Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 3.

I mentioned in the last post that another difficult problem comes up in Acts 15, where the issue was how Gentiles fit into the Christian community. That was a tough one, and it took a lot of time to reach a widely accepted resolution but, in fact, this first trouble in Jerusalem telegraphs the later one in a much deeper way than is always appreciated.

The decision of the apostles was interesting because it had positive effects in some ways but caused difficulties in others. Belief in Jesus was more important than unity over Judaism turned out to be one lesson. That is a useful and unifying thing in some ways. The downside was this: tolerating Jews with different beliefs within the body meant that those Christians brought conflict with other Jews in Jerusalem, not Christians, but Jews who shared doctrine with the Hebrew Christians. That kind of conflict brought trouble for the whole church, and we see this happened, and it had deep and unforeseen consequences.

The growth in the church that Luke mentions at the outset of Acts 6 is a natural cause of the trouble. The apostles required a more complex structure to deal with questions, problems, and immediate needs, and this begins a primitive organization for the church. You see this in early Mormonism, where at first there were two ruling persons, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, but after a year and a half, more structure and definition was required to supply the needs of the community. The changes in both cases were in response to need. There wasn’t a complete initial blueprint: it developed organically.

Now the Hellenists chose these seven men who, in effect, were like new apostles. The Seven are not called apostles, but they perform at least some of the functions that had fallen to the apostles early on, and later their actions appear apostolic. The Seven are led by Stephen, who will shortly be stoned to death over his dissenting Judaism — not over his Christian faith, and this had a major effect on the Christian movement.

As an aside, we don’t know what happened with the Hebrews at the time, but presumably the apostles didn’t want to be involved in the trenches there either, and quite soon we see evidence that James (one of Jesus’ brothers, not James the brother of John) and the elders (an indication of the Hebrew’s traditional beliefs about functionaries) are in place in the church and seem to be running affairs in Jerusalem (Acts 15). So it seems reasonable that the apostles gave both factions a set of leaders at the same time (when Paul comes to Jerusalem on different occasions, it’s clear that James and the other elders are in charge there and Paul has to deal with them over Gentile issues).

Early rendering of James, chief of the Jerusalem church. (Image: Wikipedia)

Early rendering of James, chief of the Jerusalem church. (Image: Wikipedia)

The apostles stand above both groups, not precisely as everyday leaders, but as symbols of the whole. Recall that the apostles are very deeply associated with Israel, they are the ultimate judges of Israel, and this probably played a large role in how the Jewish church saw them. Even Paul, at the end, after all he went through over Gentile converts, his dismissal (in Galatians) of the “pillars of the church”—he cared nothing for them, in his anger over what he saw as a betrayal of their (Jewish Christians) agreement, does not relinquish the overriding importance of Israel when he engages an olive tree parable (Romans 11), much like that of the Book of Mormon in Jacob 5. This persisting racial identity politics takes a long time to dissipate or at least be reinterpreted, spiritualized and it led to great evil (cf. the later posts in this series).[1]

The fascinating thing about this moment is how the apostles dealt with this conflict, which was really based on dissent from what is the majority. Church cohesion was more important than cultural and even doctrinal opinion. And this may have set some precedent because something similar happens later. But as I noted, choosing the Seven had a dark side. One wonders how things might have evolved if various dissenting movements in Mormonism had stayed together in some way, with some compromise or other (Emma, Rigdon, Wight, etc.). What might have happened? In the case of the early Christians, the consequence was profound.[2]

What happened after the apostles (it’s not clear that the whole church wasn’t involved here, actually) lay hands on the Seven? Nothing easy.

Stephen began preaching, and he was a powerful speaker—but he seems to offend other Hellenists (not Christians) in some way and the offended ones accuse him of blasphemy, one of the more serious charges one could face. They accused him of speaking against Moses and the LORD. This stirs up the elders who bring him before the Sanhedrin. There are false witnesses against Stephen, and they accuse Stephen of saying Jesus will destroy the temple (probably connected to Jesus as the temple—recall the trials of Jesus at the end of his life). At this point, Stephen gave a long sermon. The sermon was not very politic at all, given the audience, and it almost certainly illustrates what happened in the church that led to the Seven being appointed.[3]

Stoning of Stephen from the altarpiece of San Georgio Maggiore in Venice by Tintoretto. (Image: Wikipedia)

Stoning of Stephen from the altarpiece of San Georgio Maggiore in Venice by Tintoretto. Note God and Christ depicted at the top reflecting Stephen’s vision. (Image: Wikipedia)

Stephen’s sermon gives an account of Israel’s history, but it differs in a number of ways from the Bible. Scholars see elements of Samaritan thought in Stephen’s preaching, and this was bound to anger the Sanhedrin. Some have wondered if Luke is presaging here what happened to the Hellenist Christians later. Possibly Luke thought of Stephen as a model for how the church eventually evolved (Luke was writing many decades after the incident, so perhaps he was using his narrative to explain in part what the church became, and that is reinforced with his mention of Saul at the succeeding events.

This really is relevant to the series title, and I’ll show that in the next post.


[1] An unfortunate result of the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity was the terrible narrative that surfaced among Christians that the Jews, as a whole, carried ever continuing guilt for executing God (the Book of Mormon speaks out against this), and this story continued through the Reformation and into the twentieth century. Some of the language employed even by the greats like Augustine and Jerome is terrifying, advocating slavery or forced migration. Hilary: “before the Law was given, the Jews were possessed of an unclean devil, which the Law for a time drove out, but which returned immediately after their rejection of Christ.” Hilary’s Commentary on Matthew, XII, 22. Marcion is the most extreme view theologically: throw out Jewish Law, liturgy, priesthood, AND scriptures. John Chrysostom: “it’s incumbent on Christians to hate the Jews because God has always hated the Jews.” Aquinas: “it’s perfectly licit to hold the Jews in slavery because of what their ancestors did to Jesus.” By the fifth century, Christian crafted laws essentially deprived Jews of nearly any benefit of citizenship, forcing them into ghettos. Probably the disappearance of Jesus’ statement from Lucan manuscripts “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” was a result of later preaching against the Jews, especially post-Julian, when Christians become politically dominant. Jerome wrote that Jews have the Mark of Cain, and must be beggars and be examples of depravity for Christians to look upon. The evil of the Nazis was the sharp end of this theological spear, as it partook of the racial theories that fruited from it in the nineteenth century. For a much broader treatment up to the fifth century, see James Everett Seaver, The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1952).

[2] A much later example is Martin Luther’s case, where his ally in the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon, tried to get the parties to consider what they had in common, rather than what separated them. (Wikipedia has an account.) The things they could agree on at that point were quite strong. Probably 90% in favor of unity. But perhaps the inertia of a large body played too much of a role in any possible resolution. The consequences were brutal.

[3] There is this tradition around the Seven being “deacons” in some sense analogous to that of Mormon deacons. There was a post-apostolic thing like this, but assigning the Mormon view of the title to the Seven isn’t useful and is even misleading I think. They were, as I mentioned, much like apostolic preachers and teachers.

2 Responses to Priesthood in the New Testament Era Church, 3.

  1. ricke says:

    Thank you. Will you discuss the relationship of Hebrew Christianity to the Jewish priesthood?

  2. WVS says:

    I definitely want to say something about that as I go on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: