Reading: The Apostolic Age and Later Jewish Christianity (The Early Church, Chapter 2)




It was into the pagan world as we have described it that Christ’s religion came as the breath of a new life.  “The time is fulfilled," said Jesus, "and the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1. 15). The immovable foundations of the Church were laid in Christ's life, deeds, preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom, death and resurrection, and ascension into heaven. 

Christ's last injunction to His apostles was to abide at Jerusalem till they should receive “the promise of the Father" (Luke 24. 49; Acts 1. 4, 5). In the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2.) the New Testament Church was born. 

The Church of the Apostles. 

Various reasons urge us to take a glance at the characteristics of the Apostolic Age. Three main stages in the development may be distinguished:  

    The first takes us to the martyrdom of Stephen, and may be called the period of unbroken unity with Jewish institutions. The Church in this stage was composed wholly of Jewish believers, and was presided over by the apostles as a body. The first disciples stood in unbroken unity with temple and synagogue (Acts 2. 46; 3. 1). Their specifically Christian fellowship expressed itself in domestic gatherings (ch. 2. 46). Even the apostles did not dream of parting with their national religious heritage (cf. Peter's scruples, Acts 10.), but they probably thought of the Gentile mission to which they knew themselves called (Matt, 18 19; Acts1. 8; 2. 21, 39), as an incorporation of the Gentiles into the historic lineage of Jewish privilege.  How long this naive stage lasted is uncertain, but the need must early have been felt for more independent assemblies. This became imperative when, under the new impulse of love, the so-called “community of goods” was introduced (ch. 2. 44, 45). It is in connection with the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira that the word “Church“ first occurs (ch. 5. 1 1). Even yet we must beware of attributing to these gatherings of the disciples too formal an organization. Everything is as yet fluid, growing, unconstrained. The first mention of “elders" is in 11. 30, which seems to have followed the practice of the Jewish synagogue. 

The oldest definite step in organization we read of was the appointment of The Seven (Acts 6.), called for by the disputes between Hebrews and Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews) about the daily distribution. It is customary to see in these "Seven" the prototypes of the "deacons" ; but the question arises if this plan was meant to go farther than to meet a particular emergency. Naturally, as believers multiplied, similar associations tended to spring up in the surrounding districts (Acts 9. 31; Gal. 1. 22). These appear to have stood in a certain relation of dependence on the mother Church in Jerusalem. 

But the distinction of Hellenist and Hebrew had a further influence, and one of greater importance. It lay in the nature of the case that the Hellenistic Jews were people of a freer, more cosmopolitan spirit than their Hebrew compatriots. From their circle came Stephen, the forerunner of St. Paul. It seems plain that Stephen had clearly grasped the principle that salvation by faith, and the spirituality and inwardness of Christ’s religion generally, rendered obsolete the prescriptions of the law (Acts 6. 13, 14). His address in his defense turns throughout on this central thought: that God's revelations are not tied to times and places, and that His worship is not necessarily bound up with these (ch. 7.). It was this message to the Sanhedrin that led to his martyrdom for blasphemy. It did not occur to anyone that he had left a successor in the young man at whose feet his clothes were laid, and who was the most clamorous for his destruction. 

      The second stage extends from the martyrdom of Stephen to the Council of Jerusalem, and may be termed the period of the founding of the Gentile Churches. The birth of Gentile Christianity was not an event which took place all at once. It was being prepared for within the Church itself. The first barrier broken down was that between Jews and Samaritans (Acts 8. 5-8); a second was broken down when Philip taught and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (ch. 8. 26-40); a third and greater one was removed when Peter was sent to Cornelius (ch. 10.); the last was broken down when some men of Cyprus and Cyrene, likewise Hellenes, boldly struck into a new line, and began to preach the Gospel to the Greeks at Antioch (ch. 11. 20, 21). This was quite a new departure. Previously, it is said, the Word had been preached to none but Jews only (ver. 19); now the Good News was preached to Gentiles, and a purely Gentile Church was founded. The special thing to notice is how the Church at Jerusalem received the news of these advances. It did so in a worthy manner. The Church saw itself being led into new paths and it was obedient to the heavenly vision (cf. 8. 14; 11. 18, 22, 23). 

