Lecture 3: The Spread of the Church
Course: Church History I
Lecture: The Spread of the Church
Let’s pray, shall we, and then we’ll begin. Father, thank you for all the many things that you give us and bless us now, we pray, as we work and as we study together. Help us in all that we do to grow closer to you, to become more like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to learn to serve him better in the place where he has called us to be. For his name’s sake we ask it. Amen.
Right. Today I’ve got to try to squash two lectures into one and I do apologize for this, but I actually asked for the hurricane last week, and there’s not much I can do about that. But to look – if you’ve got the notes, of course, in front of you so forgive me if I don’t actually cover everything in them but just a little bit about it.
First of all, the spread of the church. How did the early church spread from its original Palestinian roots? Now of course we have the evidence of the New Testament, particularly the Acts of the Apostles, supplemented of course by the letters of the apostle Paul and by such things as the book of Revelation where we learn in the opening chapters that there were seven churches in Asia and things like this. So we do get indications in the New Testament of where the church was spreading and developing in the first generation. But, of course, it was not the purpose of the New Testament writers – with the possible exception of Luke when he was writing the Acts of the Apostles – actually to tell us this. I mean, they weren’t sitting down doing a kind of census of the early church and sort of saying, well, there are so many Christians in Galatia and so many Christians in Italy and so many Christians – you know, this was not their primary purpose. And so we have to fill in, really, from what is said. We kind of have to make deductions from that as to what was going on in the early centuries, and this is not always an easy thing to do.
For example, we have very little idea about how evangelism actually took place. Now we know, of course, that the apostle Paul went to synagogues. Wherever he was going he would go to the synagogue. He would preach the gospel in the synagogue. He would divide the synagogue by his preaching, and then those who accepted what he had to say would go off with him. Well, that’s fine. We know about that. But in the nature of the case, you can only do that once. You know, preachers who come and divide your church don’t get invited back. And so we can assume that the apostle Paul didn’t go back to the synagogue. This was not a regular habit, you know, once it happened the first time. But then what happened then? I mean, how exactly did people come into the Christian church? What sort of people were they? And this is not so easy to decide.
It seems that most likely the core group of people, I mean, allowing that individuals will manifest all sorts of differences, but there seems to have been a preponderance at least of people who were known in the New Testament as God-fearers. The God-fearers were people who had been attracted to Judaism because of its ethical and spiritual and moral principles but who for one reason or another had not become Jews. And, of course, for them the Christian gospel was a tremendous liberation because they could join the Christian church without having to submit to the rigors of the Jewish law in doing so. And, of course, this issue as we know was a very big one in the New Testament church. I mean, do you have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian? And once it was decided that, no, you don’t - you can enter the Christian church without being Jewish first – this seems to have been a major development because suddenly all kinds of people who were sort of on the fringes of the synagogue came into the church and it seems to a large extent were the backbone of the Christian church at least insofar as gentiles were concerned.
This is the picture that we get from the New Testament. It seems to be the case. But, of course, from there we have to fill in what we can. It seems that some of these people at least were traders. They were business people. People like Lydia, for example. People like Priscilla and Aquila. They were what we would call today small businessmen. You know, they had their own little shop and they made tents or they did whatever they did, and it was in their houses that the early Christian communities met. And we get a picture of this, of course, from the apostle Paul because this was the world in which he moved.
But what is not clear, of course, in the New Testament, and what we will never know, is to what extent the apostle Paul ministered to just generally and happened to attract that kind of person versus to what extent those were his contacts. Because remember Paul was himself a member of a Diaspora Jewish community in Tarsus. We don’t know much about his family but we know that he himself was a tentmaker and therefore presumably a small businessman in his own right, you know. And so it’s not really altogether surprising that he should have this sort of contact, that he would go to Ephesus or Philippi or Corinth or somewhere, and who’s he going to sort of land up with? Well, other people who were basically Jewish tentmakers. I mean, you kind of get used to this sort of thing, don’t you.
I mean, it’s like around here. I mean, I once stayed in a motel somewhere in Virginia and this little Indian man came out and I looked at him and said, “Oh, you must be Mr. Patel.” And he looked at me and he said, “You know my name.” And I said, “Yes.” Well, I didn’t know his name, of course, but I just guessed. And he said, “How do you know my name?” And I said, “Well, I come from London and all the Indians like you are called Patel, so I just figured you were Mr. Patel.” So he said, “Oh, yes,” and he came from London, of course, too. And he said, “Where are you going?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to Boston.” He said, “Oh,” and he pulled out a card out of his thing. He said, “Here. Go to this EconoLodge run by my brother.” And you soon discover that, you know, motels up and down the country are sort of run by Patels. And you may say to yourself, and only a very innocent person would say how did that happen. You know what I mean? It’s just one of those things, and of course if you live in Alabama you realize this. You can’t say anything about anybody because they turn out to be related to everybody else. So, you know, there’s a sort of network of this kind that goes around the place.
