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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part I – Seekers, Ranters & Quakers in the Civil Wars & Interregnum, 1647-1657.   Leave a comment

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Prophesying the Millennium:

Until 1957, historians had maintained that we could know very little of the real beliefs of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, since the information we did have came from their enemies. They were accused as regarding themselves as divine beings and of holding that they could, therefore, commit murder, robbery and fornication without sin. But, as Norman Cohn pointed out in the appendix to his iconic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, published that year, the ‘scandalous tales told of them’ were ‘merely conscious or unconscious slanders’. These were accusations which were made against mystical groups of the later middle ages, but they could not be checked in any detail against their own writings. To do that, Cohn looked into the brief but hectic revival of the ‘Free Spirit’ which took place in England during and after the Civil War. 

Like the writings of their predecessors, those of the ‘Ranters’ of the later period were ordered to be burnt. But it was much harder to destroy a whole production of a work than a few manuscripts, and stray copies of Ranter tracts survived. Viewed as historical documents, these tracts have established that the ‘Free Spirit’ really was exactly what it was said to be: a system of self-exaltation amounting to self-deification; a pursuit to of total emancipation which in practice could result in an anarchic eroticism; often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition. But the interest of the Ranter literature is not only historical. If the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Abiezer Coppe were sufficiently vigorous and colourful to earn him an honourable place in the gallery of literary eccentrics, Joseph Salmon deserves recognition as a writer of real poetic power.

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Thanks to the work which has been done on the radical religious ideas of Cromwell’s England, not least by Christopher Hill, in his 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, there is now no lack of information concerning the social milieu in which the Ranters flourished. Indeed, this author was counselled by his tutors not to pursue research for his PhD on this period on the basis that he would probably have to limit himself to the study of an obscure sect. It was only some years later that I returned it to investigate the Independent puritan enthusiasm which ran high among the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army and among civilians, and that neither the Episcopalian establishment nor the Presbyterian puritans were able to channel the flood of lay religiosity. Many felt that the time had come when God had when God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered in many quarters, and millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power as Lord General and then Lord Protector, was also moved by such hopes. Thousands of artisans in London and elsewhere lived in daily expectation that through the violence of the civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would return to rule over it.

In the late 1640s, the Quakers were often referred to as ‘Roundhead rogues’, and in May 1648 the ‘Digger’ pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley made it clear that the word ‘Roundhead’ was used especially as a slur on the political radicals in the New Model. Edward Burrough was mocked as a Roundhead even in his pre-Quaker days. But it appears to have been used mainly in reference to political radicalism, and it was only during the intense period of political instability and uncertainty which followed the execution of the King and ended with the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653. In 1649-50, Winstanley was moved by supernatural illumination to found the ‘Digger’ community near Cobham in Surrey. Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away’, Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state’, a primitivist utopian commune in which private property, class distinction and human authority would have no place. At the same time, groups of religious enthusiasts multiplied rapidly. As one pamphleteer remarked in 1651,

… it is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breed Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillars of Aegypt.

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‘High Professors’ & Heretics:

The heresy which this writer had particularly in mind was that of the Ranters. These people, who were also known as ‘high attainers’ and ‘high professors’, became very numerous about 1650. Some were to be found in the Army, where there were cases of officers being cashiered and publicly whipped, and of a soldier being whipped through the City of London ‘for ranting’. There were also groups of Ranters scattered throughout the country. Above all, they abounded in London, where they numbered many thousands. The first Quakers – George Fox (above), James Nayler and their followers – often came into contact with the Ranters. Hostile observers such as Episcopalians or Presbyterians, often deliberately conflated Quakerism with the Ranters; for both alike discarded the outward forms of religion and saw true religion only in the ‘indwelling spirit’ in the individual soul. The Quakers themselves, however, regarded the Ranters as erring souls to be converted. George Fox has a curious passage about his first meeting with Ranters, in prison in Coventry in 1649. He later wrote:

When I came into the jail, where these prisoners were, a great power of darkness struck at me, and I sat still, having my spirit gathered into the love of God. At last these prisoners began to rant, and vapour, and blaspheme, at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said they were God; but that we could not bear such things. … Then seeing they said they were God, I asked them, if they knew whether it would rain tomorrow? They said they could not tell. I told them, God could tell. … After I had reproved them for their blasphemous expressions, I went away; for I perceived they were Ranters.

Amongst the Ranters whom George Fox found in the prison at Coventry was Joseph Salmon who had recently left the Army.  Not long after his encounter with Fox, Salmon put forth a paper or book of recantation; upon which they were set at liberty. From 1650, Salmon was for some years a minister in Kent, preaching frequently in Rochester Cathedral. One of his works was a Ranter tract, Divinity Anatomised, which has been lost, but others, including the Recantation, survive to reveal a very considerable poetic talent. The first time we know of George Fox coming to the notice of authority was earlier in the same year of his Ranter encounter when he was imprisoned at Nottingham. This was, of course, a crucial year in the history of the English Civil Wars, the year in which King Charles was tried by Parliament and executed, and the beginning of the Presbyterian attempt to impose its rigid Calvinist discipline and morality by legislation on the English people, as it had succeeded in Scotland.

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There were radical political movements among the ordinary people, such as the Levellers, led by John Lilburne (pictured below), who later joined the Quaker movement, and the True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’, for whom GerrFenny Drayton

ard Winstanley was chief pamphleteer. The scientific revolution of ideas had not yet spread, but the revolution in religious thought which had produced the Continental Protestant Reformation had led to the establishment of a Commonwealth in Britain which was a place and time of extreme and independent views, bitter controversy, and uncertainty about the nature of religious authority. Many groups of people had been expelled from, or abandoned by, the established Anglican churches, or had withdrawn themselves from them; they were generally known as ‘Seekers’ because they waited for a new revelation of God’s truth. The religious persecutions of the previous century, in particular, the Marian burnings were still strong in the memories of such people, and if they need to be reminded of those sufferings, they had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to remind them, with its graphic illustrations of the martyrdoms.

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George Fox stood out as a striking and unexpected figure. He was twenty-five, long-haired (unlike the ‘Roundheads’), peasant-featured and astute. He hailed from the village of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, in the corner of the East Midlands and East Anglia which formed the stronghold of radical religious independents. There he had been working as an apprentice to a dealer in fleeces and hides and worked as a shepherd. He was semi-literate, most of his later letters being dictated to others. Leaving home at the age of nineteen to become an itinerate seeker, he found no teacher who could assure him of the truth until, in 1647, as he wrote in his Journal, he heard a voice saying to him, There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition. At this time, William Dell and many other ‘Familists’ believed that academic education was no help in understanding the Scriptures. From 1646 onwards books by Henry Niclaes and man other Familist and Antinomian writers were being published. There were also tendencies even among orthodox Puritans which pointed in the same direction. William Erbery, the Welsh Baptist was one of those who wrote of the ‘free grace’ which came through the preaching of Preston and Sibbes. John Preston taught that the ‘elect’ knew by their own experience that the Bible was true and that God was:

 … as he is described in the Scripture such have they found him to be to themselves. …

Richard Sibbes declared that If God be a father, then we are brethren, it is a levelling word. Tobias Crisp held that sin is finished  and that:

If you be freemen in Christ, you may esteem all the curses of the law as no more concerning you than the laws of of England concern Spain. … To be called a libertine is the most glorious title under heaven.

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s Kiddermindstewhen some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were also harmless in the period following the Restoration when taught by Thomas Traherne. But in between times, the Revolution seemed to stir up infinite possibilities and inflamed the passions of the poor. If the majority in a congregation should excommunicate their pastor, no synod could do anything about it. From this time onwards we get plentiful evidence of the emergence of a whole number of opinions which later became associated with the Ranters. Thomas Edwards reported many sectaries who said Christ died for all and a bricklayer from Hackney who said that Christ was not God, or at least that he was as much God as Christ was. A Rochester man who associated with Baptists said that Jesus Christ was a bastard; so did Jane Stratton of Southwark. Some sectaries held that God his children as well sinning as praying; others held that they cannot sin, but if they sin, Christ sins in them. Other ‘errors’ recorded by Edwards were that God is in our flesh as much as in Christ’s flesh and that all shall be saved at last. A pamphlet of 1648 argued that if a man were strongly moved to sin, after praying repeatedly, he should do it.

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Anthony Pearson reported that many apprentices and young people joined the Ranters in the late 1640s, and Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster pastor claimed that Quakers emptied the churches of Anabaptists and separatists of ‘the young, unsettled’. We think of refusal of ‘hat honour’ and the use of ‘thou’ by Quakers as gestures of social protest, but they also marked a growing refusal of deference from the young to the old, from sons to fathers. Fierce battles were fought in the home, between generations. The preachers of free grace, including William Erbery and William Dell, aimed to liberate men and women simpler and less theologically sophisticated, especially in this time of revolutionary crisis, their teachings were easily pushed over into Antinomianism, a sense of liberation from all bonds and restraints of law and morality. When Thomas Collier told the Army at the end of September 1647 that God as truly manifests Himself in the flesh of all his saints as he did in Christ, he must have known that many of the rank and file listening to him would believe themselves to be saints.

068Again and again, in spiritual autobiographies of the time, we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency and Anabaptism before ending as Seekers, Ranters or Quakers. Controversies over church government or over baptism split congregations, producing conscientious scruples and endless bickerings. Since they believed that the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversies was one solution, a rejection of all sects, and of all organised worship. Such men were called Seekers and included William Walwyn, John Saltmarsh, John Milton (right) and possibly Oliver Cromwell himself.

Radical Independents – The ‘Seekers’:

Many of these men had connections with the radicals and were bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarian enthusiasm. But by the 1650s, Richard Baxter felt that:

When people saw diversity of sects in any place … it greatly hindered their conversion. (Many) would be of no religion at all.

William Erbery was described in 1646 as the champion of the Seekers. He had been ejected from his living in Cardiff in 1638 for refusing to implement Laudian liturgy. He was a convinced supporter of Parliament during the civil war, becoming a chaplain in the New Model Army. As such, Erbery led other ranks in criticism of Presbyterian ministers, tithes and persecution. He preached universal redemption and, according to Edwards, denied the divinity of Christ, as well as declaring that any layman may preach. Erbery modestly saw himself …

… bewildered as a wayfaring man, seeing no way of man on earth, nor beaten path to lead him. Let him look upward and within at once, and a highway, the way is found in Christ in us, God in our flesh. … God comes reigning and riding on an ass, that is revealing himself in the basest of men.

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The Presbyterian ministers sent to investigate the Army said that Erbery was a ‘Socinian’, preaching damnable doctrine and blasphemous errors. He stirred up ‘the multitude of soldiers’, they claimed, against the Presbyterian ministers. In January 1648, Erbery called upon the Army to destroy the power of the King and rectify popular grievances. He objected to the officers’ version of the Agreement of the People because it established a state church and did not extend toleration to the Jews, though he approved of most of it. King and Parliament, he thought, …

… were the two powers who kept the people of the Lord and the people of the land from their expected and promised freedoms. (The Army) had the call of the kingdom, petitioning by several counties and the common cry of all the oppressed in the land (acting) in the immediate power of God … for all saints, yea for all men also. God in the saints shall appear as the saviour of all men. No oppressor shall pass through them any more. The day of God has begun, though the saints have been and are still in confusion. For a few days we cannot bear with the want of kings and rulers, …

The saints drew back when they should have gone forward since the Army was at its best when it acted. Erbery still wanted to see God in the army of saints, wasting all oppressing powers in the land. In July 1652, Erbery wrote urging Oliver Cromwell to relieve the poor, as well as attacking tithes and lawyers’ fees. He advocated steeper taxation of rich citizens, racking landlords … and mighty moneyed men … to form a treasury for the poor. He wrote that the burden of tithes on them in England at that time was greater than under popery or in popish countries. There were no longer any ‘true ministers’ and God, in the last days, would not appear in ministers at all, but in magistrates, both civil and martial. The apostasy of the churches had prevailed for centuries. When kingdoms had first become Christian, he claimed, they had become churches, and national churches began. But then also Antichrist came to be great and Popery, prelacy, presbytery were ‘the three beasts’. The state Church of the Commonwealth in England was no better than the Episcopal Church. It was the last ‘Beast’ or church-state. In the depth of his disillusion, Erbery declared that:

The mystery of Anti-Christ … is manifested in every saint, in every particular church …  The greatest work that God hath to do with you this day, is to make you see you are dead. God is going out and departing from all the preaching of men, that men may give themselves wholly to public acts of love to one another, and to all mankind; therefore all religious forms shall fall, that the power of righteousness may rise and appear in all.

But once in power, the ‘seeming saints’ would inevitably be corrupted. In civil government, they were far superior to their predecessors,

But as for spiritual graces, how soon have they withered in the wisest? Good men in Parliament, when come to power how weak were they? … The people of God turn wicked men, that wicked men may turn to be the people of God. The lords and nobles of old could do better with it (power), because gentlemen born; but when so much money comes into the hands of poor saints, oh how they hold it and hug it and hunger after it, as dogs do after dry bones!

But Erbery managed to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. He gave up the stipend he got from tithes. He wrote that:

The life of the people of God, and mine also, is so unlike Christ that I have often wished … to go away from myself and from my people. … they are mine and I am theirs.

By 1654 he had decided, unlike the Fifth Monarchists, that the people of God should not meddle at all in matters of state since Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. This attitude of resignation after the failure of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653 made John Webster feel he had to defend Erbery against the charge of ‘falling off’ and ‘compliance’.  But to shake off the yoke before the season came was to rebel against the Lord. Erbery seems, in fact, to have been prepared to accept Cromwell as a king and was, according to Webster, rather a presser forward than an apostate, but he seems to have abandoned hope of a political solution in his lifetime:

It may be other generations may see the glory talked to be in the last time, … our children may possess it, but for our parts we have no hopes to enjoy it, or in this life to be raised out of our graves. … all the scattered saints this day do dwell, and I also with them waiting for deliverance.

Erbery was often accused of being ‘a loose person or a Ranter’, of having a ranting spirit; he was also alleged, like the Ranters, to be devious, covering himself by double meanings. Erbery denied the accusation of Ranterism, but not always wholeheartedly. He spoke of the holiness and righteousness in truth flowing from the power of God in us, which by the world hath been nicknamed with Puritanism, and in some now Ranting, though he refused to justify those profane people called Ranters, who blasphemed, cursed, whored, openly rejoicing in their wickedness. He admitted that he was commonly judged by good men as one of those owning this principle and practising their ways, but denied saying that the Ranters were the best saints: his point had been that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters, lusting after the wisdom, power, glory and honour of this present world. At least Ranters were honest about it:

These, it may be, lie with a woman once a month, but those men, having their eyes full of adultery, … do lie with twenty women between Paul’s and Westminster.

John Webster, noting that ‘by some weaker spirits’ Erbery’s doctrine concerning the restitution of all things, the liberty of the creation, … the saints’ oneness in Christ with God was misunderstood or led to practices which Erbery regretted. Even in print, Erbery was often very rude and coarsely jocular about what others might regard as sacred subjects. He thought that holy communion should be a full meal, with lots of drink, and was clearly not averse to a pipe of tobacco after prayers. In these practises, of course, he was far from alone, but the fact that he referred to them in print naturally drew comments from his critics. It is clear that he was very much at home in the world of taverns and tobacco in which many of the sects used to meet. William Erbery died in 1654, and his epitaph was not unfittingly written by one of his friends:

Some are dead that seem alive,

But Erbery’s worth shall still survive. 

‘Bridges’ across turbulent waters:

As early as 1641, ‘divines’ were complaining that religion had become the common discourse and table-talk in every tavern and ale-house. One preacher told the House of Commons in July 1646 that ale-houses generally are … the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.  In London, the Ranters met at a victualling house kept by one of their number in the Minories, and at the David and Harp in Moor Lane, in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, kept by the husband of Mary Middleton, one of Lawrence Clarkson’s mistresses. According to George Fox, the Ranters had:

some kind of meetings … but they took tobacco and drank ale in their meetings, and were grown light and loose. … (They) sung and whistled and danced.

036John Bunyan (right) thought the Ranters talked too much, one contemporary meaning of the verb ‘to rant’. This may be one reason why the Quakers began their meetings in silence. Yet Fox understood their point. When ‘a forward, bold lad’ offered him a pipe, saying ‘Come, all is ours,’ Fox, who was no smoker, took his pipe and put it to my mouth, and gave it to him again to stop him, lest his rude tongue should say I had not unity with the creation. The last phrase of Fox’s tells us that we should never fail to look for symbolism in what appear the extravagant gestures of seventeenth-century radicals. Ranter advocacy of blasphemy, it has been suggested, was a symbolic expression of freedom from moral restraints. Abiezer Coppe was alleged to have sworn, uninterrupted, for a full hour in the pulpit: a pox of God take all your prayers. 

An obsessive desire to swear had possessed Coppe in early life, but he resisted it for twenty-seven years, before making up for his abstinence. He would rather, he declared, hear a mighty angel (in man) swearing a full-mouthed oath than hear an orthodox minister preach. He made a distinction between swearing ignorantly, i’th dark, and… swearing i’th light, gloriously. Even those on the more mystical and quietist wing of the Ranters were also in the habit of using ‘many desperate oaths’. Bunyan reveals the tensions which lay behind Coppe’s 1646 ‘indulgence’ in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Swearing was an act of defiance, both of God but also of ‘middle-class society’, and of the puritan ethics endemic in it.  As Bunyan remarked, ‘Many think to swear is gentleman-like’ and certainly, many courtiers and members of the aristocracy and gentry classes could get away with it: royalists in the civil wars were known as ‘Dammees’. For the lower orders, however, swearing could prove expensive: one ‘debauched seaman, after being fined at the rate of 6d. for an oath, placed 2s. 6d. on the table in order to have his money’s worth. Lower-order use of oaths was a proclamation of their equality with the greatest, just as Puritan opposition to vain swearing was a criticism of aristocratic and plebian irreligion. But it also expressed a revolt against the imposition of middle-class Puritan mores, interfering with the simple pleasures of the poor for ideological reasons. Bibliolatry led to a phobia about swearing; rejection of the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life made it possible again and with it a release of the repressions which gave the Puritan middle class their moral energy.

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Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) was the most celebrated of the Ranters. He had grown up in Warwick. In his adolescence, he was obsessed by a conviction of his sinfulness. A prey to neurotic anxiety, he kept a daily register of his sins, fasting and imposing vigils and humiliations on himself. In 1636 he went up to Oxford as a ‘poor scholar’, at first a Servitor at All Saints and then as a Postmaster at Merton. By this time his morals were less strict and he would often ‘entertain a wanton Housewife in his Chamber’ overnight. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his career at Oxford and he left the University without taking a degree. He was a Presbyterian for some time, like Lawrence Clarkson, and later became an Anabaptist minister. In this capacity, he was very active in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, ‘dipping’ some seven thousand persons, and officiating as a preacher to a garrison. For these activities, he was imprisoned in Coventry in 1646. Other misfortunes were brought upon Coppe by the growing eccentricities in his religious life. He says that his father and mother forsook him and his wife turned from him in loathing, that his reputation was ruined and his house was set on fire. These events, in turn, prepared the way for his conversion to Ranterism, which took place in 1649. Besides adopting the usual pantheism of the Free Spirit, he seems to have adopted Adamitic ways. According to Wood in Athenae Oxonienses:

‘Twas usual with him to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a Wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked.

It was no doubt for such behaviour that he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks at Warwick. Clarkson recorded that he later belonged to the group of Ranters who called themselves ‘My One Flesh’. Coppe was commonly listed together with Clarkson as a leader of the orgiastic Ranters. Coppe was among the drinking, smoking Ranters who appeared in George Fox’s prison at Charing Cross.  He seems to have been an alcoholic, but above all, he indulged his long-suppressed craving to curse and swear. Richard Baxter asked with horror how it came to pass that, as followers of this man, …

… men and women professing the zealous fear of God, should … be brought to place their Religion in revelling, roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing ordinarily by the Wounds and Blood of God, and the fearfullest cursing that hath been heard.

Besides his swearing from the pulpit, mentioned above, Coppe swore at the hostess of a tavern so fearsomely that she trembled and quaked for some hours after. Some of his ‘disciples’ were put in the stocks at Stratford-upon-Avon for their swearing. It was as a Ranter in 1649 that Coppe produced his only noteworthy writings, including his two Fiery Flying Rolls which resulted in his arrest in January 1650. He was imprisoned at Coventry for a second time, and then at Newgate. Parliament issued an order that the Rolls, as containing many horrid blasphemies, and damnable and detestable Opinions, be seized by mayors, sheriff and justices of the peace throughout the Commonwealth and burnt by the public hangman. Copies were to be publicly burnt at Westminster and Southwark. The Act of August 1650 was largely directed against Coppe’s works. Finally, the committee of Parliament which examined Clarkson in September 1650 also examined Coppe shortly afterwards. During the interrogation, the prisoner feigned madness, throwing nut-shells and other things about the room. In Newgate, Coppe received many visitors, and by ‘smooth arguments’ converted not a few to Ranterism. In the end, however, the strain of imprisonment began to tell. At the beginning of 1651, he issued from prison a Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestation of Abiezer Croppe against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug. 1650. This was followed five months later by a full recantation, Copps Return to the wayes of Truth… In this Coppe attributed his imprisonment to some strange actions and carriages … some difficult, dark, hard, strange, harsh and almost unheard-of words, and expressions. Of his Ranting, he said:

The terrible, notable day of the Lord stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night. … And the cup of the Lords right hand, was put into mine hand. And it was filled brim full of intoxicating wine, and I drank it off, even the dregs thereof. Whereupon being mad drunk, I so strangely spake, and acted I knew not what. To the amazement of some. To the sore perplexity of others. And to the great grief of others. And till that cup passed from me, I knew not what I spake or did.

Now that his understanding had returned to him, he begged that the Fiery Flying Rolls be thrown into the fire. As a result of this Petition to Parliament and Council of State Coppe was released, after a year and a half in prison. Baxter, who had spoken with Coppe, was certain that he was no madman; and in September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford, and thereafter his life was unadventurous. After the restoration, he practised as a ‘physic’ at Barnes under the name of Dr Higham, through to his death. Coppe’s writings give the impression of eccentricity rather than of any kind of psychotic state. For understanding the religion of the Free Spirit they are of great value. They also throw a good deal of light on the ‘social doctrine’ of the Free Spirit. Coppe affirmed that all things belong, or ought to belong, to the Lord alone, and utterly condemned the institution of private property. The urge to apostolic poverty and public self-abasement, normally regarded as characteristically medieval, can be seen here in the seventeenth-century England. We can also observe in these writings how easily such a rejection of private property can merge with a hatred of the rich, as happened on the Continent in earlier centuries, giving rise to an intransigent and potentially violent form of revolutionary millenarianism.

A. L. Morton, the historian of the Ranters, suggested that migratory craftsmen, freed by the breakdown in the economic system during the Revolution, men who were unattached and prepared to break with tradition, provided much of the support for the movement. We should bear in mind that the mobile itinerant population, evicted cottagers, whether peasants or craftsmen, slowly gravitating to the big towns and there finding themselves outsiders, sometimes forming themselves into religious groups which rapidly became more and more radical. It is very difficult to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who were called Ranters. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Levellers or early Quakers, but the Levellers did issue programmatic statements, and the pamphlets of Fox and Nayler can be accepted as authoritative for the Quakers. There was no recognised leader or theoretician of the Ranters, and it is extremely doubtful as to whether there was ever a Ranter organisation. As so often in the history of radical movements, the name came into existence as a term of abuse.

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The Regicide & the Rump:

Following the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the Rump Parliament followed up the regicide with acts abolishing the office of the monarch and the House of Lords. It called them acts, not ordinances, because they required no other ascent now but that of the Commons. But behind the Rump stood the army, to whose force it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The Rumpers themselves promised, in their act of 17 March that abolished the monarchy, that they would dissolve the ‘Long Parliament’ themselves so soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people that hath betrusted them.  The army had seemingly committed itself to support a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution and regulated the frequency and duration of parliamentary sittings, brought significant alterations to the law of the land and changed the whole relationship between church and state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that the ‘caretaker’ régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past.

Through the share they had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’, the Levellers had reached the peak of their influence. From the early months of 1649 onwards, there was a burgeoning of various groups even more radical than the Levellers: the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up the exclusive rule of their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the ‘Diggers’, who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property; and the ‘Ranters’ who believed that those who had discovered the godhead within them were liberated from all conventional morality. Of these groups, only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. No-one could have foreseen that the Rump would go on wielding sovereign authority over England and Wales for four and a quarter years after Charles I’s execution, longer than the whole duration of the first Civil War, and almost as long as Cromwell’s whole rule as Lord Protector.

The Rump’s temper became more conservative over that period, as the mood became more revolutionary outside parliament. The majority of the remaining MPs were deeply unsympathetic, if not intolerant towards the aspirations of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and extremist sects of all kinds. Its concessions to religious liberty were to be limited and grudging, its record in social reform miserably meagre, and the professional interests of its influential lawyer-members made it deeply suspicious of any changes in the substance and operation of the law, where reform was overdue. The period from 1649-53 was one in which the Commons, not Cromwell, was in charge of government policy. He was immensely influential, but as Lord General of the Army, he was away from Westminster and on campaign in Scotland and Ireland for much of the period, and when these commitments did allow him to be in the Commons, he by no means got his own way. Even after 1653, when he became Lord Protector, the case of James Nayler, the Quaker leader, three years later, demonstrates the limited power Cromwell had to protect religious liberty.

The Rump was as hesitant in grasping the nettle of religious settlement as it was in placing the Commonwealth on firm constitutional foundations. By the early 1650s, the old dividing line between Presbyterians and Independents was no longer so sharply drawn, since by then many doctrinally orthodox Calvinists persuasions were prepared to put their differences aside in order to resist the rising tide of radical sectarianism and popular heresy, of which the writings of the so-called Ranters were an extreme example. There was a small party of sectarian enthusiasts within the Rump, including the army Colonels Harrison, Rich, Fleetwood and John Jones, who managed to secure the establishment of a Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, with a similar one being established for England’s northern counties. But the majority of MPs were suspicious of religious enthusiasm and did not want to incur greater unpopularity by seeming to encourage it. They were aware of the strong preference in the country at large for retaining a national church with a publicly maintained parochial ministry, and many of them shared it. An established church was already in being when the Rump came to power, with its faith, worship and government defined by the Westminster Assembly and given statutory authority by the unpurged parliament. But parliament was divided on whether to continue implementing the Presbyterian system, and the motion to confirm it was lost on the vote of the Speaker. In practice, a wide variety of worship and church organisation prevailed in the provinces and parishes.

While the Rump shied aware from the contentious business of providing for the propagation of the gospel on a national scale in England, it continued to demonstrate those things that it was against, like sin and blasphemy. Between April and June 1650 it passed acts against non-observance of the sabbath and against swearing and cursing, as well as the notorious one which punished adultery, incest, and fornication with death, even on a first offence. Mercifully, it was very little enforced. A Blasphemy Act followed in August, less savage than the Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 and aimed mainly at the Ranters, though both George Fox and John Bunyan fell foul of its provisions. It was specifically targeted at the Ranters’ denial of the necessity of the civil and moral righteousness among men (which) tended to the dissolution of all human society. It denounced anyone who maintained himself or herself as God, or equal with God; or that acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, theft, etc. were not in themselves sinful, or that there is no such thing as sin but as a man or woman judgeth thereof. The penalty for the first offence was six months in jail, banishment for the second and death if the offender refused to depart or returned. However, judges interpreting the Act refused to allow JPs, clergy and juries to extend its provisions to the sincere if unorthodox religious opinions of a ‘Ranter’ like Richard Coppin, or a Quaker like Wiliam Dewsbury.

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Above: Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Rump of the Long Parliament, 1653.

The House took longer to confront the issue of toleration, but in September 1650 it finally repealed the recusancy laws to the extent of repealing the penalties for non-attendance of parish Sunday services, provided that those who absented themselves attended some other form of public worship. Outside the broad national church, the separatist congregations which chose and supported their own pastors enjoyed considerable liberty under Cromwell’s Protectorate, between 1653 and 1658, though it was not unlimited. It did not extend to those whose teachings or actions were considered blasphemous, such as the Unitarian John Biddle or the Quaker James Nayler. Cromwell was reluctant, however, to see these men punished as severely as his parliament desired, and he was more indulgent towards Quakers than most gentry magistrates. But he gave no countenance to those who tried to break up the services conducted by the parish churches in what they called ‘steeple-houses’, and he was even more firmly against so-called Ranters who preached and practised the belief that the spirit had liberated them from the moral code enjoined by Holy Scripture. He was not in favour of ‘toleration’ in the late-modern sense who regards an individual’s religious convictions as an entirely private matter, so long as they do not impinge on the rights or liberties of others. Neither was his ideal a kind of religious pluralism involving a variety of sects, tolerated out of indifference, but a community of all who had ‘the root of the matter’ in them, in a manner transcending differences over outward forms and rites.

