A little less than 2,000 years ago, a man appeared in the Roman province of Judea claiming to be a teacher from God. Many Jews left their homes and jobs and followed him, believing that he was the Messiah, their long-awaited, miracle-working leader. But he was executed by the Roman occupation, and his followers dispersed.
The name of this failed prophet was Theudas. He was not the only alleged messiah in this period – you will of course be aware of another, and in fact there were quite a few. They all caused a local stir, and almost all met grisly ends. Jesus of Nazareth was by no means the most famous at the time. Worshipped today by 2 billion Christians (and revered by 1.3 billion Muslims), he is the most famous human being ever, but no mention of him written during his lifetime survives. Judea was an obscure backwater of the Roman empire, and neither the comings nor goings of its rabbis caught the attention of the non-Jewish world.
The First Church
What set Jesus apart from other executed messiahs was resurrection, and not just in the sense that it would set him apart from anyone. No one expected the Messiah to rise from the dead: his job was to drive out the Romans, restore true religion and rule justly. No human in Jewish or pagan legends had ever returned to their body after death. Many Jews thought that true believers would be raised from the dead when God came to deliver his people; they did not expect anyone to jump the gun.
And yet, soon after Jesus’ crucifixion in about AD 30, his followers, instead of disappearing like normal disciples of an executed Messiah, were proclaiming throughout Jerusalem that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead, repeatedly visited them and been elevated to the right hand of God, from where he had sent them the Holy Spirit, miraculous powers and everlasting life. Something new was happening.
These first Christians were Jews; they worshipped in the Jerusalem temple and local synagogues as well as in their own homes, lived by the Law of Moses and offered the traditional prayers and sacrifices. Christians saw their faith as the fulfilment of Judaism, outsiders saw it as yet another version of Judaism, but no one saw it as a separate religion.
Many Christians had followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they now settled there. They were led by the apostles – those disciples who had met the risen Jesus and been commissioned to preach his message. The overall leader was Peter, supported by the brothers James and John, followed by the rest of ‘the Twelve’, who had been the inner circle of Jesus’ companions.
The community grew very quickly, which takes some explaining as, for Jews, the idea of a crucified Messiah should have been a ludicrous blasphemy – as to many it was. Jesus had been killed by the very enemy he was supposed to overthrow, and crucifixion was degrading, disgraceful and a sign of God’s condemnation: ‘Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,’ says the Law of Moses.
And yet something about these first Christians convinced a lot of people that Jesus was no longer in the state expected of those who have been killed. What was their appeal? Their passionate conviction for one thing, and their courage in facing beatings and imprisonment from the Jewish authorities. Many liked the idea of Jesus’ resurrection being the first fruits of universal resurrection too. Still, this does not seem enough to make up for the scandalous offence of a crucified Messiah, so we need to consider the reason that Christians themselves gave for their appeal: ‘Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.’ The apostle Paul wrote more than once to his churches reminding them of miracles they had seen him perform. However we might explain such phenomena, it seems that onlookers saw what they understood to be miracles, as they had in Jesus’ time, and that this was crucial to the movement’s survival.
Some Jews, however, hated anything to do with messiahs. Jerusalem was ruled by aristocratic temple priests and the Jewish royal family, who were both firmly in the Roman pocket. A messianic uprising would overthrow their rule, while smaller religious unrest often got them into trouble with Rome. Neither did the priests warm to the idea that someone whose death they had arranged was now God’s right-hand man.
So Christian preachers were harassed, arrested and beaten, but since they showed no signs of insurrection, that was as far as it went. This was the church’s biggest problem for now, but not for long.
The first assault
The Jerusalem church, though wholly Jewish, was culturally divided. More Jews lived outside Palestine than in it, being dispersed throughout the Greek-speaking east of the Roman empire. This cut them off from the temple – the heart of Jewish worship – and meant that they reluctantly lived among pagans. Jews of the dispersion often visited Jerusalem for the annual festivals, and some resettled there. And so it was that soon a sizeable minority of the Jerusalem Christians were from abroad. Since they spoke Greek rather than the Aramaic of Palestine, they tended to meet separately.
