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JEWISH REVOLTS and CHRISTIAN IDENTITIES (2 of 5)

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Early Christianity and its Apostles

When Jesus was arrested and executed, his followers scattered to their homes, but soon they gathered again in Jerusalem. As Jews they continued to worship at Jerusalem's temple, "the House of the Lord," and they began living quietly and at peace with Jerusalem's authorities. They saw themselves as a group favored by God within Judaism. According to the New Testament they called themselves "The Poor" and "The Saints." They looked forward to a second coming of Jesus since his resurrection and to his bringing with him the new order that Jews had been expecting with the Messiah.

The Saints grew slowly in number, and among the new converts were Jews from outside Judea – people referred to in the Book of Acts in the New Testament as "Hellenists," perhaps because they spoke Greek. Coming from outside Judea, they were probably not as attuned to local attitudes and were more inclined to offend when discussing their views with other Jews. One among those from outside Judea was a man called Stephen. In his preaching, Stephen offended, and according to Acts 6:8-11 he was reported to the authorities for having spoken "blasphemous words against Moses and against God." Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin and convicted of blasphemy, and in keeping with that charge he was stoned to death. And others who belonged to Stephen's group – including the former disciple of Jesus, Peter – were driven from the city.

Exiling the "Hellenist" followers of Jesus from Jerusalem helped spread Christianity. Peter and his group traveled from one Jewish community to another in cities along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea. They proselytized with greater zeal than did the Jews in Jerusalem. They experienced hostility from their fellow Jews, and occasionally violence, but in the Jewish communities of these cities the number of believers in Jesus as the Messiah increased.

Judaic authorities in Jerusalem were concerned about the obedience of Jews everywhere, and they saw the followers of Jesus outside of Palestine as a threat to Judaism. They sent agents to check on the movement. One of their agents was a man named Saul, the son of a Jewish Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus, on the coast of Cilicia, a man to be known by his Christian name: Paul. Paul had studied Judaic law in Jerusalem. He had become a Pharisee and was devoted to the pharisaic belief in a Jewish nation being made holy by its people's strict observance of God's laws. The Pharisees sent Paul from Jerusalem to Damascus to observe the followers of Jesus there. According to the New Testament (Acts 9:3-4), on his way he was blinded by light and had a vision of Jesus asking him "Why persecutest thou me?" Paul arrived in Damascus still blinded. A follower of Jesus found him, converted him, and Paul's eyesight returned. Then Paul spent thirteen years studying the teachings of Jesus, and some of these years he spent in a desert retreat with other followers.

In the year 47, Paul joined others in spreading their good news that Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ were approaching. By now more than two-thirds of the roughly seven million Jews in the Roman empire lived outside of Judea, and it was to Jews in cities outside of Judea that Paul and his fellow evangelists went, where Jews spoke their language: Greek. In the coming thirteen years they traveled to Cyprus, Palestine and Syria; they traveled to the great cities of western Asia Minor, along the coast of the Aegean Sea, through Macedonia, south to Corinth in Peloponnesus, to the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily; and they traveled to a community of Greek speaking Jews in Rome – where Jews had settled as early as 150 BCE. The peace and security for travel that had been created by Augustus Caesar added to the ability of Paul and the other Hellenized evangelists to spread their word about Jesus. And as a Roman citizen, Paul was protected by Roman law from attacks by outraged Jews.

Among the Jews in various cities around the Mediterranean were gentiles who were attracted to the unique Jewish meeting place – the synagogue. Those spreading the news about Jesus were gathering followers not only among their fellow Jews but also among these gentiles, and this presented a problem for the followers of Jesus. The gentiles were uncircumcised, and they did not follow Judaism's dietary laws. The question arose among the followers of Jesus whether they ought to share meals with the gentiles and whether uncircumcised men could become followers of Jesus. In the year 50, a conference gathered to decide the matter, and Paul joined those who wanted it easier to admit gentiles to their number. He argued that the core of their beliefs was not Judaic law but the sacrifice of Jesus and their faith in Jesus. The conference reached a compromise: circumcision would not be required for membership in their communities, but all those who wished to be recognized as followers would be required to follow other Judaic laws.