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Cromwell’s Commonwealth & its Critics:

On 3 September 1654, Cromwell opened the first real Parliament of his Protectorate. He made a speech on the duty of ‘healing and settling’ in which he contrasted the state of the nation just before the Protectorate was established with what it was at that date. Then, the strife within it had grown so high as to threaten not only ordered government but the very fabric of society, the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years: a nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman. This, of course, was an exaggeration, as even more was his allegation that ‘men of Levelling principles’ had been undermining property itself and bidding to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. Turning to religion, he said it had been in an even worse condition than the civil state, what with the unchecked preaching of ‘prodigious blasphemies’ and the invocation of so-called faith to justify the breaking of ‘all rules of law and nature’. He referred to the Ranters, although he did not name them as such. Such horrors, he said, had brought to mind the iniquities prophesied for ‘the last times’, for Christ returned to earth in judgement. The power to check them had been undermined by a ‘second sort of men’, who while not justifying such evils denied the civil magistrate any authority to intervene, on the ground that matters of conscience and belief lay outside his sphere.

054Cromwell, pictured on the right on the ‘Dunbar medal’, given to those like the Quaker James Nayler who had fought in the Third Civil War, reaffirmed his own commitment to liberty of conscience but defended the claim of the civil power to a role in promoting true religion and punishing manifest wickedness. He upheld the right of godly and gifted laymen to preach, but he repudiated the sectarian extremists who denounced the whole concept of an ordained ministry as antichristian. He adopted a gentler tone when he went on to condemn  ‘the mistaken notion of the Fifth Monarchy’, acknowledging that many honest, God-fearing men adhered to it.

It was one thing, however, to expect that Jesus Christ will have a time to set up his reign in our hearts, but quite another for men upon their own conviction of God’s presence with them to claim a sole right to rule kingdoms, govern nations, and give laws to people. But he drew a strict line between belief and practice in this regard:

If these were but notions, they were to be let alone. Notions will hurt none but them that have them. But when they come to practices, as to tell us that liberty and property are not the badges of the kingdom of Christ, and to tell us that instead of regulating laws, laws are to be abrogated, indeed subverted, and perhaps would bring in the Judicial law instead of our known laws settled amongst us, – this is worthy of every magistrate’s consideration, especially where every stone is turned to bring confusion.

031Such people, he said, not only threatened anarchy at home but obstructed the work of settlement in Scotland and Ireland and hindered the negotiation of peace with Holland, Portugal and France. The next year, however, Cromwell reaffirmed his message of the need for broad liberty of conscience, and for a charitable attitude within the nation, in a declaration issued on 20 March 1654, at a time of a long drought:

Is brotherly love, and a healing spirit of that force and value amongst us that it ought? … Do we first search for the kingdom of Christ within us,  before we seek one without us?

… Do we not more contend for saints having rule in the world, than over their own hearts? … Do not some of us affirm ourselves to be the only true ministry, and true churches of Christ, and only to have the ordinances in purity, excluding our brethren, though of equal gifts? … Do we remember old puritan, or rather primitive simplicity, self-denial, mercy to the poor, uprightness and justice?

034Of course, this ecumenical concept of religious liberty did not extend to Roman Catholics, although they were no longer persecuted for practising their faith. Most Episcopalians and many Presbyterians, like Richard Baxter (right), still blamed Cromwell for the King’s execution, believing also that the King could have saved his own life if he had agreed to give up the Prayer Book and the Bishops in the Church of England.

Baxter thought, simply enough, that many of the things that Christians quarrelled over could be resolved if they were prepared to give way a little. Although Baxter had become Chaplain to Cromwell’s cavalry after the Battle of Naseby, the two men did not get on well with each other, though they respected one another. Both may have been fonder of talking than of listening. Cromwell sent to Baxter to come to listen to him, speaking for an hour about the great things God had done for England through him. Baxter got tired of listening to him without a turn. When it finally came, he told the Lord Protector that he thought the proper way of governing was by King and Parliament. Although not the only preacher to tell him this (Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans had also told him that he should restore the monarchy under Charles Stuart), Cromwell lost his temper with Baxter and they went on arguing for a further four hours, at the end of which, Baxter reported:

” … I saw that what he learned must be from himself, being more disposed to speak many hours than to hear one and little heeding what another said when he had spoken himself”.

Baxter had liked Cromwell best when he was still his Lord General. He had believed him to be honest and truly religious, but he thought that power had corrupted him as Lord Protector. He himself pointed out, however, that it was very difficult to know what to believe about Cromwell the man, for … no man was better and worse spoken than he, … as men’s interests led their judgements”. On his side, Cromwell thought highly enough of Baxter to wish to talk to him in a bid to gain his approval and blessing, though in this he failed.

Quakers v Ranters:

Quakerism had been the ‘legitimate’ offshoot of the ‘Seekers’, a religious movement which, as we have seen, was powerful long before the time of Fox. The Ranters were like its illegitimate and wayward offspring whose unpleasant label only faintly foreshadowed their practises, as reported by admittedly antagonistic scribes. The Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’, which formed the core of Fox’s message and had first attracted Nayler to Quakerism, became with the Ranters a belief in their absolute oneness with God. This belief carried with it by implication the assertion of personal infallibility, together with an all-embracing licence. Fox’s judgement of, as many saw them, this pernicious ‘sect’ did not err on the side of charity, and when one of its ‘members’ sought to ingratiate himself with the Quaker leader he repelled him with the exhortation: “Repent thou swine and beast!” He followed this up with a reference to “the old Ranters in Sodom”. Nayler himself, in the early months of his ministry, records their presence at his meetings in no uncertain tones:

Their filthy hearts was plainly manifest to the view of all the people, and the terrour of the lord was upon them all the while they was amongst us, not being long, so that they fled away.

Ranterism, though closely akin to Quakerism in its doctrines, was sharply distinguished by its disregard of authority and lack of moral restraint. Yet since their doctrines were so closely aligned, there was constant merger and migration between one and the other, something which Episcopalian and Presbyterian propagandists were not slow to play up in their literature. Contemporary commentators long tended to lump together the early Quakers with the Ranters. There was an unreasoning hostility of conservative critics, who believed that both Ranter and Quaker ideas must lead to licentiousness and therefore assumed that they did; there was also the likelihood that many early rank-and-file Quakers had in fact not entirely shaken themselves free from Ranter ideas and practices.  We hear of Ranters, as of Fifth Monarchists, after the execution of Charles I and the defeat of the Leveller Uprising at Burford. The latter event no doubt relates to the origins of the two groups, as it does to the emergence of the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1651, All the world now is in the Ranting humour. A Southwark physician in 1652 defended the Ranters against ‘time-serving saints’ because of their charitable attitude towards the poor. But John Reeve ascribed to them a pretended universal love to the whole creation. At first, he was attracted by their

… imagination of the eternal salvation of all mankind, though they lived and died under the power of all manner of unrighteousness.

In the early fifties, Bunyan found some Ranter books held highly in esteem by several old professors and one of his close companions turned a most devilish Ranter and gave himself up to all manner of filthiness. He denied the existence of God or angels and laughed at exhortations to sobriety. Other persons, formerly strict in religion, were swept away by Ranters: they would condemn Bunyan as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained to perfection that could do what they would and not sin, a doctrine which Bunyan himself found very seductive, I being but a young man. He was especially tempted to believe that there was no judgement or resurrection, and therefore that sin was no such grievous thing, turning the grace of God into wantonness. Bunyan’s answer to Ranters became the orthodox one: they lacked a conviction of sin. Samuel Fisher, the Baptist, said that they despised the ordinances of Christ and …

… run beyond the bounds of modesty and all good manners. The rabble of the ruder sort of Ranters. … are willingly ignorant, because of the tediousness of that thought to them, that there is any more coming of Christ at all. Some deny the existence of Christ: others claim to be Christ or God.

In 1649, when George Fox first met the Ranters in Coventry jail, they had shocked him by claiming to be God, some of them stating that there is no creator God but that everything comes by nature. Richard Baxter declared that Ranters set up the light of nature under the name of Christ in man. With the spiritual pride of ungrounded novices in religion, they believed that God regards not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart: that to the pure all things were pure, which they took as licensing blasphemy and continuous whoredom. Fortunately, he went on, the ‘horrid villainies’ of this sect speedily extinguished it, but reflected discredit on all other sects. John Holand, a hostile but not unfair witness, said that Ranters called God ‘Reason’, as Gerrard Winstanley had also done. For Ranters, ‘Christ in us’ was far more important than the historical figure who died in Jerusalem, …

… and all the commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are the fruits of the curse. Since all men are now freed of the curse, they are also free from the commandments; our will is God’s will.

The existence of evil was a subject to which Ranters paid a good deal of attention: simple believers found their arguments difficult to answer, such as the age-old one: If God is omnipotent, why does he permit evil? Others denied that there was any such thing as sin; if there was, it must be part of God’s plan. The day of judgement is either an invented thing … a bugbear to keep men in awe. Lawrence Clarkson believed that, in any case, there was no life after death:

… even as a stream from the ocean was distinct in itself while it was a stream, but when returned to the ocean was therein swallowed and became one with the ocean: so the spirit of man whilst in the body was distinct from God, but when death came it returned to God, and so became one with God, yea God itself.

Clarkson added that he would know nothing after this my being was dissolved. An extreme form of this doctrine attributed to Ranters was that those are most perfect … which do commit the greatest sins with the least remorse. Clarkson came very near to espousing this himself in his writing:

… till I acted that so-called sin I could not predominate over sin. (But now) whatsoever I act is … in relation to … that Eternity in me … So long as the act was in God … it was as holy as God. 

This included, he insisted, those acts by thee called swearing, drunkenness, adultery and theft, etc. Clarkson  (1615-67) was a native of Preston. Brought up in the Church of England, in youth he showed Puritan leanings; he regarded dancing on the Sabbath with particular horror. He became a Presbyterian and then an Independent, an Antinomian in theology. He became a ‘parish priest’ in Norfolk, but then led a wandering life. In 1644, he became an Anabaptist and the following year was imprisoned for ‘dipping’. Up to the end of 1648, he followed another of the major religious tendencies of the time, that of the Seekers. During this period he was an itinerant preacher in Kent before becoming a minister in two more parishes, in Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire. He also began to write religious tracts, but not being a University man, he was very often turned out of employment and was therefore constantly in financial straits. Taking a commission as a chaplain in an Army regiment, he tried to find a parish in London on leaving it in 1649, having been cashiered for blasphemy. He held a living at Pulham for a short time until he was turned out for preaching universal salvation. He then became Baptist and, under Erbery’s influence, a Seeker, preaching for monies in each faith.

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Clarkson developed Familist ideas of Luther’s reformation in his preaching but carried them considerably further. He also began to practice what he preached, escaping from one ‘maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected’ giving his body to other women whilst being ‘careful for moneys for my wife’, travelling the country with Mrs Star, and resisting the opportunity when ‘Dr Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped’ at a Ranters’ meeting. Early in 1650, Clarkson became a Ranter and was soon the notorious leader of the particularly licentious group, ‘My One Flesh’ to which Abiezer Coppe also belonged. He was arrested and examined. As on a previous occasion, he stood on his rights as a ‘freeborn subject’ and refused to answer incriminating questions. On 27 September 1650, the House sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment for his ‘blasphemous’ book, A Single Eye, to be followed by banishment. This latter sentence was never carried out, however, and on his release, he resumed his wandering life before joining the ‘Muggletonians’ in 1658, a sect of extreme ascetics, writing several tracts on their behalf.

Quakers first entered the ‘arena’ of the Commonwealth as a wing of the government party in the years 1651-53, enjoying the protection of the military authorities., and of local gentlemen of radical inclinations. They also had sometimes the more enthusiastic support of the Army rank-and-file. Those who administered the North of England or Wales could not afford to alienate Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers. George Fox had been in prison for nearly a year at Derby in 1650, but in the North, as we can see from his own Journal, he enjoyed a good deal of protection in 1651-52. Even hostile JPs, of whom there were many, had to proceed cautiously against him. Persecution began again, spasmodically, from the end of 1652, when the dissolution of the Rump appeared imminent, and again after 1653 when the gentry felt they had been given a free hand. Fox was imprisoned at Carlisle, but then the relatively radical Barebones Parliament met: a letter from it got Fox released and his jailor put in his place in the dungeon. In Wales, JPs also protected Quakers as a lesser evil than ‘papists’ or ‘pagans’. It was the Quakers themselves who alienated the clergy through indiscriminate attacks on the sanctity of ecclesiastical buildings made it for any priest to support them and continue to hold his living.

In 1654, Fox was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government, but he was well received by Oliver Cromwell. Those who wished ill towards the Quakers were those who resented Army rule; their views were strongly represented in the Parliament of 1656, as was demonstrated from the debates over James Nayler. Dark hints were dropped that the spread of the Quakers had been due to official encouragement, indeed that Quakers were to be found in the government itself.  Major General Philip Skippon, Nayler’s main Army opponent, had been regarded as ‘Parliament’s man in the Army’ in 1647. The rapid expansion of Quakerism both in the Army by 1649 and more broadly in the South and East of England in the early 1650s had made the ‘men of property’ apprehensive of ‘some Levelling design’ underlying the well-organised movement. The fact that Quakers were said to have reclaimed ‘such as neither magistrate nor minister ever speak to’ might seem reassuring after Quaker pacifism was firmly established and known to be accepted by all members of the sect. But that was to come later in the decade, and after the Restoration. In the mid-fifties, it was still far from being the case.

Baptists & Quakers – Bunyan v Fox:

Ranterism was better at destruction than it was at construction. In 1650, it was by listening to the ‘errors’ of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Cromwell’s Huntingdonshire and elsewhere were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’. In Cleveland, in 1651 it was meetings that had been ‘shattered’ under Ranter influence that turned to Quakerism. At that time, both Quakers and their critics mainly defined their beliefs by negatives, in terms of what they were against. Unlike many of the Ranters, however, they did not deny the existence of God or a historical Christ, or of heaven and hell. Neither did they believe that all could attain perfection in their earthly life. Most importantly, in terms of social and political attitudes, they did not challenge the authority of parents or magistrates. In the early 1650s, John Bunyan listed Quaker beliefs, which can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Bible is not the Word of God;

(2) Every man in the world has the Spirit of Christ;

(3) The Jesus Christ who was crucified 1600 years ago did not satisfy divine justice for the sins of the people;

(4) Christ’s flesh and blood is within the saints;

(5) There will be no resurrection of the body;

(6) The resurrection has already taken place within good men;

(7) The crucified Jesus did not ascend above the starry heavens and shall not come again on the last day as a man to judge all nations.

In 1654, Fox himself witnessed that Ranters had a pure convincement, but that they had fled the cross and turned the grace of God into wantonness. He emphasised especially drunkenness, swearing, and ‘sporting yourselves in the day-time’. He had a short way with them, because, in his opinion, they bowed and scraped too much and were too complimentary. In his Journal, Fox records many Ranter groups which ultimately became Quaker, in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Reading, for example. In the same year, Anthony Pearson said that “some that are joined to the Ranters are pretty people,” but that they “contained so many rude savage apprentices and young people … that nothing but the power of the Lord can chain them.”  But in 1655, the Quaker James Parnell admitted that the Quakers were accused of ‘being one’ with the Ranters:

Some of them have tasted the love of God and grace of God, and have had appearances of God, but they have turned the grace of God into wantonness, and have deceived so many with their alluring speeches. Their lascivious ways bring discredit on the truth of God.

In the same year, a diarist in Cheshire wrote that Quakers also denied the Trinity; … denied the Scriptures to be the Word of God; they said that they had no sin. From this doctrinal perspective, therefore, it is also possible to see how they might have attracted former Ranters, suggesting that contemporary judges and magistrates were correct in their famous assertions that had not the Quakers come, the Ranters had over-run the nation. In part, no doubt, enemies of the Quakers were anxious to discredit them, claiming that Quakerism had become ‘the common sink of them all’, including Anabaptists, Antinomians, Socinians, Familists, Libertines and Ranters. But there does seem to have been genuine doctrinal confusion as well as ideological fluidity between the memberships of the movements and sects. In Dorset and Wiltshire, former Levellers were alleged to have become Ranters. The Quakers seemed to absorb many ex-Levellers, including John Lilburne. His acceptance of Quakerism in 1655 was a very different act for the former revolutionary than if he had been convinced after 1660. As late as August 1655, the Grand Jury of Gloucestershire petitioned against Ranters, Levellers and atheists, under the name of Quakers. Christopher Atkinson was accepted as a Quaker until in 1655 he fell …

… into too much familiarity and conversation with some women kind, especially such as (it seemed) were somewhat inclined to a spirit of Ranterism. He grew loose and … committed lewdness with a servant-maid.

Mary Todd, a London lady who at a meeting pulled up all her clothes above her middle, exposing her nakedness to all in the room was disowned by the Quakers, who claimed she was a Ranter: but the act of disavowal suggests that they felt some measure of responsibility for her. In the 1650s there were ‘Proud Quakers’, who showed clear ranting tendencies. They used profane language, were lax in conduct; some of them were football players and wrestlers. Their leader, Rice Jones of Nottingham, set up an ale-house. After the restoration, John Perrot claimed a direct command from God that hats should be worn during prayer, a significant Ranter practice which James Nayler had also followed during his time in the West Country. But Perrot went on to deny all human arrangements for worship, even meeting at stated times and places. Fox said that Perrot preached the rotten principles of the Old Ranters, and associated him with Nayler, many of whose former partisans supported Perrot. Long after the restoration, Fox was insisting that some people claiming to be Quakers were really Ranters. Richard Baxter, who had no reason to love the ‘Friends’, paid them a deserved compliment when he wrote:

The Quakers were but the Ranters turned from horrid profaneness and blasphemy to a life of extreme austerity.

But the Quakers could hardly have prevented the Ranters from over-running the country unless their doctrines had been, at least initially, near enough to Ranterism to absorb many Ranters. Edward Burrough had straddled this doctrinal gap between Ranters and Quakers. He may originally have had Ranter sympathies; at one time he worked closely with Perrot and retained confidence in him longer than any other Quaker leader. In addition, as John Lampden has commented, by his preaching in London, Nayler had attracted, amongst other more reputable followers, a clique of married women all more or less tainted with Ranterism. They sought to exalt him by depreciating the work of his predecessors and pursued him with that undiscerning worship which was the chief trial and temptation of the popular preacher. Nevertheless, without naming the Ranters, Nayler himself had spoken disapprovingly that:

The greatest profession now set up by many is to make the redemption of Christ a cover for all liscentious and fleshly liberty, and say they are to that end redeemed.

Nayler’s Mission in the West; Trial & Torture by Parliament:

That was in 1656, a year after Nayler took up his work in London and prior to his ministry in the West. From the first, the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the heart of man had been the central focus of Nayler’s preaching. This point – exaggerated and distorted by his followers – was to become the rock on which his life was wrecked. It was this doctrine which had first attracted the London merchant Robert Rich to Quakerism, who had become his most faithful friend and advocate, becoming caught up into the current of Nayler’s tragedy. He seems to have responded to the call to missionary service which was heard by every primitive Friend, and in 1655 he was in prison in Banbury, together with Nayler’s Yorkshire ‘patron’ with whom he had worked in the North, and two women preachers. There is no record of Nayler’s first meeting with Rich but it is clear that, in the early months of Nayler’s ministry in the capital, he had won the merchant’s heart. This was due in part, no doubt, to his extraordinary charm of manner, but chiefly to the stress that Nayler laid on the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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In October 1656, Nayler staged a triumphal entry into Bristol, shown above, which was blatantly modelled on Christ’s acted parable at Jerusalem. He rode an ass, accompanied by two of his many women disciples, while others spread their garments in his path or walked behind him singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel. With his long hair, unusual for puritan preachers, he bore a natural resemblance to popular images of Jesus, and he emphasised it by the way he cut and combed his hair and beard. Parliament was outraged; it appointed a committee of no fewer than fifty-five members to examine him and his followers, and they took five weeks before they reported to the House on 5 December. Called to the bar the next day, Nayler protested that as a mere creature he claimed no special glory, but shared the common Quaker conviction that Christ dwells in all believers. He was convinced that he had a revelation from God, commanding him to do what he did as a sign of Christ’s coming. There is no evidence that Robert Rich took any part in their extravagances in the West, and he indignantly repelled the charge of Ranterism which was later brought against him. At the crisis of Nayler’s trial for blasphemy, he determined that whatever might be the errors of the preacher’s followers he himself had offended in nothing save, as he said, …

” … in confessing to Christ in the saints, and my love to that testimony made me willing to stand by him in his sufferings and to bear his cross.” 

Rich took up the unpopular role of Nayler’s champion and flung himself into his defence with the generosity which was the most striking trait of his character. Day by day through that dreary November of 1656, while Parliament debated the guilt of Nayler and the punishment meet for it, Rich, ‘the mad merchant’ as he began to be called, haunted the door of the House with petitions and letters, or lay in wait to make a personal appeal to any member whom he judged to have some tinge of pity in him. He even offered to prove to the Parliament out of Scripture that the prisoner had uttered no blasphemy, nor done anything worthy of death or ‘of bonds’. The House spent nine days in hot debate as to what to do with Nayler since under the 1650 Blasphemy Act he could be given no more than six months’ imprisonment for a first offence, and for the bloodthirsty majority in the Commons that was not enough. He escaped the death penalty by only ninety-six votes to eighty-two, due largely to the support of Cromwell’s supporters on the council of state, like Sir Gilbert Pickering. But the Commons sentenced him to a series of corporal punishments, to be carried out in London and Bristol, to be followed by indefinite solitary confinement and hard labour.

Flogged all the way from Westminster to the City on 18 December, 310 stripes left Nayler so weakened that the next stage of his ‘torture’ had to be postponed. Before it was executed, many petitioners, by no means all Quakers, pleaded for the remission of the rest of the sentence, first (in vain) with parliament and then with Cromwell. He immediately wrote to the Speaker, expressing abhorrence of the ‘crimes’ imputed to Nayler, but asking the House to let him know the grounds and reasons whereupon they have proceeded. This challenge to the constitutionality of its actions, which Whitelocke and others had also expressed, caused both further consternation on all sides in addition to further appeals for mercy, but the Commons voted by two to one to carry out the rest of the sentence, so that Nayler was duly branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. Parliament never replied to Cromwell’s letter, but the episode helped to convince its wiser heads that the constitution needed further amendment. In particular, when anything deserving the label ‘torture’ was inflicted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was by order of parliament, not the executive or the judiciary, as was the case, for example, in the reign of James I. The abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords had destroyed the essential separation of powers inherent in the British Constitution.

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A New Constitution & continuing confusion:

The Humble Petition and Advice, as the draft of a new constitution came to be called in 1657, began by asking Cromwell to assume the title of king, though not on a hereditary basis. The most striking proposed change, however, was that parliament was to consist of two houses, with the new one approximating more to a senate than to the hereditary House of Lords, but one which could also operate as a ‘High Court’. Regarding religion, the new constitution was slightly more restrictive than the Instrument of Government which had established the Protectorate, but in practice, this change made little difference. There was to be a confession of faith, agreed between the Protector and parliament, to which clergy who received public maintenance had to conform, but no such document was ever promulgated. For those who dissented from it, toleration was limited to those who accepted the basic doctrine of the trinity and acknowledged both the New and Old Testaments to be the revealed word of God; it was explicitly denied to ‘papists’, prelatists and all ‘blasphemers’ and licentious practitioners, including those who disturbed the public peace. These last exceptions were aimed mainly at Ranters and Quakers, but the authors of the ‘Petition and Advice’ had to steer a course between displeasing intolerant magistrates and offending Cromwell’s breadth of sympathy since their whole enterprise was dependent on his acceptance of their proposals.

Clearly, critics of both sects, even sympathetic ones, continued to conflate both movements on doctrinal grounds, if not on the basis of their demeanour, conduct and practices. Thomas Collier in 1657 asserted that any that know the principles of the Ranters would easily recognise that Quaker doctrines were identical. Both would have…

… no Christ but within; no Scripture to be a rule; no ordinances, no law but their lusts, no heaven nor glory but here, no sin but what men fancied to be so, no condemnation for sin but in the consciences of ignorant ones.

Collier wrote that only Quakers smooth it over with an outward austere carriage before men, but within are full of filthiness, and he gave Nayler as an example of this.

(to be continued…)

Posted March 16, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, Austerity, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Charity, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Commons, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, East Anglia, Egalitarianism, English Civil War(s), eschatology, Gospel of John, History, Home Counties, Jesus Christ, Millenarianism, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Parliament, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reformation, Respectability, Resurrection, Revolution, Scotland, south Wales, The Law, theology, tyranny, Utopianism, Wales, Warfare, West Midlands, Women's History

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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Four.   Leave a comment

The Challenge – What was Paul thinking?

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The Sources – The Great Pastoral ‘Epistles’:

To understand the thought of Paul, we naturally turn to his letters. Although Luke’s Acts of the Apostles gives a fair account of his life and work, and a general idea of what he stood for, it is in his letters that his mind is fully revealed. In the New Testament, there are thirteen letters that name Paul as their ‘author’. A fourteenth, the Letter to the Hebrews is often included with them it is, in fact, an anonymous work, since in the early church itself it was admitted that no one knew who wrote it. Of the thirteen, it is by no means certain that all were written by Paul’s hand or even at his dictation. This was not unusual for the period in which he was writing since it was not unusual for disciples of an outstanding teacher to compose books to propagate his teaching as they understood it, and to publish them under his name; we only have to remind ourselves how ‘loosely’ the gospels are connected with the disciples whose names they bear.

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There are strong reasons for thinking that the Letters to Timothy and Titus might have originated in a similar way. On the other hand, the four great pastoral Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians and the Romans, to which we might add the short note to Philemon, carry the style of the apostle’s style and personality on every page and in every verse. There is no question that Paul composed them and most scholars have claimed the same about Philippians and the two Letters to the Thessalonians. There is more doubt about Colossians, but the balance of probability falls in favour of Paul’s authorship, possibly with some collaboration. The inclusion of the Letter to the Ephesians is more debatable, because of the difference in style. Yet if it was written by a disciple, it must have been written by one with great insight into the mind of the apostle, and whether or not it comes from his own hand, it can be included in the canon in gaining a full picture of his thought in its fullest and most mature form.

The letters were almost all the result of some particular event, and none of them, except perhaps the Letter to the Romans, makes any attempt to present the author’s thinking in any systematic way. They were clearly written at intervals in the midst of an extremely busy life, but are also the product of a prodigious intellect responding to the challenge of practical problems of Christian living in a pagan environment, as in the correspondence with the church in Corinth, or of a subtle propaganda which seemed to be subversive of the truth, as in Galatians and Colossians. We have to interpret his teaching by gathering and combining what he wrote in different geographical contexts, to different people and at different times. His thought was formed both by his background and the environments he was writing in and for, as well as by his personal experiences. We have to take particular account of his strict Jewish upbringing and of what he owed to the primitive Christian community which he had joined at an early, formative stage in its history. What assessment can we then make of his brilliant mind and passionate heart? Tom Wright has the following answer:

For Paul, there was no question about the starting point. It was always Jesus: Jesus as the shocking fulfilment of Israel’s hopes; Jesus as the genuinely human being, the true ‘image’; Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God – so that, without leaving Jewish monotheism, one would worship and invoke Jesus as Lord within, not alongside, the service of the ‘living and true God’. Jesus, the one for whose sake one would abandon all idols, all rival ‘lords’. Jesus, above all, who had come to his kingdom, the true lordship of the world, in the way that Paul’s friends who were starting to write the Jesus story at that time had emphasised: by dying under the weight of the world’s sin in order to break the power of the dark forces that had enslaved all humans, Israel included… Jesus was the starting point. And the goal.

Jewish Heritage, Judaism & the Nations:

God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. By the time of his later letters he realised that he might himself die before it happened. But that the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued from its state of slavery and death, emerging into a new life under the glorious rule of God’s people, God’s new humanity – this was something he never doubted. Insofar as there was an ‘apocalyptic’ view in Paul’s day, he shared it. He believed that Israel’s God, having abandoned the Temple at the time of the Babylonian exile, had revealed himself in Jesus, breaking in upon an unready world and an unready people. There was a certain contradiction deeply embedded in the monotheistic Judaism of the first century. The One God, it taught, was the God of the whole world, maker and ruler of all mankind. Yet in a special sense, he was the God of Israel, the nation bound to him in an ‘everlasting covenant’. The ‘charter’ of this covenant was the Law, which was held to be the perfect embodiment of the righteousness He required of men. As such it was absolute and universal, but it was also, primarily, Israel’s law. Paul himself gave eloquent expression to the pride which the Jew felt in this unique privilege:

You rely upon the Lord and are proud of your God; you know his will; instructed by the Law you know right from wrong; you are confident that … in the Law you see the very shape of knowledge and truth.

(Rom. 2: 17-20).

