|PAUL'S CALL TO BE APOSTLE TO
It is evident that having attended Gamaliel's academy the young scholar Paul soon returned to his home city of Tarsus. Perhaps he took part there in the teaching duties of the synagogue, as the custom of the time was. In Galatians chapter1 Paul tells of himself: "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers." Later he tells that he lived "according to the strictest sect of our religion, as a Pharisee." Although he received an education from the conciliatory Gamaliel, it may be that he himself had a liking for the interpretations of the stricter Shammai. This is revealed by the stances he later took.
In the City of David in Jerusalem, to the south of the Temple, several
synagogues were built with their schoolrooms. One of them served Jews from
Cilicia. So it would seem natural that after his "practical exercises"
Paul received, at the beginning of the 30s, the invitation to take
on the post of rabbi of the Cilician synagogue in the City of David
in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was in this capacity that he first met Christian
believers. Acts chapters 6 and 7 tells about this in great detail.
The First Crisis of the Synagogue and the First Christian Congregations and its Background
Acts constitutes a drama without compare in ancient literature. Two thirds of it concentrates on Paul's life and the stories of his journeys. The importance of Stephen in the early stages of the infant church was so great that chapters 6 and 7 in their entirety are devoted to him. And in them we meet Paul for the first time.
In Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost in spring 30 there began a remarkable awakening. Acts tells that the hearers received Peter's words, they were baptised and "about three thousand were added to their number that day." They enjoyed "the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." After Peter's second sermon we are told that "many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand." When this led to a crisis among the spiritual leaders of the people, Rabbi Gamaliel urged them to leave "those men" alone. And "if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail." But if it is from God, they should beware "that they do not find themselves fighting against God." In spite of the flogging they reveived, the disciples did not cease speaking but "day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the Gospel of Christ Jesus."
In this situation a crisis arose: "In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenists among them complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." The incipient Messianic movement had grown almost as large as the contemporary Pharisaic party. It may be that it was now the year 32, and the situation demanded internal organization.
The Jews' system of social welfare also provided a model for the organization of the first Christian congregations. In Jerusalem there was a special synagogue welfare system. Every Friday it distributed a week's supply of food to the poor of the city. Outsiders also received daily rations if they were considered entitled to them. The first Christians had also organized themselves separately, so that the needs of their widows and poor were taken into account. For this purpose the church arranged its own collections. We are told that believers "had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need" (Acts 2:44-45).
The Essenes had a similar system of relief. They did not forbid private property; their community defined what each person needed. The Damascus Document 14:10-15 tells that the Essenes gave "the salary of two days each month" for distribution to the poor. And if anyone "lies knowingly concerning goods" (yeshaqqer behon), he should be excluded from the community and sentenced to lose "a quarter of his bread." The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 is comparable with the problems encountered by the Essenes.
In addition, it is good to know that at that time Israelite towns and
villages then chose a group of seven persons to function as a kind
of executive committee and represent their area before Roman civil servants.
These local leaders were called "shivah tuvei ha-ir", that is, to translate
freely, "the seven best of the city." When Josephus, as supreme
commander of Galilee, was preparing for war against the Romans he also
chose seventy subordinate commanders who were responsible for the defence
of different villages and "seven individuals in each city to adjudicate
upon petty disputes."
Measures due to the Growth of the Infant Church
When the infant church spread and responsibility for social work grew, the apostles had "to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables." Therefore they decided to choose "seven men who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom." They themselves wished "to give attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." "They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch." They were appointed as deacons or table servants. In Hebrew this corresponds most closely to the verger or "shamash". Nevertheless, these table servants were spiritually motivated and especially Philip is known to have worked as an evangelist, at least in Samaria, the Gaza area and in Caesarea.
Thus "the word of God prospered and the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem. And a great number of priests became obedient to the faith." At this stage Stephen and Paul must have met each other for the first time. We read about it in Acts chapters 6 and 7. "Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) -- Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against the wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke." Perhaps Rabbi Paul of the Cilician synagogue was involved in these debates. And from it grew a drama which got out of hand.
The new Messianic movement was already "highly regarded by the people." Even "a large number of priests" had joined it. It is estimated that at that time the number of priests would have been approximately eight thousand and the number of Levites ten thousand. The priesthood was divided since the time of King David into twenty-four subdivisions, who served in Jerusalem two weeks a year, each in turn. The historian Josephus tells that the Temple area was often so restless that it prevented the priests from collecting tithes. And so some of the poorest died of hunger. Paul was also probably bothered by the fact that the new revival movement was beginning to be as extensive as all the other major religious parties. Synagogue disputes led finally to Stephen being brought before the Great Council by force. The charges concentrated on two things: it was asserted that he had spoken against the Temple and the Law of Moses. At that time one could be sentenced for desecration of the Temple only under Jewish Law, and the death penalty could be applied. In the interpretation of the traditions of the fathers, however, there was very great freedom of movement.
