"Being Right" vs. "Doing Right"...

Dissension and Betrayal in the NT Church

Jesus taught "doing right". The Pharisees taught "being right". This dispute continued in the early church. In the early church, all Christians were Jews. The Aramaic-speaking Judaean Christians preached "being right" - legalism, exact observance of the letter of the law, including circumcision and temple worship. The Greek-speaking Diaspora Christians preached "doing right" - observance of the intent of the law, including accommodating non-Jewish "Gentiles". Their dispute split the early church. The dispute continues today in discussions of "sacred names", "the calendar", "church organization", "Passover observance", "speaking in tongues". Are we too sacrificing our Christian brothers on the altar of religious correctness?

O. Cullman: "The early [N.T.] Church was not the ideal and perfectly united Church ("one heart and one soul" - Acts 4:32) which we usually picture. Actually, the "unity of the Church" did not exist at the beginning, and the three decisive stages attesting the Judaean-Christian intransigence, which we shall examine, show the absence of solidarity within the first community. This Jerusalem church, which, on the one hand, was the place of the first manifestations of that unifying power which is the Holy Spirit (Acts 2), was equally the place of tragic dispute. The earthly Church has never been a perfect Church.

The three stages which we distinguish are: the elimination of the Greek-speaking Jews, "Hellenists", of Jerusalem (Acts 6-8); the elimination of James, the son of Zebedee, and of Peter (Acts 12); and, finally, the arrest of the apostle Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 21), which ended in his martyrdom (I Clement 5 [see below]). In all three cases the Christians were persecuted by the Jews because of opposition to the temple [as the focal point of true worship] or to the [legalistic application of the] law. In all three cases the Judaean-Christians not only were not persecuted, but seemed to dissociate themselves from their brothers, [those Christians who departed from Jewish orthodoxy]. The Book of Acts, while minimizing this, in keeping with its tendency to reconcile opposing viewpoints, has retained traces of these sources which enable us to catch intimations of the depth of the differences.

This three-fold lack of solidarity has its origin partly in the narrow legalism of the Judaean-Christian group represented by James, the brother of Jesus; partly in the vigorous polemic by Stephen and the other Hellenists opposing worship [centered] in the temple and every prescription concerning the localization of [Christianity to Jerusalem or to the Jews]; partly in the universalism of Peter, undoubtedly shared by James, son of Zebedee (not to be confused with James, the brother of Jesus); and, finally, partly in the anti-legalism of Paul....

The Martyrdom of Stephen and Expulsion of Hellenists

Stephen's group (the "Hellenists" [Greek-speaking Jews] of Palestine) was infinitely more important than the book of Acts leads one to believe when it reduces its role to "serving tables" (Acts 6:2). In fact, in spite of their subordination, the seven appear as a group comparable to the twelve. At the moment of Stephen's arrest the twelve were [probably] not in fellowship with him and had, no doubt, even rejected his bold ideas about "true worship" and the temple of Jerusalem. Did not Stephen and his followers go so far as to equate the construction of the temple of Jerusalem by King Solomon with the casting of the golden calf (Acts 7:41-50)? Did they not condemn all localization of divine presence as idolatrous in the light of God's revelation throughout the history of salvation, in which the great events took place outside every "holy" place? Stephen's address (Acts 7:2-53)... reveals quite clearly the boldness of that theology which was inspired in the last analysis by the attitude of Jesus himself with respect to the temple (e.g., John 4:21 ".. nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father"). [The Epistle to the Hebrews (Judaean-Christians, 1:1, 3:1) also states "let us go forth to (Jesus) outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured" (13:13)].