The possession of the Law marked Israel out as God’s chosen people, and it was to his people that God had revealed himself in ‘mighty acts’, through which his purpose was fulfilled. This was the central motive of its history and the key to its destiny. In this way, the highest moral idealism became wedded to an assertive nationalism. What then was the status and the destiny of the nations that did not know the Hebrew God? The answers to this question were various and uncertain. Some of them show a finely humane spirit which went as far as possible – without prejudice to Israel’s prior claim – in generosity to the Gentiles. Others seem to us today to approach the limits of chauvinistic nationalism. But there was in first-century Judaism a strong ‘missionary’ movement towards the pagan world. On one level, it was content to propagate the monotheistic idea and certain fundamental moral principles, but its ulterior aim was to bring Gentiles within the scope of the divine mercy by incorporation in the chosen people. The ‘proselyte’ submitted himself to the Law of God – that is, to the Jewish Law; he became a Jew.

On the other side, the question arose, what was the status and the destiny of the Jews who, knowing the Law, do not in practice observe its precepts? Here again, the answers were uncertain and various. The Law itself proclaimed a curse on all who do not persevere in doing everything that is written in the Book of Law (Gal. 3:10), and prophets and Rabbis alike use the language of the utmost integrity in castigating offenders. Yet there is a notable reluctance to admit that in the last resort any ‘son of Abraham’ could be rejected by God; for the sake of the fathers, he would come through in the end. For Paul, who looked at the matter with his broader view of the world outside Palestine, this was simply not realistic; moreover, it was inconsistent with the principle of monotheism. The One God could not be the exclusive God of the Jews; he also had to be the God of the Gentiles. The conclusion was therefore unavoidable, that…

God has no favourites; those who have sinned outside the pale of the Law of Moses will perish outside its pale, and all who have sinned under that Law will be judged by the Law.

(Rom 2: 11 f.)

Yet while this clears the ground by setting aside any notion of preferential treatment, it is a negative assessment of the human condition. There is no distinction in that all have sinned (Rom. 3: 22), so that while there may be some ‘good’ Jews who keep God’s Law (Rom. 2: 29), and some ‘good’ Gentiles who live by ‘the light of nature’ (Rom. 2: 14), Paul held that, fundamentally, human society is in breach of the Law of God and is therefore headed for ultimate disaster, subject, as he put it, to the law of sin and death (Rom. 8: 2). This universal human condition enters the experience of every individual in the desperate moral struggle which Paul has depicted with deep psychological insight in the seventh chapter of Romans: When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach (Rom. 7: 21). The problem which began as a domestic concern within Judaism turned out to be a broader enquiry into the human condition. That is why Paul’s controversy with his Judaic opponents which looks, at first sights, like an antiquated, parochial dispute, turns out to have permanent significance. The only possible solution to this quandary that Paul could contemplate was a fresh divine initiative such as the one taken when he had established the covenant with Israel at Sinai. He now saw that this new initiative had actually taken place when Christ entered history:

What the law could not do because our lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done – by sending us his Son.

(Rom. 8: 3).

The Divine Initiative – Doctrines & Metaphors:

This divine initiative is an entirely free and authentic, original act of God, conditioned only by his love for mankind while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5: 8). This is what Paul describes as the ‘grace’ of God. The response that is asked for from the people is ‘faith’, or ‘trust’ in God. In writing about this divine initiative in human experience, Paul uses a variety of expressions. The most frequently used was ‘salvation’. In common Greek usage, this word had a wide range of meanings. It could simply mean safety and security, deliverance from disaster, or good health and well-being. In effect, it conveyed the concept of a condition in which ‘all is well’, and the particular way in which that was the case depended on the context in which it was used. In Paul’s writings, as in those of the New Testament authors in general, salvation stands for a condition in which ‘all is well’ in the absolute sense; a condition in which we are secure from all evils that afflict, or menace, the human spirit, here or hereafter. Thus the expression, while strongly emotive, is hardly capable of telling us what precisely, as Paul sees it, God has done for us in Christ.

More illuminating are some of the metaphorical expressions he uses. Three of these have played a major part in the development of Christian doctrine, and need to be looked at more carefully. First, there is the legal, or forensic metaphor of ‘justification’, which we have previously encountered with Tom Wright in the context of the letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2: 15 f), but it is also a major theme in the later letter to the Romans (Rom. 3: 24, 26). Sin is conceived in this context as an offence, or offences, against the Law. The sinner stands at the bar and no-one but a judge with competent authority can condemn or acquit. Before the divine tribunal, the defendant is unquestionably guilty, but God acquits the guilty (Rom. 4: 5). Here Paul is setting out in the most challenging terms his conviction that God takes man as he is, with all his imperfections on his head, and gives him a fresh start so that he can then take on his moral task relieved of the crippling sense of guilt.

Secondly, there is the metaphor of ‘redemption’ (Rom 3: 24; 1 Cor. 1: 30; Eph. 1: 7; Col. 1: 14). The Greek word was used of the process by which a slave acquired his freedom; it means ‘release’, ’emancipation’, or ‘liberation’ (and is translated as such in the NEB). For Paul, the condition of a man caught in the moral dilemma he has described is a state of slavery, since he is unable to do what he wishes to do. But God, exercising all his supreme authority, declares the slave free, and free he is. All that Christ did – his entry into the human condition, his life of service, his suffering and death – may be regarded as the price God pays for the emancipation of the slave. The exultant note of liberation sounds all through the letters as Paul’s own experience as well as that of those he was writing to:

Christ set us free, to be free men.

(Gal. 5: 1)

Thirdly, there is the ritual metaphor of sacrifice. Sin can be regarded not only as a crime against the law, bringing a sense of guilt, or a state of slavery, bringing a sense of impotence, but also as ‘defilement’, which makes a man feel ashamed and disgusted with himself. In ancient religious defilement could be incurred in all sorts of ways, many of them having nothing to do with morals. It was assumed that the defilement could be removed by the performance of the proper ritual, most commonly, and perhaps most efficaciously, by the sacrifice of a victim. This was called ‘expiation’ or, less accurately, ‘atonement’. The metaphor of expiation, drawn from a world of thought quite alien to us, was ready to hand for anyone, like Paul, who was familiar with the elaborate ritual of sacrifice laid down in the Law of Moses, and in his time still practised in the temple at Jerusalem – or indeed for anyone acquainted with the religious rituals of the Greek states. This is the background of what he says about the work of Christ: God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death (Rom. 3: 25). There is no suggestion, here or elsewhere, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice to ‘propitiate’ an offended deity. In using the metaphor of sacrifice Paul is declaring his conviction that the self-sacrifice of Christ meant the release of moral power which penetrates to the deepest recesses of the human spirit, acting as a kind of ‘moral disinfectant’.

These are the metaphors which have most captured the imagination of Paul’s readers. His thought has sometimes been obscured through taking one of or another of them by itself, and then forgetting that it is, after all, a metaphor. What he was writing, all the time, was that in Christ God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. The criminal could not pronounce his own acquittal, nor the slave set himself, nor could the slave set himself free, and God alone could ‘expiate’ the defilement we have brought upon ourselves. In the course of the following passage, perhaps the clearest and most succinct statement of his teaching on this theme:

From first to last this is the work of God. He has reconciled us men to himself through Christ … What I mean is that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding their misdeeds against them.

The Ministry of Reconciliation:

In the idea of ‘reconciliation’, his thought passed out of mere metaphor and adopted the language of actual personal relations. Many people know something of what it means to be ‘alienated’ or ‘estranged’ – perhaps from their environment or their fellow-men, perhaps from the standards of their society, perhaps, indeed, from themselves. The deepest alienation is from the true end of our being, and that means estrangement from our Maker, out of which comes a distortion of all relationships. The great thing that God, from his side of the gulf that has opened, has put an end to the estrangement; he has reconciled us to himself. Nowhere does he suggest that God needed to be reconciled to us. His attitude towards his creatures is, and always was, one of unqualified goodwill; as Jesus himself said, he is kind to the unthankful and wicked. Out of that goodwill, he has provided the way to reconciliation.

It was entirely in harmony with the prophetic valuation of history as the field of the ‘mighty acts’ of God that Paul saw in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as one more ‘mighty act’, the ‘fulfilment’ of all that God had promised in the whole history of Israel. In common Jewish belief, the symbol of that fulfilment was the expected ‘Messiah’. After his conversion, Paul accepted what the followers of Jesus were saying, that in him the Messiah had come. But what Paul meant by ‘Messiah’ was something different from any of the various forms of Jewish messianic expectation. The messianic idea had to be re-thought in the light of a new set of facts. One invariable trait of the Messiah in Jewish expectation was that he would be the agent of God’s final victory over his enemies. On the popular level, this meant victory over the pagan empires which had oppressed the chosen people from time to time. In Paul’s thinking, the idea of the messianic victory is completely ‘sublimated’. It is the cosmic powers and authorities that Christ led as captives in his triumphal procession (Col. 2: 15). Here, Paul was drawing on mythology which belonged to the mentality of most men of his time (Rom. 8: 38; Gal. 4: 3; Eph. 6: 12; Col. 2: 8, 15, etc.) The mythology stood for something real in human experience: the sense that there are unexplained factors working behind the scenes, whether in the world or in our own ‘unconscious’, frustrating our best intentions and turning our good to evil.

As Paul saw it, Jesus was, in his lifetime, in conflict not only with his ostensible opponents but with dark forces lurking in the background. It was, Paul says, the powers that rule the world that crucified him (I Cor. 2: 8), perverting the intended good to evil ends, for neither Pilate nor the chief priests and Pharisees meant ill. But in the outcome, Jesus was not defeated, and unclouded goodness prevailed. His resurrection was the pledge of victory over all enemies of the human spirit, for it was the final victory over death, which Paul personifies as ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15: 26).  So, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (I Cor. 15: 57). It is for Paul highly significant that Jesus lived a truly human life, that he was a man and a Jew. But that does not mean that he is just one more individual thrown up by the historical process. On the contrary, his coming into the world can be seen as a fresh incursion of the Creator into his creation. God has now given the light of the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4: 6). In the act of creation, according to an influential school of Jewish thought, it was divine ‘wisdom’ that was at work, and Christ himself, Paul wrote, was ‘the wisdom of God’ visibly in action among men (I Cor. 1: 24). According to these Jewish thinkers, this wisdom was the flawless mirror of the active power of God and the image of his goodness (Wisdom of Solomon 7: 26). So Christ, Paul says, is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1: 19).

This was a new historical phenomenon, to be brought into relation with the history of Israel as the field within which the purpose of God was working itself out. The formative motive of that history was the calling into existence of a ‘people of God’ – a divine commonwealth – in and through which the will of God might be done on earth, an ‘Israel’ worth the name. The distinguishing mark of such an ‘Israel’, Paul wrote, was to be found in the promise made to Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people, that in his posterity all nations shall find blessing (Gal. 3: 8). This ideal had never yet been realised, though in successive periods there had been some who had it in them to become such people, the ‘remnant’ of which prophets spoke (Rom. 9: 27; 11: 5). In the emergent church of Christ, Paul saw the divine commonwealth coming into active existence. If you belong to Christ, he writes, you are the issue of Abraham (Gal 3: 29), i.e. you are the true Israel in whom all nations shall find blessing.

Church & Sacraments:

002 (3)Here we have a pointer to one reason, at least, why Paul set such store by his mission to the Gentiles. The church was the consummation of a long, divinely directed, history. It is a theme to which he returns in the long and intricate discourse in Romans (9-11). The new, supra-national Israel was constituted solely on the basis of ‘belonging to Christ’, and no longer on racial descent or attachment to a particular legal system. Paul wrote: you are all one person in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3: 28). The expression ‘in Christ’ is one which recurs with remarkable frequency throughout Paul’s letters. The reality of the doctrine for which it stands was present in the church from the beginning in the two rites of baptism and the ‘breaking of bread’. It was through baptism that a person was incorporated into the community of Christ’s followers. In its suggestive ritual, in which the convert was ‘buried’ by immersion in water, and came out cleansed and renewed, Paul saw a symbolic re-enactment of the death and resurrection of Christ:

… by baptism we were buried with him and lay dead, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead in the splendour of the Father, so also we might set our feet on the new path of life (Rom. 6: 4).

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Baptism affirmed the solidarity of all members of the church with Christ. So, even more clearly and emphatically, did the other primitive sacrament of the church. From the first, its fellowship had been centred in the solemn ‘breaking of bread’ at a communal meal. As the bread was broken, they recalled the mysterious words which Jesus had spoken when he broke bread for his disciples at his last supper: ‘This is my body’ (I Cor. 11: 23 f.). Reflecting on these words, Paul observed, first, that in sharing bread the company established a corporate unity among themselves: We, many as we are, are one body, for it is one loaf of which we all partake (I Cor. 10: 17). Also, Christ himself had said, This is my body. Consequently, when we break the bread, it is a means of sharing the body of Christ (I Cor. 10: 16). The church, therefore, is itself the body of Christ; he is the head, and on him, the whole body depends (Eph. 4: 16). It is in this way that the new people of God is constituted, ‘in Christ’.

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In all forms of Jewish messianic belief, it was common ground that the Messiah was, in some sense, representative of Israel in its divine calling and destiny. Paul presses this idea of representation further by stating that those who adhere to Christ in sincere faith are identified with him in a peculiarly intimate way as if they were being included in him in his own being. He was the inclusive representative of the emergent people of God. Another way of putting it is to say that Christ is the second ‘Adam’, symbolic of the new humanity of which the church was the head. In the Jewish schools of thought where Paul had his training, there was much speculation about the ‘First Adam’ and about the way in which all men, as ‘sons of Adam’, are involved in his fortunes as depicted mythologically in Genesis. Paul takes up this idea: mankind is incorporate ‘in Adam’; emergent new humanity is incorporate ‘in Christ’: As in Adam all men die, so in Christ, all will be brought to life (I Cor. 15: 22; Rom. 5: 12-14). Once again, we see here a fresh expansion of the messianic idea.

The church, as the new ‘Israel of God’, in its essential nature was a united entity and this unity, he argued, should be reflected in the life of every local congregation; he was dismayed to see it being disrupted. In particular, there were persisting influences, both pagan and Jewish, in the minds of those so recently converted. Paul discusses, for example, divergences among Christians about the continued observance of Jewish holy days and food regulations (Rom. 14), and, on the other side, about the extent to which they might share in the social life of their pagan neighbours without sacrificing their principles (I Cor. 8: 1-13; 10: 18-33). But apart from such special discussions, Paul insisted on the idea of the church as a body, analogous to a living organism, in which the parts, while endlessly various, are interdependent and subordinate to one another, and each makes its indispensable contribution to the well-being of the whole. There is a passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians (12: 14-27) which is the classical statement of the idea of the social organism. He develops this idea in relation to his governing conception of the church as the body of Christ. In all its members, it is Christ who is at work, and God in Christ, through his Spirit:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of service, but the same Lord. There are many forms of work, but all of them, in all men, are the work of the same God.

(I Cor. 12: 4-11).

We can see from the lists of ‘services’ in other letters (Rom. 12: 6-8; Eph. 4: 11 f.) just how complex and sophisticated the activities of the ‘primitive’ church had already become in Paul’s time. It is in this context that Paul develops his doctrine of the Spirit, which is another of his most original contributions to Christian thought. It was an innovation rooted in what he had taken from his own Jewish background as well as from the first Judaic Christians. In some forms of Jewish messianic expectation, it was held that in the days of the Messiah, or in the age to come, the divine Spirit, which was believed to have animated the prophets and heroes of Israel’s remoter past, would be poured out afresh, and in a larger measure (Acts 2: 16-18). The early followers of Jesus, when the realisation had broken upon them that he had risen from the dead, had experienced an almost intoxicating sense of new life and power. It was accompanied, as often happens in times of religious ‘revival’, by abnormal psychic phenomena, including visions, the hearing of voices, and ecstatic utterance or ‘speaking with tongues’. The early Christians valued these as evident signs that God was at work among them through his Spirit. These abnormal phenomena reproduced themselves in the new Christian communities which sprang from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and here they created an exciting atmosphere which he also saw to be full of danger.

Liberty & the Gifts of the Spirit:

The situation needed careful handling since Paul did not want to be seen as damping down the enthusiasm of which these strange powers were one expression (I Thess. 5: 19-21). Nor did he wish to deny that they could be the outcome of genuine inspiration. He knew from his own personal experience what it was to have visions and to hear voices (II Cor. 12: 1-4), and he could himself ‘speak with tongues’ (I Cor. 14: 18). But there were other ‘gifts of the Spirit’, less showy, but in the end far more important to the community, such as wisdom, insight, powers of leadership, the gifts of teaching, administration, and the meeting of needs of those in states of deprivation and/or distress (Rom. 12: 6-8; I Cor. 12: 28). These were gifts which helped ‘build up’ the community (I Cor. 14:12) and in emphasising them Paul diverted attention away from the abnormal and exceptional to such moral and intellectual endowments as any society would wish to find among its members. It was their devotion to such endowments to the common good that gave them real value.

It was this original concept of the Spirit as the mode of Christ’s own presence in his church opens up a new approach to ethics. Paul found himself obliged to meet a formidable challenge to his message that the Christian is free from the ‘bondage’ of the law since Christ annulled the law with its rules and regulations (Eph. 2: 15). This kind of language ran the risk of being misunderstood. His Jewish critics, both inside and outside the church, suspected that in sweeping away the discipline of the Mosaic Law he was leaving his Gentile converts without moral anchorage in a licentious environment. Paul scarcely realised at first how open to misconstruction his language was. He soon discovered that he was widely understood to be advocating a purely ‘permissive’ morality, which was in fact far from his intention. People were claiming, We are free to do anything (I Cor. 6: 12; 10: 23), in the belief that they were echoing his own views. He did point out that there were some obvious limits on freedom and that Christian morality was not conformity to an external code but sprang from an inward source. The transformation which this involved was made effective by the work of the Spirit within as the true source of Christian character and action:

“We are free to do anything,” you say; but does everything help to build up the community?

(I Cor. 10: 23)

You were called to be free men, only do not turn your liberty to license for your lower nature.

(Gal. 5: 13)

Let your minds be remade, and your whole nature transformed; then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect.

(Rom. 12: 2)

The harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, and self-control. There is no law dealing with such things as those. 

(Gal. 5: 22 f.).

The church was under a ‘new covenant’, which was not, like the ‘old covenant’, guaranteed by a single code of commands and prohibitions engraved letter by letter upon a stone (II Cor. 3: 7), but by the Spirit animating the whole body of the church. But that Spirit was not simply an ‘inner light’, but the Holy Spirit, the Spirit in the church which is the Spirit of Christ working in the members of his body. This was the historical Christ who had lived and taught, died and rose again. Christians who had received the Gospel and teaching that went with it were in a position to know what it was like to be ‘Christlike’ in character and conduct, and this was an objective standard by which all inner promptings could be brought to the test. It might even be described as the law of Christ (Gal. 6: 2; I Cor. 9: 21), but Paul was obviously cautious of using such quasi-legal language; he did not wish to be introducing a kind of new Christian legalism. The ‘law of Christ’ and the ‘life-giving law of the Spirit’ are, for Paul, one and the same thing (Ro. 8: 2). Sometimes Paul wrote as if the ‘reshaping’ of the mind of the Christian took place almost immediately upon their becoming believers, but there are sufficient passages in his letters which reveal that he was aware that the process might be gradual, perhaps lengthy (Gal. 4: 19; Eph. 4: 13; I Cor. 9: 26) and possibly never completed in this life (Phil. 3: 12-14). But once the process was genuinely underway, a believer was ‘under the law of Christ’, and Christ himself – not the Christian’s own ideas, not even in the end, his conscience – is the judge to whom he defers in all his actions (I Cor. 4: 3 f.).

Loving-kindness – The Law of Christ & Social Ethics:

The ‘law of Christ’ is, therefore, Christ himself working through his Spirit in the church to give ethical direction. And it is all that we know of Christ that comes into it – his teaching, the example of his actions, and the impact of his death and resurrection. These acted as influences on Paul’s thought, not as from outside, but creatively from within. His ethical judgements are informed by the Spirit of Christ and yet are intimately his own. That is why the law of Christ, while it commands him absolutely, can never be thought of as a ‘bondage’, as the old law with its rules and regulations; where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (II Cor. 3: 17). Paul’s ethical teaching, therefore, is the application of what it means to be ‘Christlike’. His death is the commanding example of self-sacrifice for the sake of others (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5: 2, 25), and it was his expression of his limitless love for mankind (Rom. 8: 34 f.; Eph. 3: 18 f.).

It is this quality of love, above all, that Paul holds up as the essence of what it means to be ‘Christlike’, and as the basic and all-inclusive principle of Christian living (Rom. 13: 8-10; Gal. 5: 14; Col. 3: 14; Eph. 1: 4). The word he uses is the almost untranslatable agape, a word first brought into common use in a Christian setting. It can be rendered by the older use of the word charity, from the Latin Caritas. ‘Agape’ includes feelings of affection (Rom. 12. 9 f.), but it evokes, more fully and fundamentally, the energy of goodwill or ‘loving kindness’ emanating unconditionally towards others, regardless of their merit, worthiness or attractiveness. The eloquent passage in I Corinthians 13, which has the feeling of a hymn to agape, contains pointers to the kind of attitude and behaviour it inspires, and in this context, it is presented as the highest of all ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (I Cor. 12: 31; 14: 1). It is in this ‘hymn’ that the ‘law of the Spirit’ and the ‘law of Christ’ become intertwined and thereby completely indistinguishable.

Agape, then, is the source of the distinctively Christian virtues and graces of character. It is also the most constructive principle in society; it is love that builds (I Cor. 8: 1). Thus the ideas of the building of the body and the centrality of love imply one another and form the effective basis for Paul’s teaching on social ethics. The whole of Christian behaviour can be summed up in the maxim, Love one another as Christ loved you (Eph. 5: 1; Gal. 5: 13 f.; I Thess. 4: 9; Col. 3: 14). This does not mean, however, that Paul is content to say, Love and do as you please. Nor, on the other hand, does he undertake to show how detailed rules of behaviour could be derived deductively from a single master-principle. Ethical behaviour is essentially an individual’s response to actual situations in which he finds himself in day-to-day living as a member of society. Paul envisages his readers not just in any society, but in the particular society in which their daily lives must be lived, namely the Graeco-Roman world, which he knew so well, with its political, legal and economic institutions, and within that world, the young Christian communities with their distinctive ethos and unique problems. He indicates, always in practical terms, how this whole network of relations may be permeated with the Christian quality of living.

How close these immature Christians stood to the corruptions of paganism, and how easily they could relapse into them can be gathered by some of the startling remarks which he lets fall about his converts (I Cor. 5: 1 f.; 6: 8-10; Col. 3: 5-7; I Thess. 4: 3-8), as well as from the passion with which he insists that there must be a complete break with the past (Col. 3: 5-10). So alarmed was he at the possibility of the infection of immorality that he sometimes writes as if the only safe way of avoiding this was for the church to withdraw from pagan society altogether (II Cor. 6: 14-18); but he had to explain that this was not his real intention: the idea that Christians should avoid dangerous contacts by getting right out of the world he dismisses as absurd (I Cor. 5: 9-13). In fact, it is clear that he envisaged Christians living on good terms and in normal social intercourse with their pagan neighbours (I Cor. 10: 27 f.). Their task was the more difficult one of living as full members of the society in which their lot was cast, while firmly renouncing its corruptions; to be in it, but not of it. But although deeply corrupted, Graeco-Roman civilisation was not without moral ideals. A certain standard of what was ‘fitting’ was widely accepted, at least in public. The Stoics spoke of it as the general feeling of mankind (communis sensus hominum), and there was a genuine desire to see this standard observed in corporate life. Paul was well aware of this, as he shows when he enjoins his readers: Let your aims be such as all men count honourable (Rom. 12: 17). Even after his fierce castigation of pagan vices at the beginning of his Letter to the Romans he goes on to write that the good pagan may do God’s will by the light of nature; his conscience bears true witness (Rom. 2: 14 f.). There is a broad universality about what he writes to the Philippians:

All that is true, all that is noble, all that is just and pure, all that is lovable and gracious, whatever is excellent and admirable – fill all your thoughts with these things.

(Phil. 4: 8)

It is therefore not surprising that Paul was concerned to work out his sketch of Christian behaviour within the framework of Graeco-Roman society as it actually existed, rather than as Christians might have wanted it to be. The empire was, for him, part of the divinely given setting for a Christian’s life in the world, and he made it clear that he would be following the law of Christ in obeying the Roman law, respecting the magistrates, and paying his taxes. This was an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by conscience. In fact, the fulfilment of such obligations is an application of the maxim, Love your neighbour as yourself (Rom. 13: 1-10). Similarly, in dealing with family life he took over a general scheme current among Stoics and moralists at the time which assumed the existing structure of the Graeco-Roman household, with the paterfamilias as the responsible head, and the other members, including the slaves, having their respective obligations (Eph. 5: 21 – 6: 9; Col. 3: 18 – 4: 1), and indicated how within this general structure Christian principles and values could be applied.

As far as Paul is concerned, marriage is indissoluble for Christians because there is a saying of the Lord to that effect (I Cor. 7: 10 f.; Mark 10: 2-9). Beyond that, because in Christ there is no distinction between man and woman (Gal. 3: 28), although the husband is usually the head of the household, the marriage relation itself must be completely mutual as between husband and wife. Neither can claim their own body ‘as their own’ (I Cor. 7: 4). This bond is so sacred that in a mixed marriage the ‘heathen’ spouse is ‘holy’ to God, as are the children of such a marriage (I Cor. 7: 14). So the natural ties of family relationships are valid within the Christian fellowship which is ‘the body of Christ’. However, in I Cor. 7: 26-29, Paul apparently ‘entertained’ the belief that family obligations were of limited relevance since the time we live in will not last long. It was only by the time he wrote to the Colossians that he had fully accepted the principle that family life should be part of life ‘in Christ’, though even then he only gave some brief hints about what its character should be (Col. 3: 18-21).

The Graeco-Roman household also included slaves, and here again, Christian principles and values began to make inroads into this practice. It was a fundamental principle that in Christ there was neither slave nor free man (Gal. 3: 28, Col. 3: 11). Accordingly, there is a level on which their status is equal:

The man who as a slave received the call to be a Christian is the Lord’s freedman, and, equally, the free man who received the call is a slave in the service of Christ.

(I Cor. 7: 22)

In writing to the Colossians he urges slaves to give their service…

… as if you were doing it for the Lord and not for men… Christ is the Master whose slaves you must be; … Masters, be fair and just to your slaves, knowing that you too have a master in heaven. 

(Col. 3: 23 f.; 4: 1)

The Christian ideal of free mutual service transcended the legal relations of master and slave. The letter to Philemon is a short ‘note’ in which Paul deals with the particular case of the recipient’s runaway slave, Onesimus, who had also helped himself to his master’s cashbox. Somehow or other Paul came across him, and converted him. Under Roman law, anyone harbouring a fugitive slave was liable to severe penalties, and a runaway recovered by his master could expect no mercy. Paul decided to send Onesimus back to his, trusting that the ‘law of Christ’ would transform their relationship from within, without disrupting the civil order, and in Philemon’s readiness to take a fully Christian view of the matter:

Perhaps this is why you lost him for a time, that you might have him back for good, no longer as a slave, but as more than a slave, as a dear brother. 

(Philemon 12-16)

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Paul’s Eschatology – Christ, the Church & the Future:

The permeation of the church, and ultimately of society, with the Christian quality of life gives actuality to Paul’s doctrine of the indwelling of Christ, through his Spirit, in the body of his followers, the church. It is not simply the experience of an individual, but a force working in history. But if Christ is thus present in the church, then he has to be known not only through his historical life, supremely important as that is, but also in what he is doing in and through the church in the present and in the future into which the present dissolves at every moment. His brief career on earth had ended, so far as the world, in general, could see, in failure. His disciples may have known better, but how was the world to know? For many early Christians, the very short answer to this question that, very shortly, he would ‘come again’, and then ‘every eye shall see him’ (Rev. 1: 7). Paul began by sharing this belief. At the time when he wrote his earliest surviving letters (as they probably are), to the Thessalonians, he seems to have had no doubt that he and most Christians would live to see the ‘second advent’ (II Thess. 2: 1-3; 4: 15). Even when he wrote his first letter to the Corinthians he was still assured that ‘we shall not all die’ (I Cor. 15: 51). Before he wrote the second letter there was an occasion when his life was despaired of (II Cor. 1: 9), and it may be that for the first time he faced the likelihood that he would die before the Day, and in that way ‘go to live with the Lord’ (II Cor. 5: 8). At any rate, from this time we hear little more of the expectation of earlier years.

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Tom Wright suggests that when writing II Thessalonians, Paul had perhaps foreseen the fall of Jerusalem of AD 70, quite possibly through a Roman emperor doing what Caligula had so nearly done. The ultimate monster from the sea, Rome itself, would draw itself up to its full height, demolishing the heaven-and-earth structure that had (according to Jesus) come to embody Jeremiah’s “den of robbers.” Jesus would then set up his kingdom of a different sort, one that could not be shaken. But if Jerusalem were to fall to the Romans, Paul had to get busy, because he knew what reactions such a terrible event would produce. Gentile Christians would claim that God had finally cut off the Jews, leaving ‘the church’ as a non-Jewish body. Christianity would become ‘a religion’ to be contrasted (favourably, of course) with something called ‘Judaism’. Conversely, Jewish Jesus-followers would accuse their Gentile brethren – and particularly the followers of Paul – of having precipitated this disaster by imagining that one could worship the true God without getting circumcised and following the whole Torah. And Jews who had rejected the message of Jesus as Messiah would be in no doubt at all that all this had happened because of this ‘false prophet’ and the renegade Saul, who had led Israel astray. Wright’s supposition leads him to believe that Paul was therefore determined…

 … to establish and maintain Jew-plus-Gentile communities, worshipping the One God in and through Jesus his son and in the power of the spirit, ahead of the catastrophe.

