John – The Last Apostle

The audio for this evening’s sermon is available here, as is a PDF handout.  Remember that you can leave comments and questions at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the comments link just above this paragraph.  This post is part of the conclusion to the long Acts series; my plan is to blog through two books on Pauline theology over the next three months, along with an occasional post on Hebrews as it relates to Roman Christianity after Acts.

Of the three “inner circle” disciples, we know the least about James and John.  Both James and John are only mentioned in passing in Acts, John always with Peter, and James only when he died in Acts 12.  But even these brief notes are more than the other nine apostles who are not mentioned at all in the book.  If John is so unimportant to Luke in the book of Acts, why should we take the time to look at the ministry of John as a conclusion to a series on the book of Acts?  The main reason is that John was the last of the apostles to die He was the last link to the apostolic era.

John is know from the Gospels as one of the three disciples who were closest to Jesus.  Perhaps the best example of this is the Transfiguration.  Jesus selects Peter, James and John, takes them to a mountain location, and allows them to see his glory (Mt 17:1-13, Mk 9:2-8, Lk, 9:28-36).  When Jesus raises Jarius’ young daughter from the dead, Peter James and John are the three disciples who accompany him (Mk 5:38).  These are the three disciples who are asked to “keep watch” while the Lord prays in the garden just prior to his arrest (Mt 26:36-28)

What makes Peter, James and John different? Why were they chosen to be the “inner circle” of the disciples?   The most simple explanation is that they were among the first of the disciples, and it is possible they followed John the Baptist before following Jesus (John 1:37-28, two unknown disciples might be James and John).

It is also likely that Peter, James and John understood Jesus as the Messiah better than all of the other disciples.   We know Peter’s famous confession of faith in Mark 8, but I think that James and John also understood Jesus as the Messiah.  Like Peter, that understanding was not quite correct.

Here is an example of what I am thinking about.  When Jesus was refused by a Samaritan village, James and John offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy the unbelieving village (Luke 9:51-56).   Context in critical in this short story.  Luke 9:51 is the major transition in the book of Luke, at this point Jesus begins a journey to Jerusalem which will result in the crucifixion, He is absolutely aware of what he is about to do, and it is possible that this “resolution” was communicated to his disciples.  James and John therefore see this as the time of the Messiah coming – Jesus is going to Jerusalem to judge those who are not living in accordance with the Law and to establish True Israel (with the disciples a s new twelve tribes, James and John on the right and left, etc.)

Why call down fire from Heaven?  These Samaritans have rejected Jesus and the truth that he is the Messiah.  James and John see themselves as re-enacting Elijah’s ministry.  Elijah was the prophet who confronted Baalism in Samaria and called fire down form heaven in order to judge those who had already rejected the Lord.  I suggest that James and John are “volunteering” to act as the Elijah, going before Jesus as the Messiah.  However, I am not aware of any Second Temple Period source which imagines Elijah coming prior to the Messiah as a judge.

I would include the request to sit on either side of Jesus in the Kingdom as another example of this strong belief in a literal kingdom in the immediate future.  James and John want to serve Jesus at the highest level possible in that kingdom.

The Voiceless Peter?

The audio for this evening’s sermon is available here, as is a PDF handout.  Remember that you can leave comments and questions at the bottom of the page, or by clicking on the comments link just above this paragraph.

James Dunn titled his chapter on Peter in his book on the apostolic period “The Voiceless Peter” (Beginning at Jerusalem, chapter, 35).  His point is that the book of Acts has little to say about Peter after chapter 12 and that there is very little (if any) historically reliable data which allows us to know much at all about Peter.  Dunn does not accept 1 Peter as coming from a historical Peter, although he discusses the locations from 1 Peter 1:1 as possible locations for Peter to have ministered and he uses the reference to Babylon in 5:13 as a int that Peter was in fact in Rome in the early 60’s.

Any “quest” for the historical Peter will be complicated by the fact that so much tradition surrounds Peter.  It is difficult know when a later generation was recalling a real event or creating an event in order to give Peter more weight as the leader of the Church.  One example is the elevation of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20.  “Upon this rock I will build my church” seems to be a clear statement that Peter is the foundation for the church.  For many scholars, this text suspicious since it is only found in Matthew and sounds a bit too much like Matthew was reflecting the current state of the church at the time he was writing rather than something that Jesus actually said.  For example, Dunn thinks that Matthew did in fact give Peter a great of significance, but this may be rooted in the memory of Peter functioning as a foundational figure in the church.

