One of the very interesting things about Christianity is the large gap between what the scholars tell us about the bible and how the ordinary run-of-the-mill Christian understands and uses the bible.
There is no doubt that the enormous amount of study and research that, over the past couple of hundred years, has gone into trying to understand the documents of the New Testament, has paid off richly. Thousands of erudite scholars have devoted their lives to examination of the documents of the New Testament and have produced thousands of learned books on any and all aspects. I want to pick out one particular area of study and try to suggest a few thoughts on it, but first we need to notice some consequences of all this study.
The first and most important result has been that although one can live and grow as a Christian, with mainly a devotional reading of the New Testament, one really needs the new insights of biblical scholarship to make best sense of what you read. Otherwise we are in a real danger of just reading into the text whatever we want it to say. This is true of the whole bible, of course. It is something I have already commented on in previous articles . The text of the bible is so extensive and so wide ranging that you can justify almost any belief if you pick and choose your verses. You can find a verse here and a verse there that will appear to support almost any contentious new idea you want to propagate. Often, down the centuries, that is exactly how the bible has been used. You can justify even an institution as evil as the Inquisition if you try hard enough.
A second and equally important result is that the bible colleges have over many decades recognized the results of recent scholarship and have incorporated into their curriculum much of the new knowledge. This has been a wise and beneficial policy and has meant that the pastors and vicars up and down the land who have been trained in those colleges have become much more knowledgeable and sophisticated about using the bible in their preaching and talking. Not all, but a great many of them have lost their crusading zeal about the bible! They have stopped having an inappropriate reverential attitude to it and, while still valuing it as the Word of God, have realized its limitations. (Please note that I am not trying to devalue the bible – it is still holy scripture and our sourcebook of authority). Many pastors today no longer see the bible as the ‘inerrant authority’. Instead they rely on the bible alongside those other supports: our human reason and the church traditions and experience. Over the past century this has had repercussions in their congregations which seem, in a very general way, to have become much more understanding of the true nature of the bible and how it should be used by Christians.
The educative process I have described excludes those colleges and sects where the bible is still held in reverential awe as an almost magic book of texts to support whatever doctrinal peculiarity that college or sect adopts. Their studies have ruled out true objectivity. Instead they may have studied and learned a lot, but they have not been taught to truly question the text. They have been taught to honour and respect the text – as a holy text and an inerrant text. The pastors and vicars coming from such colleges and sects enter society with a strong fundamentalist attitude, though they may moderate their attitude to become conservative evangelicals. They don’t dare ‘tamper’ with the text. Only certain translations of the bible are allowed – all the others are suspect. For them the bible is a book they revere as inspired, infallible, inerrant.
I mention these two consequences because I think it can be said that they have both contributed to the position we have in this country at present. It is fashionable for Christians to bewail the state of the church in Britain today. But it is not all doom and gloom. Certainly numbers attending worship continue to diminish. Certainly a severe rethink is necessary at every level of church life. Certainly the encompassing society is increasingly secular. We are becoming a more pagan country. However, the majority of Christians have been slowly and very gently led away from conservative evangelical dogmatizing influence and, having seen the unacceptable face of another form of fundamentalism on 9.11, are far more careful to avoid that sort of religious extremism. They have begun to value more highly the rational, measured exploratory approach to religion. In that, there must be grounds for hope.
Let me turn now to one particular area of study which is of great interest and significance in all sorts of ways. This is the area of the development of Christianity in the first few decades. What happened in the forty year period after the Cross and before the writing of the gospels - say between A D 30 and A D 75?
I am no expert on Christianity before Paul, but I have read some of the books, as no doubt you have, so let me lay down briefly what I see as some of the conclusions, recognizing that, in these matters, there is always contention.
If Jesus died in A D 30, and Paul was converted around A D 35, then the few decades until the first gospel was written (say, around AD 75) was a period of intense turmoil in Christian circles. There was a flux of ideas and a development of Christian thought in that period of forty years that resulted, eventually, in the texts that we call the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. Men had to work out who Christ was, what he had accomplished and how they should follow him.
In order to get some idea of the explosiveness of the situation, it is possible to compare it with the creation of the universe at the Big Bang. Initially there was one tiny event. Thereafter there was a gigantic expansion from that one point to a whole universe. In similar way, there was the resurrection of Christ, followed by Pentecost and then a vast expansion outwards. The numbers might seem small – hundreds and then thousands in Jerusalem; Paul converted a man here and some women there – but the outcome was a religion that, in hindsight, spread across the Roman Empire like wildfire.
Those forty years between Pentecost and the first gospel being written are shrouded in mystery. Most of what we know about how the Christian Community developed comes from reading back from Paul’s letters to reconstruct the situation that must have existed. Even then we only have snapshots for particular places – across the whole region there must have been a ferment of new activity by those people who were influenced by the life of Christ.
Around A D 35 Paul, after his conversion, went into the desert for a period and subsequently went to Damascus. Three years later he went up to Jerusalem for the first time (Galatians 1) After an interval of fourteen years he went up to Jerusalem again. Later he went to Jerusalem a third time. Insofar as dates can be assigned (there is always dispute about these things) he first went up towards the end of the thirties, then again at the end of the forties, then finally at the end of the fifties.
The first time he went up as a new Christian to meet and confer with the Apostles. And he came to them as an ex enemy. He met Peter and he met James and apparently they validated his ministry – which was agreed to be towards the Gentiles, for that is what he felt God calling him to from the very beginning.
The second time he went to Jerusalem it was because of a crisis in the early Christian community which we will refer to later in more detail.