So is this how the apostle Paul did his evangelistic work? And there’s some evidence for this because if you read something like Romans 16, for example. I mean, Paul had never been to Rome. He wrote to the Roman church in advance of his coming, but in chapter 16 it’s this long list of people he asks to be greeted in the Roman church. He clearly knew most if not all of them personally. Some of them we discover as you read along were his relatives, you know, people he had obviously come into contact with before in another context, you might say. And so you say to yourself, well, how does he get to know all these people. You see what I mean? He’s never been to Rome and yet he seems to know half the Roman church, and said greet this one, greet that one, say hello to so-and-so, and so on. So clearly there’s a network here. There’s a series of contacts which he is involved in. And then you see in other instances you find he’s gone somewhere or other but he has left his cloak behind. You know, I left my cloak at somewhere or other. Could somebody bring it next time they come on the boat. This sort of thing. I mean, you wouldn’t say that kind of thing. You wouldn’t be able to say that kind of thing unless you were locked into some kind of system of contacts. You see what I’m saying? And probably the case was that wherever Paul turned up, there would be somebody there that either he knew or had some kind of link with so that he could latch onto them. And it was not an accident that he found himself, for example, in Corinth making tents along with Priscilla and Aquila. Even though there’s no indication that he’s ever met them personally before, the chances are that somehow or other they were connected and that he was able to do this because they said, “Oh, yeah, you’re Paul. You’re from Tarsus. Come on, nice to see you. There’s a sewing machine over there. Get going.” That sort of thing. You see what I mean? It seems likely that there was something of this kind going on.
Now from the point of view of spreading the gospel, of course, this was a tremendous advantage because it meant that by networking Paul could go pretty well all over the Roman world, and he did clearly travel great distances in a very short time. However, it also means, of course, that the other areas – areas where he did not have this sort of contact, where for one reason or another he did not go – which because of this, because he didn’t go there, we are left almost totally in the dark. And the obvious place, the most important place of this kind is Egypt. Because if you look at the New Testament, Egypt is one of the places that’s more or less missing. Now occasionally you hear of somebody like Apalus who’d come from Alexandria, that sort of thing. We know that there must have been a Christian community in Alexandria which was the capitol of Egypt at that time. We get hints of this from time to time, but we don’t know anything about these communities. We don’t know how Christians got to Egypt in the first place. We don’t know how many of them there were. We don’t know how they were organized. We don’t know who was doing the preaching and teaching there. There’s a lot of this which is blank, and about all we can say for sure is that it wasn’t the apostle Paul because he was busy elsewhere and that we do know.
Now this is a particularly important question because it just so happens that Egypt is a dry desert country and, therefore, a lot of things have been preserved because papyrus or something like that which would normally decay in a wet climate, in Egypt you could bury papyrus in a jar or something and it would be there thousands of years later. And so, of course, modern archaeologists have gone to Egypt, dug up all kinds of things in different places, and we have from Egypt a much greater number of early Christian manuscripts of one kind or another than from anywhere else. The oldest proved manuscript of a New Testament book – it may not be the oldest but certainly the oldest that we can actually say for sure is part of the New Testament – is a fragment of John’s gospel which can be dated early second century which was found in the sands of Egypt. So we know that John’s gospel was circulating in Egypt around the year 120, something like that, and this is material proof of that particular thing. But who copied it? Who read it? Who were these people? What were they doing? This is much less certain.
And the issue is of particular interest to us today because it is also in Egypt that the largest cache of what we now regard as heretical Christian texts has also been found. That modern so-called agnosticism, what we think of as agnosticism and we’ll look at that some other time. But these heretical movements within early Christianity, their literature insofar as it has been recovered, has been recovered mostly in Egypt. There was a big find in 1946 at a place called Nag Hammadi, and you may hear about this Nag Hammadi, and all kinds of sort of heretical things were dug up there. And this, of course, has provided a very rich source of material for people who write things like Time magazine and Newsweek and do sort of NPR programs and things like this, which basically try to prove that Jesus was a sacred mushroom or something like that.
And they kind of use all this material to prove, as they think, that there was no early Christianity in orthodox Christianity as we understand it today. It was just really a group of people who held a very wide range of beliefs, some of which were quite bizarre, and the evidence of these finds proves this, you see, that here you are, you can see that there were all kinds of crazy ideas going around in the second century and the interpretation put on this is that later on the church kind of had a purge, that these people were kicked out and persecuted from within the Christian community and that what we think of today as orthodox Christianity was imposed by a faction within the church which managed to exclude the others, kick them out and sort of dominate the scene. And, as I say, the things like the Nag Hammadi texts are used as evidence of this.
