THE NAZARENES (PART 4)
THE JERUSALEM CHURCH
In view of the fact that Christianity developed from the religion of Israel, we need to consider whether the original Nazarenes were in fact Christians as we would understand the term today, or, for that matter, as the term was understood within a hundred years of the crucifixion.
As we have already observed, it is most unlikely that there was not already in existence a foundation, whether an organised movement or merely a sympathetic inclination among the populace, upon which Jesus built when establishing his teaching ministry. Further, we have seen that there must have been at least some form of rudimentary organisation in Jerusalem itself, a fact attested to by the pre-arrangement for the collecting of an ass or colt for Jesus' symbolic entry into the city, and the advance provision of the upper room in which the last supper was celebrated.
As soon as we begin to enquire into these matters we come across one of the puzzles concerning the earliest Nazarene community that has never been adequately explained - at least, from a later Church doctrinal viewpoint. This puzzle centres round the fact that at the very beginning of Christian expansion and mission we find a church in Jerusalem headed, not by Peter, the apparent first choice of Jesus, but by James or Jacob, "the brother of the Lord," i.e., Jesus' brother. It may be that "brother" in this context should be seen in a religious rather than a family sense. If this is the case, however, it is odd to say in the least that little mention or importance is assigned to James in the gospel accounts. It is equally odd that if he were literally a blood relative (or even a step-brother, as some have supposed) that he should have risen to such prominence so early on.
What we do know of James from tradition all attests to his sanctity and holiness, and the single letter attributed to him in the New Testament canon has a very Judaic flavour, in keeping with one who spent so much time in prayer in the Jerusalem Temple that his knees were calloused.
If the miraculous origin of Jesus' birth in the beginning of the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke are set aside, there is nothing in the New Testament writings to suggest that the immediate family of Jesus are anything other than his mother, brothers, and sisters, in the same way as the immediate family of anyone else, though he is presented as showing little regard for them. The impression fostered in the gospels seems to be that the family of Jesus were (a) indifferent to his activities, (b) puzzled by them, (c) anxious about his sanity, or even (d) relatively hostile. When Jesus is told in Matthew 12:46-50 that his mother and brothers want to see him he is depicted as using the occasion to foster a wider sense of family and community in which his own followers become "mothers and brothers" to him, while his actual relations are, apparently left waiting or ignored. In Luke 14:26 Jesus is even made to advocate "hating" one's father and mother in the furtherance of the spiritual ideal, a notion that is impossible to square with the same Jesus who "has come not to destroy, but to fulfil" the Law of Moses, which explicitly requires honouring one's parents. To be sure, this saying is usually, and probably rightly so, interpreted as being symbolic of a higher devotion, but one cannot help wondering if there might have been a more tactful way to put it.
However we look at it, there is no doubt that Jesus had close relatives, among whom may have been James of Jerusalem, known to later history as James the Just. James, furthermore, is discovered heading the Jerusalem community within a very short time after the crucifixion, and is said by Paul in 1 Corinthians [15:1f] to have been the recipient of one of the resurrection appearances. Regardless of the attitude or opinion of James towards Jesus and his teaching prior to the crucifixion, we should not be surprised were we to discover that Jesus' family supported him in various ways (such as, perhaps, arranging for the provision of an ass or colt and the use of the upper room in Jerusalem). Then, as now, it is quite reasonable that family feelings and loyalties would have been important.
Throughout history families have characteristically supported and protected even the blackest of their black sheep, even when they deplored the behaviour of the person concerned, and we have no firm evidence to suggest hostility towards Jesus and his teaching on the part of his family. Indeed, in Matthew 12:46, mentioned earlier, his mother and brothers seem to have been either actively concerned in his activities, or at least concerned about them. It is unlikely they would have interrupted him in his work just to tell him that his dinner was ready. Whether, after his speech concerning the more important "family" relationship enjoined upon his disciples they actually got to see him, and if they did, what then transpired, we are not told.
It is reasonable to conjecture therefore that James, or James and others, were involved in the establishment of the first "Christian" or Nazarene community in the holy city of Israel itself. Quite early tradition attributes to James the Nazarite vow, seemingly, in his case, permanent, and he is portrayed as worshipping daily in the Temple at Jerusalem, later dying a martyr's death for his convictions. What the difference may have been between a Nazarite and a Nazarene vow, if any, we do not know (although what most Christians would regard as a horrifying conjecture is to be found in Matt. 19:10ff). It may be, that were we to discover some ancient and authentic gospel or epistle in Aramaic or Hebrew, we should discover that they were the same thing, or different forms of the same thing. All early images or icons of Jesus show him with uncut hair, which is at least one certain indication of Nazarite practice, though we do not know that men of his time necessarily wore their hair short.
The point to be made here is that we can by no means be certain that the first Nazarene followers of Jesus and the later Christians represent exactly the same thing. The same must also be conjectured of the first communities, and the very first community of which there is any firm record is that of Jerusalem, a community headed not by Peter, as the chief disciple (if indeed he was) but by James, "the brother of the Lord." Furthermore, it seems to have been an exclusively Jewish community, bound by the Law of Moses, and following the Mosaic Law in its worship and practice. It seems to have had its own "synagogue" or assembly, and to have made regular and continuous use of the nearby Temple. In the language of a later age, it was the first Jewish-Christian church. It was not the only such. Not too much later we come across what a later Church considered as the first schism, and perhaps heresy, in the shape of the Ebionite Christians, who, while accepting Jesus, nonetheless retained the entire Mosaic Law, and retained, as Jews, the practice of circumcision, the adherence to which practice was to raise major problems for Paul and his Gentile ministry.
THE COUNCIL OF JERUSALEM
At what is often called the Council of Jerusalem, a well-known author states:
"... it was resolved, against some opposition, that circumcision should not be required." [For Gentile converts]. [Men and Movements in the Primitive Church, p.38. F.F.Bruce, Paternoster Press, Exeter 1979].
This assumption made by a number of authors and scholars in the
course of Christian exegesis warrants closer investigation. As Paul tells us in
his letter to the Galatians [2:1f] he went with Barnabas and Titus to Jerusalem
about fourteen years [some scholars reckon seventeen years] after his own
conversion to obtain the decision of the Jerusalem church on this very issue,
and here for once the New Testament accounts are not wanting in information.
"I went up according to a revelation, and I put before them the gospel which I proclaim in the Nations ... but not even Titus, being a Greek, was required to be circumcised."
Paul goes on to relate that he stood firm against "false brothers" to whom "not even for one hour we yielded in subjection." In the same letter, Paul is clearly more than a little upset by the activities of these "false brothers," but our copies of the letter fail to tell us precisely why they were to be so regarded, or in what their falsity consisted. We may safely presume from the context however that it was concerned in no small measure with the vexing question of circumcision. This is a text where we might reasonably suspect that the hand of a later editor has been at work, not to rearrange the account, as happens elsewhere if textual criticism is to be taken into account, but simply to delete the details of the conflict, so that all we have left at this point is Paul's anger, but not that the debate may have been far more vociferous, and far less harmonious than the existing account in Galatians would have us believe. Who were these "false brothers?" We may safely assume that they were the opposition mentioned in the above quotation.
Fortunately, we do not have to rely on Paul's account alone, for the entire episode is also recorded in the book of Acts, where more information is given. There are actually two accounts, one of which occurs in the "we" section of Acts. Although it may seem that two visits are referred to, it may be that we are reading two versions of the same event from two different original sources, namely the record as handed down by the early church, and the record made by those who were actually present, possibly the author of Luke's gospel and others, including Paul, who sought the decision of the mother community in Jerusalem. One crucial fact is clear from the entire episode in whatever version - the Jerusalem community was the central authority at this time, and James, not Peter, was considered the head of the entire Nazarene movement, although Peter was clearly present, and has a speech attributed to him. We shall consider this speech shortly, but first we will seek to establish the identity of the "false brothers" or "opposition" previously mentioned. Happily, what the letter to the Galatians fails to tell us, one of Paul's travelling companions does - they were Pharisees. According to Acts 15:1ff, which may be regarded as the church's account,
"But some men came down from Judaea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem [from Antioch] to the apostles and elders about this question ... but some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the Law of Moses."
Paul it seems was not the only Nazarene Pharisee, and again the shadow of the famous Gamaliel hovers on the edge of the first-century scenario, and we will permit ourselves a small digression in order to show why we have made such frequent reference to him.
According to The Teaching of Addai, [page 7. Trans. George Howard, with Aramaic text. Scholars Press, U.S.A. ISBN 0-89130-490-8]:
"Abgar wished that he himself might cross over and go to Palestine and see with his own eyes everything that the Messiah was doing. But because he could not pass over a district of the Romans that was not his, lest this occasion should provoke bitter enmity, he wrote a letter and sent it to the Messiah by Hanan the archivist. He went out from Edessa on the fourteenth of Adar, entered Jerusalem on the twelfth of Nisan on the fourth day of the week, and found the Messiah in the house of Gamaliel a Prince of the Jews."
