The Effect of the Controversy between Jew and Gentile on the Growth and Teaching of the Early Church
Peter J. Blackburn, New Testament B 1962
Not encouraged, but certain factors made it necessary; what was involved in becoming a proselyte.
Christianity almost thought of as a branch of Judaism; no clear contacts with Gentiles up till Cornelius - then an act of God, but not a generally accepted rule; basic reasons for the early Christian attitude.
The Gentile mission in Antioch itself; the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas from Antioch; controversy in Antioch; Galatians.
Peter's speech - remarkably close to Paul's position; the decision and letter, and Paul's acceptance of this; evidence for the influence of the decree; the unity of the early Church.
Seen in the New Testament canon - but the question of James; important results: (a) the Church not a sect within Judaism; (b) fuller realisation of her mission.
"The more the Church spread to the Gentile world, the more she receded from Jewry. Those members of the Palestinian Church who lived according to the Pharisaical rule watched this development with profound regret and made a further attempt to keep the Church within Judaism. Her estrangement from Jewry, they believed, could be prevented or mitigated only when all the Churches and all their members agreed to observe the Mosaic law." So writes Adolf Schlatter.1
Basically there were two issues involved in the controversy under consideration. The first was the nature of the Church. Was it merely a branch or continuation of Judaism? The second, following this, involved the nature of the Christian gospel. What was needful for a person's salvation?
The enormity of these questions cannot be over-emphasised, and the far-reaching conclusions arrived at by the early Church profoundly affected the growth and teaching of the Church not only in apostolic times, but ever since.
The method of this essay will be to see the developing attitudes to these problems as they led to controversy, the solution that was reached and the implications of the triumph of Paul's gospel for the growth of the Church.
2. Proselytising in Judaism
As a background to the attitude of many early Christians to Gentile converts, some study must be made of proselytising in late Judaism.2
Apparently, proselytising was never really encouraged among the Jews. They had a strong sense of being "the people of God" and with this was an obligation to keep themselves and their religion pure and uncontaminated. The evil effects of too much social mixing with other nations was written into Israel's history.
There were two features of the Old Testament, however, which made some form of provision for proselytes both inevitable and essential. (a) The laws had emphasised responsibility for the stranger within the gates.3 Not only was this an obligation with respect to his well-being, but it was necessary, for example, that he along with the others should observe the sabbath. (b) There had been a growing awareness that the purposes of God concerned "the nations" as well as "the people" and that at least in Messianic times the light of God's revelation would shine on them also.
However, there never appears to have been any widespread conception of Israel's going out to bring the nations to a true knowledge of God. Proselytism became a necessity as Israel was forced to live in closer contact with other peoples by subjugation and trade. The person who became a proselyte did so because he was attracted to the Jewish religion.
For a foreigner to become a proselyte, he had to be circumcised, and, in thus receiving the sign of the covenant, to take to himself the covenant duties and obligations. A bath of purification followed, similar to normal purification rites, but of deeper significance here for the one who had the deep impurity of a heathen life behind him and who sought to enter the Jewish community. The proselyte was expected to fulfil all the obligations of the Law. The break with his past was complete, as proselytes generally took up residence in Palestine, although with the Dispersion this was not always so. Porter comments4, "Philo gives abundant evidence that a Greek became a proselyte only by a violent and absolute break with his past life and associations."
In spite of all this it is doubtful whether a proselyte was ever fully regarded as part of the people of God. His background made caution essential here, even in spite of the instruction given before his admittance. He was still a foreigner who had chosen to become a Jewish proselyte. Moreover, he was the "exception" rather than the "rule". Surely even the Messianic hope for the Gentiles could never give them a status equal to that of the Jews.
3. Early Contacts of the Church with Gentiles
In the earliest days it was apparently not fully realised that the gospel was for "the nations", nor that the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah by the Jewish people officially and as a whole clearly indicated that the Christian faith could not be contained within Judaism. Basically, the Jewish Christians tended to think of "the Way" as a movement within Judaism, so that for a Gentile to become a Christian was roughly equivalent to his becoming a Jewish proselyte. It may be truer to state that these matters had not been thought out by the Christian community but appear to have been a basic assumption of their activity.