Now it’s extremely difficult, of course, to know quite what to do about this because you can say you cannot deny that these heretical texts exist. I mean, they’re obviously there; they were found and there they are in some obscure place in Egypt. But what you have to do, of course, with this is try to assess what place these things had in the church of their time. I mean, how does it fit within the overall picture of what was going on then? And, of course, the Dead Sea scrolls are in the same position because the Dead Sea scrolls clearly exist. I mean, they were found there. They date from the time of Jesus. We know they represent something of what was going on in the Jewish world at that time. The question is what do they represent. I mean, was the Qumran community, you know, which wrote the Dead Sea scrolls, in any way typical of Judaism in the first century, and if it wasn’t and most people agree that it wasn’t, in what ways did it differ? I mean, how way out was it in relation to the whole, and how can you tell? So this is one of these problems that arises from this. I mean, the very obscurity of the locations of the places where these things have been found is evidence in itself that the people who buried things there were probably not terribly central to what was going on, that what was buried by the Dead Sea was not what people in Jerusalem were reading. What was buried in Upper Egypt was not what was going on in Alexandria. I mean, we can’t prove this, of course, because if you go to Jerusalem or if you go to Alexandria, you aren’t going to find anything because there things have gotten destroyed and rebuilt and everything over time. It hasn’t been preserved. So it’s not a simple matter of just digging in the ground and producing the alternative. You aren’t going to manage to do that, and so the issue really becomes how likely is it that something found in a remote village way away from normal human habitation is going to represent in a faithful way the spectrum of teaching and belief that you would find within either the Jewish or the Christian community at that time. And this is the question which in some ways is pretty unanswerable, or at least is unanswerable by using that method of discovery.
And you see, to get an idea of this, I mean, all you have to do, of course, is look at the United States today and ask yourself, well, to what extent would people like those – what was that guy called who had that compound in Waco? You remember? What? David Koresh, yes, thank you. I go to a different church so I don’t know. Anyway, we read different scriptures. You know, David Koresh – to what extent is that typical? You see what I mean? And you say to yourself, well, because it’s happened in our lifetime and we know, so we know this is not typical. Or what about snake handlers in Alabama? Everyone tells me they’re all over the place. And you can read books, you see, like Salvation on Sand Mountain or something, which tells you about all these snake handlers and even gives you photographs and so on, but I’ve never seen one that I know of. I don’t think we’ve ever had any here. Of course, you can never tell. But you see what I mean? Like somebody could read a book like that and, of course, people in places like New York and so on do read books like that – are convinced that everybody in Alabama is a snake handler because that’s what goes on around here. And I’ve had people say to me they’re amazed I’m still alive. How have you survived, you know, this sort of redneck place? And I said what do you mean? And they said, well, you know, it’s full of snake handlers and Ku Klux Klan and goodness knows what. And I said, well, yeah, I’m sure it’s true but I’ve never seen any of these people. Where are they? All I’ve managed is NASCAR and that’s not really saying much, is it. Even then it’s from a distance. I mean, I don’t actually know any of these people; I just sort of see them running around. You know what I mean?
And you sort of say to yourself, well, who decides? How do you know whether this – what this actually represents? Now I’m talking about something just now, something that’s going on right now, you see, modern. And presumably it’s possible to go out there and actually investigate and prove who these people are and what they’re doing and how many of them there are and all this sort of thing. I mean, if somebody had the time and the energy and the funding and the Ph.D. and everything to go and do it, I mean, it presumably could be done. And yet you know as well as I do that the results would probably be rather odd because even if they prove that these people were there, you still wouldn’t ever have met any. You see what I’m saying?
Now is this is the case in ancient Egypt? Is this what we’re talking about? Are we talking about weirdoes, you know, who may have existed in some way or other. I’m not saying they weren’t there, but would anybody living at the time ever have met one? Who actually dealt with these people? Why is the Dead Sea community, for example, not mentioned in the New Testament? I mean, Jesus seemed to wander around including in that area, you know, John the Baptist and the Jordan and everything. It’s not very far away from Qumran. And yet there’s no sign of these people, you see, in the New Testament itself. What does this mean? It doesn’t mean obviously that the community didn’t exist, but what does it say about their relative importance for what was going on at that particular time? And really what I’m trying to say is that you have to be very careful today when you read reconstructions of the early church because reconstructions of this kind which are based on archeological finds of one kind or another distort the picture in their own peculiar way. And if you aren’t aware of this, you’re liable to sort of pick up Time magazine the week before Christmas or the week before Easter which is when they get all religious, you know, and discover that Jesus was actually a three-headed monster or some crazy thing that they suddenly discover and put it across the paper in order to sell it to innocent people like you the week before the holidays, and you don’t know what to make of it because somebody’s obviously claiming that this is happening or that is happening or something else is happening, and really what I’m trying to say to you is look at the evidence on which this is based. Look what they’re trying to do with this evidence and say to yourself, well, how substantial is it? What are they leaving out? What are they not saying?
