors who study the bible on an academic level are or are not christians (as is you testify to), indeed I am disheartened at how little education (at least here in the US) it seems is required or even desired of people in order to stand at the pulpit. And what education there is, is of such light impact the education might as well not require evaluations at all for the amount of objective research and thought that goes on in seminaries and the like.

    Being an academic, and one who was a part of and now is no longer of the church, what reason do you suspect there is for such ignorance in much of (at least the protestant) church?

    My personal suspicion is its (the church’s) intellectual dishonesty and fear of finding out something it doesn’t want to really know.

    1. I’ve read so many possible explanations for all the Simons, Peter and Kephas that for a long time I gave up and decided to assign them all to the “unknown and unknowable” basket. Maybe that was too negative. Maybe the names were symbolic, epithets, for a real person. If we are talking of some sort of gnostic origins then I wonder if some of the complexity comes from the multiplying of names to represent different aspects of one person or entity. I just don’t know. But I’m open to possibilities and Roger Parvus has reawakened my curiosity in some of these.

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