Reading: The Jewish and Gentile Preparations (The Early Church, Chapter 1)

This is the first chapter of the textbook written by James Orr.





The history of the Church may be said to begin with the Day of Pentecost. The Day of Pentecost, however — the conception of the Church altogether — had its antecedents. The New Jerusalem did not come down from heaven quite as it is pictured in the Apocalypse, without multiple links of connection with the past. St. Paul has this in view when he says that it was in “the fullness of the time” that God sent forth His Son (Galatians. 4. 4). 

The Old Testament Preparation.

Clearly, the Christian Church has a significant relation to the Old Testament. The Old Testament Hebrew community was also, in its way, a Church. (Acts 7. 38; Heb. 2. 12). The word ecclesia used in the New Testament to designate the Christian community is the word used most often in the LXX (LXX = The Septuagint – a Greek translation of the Hebrew text) as the equivalent of the Hebrew word which means assembly or congregation. Even though the concept is closely related to the idea of the nation of Israel, the idea of the reign of God always cherished the consciousness of a destiny far beyond the localized nation of Israel. Before the concept took on a national form, the covenants made with the Fathers have the clear word from God that Israel was a people called with a view to the ultimate blessing of the whole human race (Gen. 12. 3, 18. 18).

The idea of God’s reign reaches its fullest expression in the beautiful predictions of the Prophets and the Psalms (Is. 60; Ps. 87). With the prophets, too, we see the rise of a new idea — the thought of a Church within a Church, a true and spiritual Israel within natural Israel — which is the birth of the idea of the Church as we find it in the New Testament. (Is. 8. 16-18).

A further important step in the formation of the Church consciousness was taken during the Babylonian Exile, when the people, driven from their land and deprived of the holy city, temple, and sacrifices became a group of people called out from among the general population in the full meaning of the word ecclesia. Their return to Palestine did not simply end this feature of their religious life. On the contrary, their return was marked by a new development of religious institutions such as a priestly government, the formation of a canon of Scripture, the reading and teaching of the law — all of which prepared the way for the Church in the New Testament age to be free from the national and political idea behind ecclesia. 

 The Preparation After the Exile 

Of special importance in this connection are the four following realities: 

         The rise and spread of Synagogue Worship. 

The synagogue may go back to the time of Ezra; in any case, it was a prominent institution after the return, both in Judea and in the lands of the dispersion (Acts 15. 21). An important aspect of the synagogue, in contrast with the temple, was/is its local character, giving it practical universality; and its simple and spiritual worship. Worship involved reading of law and prophets, reciting of prayers, singing of psalms, a discourse or exhortation, in which the passage read was expounded and applied, a concluding blessing. The officials were the "elders," the "ruler” (one or more), who had the charge of the public worship, the “minister” or servant (Luke 4. 20), "collectors of alms," with an “interpreter " to give the sense of the lessons in the current Aramaic.

  There was considerable freedom in the service. The Scriptures were read, the prayers recited, the exhortations given, not by officials, but by persons selected from the congregation (Luke 4. 16-20; Acts 13. 15). The resemblance to a simple Christian service is obvious. 

      The rise of the Jewish Sects. 

The greater part of the period after the exile is an absolute blank in our knowledge. The one thing certain is that from the time of Ezra the nation set before it as its ideal the strict observance of the Law of Moses. Necessity gave rise to an order of men whose special business it was to guard, develop, and expound the Law. We know them as the Scribes. When the veil of history lifts again in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 BC.), we find ourselves in a different atmosphere, and the three groups of people of historical note among the Jews are already in existence. 

The Pharisees first appear as a party of protest against the lax Hellenizing tendencies of the period. The name they bore denotes them as the strictly “pious” ones of their day. Parties of protest, however, are peculiarly liable to degeneration, and in their exaggerated scrupulosity and excessive literalism, “pious ones”' soon sank into the "Pharisees" (a word which means separated) as we know them in the Gospels. 