And in trying to reconstruct the way the early church functioned, the way the early church developed, remember that there’s an awful lot that we are not told, that we simply do not know, and avoid trying to reconstruct something out of evidence which is very unclear. That’s really all I’m trying to say. People play around and, of course, they make these plausible stories out of something, but yet whether it’s true or not we can’t really say.
Now I’m very insistent on this; and again I point to modern times because look at all the people who run around saying things like Hitler lives in Argentina or the Holocaust never happened. You know what I mean. They’ll deny the obvious and they’ll come up with some kind of evidence to support what they have to say, and yet it’s flimsy. It’s not really based on anything. I mean, look at this business of George Bush and his military service the last couple of weeks. I mean, there you have a very good example of how something can be just made up and fool – well, not fool everybody but fool a whole lot of people, and you’re kind of left at the end thinking, well, what do you believe? You see what I mean? And if this can be done in our society – where we have all the modern ways of doing this and that and the other, where we have all kinds of information services and all kinds of people who can tell you the opposite and so on – if it can be done in our modern world, imagine what you can do with something that happened 2,000 years ago, if you’ve got sufficient determination. So just be careful about this. I mean, most of what is written about the early church is fiction, and it is fiction based on some kind of evidence but evidence which is not being properly assessed and all this agnostic this and that, you know, just learn to set it to one side. Don’t take it seriously. All right? I warn you that before we begin.
Now the Apostle Paul’s career, as I say, is relatively well known, but again only relatively well known. We don’t know where he died. We don’t know when he died. There are, of course, traditions which have come down to us to say that he was martyred in Rome and that is perfectly possible, but there’s no written evidence to suggest that this was the case. We just rely on what most people believed for a very long time, but we can’t actually prove this, and so even something as important and as central as that is not really known today. So just, as I say, as a warning to you, be very, very careful indeed when you read these reconstructions because we just cannot be sure very often.
Now in the case of Peter in particular, this is an issue which continues to be important for the life of the church today and this we need to consider to some degree. Who was Peter? What did Peter do after the death and resurrection of Jesus? We know, of course, that he was in Jerusalem for some time. That is recorded for us in the Acts of the Apostles. We also know that he spent some time in Antioch later on, but that is about all that the New Testament actually says about the career of Peter as an apostle. Now it is important to remember this because, of course, the claims which are made for Peter go way beyond anything that is said about any of the other apostles, and this is why the issue continues to be important today. You see, it wouldn’t matter if nobody claimed anything about Peter, but because they do, we have to look at this very seriously.
The Roman Catholic church claims that Peter was first of all the chief of the apostles, the most important, the head of the apostles, that he was given a special commission of this kind by Jesus himself, recorded in Matthew 16, where Jesus says to Peter that what you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven and what you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and so on, that after the death of Jesus that sometime unknown to us Peter went to Rome, that in Rome he founded the church. He became the head of the church in Rome, the first bishop of Rome, that he died in Rome and that after his death or presumably before his death he passed on the authority which Jesus had given to him to a successor whose name was Linus – not the Linus you know, but another person called Linus. And Linus passed it on to somebody else whose name I forget, and anyhow down 262 people later, we get the present Pope, you see, John Paul II, who is because of this the direct successor of the apostle Peter, who has as a result of his office and have receiving of laying on of hands in this way who exercises the authority of the apostle Peter – this is the most important thing – has the authority of Peter and for this reason is head of the Christian church today. You see what I mean? This is the claim which is made.
Now what is the evidence to support this claim? And the answer here is that the evidence is extremely slender. How much of this claim can be verified? Well, let’s start at the beginning. Was Peter the chief of the apostles? There is some evidence from the New Testament which might lead you to suspect that this may have been the case, because in the Acts of the Apostles it is Peter who stands up on the day of Pentecost and preaches. Peter seems to have played a very major role and he may have been the central figure in the Jerusalem church in the early days. But when you look a little bit more closely, you find that Peter very seldom does anything without John. You know, Peter and John seem to go around together, and you’re not quite sure why but if you remember Easter morning when Peter and John went to the tomb, it could be that John was the levelheaded guy who sort of kept Peter out of trouble. I don’t know. Well, Peter seems to have been that sort of person, you know, who sort of would rush in where angels fear to tread and John would sort of say, hang on a minute here. Whoa. Come back. So maybe they kind of were a good match like that. But it’s hard to know, you see, precisely what it was like.
But all right, Peter obviously did play an important role. Was Peter infallible? Well, no, because, of course, at the later stages we know Peter was inclined to reject the idea that non-Jewish, that gentile believers should be admitted into the church without accepting Jewish laws and regulations, and the apostle Paul tells us himself that he had to stand up to Peter and tell Peter that he was wrong. And so the notion that Peter was somehow infallible is clearly denied in the New Testament by that incident, so we find it very difficult to accept that.