Meanwhile God had been preparing His own instrument for this work. The conversion of Saul is one of the most remarkable facts in history; one also with the most far-reaching effects. It is said that Pharisaism had fulfilled its historical mission when it brought forth this man. It is thought that the reason why Saul opposed the Christians with so unrelenting a hostility was that, with his powerful, consistent intellect, he clearly saw that the logical consequence of the Christian system was the utter overthrow of Judaism. When, therefore, it pleased God to reveal His Son to him (Gal. 1. 15), this was to him one and the same thing as the call to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. A prolonged retirement to Arabia was followed by a fifteen days' visit to St. Peter at Jerusalem; the next few years were spent in his native district (Gal. 1. 17-21). From Tarsus he was brought by Barnabas to help at Antioch, where a powerful Church had been established, and the disciples had received the name by which they have since been known — "Christians" (Acts 11. 26). 

From this point begins a new development. St. Paul and Barnabas are separated for a mission to the Gentiles (ch. 13. 2). We need not follow the Apostle in his missionary journeys. His progress is marked by light points for it was a principle with him to aim at the great centers of the empire. This enables us to trace him as he goes along — at Antioch in Pisidia, at Philippi, at Thessalonica, at Athens, at Corinth, at Ephesus — till finally his desire was gratified in a way he had not looked for, and he saw Rome also (Rom. 1. 15 ; 15. 32). The conditions under which these Churches planted by St. Paul had their origin caused them to present certain peculiarities.  Such as they were free to a greater extent than the Palestinian Churches from the law and synagogue. Further, they were mostly mixed Churches — composed in varying proportions of Jews and Gentiles. And  they were more completely independent than the Palestinian and Syrian Churches. The Palestinian and Syrian churches stood in a certain relation of dependence on the mother Church at Jerusalem. The only bond of union among the Pauline Churches was their consciousness of a common faith, and the personality of their great apostle, whose letters and travels from Church to Church kept them in touch with him and in connection with one another.

     The third stage extends from the Council of Jerusalem to the end of the apostolic age, and is marked as the period of the great controversy between Jew and Gentile. The Church in Jerusalem appears to have been considerably reinforced by the more conservative section (Acts 6. 7; 15. 5; 21. 20). These had been content to be silent when it was only the case of one individual (the eunuch), or one family (Cornelius), or one Church (Antioch), directly under the eyes of their own delegates. Now at the close of first missionary journey, the Gentile mission had been pushed far and wide, and there seemed a danger that their distinctive Jewish privilege would be altogether swamped. A reactionary party accordingly emerged, whose watchword was "Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved" (ch. 15. 1, 5, 24). Their maneuverings at Antioch led to Paul and Barnabas being sent up to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem for a settlement of this question, and to the calling of the Great Council of Acts 15. The chief points to be noted are the entire agreement of the Jerusalem leaders with Paul on the main issue (thus also Gal. 2) and the broad basis on which the decision was arrived at —

"The apostles and elders, with the whole Church" (ch. 15. 23). 

The decision itself was of the nature of a compromise, but it left untouched a point of great importance for the future peace of the Church. The Jews were not to insist on circumcision; the Gentiles were to observe precepts (vers. 28, 29). But it was not settled whether Jews were at liberty to dispense with the customs of their nation. On this point real difference of opinion still existed. St. Paul was probably the only one perfectly clear in principle; the majority of the Jewish believers took the other view. The difference was one which was bound to emerge in mixed Churches — especially in eating. Hence the collision of St. Paul and St. Peter at Antioch (Gal. 2. 11-14), which turned on this point. The question of principle, however, once raised, could only be settled in one way in the interests of the liberty and unity of the Church (cf, the Epistles of St. Peter and St. James, which lay not the slightest stress on the observance of the law of Moses —although both are directly writing to the Diaspora of the Jewish peoples). Still, as a matter of everyday life, the Jewish Christians continued to walk faithfully in the customs of their fathers (thus even St. Paul, Acts 21. 24; 28. 17). It will be seen from this that the Judaizing party which opposed St. Paul with so much bitterness in the Churches did not consist entirely of those who insisted on circumcision. This was the nature of the opposition in Galatia (Gal. 5. 1-4 ; 6. 13, 14). But it would include also those who, without insisting on the circumcision of the Gentiles, resented the abrogation of the law for Jews. This was probably the nature of the opposition at Corinth, where we do not read of any attempt to raise the question of circumcision. Instead the attacks in Corinth concerned St. Paul's apostleship, and the attempt to form an “I follow Peter” in opposition to the “I follow Paul” group (1 Cor. 1. 12 ; 9. 1). After this the controversy seems to have died down (a last trace in Phil. 3. 2). After this time St. Paul had to contend with mixed forms of error, in which legalism had a place, but in association with the teachings of the Essenes and other heretical elements (cf. Colossians). By the time we reach the Gospel and Epistles of St. John, we are moving in an atmosphere far above these oppositions, and find all antitheses resolved in the calm assurance of the possession of “eternal life." 