Admittedly this Syriac/Aramaic source dates from circa 400, but it may well be that like other early documents it nonetheless transmits a genuine tradition based upon actual events which were considered at the time of their occurrence to have been of especial significance. In this case the significance was relevant mainly to the church in Edessa, [modern Urfa, in Turkey] which sought to preserve the record of its own foundation and heritage. Apart from the interesting details about the dates and the day of the week, the reference to Gamaliel is brief, and almost of a passing nature. A shrewd Christian apologist, we might suspect, could have made much more of the discovery of Jesus in the house of Gamaliel, especially as he features in Acts, speaking on behalf of the apostles. The opportunity would have existed to place in the mouth of Gamaliel words of commendation of Christian doctrine adapted, perhaps, from his speech in Acts, but the writer fails to take advantage of such a golden opportunity. The very fact of the statement being, as it were, a "throw-away line" tends to argue in favour of its veracity as a historical recollection. We can begin to see that a Pharisaic connection with the early Nazarenes may have been greater than the anti-Pharisaic sentiment place in the mouth of Jesus in the gospels is clearly intended to suggest.
According to the same book of Acts, the first Jerusalem church contained "believers who were of the party of the Pharisees," thus bespeaking another original tradition. It is also in Acts, as we have noted, that the same Gamaliel speaks on behalf of the accused apostles after the crucifixion, when they were engaged on their own missionary activity. To anticipate the possibility to which this discourse may be leading, it may be that there was, in the very earliest days of Nazarene formation, more than a little Pharisee support for Jesus and his teaching, both before and after the crucifixion. We have already noted the involvement of other leading Jews in the gospel accounts. Could it be that in mentioning such luminaries as Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel, the first Nazarene scribes merely noted some of the prominent Pharisees involved, although there were also in fact a number of less significant personages associated with the followers of the new covenant?
We may infer from the reference in Acts to Gamaliel that by the time of the arrest of the apostles which gave rise to his speech in their defence that he at least was no longer, if ever he had been, a "follower" or supporter of Jesus. We find little in later Christian tradition that relates to Nicodemus, but legends concerning Joseph, not without support, persist in Britain to this day.
That Gamaliel might at one time have supported or associated with Jesus is by no means impossible prior to the year 70, when Jewish thought and speculation was, as Neusner has shown, far less structured or clearly defined (in sectarian terms) as is often supposed. We know from the gospels, in similar "throw-away lines" to that of the Edessa story, that Jesus was on at least two occasions invited to eat at the home of a Pharisee. Added to the present line of speculation, we may be obtaining some very real, if fleeting pointers towards the genuine Jesus, the Nazarene, before he became known to history as "Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of Israel."
Having considered the letter to the Galatians, and the Church's own account of the Jerusalem Council in Acts, we will complete the picture with the record as it appears in the "we" section of Acts, as told by those present, and incorporated into Luke's account in Acts 21:17ff.
"When we had come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On
the next day, Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders came. Having
greeted them, he related one by one the things that God had worked among the
Nations [Gentiles] through his ministry. Having heard him, they glorified the
Lord, and said to him, "See, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who
have believed, and all are zealous for the Law. And they were told about you,
that you teach the Jews among the Nations to forsake Moses, telling all the
Jews among the Nations not to circumcise their children, nor to follow the
customs. What then is this? They will certainly hear that you have come.
Therefore do what we tell you: there are four men with us who are under a vow;
take these men and be purified with them, and pay their expenses, so that they
may shave their heads. This way all will know that there is nothing in what
they have been told about you, but that you yourself walk in an orderly manner,
keeping the Law.
"And as to the believing Gentiles, we have joined [together] in writing, judging them to observe only to keep themselves from what has been sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from what has been strangled."
First then, the elders draw Paul's attention to the fact that a large number of Jews ("myriads") had become part of the new Nazarene movement in Jerusalem, but are seriously disturbed by stories that Paul had been advocating that Jews of the dispersion, i.e., outside of Palestine, did not need to be circumcised nor to follow the Laws of Moses. We know from Paul's own letters that these charges were certainly true in certain instances or at a certain period, [it is possible that some of these matters were advocated by Paul after the Council of Jerusalem and its doubtful success in real terms] though to what extent the complaints were justified at the time of the Jerusalem Council we cannot be certain. We are bound to be wonder though if Paul may not have dissembled a little, for we know also from his own writings that "for the sake of the gospel" he favoured acting as a Jew when among Jews, and as a Gentile when among Gentiles, being "all things to all men." The important consideration here though is the judgement of the elders of the Jerusalem church. We can compare the above account with the decision of James as recorded in the speech ascribed to him in the other section of Acts [15:19-21]:
"... I judge not to trouble the Gentiles who turn to God, but to write to them to hold back from the pollutions of idols, from fornication and things strangled, and from blood. For Moses has had those who preach him in every city from early generations, for he is read in the synagogue on every sabbath."