Acts 8:1 ... teaches us that after the martyrdom of Stephen his followers had to leave Jerusalem, even though the twelve were able to stay there. This short account is very revealing. It proves that the twelve were not in full fellowship with the persecuted members of their community. The succeeding chapters in the book of Acts relate how the Hellenists then preached the gospel in Samaria. This half-Jewish, half-pagan country also rejected (although in another way, it is true) the worship of the temple at Jerusalem.
[Is there a hidden allegory in the Parable of the Good Samaritan? The Hellenists are in trouble, but the Temple-loving Judaean-Christians pass by on the other side. The Samaritans come to their rescue.]
But again at this point disunity breaks out. The leaders of the Jerusalem church distrust the accomplishments of these valiant preachers of the gospel. They send two from their group into Samaria in order to investigate their work and (in a sense) to "legalize" the conversion of the Samaritans already won by the Hellenists' mission (Acts 8:14 ff.). In the same manner the apostles of Judaean-Christianity afterward penetrated everywhere that the Hellenists had already worked. Thus Philip is the first to arrive in the coastal cities on his way to Caesarea (Acts 8:40); Peter then follows (Acts 9:32 ff.). Later, the Hellenists who are dispersed preach the gospel at Antioch (Acts 11:19); Barnabas, the emissary of the community of Jerusalem, follows him (Acts 11:22).

John's Position

I have tried to show elsewhere that the injustice done by the Judaean-Christians to the Hellenists' group, whose credit for propagating the gospel cannot be exaggerated, was stressed specifically in John's Gospel (4:38) where Jesus says, "Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor." This is exactly what we hear in Acts 8:14; those who had labored (in Samaria) were those first missionaries. The twelve entered only afterward into their labor. Further, the author of this gospel defends the same ideas as Stephen does concerning worship "in spirit and in truth" and concerning true worship, which is offered neither on Mount Gerizim nor in the temple at Jerusalem. The fourth evangelist must have been close to this group.

The Elimination of James and Peter

When Stephen was martyred and during the events which followed, Peter was still present in the community at Jerusalem, which he had led in the earliest period. But James, Jesus' brother, adhering to the strictest legalism, already seems to have shared the chief role with Peter. His authority - due partly to his family relationship with Jesus and partly to his conversion, which followed a resurrection appearance (I Cor. 15:7) - is an incontestable fact. We do not know exactly how he achieved this authority, however, since before the arrest of Peter his authority was first imposed beside Peter's and later, probably, against it. In any case, we know that Peter's viewpoint was very close to Paul's. Like Paul, he held to the universality of the gospel, and theologically he seems to have attributed the same role to the death of Christ as did Paul....

For a long time the relation between Peter and Paul has been mistaken. They have been considered as two antagonists because of the incident at Antioch, where Paul blamed Peter publicly for his insincerity (Gal. 2:11 ff.). Actually, Paul in this situation explicitly attributes to Peter a theology of universal scope, which they share. When Paul rebukes Peter, it is for his inconsistency, his weakness, and the fear he has of the people who have come "representing James".

The persecution of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:1 ff.), especially, eliminates any doubt about the divergence which separates, not Peter from Paul, but Peter from James, the brother of Jesus.... James, son of Zebedee, within the group of the twelve, seems to have shared the ideas of Peter. It is striking that Luke, in Acts 12:2, is so cursory in the attention he gives the martyrdom of James. He gives it six words! It is, after all, a question of the very first martyr among the twelve apostles. Is not the explanation for such a truncated reference once again Luke's tendency to present the early Christians as perfectly united? Is not this brevity inspired by the desire to cloak in silence the difference existing between the attitude of James, son of Zebedee, and of Peter, on the one hand, and that of James, the brother of Jesus, and the other apostles, on the other hand? Indeed, James and Peter alone are persecuted. James is put to death, and Peter after his deliverance had to depart from Jerusalem and leave the supervision of the community to James, Jesus' brother, and the other apostles.

If the book of Acts leaves so many open questions at this point,
[Why is James not in the prayer-group of Acts 12:12? In 12:17, "Then [Peter] departed and went to another place", why did he not stay with the prayer group? Contrast this with Paul's behavior in Acts 16:25-40. Paul joins the brethren and encourages them.]
it is undoubtedly because the author did not wish to enter too much into the details of these events in which, once more, the Christians were not united in the presence of the persecutors.