The third time he went to Jerusalem it was to take the monetary offering, collected from the Christian communities in Asia Minor, for the help and support of the Christians in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. On that occasion he was acting as the bridge between the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians, for it is clear that there was a deep split between the two groups. It was a doctrinal split about whether the Gentile Christians should follow Jewish practices.
It was on this third occasion that he was advised by James – the leader of the Christian Church in Jerusalem, which was mainly composed of Jews - to appear in the Jewish Temple in an attempt to persuade Jews that he, Paul, really did still believe in and obey the Torah – the Jewish Law. It was a bad career move by Paul, as the Jews caused a riot in Jerusalem and Paul was arrested, thus commencing the process that finished with him appearing in Rome, prior to being executed.
It was the second visit to Jerusalem that reveals the nature of the turmoil and discord that was reverberating through the little groups of Christian believers in Jerusalem, Palestine and further abroad. It is this I now want to concentrate on.
The early Christian community was in ferment because they had to sort out the relative places of Jew and Gentile in the church. After Pentecost, the conversions in Jerusalem were of Jews. The movement grew as more and more Jews began to follow Jesus, but they remained Jews and saw no reason to change or relax their Jewish rituals and practices. They didn’t change the religious habits of a lifetime and they saw Jesus as a fulfilment of their Jewish faith. Clearly James, the brother of Jesus, was a very committed Jew who made all the required religious observances.
Paul, on the other hand, though he started out as a strict Jew – a Pharisee - felt himself called from the beginning to tell the good news of Christ to the Gentiles. He started to take the Christian message, as he understood it, to places outside Jerusalem and Palestine. This he agreed with Peter and James in Jerusalem on his first visit. In the coming years he visited Roman cities and Greek cities across the Empire – places that were largely untouched by Jewish ideas and concepts. Paul discovered that the Gentiles in these places – some of whom were probably attendees of their local Jewish synagogue and some whom came from completely outside any Jewish influence - were radically converted. Not only were they converted, but they went on to be filled with the Spirit, evidencing all the signs of a Christ filled life.
Paul saw in this the vindication of his call – that, truly, the Jesus message was for everyone. Not just for Jews. His understanding of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) led him to take a view that Christ brought salvation to everybody, Jew and Gentile, and this is now enshrined at the heart of Christianity. This bypassed Jewish ritual and practices, and while Paul never preached against such practices, neither did he advocate them.
The question then arose – should these converts – these Gentile Christians – have to enter fully into the Jewish rituals and observances. Should they, for example, be circumcised? Should they follow Jewish customs and practices? It is easy to imagine the turmoil in the various synagogues where new Gentile Christians mixed with old-time Jews who had become Christians. It seemed obvious to Paul that the Gentile converts should not have to undertake any of the Jewish observances – they were to be free men in Christ.
It seems from Galatians (chapter 3) that Paul felt free himself to either take or leave the old Jewish practices. At Antioch he ate with the Gentiles. But when James, the Jewish leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, sent a party of Christian Jews from Jerusalem to report back what was happening, Peter (who was visiting Antioch at the time) and Barnabas drew back from eating with the Gentiles. Paul saw no harm in his dropping the old Jewish attitudes and practices – but the Jerusalem contingent clearly were deeply offended by the lack of conformity by both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to Jewish practices.
Clearly James and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were totally committed to their Jewish religious practices. They were Jews – as Jesus was – and obviously they did not intend to forgo their Jewish practices or rituals. Obviously, they were uneasy about what Paul was doing with the Gentiles who became Christian – should these people not also be entering into the Jewish practices, like good Jews?
This then was the tremendous dispute that took place in the decades after the death of Jesus. A battle between Christian Jews who saw Jesus as bringing a Jewish salvation, and Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles who had no intention of conforming to Jewish customs in any shape or form.
It is not too difficult to think oneself into the sort of turmoil and confusion as these matters came to a head and were fought through in the various centres where there were Christians. It was certainly a turbulent forty years, and of course these matters did not reach any degree of finality for many decades after that - until well into the second century.
To return to the point made earlier – it is very easy to read our New Testament today without entering into the intense tension that existed around that time. It is easy to read the Acts of the Apostles or Paul’s epistles and pick out the spiritual bits we like. But only if, open to the Spirit, we start to dig and delve can we begin to accept that disagreement and discord were part of the very groundwork of the first two hundred years of Christianity. Only then do we catch a glimpse of the reality of the New Testament. And our understanding of doctrine and practice has gone on developing ever since.
Maybe disagreement and discord are a natural part of the process whereby the Christian Community evolves, century by century. Maybe we have to accept that we shall have to have violent disagreements with our Christian brothers at times. Maybe we will sometimes think them entirely wrong on very important matters, Maybe one side or the other will separate itself in an attempt to stay ‘pure’ – to return to what is thought of as ‘orthodox’. But maybe ‘orthodoxy’ is not as fixed in stone as we sometimes imagine. Maybe we always need to be aware of the need for a continuous growth of Christian understanding and practice. Just as the Jewish Christians had to learn that Gentile Christians were welcome as Christians, even though thereafter they followed none of the Jewish law and practices. Maybe the conservative evangelical Christians of today have to be prepared to stay in fellowship with gay Christians, even though they think them entirely off the wall.
Maybe some of those Jewish Christians never got around to accepting the Gentile Christians in their hearts before the Romans came in AD 70 and crushed Jerusalem out of existence. In the light of twenty centuries we can see that those Jews in Jerusalem were too wedded to their religious practices, laws, viewpoint. The Church elsewhere went on and, mostly, the door of Christian Churches today are open wide for all to come in. White and black, rich and poor, straight and gay, educated and ignorant. The love of Christ constrains us – thank God!