Did Peter ever go to Rome? Well, again this is very hard to say. In the second century, there was a tomb on the Vatican hill, which is of course still there, which was venerated as the tomb of the apostle Peter. There is no other tradition, there is no other place, which claims to have Peter’s bones. So from a very early time, people believed that Peter was buried on what is now the Vatican – well, it was then – it was the Vatican hill in the cemetery there and, of course, now Peter’s tomb is underneath the basilica of St. Peter. I mean, it’s down in the crypt.
Now this is very possible. Of all the things that is said about Peter, this is perhaps the most likely thing to be true, that Peter was in fact put to death in Rome sometime after the great fire of the year A.D. 64 when Christians were blamed for having set fire to the city and a number were rounded up and put to death as a result. So it’s quite possible that Peter was in fact martyred at that time and in that place. And certainly there’s no contrary evidence. There’s nothing to suggest otherwise, so that is plausible. It’s not proved, but of all the things that you can say, that is more likely than anything else.
However, saying that Peter died in Rome is not saying that he lived there for any length of time. That’s a whole other thing, you see. He might have been arrested somewhere else and taken to Rome for execution. I mean, that’s quite possible too. You see what I mean? We don’t know. And the evidence that we have from the Roman church shows no sign of Peter at all because, of course, the greatest evidence we have is Paul’s letter to the Romans which was written about the year 57 and clearly there was a flourishing church in Rome to which he was writing. There were a number of people there whom he addresses in Romans 16, so it was a big, flourishing, thriving church but nowhere in the epistle is there any mention of Peter. Now it seems very odd that the apostle Paul would write to the Roman church at such length and would give a long list of people to be greeted and somehow or other forget about Peter if Peter had been there. You see what I mean? This is very hard to believe. Now admittedly it doesn’t prove anything because Paul doesn’t actually say that Peter wasn’t there. But there’s nothing in the epistle to the Romans to suggest that he was and certainly nothing to say that he was the head of the church. I mean, it’s totally implausible to believe that Paul would have written to the Roman church if Peter had been its head and not mention him. I mean, that cannot be the case. I mean, Peter might have been there and possibly Paul didn’t know that, but if Peter was running the Roman church it seems very, very unlikely that Paul would have written such a lengthy epistle to them and greeted so many people without saying a word about it. So the evidence of the epistle to the Romans suggests that Peter was probably not in Rome at that time.
Then, of course, when Paul got to Rome himself about the year A.D. 62, there’s again no mention of Peter. How plausible is it that Paul would have landed up in Rome, that he would have been greeted by the Roman church – because remember they came out and met him at the three taverns and so on; they obviously weren’t Baptists. But anyway, they met him at the three taverns and greeted him and sort of took him into the city and so on and made a big fuss, and there was Paul sort of in Caesar’s palace preaching and teaching but no mention of Peter. So why not? Where was he? And the conclusion presumably has to be that, well, he wasn’t there. Because again it’s highly unlikely that Paul would have gone to Rome, made such a splash and so on in Rome if Peter had been head of the church there and why wasn’t he mentioned?
And, of course, there’s no sign in Rome for about 100 years after Peter’s death that there was anybody who was in charge of the Roman church. There was one person who sort of ran the Roman church as Peter’s successor. The notion that Peter was the founder of the Roman church and that he passed on his authority to successors really doesn’t surface. It doesn’t become an issue in the church until the fourth century, and it became an issue only when Constantine moved the capitol of the Roman Empire away from Rome to his new city of Constantinople, and Rome was afraid of losing its prestige as a result, and so, of course, it had to think up a reason why it should be continued to be regarded as the most important church. If it was no longer to be the capitol of the empire, the reason had to be a spiritual one and, of course, the spiritual one is it was founded by Peter. And so it’s only really then that you start getting this particular development.
Now as I say, this really wouldn’t matter very much except that now we have a Roman Catholic church which still exists which is a very large organization. In fact, the majority of people in the world today who call themselves Christians belong to this church and at the head of this church there is a Pope who claims this kind of authority on this sort of basis. And in a couple of weeks we are going to be privileged to hear this from people because there’s a conference being run – what is it – evangelicals and Catholics or something – coming in, and you will hear people from the Roman Catholic church standing up and making this kind of claim. And what are you going to say to these people? How are you going to react to this? And I think one of the things we have to do is say, well, what is this actually based on? And the answer, unfortunately, is fantasy as much as fact. That the factual basis for believing that the modern papacy is somehow rooted and grounded in a ministry of Peter and that what they claim is true is extremely slender, certainly far too slender to be taken seriously as the basis for church unity, for example. It’s just the wrong thing and we need to say this. I mean, the evidence for what they claim is not there. They claim too much for what we actually know. And it’s very important that we bear this in mind because when we disagree with this kind of thing we’re not doing it just because we don’t like these people. It’s not a question of liking them or disliking them or anything like that; it’s a question of truth. Is what they claim true? And the answer is it wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. The evidence is not sufficient to prove what they think you can prove from it. All right. Well, that’s my little propaganda piece, but I think we do have to bear this in mind because it gets my blood boiling when I hear people making this sort of claim without any consideration for historical fact whatsoever.
