The New Community
In the early days, just following Jesus’ resurrection, the new community of His followers was viewed as a new party within Judaism. The patrty was known as the Nazarenes, which is still the ordinary name for “Christians” in Hebrew. The name “Nazarenes” is probably due to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, in Galilee, but that is not completely certain. The root of the word means to observe, and some believe the early community may have been know as the “observers”.
The Nazarenes were not a mainstream party, like the Sadducees who dominated the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court), or the Pharisees, who were
also politically powerful. No, they were an outside “fringe” party. In some ways they were like the Zealots, who also sought the kingdom of God, although the means to that end were radically different: The Zealots looked for a violent overthrow of Rome, while the Nazarenes believed that the return of Christ would inaugurate the kingdom. In other ways they resembled the Essenes in that they placed great value on personal purity (the Essenes , extreme separatists, a subgroup of which is probably responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, eschewed temple sacrifice for fear of being defiled) and both practiced, in the early days, a form of communism.1
There were some path-crossings between the Nazarenes and the Zealots. One of the apostles was a Zealot. And Barabbas, whom the mob before Pilate chose for release over Jesus, was probably a Zealot, part of a failed insurrection at the time of the crucifixion.
A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. (Mark 15:7)
Although Nazarenes was the party name, the early believers called their movement “the Way”, and referred to themselves as saints, brothers, and the poor. When Paul writes:
They only asked us to remember the poor-- the very thing I also was eager to do. (Gal. 2:10)
“The poor” is (probably) referring to the entire nascent community of believers, not (literally) the financially strapped, although no doubt the early community was heavily biased toward the destitute.
The Nazarenes grew quickly, having a tremendous appeal to the common man. The Sadducees and the great priestly families were politely disliked. The Pharisees set up standards of behavior that common men could never achieve, and at least some of the Pharisaic schools equated ignorance with accursedness, sentiment that we find in John’s gospel:
No! But this mob [followers of Jesus] that knows nothing of the law--there is a curse on them. (John 7:49)
The Nazarenes, on the other hand, taught that the overarching work of their salvation was already accomplished by Jesus and His redeeming death, to be claimed by those who accept Him as the Son of God and acknowledge the resurrection. As the apostles began preaching their good news, they soon numbered more than five thousand:
But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)
The Sadducees tried, in vain, to suppress the Nazarenes.
17Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. 18They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. (Acts 5:17-18)
Yet among some the Pharisees, even some in the Sanhedrin, there developed a tolerance toward the Nazarenes, and some of their number (e.g., Paul) were even destined to join the movement. After all, the Nazarenes, like the Pharisees, tried to obey the law as best they could, and like the Pharisees, but unlike the Sadducees, they believed in bodily resurrection1. True, from the point of view of the Pharisees, they were misguided in their insistence that Jesus had fulfilled the prophesies of the sages and had been himself resurrected, but the Nazarenes were mostly harmless—quite unlike the Zealots would could bring the wrath of Rome upon the entire citizenry.
In particular, one revered Pharisee, Gamaliel pushed for restraint in oppressing the Nazarenes, arguing with inescapable logic that if the movement is not of God it would die in spite of their tolerance, and if it is from God it would thrive in spite of their suppression. (see Acts 5:33-38).
Gamaliel is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud (the Talmud is not scripture, but a collection of rabbinical writings) as discussing an impudent student. The student is not named, but some have speculated that the unfavorably viewed student is Saul of Tarsus. It is easy to imagine: Saul (Paul) must never have been a very rewarding student, for contrary to Gamaliel’s teaching Saul oppressed the Nazarenes far more effectively than the Sadducees, only to then, as Paul, cross over in an instant to become their greatest teacher and evangelist.
The Nazarenes met in their homes, and on those occasions they remembered the death of Jesus through a simple meal of bread and wine. Those who had been with Jesus taught the others what they had learned first-hand. New members were baptized in the name of Jesus. Considering themselves Jews, they kept the Sabbath and still kept to appointed hours of prayer at the temple. The new meal of bread and wine was partaken on the day after the Sabbath, i.e., the first day of the week, Sunday.
The importance of the Nazarenes living as good Jews cannot be overemphasized. It marked them as relatively harmless by the Pharisees, saving them from swift and sure persecution had they had no friends in the Sanhedrin. This early group of Nazarenes, in Jerusalem, is what we often call the Jerusalem church.
Although there were no Gentiles at first, there was more than just Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews. In particular, there were the “Hellenists”. Hellenists were Jews whose roots were outside Palestine as a result of the diaspora (the dispersion of Jews from Palestine all over the Mediterranean region, beginning with the Babylonian captivity. So vast was this scattering that in the first century there were a dozen synagogues in Rome.). Hellenists adopted Greek language and culture, which put them at odds with the Palestinian Jews.
