CH101 - The First CenturyThe Primitive Church - 30 - 100 AD
Conversion of the Apostle Paul
In his own words, Paul says "I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it" (Galatians 1:13). On his way to Damascus he was confronted by the risen Jesus in a heavenly vision. According to the three separate accounts in Acts, Saul found himself on the ground, blinded by the intensity of a heavenly light. The risen Jesus gave Saul a commission to "be a light to the Gentiles." After his conversion this Saul was to propel the infant church to fulfill the Great Commission by taking the gospel to the Gentiles.
According to Paul he immediately went to Arabia after his conversion where the risen Jesus taught him "by revelation" for the next 2-3 years (Galatians 1:11-18). This appears to be a wilderness experience, following in the OT tradition of Moses and Elijah, where Paul receives and attempts to understand his calling. Paul says that the leadership in Jerusalem recognized this calling and gave him "the right hand of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9).
In Acts 13:1,2 Luke gives us the history of the missionary commission of Saul and Barnabas by the church in Antioch. In this account their initial missionary focus is primarily on the Jews. Only after repeated rejection do they announce that they will turn to the Gentiles. Once they make this decision the intensity of persecution increases. Where does their opposition come from? The Judaizers, a sect of early Jewish believers, wanted Gentiles to be circumcised and to follow the Law of Moses.
The first sign of this conflict within the primitive church appears immediately after Peter leads the first Gentiles to faith, the household of Cornelius:
In Paul's second letter to the Corinthians the apostle describes the opposition he continually faced in order to fulfill his call:
We begin to get an idea of Paul's opposition in Acts 15:1-2, and 5. There are Jews, some Pharisees who have believed, demanding that the Gentiles be circumcised and obey the Laws of Moses. Paul rejects this position and continues to reach Gentiles without pushing the Law on them For the remainder of the Acts record he is chased, beaten, and slandered by Jews. Luke seems to describe these merely as Jews, which leads the casual reader to assume they are persecuting Paul in the same manner as he himself had done as Saul of Tarsus. But when Paul's writings are carefully studied it seems that he describes his primary opposers as pseudo, or false brothers.
In Galatians Paul is on the attack against those who have led Gentiles to circumcise themselves and place themselves under the Law. In Gal 2:11ff he relates an important story of when he confronted Peter over a similar issue. Peter had been sharing table fellowship with Gentiles until "certain men came from James." Paul is referring to James, the brother of Jesus. This is the same James who speaks out and seems to make the final decision at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
This group of early Jewish believers is often referred to as "Judaizers." Why is this important? Paul refers to his struggle with this group in at least five of his letters; thus, to properly read and understand Paul one must recognize the historical backdrop in each Pauline letter. How prevalent is this issue? Here are the letters with the most important texts highlighted.
The entire letter to the Galatian church is Paul's reaction to this issue. Some of these Judaizers had convinced some of the Gentile Galatians to get circumcised. In 2:4 he calls these Jews "false brothers" and:
This is a unique letter for Paul in that he has not yet been among this congregation. He is writing this letter to make sure his ideas are clearly presented to the Romans rather than having his opposers misrepresent him. In 14:14-23 he gives his clear stance on unclean meat, one of the issues where he is not in agreement with the decision of the Jerusalem Council.
Other texts where Paul speaks about the Judaizers:
2 Corinthians 11:1-29
1 Timothy 4:1-5
During his conversion experience Paul was commissioned by Jesus to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Peter and James recognized that calling (Galatians 2:9), and Paul aggressively pursued his calling even though it cost him greatly. The Acts account seems to indicate that the primitive church was not effectively fulfilling the Great Commission until the apostle Paul came on the scene. By the middle of the second century the Christian Church was primarily Gentile.
Thank you for your questions. These are good questions and my answers are not going to be water-tight. Paul says that he "becomes all things to all men"..."to the Jew, I become like a Jew," etc.
Timothy grew up with a Jewish mother, thus it is somewhat understandable for him to get circumcised. Some scholars doubt the testimony in Acts due to various apparent conflicts between Acts and what Paul actually says in his letters. I am not anxious to cast doubt on Luke's account in Acts, but I do understand this critcism (and I do trust Paul's personal comments if/when he disagrees/conflicts with Luke in Acts. I prefer to think that Paul had a flexible moral code with reference to the OT Laws of Moses.
I hope this helps.
What it does throw into doubt is how devout Paul was as a Jew...although he declared his intensity (circumcised on the 6th day/a pharisee according to the law etc)..by the time he wrote that letter had he climbed down from any outward show of the law?
Did he personally see no need for it ..but only practice it when with other devout Jews, in which case how sincere was His approach to it?
The Jerusalem church were not allowed to relax the law and probably did not want to, they understood Jesus words that He had not come to abolish it but to fulfil it..and His people would have to follow Him if they wanted to stay on "the way" and stay saved. Which means they could not relax one jot or tittle of the law...quite how they dealt with sacrifices ordained under the law for sin I just dont know. Just imagine the dilemma for the orthodox church today if the Ebionites were still around and could trace their authority right back to the first apostles!
Thanks for your site, and all the hard work you have put into it to make it so informative. I always find it helpful even if I don't always agree with your conclusions. - Ian
Thank you for your kind comments, Ian.
More good questions I will attempt to answer.
I do not think Paul felt personally constrained to the OT laws. You are correct that the Jerusalem leadership differed with him on this point. Paul makes it clear in his letters that he is following a calling and a gospel delivered to him by the risen Christ and NOT handed to him from any man. THIS is how opens his letter of correction to the Galatians:
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. 1:11,12
The remainder of the Galatian letter makes it very clear that Paul disagrees with the Jerusalem leadership on how Gentiles should interact with the OT laws of Moses. Yes, Paul has certainly changed his personal outlook on following the OT laws - he did climb down. I think he makes it clear that he now follows "the law of Christ" which does not dictate that he follow the "law of Moses." The writer to the "Hebrews" agrees with this
Now to his apparent hypocrisy of following the law at times (Acts 21, and 1 Cor 9:19-22). I personally drink alcohol and I reject the view that to consume alcohol is "sinful." But if I find myself with Christians that I KNOW feel differently about this issue I am not going to drink. I want to respect their view. If I am around Christians who think military service is "sinful" I will not bring it up for debate. I seek peaceful interaction.
NOW, if that particular person(s) bring the issue up and question me I WILL give and argue for my opinion. I try to let them lead the way. IF they push hard, I will respond with equal force. If they simply state their position and ask for mine, I will equally give my opinion without trying to "win" the argument. I am not going to back down, but neither am I going to lead the intensity of the discussion.
Is that hypocrisy or a lack of sincerity?
I prefer to think of it as using tact and grace and seeking peace/unity over being "right."
There ARE plenty of Christian Ebionites pushing for observance of the OT laws and proclaiming either that Paul was wrong OR that I am reading him incorrectly. That is why I wrote the review of Buzzard's book against the trinity.
I have also been working on James Tabor's work, "Paul and Jesus."
Tabor argues that Paul changed the simple message of Jesus [this is not a new argument]. I agree with many things Tabor presents, but I disagree with other points. I hope to get this on the site soon. [In the middle of this book I was sidetracked by Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist," then my paper on "Inerrancy," and then by my review on DH Williams, "Retrieving the Tradition."]
My position is that those Gentiles who want to follow the OT laws are free to do so - just do not try to force that on others. Typically they judge Gentiles like me who disagree with them. They attack my faith as "less than." Obviously, I strongly disagree with this view and I think they are completely misreading the NT texts. Their methods of interpretation are seriously flawed.