If you haven’t yet read The Early Jesus Movement and Its Parties, you can purchase a copy by clicking here
If you haven’t yet read The Early Jesus Movement and Its Parties, you can purchase a copy by clicking here
Yesterday Harry and I sent our new book on the Gospels to the publisher. We expect that they will accept it and publish it sometime soon.
We believe this book breaks some ground not covered by previous books on the Gospels. First, it views Jesus’ life and ministry in a socio-political-economic-religious context. This is not necessarily new but the various issues raised in this chapter have previously seldom been brought together in one place.
Second, we present a Chronology of Jesus’ ministry (in three chapters). We have not seen such a chronology previously. We base this chronology largely on the Gospels of John and Mark (Matthew and Luke used Mark’s basic outline). Strangely, only a few scholars have commented on the length of time during which Jesus’ ministry took place. Based on John and Mark, we posit that Jesus’ ministry happened over a period of about two and half years, ending in 29 CE. In the Chronology we also comment on key passages–often based on previously published Commentaries interspersed with our “new” interpretations based on our four-party thesis (that followers of the Twelve wrote Mark; Hellenist-Christians wrote John; the Brethren wrote Matthew; and Luke was an Apostles who was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul). Such a perspective adds previously unreported context to certain New Testament passages.
Third, we took the daring step of characterizing each Gospel in a chapter on each Gospel. Again this is something not usually done by other scholars. We posit that Mark shows Jesus as the Healing, Suffering, and Trusting One. Matthew shows Jesus as the Righteous and Just One. Luke shows Jesus as the Caringly Compassionate and Socially Just One. And John shows Jesus as One with the Living, Loving, and Active God.
We end with an Afterword that sees the major challenge to contemporary churches that is consistent with what Jesus’ ministry represented in his time. It is to seek “structural” changes in our society whereby the unprecedented abundance in our society would be used to “increase the love of God and neighbor” (a phrase in H.R. Niebuhr, et al. in The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry) among the multiplicity of cultures and ethne (a Greek word used in the Gospels in the phrase panthe ethne, translated “all nations) both here and abroad. From the thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have responded positively to such a challenge in the last hundred years, to give our readers a sense of our meaning we cite a dozen or so people who we believe deserve special mention. Our hope is that many of our readers will rise to this Christian challenge.
In reviewing a book for the review journal, Contemporary Sociology, a senior sociologist from Yale asserted, “the net effects of religion and faith” operating on a “macro level” were “a few thousand years of horrible wars, genocide, slavery’s ideology, sexual exploitation, torture, devaluing others as non-human, terrorism, and organized hatred.” Unfortunately, these things have happened all too often. Professor Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame countered by saying that the history of religion is much more “complex,” “scrambled,” and “challenging.”
I agree with almost all of what Prof. Smith said in his note on taking religion seriously and seeing religion as an important variable in a science of sociology. I also agree about the complex good and bad effects of religion in history and the role “atheistic ideologues” (Smith’s phrase) have played in emphasizing the bad over the good throughout history.
But I believe Prof. Smith has missed an important opportunity, namely, the interaction of the religious and the a-theistic secular in history. Sociology, at least when it thinks of itself as a science, is, after all, a-theistic secularist (a term I much prefer to atheistic ideologues).
Prof. Smith missed that the study of the sociology of religion could benefit by including something about the essence of Christian religion (dominant in the U.S.) instead of looking largely at institutional religion of one sort or another (the latter at least implied in his essay). As Prof. H. Richard Niebuhr, late of Yale Divinity School, indicated years ago (1956) in his (with colleagues) little book, The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry, the goal of the Christian Churches is to increase the love of God and neighbor (p. 31). Niebuhr further defined love as joy in the presence of the other, gratitude for such presence, respect for the otherness of the other, and loyalty toward the well-being of the other. Such love is directed toward a God of love and toward neighbors even if this love is not reciprocated by the latter. Such goals are compatible to the love one another theme in John’s Gospel, suffering servant theme in Mark, righteousness theme in Matthew, and compassion theme in Luke.. The research my brother (Harry) and I (both Yale Divinity School grads when Niebuhr was still an active faculty member) on The Early Jesus Movement and Its [Four] Parties, 2009, The Early Jesus Movement and Its Congregations, 2011, and now our work on the The Early Jesus Movement and Its Gospels, [in press 2012] (where we interpret the early Jesus movement using contemporary social-movement insights and New Testament textual materials) support Niebuhr’s propositions for what Jesus and at least the four major parties (Apostles, the Twelve Disciples, Brethren, and Hellenists) of the early Jesus movement were about (see Acts and our 2009 book, especially ch. 8). This self-as-servant love, by the way, is often not deemed rational (but counterintuitive) by atheist-secular scholars.
