Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and the Early Church in Context

If so for Jesus, does it also hold for Paul
Gateway and street in the Roman spa resort of Hierapolis, where Paul taught first century followers. More from locations like this in Quest for the Real Paul.  Also included are interviews with Craig Evans, Paula Fredriksen, John Gager, John Garr, Amy-Jill Levine, James Tabor and N.T. Wright.
Rice University professor April DeConick recently wrote, “Jesus as Jewish is probably the most essential (and dangerous) idea that I can think of.” She was blogging about the various attempts of scholars to understand the historical Jesus. Mark Goodacre, of Duke University, engaged in the discussion a little, but it seems to have dropped out of sight almost as quickly as it appeared.


Since I’m in the midst of writing about the self-understanding of Jesus’ earliest followers, DeConick’s comment prompted me to reflect on whether the earliest followers of Jesus saw themselves as embedded in Judaism. Certainly they were not Christians in any modern sense, nor, based on the New Testament record, did they name themselves Christians in any other sense. My previous posting dealt with that.


Professor DeConick is making the point that for modern Christianity, truly understanding Jesus as Jewish in religious belief and practice would be dangerous and virtually impossible to act upon. Why? Because Christianity as a belief system and as a set of practices has removed itself so far from His way of life that it would be grossly uncomfortable to go back to New Testament requirements.


So from a first follower’s perspective, today’s Christianity would be unrecognizable.


But of course for many Jews of His time, Jesus was a major challenge and, some would say, dangerous. Focusing on the right way of life was not popular. After all, as Jesus said, “the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:14, English Standard Version throughout). Back then, Jesus was up against the same problem. Just as Christianity today would find him dangerous, so did the Judaisms of His day.


So back to the question left over from last time: If the first followers of Jesus didn’t refer to themselves as Christians, how did they view themselves? Interestingly, “the way” that Jesus mentioned is central to the discussion. As with the last posting, the Acts of the Apostles—the record of the early church written by Luke—is our main reference point.


In chapter 24, the apostle Paul stands before Felix, the Roman governor of Palestine (52–60 C.E.), charged with causing riots among the Jews. He explains to Felix that he is being falsely accused and makes his defense. He mentions the name of the group to which he belongs, and implies that it is a part of Judaism:


“This I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14).


Paul worships God according to the tenets of what he calls “the Way.”


Here the Greek word translated “way” is hodos. It is literally a road, street, path, highway—something that is traveled on. Hodos also means the act of traveling, or making a journey. We have a reminder of the word in the English odometer, a device for measuring distances traveled on roads. Also in Acts we find hodos linked to the Greek word for “Sabbath” (sabbaton echo hodos) to express the distance allowed by Judaism for travel on the Sabbath. This phrase is found in Acts 1:12, in reference to the fact that the Mount of Olives was considered a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem—a distance of about 2,000 paces.


But when Paul uses hodos to describe his allegiance as a follower of Jesus, he means it figuratively. There are two figurative meanings of the word: a way of life and a system of doctrine. Both are applicable to Paul. He worships God according to a body of belief, practicing a defined way of life.


The term “the way” is central to the Hebrew Scriptures. The Hebrew term derek conveys the same ideas as the Greek hodos. We find it used of those with whom God had a relationship from the very earliest accounts in the Scriptures. Abraham was one who knew the way and would teach it to his children (Genesis 18:19). The Psalmist extolled those who walked in God’s way (Psalm 1:6). The prophets foretold of the one who was to come to prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3).


Paul’s own description of his core beliefs is distinguished from that of his accusers, who claim that he belongs to a sect. In their introductory comments to Felix, they had referred to the sect as "the Nazarenes": “For we have found this man [Paul] a plague, one who stirs up riots among all the Jews throughout the world and is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).


The Greek for sect is hairesis. It means literally, "choice" or "option." As used here it means a party, sect or school. Paul was perceived as belonging to a sub-group of the Judaisms of that day—one that followed the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene. Other usage includes the concept of opposing beliefs, as in heresy, which has its root in hairesis. Paul saw himself not as a schismatic or heretic, but as one who had made the choice to remain firmly fixed within the universe of the Law and the Prophets, worshipping the “God of our fathers” and accepting Jesus as his Master.


This was the heart of the problem for Paul’s accusers—not his adherence to the Law and the Prophets, but the fact that he was encouraging people to consider the message of Jesus the Jew, which the Jewish religious hierarchy perceived as a threat. Paul knew exactly how they felt. He himself had been a violent opponent of the first followers: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women” Acts 22:4). He had gone to the high priest “and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).


By the time Paul stood before Felix, he had long personal experience of what it meant to be a follower of the Way. He had delivered the message in synagogues in the Diaspora and seen the opposition. During his three-year stay in Ephesus, “some [in the synagogue] became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation.” As a result, “he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9). Not surprisingly in the great crossroads commercial city, “about that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way” (Acts 19:23).


It was the intensification of Jewish opposition that brought Paul before Felix. The governor was a freed slave and protégé of the emperor Claudius. His appointment as governor was an unusual favor. His wife was the Jewess, Drusilla. Perhaps that’s why Luke records that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” (Acts 24:22) and why, in part, he interviewed Paul about his beliefs for two more years (see verses 24–27).


So did Paul and the early church define themselves as “Christian,” or did they see themselves as followers of “the Way,” as defined by the Father and practiced by Jesus?


Next time, we’ll look at some of the unique beliefs and practices of the first followers compared with today’s Christianity.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Paul, followers, Godfearers, the way

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