Now the other person, of course, who is a bit of a mystery is John. John is clearly around in the New Testament, but of all the apostles he is one of the most mysterious because he fades out very quickly in the Acts of the Apostles. I mean, apart from being Peter’s sidekick for a while, nobody seems to know what happened to him after that. But John has also been the subject of many legends. Well, the ones that are most important perhaps for us are, first of all, the belief that John lived very much longer than any of the other apostles. It seems to have been the case that John was so long-lived that people began to think that Jesus had promised that he wouldn’t die before the second coming. And, of course, it’s perfectly possible that John did manage to live until he was about 90 or even 100. I mean, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have lived that long. But this seemed to be a matter of some comment at the time.
It also seems likely that John went to Ephesus and that he died there. This has got some basis in fact because a second generation or third generation Christian, a man called Polycarp who was martyred in the year 156, claimed that he had known John as a young man, that he had had direct contact with the apostle John when he was a young man and Polycarp was born about the year A.D. 70 and, of course, grew up in Asia Minor. And if John was there and John didn’t die until about the year 100 or something – I mean, it’s perfectly possible that this was true. So there does seem to be some sort of living contact there.
The difficulty for us today is to know in what way or to what extent the literature of the New Testament which is attributed to John actually comes from him. Now virtually everybody is agreed that the gospel of John and the first epistle of John were written by the same person. Everybody also agrees that the second and third epistles of John were written by the same person. And, of course, Revelation was written by somebody called John. Now does this mean that there were three Johns? Was there a John the evangelist who wrote the gospel and the first epistle, John the elder who wrote second and third John, and John the divine who wrote the book of Revelation – three different people all called John? This is not impossible because John was just about as common a name in ancient Israel as it is today. So the notion that there should be three of them is not to be ruled out. But, of course, on the other hand, these different Johns – if indeed they were different Johns – are not identified as such. There’s no indication of anybody in the New Testament called John other than the apostle. And so, of course, there’s always been a strong tradition in the church that every – all five books of the Bible which are attributed to John – were written, in fact, by the same John, by the apostle John.
The next question, of course, arises is did John head up a different kind of church? Was he in some way a rival to the apostle Paul or indeed to the apostle Peter? I mean, this is not stated, of course, in the text but John’s gospel and the book of Revelation in particular are so different from the rest of the New Testament that people have long asked, well, does this represent a different kind of Christianity, a different way of approaching the message of Jesus Christ, and what does it stand for? And some people have said, well, John is the most Greek of all the writers of the New Testament. He is the most Hellenized writer and therefore it represents Hellenistic Christianity rather than Jewish Christianity. Other people have argued on the opposite side. This is entirely wrong; in fact, John is the most Jewish of the New Testament writers, the one who indicates more clearly than any of the others what Jesus’ ministry in Palestine was like. And I give you some examples of this, if you take from John’s gospel, for example, the encounter with Nicodemus. The remarkable thing about that in chapter 3 is that it portrays Nicodemus in a favorable light. Nicodemus who was a Pharisee, close to the priests, and so on would not – if John was Hellenistic and late and everything else, he would probably have been portrayed in a very negative way as an enemy of the gospel, and yet Nicodemus is portrayed as a genuine seeker after truth. And one of the arguments goes, well, this is a sign of somebody who was aware that there was a time in the ministry of Jesus when he could have contact with the Pharisees of this kind. It wasn’t all hostile, confrontational arguing and so on. That there was a time in the life of Jesus when it was possible for him to have dialogue with somebody like Nicodemus, and this is recorded in the gospel as a reminder of this very early time. And so whoever wrote this, the chances are was a witness to the events being described. And, of course, there are other things in John’s gospel which suggests this. The beloved disciple, as he calls himself, is clearly an eyewitness to a lot of the events which he describes and therefore the question of John becomes more important. People say, well, is this the real John? Who is John?
And the issue becomes more complicated still because whatever you think about the identity of John, there is no doubt that John is as a literary writer the greatest genius in the New Testament. I’m not saying that the other writings are bad or wrong or anything like that, but from a purely literary point of view, the Johannine books and particularly the gospel and the book of Revelation stand out. They have a quality about them which the rest of the New Testament doesn’t have. And this quality is something which is very particular. Well, in one sense, it has a remarkable appeal to the Greek world. I’m not saying that this means that John was a Greek. That’s not the point. It appeals to the Greek world. Why? Because the genius of John, like the genius of Greek literature or ancient Greek culture in general, is that it is very profound. It puts very profound ideas in very simple language. And this is the essence of Greek classicism, you see. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory. In Him was light and the light was the life of men. You see, it’s very simply stated. You can read the first chapter of John’s gospel in Greek when you have a vocabulary of about 20 or 30 words. A little child can read this or hear this and follow what’s being said because it’s being said in a very sort of simple way. And yet, of course, theologians have pondered the meaning of this for generations. Nobody’s ever got to the bottom of what John’s gospel is all about. You see what I mean? It’s very profound in reality although it appears to be very simple on the surface.