Another way to interpret love, as caring social justice for human dignity, has been a force in human history and, when translated into support for such caring, social justice, equality, liberty (and even democracy)-“five great values in history.” Such five-great-values love produces empirically positive results in society. It was St. Paul in the first century who first articulated the first four of these values (variables), and other Christians in later centuries and not only French Renaissance Secularists, Italian Florentine and Siennese, or Scottish moral philosophers and their theological colleagues of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, that so heavily influenced our own commitments to liberty, equality, justice, caring, and democracy, as established in our founding documents (see Eberts & Eberts, 2011, ch. 8).
Of course, the churches’ two primary goals (ala Niebuhr) are separable into increase in the love of God and increase in the love of neighbor. Atheistic-secular sociologists are unlikely concerned at all with increasing the love of God. But both atheistic secularists and scientific sociologists have been concerned with increasing the love of neighbors’ well-being, the (or a) goal of most religions in the U.S. For instance, both the community-urban and the social-indicator movements within sociology could be understood as built, at least in part, to assess which variables are most strongly related to such personal well-being.
My sociological belief, then, is that an important issue in the sociology of religion is to widen its analysis to include not only forms of organized religion as an important variable on sociological issues but extent of religious commitment to the churches’ goals of love. Not many sociological analyses have done this. Further, secularists (as part of the dimension of religion) are usually positively related to well-being indicators. Variables related to the goal of U.S. religions, i.e. of love of neighbor in their inclusive forms (human dignity, five great values), are undoubtedly important exogenous and endogenous variables in a myriad of analyses but most analyses in the sociology of religion have not made the jump. If we in the sociology of religion undertook a more inclusive definition of the sociology of religion to include the notion of love and its interrelations with history’s five great values (justice, liberty, equality, etc.) as variables that support love in populations, then I believe we would at least lower the level of rhetoric and emotions raised between Atheistic Ideologues and scientific sociologists of religion, whether secularists or not, over issues in the religion variable.
The second book in our series on the Early Jesus Movement has just been published. This one is entitled The Early Jesus Movement and Its Congregations: Their Cities, Conflicts, and Triumphs. Like the earlier one, it is published by YBK Publishers in New York City.
In this book, we trace the parties – The Twelve, the Brethren, The Hellenists, and the Apostles – as they take the Early Jesus Movement into six of the great cities of the Mediterranean world: Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Philippi, and Corinth. The interaction between the parties as they approach these cities with their various cultures is informative, exciting, and fun!
Together we can follow the development of what is surely the greatest enterprise of all time, The Early Jesus Movement and the way it developed in the Roman Empire in the years from 30 AD to 70 AD.
A perennial question among Bible scholars has to do with the identity of “the Beloved Disciple, who is a key figure in the Gospel of John. Who is he? In our third, soon-to-be-published book to be entitled THE EARLY JESUS MOVEMENT AND ITS GOSPELS, we identify him as “Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha.”
The first mention in John’s Gospel of “one whom Jesus loved” is in the account of the resurrection of Lazarus, chapter eleven. Lazarus’ two sisters, Mary and Martha, sent Jesus a message: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn 11:2). This is amplified by a remark added by the evangelist: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (Jn 11:5). These two statements point to a pre-history, not narrated by John’s Gospel, of a close relationship between Jesus and this family.