This division will affect the whole of the rest of our story. It seems (although in this period we are reading between the lines of scant information) that as the church thought very hard about what precisely the crucifixion and resurrection of the Messiah meant, some Greek-speakers were drawn to more radical answers than the Aramaic majority. All agreed that the death of Jesus was not a mere tragedy but an act of power overcoming the forces of evil, and a sacrifice atoning for the sins of the nation, or even the world, reconciling people to God. Jesus’ resurrection showed God’s approval and was the beginning of the age to come. But the Greek-speakers went further, saying that Jesus had displaced the temple and the Law of Moses as the centre of the Jewish faith. The sacrifice of God’s own Son overshadowed temple offerings, just as his intimate presence through the Holy Spirit made his dwelling in the temple’s inner sanctum less important. Now that they knew God’s Son and lived by his Spirit, the importance of the Law as the key to knowing and pleasing God was diminished.
How highly developed these ideas were, how radically and dogmatically they were presented, and how the other Christians felt about them is hard to
say. The church was not split, but it was clear to onlookers that the Greek-speakers did not speak for all Christians.
Non-Christians were appalled by what they were hearing, and not just the city authorities now, but the very believers who had been most ardently praying for the coming of the Messiah. Christians were attacked and arrested. One of the Greek-speakers, Stephen, was brought before the city council on the charge that ‘This man never stops saying things against the holy place and the Law,’ and then illegally lynched.
Christians fled, scattering throughout Palestine and Syria. Even then they were not safe. One at least of the most ardent anti-Christians took a warrant from the High Priest and toured the land collecting Christians and bringing them bound to Jerusalem to face the punishment for blasphemy. And so, for the second time in one chapter, just like at his arrest, the following of Jesus had to all appearances collapsed.
The campaign failed for two reasons. One was that Christians were so devoted to Jesus that wherever they ended up they preached his message, so all its opponents achieved was to spread it from Jerusalem throughout the Middle East. The other reason is that a leading activist met Jesus while travelling to Damascus to round up Christians and arrived a convert. Paul was a tent-making rabbi from Tarsus in Asia Minor (Turkey). As a leading Pharisee, he had been strictly devoted to the Law of Moses and hated Jesus as a blasphemous impostor subverting everything the true Messiah was supposed to defend – as quite literally the Antichrist. But on the road to Damascus, he had some kind of encounter with the risen Christ.
Coming into the city, he sought out the Christians, as he had originally intended to do, and got baptised in the name of Jesus, as he had not. He stayed there for three years and caused such unrest with his Christian preaching that he had to run for his life, being lowered over the city wall one night in a basket. Paul then visited the Jerusalem church to compare notes with Peter, but he only managed a fortnight in town before his preaching provoked attempts on his life, so he returned to Tarsus.
Hostility towards the church continued. Becoming king of Judea in AD 41, Herod Agrippa won popular and priestly favour by having James the brother of John executed. Peter and John, and perhaps most of the Twelve, escaped his fate by becoming foreign missionaries.
From now on, the leadership of the Jerusalem church was in the hands of James, the brother of Jesus. He presents an enigmatic figure. Like Paul, he was not a follower during Jesus’ lifetime but was converted by a personal resurrection appearance. He led the church for twenty years and is the only first-century Christian famous enough to be mentioned in a non-Christian
writing, but he is a minor figure in the New Testament, none of its writers preserving stories of his conversion, for example. The biblical book that bears his name, apart from the fact that it contains two mentions of Jesus, could easily have been written by a non-Christian Jew. In later years, while Paul was telling his converts, ‘I died to the Law, so that I might live to God,’ James followed the Law of Moses so devoutly that he was known as James the Righteous.
Twelve years after the first Easter, Christianity is still in every sense a movement within Judaism, though of course some versions of it are pretty unpalatable to fellow Jews. But a tectonic change is coming, starting in the city of Antioch.
Circumcision and the Gentiles
Antioch, the capital of Syria, was a major city in the Roman empire and, since perhaps as many as one in five of its population were Jews, it made a natural second home for Christianity. Greek-speaking Christians fleeing Jerusalem during Paul’s rampage settled there, and naturally they told everyone about the resurrected Messiah. This is where they first got the nickname ‘Christians’, ‘Christ’ being the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’. But the story appealed not only to Jews in Antioch but also to Gentiles (non-Jews), and so Antioch became the home of the first mixed-race church.
This created an enormous problem: should Gentile Christians follow the Law of Moses and be circumcised? One would assume so: they were embracing the Jewish faith. Christ followed the Law, so Christians should follow the Law. But then Judaism had always welcomed converts without necessarily demanding circumcision. Many Gentiles found its monotheistic worldview attractive, although to them genital mutilation seemed not merely eye-watering but barbaric, so synagogues offered a two-tier conversion system: ‘proselytes’ came under the Law, and the knife, and in effect became Jews, while ‘God-fearers’ believed, prayed and worshipped with the Jews, but did not follow the more uncomfortable demands of the Law – and therefore could not eat with Jews, being still ritually unclean.