Peter was a follower of Jesus from the beginning and was chosen as a leader of the twelve because he understood who Jesus was most fully.  Peter is at the head of every list of the disciples and there is no question that the gospels see him as the chief of the apostles.  The only exception to this might be John, which features the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” probably John himself.

The center of the three synoptic gospels is the confession of Peter, his statement that Jesus is in fact God’s messiah, God’s son.  In each gospel this is the climax of the first half of the book, as Jesus teaches the crowds who he is, after the confession of Peter there is far more training of the disciples personally, and several predictions that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the elders and priests and be crucified.  After Jesus announces that he will suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him that he will not die – often this is described as a failure on Peter’s part.

But Peter is not “succumbing to the flesh” (as John MacArthur says in Twelve Ordinary Men, 37), but he is making a thoughtful statement about who Jesus is (and he gets it correct), but misunderstands what Jesus will do in Jerusalem. MacArthur is better later in the text (page 45) when he contrasts Peter’s  confession with his rebuke, the harshest endured by any person in the gospels (Get thee behind me, Satan!)  But he is not rejected as the leader of the disciples, nor does the rebuke seem to change the relationship of Peter and Jesus.  Peter’s lack of understanding is an opportunity for Satan to tempt Jesus.

The confession and rebuke therefore stand out as an example of Peter’s boldness and initiative – he is the one who must stand up for the rest and speak on their behalf because that is the place to which God has called him.

Obviously his denial is a spectacular failure, but at least he is in the position to make that kind of failure.  The other disciples have truly fled the scene.  Their denial was far greater. (It is interesting that the gospel of John makes the author (John, son of Zebedee, in my opinion) a bit more faithful, since he follows along at a distance and does not deny as Peter did.)

Acts 21, James and the Law

I am still thinking about James, especially as he appears in Acts 21.  While this might seem a bit afield from Acts and Pauline theology, I think that James is a bit of a window into why Paul’s gospel was so radical in the first century, especially his declaration that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.

James seems to represent a Jewish Christianity which continues to keep the Law in a way that fulfills Matthew 5:20.  If one was to be a part of the kingdom of God, then one kept the whole Law.  The idea that the people of God need to be absolutely Holy when the messiah comes is found at Qumran.  The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls seemed to have lived in a state of Temple Purity all of the time, a state which the priest who was serving in the Temple had to maintain.  Even the Pharisees maintained a higher level of purity than was required by the Law, although this may not have been in anticipation of the kingdom.

It is possible that the emphasis on circumcision and food laws which were so troublesome in the Galatian churches is a result of the Second Temple period emphasis on Works of the Law, boundary markers which defined who was a Jew and who was not.

Using the book of Acts and the letter James wrote, we can see that James was associated with the most Jewish form of Christianity which remained based in Jerusalem.  In Acts 15 James leads a church which includes Pharisees and priests (probably the same people, many priests were also Pharisees).  Like Paul, these men came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah and that he would return soon to judge the world and Israel and establish the Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

There was a broad range of views on the status of the Gentiles in the coming kingdom in the Second Temple period.  For the most part, the gentiles would either be converted and included in that kingdom, or judged and excluded from that kingdom.  Some Jews thought there would be more or less mass conversions, but on the other end of the extreme, few if any gentiles would be converted (and probably most Jews would be excluded!)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21, the issue James raises has to do with Paul’s keeping of the Law.  Some in Jerusalem think that Paul has left Judaism and no longer keeps the Law.  So even at this late date, James represents a group in Jerusalem who are Christians, but are keeping the Law.

Was Law a requirement for salvation for the Jewish believers in Jesus?  Probably not, although it is inconceivable to this group that there would be Jews who did not want to keep the Law.  Keeping the Law is the only possible response to the grace which God has given – how could you not demonstrate your justification by doing the things which God requires?  By way of analogy, there are many Baptist churches which would agree that baptism is not a requirement for salvation, but it is inconceivable that anyone who was truly a Christian would not get baptized. It is simply the natural thing to do, if you have become a Christian.  So too the Law, if you were a Jewish believer, you simply did the Law because it was the proper response to God’s grace.

Back to Paul.  I think that Paul would agree with James on Jewish use of the Law.  Where he differed (radically) was that Gentiles did not convert to Judaism in order to be “right with God,” and therefore were not required to do the Law.  James, on the other hand, likely though that Gentiles were in fact converting to Judaism, or at the very least ought to be under the sojourner laws while living in The Land (the point of Acts 15).