Certainly, on the day of Pentecost there is no clear indication that there were any others present than "Jews and proselytes" (Acts 2.5-11). Baptism was not clearly seen as the rite of admission into "the Church" as such, but as a purification rite (v. 38). Although they had distinctive expressions of koinwnia (vv. 42,44,45), they still actively engaged in the Temple worship (v. 46; 3.1).5 There was, moreover, no proclamation to the Gentiles. The Ellhnistwn of 6.1 fairly obviously were Greek-speaking Jews. The people addressed by those scattered in the persecution following Stephen's martyrdom are not mentioned. The approach may have been similar to that of the earlier missions of the twelve and of the seventy (i.e. "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" - Mt. 10.5). The mission to Samaria by Philip (a Hellenist, and hence probably of a more liberal mind) would not be regarded as a Gentile mission (Acts 8.5ff). In spite of deep-seated national bitterness, the Samaritans at least had some semblance of the truth in their acceptance of the Pentateuch. It is noteworthy that Ananias, the disciple at Damascus (9.10), had a Jewish name, and that, though Saul was to be a witness to the Gentiles (v. 15), he preached in Damascus "in the synagogue", to the annoyance of the Jews (v. 20ff).
The first notable approach to Gentiles is the account of Cornelius (ch. 10). This was made possible only by direct guidance from God, and the seal was unmistakably set on the work by the gift of the Holy Spirit, before baptism, to the uncircumcised. Peter's report of this in Jerusalem was met with a note of surprise, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life" (11.18). Yet it may still have appeared to them as the exception rather than the rule.
To us, the significance of Peter's vision is evident enough, but it appears to have been interpreted far more cautiously at that time. This phase of the Church's growth almost as a branch of Judaism is marked by Luke's comment in 11.19 - ""Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews."
No matter how implicitly the Gentile mission appears to us in the teaching of Jesus, it is necessary to note the sincerity of the Jewish Christians in their attitude. After all, Jesus himself had not depreciated God's former revelation. He knew well and loved the Jewish scriptures, and was meticulous in his attendance at public worship. The scriptures expressed the will of God in terms of the Mosaic way of worship and ceremonial law. How was this to be bypassed or dismissed? Surely this unchangeable will of God was to be binding on such Gentiles as might seek to become followers of the Way. As Schlatter has it, "Would not God's former work be thereby confirmed, Scripture corroborated, obedience rendered to the inviolable holiness of the Law, and the mission of Jesus raised to the status of a perfect revelation whose glorious achievement was to make little Israel great by admitting the gentiles to its privileges?"6
4. Antioch - the Centre of the Gentile Mission
It was at Antioch that the first bold attempt at preaching to the Gentiles was made (11.20).7 This was made by certain men of Cyprus and Cyrene - no doubt Greek-speaking Jews, as might be expected. The mission had such success that Barnabas (himself a Cypriot) was sent by the Jerusalem Church to review the work. Recognising that this was the work of God, he sought out Paul to assist him in its consolidation.
The naming of the disciples as "Christians" at Antioch bears significant testimony to the impact of the Gentile mission. F.F. Bruce has well remarked, "Jews would not have given them a name containing the element 'Christ'..., for that would have been tantamount to admitting that Jesus, whose followers these people were, was indeed the Messiah. To Gentiles, however, Christ was merely a name (if a rather odd one), with none of the religious associations which it had for Jews, and so, as they heard these people talk so much about the Lord and Saviour as CristoV, they called them Cristianoi…".8
It was likewise from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas set off on their first missionary journey. There is no explicit statement of aims and objectives - they were simply to do "the work to which I have called them" (13.2). The pattern, however, was the same as that which Paul continued to use - "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1.16). This pattern does not indicate a proselytising to Judaism. The proclamation to Jew first was out of obligation to those who were explicitly seeking the Messiah and belonged to God's ancient chosen people. However (and to the consternation of many of the Jews), he freely preached to the Gentiles also (note Acts 13.46ff). The mission was very fruitful, and a special cause for joy was the fact that God "had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles" (14.27).
It was this very mission, however, that brought to the fore the whole question of the presence of Gentiles in the Church. Emissaries came from Judaea insisting that circumcision was necessary for salvation (15.1). V. 24 indicates that they were probably exceeding their authority. In any case, the dissension was so great that the question had to be referred to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem.
There is little point in entering into a full discussion here concerning the dating of Galatians and the identification of the visits to Jerusalem in that epistle. The absence of any reference to the apostolic decree seems to tell in favour of a date before the Council - though, of course, the apostle may rather be wanting to focus attention on the principles involved.
Whatever conclusion is held, Galatians indicates what Paul's approach had been in preaching to the Gentiles, as against the Jewish infiltrators who were disturbing them at that time. He begins by making the strong claim that the gospel he has been preaching comes from God (1.6ff). This would answer the charge that he was falsifying the word of God. He then strikes at the root of the matter - what is the basis of one's justification, one's acquittal by and acceptance with God (3.1ff)? "Faith," Paul answers. Salvation is available by the divine act, by grace alone, and the only requirement from the human side is faith. The Law, indeed, had its place - like the paidogwgoV of Greek and Roman households - to bring us to Christ (3.24ff).9 But now under Christ we are free from the bondage of the Law. This does not imply the moral licence that the spies (2.4) probably expected to find. A Christian walks by the Spirit and manifests the fruit of the Spirit (5.16ff). The crucial point was whether fulfilment of the Law (particularly the ceremonial law) was essential for salvation, or whether this had been rendered irrelevant by God's act in Christ. Along with this was a practical difficulty for Christian fellowship - Gentile Christians living alongside Jewish Christians who had been brought up to observe certain food laws and to refrain, as far as possible, from mixing with Gentiles.