Lazarus lived in Bethany with his sisters Mary and Martha. Bethany was located on the east side of the Mount of Olives. It could not be seen from Jerusalem because it was over the lip of the Mount. When Jesus was in the region of Jerusalem and Judea, he appears to have stayed with this family in Bethany.
As Jesus was making his way from Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate a last Passover with his followers, the sisters sent a message to him that their brother was very ill. Jesus did not respond immediately to this message. When he did arrive in the village, he found that Lazarus had died four days before. He went with the sisters, and the crowd that had followed them, to the tomb.
Upon arriving at the grave, said the gospel, “Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” This same word was used to describe Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed that the cup be removed from him. Since there is no scene in John’s Gospel of Jesus praying in the Garden, use of the word “greatly disturbed, deeply disquieted in spirit, vastly upset” tells us that the raising of Lazarus was the equivalent for John’s Gospel to Jesus facing the issue of life and death in Gethsemane.
The moment of Lazarus’ deliverance from this death is presented with dramatic force. Jesus stood before the grave. He ordered that the stone be removed from the tomb. Martha demurred. “He has been dead four days. The stench will be overwhelming.” Jesus said, “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” Jesus prayed. Then, like the trumpet on the last day, Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” Bound up with the grave clothes of death, Lazarus came out. “Unbind him,” said Jesus, “and let him go.”
This act of resurrection had consequences both for Jesus and for Lazarus. The Sanhedrin called a quick meeting and sentenced Jesus to death: “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” So from that day on they took counsel how to put Jesus to death (11:49, 53). They planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus (12:10-11). As long as Lazarus lived, he who had been raised from the dead, Lazarus was a symbol of the power of Jesus and a threat to the power of the priests.
At this point in the Gospel (12:10-11) the name Lazarus disappears. At the same time in the gospel, the person with the title “The Beloved Disciple” appears. Four mentions of this person are found in the narrative of John. He was the one who had the choice spot at the last supper of Jesus with his disciples; he was “lying close to the breast of Jesus” (13:23). Most likely he was the “other disciple known to the high priest” who with Simon Peter entered the court of the high priest and heard the interrogation of Jesus by the high priest (18:15-24). He could have also been present at Pilate’s questioning of Jesus at the praetorium. He was surely present at Jesus’ crucifixion (19:26-27), because it was in this excruciating moment that Jesus bequeathed the care of his mother to this disciple. He was the first man to reach the tomb of Jesus on the morning of resurrection (20:3-9) and the first to “see and believe.” He was in Galilee when Jesus revealed himself once more by the Sea of Tiberius (21:20-23).
He was also the one of whom it is said, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24). In other words, what is written in the Gospel of John is attributed to him.
The clue to his identity comes in that, when Lazarus leaves the story, the Beloved Disciple enters it. Was the title “The Beloved Disciple” used a code name to hide the identity of Lazarus who had been sentenced to death, or was it used as a title of honor given to him because no one else was ever as close in body and in spirit as this man was to Jesus? We will never be certain about this, but the clues are enough to support the answer: Lazarus was the name given to the man until sentence of death was pronounced upon him by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. After that sentencing he was known to the others in the Jesus movement, and to the whole word, as “The Beloved Disciple.”
Harry W. Eberts, Jr.
[These are comments by Paul Eberts, co-author with his brother, Harry Eberts, of The Early Jesus Movements and its Parties]
I have often been asked this question.
My PhD in sociology was in a major called “Social Organization and Change.” The three books my brother and I are writing demonstrates the application of ideas initially learned in this major and across my years of teaching and research in the study of the Bible. A major idea underlying social organization is that formal and/or informal groups (or networks) of people, much more so than individuals alone, are what drive society. A major benefit in studying sociology is to find empirical support for certain patterns in the social organization of networks and their changes over time. Two major patterns of networks are seen in our studies, first how a whole society could become dominated by a set of powerful elites, and, second, how sub-elites could and did react to things they did not like about what “their” elites were doing. We believe the latter is highly compatible with Jesus’ acts and beliefs and with his followers success in establishing early churches.
