Factions in Rome (Part 1)

Factionalism was a problem for the Roman congregations before Paul.  Romans 14:1-15:7 indicates that there are some in Rome who considered food laws important enough to be a matter of contention, while others are not taking the food laws as applicable in Christ.

Romans 14:5-7 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

This may indicate divisions between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians we have seen already by Acts 15 and Galatians.  Given the small size of congregations and immense population in Rome, it is likely that the churches functioned as islands of believers (to use Lampe’s word), perhaps initially ethnic enclaves.

Assuming that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison in Rome, it is possible to learn several things about the state of Christianity in Rome in the early 60’s.

Philippians 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Philippians 4:22 All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.

We know that Paul was influential in the household of Caesar.  He states that the whole palace guard has heard the gospel, presumably from solders converted while they were guarding him.  These guards would have been gentiles converted from paganism, as opposed to Jews converted within the synagogue. This indicates that Paul is continuing his two-part mission, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.

Divided ChurchThat Paul had success among the Gentiles encouraged the local Roman church to also engage in a similar ministry. As we observed earlier, there was good reason for the Jews to avoid contact with the gentiles based on their expulsion under Claudius in A.D. 49.  Romans seems into indicate that the church in Rome was made up of a series of small house churches (Dunn calls them apartment churches, which is more accurate since the poor did not live in houses!)

There is some evidence in Philippians of factionalism.  Phil. 1:15 says that some people preach the gospel out of “envy and rivalry” and “false motives.” These opponents of Paul try to stir up trouble for Paul while he is in prison, possibly indicating that there are at least some who “preach the gospel,” meaning that Jesus is the Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection, etc., but they are doing so in a way that is “against Paul.”  This may be personal, but it may also be theological. (Or some combination of the two, of course!)

This may indicate that they disagree with the more radical elements of Paul’s theology, that Gentiles come to Christ apart from the Law, without converting to Judaism.  It may be that these rivals opposed Paul and perhaps even disagreed with the Jerusalem council (or, were ignorant of it; or, did not feel that they ought to be bound by it). That there are Jews who would still oppose Paul in Gentile inclusion may indicate an earlier date for Philippians, or that the issue of Gentile inclusion remained a major sticking point for the early church.

It may be something of a surprise to find that there were some congregations in Rome that were openly hostile to Paul, that seems to be the evidence of the book of Philippians.

There is a bit more evidence of factionalism in 1 Clement.  This letter was written A. D. 95-97 by Clement, a bishop in Rome.  The church of Rome was undergoing persecution when the letter was written (1:1, 7:1) but still felt it important to contact the Corinthian church.  According to tradition, Clement was the third bishop of Rome, although it is not at all clear that there was a single unbroken line of bishops who exerted any kind of authority over all of Roman Christianity before the year A. D. 200.

Clement wrote this letter on behalf of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth for the purpose of advising them on certain church matters.  The letter was considered to have had some level of authority, although we do not know how it was received by the Corinthians.  For our purposes here, 1 Clement 5 is the key text, although Clement returns to Paul in chapter 47.

1 Clement 5:5-7 Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. (6) After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, (7) having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West.  Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance. (Translation by Holmes, p. 33.)

While Clement’s evidence is a bit later than Paul’s time, there is at least some evidence of the fact that Paul face opposition in those two years he was in Rome under house arrest.

3 thoughts on “Factions in Rome (Part 1)

  1. As to factionalism, it wasn’t just Rome by any means. Paul makes it clear that, after his departure, some leaders, apparently from Jerusalem, and apparently involving Peter either directly or indirectly, had “bewitched” the Galatians. There and in II Cor., he derides the authority of the Jeru. leaders…. I don’t think there can be much doubt that his conflict lay directly with them, not some early off-shoot “Judaizers” unauthorized by James and the Apostles. (Though I’m pretty sure you disagree with this, and probably most of your readers.)

    I don’t know of any evidences or reasonable suggestions that a “Peter” faction in Rome was opposed to Paul, but is there any indication it (or they… more than one group) could NOT have been tied to Peter?

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  2. Thanks Howard. I do not mean to imply that the problem of factions is limited to Rome, but Rome is the “Topic of the Week” and I was trying to use the greetings section as a way to get at sub-groups in Rome. There is no evidence of antagonism between Peter and Paul, but there is between Peter and James. That is for another post later, though.