The council began with the statements of both sides, Paul and Barnabas declaring "what God had done with them" (15.4), members of the Pharisee party urging the necessity of Gentiles being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses.
Peter's statement (v. 7ff) shows the influence of Paul's recent rebuke of his hypocrisy in Antioch. His insistence on faith in the grace of God as the only condition of salvation10 very strikingly follows Paul's statement in Gal. 2.15,16.11 He reminds them of the conversion of Cornelius, that this was the act of God, that the heart-knowing God had given them the Holy Spirit and cleansed their hearts on the basis of their faith alone. To insist, therefore, on obedience to the Law was to tempt God who had thus shown faith alone to be necessary, and to lay an unnecessary and intolerable burden on them. Peter's thought here expressed is practically identical with that of Paul. The suggestion that the Law had to be fulfilled was either in effect an attack on the supremacy of God's grace in salvation or a superfluous addition.
James (on whom the circumcision party was probably depending for support - cf. Gal. 2.12), in his judicial summing up, agreed that, since God had plainly visited Gentiles as well as Jews (a situation he found foretold in O.T. prophecy), they had no right to impose on them what God had obviously not required hitherto. The question of paramount importance for this essay concerns the real nature of his answer to the practical difficulty (subsequently incorporated in the apostolic letter) and Paul's agreement to this.12 Did Paul simply agree to a verbal and diplomatic compromise for the sake of unity, and then later judiciously revert to his practice of liberty? Further, after the return to Antioch and reading of the letter, it appears to vanish from the picture. There is no good reason, however, to suppose that Paul must have found the decree objectionable. Provided no compromise of principle was involved, he was a very conciliatory man (16.3; 21.26; 1 Cor. 9.19ff). Further, in his epistles, he himself urges those who are strong in faith to restrict their liberty voluntarily, to avoid offending those with weaker consciences (cf. Rom. 14.1-15.6; 1 Cor. 8).
Apart from these references in Paul's letters which indicate his respect for the decree, there is evidence that the decree was effective in some areas for quite some time. Rev. 2.14,20 seems to indicate that the terms of the letter were still observed in Asia later in the first century. Further, Eusebius preserves the account of the Gallican persecution of AD177, in which one of the martyrs says, "How could such people eat children, when they are not even permitted to eat the blood of irrational animals?" (H.E., V. i.26). A striking parallel to sections of the decree is seen in the Koran (Sura V, para. 4),13 "That which dieth of itself, and blood, and swine's flesh, and all that hath been sacrificed under the invocation of any other name than of God, and the strangled, and the killed by a blow, or by a fall, or by goring... is forbidden you." The influence here is probably Judaism rather than Christianity, but it is noteworthy that this particular aspect should be taken over, thus indicating its importance.
It may be concluded that the decree achieved its purpose of keeping the Jewish and Gentile sections of the Church united. Although the later sections of Acts are chiefly concerned with Paul, it is erroneous to think that he could ever have conceived of himself or his work in isolation from the rest of the Church. While acknowledging his task to be "apostle to the Gentiles" and that of Peter, "apostle to the Jews", the thought would have been distasteful to him that they were to found churches distinct and unrelated - unrelated because distinct in basic principles of the gospel. It is doubtful whether the decree was aimed at complete unity of practice - much depended on the local situation, the proportions of Jew and Gentile in the churches, the degree of Hellenistic background of these Jews, the former associations of the Gentiles in pagan society.
The point established by the council was the basis of the gospel - God's grace in Christ, mediated to the individual by faith alone. In the decree itself, the point of note is not so much what was retained as what was eliminated.
6. The Effects of the Triumph of Paul's Gospel on the Growth of the Church
Whatever reservations are to be seen in the decision of the council, the final result marked the triumph of the "gospel according to St. Paul" in the early Church. It is hard to assess the totality of its impact, since his figure so obviously dominates the N.T. canon. Perhaps this fact in itself bears witness to the extent of this impact. The noteworthy and often-quoted example of the epistle of James may seem to contradict this. However, it is probable that this was written against the other pole of Christian practice, when liberty was being confused with licence. True, the basis of salvation and of justification seems to be at stake. The point, however, is not "faith plus works", but "faith which expresses itself in works." There are important aspects which resulted from this triumph of Paul's gospel, of which two are most outstanding.