The analysis of networks of elites that buttress overall patterns of institutions established in a society provides a basic understanding of any given society. Almost all sociologists understand that society in the Old Testament was certainly based on pre-industrial patterns in these institutions. At best these societies were designated urban-agrarian, and for the most part Biblical societies were much more agrarian than urban (see, among others, Gerhard E. Lenski and Jean Lenski, Human Societies, NY: McGraw-Hill, in its various editions; my thinking applies this overall theory to Biblical societies). In Israel at least 80 percent of the people lived and produced on the land, whether as free individuals (poor farmers, tenants, peasants, or serfs), others as slaves among a few very rich farmers often called lords or nobles [since they, largely, wrote the histories]). Agricultural productivity depended on water (the most productive were labeled “hydraulic” societies). When water supplies were plentiful, when the soils on the lands they drained were extensive and agriculturally productive, and when the societies’ elites were rather cohesive, their societies could be quite rich, as in the Nile and Euphrates-Tigris valleys.
Northern Israel based in Samaria and the Plain of Esdraelon had some of these characteristics but southern Israel based in the hill country surrounding Jerusalem was more limited in its agriculture and depended more on free-roaming sheepherding by relatively equal-sized families compared to their numbers on “privately-owned” plots of lands. Careful reading of the “E” and “J” texts of Biblical stories shows that E-text stories disproportionately came from agriculturally more productive northern Israel and J-text stories, with its comparatively heavy emphases on freedom, equality, brotherhood, and justice, came from shepherding-based southern Israel. It was virtually inevitable, then, that Israel should divide into two parts. It was also inevitable that the northern kingdom should come in conflict with Assyria and Babylon and be destroyed by their larger, better-fed, and better-equipped armies. It was also “inevitable” that, because the Euphrates river extended so far to the west, that it would be Assyria and Babylon which would eventually destroy Israel rather than Nile-based Egypt (whose main interests lay in dominating societies in the upper Nile to its south).
Division of labor in urban-agrarian societies was minimal in manufacturing compared to our contemporary urban-industrial societies. The key was that fossil-fueled power sources were non-existent in urban-agrarian societies, as were the extensive urban production and assembly lines that accompanied such power sources. In urban-agrarian societies, agricultural products were mostly locally based; goods were produced by individual craftsmen and a few helpers (rarely craftswomen, except for weaving, gathering of certain products grown close to their rural domiciles, and cooking). Markets were local and in many cases were not in the daily routines of people even in villages. Inventions happened, but not quickly and their usages spread slowly compared to those in urban-industrial societies.
Urban-agrarian societies were usually powerfully dominated by the very rich 1-2 percent of the total population (often called patrons in a patron-client-peasant-slave system) whose large estates were in rural areas but who lived in cities. They could mobilize armies of people for defense from, and occasionally offense against, neighbors. Richer people and their entourages made and “wrote” the histories even if certain “prophets of the people” sometimes challenged them (and were often exiled for their efforts).
The very rich, however, were not necessarily cohesive or unitary. Networks of the very rich fell into several types – some were more concentrated in and well-coordinated by a single cohesive family, yet differentiated from other families, as in Assyria, Babylon, and even Northern Israel; some were more equalitarian and even competitive, as in southern Israel (shown, for instance, when David’s sons organized and waged insurrection against King David); some were quite concentrated (open to being coordinated by a single strongman and his family as with King Saul); seldom were elites relatively equal in size and pluralistic in their politics and thus voted their leaders in or out of power but this was another type of organization among the very rich in urban-agrarian societies, and was the case with leaders in the Roman Republic. As Aristotle noted, in urban-agrarian societies democracies were unstable and, within a generation or two, usually fell or were dissolved by elite strong families. Most often in urban-agrarian societies, when a strongman came into power, he or, occasionally, she tended to consolidate his family’s wealth, power, and influence often by eliminating competitors by one means or another (even a recalcitrant son), confiscating their wealth, and seeing to it that a favorite son or relative assumed the reins of power. Thus a nephew of Julius Caesar, adopted as his son, seized power in Rome (after a lengthy struggle) when Julius was assassinated, and Solomon, not David’s first son, became king in Jerusalem and Judah.