    As for “not tied to Peter,” I suppose that is possible. In my completely fantasy reconstruction of the church at Rome, the earliest members were people saved at Pentecost, who had heard Peter’s preaching, etc. They carried the gospel back to Rome when they returned home and caused problems in the synagogues arguing that Jesus is the Messiah (the Chrestus Riots). Evidence is thin, if not pure speculation, but it has the ring of truth to me!

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  3. Thanks Phillip,

    I didn’t mean to suggest you were restricting factionalism to Rome. What I indirectly was implying is that the traditional (“orthodox”) view of Xn origins is heavily oriented around the idea of a unified set of beliefs and a mostly unified (on core issues) group of believers (Apostle-led, including Paul and others directly authorized by Apostles). This provides a connection to other important orthodox dogma, esp. the idea that the implication of Jesus’ supposed bodily resurrection, plus the guidance of the HS, was clear: that Jesus was not only Israel’s Messiah but was God the Son, the divine savior of the world.

    Everybody (supposedly) quickly reached the same conclusions theologically… just not all the details of their application to social situations. This all is heavily oriented around two key writers/theologians (together either writing or having attributed to them around half of the volume of the NT, and over half the total books): Paul and Luke. Luke’s accounts differ from Paul’s significantly, in the few places they clearly overlap, and for reasons that can be fairly easily discerned. Many top scholars (not to mention observant non-experts) believe he patched in a lot of stuff to support the very unity, continuity, authority concepts I refer to. He had a “high purpose” to fulfill in doing so.

    He was apparently the first writer to present a major work creating the picture of early and continuing unity of belief and most elements of “practice” and outreach. However, even his own accounting sometimes reveals a much less tidy reality. Just a few of many possible examples: Acknowledgment that James and the Jerusalem leaders were going mostly on indirect reports as to what Paul was actually teaching, Paul being quite willing to keep it obscure to them; believers already in Alexandria (never discussed other than in passing by Luke OR by Paul) who knew about Jesus but NOT the theology that Paul was espousing; followers of John the Baptist who didn’t even know about the Holy Spirit despite the Gospels (including Luke!) making the strong point that John himself introduced in no uncertain terms “one more powerful than I…”, Jesus, as the one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

    This coming of and baptism by the HS is central in the theological (and practical) unity case being made by Luke in Acts. According to him and the other Gospel writers, the major role of John was to “prepare the way for” and introduce the Messiah, doing so with an emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And the Gospels (including Luke) make it clear John’s disciples had multiple connection points with Jesus, and at least some of them made the transition from following John to following Jesus (Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, is named as one of them in John 1:40). After all that the Gospels claim happened at and right after the death of Jesus (including Pentecost with its major miraculous display and supposed mass conversion in the narrow streets of geographically small Jerusalem), and the unmistakable “hand off” to Jesus by John before his untimely execution, how could disciples of his (perhaps newly “converted” ones, as well) NOT know about the Holy Spirit and “his” dramatic coming upon believers? I refer to a period, per Acts, of just about 15-25 years later.

    But in Acts 19, in Ephesus, Paul encounters believers baptized into “John’s baptism” who haven’t even “heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. This is not the only evidence of a major following of John that was wide-spread and apparently did not see John and Jesus as they are presented in the Gospels. (Historian Josephus adds strongly to the sense that John had a ministry either substantially unconnected or, at the least, much less connected to Jesus than the Gospels claim.) So, despite the Gospel claims of a no-uncertain-terms self-diminution by John and his unmistakable elevation of Jesus, with expectation of his coming Spirit-baptism work, this central role of John’s work somehow seems not to have gotten across to even those mostly in the same generation as John and Jesus.

    Now, this is not mere trivia unimportant in the bigger picture. Rather, it is one among numerous strong evidences that the picture being carefully painted by Luke in his Gospel and Acts is one that even he cannot make thoroughly consistent…. There is too much relatively recent history to the contrary. So he has to include a bit of it but spin it in such a way that it does not obviously undercut his main thesis (or theses).

    Anyway, I obviously diverted off from the main point of Roman factions, but relating that point to the larger picture IS critical I feel. Scholarship on details is not of much interest or value unless it is related to larger points and to things that influence important beliefs in many people.

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