Constitution and Worship of the Apostolic Churches

Fresh light has been thrown on these subjects by the Didache which was discovered and published in 1883. This is a literary work dated anywhere from 50 to 120 AD.  With respect to the organization of the church, the most important addition in our knowledge is the distinction we are able to make between ordinary and extraordinary office-bearers. 

The ordinary office-bearers are the elders (or bishops) and deacons. The facts may be laid out as follows:

    Each congregation was presided over by a number of elders or bishops (Acts 1. 30 ; 14. 23 ; Titus 1. 5, etc.). With these were joined the deacons, who seem to have served or assisted the elders in matters of a non-spiritual nature.

    Elders and bishops were identical. The names are interchangeable (Acts 20. 17, 28; Phil. 1. 1; 1 Tim. 3. 1, 8; Titus 1. 5, 7). There is no reason for supposing that the persons described more generally in 1 Cor. 12. 28; 1 Thess. 5. 12; Heb. 13. 8, etc., are other than the elders.

    The elders had spiritual, and not merely administrative, functions. They have oversight of the flock, watch for souls, speak the Word, pray with the sick, etc. (Acts 20. 28; Heb. 13. 17 ; 1 Pet. 5. 2 ; James 5. 15).

     As in the case of "the Seven," election was popular (thus also Didache), with subsequent ordination (Acts 6. 5 ; 1 Tim. 4. 14 ; 5. 22 ; Titus 1. 5). 

While this was so, there was a class of extraordinary office-bearers, to whom the work of teaching and exhorting more especially belonged. These were the apostles and evangelists, prophets and teachers (Acts 13. 1; 1 Cor. 12. 28; Eph. 4. 11). They differed from the others in that their ministry was itinerant. The Didache gives minute directions regarding the apostles, prophets and teachers (ch. 11-13.). The support of the prophet is to be voluntary. The apostle is not to tarry more than two days in one place. If any asks for money, he is a false prophet. The prophet may settle in a congregation and become what we would call its pastor. If prophets or teachers are absent, the bishops and deacons perform their service. 

Besides this special and general ministry in the Church, there were cases in which the ordering of the affairs of the Church was put into the hands of specially appointed apostolic delegates — men like Timothy and Titus. Their position is probably to be looked on as that of a deputy of the apostles and exceptional, and adapted to the circumstances of a transition period (cf. 1 Tim. 1. 3; Titus 1. 5). 

The above was the general constitution of the Gentile churches, and the Jewish churches in the main agreed with it. In one important respect, however, a different system was presented by the Church at Jerusalem. This Church, we saw, was presided over by the apostles, and took an oversight of the Jewish churches in its neighborhood. Afterwards its presidency was in the hands of James, the Lord's brother, who, from his personal pre-eminence and relationship to Christ, held practically apostolic rank. From this circumstance the idea seems to have grown up that the head of the Church at Jerusalem should be a blood relation of Christ; and, after St. James's martyrdom (c. A.D. 70), a cousin of the Lord, Simeon, was elected. He held this position till his own martyrdom (c. A.D. 107). Soon after, in the reign of Hadrian, the Jewish Church in Jerusalem came to an end. 

In its worship, as in its constitution, the Church was modelled partly on the usage of the synagogue. In Jewish-Christian, and even wider circles, the name "synagogues" was long in use for Christian assemblies (cf. James 2. 2). What was new came from the freer spirit which Christianity introduced, and from the introduction of specific Christian ideas and observances.