Societies were richer then, when their Environments (E) were very productive agriculturally to produce surpluses; when their Populations (P) consequently could be larger; when their Technologies (T) were also consequently more extensive (some people could “specialize” in developing technologies; when their elites could provide an Organization (O) that was relatively stable and cohesive; and when their Symbols (S) could mobilize support for the top elites in their positions among other reasonably powerful families. These are the famous POETS variables generally recognized by sociologists (again see Gerhard E. Lenski and Jean Lenski, op. cit.).
Israel’s “symbols” differed from those of most other societies, however, even if some were found in other societies (a form of the Ten Commandments was also found in early Babylon; the notion of a covenant was found in early Hittite societies). All urban-agrarian societies had gods. But, no society other than Israel had a continuous, living, “unseen” God (without a graven image) whose basic nature was slowly revealed through time (about 2000 years). Even when the societies (the two Israels) having these beliefs were supposedly completely destroyed, remnants of sub-elites remained and rebounded. The case of Jesus Christ and his followers was based on non-serf or non-slave free men (Jesus‘ father was probably a semi-skilled urban laborer helping to build the Romanized town of Sepphoris), even if rather low-level among all free men. Further, Jesus’ friend and disciple Peter and his friends were independent fishermen, and Peter married into a family with a profitable independent fish business. They were also educated to make their own decisions about the long Judaic tradition. Such qualities distinguished them from their societies’ serfs, peasants, and slaves giving them advantages others did not have. Such a context also makes sociological social class analyses relevant to our Biblical analyses, especially when combined with network analyses among sub-elites.
A second great insight provided by sociology applies as well to the New Testament, with a focus on the complex internecine politics of sub-elite Jewish networks–Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Essenes, Herodians, Zealots, Sicarii, Hellenists, Galilean Disciples, Jerusalem-based Brethren, Apostles, and Hellenist-Christians. Each of self-conscious formalized networks was concerned with interpreting a diverse 2,000 year history, then acting in accord with their understanding of “directions” in this history.
Jerusalem was a special place largely because the Roman Empire accommodated it with a special status called a politeuma, a government within a government (see Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1984), something we did not know or recognize until the latter half of the 20th century. In general, Rome did not permit associations of sub- or non-elites. But Rome permitted Jews in Judah (and elsewhere, such as in Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome itself) to have their own associations (synagogues and/or a council), which kept extending their legal boundaries to include a variety of activities (worship services, discussion groups, fellowship meals, food, and marriage rules, non-payment of certain taxes, cemeteries, etc.). The overall council of all Jews in Jerusalem, called the Sanhedrin, had its own rules (laws) and court system to enforce its legal rulings even if it could not pass a death penalty without Roman permission and as long as their laws did not contradict Roman law.
Jesus was born into this dynamic context, which helps us understand what Jesus did and believed more adequately. He saw many people, Jewish and Gentile, excluded from these associations and this history. He was educated to read the sacred texts that said Israel was a righteous society that emphasized freedom, equality, and justice (Let my people go…; Jews shall not enslave Jews…; Let justice flow down like the waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream). Outright he asked why is this people (with its politeuma) acting like a den of thieves…? His networks of rural Galilean disciples and urban-suburban Jerusalem followers, who were not in the councils of power, agreed with him and urged him on in his confrontations. We are all familiar with his stories (parables) where the powers-that-be challenged his kingdom not of this world (and he challenged them).
He and we recognize that setting Jesus’ networks of people against elites and sub-elites within his society and politeuma would inevitably result in his elimination, probably by crucifixion. But would his Spirit live beyond a crucifixion? The answer to this question was not obvious to him or initially to his followers. Was it possible for his relatively ragtag, but free (autonomous) and reasonably educated groupings (several incipient networks) of followers to develop a formal viable group (ekklesia, church) among Jews and Gentiles when Jews and their networks conspired against them and such associations were forbidden by laws or informal rules of the mighty, seemingly overwhelming Roman Empire?