The Arrest of Paul in Jerusalem

The conflict between Paul and the representatives of narrow Judaean-Christianity is familiar. All the missionary activity of the apostle is filled with the battle he had to wage against sabotage by the emissaries of that party who followed him everywhere and did not refrain from employing any weapon, including even personal slander and the [disputation] of his right to the apostolate. There, again, the book of Acts seeks to minimize the facts which would indicate that there was conflict. But in this case we may be more certain in our judgment, for we have at our disposal the epistles of Paul himself, and by comparing them with the book of Acts we may see at once the already mentioned tendency of Luke and the very serious nature of the conflict. This permits us to draw from the account of the arrest and trial of Paul (Acts 21 ff.) historical information which withstands critical examination. Thus, we see that for the third time one of the most important figures of the early Christian community suffered persecution while the Judaean-Christian leaders (who became more and more fixed in their narrowness) did not intervene on his behalf....

To understand what happened in Jerusalem at the time of the last stay of Paul in that city, we must take as our starting point what he himself says about the purpose of that visit. We know the importance for the apostle of the collection for the community at Jerusalem. The council called by the apostles had decided that the two missions, Judaean-Christian and Hellenistic-Christian, would each work in its own direction but that a collection to be organized by the Hellenistic churches for the benefit of the Jerusalem community would form the bond between them. This was not simply a charitable work but a sign of unity, corresponding to the institution of the tax which the Jews of the Diaspora had to pay each year for the temple at Jerusalem in order to affirm the unity of all Jews.

In Rom. 15:25 ff. Paul tells us that he is going to Jerusalem in order to bring what had been received for this collection to the church there. But we do not generally give enough attention to the fear which the apostle expresses in this passage [Rom. 15:31], fear lest that collection be refused by the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. He even asks the Christians at Rome to pray that the Jerusalemites might accept the collection which he is about to offer them, and at the same time he exhorts them to pray for his deliverance from the Jewish persecutors who are in Jerusalem. This means that he reckons with the possibility that the collection might not be accepted. Given its character as a symbol of unity, that would signify the break of the church at Jerusalem with Paul and his missionary work.

Was the collection accepted by the church at Jerusalem? We do not know. Perhaps the apostle was arrested before the matter could be discussed. Be that as it may, the precautions which Paul and his companions took permits us to surmise how great the tension was. They went first to Caesarea and stayed with the "Hellenist" Philip, who had been a member of the early community (Acts 21:8); and then they went to Jerusalem, again staying with a Hellenist, Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16). The prophetic act performed at Caesarea by Agabus, binding his own hands and feet with Paul's belt in order to signify the arrest of the apostle at Jerusalem, likewise could be based on the fear that the apostle could not expect any help from the Judaean-Christians at Jerusalem.

According to the book of Acts (21:18 ff.), it was James himself who made Paul aware of the extreme distrust, not to say open hostility, which had existed in the community in regard to his mission. (The text mentions "many thousands" of believing Jews, "all zealous for the law", who have been stirred up against Paul - 21:20 ff.) James advised Paul, in order to dispel that hostility, to make a Nazarite vow to prove his observance of the very law which the Judaean-Christians accused him of wishing to abolish. The performance of this vow required that Paul present himself at the temple for purification and offerings. The Jews of Asia recognized him, and that was the signal for a general riot against the man who "is teaching men everywhere against the people and the law and this place [the temple]" (verse 28). The juridical grounds for the accusation were Paul's admission of an uncircumcised man into the temple...

Some scholars have already offered the hypothesis that his Judaean-Christian adversaries had drawn Paul into an ambush by making him enter the temple. Regardless, it is certain that the Christians of Jerusalem once again made absolutely no attempt to come to the aid of their brother when he was arrested by the Jews, although this would have been possible for them because of their absolute fidelity with respect to the law and the temple.

The Martyrdom of Paul

The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (96 A.D.)

3... When good repute and rising numbers were granted to you in full measure,... Envy and jealousy sprang up, strife and dissension, ... And now all righteousness and peace among you is at an end.

5... Even the greatest and most virtuous pillars of our Church were assailed by envy and jealousy [of fellow-Christians (implied)], and had to keep up the struggle till death ended their days. Look at the holy apostles. It was by sinful jealousy that Peter was subjected to tribulation, not once or twice but many times; it was in that way that he bore his witness, before he left us for his well-earned place in glory. And Paul, because of jealousy and contention, has become the very example of endurance rewarded. He was in bonds seven times, he was exiled, he was stoned. He preached in the East and in the West [Spain?], winning a noble reputation for his faith. He taught righteousness to all the world; and after reaching the furthest limits of the West, and bearing his testimony before kings and rulers, he passed out of this world and was received into the holy places. In him we have one of the greatest of all examples of endurance.