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were not a religious party at all, but simply a political clique. They held the honors of the high priesthood and other influential offices by heredity. They represent the worldly-wise, diplomatic, time-serving party in the national community.  These were men of skeptical, rationalistic temper, and pleasure-loving in their view of life. 

 Of much greater importance for the history of the Church, though not mentioned in the Gospels, is the third of these parties — the Essenes.  This group had its chief settlement in the desert of Engedi, on the north-west shore of the Dead Sea, but were found also in the towns and villages throughout Palestine. Their total number was about 4,000. At Engedi they lived as a sort of brotherhood with customs of their own. They offered no animal sacrifices, contenting themselves with sending to the temple gifts of incense. They abounded in rituals of purification (particularly with water washing) and wore white garments. They rejected marriage and practiced community of goods. Their employments were chiefly agricultural, but in the towns, they exercised trades. 

The Essenes had the peculiar custom of greeting the sunrise with prayers. They forbade slavery, war, and oaths were given to studies of the paranormal, had secret doctrines and books, and more. The superficial resemblances have led some to trace Christianity itself to Essene sources, but this is not proven. We shall see that Essenes’ thought probably became ultimately merged in a form of Christianity. 

     The Judaism of the Dispersion.

The Jewish dispersion had its origin in the captivities but was more due to voluntary settlements for trade. The Greek rulers did everything they could to attract settlers to their newly-founded cities, and the troubles in Palestine made multitudes willing to leave their native country.  Thus it came about that Jews were to be found in almost all of the regions of the Roman world. They sometimes had rights of citizenship, and in many places, as in Alexandria in Egypt, enjoyed special privileges. The effect of living in these many different places on the Jew himself was to profoundly modify his whole manner of thought. A freer spirit was necessarily introduced. From being a citizen of Zion, he became a citizen of the world. The dispersion provided points of contact for Christianity through the spread of the synagogues as can be seen in the book of Acts, the circulation of the Jewish Scriptures in the Greek tongue (the LXX mentioned earlier), and above all, through the creation of a large body of proselytes. (God-fearing people of non-Jewish heritage who converted to Judaism) 

Outside the circle of proselytes proper there was a group who followed the Jewish faith but who were not fully converted. These were known as the “devout persons” (God-fearers) of the New Testament (Acts 10. 2, 22; 13. 16, 26). These people, while attending the synagogues, only observed the Mosaic Law in certain leading points — such as the observance of the Sabbath. Many of the first converts of the Gospel were drawn from this class. It is noteworthy that the admission of a proselyte to a synagogue was not only by circumcision and sacrifice but by baptism. Further, if statements made in the group of writings called the Talmud are to be trusted, the children of proselytes were baptized with their parents. 

     The contact of Jewish thought particularly at Alexandria with Hellenistic Culture and Philosophy 

The classic name here is Philo, though the elements of Philo's doctrine are already met within the Apocryphal Book of Wisdom. Philo was born about 20 B.C. and lived till near the middle of the first century. He was, therefore, a contemporary of both Christ and St. Paul. Profoundly versed in Greek philosophy and literature, he sought to bring about an amalgamation of Jewish and Greek modes of thought. His characteristic doctrine is that of the Logos or “Word" of God, whom he conceives of a part in the manner of Greek philosophers and partly in the manner of Old Testament teaching. 

   Providential Mission of Greece and Rome. 

The splendor of Athens in the Age of Pericles (who led Athens from 461 to 429 BC) should not blind us to the fact that for Greece as a whole the fifth century B.C. was an age of decline. The great colonizing energy of Greece was in the previous century.  The mission of the Greeks was not to be the rulers, but the intellectual educators of mankind. The rule passed to Macedonia, and for a brief moment, it seemed as if Alexander's dream of a Greek empire of the world was to be realized. His empire fell to pieces at his death (323BC), but his great design was fulfilled of diffusing Greek letters and culture wherever his arms had gone. Rome gradually gathered up the fragments of the Macedonian empire, but Rome herself yielded to the intellectual supremacy of Greece. We do well to recognize how profoundly Greek influences had taken possession of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the Christian era. Greek language, Greek philosophy, Greek literature, Greek culture were everywhere. Rome itself was at this time in a great measure, what Juvenal calls it, a Greek city. It is a fact that may not always strike us that the Epistle to the Romans was written in Greek. 