Answers to such questions form the stuff of our three books (one published, The Early Jesus Movement and Its Parties, a second forthcoming in about a month, The Early Jesus Movement and Its Congregations, and a third still in draft form, The Early Jesus Movement and Its Gospels). To go further into the analyses of these networks and their evolution into an “institution” would be highly repetitious with what we have already written. We hope you will appreciate and find insights for yourselves in the sociological and religious analyses of these important historical movements and our interpretations of them. After all is said and done, this early Jesus movement and its churches provided the basis for the longest continuous relatively unified set of voluntary associations in the history of Western society. Our perspective has not previously been written so explicitly as in these books. We also welcome your questions and comments on our perspectives on this early part of the overall quite influential Christian movement and its history.
In order to answer this question fully probably takes an extended essay, whereas a blog post should be reasonably brief. We believe that to answer this question requires looking at Paul’s work over time. Only a few interpreters of Paul have put his Letters into a time framework and then interpreted their contents and tone from this perspective. Partly this is due to disputes over dating his various Letters. Our dating puts Galatians first, written prior to 50 CE, part of Philippians second, written about 52, Corinthians third, written about 55-56, Romans fourth, written in 57 or 58, and Ephesians fifth, written from Rome in the 60s.
When we began our study of the Early Jesus Movement, we thought we had an interesting idea to work out in terms of New Testament scholarship. Namely, were there actually four parties in the early Jesus movement, each of which made a contribution to the movement? To give us initial direction, we see in the first part of First Corinthians that Christians were differentiating themselves by identifying with their several leaders: Paul, Apollos, James, and Peter. In the last part of Corinthians, Chapter 15, we saw the creed where Peter and the Twelve are mentioned, the Brethren and James, the Apostles, and Paul. The history of the Corinthian as well as Galatian and Philippian churches also showed that certain troubles within them were caused by these party identifications. We then pursued our work systematically to discover further identifying characteristics of the individual parties, and found a great number of resemblances (and differences) in how they carried out their ministries. We were helped by a century-old study by the great scholar Adolf von Harnack, who traced and documented four separable perspectives in Acts. His description of the sources fit exactly our descriptions of the parties in the Early Jesus Movement. We began to realize that our exploration of the four parties during the early Jesus period was a more important study than we had originally thought.
As we continue our research into the Early Jesus Movement we are convinced that it is more than merely an important idea in New Testament scholarship. It is a potentially revolutionary idea. So many matters that were left dangling by other methods of scholarship fit nicely into the patterns we set out. For instance, the chronology of Jesus’ ministry comes into view when we add the accounts of ministry in John’s (Hellenist) Gospel to those in the Disciples’ Gospel of Mark. Questions such as, Did Jesus actually say in the Sermon on the Mount that we should be “perfect” or that we should be “merciful”? Matthew (largely a Brethren Gospel) records the first, Luke (an Apostle’s Gospel), the latter. The first refers to “righteousness,” a huge concern in Old Testament documents; the second to “compassionate mercy,” a relatively new conception of God’s work in the world. Why the difference?
Matthew describes Jesus’ ministry from the point of view that Jesus becomes the “righteous man,” supplementing or even replacing the former figures of Moses and Job. Luke is more concerned about Jesus’ ministry of care and compassion and calls for social justice as God’s way of meeting human problems. These differences are an exciting find. As you read and study these books yourselves, look for four-party distinctions and join in our excitement.
We have been discussing with each other issues in the spread of the earliest Jesus movement up to about 70 CE. Several points about it seem important to us, so we thought we should share them with those of you on the EarlyJesus blog.