The Church had been in danger of becoming merely a sect within Judaism. The coming of the Messiah was a turning-point for Judaism. Church history would certainly have been different if Israel as a whole had received and welcomed the Messiah. Why they did not and God's plans for his ancient chosen people are beyond our understanding, but their rejection of the Christ has meant the salvation of the Gentiles (see Rom. 9-11, and especially 11.11). The new wine had burst the old wine-skins. It may have been some time before Christians were officially recognised as distinct from the Jews, but from this time they were in fact basically different. The new "Israel of God" (see Gal. 6.15,16) they may have been, but certainly not merely a segment or continuation of the old Israel.
The liberation of the Church from this conception of her nature opened the way to a fuller realisation of her mission. The gospel could thenceforth be preached freely to the ends of the earth. The great missionary expansion of the Church was impossible as long as the Church was divided on this basic issue. The climax of the book of Acts is the preaching of the gospel by the apostle to the Gentiles in the capital of the Empire. It has already been noted that Paul continued to preach to "Jew first", even in Rome (Acts 28.17ff). The reasons behind this have been noted.
The gospel of God's grace rendered all distinctions irrelevant. Throughout his epistles, Paul can make such affirmations as, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3.28); "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view (kata sarka)" (2 Cor. 5.16); or again, having contrasted the "Gentiles in the flesh" and the "commonwealth of Israel," "For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in the place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end" (Eph. 2.14-16). Such affirmations were impossible if Gentiles were to become Jewish proselytes. However, though Christianity had its roots in the O.T., and in structure and worship had a debt to Judaism, essentially both Jews and Gentiles became Christians by believing in God's act of grace in Jesus Christ, his fulfilment of the O.T. hope.
The greatest crisis in the early Church centred on whether or not Christianity was to be merely another branch of Judaism. Attention was focussed on this by the missionary expansion to Gentiles from Antioch.
Superficially, the problem was, "On what basis are Gentiles to be admitted to the Church?" But fundamentally the whole basis of human salvation, whether Jew or Gentile, was at stake. This was resolved by acknowledging God's grace in Christ as the only basis for salvation and faith in Christ as the only requirement from the human side.
To insist on obedience to the Law was therefore to impose as an unnecessary burden what had been done away with in Christ. However, in Christian love, Gentiles were to respect the attitudes of their brothers in Christ. The Church was thus freed from becoming a sect within Judaism and as a unity could expand freely throughout the Empire.
1 The Church in the New Testament Period (SPCK, London, 1961), p. 125.
2 See F.C. Porter's article "Proselyte" in J Hastings (ed.), A Dictionary of the Bible (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1902).
3 It is significant that ger, "stranger" is most frequently translated by proshlutoV in LXX, though not with its later meaning.
4 op. Cit.
5 This may explain the strong emphasis on circumcision which came from the Jerusalem church.
6 op. cit., p. 128.
7 Some MSS have EllhnistaV instead of EllhnaV, but in any case it is not Jews referred to here.
8 The Spreading Flame (Paternoster, London, 1961), p. 91.
9 The paidogwgoV cared for the early moral training of the lad and was later responsible to escort him to and from school. Depending on whether the earlier or later function is referred to, the translation of eiV Criston will be either "until Christ came," or "to bring us to Christ."
10 pisteuomen swqhnai may be rendered "we believe - we shall be / we have been / so as to be - saved." The last, regarding swq. as an epexegetic infinitive seems best. See F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (Tyndale, London, 1951), p. 294.
11 Some commentators have argued with great cogency that Paul's speech with Peter continues beyond v. 14.
12 F.F. Bruce, (The Spreading Flame, p. 110n) has noted that porneia in this context probably does not refer to ordinary unchastity, avoidance of which was part of basic Christian teaching, but rather to Gentile unions which contravened the Jewish laws of affinity (Lev. 18). The question of Paul's acceptance of the decree, however, involved the other parts.
13 Rodwell's translation.
F.F. Bruce The Acts of the Apostles. The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale, London, 1951)
The Spreading Flame (Paternoster, London, 1961)
J. Hastings (ed.) A Dictionary of the Bible (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1902)
H Lietzmann (tr. B.L. Woolf) The Beginnings of the Christian Church (Lutterworth, London, 3rd ed. 1955)
A. Schlatter (tr. P.P. Levertoff) The Church in the New Testament Period (S.P.C.K., London, 1961)
© Peter J. Blackburn, 1963, 1999
Note: In making this essay available on the Internet, Greek text has been changed from Graeca font to Symbol True Type font. This has meant presenting it without breathing marks, accents and subscripts.