The Pharisees considered life sacred. Therefore they "reduced" punishments and opposed, for instance, the death penalty. Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has drawn attention in different contexts to the fact that at Jesus' trial Pharisees proper are not mentioned -- behind the sentence was the priestly Sadducee party, of which the historian Josephus says that "they were very strict in their judgments." The same thing appeared later, for instance, in the actions of the high priest Ananus. When the Roman governor changed in 62 B.C., Ananus made use of the opportunity to sentence "James, the brother of Jesus, and certain other disciples to be stoned." The Sadducees' attitude also appears in the Talmud. It tells how a man rode a horse on the Sabbath, and he was stoned "not because it should have been so according to the Law but because the situation demanded it." The Talmud records this saying twice.
In order for us to understand the historical reliability of the narrative describing the choice of deacons, the stoning of Stephen and the life of Paul, such details are important. The Pharisees too had organized themselves into groups (Heb. "le-havurot"), which had common meals of friendship in somewhat the same way as the first Christians had. They emphasised the value of this life and the holiness of God. Lev. 11:44 says, "Be holy, for I am holy"; this was interpreted as follows: "As I am holy or 'qadosh', you too be holy and as I am 'parush' or Pharisee, you too be 'perushim', Pharisees." They felt that they were the "Father's people" of God, and in some of their favourite sayings and in beautiful prayers they addressed God with the words: "Our Father".
Rabbi Yehudah Ben Teima, who lived very early on, uttered the famous saying: "Be strong as the panther, swift as the eagle, fleet as the gazelle, and brave as the lion, to do the will of your Father who is in heaven." Similarly, Jesus too gave as the motive of his exhortation to love one's enemies "that you may be children of your Father, who is in heaven" and "be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." The task of the Messiah is to give "teamei Torah hadashim," that is, "new foundations of the interpretation of the Law."
The New Testament uses differing phrases -- "teachers of the Law", "scribes"
and "scribes of the Pharisees." Therefore the "scribes" who "dragged" Stephen
before the Great Council were hardly proper Pharisees. At least originally
that group did not perhaps aim at a violent final solution. Somehow, as
the situation came to a head everyone forgot Pharisee Gamaliel's mediating
decision, according to which it would have been wisest to wait and
see whether this project be from God or from men.
Stephen's Sermon and its Effects
Stephen's defence speech is a typical example of an apostolic sermon. The reader can only wonder that Luke devotes almost sixty verses to Stephen's speech. Stephen was accused of desecrating the Temple and of wrong interpretation of the Law of Moses. Modern man is tempted to think that with such a sermon nowadays one might even become vicar of a parish -- so dry does its message seem. But upon closer observation one notices that Stephen replied to precisely the accusations made against him. In addition, small details about Abraham and Moses show a profound knowledge of tradition, with which the Jewish reader can even today agree. The division of the life of Moses into three stages of forty years occurs, for example, in Midrash Genesis and Exodus Rabbah and in later literature. The receiving of the Law through angels, to which the Epistle to the Hebrews also refers, was to the rabbis an important guarantee of the holiness of the Law. And the prediction in Deut. 18:15 and 18 of the Messiah as a "second Moses" and "second saviour" is reflected here and there in Jewish literature. The Targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel say twice, as does its "peirush" or explanation, that this prophet resembling Moses will be raised "de-ruah qudsha" and "be-ruah qudsha", i.e. from the Holy Spirit" and "in the Holy Spirit."
Stephen concludes his message with a powerful accusation: "You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit" ... and "you who have received the Law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." And when the hearers "were furious and gnashed their teeth," Stephen looks up and says, "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." This image, which is based on Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110, is reflected richly in Jewish Messianic expectation. And so "they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him." In their opinion, "the situation demanded" such radical decisions.
It is illustrative that in its footnotes the new Finnish Bible translation quotes in connection with Stephen's speech sixty-two OT passages which provide a deeper understanding of his message. Included is a reference to Sirach 45:3, written in c. 180 B.C., where it says of Moses that God "showed him part of his glory." It is good to be aware that the New Testament cannot be interpreted without a knowledge of the Old Testament and ancient Jewish literature.
Sometimes one wonders how it is possible that Luke recorded such detailed reports of the apostolic sermons and of Paul's activities. Luke was said to have been "inseparabilis a Paulo," that is, "Paul's inseparable" companion. The "we" passages after Acts 16:10 tell of Luke's and Paul's journeys together. Then he would have heard of Stephen's sermon and stoning.
Perhaps Paul was one of those "genius" (Heb. gaon)-like Jewish scholars who "did not lose a drop of what they heard." At least we are told that Josephus, for instance, had such an unerring "miraculous memory." And in addition, the historian Josephus Flavius made precise diary entries, for instance, when he followed the Roman conqueror Titus. These Aramaic notes were evidently the basis for his Aramaic version of the "Jewish War". Scholars regard it as evident that the Acts of the Apostles is "the work of a single writer." And it is reckoned that there would have been separate written sources of at least the Apostolic Council (Acts 15:23-29), Claudius Lysias' letter (Acts 23:26-30) and the indictment made by the lawyer Tertullus (Acts 24:2-8).