Often overlooked is the critical role played by the Hellenists in spreading the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. We will see that the very one who persecutes them, and whom they then seek to kill, takes up there cause as his life’s work.
The first need for administration and the first internal problem in the Jerusalem church is traceable to the tension between “Hebrews” and Hellinists.
One early logistical problem was the distribution of food to the poor. Problems arose:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. (Acts 6:1)
The twelve apostles (the betrayer having been replaced by Matthias) appointed seven deacons to attend to these lower-level duties. Probably all were Hellenists (all had Greek names, see Acts 6:5), and at least one, Nicolas of Antioch was not even a Jew. (He was, however, a proselyte, meaning he had previously converted to Judaism, and was circumcised, and then became a Nazarene—as contrasted with the as yet nonexistent Gentile converts, who did not convert to Judaism but straight away to Christianity.) No doubt the selection of the seven was made in part to placate the Hellenists.
Two of the seven, Stephen and Philip, surpassed expectations and became great teachers. In his amazing speech to the Sanhedrin (Acts 7), prior to being martyred, Stephen said:
47But it was Solomon who built the house for him. 48"However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. (Acts 7:47-48)
This bold (but true) swipe at the temple, which enraged the Sanhedrin, may have been difficult for any of the Hebrews to make, and leads one to believe that at least part of the accusation (Acts 6:13-14) made against Stephen, although brought by false witnesses, may have accurately reflected his teachings.
Stephen’s martyrdom hints at Jewish bigotry toward the Hellenists: the Hebrews of the council had Stephen executed, while Peter and John, native Hebrews, were treated more leniently (Acts 5:40).
Naming of the seven Hellenists to positions of authority did not result in their complete assimilation into the Jerusalem church (again, there was entrenched anti-Hellenist bigotry). When the Sanhedrin initiated the first persecution of Christians (we will now use that term, although it didn’t appear until later) breaks out, it seems to have been directed at the Hellenists:
2On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. 4Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. 6When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said (Acts 8:2-6)
This does not mean that every Christian except the twelve was flushed out of Jerusalem, but that with certainty the majority of the Hellenists were forced out. Philip, for example, escaped to Samaria. So in the persecution one can perhaps glimpse the will of God: Hellenists, who would have been more familiar to the Gentiles than Hebrews, began spreading the gospel. (Later, in Acts 12, we see the persecution turn toward the Hebrew Christians. resulting in the martyrdom of James, the brother of John3. That persecution arose from King Herod Agrippa.) Further evidence regarding bigotry toward the Hellenists is that the great persecutor Saul of Tarsus left Jerusalem to go after the fleeing Hellenists, while not lifting a hand against the apostles, who remained in the city.
Saul of Tarsus
In the late twenties of the first century, Gamaliel the Elder, revered Pharisee, accepted a young student from Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, named Saul. He came from a distinguished Jewish family, and Saul’s father was a Roman citizen, an honor which he inherited and valued.
Interestingly, Saul’s family did not consider themselves to be Hellenists, as you might expect, Tarsus being a great Greek city at that time, but Hebrews, which is why He went by the Hebrew name Saul. Paul affirms this in his own writing, when speaking of himself he writes “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil 3:5).
He also shows great pride in his hometown, writing:
Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people." (Acts 21:39)
Saul comes into his own around A.D. 30-33, as the Nazarene movement is flourishing. In the debate over the danger of the Christians, Saul crosses party lines, agreeing with the Sadducees, rather than his Pharisaical mentor, Gamaliel. It was precisely because the Pharisees were somewhat taken by the Nazarenes that concerned Saul. Indeed, not just uneducated Galileans (the learned held little respect of the Galileans, see John 7:52) were being duped, quite a few of his own party had joined the movement. Saul did see the Nazarenes as an amusing yet harmless fringe group, but as a blasphemous cult who claimed the Messiah had died a death designated for the accursed, not the favored by God. He (correctly) worried that this movement would ultimate split Judaism, and so with passion he sought to destroy it.
This is very interesting indeed: Saul would have used because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse (Deut. 21:23) to point out the blasphemy of the Nazarenes. It wasn’t until he himself joined the movement that Paul saw the incredible redemptive significance of the passage, later using it like this:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Gal. 3:13)
Saul believed the two religions were not compatible. An opportunity to take action presented itself when he encountered a stout member of the Nazarenes who, ironically, agreed him. Not one the apostles; they surely viewed “the Way” as the next stage of Judaism, and continued with their temple worship. No, it was the Hellenist Stephen, who saw Jesus “not only” as the risen savior, but also as the terminus for the existing age. The temple and its system would be replaced—Judaism wasn’t being upgraded, it was being replaced. Stephen epitomized what concerned Saul: a radical, and, far from an uneducated Galilean bumpkin, he was an eloquent and persuasive Hellenist.