First, the initial spread of the Jesus movement occurred largely through the Brethren and Disciples parties. Acts specifically recognizes the Disciples in Caesarea, Damascus, and Antioch. Disciples were in Damascus when Paul was there after his conversion experience. Peter also converted a Roman centurion in Caesarea when the centurion asked for him by name, despite that the Hellenist Philip was also in this city at the same time (which Peter and Acts fails to mention). The Brethren must have been around, too, since word got back to James in Jerusalem that Peter was eating with Gentiles in Antioch, and James sent a delegation to Peter telling him (not asking him) to, in effect, “cease and desist.” In Corinth, later, Paul complains that Christians there were quite divided when he laments that they were saying, “I belong to Paul; I belong to Peter; I belong to Apollos [a Hellenist]; I belong to Christ [which might have been a designation for the Brethren party].”
Second, Acts also tells us specifically that Paul, and probably representatives from the Disciples, Brethren, and Hellenists as well, spread their message through existing synagogues. These synagogues in cities throughout Asia Minor, North Africa, and Greece (at least in Thessalonica and Berea) existed before adherents of the Jesus movement arrived. They were probably formed due to disasporas from 163 BCE (or perhaps earlier) to the time of Jesus whenever Jerusalem and the Temple were attacked repeatedly with consequent “troubles” in Judea and Galilee.
Third, based at least on what Paul reports in his Letters, the Christian movement that preceded Paul had large majorities that found Torah Law both compatible with and probably a prerequisite for their Christian beliefs. Both the Brethren and Disciples espoused such a position. The rationale was that, since Jesus was a Jew, Christians must become good Jews before they can become good Christians. In any case, Paul’s very strong condemnation of the necessity for adhering to Torah Law (in effect, “it makes slaves of its adherents”) in Galatians and Acts indicates that keeping the Torah Law was central in Christian beliefs in many churches in Asia Minor.
Fourth, Paul either as a person or due to his Apostolic anti-Law theological positions in these synagogues and cities created conflicts among Jews, Christians, and himself. Paul was stoned in at least one city and chased out of several others.
The story of Paul, as told in Acts and in his Letters, then, is at least in part a story of how Paul and churches committed to the Apostles’ beliefs worked through these conflicts with the other Jesus movement parties both in his own mind and in the churches with which he was associated. Since most commentaries on Paul do not take this position (see, e.g., Garry Wills’ recent book on Paul, we thought we should call these things to the attention of those following this blog. We will have more to say on these issues in the near future.
The following is a re-published writing that first appeared as a comment on March 13, 2010 (and will still be found there). As a comment, it may not have been widely enough read. Its important contribution to today’s earlier posting, “Parties” defined, about the definition of the term “parties,” may therefore have been lost. It has therefore been elevated to a full posting to augment “Parties” defined. –Administrator
Let me comment on the issue of the determinant in the use of the term “party” and whether there was contention (or competition) between the parties or whether the contention was held to the level of debate between the parties?
First, we found the word “party” used only once in the Greek texts, by Paul in Galatians 2:12. But the phrase, “those of the circumcision” is used, e.g. in Acts 18:27, and the translaters in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament use it four additional times (Acts 11:2; 15:5; 23:9; and 26:5).
Second, there are certainly contentions among the four parties, most but not all due to the antagonisms of the Brethren party against the Hellenists and Apostles. The issue for us in writing about the early Jesus movement was whether the four sets of people who believed that Jesus was a unique person in history were groups, groupings, factions, or parties. Partly due to and along with the RSV, we chose the word “parties” to characterize them. We thought that “groups” and “groupings” were certainly too benign (debating teams?) because nearly from the beginning there was contention among the four groups that led to intimidation and even violence (the stoning of Stephen). We thought the translaters of the RSV were correct in using the term party.
Third, very soon after Jesus’ death, according to Acts, three groups (Brethren, Disciples, Apostles) stood by during the stoning of Stephen, a Hellenist (Acts 7:54 ff.), and Hellenists are hardly mentioned in Acts after the Stephen and Philip stories despite that probably hundreds of Hellenist synagogues were found in the Mediterranean world, with a stronghold in Alexandria, and many of them contained Christian converts.
These are not groups debating, even if they appeared at times to be factions working out contentious issues (as in the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15). Our determination was that various confrontations happened throughout the first 40 years of the Jesus movement with the result that these groups were acting like parties (especially the Brethren, who were emulating the Sadducees and their Council in Jerusalem)in jockeying for hegemony in the movement and willing to use intimidation (and violence) to enforce their beliefs.