Only in this way, he believed, could this potential split, the destruction of the ‘new Temple’ of I Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, be averted. This is why Paul insisted, in letter after letter, on the unity of the church across all traditional boundaries. This was not about the establishment of a new ‘religion’ and had nothing to do with Paul being a “self-hating Jew”. This anti-Semitic slur is still found in ill-informed ‘studies’ of his work, but Paul affirmed what he took to be the central features of the Jewish hope: One God, Israel’s Messiah, and resurrection itself. For him, what mattered was messianic eschatology and the community that embodied it. The One God had fulfilled, in a way so unexpected that most of the guardians of the promises had failed to recognise it, the entire narrative of the people of God. That was what Paul had been preaching in one synagogue after another. It was because of that fulfilment that the Gentiles were now being brought into the single family. The apostle came to be less preoccupied with a supposedly imminent ‘second advent’ as he explored the range of Christ’s present activity in the church. He saw the church expanding its influence abroad, and developing internally the complexity that marks the evolution of a living organism. If all this raised some problems, it was all part of the growth of the body – of Christ’s body – and it was Christ’s own work:

It is from the Head that the whole body, with all its joints and ligaments, receives its supplies and thus knit together grows according to God’s design.

(Col. 2: 19)

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This, as Paul saw it, was the way in which Christ is revealed to the whole universe (Eph. 3: 10). Nor is there any limit to this growth, until we all, at last, attain the unity inherent in our faith (Eph. 4: 13). In the church, Paul saw men actually being drawn into unity across the barriers erected by differences of ethnicity, nationality, language, culture or social status. He was powerfully impressed by the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in the fellowship of the church (Eph. 2: 11-22). In this, as his horizons widened, he saw the promise of a larger unity, embracing all mankind (Rom. 11: 25-32).  In this unity of mankind, moreover, he finds he finds the sign and pledge of God’s purpose for his whole creation. In a passage which has much of the visionary quality of poetry or prophecy, he pictures the whole universe waiting in eager expectation for the day when it shall enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God (Rom. 8: 19-21). In the church, therefore, can be discerned God’s ultimate design to reconcile the whole universe to himself… to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, through Christ alone (Col. 1: 20). Such was the vision of the future which Paul bequeathed to the church for its inspiration. In a sense then, he continued to believe that he was living in the last days. For him, God had, in sending the Messiah, had brought the old world of chaos, idolatry, wickedness, and death to an end. Jesus had taken its horror onto himself and had launched something else in its place. But, as Tom Wright puts it…

… that meant that, equally, Paul was conscious of living in the first days, the opening scenes of the new drama of world history, with heaven and earth now held together not by Torah and Temple, but by Jesus and the Spirit, pointing forward to the time when the divine glory would fill the whole world and transform it from top to bottom.

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This vision was not to be found in the non-Jewish world of Paul’s day. It was a thoroughly Jewish eschatology, shaped around the one believed to be Israel’s Messiah. Paul believed, not least because he saw it so clearly in the scriptures, that Israel too had its own brand of idolatry. But the point of Jesus’s ‘new Passover’ was that the powerful ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ to which mankind had given away their authority, had been defeated. The resurrection proved it and had thereby launched a new world with a new people to reflect the true God into that new world. That is why Paul’s Gentile mission was not a different idea from the idea of forgiveness of sins or the cleansing of the heart. It was because of the powerful gospel announced and made effective those realities that the old barriers between Jew and Greek were abolished in the Messiah. That is why Paul’s work just as much as ‘social’ and ‘political’ as it is ‘theological’ or ‘religious’. Every time Paul expounded ‘justification’, it formed part of his argument that in the Messiah there was a single family consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles, a family that demonstrated to the world that there was a new way of being human. Paul saw himself as a working model of exactly this:

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Sources:

C. H. Dodd (1970), Paul and His World; The Thought of Paul, in Robert C Walton (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM.

N. T. Wright (2018), Paul: A Biography. London: SPCK.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Three   Leave a comment

Part Three: The Third Missionary Journey, Jerusalem & Rome.

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Chronology:

The chronology of Paul’s career cannot be fixed precisely, but fortunately, we have one precise date to start from. The proconsul before whom Paul was cited at Corinth on his first visit there was Junius Annaeus Gallio, who was known to have held the appointment from July AD 51 to June AD 52. Based on the reports of this visit in Acts, Paul was in Corinth from early in 50 to late 51. From this fixed point, we can then calculate backwards and forwards, using the indications of time supplied in Paul’s own letters or in Acts. If Paul reached Corinth early in 50, then his ‘Second Missionary Journey’ must have begun in 49, and the visit to Jerusalem which preceded it, when he came to an agreement with the leaders of the church there, would presumably have taken place in AD 48. Paul dates his earlier visit to Jerusalem fourteen years before, pointing to AD 35, three years after his conversion, which has therefore been tentatively dated to AD 33. When exactly Paul arrived at Ephesus is a matter of conjecture, but we know that he established himself there for a full three years. His stay there seems to fall between 54 and 57 AD, rather than any earlier, and it was between these years that he undertook his ‘Third Missionary Journey’.

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Ephesus & Corinth:

The ‘Third Missionary Journey’, through the interior of Asia Minor, is given the most cursory treatment in Luke’s diary which constitutes much of the Acts of the Apostles. He seems to be in a hurry, as Paul himself probably was, to reach Ephesus (Acts 18: 23; 19: 1). It is evident that he had formed definitive ideas about the most effective way of conducting his mission. He decided not to cover ground by moving rapidly from place to place, but to settle, as he had done at Corinth, in a suitable centre from which he could reach a whole province. Ephesus was to prove to be such a centre as one of the principal cities of the province of Asia, with excellent communications by land and sea. Settled by Greeks in antiquity, but always with something oriental about it, it had been a meeting place of East and West long before the conquests of Alexander had inaugurated the Hellenistic age. Its world-famous temple was dedicated to the native Anatolian fertility-goddess, Artemis, or Diana to the Romans (Acts 19: 27; 34 f.), though she had little in common with the virgin huntress of the classical pantheon. From ancient times a seat of Greek philosophical thought, Ephesus was also hospitable to all manners of superstitions, and in Paul’s time it was notorious as a centre of the ‘black arts’ of magic (Acts 19: 18 f.). This was the place which for the next three years or so was to be Paul’s headquarters (Acts 20: 31). There are evident signs that this was a planned strategy on his part. Ephesus was another meeting point of trade routes and cultures, and therefore an excellent place from which to disseminate the gospel.

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Paul arrived in Ephesus and began as always in the synagogue, this time for three months. Opposition grew, however, as the disturbing implications of Paul’s way of reading the familiar stories dawned upon the puzzled hearers. Resistance hardened, and this may have been one of the occasions when submitting to synagogue discipline, Paul received the official Jewish beating of forty lashes. He tells us that he had received this five times, which in itself indicates his steady commitment to working with the synagogue congregations as long as he could since he could easily have avoided the punishment by simply not turning up. Some of the Jewish community in Ephesus had begun to spread rumours about what this “Messiah cult” was doing. From later writings, we can guess at the sneering comments about what these ‘Jesus-worshippers’ were up to behind closed doors, with men and women meeting together and talking about a new kind of “love,” not to mention the disturbing gossip about eating someone’s body and drinking their blood. So Paul realised, as he had done in Corinth, that he could no longer treat the synagogue as his base. It was time to move elsewhere. He formally ‘withdrew his converts’ and established himself on neutral territory in a lecture hall in the city, which he rented. For the next two years, he divided his time between his tent-making business and the public exposition of the faith. He held daily conferences at the hall, open to all comers, which attracted numbers of residents to the city (Acts 19: 8-10). People came from far and wide, spent time in the city, and then went on their way. They chatted about anything strange or new that they had come across in their travels. The group of early Christians who met in the lecture hall was one of these.

By this time, Paul had built up an efficient ‘staff’, whose names keep recurring in his letters – Timothy (Rom. 16: 21; 1 Cor. 4: 17; 16: 10; Phil. 2: 19-23 etc.), Luke, Tychicus (Eph. 6: 21; Col. 4: 7; II Tim. 4: 12; Titus 3: 12) and several others, though Silas had, by this time, faded out of the narrative. They were available either to work by his side at the headquarters or to be sent where they could be useful in keeping in touch with churches already founded, or in breaking new ground. It was in this way that Paul’s mission in the province spread. We happen to learn from his letters the names of the three up-country towns where churches were founded without any visit from the apostle himself – Colossae, Laodicea and Hierapolis (Col. 1: 7; 2: 1; 4: 13-16) – and there were certainly others. The author of Acts says, perhaps with some exaggeration, that…

…the whole population of the province of Asia, both Jews and pagans, heard the word of the Lord.

(Acts 19: 10)

Meanwhile, however, trouble was brewing. There was furious opposition from the Jews (Acts 20:19), and some from pagan quarters (Acts 19: 23-27), though we hear also of some of the dignitaries of the province who were friendly towards him (Acts 19: 31). We have some record both in Acts and in the letters (I Cor. 15: 32; II Cor 1: 8). From the letters to the Corinthians we also learn something that the author of Acts does not tell us, that Paul was, at this time, driven almost to distraction by disorder in the church in Corinth. In a climactic passage of his letter to the Galatians, he had pointed out that the Messiah’s people had ‘died’; they had left behind their old identities as Jews or Gentiles and had come into a new identity (Galatians 2: 19-21). That was, in part, why the gospel was “a scandal to Jews,” but, at the same time, only makes sense within a deeply Jewish, messianic view of the world. Charged with his specific responsibility, Paul was able, without compromising that messianic identity, to live alongside people of all sorts, sharing their customs while he was with them. When he had dinner with Jewish friends, they would have eaten ‘kosher’ food together, and when he went to dinner with non-Jewish friends, he would have eaten whatever they put in front of him (I Cor. 10: 27). What would then have made the difference was ‘conscience’, not Paul’s, but that of anyone else who might have been offended or who might be led back into idolatry.

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This must have been a much harder path to tread than that sketched in the apostolic letter issued after the Jerusalem Conference in which simple abstinence from all relevant foods was enjoined. Paul not only thought that this was unnecessary, but that it violated the fundamental principles of Jewish belief itself. His own pragmatic solution must have seemed not just paradoxical, but also perverse to some. For instance, a Jewish family who had shared a meal with Paul and watched him keep all the Jewish customs must have found it strange that the same week he had dined with a Gentile family and eaten what they were eating, though a Gentile family would have seen little harm in it. But, once again, Paul is teaching in his letter to the Corinthians that they should think like the people of the Messiah, building on the foundation of Israel’s scriptures, interpreting them afresh in the light of the crucified and risen Messiah himself. So in Chapter eleven of his epistle, he deals with the problems of the family meal, the Lord’s Supper or ‘Eucharist’. Then in Chapter twelve, he addresses the question of unity in the fellowship and the way in which the Spirit gives to each member of ‘the Messiah’s body’ different gifts to be used for the benefit of all. In Chapter fourteen, Paul applies this to the corporate worship of the church, following his exquisite poem about divine love, agape, in chapter thirteen. In this, Paul is not just teaching them ‘ethics’, but also to think eschatologically:

We know, you see, in part;

We prophesy in part; but, with perfection,

The partial is abolished. As a child

I spoke, and thought, and reasoned like a child;

When I grew up, I threw off childish ways.

For at the moment all that we can see

Are puzzling reflections in a mirror;

But then I’ll know completely, through and through,

Even as I’m completely known. So, now,

Faith, hope and love remain, these three; and, of them

Love is the greatest.

(I Cor. 13: 9-13).

Love is not just a duty. Paul’s point is that love is the believer’s destiny. It is the reality that belongs to God’s future, glimpsed in the present like a puzzling reflection, but waiting there in full reality for the face-to-face future. And the point is that this future has come forward to the present time in the events involving Jesus and in the power of the spirit. That is why love matters for Paul even more than faith, which many have seen as his central theme. Love is the present virtue in which believers anticipate and practice the life of the ultimate life to come. That’s why the final theological chapter, fifteen, dealing with the resurrection of the body, is the centre of the gospel. It is also the beginning of a study I have made elsewhere on this website in a series of articles examining the role of eschatology in Christian thought from Paul onwards. Paul’s main point in relation to the fulfilment of Israel’s hope is about messianic eschatology. He is not saying, “We Jesus-followers have found a better sort of religion than the old Jewish one.” But if Israel’s Messiah has come and has been raised from the dead, then those who follow him are the true people of God. This is blunt but consistent and precisely what the followers of the other first-century Jewish leaders would have said. It was not disloyalty to Israel’s God, but the contested messianic loyalty that characterised Paul’s missionary thought and journeys throughout.

Jesus had described himself at his trial by the Sanhedrin as the ‘Son of Man’, which was the Hebrew and Aramaic way of saying ‘man’ and could even be used to describe the Jewish people themselves who believed themselves to be ‘God’s People’. Jesus used the words not just to describe his own ministry, but about himself and his friends, the new ‘People of God’. The word ‘Christ, the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’, meaning ‘the one who is anointed’, was a word Jesus seemed not to like and was more wary of using, including of himself. When Peter had used the word of him, he rebuked him for doing so. It was a word with a long history. Kings had been ‘anointed’ and prophets had been spoken of as ‘anointed’. The word was even used of a foreign emperor, Cyrus. In the years before Jesus began his ministry, the word had come to represent God’s ‘Chosen Leader’ whom the Jewish people expected God to send as their deliverer. But this ‘Chosen Leader’ was thought of in many different ways – sometimes as a supernatural figure, sometimes as a soldier. Yet although he did not like the word and did not use it of himself, Pilate had had him executed as a ‘messiah’, a claimant to the leadership of the Jewish people – ‘the Jewish King’, as he had put it on the official death-notice on the cross.

It seemed to Jewish Christians that no word described him better – he was ‘God’s Chosen Leader’. They began to talk about him as ‘Jesus the Messiah’, where ‘Messiah’ is a simple descriptive name. When ‘Messiah’, however, was translated into Greek as ‘Christ’, it began to change its meaning. Greek-speaking ‘foreigners’ didn’t understand it and simply used it as Jesus’ second name. Paul, of course, knew the Jewish world from the inside and used the word ‘Christ’ in his letters to describe the whole influence of Jesus – his life in Palestine and the new experience of God which he made possible, so that he could use the words ‘Spirit’, ‘Spirit of God’ and ‘Spirit of Christ’, as we have seen, to describe this new experience. Paul was struggling with an almost impossible task, and he was aware of how difficult it was. But to talk about Jesus as though he was not just a good man who had died was to be false to what he felt in his heart the new divine experience to be. His meeting with the Messiah on the Damascus Road fulfilled everything and thereby changed everything, as the following statement made clear:

Whatever I had written in on the profit side, I calculated it instead as a loss – because of the Messiah. Yes, I know that’s weird, but there’s more: I calculate everything as a loss, because knowing King Jesus as my Lord is worth far more than everything else put together! In fact, because of the Messiah I’ve suffered the loss of everything, and I now calculate it as trash, so that my profit may be the Messiah, and that I may be discovered in him, not having my own covenant status defined by the Torah, but the status which comes through the Messiah’s faithfulness: the covenant status from God which is given to faith. This means knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection from the dead.

(Phil. 3: 7-11).

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The Messiah regarded his status, “equality with God”, not as something to exploit, but as committing him instead to the life of the ‘servant’ and the shameful death of the ‘slave’. That is why he was now exalted as Lord over all. ‘Lord’ was another word the early Christians used as a common way of identifying Jesus; he was ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. The word ‘Lord’ had been used for God in the Old Testament; God was ‘Lord’. It was also used to describe the Roman Emperors and some of the pagan gods. As Paul once wrote, There are many gods and many lords. So it came to be used of Jesus; to say that “Jesus is Lord” became the simplest way for believers to proclaim their Christian faith. It carried a sense of his presence, his love and his forgiveness, of the power to live in his way, which He gave to all who accepted his love. This is what lay at the back of the struggle to find words that really described what Jesus meant to his followers. The passage above is focused not just on a belief or theory about the Messiah, but on personal knowledge. Paul wrote of knowing King Jesus as my Lord, of knowing him, knowing the power of his resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. Paul knew the theory thoroughly, but it meant nothing without the awareness of the person and presence of Jesus himself. His personal ‘knowledge’ of the Messiah found intimate expression in suffering. He speaks of this as a ‘partnership’, which is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, giving us synonyms such as ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. It expressed a mutual belonging for which modern English does not provide exact words.

Paul had come to the point where he was content to share the Messiah’s death in order that he might arrive with him at the ultimate hope of Israel, ‘the resurrection from the dead’.  The ancient story of Israel had been fulfilled in the Messiah, and all Paul’s previous zeal for God and the Torah had to be counted as “trash” by contrast. That’s why he ‘forgot’ about his past and, like an athlete with his eye on the finishing line, aims to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. Then comes the point of all this for the Philippians: they must learn to imitate him, as he is imitating the Messiah (Phil. 3: 13-19). But how could the Gentile Christians do this? They had not been zealous Jews, eager for the Torah, but they all had their own status, personal and civic pride. Even if they lacked status, because they were poor, or slaves, or women (though some women, like Lydia, were independent and free), they all had the standing temptation to lapse back into pagan lifestyles. So whether they were Romans reverting to proud colonial ways or simply people who found themselves lured back into sensual indulgence, they must instead resist and find instead the way of holiness and wholeness shaped by the Messiah himself, by his choice of the way of the cross, by his status as the truly human one, the true embodiment of the One God (Tom Wright).

Colossae & Corinth (again):

Paul’s later letters to both the Ephesians and Colossians are both deeply Jewish in their orientation, only making sense within that worldview. Nineteenth-century Protestantism didn’t favour Jewish thought, and didn’t want Paul to be too Jewish and, more recently, some scholars have tended to demote the two epistles as anathema to the more ‘liberal’ agenda they find in Galatians and Corinthians. Tom Wright claims that this is a mistake, resulting from contemporary ideology and moralising which seeks to ‘pigeon-hole’ Paul. Colossians was written, it appears, to a young church. Paul had been informed of its existence by Epaphus, himself from Colossae, who seems to have been converted by Paul in Ephesus and to have returned home to spread the word. Paul’s epistle to the Colossians was written at Rome, when he was in prison in Rome, shortly before his martyrdom, in about AD 63. Colossae had been a great city, but had very much declined, and was now the smallest of the three neighbouring cities in the valley of the Lycus. Laodicea and Hierapolis were still prosperous by comparison. Its church was the most insignificant of the churches which received a letter from Paul, and it was scarcely mentioned in later times. Neither in this epistle nor in the Acts is there any evidence that the apostle ever visited the Colossians. But he had “heard of their faith” (I: 4, 9) and states that they “had not seen his face in the flesh (2: 1). Nevertheless, Paul was praying for the church to grow in faith, wisdom, and understanding and to be able to draw on the “power” of Jesus in living and working to his glory (Col. 1: 9-11). In particular, Paul longed for them to develop and enrich the practice of giving thanks. To that end he supplies them with a poem, like that written to the Philippians (chapter two, above), celebrating the universal lordship of Jesus over all the powers of the world. Part of the meaning of this poem was that it was written by someone in prison. According to Tom Wright, it invites…

… those who read it or pray it to imagine a different world from the one they see around them – a world with a different ‘Lord’ in which the One God rules and rescues, a world in which a new sort of wisdom is unveiled, a world in which there is a different way to be human.   

‘Wisdom’ was the key theme of much of Colossians. As always, Paul wanted people to think, not simply to imbibe rules and principles to learn by heart, but to be able to grow up to full maturity as human beings, experiencing that “Christ is all and in all,” and coming to “the knowledge of God’s mystery.” (Col. 2: 2). All this will happen when they realise that it is Jesus himself who reveals that ‘mystery’ and the means of finding all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Paul is here drawing deeply upon two important strands of Jewish thought. First, he knows very well the traditions of prayerful meditation through which devout Jews hoped for a vision of the heavenly realm. These traditions seemed to have been developed at a time when with pagans still ruling Palestine even after the end of the Babylonian exile had ended, there was a sense that the greatest prophetic promises, particularly those concerning the visible and powerful return of Israel’s God to the Temple of Zion had not been realised. Second, there was the belief that the whole creation was made by the One God through his wisdom (Proverbs 8). To speak of “Lady Wisdom” as God’s handmaid in creation was a poetic way of saying that when God made the world, his work was neither random nor muddled, but wise – coherent and well-ordered; it made sense. To reflect God’s image, mankind needed to be wise as well.

The “mystery” tradition and the “wisdom” tradition were both focused by some writers of the period on the Temple. That was where the One God had promised to dwell. If there was to be a display of the ultimate mystery, the writers expected that it would be in the Temple. This expectation got bound together in yet another strand of Jewish thinking: David’s son Solomon, the ultimate ‘wise man’ in the Bible, was also the king who built the Temple. When Solomon consecrated the newly built shrine, the divine glory came to fill the house in such blazing brilliance that the priests could not stand there to do their work (I Kings 8). For us, living in a radically different culture, all this feels like an odd combination of disparate ideas. In Paul’s world, and especially for a well-educated Jew, all these apparently separate notions belonged like a single well-oiled machine. Here is the secret of creation, of wisdom, of mystery, of the Temple. This is how it all fits together. N T Wright challenges us to imagine all the complex but coherent Jewish thought…

… pondered and prayed by Paul as he travels, as he works in his hot little shop, as he stays in a wayside inn, as he teaches young Timothy the vast world of scripture, which is his natural habitat. Imagine him praying all that in the Temple itself as he visits Jerusalem after watching the gospel at work in Turkey and Greece. Imagine, particularly, Paul finding here fresh insight into the way in which, as the focal point of creation, of wisdom and mystery, and of the deep meaning of humanness itself, Jesus is now enthroned as Lord over all possible powers. And now imagine Paul in his moment of crisis, of despair, feeling that the “powers” had overcome him after all, reaching down into the depths of this fathomless well of truth to find, in a fresh way, what it might mean to trust in the God who raises the dead. This is what he comes up with:

“He  is the image of God, the invisible one;

The firstborn of  all creation.

For in him all things were created,

In the heavens and the earth.

Things we can see and things we cannot –

Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers –

All things were created both through him and for him.

And he is ahead, prior to all else

And in him all things hold together;

And he himself is supreme, the head

Over the body, the church.

 

He is the start of it all,

Firstborn from realms of the dead;

So in all things he might be the chief,

For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell

And through him to reconcile all to himself,

Making peace through the blood of his cross,

Through him – yes, things on the earth,

And also the things in the heavens.

(Col. 1: 15-20.).

If this poem were less elegant, one might suggest that Paul was shaking his fist at the powers on earth and in the dark realms beyond the earth, the powers which had put him in prison in Rome and crushed his spirit to the breaking point. But he was not doing so, but rather invoking and celebrating a world in which Jesus, the one through whom all things were made, is now the one through whom, by means of his crucifixion, all things are reconciled. This is not the world that he and his friends can see with the naked eye since that is one in which allegiance is given to Caesar and there are bullying magistrates and threatening officers, with prisons and torture in their weaponry of oppression. But they are invited to see the world with the eye of faith, the eye that has learned to look through the lens of scripture and see Jesus. The Messiah is living with the Colossians, just as Paul had written to the Galatians. The ancient Jewish hope that the glory of the One God would return and fill the world is thus starting to come true.  It may not look like it in Colossae, as ten or twenty oddly assorted people crowd int Philemon’s house to pray, to invoke Jesus as they worship the One God, to break bread together, and to intercede for one another and the world; but actually, the Messiah, there in their midst, is “the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27).

From his base in Ephesus, Paul sent different members of his staff to deal with the quarrelling Corinthians (II Cor. 12: 17 f.), but he then found it necessary to interrupt his work and cross the Aegean himself (II Cor. 12: 14). There are two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament, but these contain clear indications that the correspondence they represent was more extensive. They illustrate vividly the problems that arose when people of widely different ethnic origins, religious backgrounds, levels of education and positions in the social hierarchy were being welded into a community by the power of a common faith, while at the same time they had come to terms with the secular society to which they also owed allegiance. These problems were threatening to split the church into fragments. It may have been about the same time that the very serious trouble broke out which provoked Paul to write his fiercely controversial letter to the Galatians. If the Second Letter to the Corinthians was written at about this time, this would explain Paul’s cri de cour in it: There is the responsibility that weighs on me every day, my anxious concern for all our congregations (II Cor. 11: 28). The difficulties at Corinth were eventually resolved, and Paul, having wound up his work at Ephesus, was able to visit a church now fully reconciled.

Rome & Jerusalem:

It was at this point that he wrote his the longest and most weighty of all his surviving letters, that addressed to the Romans. In this letter, he looked back briefly on the work that lay behind him and sketched a plan for the future. He had covered the eastern provinces of the empire, from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum. He added that he had no further scope in these parts and that it was now his ambition to bring the gospel places where the very name of Christ has not been heard. Accordingly, he was planning to open up work in the west, with Spain as his objective. On the way, he would visit Rome, and hoped to find support there for his enterprise (Rom. 15: 19-29). Paul had not yet visited Rome, but from the greetings, at the end of his letter he obviously had several friends there, and he knew quite a lot about the what was going on in both the church and the wider society. His intention to round off his work in the eastern end of the Mediterranean world and to move on to the West was a more focused ambition than simply finding more people to preach to, more “souls” to “save”. He wanted to plant the flag of the messianic gospel in key points where the “gospel” of Caesar and the ‘Pax Romana’ was being flaunted. Rome itself was, therefore, the obvious target; but beyond that, Spain, the western edge of the known world, was also a major centre of Roman culture and influence. Paul’s great contemporary Seneca had come from there. Galba, soon to be emperor, had been governor there, based in the port of Tarragona, which would presumably be Paul’s initial target. It boasted a large temple to Caesar. As in Ephesus and Corinth, Paul would have longed to announce that Jesus was the true Kyrios right under Caesar’s nose.

He knew he would have to tread somewhat warily in Rome, as the church there was not of his founding, nor was it within his ‘sphere of influence’ originally laid down by the church in Antioch. He also knew that there was some prejudice against him among the Roman Christians, who had all sorts of rumours about him. Some might distrust him, either because he was too Jewish or because he was not Jewish enough and had treated elements of Jewish practice too loosely. Some kind of outline of his teaching was a basic necessity. Before presenting himself there he sent his letter, a considered and comprehensive statement of his theological position, designed to establish his standing as a Christian teacher. There was also a more pressing need. Something had happened in the recent past in Rome that had put the Roman Christians in a new and complex position. Claudius, who had become emperor in AD 41, had banished the Jews from Rome after riots in the community sometime in the late forties. Despite the decimation of the community, not all the Jews had actually left, and those that remained had ‘gone to ground’ to hide their identity. Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila were among those who had left, which was why they were in Corinth when Paul first arrived there, probably in AD 49. But with Claudius’ death in 54 and Nero’s accession to the throne, Claudius’ edict was revoked. Jews could once again be permitted back in the imperial city, though they were not exactly welcomed back with open arms.

At this time, there was more than a streak of anti-Jewish sentiment in Rome. The term “anti-Jewish” is more appropriate than “anti-Semitic,” because the latter implies some kind of racial theory unknown until the second half of the nineteenth century. Also, in the first century, all Jews were identified by their Judaistic religious practises. There was no such thing as a ‘secular Jew’, as is evidenced by the fact that Jews were exempted from making sacrifices to Caesar and the Roman gods. The danger posed by Paul and Silas in Philippi was that, as Jews, they were teaching non-Jews things that it was illegal for Roman citizens and subjects to practice. In the amphitheatre at Ephesus, when Alexander, a Jew, stood up to preach, there were angry whispers. The same antagonism can be sensed on the edge of remarks by poets like Juvenal or sneering historians like Tacitus. Underneath the ethnic and cultural prejudice there was always a ‘theological’ belief that since the Jews did not worship the gods, they could, therefore, be blamed for disastrous events. This blame was subsequently transferred to the Christians in subsequent decades and centuries. Even in Corinth, Gallio’s refusal to make a judgment about Paul caused the mob to beat up the synagogue president, getting away with it. Going after the Jews was a default mode for many, right across the Roman Empire. Besides their exemption from religious observances that would compromise their beliefs, the Jews were allowed freedom of worship and the right to collect taxes for the Temple in Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean that they were integrated into wider society. For the most part, they were ostracised.