Concerning the events which led directly to the martyrdom of Paul, we have only a single source, the first epistle of Clement, which is the same epistle that informs us of the death of Peter. According to this valuable and indisputable testimony, Paul and Peter were killed by the Romans following a fraternal quarrel which split the Christians at Rome - not jealousy between Peter and Paul, of course, but the jealousy of a Judaean-Christian group against them. This jealousy, which certainly was already at work when Peter was rejected in favor of James, the brother of Jesus, and when Paul was arrested at Jerusalem, had particularly grave consequences at Rome. Clement, writing his letter from Rome to the factious Christians at Corinth to exhort them to peace, reminds them that jealousy between brothers always entails the worst misfortunes and usually even death. First he cites them examples from the Old Testament, beginning with the jealousy of Cain against Abel, and then he alludes to what had happened in his own community about thirty years previous. Indeed, when he says that Peter had become the victim of an "unjust jealousy" and that Paul "in response to the jealousy demonstrated the price of patience" (suffering martyrdom), it is more than probable that this refers to the events which unfolded in Rome, for precisely in the Epistle to the Philippians, which Paul wrote as a prisoner (at Rome, according to the most likely hypothesis), he says that certain men there "preach Christ from [a spirit of] envy and rivalry ... thinking [thus] to make my captivity more painful" (Phil. 1: 15-17). The discord among the Christians at Rome was conducive to the intervention of the Romans against the two great apostles. Therefore Clement, who recalls these tragic memories to the Corinthian Christians, divided by dissensions, says to them in chapter 47, "Your folly ... drives you yourself into peril."

In the case of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul there seems to have been more than simply a lack of solidarity. Everything leads us to the belief that, in the presence of the danger of persecution, there was even denunciation of Christians by Christians, which opinion has been confirmed elsewhere by other texts, [e.g., Tacitus, Annals, XV, 14; see also Matt. 24: 10: "They will betray each other."]

The previous events, which happened at Jerusalem itself, and which we have examined in this paper, surrounding the arrest of Peter (Acts 2) and that of Paul (Acts 21), throw a new light on the passage in I Clement 5.

The jealousy of which Peter and Paul suffered the consequences, according to Clement (although he refers especially to that which split the Christians at Rome), seems also to refer to the community at Jerusalem, from which this jealousy came.

The Irony of the Judaean-Christian Victory

Thus the whole history of the Christian beginnings is dominated, on the one hand, by manifestations of the Holy Spirit, [which] inspired both the love of the first disciples and the astonishing spread of the gospel, and, on the other hand, by regrettable dissension which actually helped to prepare the persecutions of the Christians by the Jews and the Romans. But the triumph of Judaean-Christianity over those who defended the gospel of Jesus - Stephen, Peter, Paul - was a pyrrhic victory. As so often happened in the history of Christianity, good emerged from evil. Each of the three stages, characterized by the persecution of one group of Christians by the Jews (or the Romans) and the lack of Christian solidarity that it reveals, marks at the same time great progress in the expansion of Christianity.

The persecution of Stephen is itself a seminal event in the Christian mission. The "Hellenists" expelled from Jerusalem became initiators of the entire Christian mission by going to Samaria (Acts 8:4 ff., John 4:31 ff.), the first country not part of the Jewish community to which the gospel was preached. The persecution which drove Peter from Jerusalem resulted in his activity at Antioch and elsewhere. Paul's arrest at Jerusalem coincides with the definitive displacement of the center of gravity of Christianity from Jerusalem to other areas.... Judaean-Christianity, by its apparent victory in eliminating one after another of the free tendencies of authentic Christianity, in reality eliminated itself."

Abstracted from the writings of Oscar Cullman, the Swiss Roman-Catholic theologian, whose insights into early Christian history and doctrine are remarkably perceptive. See his "The Early Church", Westminster Press (Philadelphia), 1956.


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