The Death of James

According to Josephus, in A.D. 62 James was charged with breaking the Law. He was tried by the Sanhedrin and stoned to death.   After Festus died, Albinus was appointed procurator.  Ananus was High Priest at the time, and he arrested James after Festus’ death but before Abinus arrived in Caesarea. As a result, Agrippa deposed Ananus after only three months as High Priest. (Antiq. 20.197-203).

The story of James’ martyrdom appears in Heggesippus, although with considerable expansions. Because of his great reputation as a righteous man, James is given an opportunity to address the crowds at Passover in order to address the problem of Jesus as messiah.  James is lead to the top of the temple stairs and proceeds to preach the gospel and convince many.  The Sadducees and Pharisees realize their mistake, and shove him down the stairs, although he is not killed.  People in the crowd therefore take a fuller’s brush and beat him to death.

A final version of the story appears in the Pseudo-Clementine literature.  There James is assaulted by an enemy and thrown down the stairs.  The enemy, as it turns out, is Paul. In this literature Paul is an enemy of real Christianity, as represented by James.  He is in fact often described in terms of Simon Magus.

Out of this data it is certain that James died in 62 at the hands of the Sanhedrin.  What is remarkable is that he was accused of being in breach of the Law.  While it is clear from the New Testament and James that he was clearly in favor of the Law, it is possible that his belief in Jesus as the Messiah and his occasional contact with Hellenistic Jews (like Paul) was interpreted as radical, given the volatile context of the mid-60’s, leading up to the Jewish War.

What About James?

When I was in Seminary I took a class in Ecclesiology and at some point in the class I shared my thought that James was the “leader of the Jerusalem Church.”  The professor looked at me rather strangely and dismissed my comment with “well, you have James all figured out, don’t you.”  MA students are apparently not allowed to have those sorts radical of opinions, those sorts of thoughts are reserved for PhD students only.

Since that rather kind slap-down, I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular.  Part of this interest is the belief that my comment in that particular class was on target, although it was probably came across arrogant (I was like that back then).  I am always pleased when I read things that more or less state that James was the leader in Jerusalem, such as James Dunn in Beginning in Jerusalem, especially chapter 36, although he says things like this throughout the book.  As we have seen in our survey of Acts, the Twelve fade from the scene pretty quickly – James the Apostle is killed in Acts 12 and not replaced; Luke introduces James as a significant player in that same chapter.  Peter sends a message to James the “goes elsewhere.”  Peter drops out of site at that point in the narrative, except for a brief report at the Jerusalem council.

What is remarkable to me is that James appears as a leader at the level of Peter and Paul as early as 1 Corinthians.  In 1 Cor 15:7 Paul passes along the tradition that he received concerning the resurrection.  Only three names of individuals are included, Peter, James and Paul.  These are the three men to whom the Lord appeared, and at least in Peter and Paul’s case, they are commissioned to a particular ministry.

James appears as a leader in Jerusalem quite early, a point that is often missed.  Gal 1:19 describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after his conversion.  He met with no one except Peter and James, the Lord’s brother.  It is possible that James the apostle and James the Lord’s brother are confused in the later traditions, but there seems to be strong evidence that the family of Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah before the resurrection.  Gal 1:19 therefore can be understood as saying that within three to four years after the resurrection James not only became a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but he had already risen to some sort of leadership position in Jerusalem.

It is not really a surprise to learn that there are a number of explanations for this, some of which verge on the fringe of scholarship.  More on the fringe later.  For now, my observation is that James a significant player in Jerusalem from the earliest days.

Factionalism in Rome, Part 3 (Marcion)

Marcion also was able to develop a following in Rome between 140-150 because of theological toleration.  Marcion (From Sinope in northern Turkey, 110-160) was active in Rome from 140-150.  Hippolytus claims he was a son of the bishop of Sinope, and was at one time ordained as a bishop himself.   By trade, Marcion was a ship-owner, specifically a naukleros.  Under Trajan (d. 117)  there was almost non-stop war, and shipowners were pressed into service of the government.  This was such a problem that by the time of Hadrian (d. 138) most of these demands were reversed and benefits given to shipowners (specifically, freedom from municipal liturgies). Lampe suggests that “under Hadrian, the situation of a shipowner was at its best” (242).

Marcion was therefore a wealthy man, and when he came to Rome he gave the church 200,000 sesterces.  This was the value of a small manor in Rome at the time (Marital 3.52), or a middle sized farm.  The amount needed to buy into the equestrian rank at the time was 400,000.  This was therefore a sizable contribution!