The next section of Acts [15:22-29] then goes on to give the text of the letter, which repeats the decision. It is significant however that although Paul and Barnabas are mentioned as accompanying the letter, it is in fact sent in the care of one Judas (called Barsabbas) and another companion, Silas, who are to repeat the decision verbally. According to the "we" account, however, Paul would have been unable to accompany Barnabas and the others, having been arrested in Jerusalem as a consequence of the disturbances caused by his appearance in the Temple with the four men, which was to lead to his going eventually to Rome as a prisoner, from where the letter to the Galatians, significantly, is said to have been written.
We can see that the Jerusalem elders under James are seen to have acted with considerable subtlety. They may well, as Paul tells the Galatians, have offered the "right hand of fellowship" to him and Barnabas. but they were not going to trust the delivery of the letter to them. Not only this, but Judas and Silas have instructions to convey the decision verbally in addition to the letter. The only logical inference has to be that they did not trust Paul or Barnabas in this matter, and may have suspected that the letter might not arrive in the form described, or at all. If, as it appears on the surface, and as claimed by Paul, they accepted that Gentiles need not be circumcised, what need could there have been for such precautions? One important fact should be noted:
The decision as recorded does not mention circumcision as all - but this was the matter directly in dispute. Again, the possibility arises that the accounts are not complete; in short, a later Church authority may well have "cleaned up the story" for Gentile consumption - but maybe not as thoroughly as might have been desired. Let us examine again the final part of James' speech:
"For Moses has had those who preach him in every city from early generations, for he is read in the synagogue on every sabbath."
This was certainly true, both among the "early generations" and also
during the period in which James is exercising his office as head of the
Jerusalem community, and especially so in the Jewish synagogues "among the
Nations." We know however that although the word of Moses was preached to
Gentiles in Jewish synagogues, they were not considered to have become Jews.
This they could only do by accepting the whole of the Law of Moses, including
Such uncircumcised converts were known as "hearers" or "God-fearers," and were accepted by the synagogues outside of Palestine (and maybe also in Jerusalem) as worthy of commendation. In order to acquire full membership of the spiritual, as distinct from the temporal Israel however they had to undergo a lengthy period of instruction, which if successfully completed allowed them into full participation in the Mosaic covenant, a covenant which could be sealed only by the act of circumcision.
We know that in the later Church Paul's rejection of the observance of the letter of the Law of Israel won the day, but we also discover that the long period of instruction remained, often lasting as long as three years. Instead of a successful novitiate being sealed by circumcision however, the later Church effected the same sealing, now in a new covenant, by the act of baptism and anointing. Indeed, it was the act of anointing - "Christing" in Greek - which had much to do with the very name of "Christian." When James handed down the decision of the Jerusalem community, this name had yet to be invented, and the new communities were still known as either "Followers of the Way" or "Nazarenes."
The fact of the matter is clear: prior to the year 70, the precise nature, practice, and probably the doctrine of the developing movement had yet to achieve anything like a unified system, and in the matter of the circumcision dispute, it may not have been required of Gentile converts if they could be regarded as being in the same case as the "God-fearers" and "hearers" already present in some numbers within more "orthodox" synagogues. In fact the Christian Church was not to achieve any real semblance of universal agreement until the first so-called ecumenical council of Nicea in 325, and then largely because the emperor Constantine issued dire warnings to the disputing bishops if they failed to reach a form of doctrinal agreement.
In many ways we do not need to employ the full apparatus of textual and other scholarly critical methods, useful as these disciplines are, in order to highlight the problems faced by the first Nazarenes, for even the edited versions of the New Testament scriptures as they have come down to us reveal the various inconsistencies quite clearly, as we can see when we consider the speech attributed to Peter in Acts 15:7-11:
"And after there had been much discussion, Peter rose up and said to them, "Men, brothers, you know that in the early days God chose those among us that through my mouth the Nations [Gentiles] were to hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving to them the Holy Spirit in the same way as he did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith. So why do you tempt God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we believe ourselves to have been saved in the same way as them."