— Paul Eberts
Some scholars still question whether, indeed, there were four separable and identifiable “parties” in the early Jesus movement. One stumbling block is the word “party.” But we arrived at this term after we read it in the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament published first in 1946 (Acts 11:2; Galatians 2:12, and an allusion to parties in Acts 6:1). The scholars who translated the RSV used a criterion of a two-thirds majority vote in order to change words, phrases, or sentences (Preface, 1946:iv, v). To use the word “party” in our work, then, has an important precedent. It is not only we who use the term, party; it is also the RSV.
Further, the word “party” seems appropriate. We could have used other terms, like “group,” “grouping,” or even “set of people who…” But, apparently the RSV translators felt that “party” was more appropriate. Certainly the “circumcision party,” and/or its representatives were willing to use “threats” to intimidate Peter (and probably Paul as well – see 2 Cor 11:23-28 where Paul describes all the threats to his person that he received, in addition to Acts 11:2 and Gal 2:12; 2:4). Groups can use threats, too. But, party implies a self-conscious group seeking hegemony through a variety of means in a movement. This seems to us to describe what was happening in the early Jesus movement.
A next issue is, How many parties were there? Again, Acts clearly defines four, and possibly a fifth. There were the Apostles (Acts, 4:36; 8:1; 9:26); the Hellenist Christians (Acts 6:1; 21:8; 18:24); the Disciples (Acts 1:15; 6:1; 9:1; 9:19-26; 9:38; 11:28-29; 14:28; 15:10; 18:23; 19-21, passim.); and the “party of circumcision,” of which James, Jesus’ brother, was a leader (12:17; 15:13; and 21:18, where James was also identified as “with the elders”; elders were leaders in Jewish synagogues). James’ party was also called the Brothers, the Brethren, or Elders. In addition there was a “sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5), but otherwise, we do not know who they were. The RSV translators chose to use “sect” to describe them, not “party.” They could have been a subset of Brethren or Elders.
Four parties are clearly identified by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:12-13. What else could these verses mean, when Paul laments, “Now I mean this, that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong Christ.” Is Christ divided?” Here Paul refers to four parties that were dividing Christians in Corinth. The Christ party could refer to either the Brethren, or the Pharisee sect, which might have also been a “circumcision party.” Acts 15:1-13 certainly shows James and the Brethren as favoring the necessity for Gentiles to be circumcised in order to become Christian.
Surely Paul was seeing organized divisions within the Corinthian churches. We know from Acts that Paul was part of a group of Christians called Apostles when Barnabas, a Levite from Cyprus (Acts 4:36), took Paul to the Apostles after he was rejected by the Disciples in Jerusalem although not in Damascus (Acts 9:26-27, 29). We also know from Acts that Stephen, Philip, and Apollos were part of a Hellenist-Christian party (Acts 6:1; 21:8; 18:24) and that Paul and Peter (Paul calls him Cephas) disputed with James in Jerusalem over the issue of circumcision (Acts 15:1-13). Hellenist-Christians were “scattered” out of Jerusalem, along with others “except the apostles,” following the stoning martyrdom of the Hellenist Stephen (Acts 8:2).
In sum, it is quite clear to us that there were at least four identifiable and separable parties in the early Jesus movement. We also think that the balance of power among these four parties shifted from time to time in the movement. At first Peter and the disciples were predominant up to Acts 12:17, when Peter, having escaped from prison, went “to another place.” Then James become leader of the early Jesus movement and presided at the conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-13). Josephus tells us that James was martyred in the mid-60s CE before the battle for Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Possibly his leadership was fading anyway, since the main action in the early Jesus movement seemed to have moved from Jerusalem to the larger cities of the eastern Roman Empire and in Rome itself (see Paul’s Letter to the Romans).
A next task is for scholars to help us specify the dynamics of power among these four parties over time and the implications of their divisions for hegemony in and the welfare of the early Jesus movement. We welcome your comments and contributions. Thank you.