That he was a naukleros helps to explain why he was in Rome with time available to write and debate theology. The naukleros was the owner of the ships, but he did not necessarily need to travel with them, he is not a “sailor” or a “captain,” he is the wealthy company owner.  This also gives him opportunity to travel and spread his theology after he leaves Rome in 150.  This money was returned to him when he was excommunicated, possibly financing the spread of his theology to other areas.

While often styled as a gnostic in secondary literature, Marcion was a biblicist who “barricaded himself with a canon of scripture” (Lampe).  His theology was motivated by defining what scripture was authoritative (Paul, and his version of Luke); he also represents a complete break with Judaism in that he rejected the Hebrew Bible entirely.   He allegorized what scripture he did retain.

There is no spirit of Hellenism in his work at all! He appears to have had no training as a philosopher or as a rhetorician.  Gager has argued that Marcion’s rejection of allegory is an indication of philosophical training, but this misses the point since many philosophers in the second century were allegorizing Plato and Homer.  Marcion’s theology was motivated by the Problem of Evil, but his answer is nothing at all like one might find in the contemporary philosophical schools on the issue.  His arguments indicate that he had no formal philosophical training.

The real problem was how to deal with Marcion.  Obviously what he taught was not “orthodox,” his Bible was not what the rest of the churches used, and his view of God and Jesus was completely out of step with the church and scripture.  But there was no real “central authority” which could act to silence Marcion.  The heresy of Marcion was a factor leading to the development of a monarchic bishop in Rome.

Factionalism in Rome, Part 2

In the years after Paul, factionalism increased.  Since the churches in Rome were isolated, there was little control on doctrine.  Individual teachers were free to interpret whatever scripture they had in whatever way they saw fit.  The factionalism we discussed in a previous post could result in creative theology, for good or bad.

A positive example is Justin, who held meetings in a room above a bathhouse. Justin is well known from Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, and the Acts of Justin’s Martyrdom. He was a philosopher, although his education was not excellent – he began with a Stoic teacher, followed a peripatetic teacher until he demanded pay, then he failed an exam to be a student of a Pythagorian.  He has a general, eclectic education, cites various poets and philosophers, but has some geographical and historical problems.  Literary style is good, but not great.  He seems to have had philosophical lectures rather than rhetorical lessons. He arrived in Rome in 135 and converted to Christianity.  His Dialogue claims to take place during the Bar Kohkba rebellion in 135.  He had rooms above a bathhouse where he instructed students, and maintained the pallium, “mantle of a philosopher” until his martyrdom.

Justin tried to present Christianity as a philosophy, “Christians worship God with their intellects” (Di. 1.6.2, 12.8, etc.) That Christianity was a philosophy was accepted by no less that Galen, although Celsus refused to use the word for Christianity (it was sofiva to Celsus, and Christians were sophists, usually a pejorative use of the word.)   For the most part Justin was treated as a philosopher by Romans, but few (if any) philosophers investigated the claims of Christianity.

Justin’s influence was to encourage a philosophical strain in the theology of the second century, Tatian and Euelpistus both were (neo) platonic in perspective.  While present day theologians debate whether this is a good thing, in the second century it had the positive effect of making Christianity more acceptable to the educated and higher social classes.

A negative example are the Valentinians. Valentinus (c100-c160) was in Rome for 15 years, (as early as 136, as late as 166) and was considered for the position of bishop about 143 (according to Tertullian, Ad. Val iv).  He was born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria; he died on Cyprus after having left Rome.  He was a highly educated man with a brilliant mind; we wrote in a beautiful poetic language.  Lampe (295) finds his style parallel to Plato.  His philosophy is generally platonic.  He seems to know Timaeus well, and interprets this work in the style of the neo-paltonists.

Two inscriptions found in Via Latina indicate that there was at least one Valentinain congregation in this affluent suburb.  This indicates (for Lampe) that there was a house church in Via Lampe which was Valentinian in orientation; no other traces of Valentinian house churches appear elsewhere in the city.  The marble inscription uses imagery which must be Christian (praising the father and son) and likely Valentinian (entry into the bridal chamber, a sacred meal, baptism, etc.)   A gravestone inscription was also found in Via Latina which also uses Valentinain imagery (again, the bridal chamber, washings, the “angel the great counsel”)

Valentinian theology was quite esoteric and obviously gnostic.  Highly dualistic, they saw the world as evil, the believer was by nature alienated from the world.   This sort of early gnosticism is an attempt to support Christianity with a philosophical foundation, but in doing so, Valentinus moved away from scripture.  Marcion, on the other hand, represents a sort of “back to the Bible” movement — in an extremely negative sense!  More on Marcion next time.