Saul presided at Stephen’s execution, showing his approval by guarding the clothes of the witnesses as they stoned the saint (Acts 7:57).
The stoning of Stephen emboldened both Saul and the Sanhedrin, who began systematic persecution, especially of the Hellenistic Christians. The Hellenists fled, and Saul, with official backing of the Sanhedrin (letters from the High Priest Caiaphas, whose authority was respected by the Roman overseers), set out for the outlying synagogues to capture the Nazarenes and return them to the Sanhedrin for trial. Note the bigotry at work here: the Hebrew Nazarenes, especially the apostles, were in Jerusalem, but Paul did not raise a hand toward them. He went after the Hellenists.
Saul left for Damascus, and as he neared the city he saw a blinding light, and the risen Lord stood before him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. 6"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." (Acts 9:4-6)
Paul, blinded, was assisted by his companions into Damascus. Meanwhile, instructed through visions, a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, who had been at risk from Saul’s aborted mission, served as the Lord’s messenger. On Paul’s third day in Damascus, Ananias found him, Paul’s sight was restored, and he was baptized.
Then Paul’s amazing journey began. Using his reputation and official letters of travel and access, he toured the very synagogues he had intended to purge. Those in attendance would not have heard what they expected. Instead, Paul boldly proclaimed what just a short time before he had held as dangerous blasphemy: Jesus, the very one who died on a tree, was the Messiah.
Those who had seen the resurrected Lord had been proven correct. Paul himself had seen him. He had been so very wrong about the tree. It is not clear how quickly he arrived at a true understanding, but he did: The Messiah was accursed, Deut. 21:23, was not contradicted. The radical insight was that the Messiah had to become a curse in order to redeem those who couldn’t keep the law from suffering their just curse (Gal 3:13).
Paul’s preaching of Christ in Damascus and the surrounding area eventually incurred the wrath of the local Jewish authorities, who conspired to kill him. Paul escaped by being lowered to safety in a basket, through a window in the city wall.
In the third year since he left for Damascus, Paul returned to Jerusalem, trying to contact the disciples. But they avoided him, afraid that his conversion was in reality a trick. Eventually Barnabas interceded on his behalf, testifying to the truthfulness of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord, and finally Paul came face-to-face with the apostles.
Paul’s first assignment was to visit those believers in Jerusalem whom he had most severely persecuted: the Hellenists. No doubt recalling the fate of Stephen, their reaction was perhaps predictable: they sought to kill him.
The Lord had other, bigger plans for Paul, and in a vision he told Paul to leave Jerusalem. No doubt this was in part for his safety, but in the larger scheme of God’s sovereignty we see that Paul’s real mission is about to commence. In Paul’s own words:
17"When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance 18and saw the Lord speaking. 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' 19" 'Lord,' I replied, 'these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. 20And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.' 21"Then the Lord said to me, 'Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.' " (Acts 22:17-21)
Paul’s friends spirited him away, first to Caesarea and ultimately to his hometown of Tarsus. They several years he spent in Tarsus are a bit of a mystery. Some scholars believe that Paul’s statement:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8)
indicates that he was disinherited. And the timelines would suggest that some of his “forty stripes save one” lashings (see 2 Cor., 11:24) occurred at the hands of the Jews in Tarsus. Toward the end of this obscure period of his life, he has perhaps his most mysterious experience:
2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. 3And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- 4was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. (2 Cor. 12:2-4)
This experience left him with an undisclosed lifelong physical ailment, a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) , which was apparently for his spiritual benefit.
Whether Paul thought he was wasting in obscurity is unknown. It is clear in hindsight that the Lord was strengthening him for his life’s work. And it commenced sometime in A.D. 45, when his friend Barnabas, who had commended him to the apostles, arrived like a bolt out of the blue. It seemed that the Lord had work to be done in Antioch, and Paul was the man for the job.
1 There were, however, substantive differences. The Essenes were extremely diligent about the Sabbath and ceremonial adherence. The also rose daily to practice what appears to some to be borderline idolatrous worship of the sun, rather than the Son. They also practiced soothsaying and magic.
2 This does not mean that the Sadducees did not believe is an after-life, but rather they did not anticipate bodily resurrection, arguing that the first mention of it comes in the book of Daniel which, not having been penned by Moses, was non-authoritative. Paul later uses the stark differences in their views to save himself in a touchy situation when on trial in the Sanhedrin: 6Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." 7When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (Acts 23:6-7)
3 Not to be confused with James, the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the apostles, and was not a follower of his brother while Jesus lived (John 7:5). But James did have a Damascus road experience himself, for Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:7 that the risen Christ appeared to his brother James. James then rose to lead the Jerusalem church and was martyred later, in A.D. 62.