Paul’s message ran completely contrary to this social reality. Among the churches he had founded in Asia Minor and Greece this had not been so clear-cut, since he had always started in the synagogue first and made it clear that the gospel was “to the Jew first, but also, equally, to the Greek.” (Rom. 1: 16). He had given no opportunity for the creation of a Gentile-only Christian community. In most of the cities where he had preached, with the possible exception of the large metropolis of Ephesus, the probability is that the followers of Jesus were never large in number, perhaps only ever a few dozen, or in Corinth, conceivably, a few hundred. It would have been difficult for significantly different theological positions to have emerged once these communities had been established, at least not in the early decades of their communal life.

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But in Rome things were different. The message of Jesus had evidently arrived there sometime in the forties, perhaps with the apostle Peter, though this is only a tradition. This places Peter as having arrived in Rome in the year AD 44, whereas Paul did not arrive there until after AD 56, a date given by St. Jerome. There were followers of ‘The Way’ present in Rome perhaps even before Peter’s visit (if it took place), but the scriptural references to ‘the Church’ should not be taken too literally, as referring to a material institution. If it existed in any united form, it was a spiritual body in Christ. The more likely case is that the followers of Jesus at Rome were unorganised, treading in fear, meeting secretly in small groups at the homes of various converts in order to worship, often quite literally ‘underground’.

The imperial capital was, in any case, a city where different cultural and ethnic groups from all over the empire would cluster together for protection in their own districts. It is therefore highly likely that there were many scattered and disparate ‘house-churches’, as is shown by the greetings given in Romans 16, all worshipping Jesus but not really in direct contact with one another, and almost certainly with differing customs and practices based on their cultures of origin. The bands of converts met in grottoes, but mostly in the catacombs among the dead. The Roman law had recognised these underground cemeteries with the decree of sanctuary. However, when the persecution of the Jesus-followers was at its worst, the Roman soldiery would waylay the worshippers on entering or leaving the catacombs. To avoid capture they would make secret entrances and outlets, often through the houses of believers. The Tiberian and Claudian ban that promised to inflict death on all who openly professed the new faith was still in place when Paul was planning his sojourn in the Imperial City. When writing to the followers in Rome, he was aware that one of the ‘churches’ met at the home of Aquila and Priscilla (Rom. 16: 5) and that as well as this Jewish ‘church of circumcision’ there were also Gentile Christian meetings elsewhere in the city. Paul’s visit to Rome, however, was not pending immediately, and probably didn’t take place until AD 58 at the earliest. First, he had to go to Jerusalem, and he implored the Roman Christians to pray for him,

… that I may be served from unbelievers in Judaea and that my errand to Jerusalem may find acceptance with God’s people.

(Rom. 15: 31)

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Paul not only apprehended danger from Jewish opposition but also felt some doubt how far he would be welcome to his fellow Christians at Jerusalem. To understand this we need to look at the situation which had developed as a result of his startling success in the building, all over the eastern empire, of a close-knit network of Christian communities which was supra-national, multi-racial, and ‘egalitarian’. As he was to write to the Colossians, that there was to be no distinction between…

Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free man.

(Col. 3: 11).

This inevitably antagonised those who adhered to a stiff, nationally orientated type of Judaism – those, in fact, who stood where Paul himself had stood before his conversion. He had ‘ratted’ on them, and that could not be forgiven or forgotten. In his letter to the Romans, Paul argued, as he had done in Galatians, that the church could not be allowed to become a ‘purely’ Jewish institution with Gentile Christians tolerated as second-class citizens. “There is no distinction,” he repeated (Rom. 3: 22; 10: 12). If he had been finally defeated over this, the Christian church might have had as little impact on the great world as any other of the of the numerous Jewish sects. Although he was not defeated, neither could he be said to have gained a decisive victory in his lifetime. Advocates of the narrower view dogged his steps to the end and sought to win over his converts. No doubt they were honest and conscientious men, who stood obstinately by their principles, as did he. Quite simply, as far as he was concerned, they were in the wrong, and in his letter to the Galatians, he had written of these opponents in harsh terms and with passionate indignation. His tone in Romans was softer than that of Galatians, as he also set out his mission to Jerusalem as one of reconciliation. Nevertheless, the opening passages of his letter read like a ‘manifesto’ for a religious revolution, demonstrating how vital the issue was for him:

God has shown us clearly what he is like in a new way – how he stands for what is right, overthrows what is wrong and helps men to live in his Way.

This is not altogether a new Way, as we have seen – the Men of God of the Jewish people had begun to see how God puts wrongs right. But Jesus has made it quite plain. If we are to live in God’s Way, we must trust God; this means trusting in Jesus who has made God real to us.

This is true for everybody everywhere; for God … has no favourites. We have all done wrong; none of us has lived as splendidly as God intended him to live, though we were all created to live in his Way and be like him. But God treats us as if we had learned to live splendidly; his love is given to us freely. And it is Jesus who has won this freedom for us. 

There is nothing in all this to make us proud of ourselves. Keeping all the rules wouldn’t have stopped us being proud of ourselves. We have simply taken him at his word, and that leaves no room for boasting.

I am sure of this: everybody can really live as God wants him to live simply by trusting him, not by trying to keep all the rules. I mean everybody. Is God only the God of the Jewish people? Isn’t he God of all people everywhere? Of course he is, for there is only one God. So he puts Jewish people right – if they trust him; and he puts the people of other countries right if they trust him. 

When the original Jerusalem concordat was made, the leaders of the church had stipulated that the ‘Gentile’ churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. But for Paul, it was an opportunity to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions that arose among them. He set up a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded; he recommended a system of regular weekly contributions (Rom. 15: 25-28; 1 Cor. 16: 1-4; II Cor. 8: 1-9, 15). The raising of the fund had gone on for some considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, so as to represent the several provinces (I Cor. 16: 3 f.; Acts 20: 4).  The handing over of the relief fund was to be both an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the ‘Diaspora’ churches affirming their fellowship with the Judaean Christians in the one church. However, the goodwill mission miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was certainly not entirely welcoming. James was genuinely frightened of the effect of Paul’s presence in the city on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. James urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Torah by carrying out certain ceremonies in the Temple (Acts 21: 20-24). Paul was quite willing to accept James’ guidance. As he had already written to the Corinthians,

To Jews, I became like a Jew, to win Jews; as they are subject to the law of Moses, I put myself under that law… 

(I Cor. 9:20).

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Unfortunately, however, he was recognised in the Temple by some of his arch-enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the Holy Precincts  (Acts 21: 27-29). There ran across the temple court a barrier with an inscription threatening with death any ‘foreigner’ who trespassed beyond it. There was no truth in the charge against Paul, but it was enough to rouse the rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the Roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21: 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safekeeping to the headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23: 23-33). After wearisome wrangles between the Sanhedrin and two successive Roman governors, and fearing that he might be sent back into the hands of his accusers in Jerusalem, Paul decided to exercise his right of appeal to the emperor (Acts 25: 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship bound for Rome, leading to the famous ship-wreck off Malta (Acts 27: 1 – 28: 15).

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Paul in Rome:

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So Paul fulfilled his cherished plan of a visit to Rome in person but as a prisoner. He was placed under something like house-arrest, occupying his own private lodging, with liberty to receive visitors, but with a soldier constantly on guard (Acts 28: 16). He was awaiting trial there, a trial which was continually delayed.  It is probable, though not certain, that the Letters to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, as well as to Philemon, all of which refer to their author(s) being in prison at the time of writing, belong to this period of confinement. This period of house-arrest lasted, we are informed, for two years (Acts 28: 30). Scholars presume that the case eventually came up before the imperial tribunal, but whether it resulted in acquittal and a further period of freedom to travel, or ended in condemnation and execution, we have no means of knowing. The Letters to Timothy and Titus have been thought to refer to a further period of imprisonment in Rome, but the evidence is at best ambiguous, and it is unlikely that these letters, in the form in which we have them, come from Paul’s own hand. We know that Paul’s original plan before he went to Jerusalem, was to travel on to Spain, but we have no evidence that this goal was fulfilled. He was associated with Rome for ten years in all, and some have suggested that in addition to visiting Spain, he also travelled to Gaul and Britain. However, there is little if any hard contemporary evidence to support these assertions, which are based mainly on tradition and fanciful conjecture.

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That he ultimately suffered martyrdom may be taken as certain, and there is no good reason to doubt the Roman tradition that he was beheaded at a spot on the road to Ostia known as ‘the Three Fountains’, and buried on the site now occupied by the noble church of St Paul-without-the-Walls. According to the chronology given at the beginning of this article, Paul could hardly have arrived in Jerusalem before AD 59. His period in prison in Caesarea could not, therefore, have ended until AD 61, therefore. At that point the governor Antonius Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, based on evidence from non-Biblical sources. Accordingly, Paul would have sailed to Rome in the autumn of 61, arriving there in early 62. His period of house arrest would have continued until AD 64 and Tom Wright dates Paul’s death to this year or later. Beyond that, we cannot go, but it may be significant that it was in the winter of 64/ 65 that the emperor Nero made his savage attack on the Christians of Rome, following the Fire which was blamed on them. The Roman-Jewish War followed in AD 66-70, during which Nero died in AD 68, and the War ended with the Fall of Jerusalem…

… (to be continued).

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Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles – Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Antioch & Jerusalem:

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We know about the conflict between Antioch and Jerusalem through the detailed colourful accounts of Josephus, a younger contemporary of Paul’s. He was anything but a neutral observer, however, but a wealthy Jewish aristocrat who claimed to have tried out the various Jewish ‘schools of thought’ and who had served as a general in the army at the start of the war against Rome (AD 66-70) before switching sides and ending his days on an imperial pension in Rome. In the middle of the first century, Jerusalem was a highly complex world of different parties, groups, messianic and prophetic movements, preachers and teachers. When the Romans closed in on Jerusalem in the last months of the war, crucifying so many Jews that they ran out of timber for crosses, Josephus recorded sorrowfully that more Jews were in fact killed by other Jews than by the Romans. Matters were not helped by the sequence of inept Roman governors sent to keep the peace during the period. There were times under the two kings named Herod Agrippa, both of whom were friendly with the Roman imperial family when many hoped for a live-and-let-live settlement. That would never have been sufficient for the young Saul of Tarsus, however, who longed for the ultimate kingdom of God. The Jerusalem of the middle decades of the first century was home to an entire generation who took a hard-line view, hating the thought of compromise and looking for something more like Hezekiah’s heaven-sent victory over Sennacherib or the overthrow of the Egyptians in the ‘Red Sea’.

The scriptures were quite clear that utter loyalty to the One God meant refusing all compromise with the pagan world. The social and cultural pressure to affirm that ancient loyalty and to be seen to abide by it was intense. To be a follower of Jesus in that world would have been a very different challenge from those faced by Jesus-followers in Syria or Turkey. Although the Jerusalem church had by this time established itself as something of a counter-cultural movement to the Temple authorities, this did not mean that its members were being ‘anti-Jewish.’ If anything, they were putting themselves on a par with other groups who regarded the Temple hierarchy (the wealthy, aristocratic Sadducees, including the high-priests’ families) as a corrupt and compromised class, out for their own ends and too eager to do deals with the Romans. The early Jerusalem church seems to have lived like other groups who believed that God was ushering in the ‘last days’. In the excitement of the early stages, they had shared their property communally, an eager social experiment which may have led to their later poverty. They lived a life of prayer, fasting, community, and care for the poor and widows.  So far as we can tell they conformed faithfully to the Jewish Law. They must have seemed to many like a strange messianic variation on the Pharisees’ movement, coupling a fierce loyalty to Israel’s One God with their own belief that the One God had revealed himself in the crucified and risen bringer of the kingdom, Jesus of Nazareth.

According to Acts, it was Peter who first broke the taboo of sharing table-fellowship with non-Jews; he received strong divine validation for this radical move and persuaded his sceptical colleagues in Jerusalem that this was the right thing to do. But this move seems not to have been thought through with regard to what they believed about Jesus himself. It was a pragmatic decision on their part, led by the spirit, which meant that it must be what God wanted. It remained easy, therefore, for most of the Jerusalem-based Jesus followers to see their movement as a variation on the Jewish loyalist groupings. God might bring in some non-Jews, as had always happened in Israel’s history, as the book of Ruth and various other pages had made clear. But it could hardly be imagined that the God whose scriptures warned constantly against disloyalty to the covenant would suddenly declare the Torah redundant. But that was what many in Jerusalem, including many Jesus-followers, believed that Paul had been teaching. The word got out that Paul and Barnabas, not content with belonging to a hybrid community in Syrian Antioch, had been going around the Graeco-Roman world telling Jews that they no longer needed to obey the Law of Moses! If the Torah itself could now be set aside, who could tell what results might then follow?

All this focused on the covenant sign of circumcision, and while it is true that the prophets and Moses himself had spoken of the circumcision of the heart as the deep reality to which physical circumcision was meant to point, that reality was associated with the promise of ultimate covenant renewal. Nobody in the first century imagined that, if the One God really did renew the covenant, physical circumcision might be dispensed with for the non-Jews who would be included. On the contrary, circumcision became a symbol of ‘loyalty’. Many of the Jesus-followers had dispersed following the early persecution, but there was still a tight core, focused particularly on James himself. From the time of Stephen’s stoning, they had been regarded as potentially subversive, disloyal to the Temple and its traditions. Now, this disloyalty was showing itself in a new way: they were allied with a supposedly Jesus-related movement, out in the Diaspora, teaching Jews that they didn’t have to obey the Torah! That would introduce one compromise after another until Jews would Find themselves indistinguishable from pagans. In Jerusalem, all Jews believed that pagans were the enemy that God would one day overthrow, but out there in the Diaspora this new movement was, it seemed, treating pagans as equal partners. The Temple hierarchy was concerned that this Jesus movement in the wider world, led by ‘that wild man Paul’ would not land them in any deeper trouble, guilt by association. From all that they had heard, the signs were not encouraging.

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Four things happened in quick succession. First, Peter came to Antioch and shared in the life of the church there for a while. This and the following incidents, including the writing of Paul’s first letter to the Galatians, are dated around AD 48. Second, some other followers of ‘The Way’ came to Antioch from Jerusalem, claiming to have been sent by James. This precipitated a small earthquake in the Antiochene church and a controversy denounced by Paul himself in devastating terms. Third, perhaps some weeks or months later, Paul received bad news from the little communities of non-Jewish believers in southern Anatolia, recently ‘planted’ by Barnabas and himself. The fourth event was the writing of the letter to the churches in Galatia, as mentioned above. He then set off for Jerusalem in the hopes of sorting all this out with those who seemed to be causing the trouble who naturally thought that it was he who was causing all the trouble. As Tom Wright remarks,

Controversies are always like that. Generations of Christians who have read Galatians as part of holy scripture have to remind themselves that, if Galatians is part of the Bible, it is Galatians as we have it that is part of the Bible – warts and all, sharp edges and sarcastic remarks included. Perhaps, indeed, that is what “holy scripture” really is – not a calm, serene list of truths to be learned or commands to be obeyed, but a jagged book that forces you to grow up in your thinking as you grapple with it.

Paul believed that Jesus’ own spirit was at work through him as his chosen apostle to the Gentiles to establish and maintain the life-changing communities of people whose lives had themselves been changed by the power of the gospel. And now he believed that he had a responsibility to state clearly what was at stake in the controversy in Antioch, in Jerusalem, in Galatia itself. His own obvious vulnerability was part of this process too, as he later stressed in another letter. His ‘epistles’, just like the gospel itself, were part of a radical redefinition of what ‘authority’ might look like in the new world that the One God had launched through Jesus. So Peter came to Antioch, it seems, in early 48. His arrival is unexplained, like all his movements after his remarkable escape from prison in Acts 12:17; all we know is that he had initially been happy go along with the practice of the local Jesus-followers in Antioch, having Jewish and non-Jewish believers living together as “family,” sharing the same table. This was the practice that Peter himself had embraced in Acts 10-11 when he visited Cornelius, justifying his actions to critics in Jerusalem on the basis of what he had been told in a divine commandment:

What God made clean, you must not regard as common.

Peter had acted on that principle, believing that the power of the gospel had ‘cleansed’ the Gentiles of the ritual or moral defilement that they possessed in Jewish eyes, defilement that would normally be seen as a barrier to the intimacy of table fellowship. What the new experience of God had made clear to most of the friends of Jesus, but not to all of them, was that God’s love, which Jesus made real to them, was for the whole world – everybody, everywhere. But many came slowly to these great convictions, and there was much heart-searching debate among the early Christians in Antioch: did Jesus come, essentially, to reform the Jewish religion, or did he come to call everybody everywhere to become God’s family, each in his own way? Peter now hesitated to go the whole way; when he arrived in the city of Antioch Paul confronted him on this issue. He described this confrontation in his letter to the Galatians:

Barnabas and I … were back in Antioch, and Peter Joined us there. But I had to stand up to him and tell him that he was plainly in the wrong – on this same question.

When he first came there, he ate his meals with all of us; foreigner and Jew sat down together at the same table. Then some men came from Jerusalem (they said that James had sent them), and everything changed. He started to stay away from our common meals. He was frightened of these Jewish Christians who said that you couldn’t become a Christian if you hadn’t first become a proper Jew. Other friends of Jesus in Antioch started to do the same – even Barnabas was deceived.

(Galatians 2: 11-13)

Clearly, as Paul reports these events, what changed the terms of the discourse was the arrival in Antioch of the ‘envoys’ from Jerusalem who insisted that if the Gentiles wanted to be part of the true family, sharing in the great rescue operation which God had now set in motion, they would have to be circumcised. Paul, in Galatians, wrote that this was what made Peter change his mind. Up to that point, he had been content to eat with the Jesus-believing Gentiles, but now he drew back in line with the newcomers, and, given the status that Peter had within the wider movement, it is perhaps not surprising that the other Jewish Jesus believers followed him in this. Paul tells us that even Barnabas was carried along by their sham (Galatians, 2: 13). This was not simply a disagreement about theological principles, but about an original practice of the church in Antioch which reflected the belief that all believers in Jesus, whether circumcised or not, belonged at the same table. The Judaean guests were clearly saying that this was wrong and that the loyal Jews among the believers should withdraw. Barnabas had been with Paul through all the joys and trials of the mission to Galatia and together they had welcomed many non-Jews into fellowship. They had shared everything; they had prayed and worked and celebrated and suffered side by side. Now they were on opposite sides of this debate, and that hurt Paul.

Paul was careful not to claim that the visitors from Jerusalem were sent by James personally, though it is difficult to see how they could have been there except on his authority. Certainly, the focus of their concern was the maintenance of covenant loyalty. Circumcision was, as far as they were concerned, non-negotiable, since the purity of God’s chosen people was essential. If God was indeed bringing in his kingdom, then a clean break with the Gentiles’ pagan past was vital. If they were to be allowed into the covenant, the former pagans would have to demonstrate their loyalty as well, and that meant circumcision. From the point of view of the zealous kingdom-minded Jews of Jerusalem, this made perfect sense, but from Paul’s perspective, it made no sense at all. He had already thought through what it meant that God was bringing in his kingdom through the crucified Messiah, the shocking and unexpected events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, coupled with the dramatic sense of personal redemption for which the only explanation was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, meant that everything had changed. A new world had begun and those trying to live in it while clinging to the old one had not yet realised just how radical the transformation was. They were simply “putting on a face,” or “playacting,” for which the Greek word was hypokrisis, giving us the English word ‘hypocrisy’. Paul was similarly direct in his narrative to the Galatians, as this modern paraphrase reveals:

This was cheating – and cheating about the very thing that makes the Good News really good news. It was as plain as plain could be to me.

(Galatians 2: 14, New World)

The problem was both personal and theological for Paul. As one of the recognised ‘pillars’ of the whole movement, Peter had been followed from the common table by many of the Jewish followers of Jesus. That made it even more difficult for Paul to confront Peter, but that is exactly what he did:

When I saw that they weren’t walking straight down the line of gospel truth, I said to Cephas in front of them all: “Look here: you’re a Jew, but you’ve been living like a Gentile. How can you force Gentiles to become Jews?” 

(Galatians 2: 14).

Peter had already been “living like a Gentile” – not in the sense that he had been worshipping idols or indulging in sexual immorality, but in the sense that he had been in the habit of eating with people without any regard for the distinction between Jews and Gentiles. He was therefore “in the wrong.” Either his present behaviour meant that his previous stance had been wrong, or his previous stance, being right, proved that his present behaviour was wrong. Paul himself was in no doubt which of these was the correct analysis and he went on to put the Good News plainly. He himself was a Jew by ‘race’ and not a foreigner. But he knew that a man did not become a Christian by carrying out all the details of the Jewish religion, but simply by trusting Jesus himself. That was the heart of the matter:

We are Jews by birth, not “Gentile sinners.” But we know that a person is not declared “righteous” by works of the Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

(Galatians 2: 15-16).

Paul knew what the secret of his own life was. True, he went on living his ordinary life in exactly the same way as before, but he didn’t feel that he was living it – Jesus had taken charge of him so that he lived by trusting God’s son, who loved him and gave his life for him. In Western theological discourse, this has been traditionally interpreted as Paul developing his doctrine of ‘justification’, of how someone who was previously a ‘sinner’ comes to be ‘righteous’ in the eyes of God. Paul clearly believed in the importance of ‘sin’ and of being rescued from it. But that was not what was at stake at the time in Jerusalem, Antioch or Galatia. What mattered then was the individual believer’s status within the covenant family. The word ‘righteous’, like the Greek and Hebrew words from which it is often translated, refers to someone being in a right relationship with God, the ‘relationship’ in question being the collective relationship of the covenant that God made with Abraham. The question that Paul was addressing was: How can you tell who are the true children of Abraham? His answer was focused firmly on Jesus. So Paul’s point to Peter was a simple one, that what mattered to Jesus was being part of the covenant family, and that is not defined by Jewish law, but through the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. The word for ‘faithfulness’ is pistis in Greek, also means simply ‘faith’, ‘loyalty’ or ‘reliability’. In a world where the key value for a zealous Jew was ‘loyalty’ to God and his law, Paul believed, according to Wright:

(1) that Jesus the Messiah had been utterly faithful to the divine purpose, “obedient even to the death of the cross”… ;

(2) that following Jesus, whatever it took, had to be seen as itself a central expression of loyalty to Israel’s God;

(3) that the followers of Jesus were themselves marked out by their belief in him, confessing him as ‘Lord’ and believing that he was raised from the dead; …

(4) if this Jesus-shaped loyalty was the vital thing, “then nothing that the law could say was to come between one Jesus-follower and another.”

In other words, continuing Paul’s description of what he said to Peter:

That is why we too believed in the Messiah, Jesus: so that we might be declared ‘righteous’ on the basis of the Messiah’s faithfulness, and not on the basis of works of the Jewish law. On that basis, you see, no creature will be declared ‘righteous’.

(Galatians 2: 16).

Paul urges Peter and all the others who hear his letter when it is read out loud, to think out the new position they find themselves in:

Well then: if in seeking to be declared ‘righteous’ in the Messiah, we ourselves are found to be ‘sinners’, does that make the Messiah an agent of ‘sin’? Certainly not! If I build up once more the things which I tore down, I demonstrate that I am a law-breaker.

(Galatians 2: 17-18).

Following Paul’s definition of himself and others as Jews by birth, not ‘Gentile sinners’ in which Gentiles are automatically ‘sinners’ because they do not have the law. Therefore, if Peter found himself called to live on equal terms with ‘Gentile sinners’ did that mean that the Messiah was colluding with ‘sin’? That was exactly what the Jerusalem church and the Judaeans, in general, were concerned about, seeing it, potentially, as fraternising with the enemy. They might see, in Paul’s claim to be following the Messiah, a false Messiah who was leading the people astray. Paul countered by arguing that since Peter had started by pulling down the wall between Jews and Gentiles if he now wished to re-erect it, he was admitting that he had been wrong to ‘live like a Gentile’. Paul believed that there was only one way forward, and that is to go where the Messiah had led, through death to new life, a journey which was the same for all the Messiah’s followers, Jew and Gentile alike. Paul describes this journey in individual terms by using the first person singular because, as a zealous Jew, he was making it clear that even he had to tread his own path:

Let me explain it like this. Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. I am, however, alive – but it isn’t me any longer, it’s the Messiah who lives in me. And the life I do still live in the flesh, I live within the faithfulness of the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2: 17-18)

In making this statement, Paul shows us that he regarded himself as a loyal Jew, loyal to God and the law but that he had come to see the law itself as pointing forward to a kind of ‘death’, something beyond itself that could only be attained by coming out of the law’s own sphere and emerging into a new world. The law itself had envisaged a moment when it would be transcended by a messianic reality. Though Paul does not mention baptism in this passage, this is exactly what, in his view, baptism is all about (as in Romans 6), which is leaving the old life behind and coming through ‘death’ into a new life entirely. The believer then finds his own identity not in his human genealogy or status, but in the Messiah’s faithfulness and loyalty, defined and demonstrated for all time in His death and resurrection. When the believer becomes part of that messianic reality, it is this, rather than his previous standing as a ‘Jew’ or ‘Gentile’, which really matters. The idea of ‘love’ coming from the God of Israel goes all the way back to the covenant with Israel and the act of rescue of Exodus. Paul’s conclusion to this summary of what he said to Peter and James’ ‘envoys’ follows on from this theme:

I don’t set aside God’s grace. If ‘righteousness’ comes through the law, then the Messiah died for nothing.

In other words, if Peter and the envoys from Jerusalem to try to reestablish a two-tier church, with Jews at one table and Gentiles at another, all they were doing was declaring that God’s sovereign love, reaching out to the utterly undeserving – ‘grace’ – was an irrelevance. God need not have bothered with sending his son. If the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, or ‘Pentateuch’ was sufficient for all time to define the people of God, then there was no need for a crucified Messiah. On the other hand, if God had declared in the resurrection that the crucified Jesus really was the Messiah, then He was also declaring that Moses could only take the people so far. He had pointed to a promised land, an ‘inheritance’ which he himself could not enter. Paul insisted that the ‘heirs’ to this ‘inheritance’ could not be defined by the Torah, but only by the Messiah himself, the ultimate ‘heir’. It has been commonplace among New Testament scholars to give the interpretation that Paul lost this disputation and so had to set off on his later missionary journeys without the support of the church in Antioch. But the distance between Syria and Galatia was not that great and people could and did travel quickly between the two regions. The fact that he referred to the dispute at such length in his letter to the Galatians, and that he later returned to Antioch without any hint of trouble, does not suggest that he lost the argument and was ‘run out of town’.

The Galatian Background:

It was out in the world beyond Palestine, and even Syria, that what Jesus meant, why he lived as he did, how he died, and how he was ‘raised to life’ became clearer. It meant nothing less than the vision of a new world, God’s world, and a call to be God’s ‘fellow-workers’ in its making. Nothing could have made this vision sharper than the sight of men and women, of different ‘races’, classes and nations becoming Christians. Their old fears vanished; a new joy marked their lives. When Paul tried to describe what a difference Jesus had made to him personally he went back to the opening words of the book of Genesis and the story of the making of the world as the only kind of language he could use:

God, who made this bright world, filled my heart with light, the light which shines when we know him as he is, the light shining from the face of Jesus.

(II Corinthians 4: 6, New World).

This is Paul’s later account of his own experience; but it was, as he was constantly repeating, a simple experience which everyone everywhere could share. However, the background to Paul’s earlier letter to the Galatians was undoubtedly complex. Around the same time that James’ envoys arrived in Syrian Antioch, it appears that similar persons from the Jerusalem church arrived in Galatia. Their message seems to have been similar, that all fraternising with Gentiles was to stop and that any Gentiles who wanted to be identified with the true people of Israel would have to be circumcised. God’s kingdom would come, rescuing His people from the wicked ways of the world, but only those circumcised would inherit that kingdom. This sharp message also involved a personal attack on Paul himself who was only, they claimed, in Tom Wright’s phrase, a second-order representative of the Jesus message. He had picked up his ‘gospel’ in Jerusalem but had failed to grasp one of the central elements, or perhaps was unwilling to pass it on. Moreover, Jerusalem was, at that time, awash with zealous speculation about the coming kingdom, in which the Gentiles were usually portrayed as the wicked villains who would, at last, receive their punishment. People disagreed about what it meant to keep the Torah, but everyone agreed that the Torah mattered. Any Jews who were willing to treat uncircumcised Gentiles as ‘family’ were compromising the integrity of God’s people and were placing the promised inheritance itself in jeopardy.

Just as Saul of Tarsus had set off a decade earlier to round up the blaspheming followers of ‘The Way’, someone else – a shadowy, unnamed figure – set off with a few friends to bring the new movement into line. At the same time, the pressure was mounting on the Jewish communities in South Galatia. As long as everyone in the thoroughly Romanised province knew who all the Jews were within a particular town or city, they would also know that they had permission to forego participation in the local cults, as well as the exciting new cults of Caesar and Rome. One of the first and most important things that happened whenever non-Jews were grasped by the gospel of Jesus was that, once they had heard that there was a true and living God and that He loved them personally, they would turn away from the idols they had previously worshipped. Suddenly, therefore, new groups of Jesus-followers were emerging, which were obviously not Jewish, but which were staying away from pagan rituals, celebrations and ceremonies. So while the nascent Christian groups in Jerusalem were suspected of disloyalty due to their attitude towards the Torah and the Temple, those in the Diaspora were suspected of disloyalty toward their own communities and towards Rome itself because of their attitude toward the local and imperial cults.