Those among the followers of Jesus who rejected the compromise claimed that compromise was not an appropriate basis for religious belief. For years this faction would badger their fellow Christians, trying to make them see their error in abandoning absolute obedience to all Judaic law. Eventually they would fade away, while Christianity grew.

Those who had sided with compromise continued to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah, that Jesus was a caring sacrificial martyr, that Jesus would return either in their lifetime or soon after, and that with his next appearance would come everlasting life, relieving them of their hardships and sufferings. It was a joyful message of love, hope and equality for the poor, and it had more appeal than asking one to worship the distant gods of Greek or Roman mythology or the bull god of Mithraism.

It was mainly among the urban poor that the evangelists found their recruits. The movement's evangelists told the poor that they did not need what they did not have: riches and education. "Do not love the world nor the thing of the world" wrote the apostle John. Great possessions, he said were obstacles to entry into heaven. Paul, in a letter to the evangelist Timothy, supported this view, claiming that "...love of money is a root of all sorts of evil." note16   Paul proclaimed that the wisdom of the world was made foolish by God. He told his listeners merely to feel, to have faith, to surrender themselves to Jesus.

In keeping with what was believed to be the teachings of Jesus, converts were asked to surrender their property to a common fund and to live communally. The congregations of various communities took care of followers arriving from other areas, and they were instructed to look after the widows, orphans, sick and disabled among them. "We who are strong," said Paul, "ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves." Paul's message was compatible with the Hellenistic Stoic concepts that he had grown up with in his hometown of Tarsus. Paul proclaimed that the followers of Jesus should be honest, free of double dealing and falsehood. In keeping with Judaic law, Paul and his colleagues proclaimed that sex outside of marriage was forbidden. There had been criticism and rumors of wanton behavior of the Christians, and Paul said, "By doing right you silence the ignorance of foolish men." He said, "Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy." note17   Paul advised his fellow Christians to obey state law, and he spoke of the Roman Empire as having been the work of God. "Let every person," he wrote, "be in subjection to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God." note18  In this he was supported by the apostle Peter, who wrote: "Submit yourself to every institution."

Paul and his fellow Christians believed that with the approach of the Second Coming of Jesus and a new world there was no need to change the institutions of the present world, and their accommodation with these institutions included an accommodation with slavery. The Christians saw recourse for slaves in Jesus and impending Armageddon. They saw slaves as equal to freemen. And Paul said, "Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord." According to Paul, a slave who accepted Jesus became "the Lord's freedman" and a free man who accepted Christ became "the Lord's slave."

Just as slaves were to obey their masters, women were to obey their husbands. "Wives," said Paul, "be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord." note19  To the apostle Timothy, Paul wrote: "I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet." note20

During Paul's time, some Christians argued that Jesus advocated celibacy. Why else, they asked, would Jesus have praised women whose wombs never bore or praised men who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? Paul and his colleagues opposed self-castration. But, believing that Jesus was coming soon, Paul did advocate celibacy for some Christians. To his brothers in Corinth he wrote, "The time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives live as they had none." note21  He also promoted sex in marriage in order to avoid the sexual frustration that he thought might lead to Satan's temptations. He warned married Christians to stop depriving each other. "The wife," he wrote, "does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise, the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does." note22

Satan the Devil

The early followers of Jesus saw Satan not as not as an instrument of Yahweh as had early worshipers of Yahweh. Their view of Satan was that of the Jews who saw Satan as an independent and evil force. According to the apostle John, Jesus described the devil as a murderer, a liar (John 8:44) and as the "ruler of the world." note23  Paul wrote of the "schemes of the devil" and of "the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places."note24   He described the devil as "the God of this world." He blamed the devil for the failure of people to accept Jesus. The devil, he stated, "blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ." note25   Peter joined Paul and warned people to "Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." note26.

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