In the Antioch church, these distinctions did not work, not least because eating together was a central part of Christian worship. Another church might have resolved the problem by requiring all converts to obey the Law so that all could share one bread, but these Greek-speakers had long questioned the
significance of the Law for Christians anyway. Now that they saw the uncircumcised being baptised into the church, forgiven their sins, given the Holy Spirit and promised salvation, simply because they accepted Jesus the Messiah, there seemed to be little that circumcision and kosher food could add to their relationship with God. So they dispensed with them. Gentiles were accepted as full Christians, without the Law.
As if this was not a sufficiently explosive situation already, one of the ministers at Antioch, Barnabas, decided to recruit Paul onto their team as preacher and theologian. Paul was based in Antioch for several years before the great circumcision dispute broke out, but he spent much of that time travelling. He and Barnabas toured Cyprus and Asia Minor establishing other mixed-race churches, where Paul’s preaching so outraged mainstream Jews that he was whipped in synagogues, once survived a stoning and was followed for hundreds of miles by enemy preachers.
In about AD 47, Antioch received a visit from some Jerusalem Christians. They were appalled by this sidelining of the Law, demanding (and offering) mass circumcisions. ‘We did not submit to them for a minute,’ Paul says. Circumcision had no benefit for the Gentiles, he insisted; in fact it would be positively ruinous. They had come to God through his Son, so if they turned back to the outmoded, pre-Christian Law, they were turning away from Jesus. With an appropriately incisive metaphor he told those who succumbed, ‘You… have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.’
The only thing for it was a summit meeting in Jerusalem – the Jerusalem council of AD 48. James, Peter and John heard Paul’s account of his teaching and Barnabas’s stories of their successful mission, and they came to a momentous and surprising decision: they agreed with Paul. Gentiles do not need circumcision.
This – though it was the last thing anyone there had intended – was the beginning of the end for Christianity as a branch of Judaism. The church was throwing its doors wide open to Gentiles, providing a new religion for those who liked monotheism but not the choice between circumcision or being an honorary, second-class Jew. At the same time, it would make it ever harder for Law-abiding Jews to be Christians, heightening the scandal of the gospel (the message of or about Jesus) for non-Christian Jews: they saw the holy things that had cost them such devotion and suffering down the centuries being flogged off on the mass market. But this decision also enshrined in the inner sanctum of Christianity the idea that religion is ultimately concerned with
relationship rather than the rules of ritual. By acting on the principle that different people can approach God in different ways, they made Christianity a fundamentally adaptable religion.
However, the conflict within the church was far from over. Many circumcisers continued to oppose Paul, and it seems that James never completely dissociated himself from them. Moreover, even many of the Jewish Christians who accepted Gentiles without circumcision continued to follow the Law scrupulously themselves, and this meant not eating with the uncircumcised. Paul and Barnabas did eat with them of course, and so did Peter. For the more conservative Christians, this was too much, and they complained to James that Christianity was turning into an apostate sect for Jews who did not want to be Jews any more.
This time James took their side and asked Peter to desist. Perhaps reasoning that as the conservatives had made a fundamental concession in allowing Gentiles not to be circumcised, so it was fair now for the radicals to compromise to avoid splitting the church, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles and Barnabas followed. Paul was enraged, accusing them of hypocrisy.
James issued a decree, calling on Gentile Christians to follow a kind of miniature four-point Law of Moses, so that Jewish Christians could accept them as clean enough to eat with. It is not clear whether Paul agreed to this compromise or not. Neither is it clear whether he was reconciled to Barnabas or Peter – he certainly never travelled with Barnabas again. He left that same year on a never-ending missionary tour that took him throughout Asia Minor and Greece and beyond, with great success, though he repeatedly suffered imprisonment, beatings and shipwrecks. Other missionaries went to Rome (including Peter), into North Africa and probably east into the Persian empire. Paul’s conservative opponents took to touring his churches, preaching the benefits of the Law, and so this unhappy struggle became one of the main preoccupations of his life. ‘Beware of those who mutilate the flesh!’ he warned his first church in Europe. ‘For it is we who are the circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God.’ It was in this period that Paul wrote most of his letters, those almost incidental by-products of his teaching work that became his lasting monument.
When Paul finally returned to J...