Now the book of Revelation when you go to that is similar in a way. The book of Revelation is written apparently very simply, but it has levels of meaning and a range of meaning so profound that unless you have a very thorough grasp of the Old Testament you haven’t a hope of understanding what it’s all about. And what’s more, John achieves this without quoting the Old Testament even once. All the other books – well, not all the other books, most of the other books of the New Testament quote the Old Testament regularly. I mean, Hebrews for instance or the gospels and so on. There’s endless quotations, you know. This is to show that the prophesy of so-and-so was being fulfilled and there you go. It’s quoted. But Revelation is soaked in the Old Testament. I mean, the imagery, the connotations and everything else. I men, very, very deeply there, and yet the Old Testament is never quoted even once, which is a very remarkable thing.
And then you get in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation. You see the first chapter especially and the second chapter a wonderful picture of the Trinity presented to us without actually ever saying so. Because you hear the voice – John hears the voice and the voice says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Is this the father or the son? Not clear, you see, initially who is actually seated on the throne. And then, of course, it is the son clearly who gives the letters to be sent to the churches, but at the end of each letter which is given by the voice on the throne – by the Alpha and the Omega – the end of each letter he signs off by saying, “Hear what the spirit says to the churches.” You see what I mean? So you have father, son and Holy Spirit sort of blended in, in the opening chapters of the book of Revelation in a way which you can’t separate. The three are there but they cannot be separated out and sort of sectioned off and saying, well, this is the father and this is the son and this is the Holy Spirit. They emerge and they can be detected but in such a complex way that you can’t actually separate them out. It’s a very wonderful vision of the Trinitarian God. And, of course, it takes a genius, a literary genius, to be able to do this and to present this to us without any sense of oddity or contradiction. I mean, we read this through and we don’t even notice this sort of thing. It’s so subtle.
But the other thing about the book of Revelation is that it’s quite clearly rooted in popular oral culture of the time, and there are dimensions of Revelation which you cannot appreciate unless you read it aloud in the original language because there are things going on there in the book that don’t come across in any other way. I mean, let me give you an example from the first chapter where John writes, [Dr. Bray recites passage @ 57:05 on tape]. I’m forgetting it now. But it is this rhythmic speech, you see. [Dr. Bray recites another phrase @ 57:27 on tape]. There’s a dance rhythm there behind the text which you cannot appreciate unless you know how to read it, you see, unless you say it out loud. You get this sort of feeling, and you see what is going on here. I mean, clearly, because remember these things were read out loud. They weren’t read silently initially. There’s a whole dimension of experience, of human experience and so on. It’s like a sound and light performance. And then, of course, what does John say, “I heard behind me a voice as of a trumpet.” A great voice. [Dr. Bray recites @ 58:19] And he turns. He said, “I turned” [Dr. Bray recites @ 58:28] and I saw. And this picture, this idea that he hears the voice behind him, you see, faith comes by hearing of the word. What does hearing of the word do? Hearing of the word causes conversion. What is conversion? Conversion is turning. And when you turn what happens? You see the light. So he only sees after he turns. He only turns after he hears. And, of course, what does he hear? A great voice, and the voice is like the voice of a trumpet. What is the trumpet? Well, remember the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised. The trumpet appears in other contexts, shall we say, in the Bible. It has a specific meaning of its own.
And here you have this tremendous picture of where conversion and the end of time, the last judgment, everything is sort of brought together in a whole in these different layers because, you see, what John is saying my experience of God, the coming of Christ into my life, my conversion, is the first fruits of eternal life. Eternal life is a life in which the power of evil has been judged. Death has been overcome, swallowed up in victory, and so on, and all of this is part of my experience. You see what I mean? At different levels. And so there’s a tremendous richness here. And so we turn around and say, well, who wrote this? Who was this person? What does it represent in terms of early Christianity? Could John the fisherman of Galilee, the son of Zebedee, actually have written this?
Now the only other person I can think of whom we ask this question of all the time is Shakespeare. People are always doubting that Shakespeare wrote his plays. Why? Because they think, well, how can somebody like Shakespeare write those plays? Presumably, it was somebody a lot more educated than that. And most of the time, of course, you can see that this kind of suspicion is based in some kind of fact. I mean, I get papers submitted and I see papers really well written and using long words and things like this, and I think, well, this is not the student who wrote this. This has been downloaded off the internet, you know. And you can kind of tell. You learn to be suspicious in this way and yet, you see, having said that, both in the case of Shakespeare and in the case of the book of Revelation, we end up saying to ourselves, well, but there is such a thing as genius. Not at Beeson. Let’s not go too far. And I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, you know, to download from the internet, I may notice.