While, however, profoundly influenced by Greece, Rome's providential mission was different from that of Greece. It was the task of Greece to show what the human mind can do at its highest and best in the way of natural development, to teach the world the elements of Greek culture and civilization, and to give the world a language fitted for every noble purpose of thought and life. It was the function of Rome to bind the nations together into a great political unity — to weld them by strong bonds of law and government into a vast, universal commonwealth. The practical instinct of the Roman people and their genius for government enabled them to accomplish this like no other people of the world could have done. It is to be noted that the hour of the completion of this great political fabric was also that of the birth of Christianity — that the two events were almost completely synchronized. The world-empire of Rome and the world-religion of Jesus came into being together. 

     The Greek Preparation.

The very intensity of the intellectual development in Athens tended to hasten a moral dissolution. The Greek religion crumbled when subjected to the critical thinking of her philosophers. The popular theology in Greece was simply that of the poems of Homer. When this is said, it is easy to see that its foundations must have been swept away the moment men began to inquire rationally into the causes of things and to entertain more elevated moral conceptions. Morality in the older period had rested largely on tradition, on custom. A spirit of inquiry had set in which would not allow custom to establish public morality. A class of popular educators had arisen who dissolved the most cherished beliefs of the Greeks by their skeptical approach. Other cultural elements aided the collapse. Even the weakening effects on morals by the refinement and luxury of the prosperous period was not so fatal to moral life as other influences in the public life of Greece. These were the long-continued and exhausting wars of the city-states, with unprincipled leaders who thought nothing of the breach of faith in treaties, and the like. 

But Greece had a more important service to do for Christianity than simply to reveal the depths of her own moral impotence. The preparation had a positive side as well. With the overthrow of the old religion going on, there arose a search for a more rational and abiding foundation for faith in God;  with the overthrow of the old morality there began with Socrates the search for a deeper ground of morality in man's own nature. With the breaking up of the old states, there was seen in the philosophy of the Stoics, the rise of the conception of a state or commonwealth based on reason, wide as the world, and embracing all of humanity in a new brotherhood. (See Stoicism at

In these three directions, therefore, (1) a more inward view of morality, (2) the recognition of a common nature in humanity, and (3) a tendency to Monotheism, we are to look for God’s preparation of the ancient world for Christianity. But all these advances of the human spirit did not prevent the dissolution of belief and morals. The note of uncertainty in later Greek philosophy is clear (see, for example, the Sceptics The most earnest minds were those who felt it most deeply. Dissatisfied with the human opinion, they felt, as Plato phrases it, the need of some “word of God, which would more surely carry them” (The Phaedo). 

 The Roman Preparation.

If the philosophy of Greece could not save Greece itself, it was not to be expected that it would be able to save Rome. The Romans were a people of graver, more serious disposition than the Greeks. They had not the quick, versatile imagination of the Greeks. Their gods were mostly personifications of abstract ideas (Justice, Pity, Compassion, Pleasure, and the like). Religion was to them a very serious part of the business of life, to be engaged in with strict formality, and meticulous observance of prescribed rites. Their gods were viewed, too, more as the guardians of fidelity and virtue in the household and the state than among the Greeks. All testimonies accordingly bear witness to the unadorned virtue and simple manners of the early Romans.  This simply did not endure. With the growth of power— especially after the fall of Carthage and Corinth — there was a great inrush of foreign customs. The Greek gods came with the Greek culture, and a change took place in the Roman religion for the worse. Altered conditions in the state added to the inclination toward moral deterioration among the Romans. 