Chief among these new elements may be noted:

     The new day of Christian service — the first day of the week, or Lord's Day (Acts20. 7; 1 Cor. 16. 2; Rev. 1. 10: thus also Didache),

     The exercise of the spiritual gifts — tongues, prophesying, etc. (1 Cor.12.).

     The singing of Christian hymns (cf. Eph. 5. 19). Fragments of these hymns are believed to be found in such passages as Eph. 5. 14 ; 1 Tim. 3. 16.

     The reading of apostolic letters (Col.4. 16; I Thess. 5. 27).

     The observance of Baptism and the Lord's Supper (breaking of bread, Eucharist). 

Baptism was administered generally, though not exclusively, by immersion. Another method was pouring, for which directions are given in the Didache . (Cf, the baptism of the Spirit by outpouring. Acts 2. 33 ; 10. 46, etc.). The rite was administered on profession of faith and was frequently accompanied with spiritual gifts (e,g,, Acts 19. 16). Opinions differ as to the baptism of the children of believers. A class of cases may indicate that the Jewish analogy was followed of receiving the household with its head (Acts 16. 15, 33; 1 Cor. 1. 16; cf. 1 Cor. 7. 14). 

The crowning act of the New Testament religious service was the Lord's Supper, which in the early years of the church was always combined the Agape or “love-feast." The two formed, indeed, one sacred meal. In the course of the Agape meal, after blessing, bread was broken and wine drunk after the example of the Lord (1 Cor. 11. 23- 34). A few differences of practice may be distinguished. In Gentile churches, the service tended to be adapted to the freer model of the Greek feast (hence the abuses at Corinth, 1 Cor. 11.). In Jewish churches, there was closer adherence to the ritual of the Passover. The Eucharistic prayers in the Didache are modelled, apparently, on the Passover prayers.(chs. 9, 10.). The directions do not include the words of institution; but these may be presumed to be presupposed. 

Transition to later Jewish Christianity.  

We have found two parties in Jewish Christianity — one the extreme Pharisaic party, who not only observed the law themselves, but would have imposed it on the Gentiles; the other, more tolerant and liberal, and friendly to the mission of St. Paul. A series of events now took place which had the twofold effect of finally separating the Jewish Christian Church from the older Judaism; and finally separating the two Jewish parties — the stricter and more tolerant — from each other. Such events were:  

The catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70).

Warned, it is said, by a divine revelation (most likely a memory of the predictions of the Lord), the Christians had withdrawn to Pella, in the Decapolis. From that city, they saw a storm of violence sweep over their doomed nation which resulted in its total destruction. So awful a providence led them to ponder anew their relation to a system which had thus perished. 

The revival of the system of Rabbis, and increasing hostility of the Jews.

The political fall, far from destroying the Rabbinical model, became the occasion of a great increase in its power. There was a new rabbinic center in the city of Jamnia, schools opened, a court of justice established, etc. This stiffening and concentration of Judaism was accompanied by a bitterly intensified hostility to the Christians. The Christians were repelled, cursed, and, persecuted by their brethren according to the flesh, were naturally influenced to ally themselves more closely with Gentile believers. 

The great rebellion under Bar Kokhba

     Matters were brought to a crisis by the great rebellion under Bar Kokhba (" Son of a Star”), in the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 132), when the refusal of Christians to enlist under the banner of the false Messiah exposed them to the worst cruelties. The revolt was followed by the erection on the site of Jerusalem (A.D.135) of a new heathen city, Aelia Capitolina, from which by express decree all circumcised persons were excluded. The old Jerusalem Church was thus finally dispossessed, and a Gentile Church took its place, which served itself heir to its traditions and prestige. 

Nazarenes and Ebionites 

 The same causes which led to the separation of Jewish Christianity from Judaism proper led also to the separation of its two sections from each other. It is evident that the narrower of these sections, the old opponents of St. Paul, had never really grasped the essential nature of Christianity, and were bound to become more reactionary as time went on. Even the more liberal group, who recognized the legitimacy of the Gentile mission, were hindered by their environment from attaining any large and worthy conception of the religion they professed. This group cut off from the great developing body of Gentile Christianity, similarly became an historical anachronism.  

Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) describes two kinds of Jewish Christians, one of whom did not wish, while the other did, to impose the law upon the Gentiles. The latter he already treats as heretical. 

Jerome (beginning of fifth century) records that he is aware of two groups of Jewish Christians distinguished by certain unusual similarities, whom he names respectively Nazarenes and Ebionites. Supplementing his statements by those of others, we can discern the following points:  

The Nazarenes, the oldest Jewish name for Christians, Acts 14. 5, were a sect small in numbers. Their chief regions of influence were in Syria, about Pella, in Bashan, etc., where they lived among the Jews quite apart from the Gentile community. They held themselves, as Jews, under obligation to observe the law, but did not extend this obligation to the Gentiles. They also recognized the mission of St. Paul. They used an Aramaic Gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews. This text corresponded, with extensive changes and interpolations, to our Gospel of Matthew. They regarded Jesus as born of the Virgin Mary, and in a special way filled with the Divine Spirit, who came upon Him at His baptism.  (For more on the Gospel of the Hebrews, see 

The Ebionites whose name means “poor,” on the contrary, held the law to be binding on all, and refused to have any fellowship with uncircumcised Gentiles. They bitterly slandered St. Paul. Jesus they regarded as a mere man, chosen to be the Messiah for His legal piety. Their version of the Gospel omitted the story of the supernatural birth. 

The identity of the two groups described by Jerome with those mentioned by Justin Martyr seems clear. The fact that other Fathers (e.g., Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius), to whom the Nazarenes were not well known, group all under the common designation of Ebionites, attributing to them the views of the law proper only to the narrower section, while aware of the distinction in their views of Christ. Neither group had a future. The Ebionites were still numerous in the fourth century, but, as a sect formally rejected, seem to have melted away in the first half of the fifth century. The Nazarenes are not heard of after the time of Jerome. 

Essenian Ebionism— the “Clementines." 

The Ebionites we have been describing are of the ordinary Pharisaic type. But Epiphanius (end of fourth century) is our authority for another type of Ebionism, whose peculiarities are best explained by supposing a fusion, sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, of Jewish Christianity with the teachings of the Essenes. 

An interesting monument of this party appears to remain in the so-called Pseudo-Clementine writings The Recognitions and Homilies, originating in the latter part of the second century. The titles do not designate distinct works, but are divergent forms of the same work, which again embody older documents. In character the Pseudo-Clementines are a story or romance — an early instance of the religious novel. The stories are written with significant literary art. Clement, to whom the writings are attributed, is represented as the son of a noble Roman, whose wife and twin children had become lost, and who himself disappeared in seeking for them. The youthful Clement's mind is consumed with an ardent passion for truth. He meets with Barnabas at Rome, and ultimately attaches himself to Peter at Caesarea. Peter's great mission appears to be to follow Simon Magus (an attempt to disguise St. Paul?) about from place to place and counteract his influence. 

Clement is instructed by Peter, acts as his scribe, and sends accounts of his discourses, debates with Simon Magus, and so forth, to St. James at Jerusalem. In the course of their travels reunions are had with all the members of Clement's family (mother, twin brothers, father) — hence Recognitions. This fanciful romance is the framework in which the theological ideas are skillfully set. 

The Ebionism of the Homilies is the more pronounced, but the type of doctrine in both forms is similar. The key thought is that of the one "true prophet," who, changing form and name, goes down through the ages, appearing now as Adam, now as Moses, now as Christ. Christianity is thus the renewed declaration of the eternal law. Over against Adam, as the true prophet, stands Eve as the bringer in of false or "female" prophecy, to which is attributed everything in the Old Testament false or unworthy of God. Sacrifice is rejected (in the Recognitions viewed as a provisional expedient; in the Homilies as a work of false prophecy). A remarkable feature in these works is that the point of circumcision is conceded (only baptism is necessary for the Christian), and the Gentile mission itself is taken over from St. Paul, and claimed for St. Peter.

The ecclesiastical system is that of second century episcopacy. In these circles, we learn from Epiphanius, the Lord's Supper was observed with water rather than with wine

Last modified: Thursday, August 9, 2018, 1:06 PM