But from time to time, this kind of thing does happen and we cannot exclude the possibility that John the son of Zebedee actually did this, that this was his gift, that he was filled with the Holy Spirit in order to do this, in order to write in this way. And although I can’t do it and you can’t do it, this is not to say that he couldn’t do it. You see what I mean? So in the end we have to sort of stand back and say, well, it’s very strange. It’s very peculiar. We don’t know very much about it, where it comes from and so on, but it may have been like that. Because, of course, the whole coming of Christ into the world, the whole emergence of the early church, was strange in human terms. You see what I mean? It can’t be explained in ordinary human categories so maybe that is the case. We don’t know. All right? So we have to be humble before this kind of thing.
All right. Let’s move on to persecution, so much more exciting. Persecution is something which became a reality in the church at a very early stage of its life. Whether it is present in the New Testament or not is somewhat controversial. There were, of course, people in the New Testament who were arrested because of their beliefs. There were people who were put to death. Stephen, for example, the first martyr, is a very good case of that. But whether this amounts to persecution of the church as a whole in a general sort of way, this is debated, you know, as to whether you can really call it that at that stage. Nevertheless, whatever we say about this, it is quite clear that the first generation of Christians – most of them, most of the prominent ones – appear to have lost their lives for their beliefs. And it is certainly true that in the first 300 years of the church’s existence, many people, particularly prominent people but not just prominent people, were martyred for their faith. So much so that the word “martyr” which originally means witness has come to mean indelibly somebody who witnesses by death, who dies for his or her beliefs. In other words, the meaning of the Greek word has changed – or has developed, I should say – because of what happened in the life of the early church. And so this is a very prominent and very important phenomenon that we have to consider, and say what is martyrdom? Why did this happen? Why were the early Christians persecuted at all?
This is a mystery to some extent. It was a mystery even in ancient times. It was odd. People at the time when it was going on wondered why. Now from the Jewish point of view, of course, you can understand why, because Jews were a minority in the Roman Empire. They were vulnerable to assimilation by gentiles of one kind or another. It was dangerous potentially for Jews to start playing around with their religion, you see. Christians who came along and divided synagogues and so on and took people off and said, well, now the promises are fulfilled and all the rest of it. You can understand why the Jewish authorities would think this was a disruptive force.
I don’t know how many people here heard this but did anyone happen to listen yesterday to the news on NPR, on National Public Radio? No? Did you? Did anyone hear it? No, not one person? Oh. Well, there we go. But anyhow, they had a very interesting little thing on yesterday afternoon. I happened to hear it. I was driving in the car. About Messianic Jews in New York. And I was listening to this and I thought, well, this is the early church, you see, coming back again, because – well, we know about Messianic Jews and there are quite a lot of them around – but this church community which consisted of Jews and so on – and they interviewed Jewish people including rabbis and so on “What do you think about Messianic Jews?” And of course, it turned out that the Jewish community felt more threatened by Messianic Jews than they did by gentile Christians because, of course, Messianic Jews were sort of invading their space, you know, invading their territory, taking their people away.
And one woman actually said, well, you know, we’re only 2 percent of the American population so if we start losing people like this, the future of our community is in danger. And when she said that, I thought, well, you know, there we are. That’s what they thought in the early church. That’s what people like Saul of Tarsus imagined and why they felt so strongly about this and why they were out to persecute these people. They didn’t care what the gentiles thought. If the gentiles wanted to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God and so on, well, that was up to them. I mean, they believed all kinds of funny things. But for Jewish people to get involved in this was a threat to their survival. And so you can understand quite readily why somebody like Saul of Tarsus would be out to persecute this, to sort of put an end to this, in order to preserve the integrity of the Jewish community.
Well, all right, that’s fine. But why did the gentiles persecute Christians? What was in it for them? Why did they have trouble with this? Well, this is much harder to answer. Because, of course, in the gentile world, religion was much more diverse, with polytheism and so on, you know, you could just add gods as you went along, and so the notion that here’s another God come along would not have appeared to them to be all that strange. They were not bothered about survival in the way that the Jewish community was. The Romans had learned to tolerate Jews. They didn’t like them. They thought the Jews were very standoffish because they had only one God and wouldn’t accept anybody else’s god. You know, it had to be theirs, and so they were unfriendly and nasty people. But they learned to tolerate them, to put up with them, rather in the same way that we put up with people like the Amish in Pennsylvania because although we think they’re rather funny, they don’t actually bother us so we don’t really care and we let them be. Well, fine. That sort of thing.
So if Christians were just a kind of variety of Jew, well, why did they cause so much trouble? Why was this a problem for the Roman world? And this indeed was one of the big issues which stirred up the early church because you get Christian writers of the second and third centuries asking this very question. Why are you persecuting us? What have we done that would make the Roman state tremble at our very existence? Why are we such a threat to you? And that’s a question which I’ve got to leave, sadly, until we meet again on Thursday, hurricanes permitting. All right? We’ll see you then in a couple of days.