The Jewish communities in cities like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra – all Roman colonies – would then find themselves caught in the middle. Local synagogue congregations might well be divided in their response, but the social pressure would grow on them. In turn, local Jewish leaders would put pressure on local Jewish Jesus-followers to persuade their new ‘friends’, the Gentile believers, to come into line and get themselves circumcised. Paul, therefore, had a complex and challenging task, and he was shocked that the communities he had founded had not grasped the full meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the fact that through him a new world, a new creation, had already come into being. They were in serious danger of stepping back into the old world, as though the cross and the empty tomb had never happened, as though the true and living God had not revealed his covenant love once and for all not only to Israel but through the Messiah, to the world. In his letter, he interrupts his opening greeting to insist that his ‘apostleship’ was a direct divine gift, not a secondhand or second-rate appointment from “human sources.” It derives from God himself, and from Jesus the Messiah, our Kyrios,

… who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our father, to whom be glory to the ages of ages. Amen.

(Galatians 1: 4-5).

The gospel Paul announced may have seemed to Jews in Jerusalem or Galatia as though it was a strange, peculiar eccentricity. But, in truth, it was the harbinger of the long-awaited new creation. This would remain central to Paul’s mission, delineating “the present evil age” from the new day which had dawned. Here, Paul affirms the widespread Jewish belief that world history was divided into two ‘ages’, the “present age” of sorrow, shame, exile, and death and the “age to come,” when all things will be put right. This was a common belief for centuries before Paul, and it remained the norm all the way through the much later rabbinic period. For Paul, the living God had acted in the person of Jesus to rescue people from the ‘present age’ and to launch ‘the age to come’. The new age had burst upon the scene while the ‘present age’ was still rumbling on. This was the divine plan by which Jesus “gave himself for our sins”; the power of the ‘present age’ was thereby broken, and the new world could begin.

Paul would later characterise his vocation as a “ministry of reconciliation,” God’s reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles into a single messianic family, as he set out clearly in his writing to those who had become Christians during and after his first visit to the highlands of Anatolia:

Your trust in God your Father has made you members of his Family; Jesus has made this possible. For when you were baptised and became Christians, you began, with his help, to live in his way, as he lived in his Father’s Way. 

Living in God’s Way means that you can’t talk about one another as being ‘white’ or ‘coloured’, ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class’, ‘men’ or ‘women’, as though that was the only thing about them that matters. The most important thing is that as Christians you are one company of friends. And if you are friends of Jesus, you are members of God’s Family as God meant you to be and promised to make you. 

That is why, when the time was ripe, God sent his Son to live among us as one of us, to help us live as his sons and daughters, grown-up members of his Family. Because this is what we now are, he has given us the Spirit of his Son in our hearts. When we pray to him, we pray as Jesus did; we say ‘Father!’

You aren’t God’s slaves; God has made you, as I have said, his sons and daughters. And, as sons and daughters inherit their father’s wealth, so all the wealth of God, your Father, is yours.

(Galatians 3: 26-29; 4: 4-7, New World).

When describing this new experience, it is noticeable how Paul goes back to the story of Jesus, recalling how he lived and how he died. For him, it was the way Jesus died which made real what God’s love was like; a love which, in his own words, was broad and long and high and deep; and it was the way God had raised him from the dead that showed us how great the power of God’s love is. The very word ‘cross’ sounded differently in the Graeco-Roman ‘age’. To any Roman citizen, it could only have sounded like a savage word, like our ‘gibbet’ or ‘gallows’. It was the way Romans executed foreign criminals or rebels or slaves. But now it was transformed for Paul into the symbol of God’s ‘amazing love’ – he even wrote once to some friends that he could ‘boast’ about it. What Jesus had made plain for Paul was that God was someone we could trust and to whom we could pray as ‘Father’ (here Paul used the word ‘Abba’, the very same child-like word that Jesus used in his own prayers). There is nothing we need to fear, he tells us, not even death itself, for death ‘has been totally defeated’. The whole world and whatever may lie beyond it is God our Father’s world.

But Paul must also have carried a deep sense of shame and personal failure in his mission of reconciliation, due to his falling-out with Barnabas. This was probably the long-term result of that shocking moment in Antioch when Peter had separated himself from the non-Jewish believers and “even Barnabas” had been led astray by their “hypocrisy”. Although they had, initially, reconciled, and had gone together to Jerusalem, arguing side-by-side the case for Gentile inclusion. But Paul’s trust in his colleague had received a heavy blow and he questioned how reliable might be on further missions to the Gentiles. The specific flashpoint concerned John Mark, the probable Gospel-writer who, as a young man, had been present at the Last Supper and in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night when Jesus was betrayed. It was natural that Paul would suggest revisiting the churches of southern Anatolia, eager to see how they had turned out and able to use a different tone of voice (Galatians 4: 20). It was equally natural that Barnabas would want to take Mark and predictable that Paul would refuse. But Mark had abandoned them on the earlier journey as soon as they had on the south ‘Turkish’ mainland. Added to the question over his reliability for another mission, Mark was not only related to Barnabas but also to Peter. Although Peter had supported Paul’s mission at the Jerusalem Conference, Paul was concerned that Mark might be inclined to take the same line that Peter and Barnabas had taken in Antioch in favour of a two-table meal-time.

For Barnabas, it would have been intolerable that Paul would question his judgement, having himself stood up for Paul a decade earlier when others had doubted him. Now he wanted to do the same for his nephew and give him a second chance to prove himself. The solution that emerged was that Barnabas and John Mark would go back to Cyprus, while Paul would go to Galatia and beyond, but only after a blazing row, what Luke refers to by the Greek word, a paroxysm. It left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, and a sorrowful memory in their souls. So Barnabas and Mark sailed away, not only to Cyprus but right out of the narrative of Acts, though Mark later re-emerges as a trusted and valued colleague of Paul’s (Col. 4: 10; Philemon 23; 2 Tim. 4: 11). Paul chose Silas (or ‘Silvanus’) as his new travel companion, like Paul a Roman citizen and a member of the church in Jerusalem who had been entrusted with the epistle that the elders had sent to the wider churches. The church in Antioch sent them on their way, commending them to God’s grace.

The Second Missionary Journey:

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The ‘Second Missionary Journey’ was to be marked by a momentous new departure, but it was not premeditated as such. It began, unadventurously, as a return visit to the young churches founded on the previous tour. Following this, the missionaries pursued a curiously devious and uncertain course, without finding any opening for fresh work, until they reached the shore of the Aegean at Troas, not far south of the Dardanelles (Acts 16: 6-8). It is at this point that we come upon the first extract from the ‘travel diary’ incorporated in Acts:

We at once set about getting a passage to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to bring them the good news.

(Acts 16: 10).

The decision to cross from Asia into Europe proved a turning point, opening a new period in Paul’s missionary career, during which he really found himself. It is also a period which is richly illuminated for us by the letters he wrote during it. A comparatively short sea passage brought the party to the nearest port on the European side, and they made their way through Macedonia towards the province of Achaia or ‘Greece’. Several churches were founded, though the tour was chequered by the usual opposition. At Philippi, it came from pagans, not without tones of anti-Semitism (Acts 16: 19-24). One of the big differences between Philippi and the earlier cities of Paul’s mission was that there was no synagogue. That became significant when the locals identified Paul as a Jew; it looks as though the city knew just enough about Jews to be prejudiced against them. Paul had grown familiar with the usual Gentile jibes and sneers against his people, and now he heard them again. There was, however, a proseuche, a ‘place of prayer’ where a small number of Jews and ‘God-fearers’ (non-Jews who wanted to join in synagogue worship) would meet regularly. This was where, after a few days settling in, Paul and the others made a start. Their first convert was a businesswoman from Thyatira, Lydia by name, described as “a seller of purple.” Her story of response to the gospel appears the most straightforward of any in Acts: The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what Paul was saying. She was the head of her household, suggesting that she may have been widowed, and was baptised with all her household, inviting the whole Christian party; Paul, Silas, Timothy and Luke to stay at her home. The announcement of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah seems to have caused little difficulty in the small Jewish meeting place, but pagans grabbed hold of Paul and Silas, dragged them into the public square and presented them to the magistrates, declaring:

“These men are throwing our city into an uproar! They are Jews, and they are teaching customs which it is illegal for us Romans to accept or practice!”

(I Cor. 4: 3-4).

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The irony cannot have been lost on Paul. The anger and violence he had faced in Galatia and the opposition to his missionary strategy in Jerusalem and Antioch had been instigated by ethnic Jewish groups furious at his ‘disloyalty’ to the ancestral traditions. Now he was accused of being a subversive Jew, in common with those who had rebelled against Rome before, teaching people to be disloyal to Rome! It all ended with a public apology and with the magistrates, clearly at a loss to know what to do next, imploring Paul and Silas to go away. They took their time in complying, visiting Lydia’s house and conversing with the group of believers there, and Timothy caught up with the two of them in Berea, but not Luke. Philippi was an important city in its own right, but Thessalonica, Paul’s next ‘port of call’ was even more so. It was on the main crossroads and its role as a port at the head of the Thermaic Gulf to the west of the Chalcidice Peninsula guaranteed its prosperity. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and the Roman general Pompey had used it as his base in the civil war. In Paul’s day, it was not an official Roman colony, however: that was to come two centuries later, but it was already a major centre of Roman influence.

Unlike Philippi, Thessalonica had a sufficiently large Jewish population to sustain a synagogue. Luke’s summary of what Paul said on the three Sabbaths he spoke there conforms both to the earlier summaries and to Paul’s own repeated statements in his letters. The message was accepted by some of the Jews, several of the God-fearing Greeks, and quite a number of the leading women. It also appears from Paul’s letter to Thessalonica, written not long after this initial visit, that many in the young church there had been polytheistic pagans and had turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God (I Thess. 1: 9). Clearly, this was a significant group of both Jews and Gentiles. One member in particular, Jason, gave hospitality to Paul and Silas, facing the brunt of the anger aroused for doing so. Some of the synagogue community turned against the missionaries and stirred up a mob, bent on violence, but they could not find them. What mattered, however, was the political nature of the charges that were thrown around as all this was going on:

“These are the people who are turning the world upside down!” they yelled. “Now they’ve come here! Jason has them in his house! They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar – and they’re saying that there is another king, Jesus!”

(Acts 17: 6-7).

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It was true, of course, that if non-Jews were abandoning idols and worshipping the God of Israel, without formally becoming Jews, then they were indeed disobeying Caesar’s decrees. Only genuine Jews had that permission. So this meant that broadly speaking, Paul and his group were turning the world upside down. Paul and his friends were announcing and modelling in their own lives a different way of being human, a different kind of community, and all because there was a different kind of ‘king’. In any case, Jason and his friends were bound over to keep the peace, while Paul and Silas were smuggled out-of-town by night and sent on to Berea, about fifty miles to the west, but off the main route. They leave in a hurry, with a sense that the little body of believers is under threat. At Thessalonica and Beroea the old pattern reasserted itself: the Jewish opposition made mischief with the civil authorities, and Paul was obliged to move on, leaving his companions behind (Acts 17: 1-14). He arrived at Athens by boat alone (Acts 17: 15), in great disquiet (as he tells us in letters to Thessalonica written about this time) about the new converts whom he had been compelled by the local authorities to leave prematurely (I Thess. 2: 13-35; II Thess. 3: 6-16). Nevertheless, he bravely continued his ministry while waiting there for Silas and Timothy:

He wandered through the streets; everywhere there were temples and images of Greek gods. This made Paul very unhappy. He had to talk to somebody about it. He went to the Jewish Meeting House and argued there; he went to the market place and argued with anybody who happened to be there. There were many lecturers in the city, for its university was very famous; some of them met Paul, and he argued with them.

“What’s this chatterer talking about?” sneered some.

“It’s some foreign fellow talking about his gods, it seems,” said others.

The City Council was called ‘Mars Hill’, after the name of the hill where it used to meet in earlier times. This Council was specially interested in all new speakers who came to teach in Athens. The citizens of Athens and their foreign visitors always had time to talk about or listen to anything strange and new; they seemed to do nothing else.

The lecturers got hold of Paul and took him before the Council.

“Tell us, if you please, something more about this ‘news’ of yours,” they said. “What you’ve been talking about seems very strange to us. We’d like to know what it’s all about.”

Paul stood before the Council.

“Citizens of Athens,” he said, “by just wandering around your streets, I can see that religion matters very much to you. I had a good look at your temples and the images of your gods. And I noticed one altar that had these words on it: “To an Unknown God”. You do not know him; I will tell you about him.

“The God who made the world and all that’s in it by that very fact is the Master of the whole world. His home can’t be a in a street that you can build with your own hands. … We may belong to different nations now, but at the beginning God made us all one people and gave us the whole world for our home. All things are in his hands – the rise and fall of nations and the boundaries of their territories. He did all this for one purpose only – the men and women might look for him and find him.

“Yet he is very near every one of us. Your own poets have said this very thing –

‘In God we live and move and exist’,

“and…

‘We, too, belong to his family.’

“If, therefore, we belong to God, we can’t possibly think that gold and silver and stone are good enough to show us what he is like. No artist can paint God’s picture, however clever or thoughtful he may be.

“What then, has God done? He takes no notice of the past, when we didn’t know what he was like. But today, in our own time, he calls all people to change their ways. We can no longer say we do not know; Jesus has made him plain. The day is fixed when everybody everywhere will be judged by this man he has chosen – and truly judged. The proof of this he has given to all men – he has raised him from the dead.”

Some of them laughed out loud at Paul when they heard him talk like this – about God ‘raising Jesus from the dead’. But there were others.

“We will hear you again about all this,” they said.   

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For this, and for other reasons, he was in low spirits (as he tells us in retrospect in I Cor. 2: 3) as he left Athens for Corinth which became, as it turned out, the scene of his greatest success to date. Corinth had been one of the most important of the old Greek city-states. After its destruction by the Romans, it had been re-founded by Julius Caesar and had become capital of the province of Achaia. Situated on the isthmus which separates the Aegean from the Adriatic, and the eastern part of the empire from the western, it had become an immensely busy and prosperous centre of trade, with a multi-cultural population. It also had the unsavoury reputation which cosmopolitan seaport towns seem to attract.

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It was in Corinth that Paul, reunited with his companions, spent nearly two years, maintaining himself by working at his trade of tent-making (Acts 18: 3, 11, 18). It was his longest sojourn anywhere since he had started on his journeys. His breach with the orthodox Jews set him free for independent action. He left the synagogue, taking with him one of its office-holders, and (perhaps in an act of deliberate defiance) set up his headquarters in a nearby house belonging to a Gentile believer (Acts 18: 5-8). The opposition once more tried to embroil him with the civil authorities, but the proconsul refused to enter the charges they brought, as being no more than some bickering about words and names and your Jewish law. The case was dismissed, which must have considerably strengthened Paul’s position (Acts 18: 12-17). He succeeded in building up a numerous and active if somewhat turbulent, Christian community, predominantly Gentile in membership before he left to return to Jerusalem and Antioch via Ephesus (Acts 18: 18-22), which he had already marked out as his next centre of work. It was in Ephesus that he was to meet a darker level of opposition which helps us to understand why he wrote as he did in II Corinthians of reaching the point where he was giving up on life itself.

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(to be continued…)

Paul of Tarsus: Jew, Roman & Christian Missionary to the Gentiles.   Leave a comment

Part One – From Tarsus to Antioch & Galatia:

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Introduction:

For Christmas 2018, my eldest son gave me a copy of Tom Wright’s Biography of the Apostle Paul, ‘hot off the press’. It reminded me of the time, as a child, when I found a picture book of Paul’s life on my Coventry grandmother’s bookstand and read it in one sitting, cover to cover. It also reminded me of watching the television film shown above (from which I have included stills throughout the text). Both as Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle, his was an eventful and exciting life story, as he himself recognised in his later letter to the church at Corinth:

Let me tell you what I’ve had to face. I know it’s silly for me to talk like this, but here’s the list. I know what it is to work hard and live dangerously.

I’ve been beaten up more times than I can remember, been in more than one prison, and faced death more than once. Five times I’ve been thrashed by a Jewish court to within an inch of my life; three times I’ve been beaten with (Roman) rods by city magistrates; and once I was nearly stoned to death. 

I’ve been shipwrecked three times; and once, I was adrift, out of sight of land, for twenty-four hours.

I don’t know how many roads I’ve tramped. I’ve faced bandits; I’ve been attacked by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners. I’ve met danger in city streets and on lonely country roads and out in the open sea.

(II Cor. 11: 23-33, New World.)

The writings of Paul have had an incalculable influence on Western culture and beyond, and his words continue to guide the lives of two billion Christians throughout the world today. In his biography, Tom Wright traces Paul’s career from the Sanhedrin’s zealous persecutor of the fledgling Church, through his journeys as the world’s greatest missionary and theologian, to his likely death as a Christian martyr under Nero in the mid-sixties of the first century.

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To understand Paul, Wright insists, we must understand the Jewish world in which the young Saul grew up, a world itself firmly earthed in the soil of wider Graeco-Roman culture. This is what I want to concentrate on here, especially in the context in which Wright is writing, a twenty-first century which seems just as filled with religious and ethnic hatred and in which anti-Jewish thought, feelings and actions are once more on the rise, despite the atrocities of the previous century. The ‘Breaking News’ as I write is that incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain have risen for the third year running: 1,652 incidents were recorded by Community Security Trust (CST) in 2018, including more than 100 Assaults. Growing up in a Baptist manse in Birmingham in the 1960s and ’70s, I became conscious of anti-Semitism at the age of eleven when I asked one of the older boys I regularly walked to school with if he was a ‘Jewboy’. I had heard my father use the term, but didn’t think, at that time, that it meant anything other than a ‘Jewish’ boy and didn’t realise that it was used as a term of abuse. After they were called to the school, my parents informed me of this, I apologised to the boy and never used the term again. Later, I understood that my father’s view of the Jews was based on ‘replacement’ theology, the idea that the Christian Church had been chosen to replace the people of Judea and Israel, who had proved themselves unworthy by their rejection of Jesus and their ‘role’ in his crucifixion. One of my seventh-generation Baptist grandmother’s books, George F Jowett’s The Drama of the Lost Disciples (1961) expressed this (then) popular view:

Jesus Himself… denounces the Sadducean Jews, telling them that the glory shall be taken away from them and given to another (Matt. 21: 43). Again, when He says He came not to the Jews, but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matt. 15: 24). He knew He would not convert the Sanhedrin and its following, so it had to be others – the lost sheep. Who were they? The answer lies in his answer to Paul, the converted Saul, whom he commands to go the Gentiles.

C. H. Dodd wrote (1970) that Paul was the pioneer leader in the Christian approach to the Graeco-Roman public. The fortunate preservation of a number of his letters has put us in a position to know him better than we know most individuals of the ancient world. The information they give can be supplemented from the account of his career given in the Acts of the Apostles. Whilst there are points where it is not easy to bring the two sources of our knowledge into complete harmony, there is a good reason to believe that the author of ‘Acts’, thought to be Luke (the gospel-writer and Greek doctor), was well-informed, and may have travelled with Paul himself. This made him an eye-witness, and his account may be used as a historical frame in which to set Paul’s own accounts, contained in his letters.

Saul of Tarsus:

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According to Acts 21: 39, Paul was born at Tarsus in Cilicia, an ancient Greek city, and then a strong centre of Hellenistic culture, his parents belonging to the Jewish colony there. Tarsus was ten miles inland on the river Cydnus in the south-east corner of what is Turkey today, in ‘Asia Minor’, on the major east-west routes. It was a ‘noble city’ which could trace its history back two thousand years. Generals like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar had recognised its strategic importance; the emperor Augustus had given it extra privileges. It was a city of culture and politics, of philosophy and industry. It had a thriving textile business, producing materials from goats’ hair, used to make shelters, which may well have been the basis of the family business of tent-making, in which Saul had been apprenticed and which he continued to practice.

The cosmopolitan world of the eastern Mediterranean flowed through the city, which rivalled Athens as a centre of philosophy, not least because half the philosophers of Athens had gone there a century earlier when Athens had incurred the wrath of Rome in a struggle for power. The Jews had struck a deal with Augustus Caesar by which he accepted that they were exempted from adopting the ‘divinity’ cult of his father, Julius Caesar. In return, they agreed to pray to their One God for Rome and its emperor.

We don’t know how long his family had lived in Tarsus. Later legends suggest various options, one of which is that his father or grandfather had lived in Palestine but had moved during one of the periodic social and political upheavals which always carried ‘religious’ overtones as well. They were orthodox Jews and brought their son up in the Pharisaic tradition (23:6; 26:5). The word ‘Pharisee’ has had a bad press over the centuries since. Modern research, operating at the academic rather than the popular level, has done little to dispel that impression, partly because the research in question has made things far more complicated, as research in question in question has made things far more complicated, as research often does. Most of the sources for understanding the Pharisees of Saul’s day come from a much later period. The rabbis of the third and fourth centuries AD looked back to the Pharisees as their spiritual ancestors and so tended to project onto them their own questions and ways of seeing things. But besides Paul’s writings, the other first-century source on the Pharisees, the Jewish historian Josephus, also requires caution. Having been a general at the start of the Roman-Jewish war of AD 66-70, he had gone over to the Romans and claimed that Israel’s One God had done the same thing, an alarmingly clear case of remaking the Almighty in one’s own image.

In Tarsus, as throughout the ‘Diaspora’, there were all sorts of cultural pressures which would draw devout Jews into compromise. Families and individuals faced questions such as what to eat, whom to eat with, whom to do business with, whom to marry, what attitude to take toward local officials, taxes, customs and rituals. The decisions individuals made on all of these questions would mark them out in the eyes of some as too compromised and in the eyes of others as too strict. There was seldom if ever in the ancient world a simple divide, with Jews on one side and gentiles on the other. We should envisage, rather, a complex subculture in which Jews as a whole saw themselves as broadly different from their gentile neighbours. Within that, the entire subgroups of Jews saw themselves as different from other subgroups. The parties and sects we know from Palestinian Jewish life of the time – Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and a nascent militantly ‘zealous’ faction – may not have existed exactly as we describe them, not least because the Sadducees were a small Jerusalem-based aristocracy, but intra-Jewish political and social divisions would have persisted.

We can’t be sure how many Jews lived in Tarsus in Saul’s day. There were, quite possibly, a few thousand at least in a city of roughly a hundred thousand. But we can get a clear sense of how things were for the young Saul. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as ‘private life’ for individuals and families. A tiny number of the aristocracy or the very rich were able to afford a measure of privacy but for the great majority, life was lived publicly and visibly. The streets were mostly narrow, the houses and tenements were mostly cramped, there were noises and smells everywhere, and everyone knew everybody else’s business. We can assume that this was true for the Jews of Tarsus who would have lived close to each other partly for their own safety and partly for the ease of obtaining ‘kosher’ food. The questions of where one stood on the spectrum between strict adherence to the ancestral code, the Torah, and ‘compromise’ were not theoretical. They were about what one did and what one didn’t do in full view of neighbours, and about how those neighbours might react.

The Torah loomed all the larger if one lived, as did the young Saul, outside the promised land and hence away from the Temple. The Torah, in fact, functioned as a movable Temple for the many Jews who were scattered around the wider world. Wherever they were, in Rome or in Babylon, Greece or Egypt, if they prayerfully studied it, then it might be as if they were in the Temple itself. They would be in the divine presence, not in its most dramatic form, but there nonetheless. But the Temple in Jerusalem remained central, geographically and symbolically. It was the place where heaven and earth met, thus forming the signpost to the ultimate promise, the renewal and unity of heaven and earth, the new creation in which the One God would be personally present forever. We don’t know how often Saul travelled with his parents to the homeland with his parents for the great festivals. It is quite probable that, at an early age, the young Saul acquired the sense that all roads, spiritually as well as geographically, to Jerusalem. The Temple was like a cultural and theological magnet, drawing together not only heaven and earth but also the great scriptural stories and promises. In addition, therefore, it was the focal point of Israel’s hope, The One God, so the prophets had said, abandoned his house in Jerusalem because of the people’s idolatry and sin. Tom Wright argues that we will never understand how the young Saul of Tarsus thought and prayed until we grasp…

… the strange fact that, though the Temple still held powerful memories of divine presence … there was a strong sense that the promise of ultimate divine return had not yet been fulfilled. …

… The God of Israel had said he would return, but had not yet done so.

Saul of Tarsus was brought up to believe that it would happen, perhaps very soon. Israel’s God would indeed return in glory to establish his kingdom in visible global power. He was also taught that there were things Jews could be doing to keep this promise and hope on track. It was vital for Jews to keep the Torah with rigorous attention to detail and to defend the Torah, and the Temple itself, against possible attacks and threats. … That is why Saul of Tarsus persecuted Jesus’s early followers.

The young Saul was not ‘learning religion’ in the accepted modern sense of general religious education, and the mature apostle was not a teacher of it. Today, ‘religion’ for most people in the West designates a detached area of life or even a private hobby, separated by definition from politics and public life, and especially from science and technology. In Paul’s day, ‘religion’ meant almost the exact opposite. The Latin word religio has to do with binding things together. Worship, prayer, sacrifice, and other public rituals were designed to hold the unseen inhabitants (gods and ancestors) together with the visible ones, the living humans, thus providing a vital framework for ordinary life, for business, marriage, travel, home life and work. The public nature of individual life was apparent in the workplace. We know from Paul’s later letters that he engaged in manual work, both as a young apprentice and later to support himself as a missionary. ‘Tent-making’ probably included the crafting of other goods made of leather or animal hair in addition to the core product of tents themselves. Many people migrated from place to place for work, those who worked outside needed awnings and pilgrims required ‘tabernacles’ for their sojourns.

The market for tents and similar products was widespread. We might guess those likely purchasers would include regiments of soldiers, but travel was a way of life for many others in the Roman Empire. It seems unlikely that a Jewish tent-maker would be selling only to fellow Jews. We can assume, therefore, that Saul grew up in a cheerfully and strictly observant Jewish home, on the one hand, and in a polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic working environment on the other. Strict adherence to the ancestral tradition did not preclude know-how of the wider world of work, and how it spoke, behaved and thought. The tent-maker was unlikely to have had a ‘sheltered’ upbringing. The place where the invisible world (‘heaven’) and the visible world (‘earth’) were joined together was the Temple in Jerusalem. If, as in his case, you couldn’t get to the Temple, you could and should study and practice the Torah, and it would have the same effect. Temple and Torah, the two great symbols of Jewish life, pointed to the story in which devout Jews like Saul and his family believed themselves to be living:

… the great story of Israel and the world, which, they hoped, was at last to set up his kingdom, to make the whole world one vast glory-filled Temple, and to enable all people – or at least his chosen people – to keep the Torah perfectly. Any who prayed or sang the Psalms regularly would find themselves thinking this, hoping this, praying this, day after day, month after month.

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As an apprentice in the bustling pagan city of Tarsus, the young Saul knew perfectly well what it meant to be a loyal Jew. It meant keeping oneself pure from idolatry and immorality. There were pagan temples and shrines on every corner, and Saul would have had a fair idea of what went on there. Loyalty meant keeping the Jewish community pure from all those things as well. Saul’s family seem to have lived with a fierce, joyful strictness in obedience to the ancient traditions and did their best to urge other Jews to do the same. At the same time, his father possessed the coveted status of a Roman citizen, which meant that the family had a superior standing in the local community and his son also had Roman citizenship as his birthright (Acts 22: 25-29). He grew up bilingual (fluent in both in Aramaic and Greek) and bi-cultural: at home, he was Saul, named after the first king of Israel; outside he was Paulus, a citizen of Tarsus and of Rome. He was also literate in Hebrew, able to read the scriptures in the original. His mind had the freedom of two worlds of thought: He had more than the average educated man’s understanding of Greek literature and philosophy. His language quite often carries echoes of ‘Stoicism’.

A Zealous Student in Jerusalem:

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On the other hand, Saul’s formal education seems to have been entirely within the native Jewish tradition, and he was sent to Jerusalem as a young man to study under Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the most distinguished rabbi of his time. Paul was not only, evidently, well versed in the Scriptures, but also in the Rabbinic methods of interpreting them, which sometimes present difficulties for modern readers.

He was therefore well-equipped for his later mission to take the message of a religion rooted in Judaism to a generally non-Jewish Hellenistic public.

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At every stage of Israel’s history, the people of the One God had been tempted to compromise with the wider world and forget the covenant. Resisting this pressure for Saul meant becoming zealous. In his letter to the Galatians (1: 14), Paul wrote I was extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. Nevertheless, Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Roman, it seems, did not live in complete harmony within the same skin. There are signs of psychological tension; in early life, the Pharisee was uppermost. He recites with pride the privileges of the chosen people:

They are Israelites; they were made God’s sons; theirs is the splendour of the divine presence, theirs the covenants, the law, the temple worship, and the promises. (Rom. 9: 4, NEB)

Not only was he proud of the Hebrew people, but he was also proud beyond measure of his own standing as a Jew:

Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred: in my attitude to the law a Pharisee, in pious zeal a persecutor of the church, in legal rectitude faultless (Phil. 3: 5-6).