From time to time the writings of young theologians repeat cliché-like assertions that "we do not know exactly what happened in Jerusalem almost two thousand years ago" and "precise historical description was not the aim of the Gospel writers." These things are "difficult to comprehend with one's reason" and "historical facts and information about them hardly determine" our relationship with God. New Testament teachings arose because they had a psychological and "social context." Luke, the writer of Acts, says, however, at the beginning of his Gospel that he narrates things that have been "surely believed" and that he had "carefully investigated everything from the beginning," so that we should know "the certainty of these things." The Jewish professor Josef Klausner once quoted Rousseau's saying: "My friends, such things are not invented. The facts about Socrates, whose existence no one doubts, are much more weakly based" than the New Testament events.
We are told that at the stoning of Stephen "the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul." In the Greek is used here the word "neanias", which, according to scholars, really does mean "young man". Paul was then perhaps twenty-eight years old. At that age he was not yet eligible for the most responsible offices in the synagogue nor to be a member of the Great Council.
There were precise regulations about stoning and its witnesses. In Jerusalem it had to take place in a specially arranged place outside the walls. A herald walked in front of the procession announcing the accused person's name. The witnesses followed him. The place of stoning was usually a high rocky slope, from which the condemned person was first thrown down. The church father Clement tells of the stoning of the Lord's brother James, that is, "James the Just", that he was thrown from the roof of the Temple and clubbed to death.
Before the place of stoning the criminal was asked to confess his sin, because "confession of sin guarantees a share in the life to come." Men were stoned naked and women fully dressed. At a distance of four cubits (a couple of metres) from the place the person to be stoned was undressed and his clothes were handed over to witnesses, who gave them to the relatives.
The rabbis discuss the following: the first witness throws the criminal down; and if he remains alive, the second witness kills him with a stone. If this does not yet produce the desired result, the third witness takes over. The rabbis' discussions show that they used very large stones which might even require two people to lift them, and the witnesses together used them to crush the condemned person. This was based on the words of Deut. 17:7: "The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death."
Because at the stoning Paul looked after the clothes, he was able to observe the stoning at very close quarters. If he was an actual witness, then it is possible that he himself took part in the stoning. At least he was right beside Stephen and heard him pray: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And after being thrown down he "fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' " The Talmud speaks of "stoning or throwing down," whereby the punishment was carried out. This is what may have been the case when they intended to "throw down" Jesus from the edge of the cliff in Nazareth (Lk. 4:29).
After the carrying out of the sentence the relatives of the stoned person usually had to greet the judge and witnesses to indicate that the sentence was justified in their opinion and that they did not bear a grudge against them. Now Stephen forgave the people who stoned him. And Acts emphasizes that Saul too "gave approval to Stephen's death."
A further interesting detail is mentioned: "God-fearing men buried Stephen and made great lamentation for him." When referring to God-fearers or, as the new Finnish church Bible says, "pious men", the Greek word "eulabes" is used. It is thought that here there might be a reference to Essenes, who had close contacts with the first Christians and who were not so bound by the rabbis' orders. The expression "great lamentation" is repeated several times in ancient literature. With this were naturally associated funeral processions and commemorative speeches, which should be "warm" and be connected with the merits and virtues of the deceased. The Mishnah says, however, of people who were stoned that for them such lamentation should not be made.
The First Persecutions of the Early Church
Stephen's death led indirectly to active missionary work. We are told that "on that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. ... But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went."
It is thought that the persecution which began immediately after Stephen's stoning affected mainly so-called "Hellenistic" members of the church. The apostles, who were called "Hebrews", were more associated with the pious of that time. "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house they never stopped teaching" (Acts 5:42) and they still observed mainly rabbinic interpretation of the Law. They remained in Jerusalem for a long time and from there directed the life of the first Christian congregations. The "Hellenists", who spoke Greek as their main language, by contrast met in synagogues on the south side of the Temple, where Stephen had been active. Violence flourished among them more than elsewhere. Nowadays too "American Jews" from outside Israel represent similar violent and politically uncompromising stances, with which the pious of the land do not agree. Stephen's stoning may have taken place on the initiative of these "outsiders".
When those of the Hellenistic wing who were most disconnected from their roots and best versed in languages and the first Christians now dispersed and "went from one place to another," they at the same time preached "the word of the Gospel" and spread it evidently as far as Antioch. The whole of Acts chapter 8 tells of Philip the deacon, mentioned in second place after Stephen, who travelled around the areas of Samaria, Gaza and Caesarea. Peter, too, was active at this stage in the districts of Lydda, Joppa and Caesarea. He is the main character of Acts chapters 9, 10 and 11.
Thus Christianity gradually gains an ecumenical character. And
when against his will Peter has to minister to the Roman centurion in Caesarea,
he finally breaks away from the cautiousness of the first Christians in
keeping company with Gentiles. At the same time he confirms Jesus' missionary
commission. In Acts 10:41-43 he tells first that he is one of the "witnesses
whom God had already chosen," who ate and drank with Jesus "after he rose
from the dead." "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify
that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.
All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives
forgiveness of sins through his name."