In Galatians 2:9 Paul states quite clearly that he and Barnabas were declared to be the apostles to the Nations [Gentiles] while James and Peter [Cephas] should be responsible for the people of the circumcision, i.e., "The Jews." Peter, however, in the speech attributed to him, is stating equally clearly that he is the apostle to the Nations, and we might wonder if this could account for the fact of James being head of the exclusively Jewish community in Jerusalem. In practice though we discover from other accounts that Peter and Paul went to Jew and Gentile alike, yet it is noteworthy that Paul and his party, in their various travels, seem always to have gone first to the synagogues, and only after that to Gentile communities outside the particularly Judaic environment. We may suspect that Peter did the same.
And what, we must seriously wonder, does Peter mean when he refers to "a yoke upon the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" Is he referring to the yoke of the Torah, the Law of Moses? If so, how is it that James, in his letter, does not abrogate obedience to this Law, but seems merely to allow the concessions that would obtain in any case for any Gentile "God-fearer?" And does not Jesus himself, in the gospel account, enjoin observance of the Law, which he has "come to fulfil? Could this "yoke" refer to something else? If Peter did indeed make such a speech, it would hardly have gone down well with the Nazarene Pharisees mentioned in the dispute. It may well be that Luke, or his editor, when writing or editing the sources for the book of Acts, may have introduced some later doctrinal concepts which would not have been likely to exist in the Jerusalem community during the period we are considering. Equally, it may be that a similar editorial or redactional amendment of the text may have been introduced by a later scribe.
This is not the only inconsistency concerning the events surrounding the circumcision debate. In the "we" account of Acts 21, Paul does not get to return to Antioch after the judgement of James and company, as he is arrested while attempting to fulfil the conditions placed on him with the four men under a vow, when he actually goes with them into the Temple. In Acts 15 however he returns with Barnabas to Antioch, and sets forth upon a number of other adventures. As it seems unlikely that the Jerusalem community would not only have handed the same decision twice, but also written the same letter twice, then the only inference is that Acts 15 and 21 are different versions of the same events. If the letter to the Galatians was indeed written from Rome, this would tend to support the "we" version in Acts 21, and it seems likely that the source for Acts 15 has got his chronology mixed up.
There is one factor in the speech attributed to Peter which does however indicate the primary significance of there having been a Nazarene community in the first place. If the Jerusalem church were exclusively Judaic in their observance of the Torah, the practice of circumcision included, and in their regular and presumably conventional use of the Temple, in what way did they differ from their fellow Jews? In particular, how did this affect the Pharisees in Jerusalem who did not support the new movement represented by James? The answer which suggests itself, mentioned in Peter's speech, is the fact of the Nazarene claim to have received the Holy Spirit, the most prominent and most important expression of it, as emphasised in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians - prophecy.
Prophecy, as understood in the early church, did not refer primarily to foretelling the future, though it might include this gift, but the ability to interpretations made available to both individual disciples and also to entire communities. It was this gift, and probably only this gift, which in the earliest days, characterised the entire movement, and gave it the power and charisma to become, in due course, the source of a new and vibrant religious movement which would eventually outlive the Roman Empire itself, though it would become much changed in the process. If perhaps it had not divorced itself entirely from its roots in the religion of Israel, severing completely the connection between "Jew" and "Gentile" - even to the extent that a later Christian Church would actually begin "missions to the Jews" - then all the ancient prophecies concerning the Messiah of Israel who would save the "Upright of God" from their sins, and personified in, or symbolised by the person of Jesus the Nazarene might have been fulfilled, and we might even now be seeing the approach of "a new heaven and a new earth."
Alas, the divorce became total and bitter, and both parties, in their various ways, paid the alimony of persecution, torture, and death. There is little to choose, in terms of horror, between the persecution of Christians under Nero and Diocletian and that of the Jews under Hitler. By whatever grace both parties survived their persecutors, though recollection of the more recent events may distort our perspective of history. The God of Israel is, nonetheless, also the God of the Christians.
Jew and Christian both agree that the whole of the Law may be summed
up in the commandment to love God, and to love one's neighbour as oneself. Is
it not time that this love was shared, not just in the rarefied air of mystic
prayer, but right here on earth?
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THE NAZARENES A speculative enquiry into Christian origins - © Copyright A.M.Bain 1989 Nazarenes Part 1, Nazarenes Part 2, Nazarenes Part 3, Nazarenes Part 4.
The Nazarenes of Mount Carmel
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