In another retrospect on his early life he added a significant claim:

In the practice of our national religion I was outstripping many of my Jewish contemporaries in my boundless devotion to the traditions of my ancestors (Gal. 1: 14).

That tells us something powerful about the man; from a young age, he had possessed an irresistible drive to excel, to be distinguished. It was necessary to his self-respect that he should himself as the perfect Pharisee: in legal rectitude faultless. This has led to some Judaistic readers to suggest that there was something extravagant or abnormal in Paul’s account of his pre-Damascene phase. The time came when he himself was forced to confess to himself that this was fantasy, not reality. He was not faultless, and his efforts in pursuit of perfection had been self-defeating:

When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves. (Rom. 7: 21 f.).

Yet by the time Paul was studying in Jerusalem, it was clear that the Abrahamic ‘project’, Israel’s ancestral vocation, was at the point where it needed rescuing. Some Jews had returned to Palestine from Babylon, while others were scattered all over the known world. But the cry went up from one generation to the next over the four centuries to the time of the Roman occupation: We are still in exile! Exile was not just a geographical reality; it was a state of mind and heart, of politics and practicalities, of spirit and flesh. As long as pagans were ruling over Jews, and demanding taxes from them, and profaning their Holy Place, the Jews were again in exile. Since the exile was the result of Israel’s idolatry, according to the prophets, what they needed was not just a new Passover, a new rescue from slavery to pagan tyrants: they needed forgiveness. As Tom Wright has put it, …

That was the good news the prophets had spoken of, the word of comfort at every level from the spiritual to the physical. … When the One God finally puts away the idolatry and wickedness that caused his people to be exiled in the first place, then his people will be ‘free at last’, Passover people with a difference.

That was the ancient hope which Saul of Tarsus cherished along with thousands of his fellow Jews, by no means all of whom were as ‘zealous’ as he was. Few had his intellectual gifts, but they were, like him, very well aware, through scripture and liturgy, of the tensions between those promises and their present predicament. Theirs was a religious culture suffused with hope, albeit long deferred. That was the great narrative in which they lived out their daily lives in their heads and their hearts, giving shape and energy to their aspirations and motivations. Paul sought a means of working out his inner conflict in action, and it was this that made him, at first, a persecutor. His first contact with the new sect of the ‘Nazarenes’, it appears, was one of the most radical and aggressive representatives, a Hellenistic Jew (like Paul himself) named Stephen, who was reported to be…

… forever saying things against the holy place and the law … saying that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place (the Temple) and alter the customs handed down to us by Moses (Acts 6: 13 f.)

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This was an act which impugned the most sacred pledges of Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. And when it appeared that these sectaries hailed Jesus of Nazareth as God’s Messiah, this was sheer blasphemy. Did not the Law say, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a gibbet (Gal. 3: 13)? These people were dragging the glory of Israel into the mire: they were enemies of the Temple and the Torah, enemies of Israel, enemies of Israel’s God. Jerusalem’s Temple, like the wilderness Tabernacle before it, was designed as a small working model of the entire cosmos. This was where the One God of creation would live, dwelling in the midst of his people. When the Temple was destroyed, this vision was shattered, but the prophets had declared that God would one day return and that the people should prepare for that day. Yet the Jews of Saul’s day found themselves in the long, puzzling interval between the time when the One God had abandoned the Temple and the time when he would return in glory, bringing heaven and earth together at last. Seers, mystics and poets wrote of dreams and visions whose subject matter was the rescue of Israel and the final saving ‘revelation’ (apokalypsis in Greek) of the One God. This was the world in which Saul of Tarsus, heir to these traditions, practised his fierce and loyal devotion to Israel’s God. This was how he could keep hope alive and perhaps even to glimpse its fulfilment in advance.

Locating him within this world is not a matter of psychoanalysis, but of history. We are trying to think our way into the mind of a zealous young Jew determined to do God’s will whatever its cost, eager to purge Israel from idolatry and sin, keen to hasten the time when God would come back to rule his world with justice and righteousness. All the fear and hatred that Saul felt for that in himself which was ‘fighting against the Law’ could now be directed upon overt enemies. Stephen was stoned to death, with Saul as an accessory. This was only a beginning. With characteristic determination to outstrip everyone else in his zeal for the Law, Saul obtained from the high priest a commission to hunt the heretics down wherever they might be found (Acts 9: 1 f.).

The Followers of ‘The Way’ & The Road to Damascus:

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According to Acts, the Sanhedrin’s persecution of the first followers of ‘The Way’ (not yet calling themselves Christians) collapsed when Saul had his dramatic encounter with the risen Christ on the way to Damascus, and became Paul, on a permanent basis. The incredible happened, apparently. Paul was struck blind and heard the voice of Christ speaking to him and was suddenly converted to the faith of ‘The Way’. Going into hiding with those he had planned to persecute, he had his sight restored. Wright suggests that this ‘apocalyptic’ event needs to be set in the context of Saul’s seeking, through prayer and meditation, to inhabit for himself the strange old traditions of heaven-and-earth commerce, to become in mind, soul and body, a visionary whose inner eye, and perhaps whose outer eye, might glimpse the ultimate mystery. The practice of this kind of meditation was something one might well do on the long, hot journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.

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When this news got back to Jerusalem, it stunned the Sanhedrin, infuriating them beyond measure. They ordered an all-out drive to seize him and kill him on sight. In a complete reversal of circumstances, the hunter became the hunted. Paul went into hiding himself, appealing for aid from Christ’s disciples. Not unnaturally, they feared this might be a ploy by a man they knew to be clever, cruel and unscrupulous to uncover their secret network of survivors of his own terror, but they finally complied, lowering him over the wall of the city with a rope (Acts 9: 25). The effects of his conversion experience on both his career and the passage of history in which he played his part are open to observation. It is evident that it brought a resolution to his personal predicament. His attempt to resolve it by externalising his inner conflict had proved to be no solution at all. He now found real reconciliation of the contending forces in his soul through his reconciliation with the ‘enemies’ he had been pursuing with such pious hatred. He threw in his lot with them and with ‘Jesus whom he was persecuting’. But to do so meant standing with one who was under the curse of the ‘Law’: it was to become an ‘outlaw’. He wrote that he had been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2: 20).

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It was the most complete break possible with his past self. It took all meaning out of the desperate struggle to see himself in legal rectitude faultless. He could now accept himself as he was, aware of his weaknesses yet willing to stand at the disposal of his new Master. He wrote of how we make it our ambition to be acceptable to him (II Cor. 5: 9). This was a different type of ‘ambition’ from that which had spurred him on to outstrip his Jewish contemporaries. It was the displacement of self from the centre, which proved to be the removal of a heavy burden. But above all it was a liberating experience: ‘Christ set us free, to be free men’ (Gal. 5: 1). It shows itself in an expansion of the range of his interests and energies, no longer restricted by Jewish nationalism and orthodoxy. For an Orthodox Jew who lived the life of a great Greek city, relations with Gentiles were always problematic. Paul was repressing his natural instincts in maintaining the degree of separation from his Gentile fellow-citizens which ‘legal rectitude’ seemed to require. Now he could give those instincts free rein. From the moment of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, he knew that the ‘dividing wall’ was broken down and that he must ‘go to the Gentiles’. Thus the main direction of his new mission was decided from the outset, though it may have been some years before the required strategy was worked out. The rest of what happened to him after this escape with the disciples, as St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, is well-known, not just from the narratives in Acts, but also from his own letters. But we are scantily informed about his early years as a Christian, and the skeleton outline of the Acts tells us little. All that we have from the man himself are his recollections and reflections on the situations into which his missionary career had brought him.

Similarly, the drama of Saul’s Damascene conversion fits too neatly with the need for an early Christian account of a new departure, schism or breakaway in what, in reality, was a gradual evolution of Christianity from Judaism. At first, Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law. Yet since Jews were also already scattered in communities throughout the Empire and beyond, they provided Christian missionaries with an entry into the Gentile world. It was not until three years after his conversion that Paul returned to Jerusalem (Gal. 1: 17-19). At that time he stayed for a fortnight with Peter (or ‘Cephas’, as he calls him, using the Aramaic name given to him by Jesus) and also met James, ‘the Lord’s brother’. These would be able to tell him much at first-hand about Jesus. His stay in Jerusalem seems to have been cut short. however, and he then spent a period of about a dozen years in ‘the regions of Cilicia and Syria’ (Gal. 1: 21). Perhaps some of the adventures he recalls later in life belong to that period, but Acts records only his return to Tarsus, in Cilicia (9: 30) and his removal to Antioch, in Syria (Acts 11: 25 f.). It was with his arrival in the Syrian capital, where Jesus’ followers were first given the nickname ‘Christian’, that the story of his missionary journeys really begins.

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The Synagogues; The Judaeo-Palestinian Converts & The Antiochene Church:

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Above: Paul regularly used the local synagogue as his starting-point when bringing the gospel to a new place. Later, the bridges between Jews and Christians were broken. This reconstructed second-century synagogue is at Sardis, in modern-day Turkey.

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Since these first missionaries, such as Paul and other apostles were Jews, they used the synagogues, both inside and outside Judea and Palestine as ready-made centres for evangelism. Paul regularly used the local synagogue as the starting point for bringing the gospel to a new place. Recent archaeological evidence at Capernaum and elsewhere in Palestine supports the view that early Christians were allowed to use the synagogues for their own meetings for worship. Although most of their fellow Jews remained unconverted, many God-fearing Gentiles, who were attracted to Judaism but had not gone through the ritual of total integration into the Jewish community, became Christian converts. In fact, in spite of the growing divergence between the church and the synagogue, the Christian communities worshipped and operated essentially as Jewish synagogues for more than a generation. Apart from the period of the Jewish wars, the Roman Empire enjoyed three hundred years of peace and general prosperity. This was known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. It allowed both Christians and Jews great freedom to travel throughout the Mediterranean world along superbly engineered roads and under the protection of the Roman government. Paul was able to do this until the final years of his life, but he was only the first of many missionaries. Equally, pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to travel in the opposite direction. This was part of the reason why Paul emphasised the importance of good government.

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The ‘Christian’ community at Antioch included a substantial proportion of non-Jewish converts from paganism. The division between Jew and Gentile, from the Jewish point of view, was greater than any other social or cultural division, more important even than the other two distinctions that run through the whole ancient world, those between slave and free, on the one hand, and male and female on the other. Different Jewish community leaders would draw the lines between Jew and non-Jew at different places. Business dealings might be fine, but business partnerships might be frowned upon. Friendships were tolerated, but not intermarriage. The lines might be blurred, broken or redrawn, but they were still there. Underneath it all, there was still a sense of difference, of “them and us.” Social and cultural indicators would provide visible markers. What you ate, and who you ate with were the most obvious of these, but there were others too. From a Gentile perspective, non-Jewish writers of the day sneered at the Jews for their ‘Sabbath’, claiming that they just wanted a “lazy day” once a week. The fact that Jews didn’t eat pork, the meat most ordinarily available, looked like a ploy to appear socially superior. Jewish males were circumcised, so if they participated in the gymnasium, which normally meant going naked, they might expect taunts.

Beneath these social indicators was the more deeply seated non-Jewish suspicion that the Jews were, in reality, atheists. They didn’t worship the gods, didn’t turn out for the great festivals, didn’t go to parties at the pagan temples and didn’t offer animal sacrifices at local shrines. They claimed that there was only one true Temple, the one in Jerusalem, but rumours abounded, going back to the time when the Roman general Pompey had marched into the Holy of Holies, that the Jews had no image, no statue of their god. Hence the charge of atheism, which was not so much one of theological belief (since the authorities tolerated a whole range of beliefs) but a practical one. The gods mattered for the life and health of the community as a whole. If bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry, probably because people hadn’t been taking them seriously and offering the required worship. People who didn’t believe in the gods were, therefore, placing the entire city, the whole culture or the whole known world at risk. The Jews had their answers for all this, and Saul would have grown up knowing these debates well. After his move to Antioch, he must have heard them repeated with wearying familiarity. “Our God,” the Jews would have said, …

“… is the One God who made the whole world. He cannot be represented by a human-made image. We will demonstrate who he is by the way we live. If we join the world around in worshipping the local divinities – let alone in worshipping the Roman emperor (as people were starting to do when Saul was growing up) – we will be making the mistake our ancestors made.”

In fact, a significant minority of Gentiles admired the Jews for their integrity in this respect, preferring their clear lines of belief and behaviour to the dark muddles of paganism. Many of them attached themselves to the synagogue communities as “God-fearers.” Some went all the way to full conversion as “proselytes.” But the Jews were clear about the fact that, if they compromised with the pagan world around them, however ‘compromise’ might have been defined in any particular city or household, they would be giving up their heritage, and with it their hope for a new world, for the One God to become king at last. So what would the diaspora Jewish communities in Tarsus or Antioch think of the suggestion that the One God had already done what he had promised by sending a Messiah to be crucified? What would this mean for Jewish identity? Was this ‘good news’ simply for the Jewish people, or might it be for everyone?

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Syrian Antioch, even more than Tarsus, was exactly the kind of place where these questions would rise quickly to the surface. It boasted a busy, bustling mixture of cultures, ethnic groups and religious traditions, including a substantial Jewish population. The Roman General Pompey had made it the capital of the new province of Syria, and Julius Caesar had raised it to the level of an autonomous city. With a population of around a quarter of a million, it was widely regarded in antiquity as the third or fourth city of the East, after Alexandria, Seleucia and later Constantinople. It was a classic ‘melting-pot’ in which every kind of social and cultural group was represented.

It isn’t difficult to imagine the crowded streets, the markets selling exotic fruit as well as local produce, the traders and travellers, foreigners in strange costumes and the temples on every street corner. It wasn’t surprising that some of the early followers of Jesus had found their way there, considering that everyone else had. Nor was it surprising that they were eager to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus with non-Jews as well as Jews. If the Jewish scriptures had seen the coming king as Lord of the whole world, how could membership in this kingdom be for Jews only?

Some of the believers who had come to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene saw no reason for any such limitation. They went about telling the non-Jews about Jesus as well. A large number of such people believed the message, abandoned their pagan ways and switched their allegiance to the Christ as Lord. Many Jews would have naturally supposed that these Gentiles would then have to become full Jews. If they were sharing in the ancient promises, ought they not to share in its ancient customs as well? What sort of common life ought this new community to develop? The introduction of this Gentile element in Antioch had no doubt acted as a stimulant, and it is not surprising that they soon found themselves impelled to reach out to a still wider public in the Graeco-Roman world. For this task, they selected a Cypriot Jew of the tribe of Levi, Joseph, known as Barnabas (Acts 4:36 f.; 11: 22-24; 13: 2.), a nickname given to him by the church in Jerusalem which means “son of encouragement.” He was one of those early followers of Jesus who had the gift of enabling others to flourish. The Jerusalem church had sent him to Antioch to see what was going on there.

002 (4)Good-hearted Barnabas (pictured in a recent film portrayal by Franco Nero, right) was not the sort to jump instinctively to a negative response, to reach for familiar prejudices just because something was new. He could see the transformed lives and transparent faith of the Gentile believers which were the work of divine grace, reaching out in generous love to people of every background and origin.

Barnabas shared Paul’s belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had broken down the barriers to Gentile inclusion in God’s kingdom. The evidence of a new dynamic in worship and of the love which meant shared obligations of mutual support told its own story to Barnabas. Others from Jerusalem, faced with the same evidence, might have reached a different conclusion. They would have urged the believers in Antioch to restrict themselves to their own ethnic groups, at least for mealtimes and perhaps even for the Lord’s meal, the “breaking of bread.” Many Jews would have assumed that Gentiles still carried contagious pollution from their culture of idolatry and immorality. But as far as Barnabas was concerned, what mattered was the depth of their belief and allegiance to the Lord. This new community was not defined by genealogy, but by the Lord himself, and what counted as a sure sign of their belonging to Him was loyalty and ‘faithfulness’.

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Paul was an obvious choice to join him as a companion since Barnabas had first introduced him to the Antiochene church (Acts 11: 25 f.). They were therefore at the centre of the controversies there and became firm friends. The vibrant and excited group of Jesus-followers in Antioch was doing something radically counter-cultural, experimenting with a whole new way of being human, and Barnabas and Paul would have to help them think through what that really meant. In this way, the friendship between the two ‘brothers in Christ’ helped to shape Paul’s mind and teaching, leading to what, with long hindsight, we might call Christian theology. It had been a decade since Saul had gone to Tarsus, after his brief time in Damascus and Jerusalem. We don’t know whether anyone in either Jerusalem had seen or heard of him during that time, but Barnabas had a strong sense that he was the right man for the job. This was the beginning of a partnership that would launch the first recorded official ‘mission’ of the new movement. He worked with Barnabas and the local leaders in Antioch for a whole year, teaching and guiding the growing community.

002 (6)The pair was then sent to Jerusalem with a gift of money for the Jerusalem believers, who were suffering from their decade-long persecution by the authorities and struggling to stay alive at a time of widespread famine in AD 46-47. Paul’s own retrospective account of the visit (Gal. 2: 1-10) ends with the Jerusalem leaders admonishing him to go on “remembering the poor.”

While there, Paul argued his case for inclusion of the Gentiles in the koinonia (international fellowship). The three central ‘pillars’ of the Jerusalem church; James (brother of Jesus), Peter and John, all agreed that they would continue to restrict their mission to the Jewish people in ancient Israel, while Paul, Barnabas and their friends in Antioch could continue their work among the Gentiles of the Mediterranean world.

Into Asia Minor – The First Missionary Journey:

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The junior colleague soon slipped into the leading role for which his vigour and discernment marked him out. Thus began what is commonly referred to as his ‘First Missionary Journey’ which first took the two to Cyprus (Acts 13: 4-12) and then on as far as the interior of Asia Minor, and in particular to a group of towns in the southern corner of the province of Galatia (Acts 13: 14,51; 14: 6 f.). We can date this journey roughly to AD 47-48.

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Above: It was through country such as this (in modern Turkey) that Paul and his companions, Barnabas and John Mark, travelled into central Asia Minor on their first arduous mission. They founded a number of churches in Galatia.

In the first of these towns, Antioch-towards-Pisidia (Acts 13: 15-50) the apostles began with an address in the synagogue to a congregation which included both Jews and ‘Gentile worshippers’. The latter was a group of people, now fairly numerous in many Hellenistic cities, as in Antioch, who were attracted to by Judaism to attend the synagogue services, without becoming regular ‘proselytes’ and members of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’. They showed a lively interest which spread to circles without previous association with the synagogue. From his letters, we can gather that Paul suggested that these people could become full members of the people of God without submitting to the Jewish Law, by joining the Christian church. This provoked a violent reaction from stricter Jews, however, who could only see this new preaching as a threat to their way of life. They denounced Paul and Barnabas as false teachers leading Israel astray.

002 (5)Paul’s response was to quote Isaiah 49: I have set you for a light to the nations so that you can be salvation-bringers to the end of the earth. This delighted the non-Jews who had heard his message: they were free to belong to God’s ancient people. But this, in turn, strengthened Jewish reaction, producing an altogether more serious turn of events.

Both the leading Jews and the leading citizens of the town saw the threat of real civic disorder. When opposition turned to violence, this was sufficient to cause the missionaries to leave the town in a hurry, symbolically shaking the dust off their feet as they did so, but also leaving behind them the beginnings of a new community filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. After that experience, however, the missionaries put out a statement of policy, making it clear to the Jewish communities in the cities they were to visit that:

It was necessary that the word of God should be declared to you first, but since you reject it … we now turn to the Gentiles (Acts 13: 46).

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002 (2)This principle, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek (Rom. 1: 16; 2: 9 f.) was the principle that guided Paul’s ministry and expressed many times in his letters. In his letter to the Romans, he provided a theological justification for it (Rom. 11: 1-27). The outcome of this tour was the foundation of several communities, largely Gentile in membership, and the unleashing of Jewish hostility to Paul’s mission which was to follow him wherever he went, and to finally bring his active career to an end. When Paul and Barnabas found themselves facing people in remote highlands of ancient Anatolia with a strange language and religion, they became overnight heroes when Paul healed a man who had been crippled since birth (depicted above). As the pagan crowd began to worship them, they remonstrated with it that this was not the purpose of their mission. At that point, Jews from the towns where they had already been who had followed them there, told the pagan crowd in the town of Lystra what they thought about the missionaries:

That turned the crowd against them, and they started to throw stones at Paul. They thought they had killed him, and dragged him outside the town. Paul’s friends stood round him; they, too, thought he was dead. But he got up and went back into the town. (Acts 14: 8-20)

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Illustration by Trevor Stubley of the stoning of Paul at Lystra,

for Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus (OUP, 1979).

Paul explained to his friends that this kind of suffering was precisely the sign of the two world’s colliding; they are on the cusp of a new world, and if this is what it costs, so be it. Despite these trials and tribulations, what they had witnessed before in Syrian Antioch – the creation of a new community in which Jews and Gentiles were able to live together because all that previously separated them had been dealt with on the cross – had come true in city after city. At the heart of Paul’s message was radical messianic eschatology. ‘Eschatology’ because God’s long-awaited new day had dawned; ‘Messianic’, since Jesus was the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection and bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended by the psalmists and the prophets to embrace the whole world; ‘Radical’ in the sense that nothing in the backgrounds of either Paul or Barnabas had prepared them for the new state of affairs they were facing. The fact that they believed it was what the One God had always planned did not reduce their own sense of awe and astonishment.

What they could not have foreseen, as they travelled back through the southern part of the province of Galatia and then sailed home to Syria, was that the new reality they had witnessed would become the focus of sharp controversy even among Jesus’s followers and that the two of them would find themselves on opposite sides of that controversy as it boiled over. The missionaries returned to the church which had commissioned them at Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Acts 14: 25-28). Barnabas chose to return to Cyprus (Acts 15: 39). Paul took on Silas as his new travelling companion and colleague. He was a member of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15: 22 f.), but a Hellenistic Jew and possibly, like Paul himself, a Roman citizen.

(to be continued…)

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1968 and All That… MLK, LBJ, Bobby, Tet and the Prague Spring.   Leave a comment

The Escalation of the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive:

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At the beginning of 1968, US President Lyndon Johnson thought that victory in Vietnam was worth the sacrifice the US servicemen had already made since President Kennedy had committed 16,500 troops to the support of the South Vietnamese in 1961-62. By 1968, Johnson had committed up to half a million men to the conflict. On taking office in 1964, he had said, I am not going to be the President who saw South East Asia go the way that China went. But by the end of February 1968, he was increasingly isolated in Washington. Robert McNamara, who had been John F Kennedy’s Secretary of Defense, had left the White House to become president of the World Bank. He said he did not really know whether he had quit or been fired. The new Defense Secretary, Clark Clifford, opposed General Westmoreland’s latest request for another 200,000 men, arguing that there would soon be further requests, “with no end in sight.” He recommended pegging the level at twenty thousand, and Johnson agreed. What had happened in the war, and the response to it, to change his mind?

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In January 1968, just as President Johnson was announcing that the United States was winning the war in Vietnam, the Vietcong had launched the Tet Offensive within virtually every town and city in South Vietnam. It was their most spectacular offensive yet. In Saigon, a commando unit even penetrated the US Embassy compound; it had to be flushed out man by man. This feat, which took place in front of television cameras, stunned America and public opinion worldwide. Although the US military had intelligence that an attack was imminent, they appeared to have been caught completely by surprise. But the bitterest fighting in the Tet Offensive took place in Hue, previously a tranquil city, where intense house-to-house fighting and killing went on for several weeks. The photo on the right below shows US Marines call for assistance for those wounded in the bloody fighting which took place in the city on 1st February. The beleaguered president finally accepted that there was a limit to the losses of US servicemen in Vietnam that the American people would accept. The photo below (left) of Lyndon Johnson shows him preparing a speech on Vietnam.

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On the other side, the Tet Offensive was intended to inspire a popular rising across South Vietnam. It totally failed in this, but rather led to massive losses of some of the Vietcong’s best fighters. Nevertheless, in propaganda terms, the offensive was a magnificent victory for them. Before Tet, the American leaders had talked of grave enemy weaknesses and of how the Vietcong had met their match and were desperately hanging on. Now the Vietcong had shown that they could attack at will and could strike even at the very nerve centre of the US presence in South Vietnam. The gap between what the US Government said and what people saw on their television screens had never been greater, nor credibility lower. Support for the president’s handling of the war dropped to an all-time low in the polls. Eighty per cent of Americans felt that the United States was making no progress in the war. Tet was thus a turning point.

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Added to this, there was international revulsion and outrage at the American tactics. The British journalist, James Cameron, reported:

There was a sense of outrage. By what right do these airmen intrude over a country with which they are not formally at war? Who gave these people the sanction to drop their bombs on roads, bridges, houses, to blow up the harvest, to destroy people of whom they know nothing? Would this sort of thing blow Communism out of their heads?

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Despite the bombing, North Vietnam continued to supply the Vietcong in South Vietnam with ever-increasing amounts of aid. Much of it came from the Soviet Union and was driven across the border at night in convoys of heavy, Russian-built trucks. They regularly moved weapons and ammunition into the South, smuggling them right into the hearts of towns and cities. President Johnson had hoped for a ‘quick kill’. But the tactics of America’s land forces in South Vietnam were based on several errors of judgement. First, the soldiers were told to fight for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Yet the GIs simply shot and killed the peasants on sight, often en masse and without discrimination, assuming that they were Vietcong supporters. They also destroyed the land itself, as James Cameron testified (above). Richard Hamer, an American journalist commented, after his visit in 1970, that Vietnam had become a country of refugees … once the rice bowl of Asia, now unable to feed itself. Secondly, the USA believed it could ‘win’ the war and simply could not believe that the US could be defeated by a bunch of guerrillas in black pyjamas. But the reality of guerrilla warfare was very different:

… this enemy is invisible … it is not just the people but the land itself – unfamiliar … frightening … it can be that field ahead littered with land mines … the enemy can be the kind who comes out smiling and then lobs a grenade … or that bent old lady carrying a watermelon.

You walk down a road between rice paddies. Vietnamese are in every paddy. Then a mortar shell lands right in the middle of a patrol. A couple of guys are dead, others are screaming in agony with a leg or arm blown off, or their guts hanging out. Did one of them (the peasants) lob the mortar? If so, which one? Should you kill all of them or none of them at all?

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There was widespread opposition to the American presence in Vietnam, not least from within the US itself. The determined peace protesters outside the White House would not leave Johnson in peace, continuing to chant:

Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!

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In fact, the hostile chanting accompanied him wherever he went and had a devastating effect on him. Senator Eugene McCarthy announced he would oppose Johnson for the Democratic Party nomination; Robert Kennedy also declared he was a candidate and spoke out harshly against Johnson’s foreign policy and conduct of the war. In the second half of March, the ‘wise men’ went into conclave again to review progress and consider their options in Vietnam. By now the civilians in this group were openly critical of the assessments presented by the military commanders. When told that eighty thousand of the enemy had been killed and that the normal ratio of killed to wounded was 1:3, UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg calculated that would mean that all of the enemy’s manpower must be dead or injured: “Then who the hell are we fighting?” he asked. Then, on 31st March, in a live television address, Johnson announced that the US would halt all bombing above the twentieth parallel in the hope that peace talks could begin promptly. He then went on to surprise everyone, even his own advisers, by announcing  that he would “not seek … nor accept” his party’s nomination for a second term in the White House. With his crushing triumph over Goldwater only four years behind him, Johnson now recognised the deep unpopularity of his policy of escalating the Vietnam War. He had lost his fight with public opinion.

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Martin Luther King’s Death in Memphis:

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Above Left: Martin Luther King, Jr., waves to the marchers at the Lincoln Memorial, on 30th August 1963, before making his “I have a dream…” speech. Above Right: Lyndon Johnson shakes King’s hand after signing the Civil Rights Bill into law, 2 July 1964.

Four days after Johnson’s announcement, on 4th April, Martin Luther King was assassinated at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support a workers’ strike, marching with the strikers, who wanted to protest peacefully, singing and holding hands. Most of them were black street-cleaners, who were badly paid. But gangs of young blacks had not wanted to protest peacefully and had begun rioting, breaking shop windows and fighting with the police. One of them had been killed during the fighting.  After the march, King had talked to the gangs and told them that violence was not the answer and that all protests had to be peaceful if they wanted the workers to win. Some of the gang-leaders had argued back, saying that times had changed and that peaceful protests no longer worked. Finally, King had persuaded them to join the workers on their next march, and they had promised him not to use violence. The date for the second march had been set for 5th April.

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On 3rd April, King had returned to Memphis and had made a speech at the Baptist Church prayer-meeting. It had been full of hope about the cause, but also of foreboding for his own life:

I have been to the mountain top … I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

On the next day, 4th April, King had told his friends that he needed some air. He went out of his hotel room just after six o’clock in the evening. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire. His friends ran outside and found him lying on the ground, shot. Jesse Jackson, one of King’s young supporters, held him in his arms while the ambulance was sent for. An hour later Martin Luther King died in hospital. He was just thirty-nine years old.