The old distinction between patricians and plebeians was supplanted by that of rich and poor. The wars destroyed the agricultural industry and threw the land into the hands of wealthy men, who farmed their estates using gangs of slaves. Slavery became the basis of the social structure, and labor was despised as beneath the dignity of citizens. The populace was supported by money from the state treasury, or gifts from nobles, and lived only to be fed and amused ("bread and games,'' Juvenal). The gory spectacles of the amphitheater fostered in them a cruel and bloodthirsty spirit. Marriage lost its sacredness, and sexual immorality flooded society. 

What all this meant for religion it is not difficult to describe. The chief features, in religious respect, were: (1) The wide prevalence of skepticism, or total unbelief among the cultured or educated classes; and (2), the vast growth of superstition and a great influx of foreign cults among the people in general. The cults chiefly in favor were those of Oriental origin, and this again shows that the religious consciousness had entered on a deeper phase. For, whatever the defects of the Oriental religion, there was expressed in most of them a deeper feeling of the discord, the pain, the mystery of life, and many of their rites showed a longing for redemption. 

Special importance attaches to the rise of an entirely new cult — the worship of the emperor. Paganism reached its culmination in the worship of Caesar. The population had been familiar with the idea of a Genius of the Republic. Now, when all powers and offices were gathered up in the emperor, he became too ordinary eyes an almost godlike being. From this, the step was easy to formally declaring Caesar to be a god. The Senate took this step when they decreed divine honors to the emperors — many of whom were the most sordid and vile examples of mankind. Yet this worship of the emperor took root, and, in the provinces especially, gained amazing popularity. The peculiarity of it was that it was the one worship that was common to the whole empire. In it, the Roman Empire expressed its inmost spirit. As the deification of brute power, it was the strongest possible antithesis to the worship of Christ. It was the worship of the Beast. 

Luxurious, frivolous, skeptical, and corrupt as the age was, however, we should not overlook the presence of certain better elements. As in Greece, so here, the preparation was not wholly negative.  Stoicism and Platonism had received a religious tinge in the teachings of Seneca and Plutarch. These philosophers exercised an elevating influence on the purer minds. There were, doubtless, numerous individual examples of virtue. The organized associations or guilds of the empire and the so-called mysteries have intimate and curious relations with the history of the Church in the first centuries. When all is said, the verdict of history on that old world must be that it was as corrupt as it could while it could continue to exist. What was worse, the old order of things in Rome did not have within itself any principle of regeneration. 

     Christianity and Roman Law.

What is sometimes said of the tolerance of the Romans requires to be taken with considerable modification. The Romans had laws against what they called foreign religious practices; even where the practice of a foreign religion was permitted, this permission did not extend to Roman citizens themselves. Christianity, therefore, fell under the ban of the laws in a double respect. It was unauthorized and it drew away Roman citizens from the established religion. Even with this disadvantage, however, it might have escaped, for the authorities found it unworkable to enforce the laws rigidly. 

But there were special features about Christianity which, from a Roman standpoint, made tolerance impossible. Christianity was not a national religion. The sentiment of antiquity respected the gods of other nations, but Christianity looked for all intents and purposes as a revolt against the ancient faith from which it sprang, and had no national character of its own. It had no visible deity or temple, and to the popular mind seemed like a form of atheism. Especially, it was to be seen that, with its exclusive claims, it struck at the very existence of the Roman state religion. If its precepts were admitted, the state religion would be overthrown. The more intent the officials of Rome were to maintain or revive the prestige of the established system, the more doggedly they opposed this new “superstition.” The total inability to reconcile Christianity with the established religion came to its sharpest point in the refusal of Christians to worship at the shrine of the emperor. This was an act of civil disobedience that could not be passed over. 

Add to this how Christianity came into conflict with the laws prohibiting secret and nighttime gatherings; the powerful commercial interests affected by its spread (Acts 19. 24-27); the revulsion in which Christians were held on account of the crimes ascribed to them by their enemies; the outbursts of a popular fury to which they were exposed in times of public calamity, and it will readily be understood how, even when there was no general persecution, Christians lived in a constant state of insecurity, and how the very "name" of Christian should be held sufficient to condemn them. 


Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2020, 12:50 PM