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The whole world grieved the loss of this man of peace. All the people who had worked so hard for peace and civil rights were first shocked and then angry. Go and get your guns! Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther leader, told a crowd in Washington DC. Riots swept the American nation; a hundred cities erupted, the rioters fighting the police. There were more than twenty thousand arrests and forty-six more black deaths. Seventy-five thousand troops were called out to keep the peace. For many, King epitomised the dream of racial equality, but for two years his influence had been diminishing. Now the leadership of the black community passed to more radical figures like Carmichael, who wanted to replace passive, nonviolent disobedience to active and violent resistance. The Black Panthers trained as paramilitaries in the ghetto of Oakland, California, for a civil war with racist police. Other black ‘nationalists’ called openly for revolution.

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James Earl Ray, a white supremacist, was arrested and went to prison for King’s murder, though many believed he had not acted alone. Even Coretta King did not believe that Ray had killed her husband. King’s body lay in his father’s church in Atlanta. Thousands of people came to pay their respects to the civil rights leader. Later, his body was buried next to those of his grandparents, and written on his headstone, are the last words of his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial five years earlier:

Free at last, Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, 

I’m free at last!

From Paris to California and on to Chicago:

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Above: Robert Kennedy, campaigning in California.

In May, preliminary peace talks began in Paris. In the face of obdurate North Vietnamese negotiators, the talks soon ran aground. The dispute focused on whether or not the United States would halt all bombing of the North and who could sit at the negotiating table; would the National Liberation Front, the Vietcong sit down with the United States, as well as North and South Vietnam? There was no agreement. With a million college students and faculty members boycotting classes because of Vietnam, the stage was set for the confrontation between McCarthy and Kennedy for the Democratic Party nomination. In the California primary, in June, Kennedy won by a whisker. Then, as he was leaving his hotel through a back entrance, he was shot in the head and stomach (below). He died in hospital the next morning. There was no rioting, just silence. The American nation was traumatised by these killings, asking what was wrong with the country to make it so violent.

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Above right: Police and anti-Vietnam War protesters do battle in Chicago.

Everything came to a head when the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its nominee for the presidency – now either McCarthy or Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Chicago was controlled by Mayor Richard J Daley, a hard-liner who ruled the streets through a broad network of ethnic supporters. He promised, as long as I am mayor, there will be law and order on the streets. In the riots following Martin Luther King’s death, he had given his police authority to “shoot to kill” arsonists. Daley was determined to keep order during the convention when rumour predicted that a hundred thousand activists and anti-war campaigners would assemble in Chicago. Only about one-tenth of that number arrived, but Daley had no intention of allowing any marches to go ahead. His police, some out of uniform, attacked a group of ‘hippies’ and ‘yippies’ in Lincoln Park and pursued them – and anyone else who happened to be on the streets – with clubs and batons.

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On the night that Humphrey was to accept the nomination, the police used tear gas to break up the demonstration outside the convention hotel. More than two hundred plainclothes policemen tried to infiltrate the march. Demonstrators, newsmen, and even elderly passers-by were all clubbed and beaten. Tear gas got in the air vents of the hotel, including Humphrey’s suite, as he was preparing his acceptance speech. Live on television, the cameras kept cutting between the convention and the extraordinary scenes outside. Humphrey left feeling shattered, despite having secured his party’s nomination. Chicago was a catastrophe, he said later; My wife and I went home heartbroken, battered and beaten.

According to the to the New York Times, the Chicago police had brought shame to the city, embarrassment to the country. Lawyers defending those charged for their role in the demonstration spoke of a “police riot.” Senator George McGovern denounced Daley and his “Gestapo” for creating a “bloodbath.” Radicals were driven even further outside the political system; they believed that the government was now totally illegitimate and led by war criminals so that only further militancy could win the day. Bring Us Together was the campaign slogan of the Nixon camp, but as the campaign hotted up, there was little prospect of this happening in reality. In fact, Governor George Wallace had declared himself as an independent candidate. Wallace’s plan to stop the trouble on the streets appealed only to the right-wing Republican heartlands:

We ought to turn this country over to the police for two or three years and then everything would be all right.

Meanwhile, Richard M Nixon had won the Republican nomination for president. With conservative Spiro T Agnew as his running mate, Nixon tried to defuse the support for Wallace. He also met with Johnson and agreed not to attack the outgoing president over Vietnam during the campaign, in return for an understanding that Johnson would not abandon Saigon. Nixon tried to come across as the statesman and peacemaker. He spoke of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam and to bring peace with honour. Nixon also agreed that during the campaign he would not call for a pause in the bombing. In October, the Paris peace talks were still deadlocked over the issue of representation, with President Thieu, in Saigon, deeply opposed to negotiating with North Vietnam if the Vietcong were also present. This would imply formal recognition of his hated enemy. With the election only days away, Johnson received FBI reports that Anna Chennault, a Nixon fund-raiser, was acting as a go-between for the Republicans with Thieu. Nixon’s campaign manager had asked her to tell Thieu to oppose the cessation of bombing, and so undermine the peace talks, promising that Thieu would get a better deal under the Republicans. Thieu held out and refused to attend talks at which the Vietcong were present. Despite this, Johnson called a halt to the bombing on 31st October.

Nixon talked of the “tired men” around Johnson and the need for a new team with “fresh ideas”. The opinion polls showed a swing away from Humphrey, who up to this point had had a narrow lead. On 5th November, the American people came out to vote. In the end, the vote was nail-bitingly close: Wallace won thirteen per cent, and Nixon narrowly defeated Humphrey with 43.4 per cent of the vote to 42.7. There was to be a new team in the White House, but outside America was split into two nations. But, although the North had set out the terms on which the war would eventually end, the fighting in Vietnam would go on for another five years and cost many thousands more lives.

The anti-war movement clearly boosted North Vietnamese morale and sustained Hanoi’s will to fight on. The hostile chants had almost certainly upset Lyndon Johnson and helped persuade him not to stand for re-election. The movement also affected the atmosphere of decision-making by which it was resolved not to broaden the conflict into a wider war in Southeast Asia. More than anything, the protests against the war exposed a growing cultural divide among the American people and, in the rest of the world, provoked widespread anti-American sentiment on both sides of the Cold War divide. The protest movement was international. In Paris in May 1968, the Fifth Republic was nearly toppled when it came into conflict with a massed combination of workers, students, and intellectuals. In London, police laid into anti-war demonstrators outside the Grosvenor Square US Embassy, in full view of television news cameras. In Northern Ireland, civil rights marches, modelled on those in the American South, sparked a new phase in the long-running confrontation between Irish republicanism and the British State. In Germany and Japan, radicals fought with the police.

Another Year Ending in Eight – The Prague Spring:

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The action of the Chicago police took place just a week after Soviet troops shocked the world by moving into Prague. In Central/Eastern Europe, new thinking had been influenced by the counter-cultural currents in the West, but the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 also had their origins in the fight for Czech independence which goes back four hundred years and seems to contain major events in years ending in the number eight. It began with the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618, following the defenestrations of Prague, when the Bohemian Calvinists refused to acknowledge Ferdinand, a Hapsburg, as their king, inviting Frederick, the Elector Palatine and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England, to become their king and queen. This was both a religious and a political challenge to the Emperor. Frederick was overwhelmed by Bavaria and Austria at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, having received no help from the Protestant Union of German princes, or from his miserly father-in-law, James Stuart. Frederick and Elizabeth went down in the annals of Czech history as ‘the Winter King and Queen’ due to the brevity of their reign, and it took another three centuries for independence to be restored, in 1918/19. It was then taken away again in 1938/39, by Hitler, with Chamberlain’s connivance and, after a brief post-war restoration, in 1948 the Communists seized power at Stalin’s insistence.

001Jan Masaryk, the independent foreign minister and son of the first president of inter-war Czechoslovakia, was also defenestrated in 1948, by the Communists. A re-examination of the case in 1968 turned up a document which stated that scratch-marks made by fingernails had been found on the window soon after he had fallen to his death. The ‘Prague Spring’ also had economic roots, in common with other protest movements in the Eastern bloc countries. There was deep concern about declining growth rates and the failure to keep up with Western levels of consumer progress.

In Poland, agricultural output had been dropping year after year, and the régime of Wladyslaw Gomulka, so rapturously welcomed in October 1956, was growing steadily more oppressive. Intellectuals who spoke out against the government were imprisoned and in March 1968 a student demonstration was brutally broken up by the police, resulting in several days of street rioting in Warsaw. Gomulka had lost almost all of his support in the country, but Brezhnev and the Soviet Union stood by him. But the crises of 1968 passed quickly in Poland, and Gomulka remained in power for two more years, until food shortages and rising prices finally brought his régime to an end.

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Above left: Alexander Dubcek in Spring, 1968, promising “socialism with a human face.” Right: He shakes hands with Brezhnev in Bratislava, 3rd August 1968.

In Czechoslovakia, there were also concerns over lack of growth in the economy, and in 1966 the government of Antonín Novotny took the first steps towards decentralising the economy, giving greater power to local managers and greater priority to the production of consumer goods. Profits rather than quotas were made the measure of performance, a practice dubbed market socialism. However, these reforms were too slow, and, against a background of student revolts, Alexander Dubcek was appointed party chairman in January 1968. He was no fiery revolutionary, but as the boss of the Slovak party machine, he was a committed party loyalist. He did, nevertheless, promise the widest possible democratisation of the entire sociopolitical system aimed at bringing communism up to date. His appointment speeded change, as he widened the reform debate to those outside the party. Censorship was eased; freedom of speech was introduced in newspapers, on the radio and on television. Amidst unprecedented debate in the press and on television, in April the party approved an Action Programme with a two thousand word manifesto in June, when writers and intellectuals advocated democratic reforms within a broad socialist context. Dubcek’s reforms became known as socialism with a human face. Above all, Dubcek was trying to improve living conditions in Czechoslovakia:

We want to set new forces of Socialist life in motion in this country, allowing a fuller application of the advantages of Socialism.

Trade with the West was developed; different religions were allowed. Dubcek’s Government, though still Communist, wished to have less control over people’s lives. In this, he had the full support of the Czechoslovak people. The thaw in Czech Communism in early 1968 was therefore known as the ‘Prague Spring’. The Prague leadership tried very hard not to upset the Kremlin. They remembered how Hungary had been crushed in 1956, and Czechoslovakia, unlike Imre Nagy’s Hungarian one of twelve years earlier, had no desire to make changes in its foreign affairs or to leave the Warsaw Pact.

Over these months, Moscow and the other Warsaw Pact capitals became increasingly agitated by the so-called ‘Prague Spring’. They believed that economic reform would inevitably test the party bureaucracy’s ability to maintain control, and would ultimately undermine its monopoly of power. They feared that fervent debate about economic objectives would be contagious. Indeed, in Poland demonstrators did call for a “Polish Dubcek.” Gomulka in Poland and Walter Ulbricht in East Germany led the hard-line against reforms in Czechoslovakia. Dubcek continued to proclaim his commitment to the one-party system and his loyalty to the Warsaw Pact, but other Satellite states grew more and more impatient. Moscow itself despaired over the Prague reforms. Inside the Kremlin, it was feared that Dubcek’s government would dismantle the internal security apparatus and evict the KGB from the country. The Soviet military was also worried about its agreements with Czechoslovakia. In the early sixties, the Soviet Union had agreed on terms with its Warsaw Pact allies for stationing nuclear warheads in Central/Eastern Europe. Under these terms, the weapons would remain under strict Soviet military control. The USSR had large numbers of troops stationed in Hungary, Poland and East Germany, but no permanent garrison in Czechoslovakia. When Prague embarked on its reform programme in the first half of 1968, the Soviets delayed their deployment of nuclear weapons there, fearing that they would not be able to maintain tight control over them. Moscow saw Prague as a weak link in the Warsaw Pact frontier.

In July, Leonid Brezhnev met the leaders of his Central/Eastern European allies in Warsaw. Dubcek’s changes were too much for Brezhnev, and the other Warsaw Pact leaders, who shared their concerns over events in Czechoslovakia. They warned the Czechoslovak leadership not to run the risk of opening up a ‘hole’ in the iron curtain:

The word ‘democracy’ is being misused. There are campaigns against honest Party workers. The aim is to end the leading role of the Party, to undermine Socialism and to turn Czechoslovakia against other Socialist countries. Thus … the security of our countries is threatened.

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Above: Students occupy Wenceslas Square, awaiting the invaders

A few days later Brezhnev, Kosygin, and the senior Soviet leadership met with Dubcek (see the photo above), and made new demands on him to re-impose censorship and tighten control over the media. An agreement at Bratislava appeared to promise a reconciliation between Prague and Moscow, but when Yugoslavia’s Tito was given an enthusiastic reception in Czechoslovakia it seemed yet again that Dubcek was steering the country down its independent road. The Soviet Politburo went into a three-day session on 15 August to consider what action to take. When Brezhnev spoke to Dubcek on the telephone, he shouted at him that the whole Communist system in the Eastern bloc could crumble because of what was happening in Prague. Why were the Soviets so frightened of change in Czechoslovakia? The Czech historian, Zeman, has given us this clue:

Twice in this century the Russians have had to face an onslaught from the centre of Europe. Only they know the extent of their losses in the last war … and the country is still governed by the men who fought in it. The Russians have no intention of dismantling their defences to the west.

The Iron Fist and the Heavy Hand:

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At midnight on 20th August, Ladislav Mnacko awoke. He peered out of his window to see shadowy shapes in line all along Stefanik Street. But the road was closed for repairs; nothing could be driven along it. Then he realised that they were tanks, which could be driven anywhere, and there were a lot of them. Czechoslovakia had been invaded; Soviet paratroopers had seized control of Prague airport. Over the next few hours, half a million Warsaw Pact troops crossed the borders into the country. In marked contrast to the events in Hungary twelve years earlier, the government told the Czech and Slovak people to stay calm and not to resist with arms, but only to offer ‘passive resistance’. There were pockets of such resistance, one led by the young playwright, Václav Havel. This campaign was organised through radio station broadcasts, like the following:

Citizens! – go to work normally … keep calm … do not give the occupation forces any excuse for armed action … show the invaders your scorn in silence.

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But the Warsaw Pact tanks moved against unarmed civilians, and again demonstrated how ill-prepared the USSR and its allies were to allow change or national autonomy within the Warsaw Pact. The West was shocked by the invasion but was no more likely to support Czechoslovakia than it had been to support Hungary in the previous decade, perhaps even less so, since the USA had long-since abandoned its ‘roll-back’ foreign policies, and was still heavily committed to its war in Vietnam which, as we have seen, was increasingly unpopular both at home and abroad. The West spoke out but could not intervene without risking nuclear confrontation, and therefore did not attempt to do so. The most significant critic of the USSR’s action was China, partly due to the already strained relations between the two Communist powers. The Chinese leadership had urged Khrushchev to invade Hungary in 1956, but it was now quick to condemn the Kremlin’s invasion of another Warsaw Pact member.

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Many of the Soviet soldiers were told they were being sent to protect Czechoslovakia from invasion by the Germans and Americans. As they learned the truth, some sympathised with the demonstrators. A few defected to them and were executed when they were caught. As the Soviets took control, arrests of Dubcek and the other leaders began. The invading troops tried to find the radio stations and close down their transmitters:

We do not know how long we will be able to broadcast. If you hear an unknown voice on this station, do not believe it.

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The Russian troops were surprised to see how much the Czechoslovak people hated them. They had believed Soviet propaganda:

‘Tass’ is authorised to state that the leaders of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic have asked the Soviet Union and allied states to render the Czechoslovak people urgent assistance. This request was brought about by the threat which has arisen to the Socialist system, existing in Czechoslovakia.

(Tass, 21 August 1968)

There were continual rumours that key Czechoslovak party officials invited the Soviets to invade their country to reimpose hard-line law and order. The key documents were locked away in a top-secret folder in the Moscow Communist Party Archives, and have only recently (c 1998) become available. They prove that this was indeed the case. It is now known that the anti-reformist Slovak Communist Party chief, Vasil Bilak, wrote to Brezhnev a direct letter of invitation “to use all means at your disposal,” including military force. to “prevent the imminent threat of counter-revolution.” Bilak warned that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.” Rather than risk sending the letter directly to Brezhnev, he passed it to a Soviet intermediary in a men’s lavatory.

When the Politburo began its three-day meeting to review its options on Czechoslovakia, Bilak dispatched another message to the Soviet leader, on 17th August, not only encouraging the Soviets to act quickly but also offering to form an alternative government that would oust Dubcek and seize control in Prague when the Warsaw Pact troops arrived. It is doubtful that this was a decisive factor in the Soviet decision to invade, but it must have boosted the pro-military faction in the Kremlin, and it helped to provide a pretext for the Soviets to claim that they were acting on behalf of a legitimate alternative government. In reality, the anti-reformists were entirely unable to deliver a government, and the Soviet Union ended up having to reinstate Dubcek’s, which survived for several months. In any case, Brezhnev’s own justification for the intervention was based on the common security of the Warsaw Pact countries, not just on the Tass statement:

When forces that are hostile to Socialism try to turn the development of some Socialist country towards capitalism … it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem of all socialist countries.

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Others among the satellite countries took careful note of this concept, which came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Of the Warsaw Pact nations, only Romania refused to participate in the invasion. Nikolae Caecescu had visited Prague during the ‘Spring’ (above) and had become an unlikely ally of Dubcek, since he also wanted to pursue a more independent line within the Soviet bloc. János Kádár (pictured below), the Hungarian leader whom the Soviets had installed after the 1956 Uprising, and was to survive in power for another twenty years, had tried to caution Dubcek not to fall too far out of line with the Kremlin. In spite of Kádár’s desperate effort to mediate between the Kremlin and the Czechoslovak leadership, whose experiment was not very different from what was happening in Hungary at the time, Hungary’s foreign policy was marked by unconditional loyalty to Big Brother on all accounts (Kontler, 2009). This meant taking part in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to avert a counter-revolutionary takeover. That was a decision which lost Hungary many of its remaining ‘friends’ in the west and led to a further worsening of its bilateral relations with the US administration. Martin J Hillebrand, a skilfull career diplomat who had been appointed as the first US Ambassador to Hungary in September 1967, noted Kádár’s…

… early endorsement  of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely-publicized mediatory role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.

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In any case, it was already too late for mediation by the time the invasion was underway. Alexander Dubcek was flown to Moscow and for days, the Czech and Russian leaders talked. He was forced to accept the end of Czech moves towards democracy. On 27th August the Czech leaders returned from Moscow and the Czech President Ludvik Svoboda announced the ‘mixed’ news:

Dear fellow citizens … after four days of negotiations in Moscow we are back with you. Neither you nor we felt at ease.

Dubcek added the bad news:

… to normalise the present complex situation … it will be necessary to take measures limiting freedom of expression as we have become accustomed to it.

In addition, Soviet troops were to stay in Czechoslovakia and censorship was brought back. Yet, for a time, at that time, after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact had invaded Czechoslovakia, there had seemed to be a feint possibility that the reformists could stay in power and the reforms of the Prague Spring would continue. Dubcek, though taken to Moscow in chains, returned as Chairman of the Communist Party still. President Svoboda (his name means ‘freedom’) was still the head of state of the People’s Republic. Together, they promised that nothing would change, but everything did change, though they resisted for as long as they could; virtually every change that had been made during the Prague Spring was overturned within a year.

The heavy hand of Moscow once more gripped Czechoslovakia. A Czech student, Jan Palach, set fire to himself in the centre of Prague as a protest. Over the next year, hard-line Czechoslovak officials replaced their reformist predecessors at all levels. An experiment in political pluralism had come to an abrupt end. The orthodoxy of one-party rule was restored. In April 1969 Dubcek was forced to resign; his idea of making Czechoslovakian Communism more human lay in ruins. He was sent to Turkey as an ambassador, where he was a virtual prisoner in his own embassy. Svoboda died shortly after being replaced by Moscow’s nominee, Gustav Husák, obedient to the central authority in Moscow, who remained in power for the next twenty years until the Velvet Revolution of 1989. In 1970, Dubcek was expelled from the party and the people of Czechoslovakia, eager for freedom, were either purged or effectively ‘buried alive’.

Throughout the Prague Spring the secret police, the Statni Bezpecnost (StB), had continued to operate for their old masters, not their new ones. Photographs existed of everyone who had spoken at every important public meeting throughout the short interlude of freedom. Large numbers of people in the crowds had been photographed too, and notes were taken of everything that was said. All this had been carefully collated. The tribunals began to sift through the StB’s material. Every member of the government, the civil service, the management of factories and businesses, was investigated to see what line he or she had taken during the Prague Spring. It was a long and careful business, carried ou with obsessive attention to detail of a new Inquisition. As with the original Inquisition, the purpose was not to rescue the individual soul of the heretic but to preserve the integrity of the faith. Active supporters of the heresy were dismissed. Usually, they could find only menial jobs. The applications of young men and women applying for places at universities were examined with the same care. No active supporter of the reform movement was accepted.

Lethargy, Legacy and the ‘unhoped-for moment’:

The caretakers, road sweepers, stokers and maintenance men of Czechoslovakia were the best educated in the world. Distinguished academics, senior civil servants, leading journalists and economists tended furnaces, washed steps, and cleaned out lavatories. The men and women who took their jobs in the Party, the government and the economic life of the country were less well-educated. The looking-glass world was well represented in Czechoslovakia. There was no let-up in the tight control, not just of the Party, but also in the group that headed the Party – the group which took power in 1968 and 1969. Gustav Husak, Milos Jakes and the others remembered the last months of the old Party leader, Antonín Novotny, in 1967, and how the hope of greater liberalisation had split the Party and forced even the liberals to go much farther than they intended. Husak and the others knew that if there were the least easing up, they would be swept away. Under such tight control, it remained difficult for the Party to generate any enthusiasm or activity even among its own members. Three days after the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, the Party newspaper Rude Pravo complained, on the 24th August 1983:

It is a serious matter that our Party members live in near-anonymity. They cannot be formally rebuked for this, because they pay their membership dues, regularly attend Party meetings, and take part in agitprop sessions. However, they have nothing to say on serious matters under discussion, they never raise their hands, and they never speak their mind. They never oppose others, but they never fight for their Party.

John Simpson, the BBC correspondent, likened this state of mind to that of Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. Czechoslovakia, he said, had undergone a kind of lobotomy. People had been encouraged to express their political opinions in 1968 and then had suffered for doing so. It was rare to find anyone, during his visit in 1983, who was prepared to make the same mistake again. Czech journalists who did try to talk to Simpson about 1968 found the awakened memories too painful to share and, perhaps more significantly for that time, they saw no “point” to “raising” them since it would just remind them of the way things used to be, just for a bit … We’ll never be like that again! The authorities demanded quiescence and offered in return a decent material standard of living. The shops were well stocked with food and every weekend in the summer people would head out of the cities to the dachas which were made available in large numbers. It was, Simpson wrote, a sleepwalker’s existence.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia came at a crucial time in the rebuilding of relations between the USA and the USSR. The Americans knew that any serious action on behalf of the Czechs and Slovaks would, at the very least, set back the slow process of improving East-West relations. So, in 1968 the Czechs were left to their fate by the West, as they had been in 1948 and 1938. However, there is a comforting, if comic, codicil to this story. The following year, the Czechoslovak ice-hockey team secured a rare win over their Russian rivals. They became world-wide heroes literally overnight, but in the real global power-play, they were still the victims rather than the victors.

Global, ‘regional’ and ‘local’ events in 1968 blurred the distinctions in the images of the two superpowers in the Cold War. It was hard to view the United States as freedom’s ‘sheriff’ in the world when at home, its police were clubbing civil rights and anti-war protesters, and abroad its GIs were being made to commit war-crimes in an escalating and undeclared war in south-east Asia. On the other hand, the failure of the Communist system to feed its own people with grain from the United States, and the crushing of the Prague Spring with tanks, tarnished a form of government which claimed to rule on behalf of its ‘proletariat’. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia ended, for decades at least, a possible third way in Central/Eastern Europe, and the possibility of liberal reform within the Soviet bloc.

On the morning of 23rd October 1988, I was standing with a group of British Quaker teachers, at the Esztergom Basilica on Hungary’s ‘Danube Bend’. Looking down to the river, we could see a ruined bridge which, until the Second World War, had connected Hungary and Czechoslovakia. We were excited, together with our hosts, about the changes taking place in Hungary, two of which had been announced on the radio that morning, the thirty-second anniversary of the beginning of the 1956 Uprising. The first was that those events would no longer be referred to as a ‘counter-revolution’, as they had been, officially, ever since. The second was that a phased, but complete withdrawal of Soviet troops would begin the next year. Our excitement was tinged with sadness when we looked across at what, today, is Slovakia. Our host, a fellow historian, expressed her view that Husak’s hard-line régime would be the last of the Warsaw Pact to liberalise. Almost exactly thirteen months later, Husak and Jakes had gone, and Alexander Dubcek was back in Wenceslas Square, addressing crowds of 300,000. Yet in 1988, he was still, officially, the ‘disgraced leader of the Prague Spring Movement’. His granddaughter had told him:

Grandpa, don’t be sad. We never take any notice when our teachers say what a bad man you are. I always leave the classroom and the teachers never say anything. I know that you’re good.

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Sources:

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).

John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

 

 

 

Posted June 11, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Cartoons, Civil Rights, Cold War, Communism, Conquest, democracy, Egalitarianism, Europe, France, Germany, guerilla warfare, Humanism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Ireland, Journalism, Marxism, Militancy, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Renaissance, Resurrection, Russia, Satire, Second World War, terror, terrorism, Trade Unionism, tyranny, United Nations, USA, USSR, World War Two

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Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, II.   1 comment

Part Two: Appearances and Interactions – The Meaning of the Resurrection.

For many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible.  We need to remember that it never was easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends were taken by surprise when it happened, although he had spoken about it a number of times. For both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish people of the first century, the whole idea of an executed criminal being raised to life by God was anathema, a stumbling block, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For educated people throughout Palestine and beyond it was just ‘rubbish’. Even some who professed to be Christians couldn’t understand what it meant. Yet the evidence suggests that in the few weeks that followed the death of Jesus some of his friends had certain experiences of Jesus risen. These ‘appearances’ then ceased and the later experiences, beginning with the dramatic conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, were real but different. The resurrection of Jesus was not in the same category as other reported ‘resurrections’ of men, even that of his friend Lazarus, in which Jesus himself had been instrumental. It was a unique event in which death had been defeated. The event was not only a historical event, but after the strictest possible scrutiny these reports do not strike us as fictitious accounts that owe their existence to the human imagination; they strike us as honest attempts to give some account of real experiences that defied all efforts to give a coherent account of them. The early friends of Jesus had no doubts as to their authenticity. Their new experience of God, their new fellowship with one another, their new understanding of human life and history were not something they had struggled to achieve; they were gifts. The Spirit of Jesus was present with them. The final evidence that these were not reports of queer hallucinations was the reality of their new life and fellowship.    

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Christians now accept without any reservations the Biblical version of the ‘disappearance’ of the body of Jesus, but until the end of the first century, there was no Biblical account to go by, no ‘New Testament’ until the fourth century. Different parts of it were written by AD 100, but not yet collected and defined as ‘Scripture’. Early Christian writers like Polycarp and Ignatius quote from the gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as from other Christian writings and oral sources. Paul’s letters were collected late in the first century, and the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke were brought together by AD 150. One papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John dates from about AD 130, and more fragments of it, in the Bodmer Papyrus II, date from about AD 175-225, together with parts of Luke’s Gospel. For those for whom the Bible’s teaching is the starting point, exact theological thinking depends upon an accurate Greek New Testament. The history of the early church may also have affected the copying of the New Testament text. Clearly, the New Testament writings were considered important in the early church, since many copies were made for private reading as well as use in worship. However, this did not always guarantee scrupulous, exact copying of them. While no manuscript is free of either accidental or deliberate variations, some manuscripts seem to reflect a more careful tradition of copying, while others reveal a much freer attitude towards the actual words of the New Testament. The early Christians revered and used it greatly, but did not treat the exact wording with care.

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From the time they were first produced as collections of texts, or ‘books’, from about AD 200 onwards, the New Testament writings were always closely linked with the church and its worship, evangelism, beliefs and institutions. The information available concerning the New Testament in the early period shows how New Testament Scripture and the church interacted and affected each other at that time. The church was concerned to make Scripture widely available; some of the variations in early New Testament manuscripts reveal a concern over misunderstandings of Scripture or perhaps misinterpretations and misuse by heretics. So, can the texts be trusted? As F. F. Bruce, the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester wrote in the mid-1970s:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historical fact or of Christian faith and practice.

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The earliest account of the resurrection appearances we have is found in one of Paul’s letters written in Ephesus somewhere around AD 56, nearly thirty years after the events described later in the gospels. But it probably goes back to within a few years of those events, as Paul’s words suggest, to his own baptism in Damascus in about AD 36:

I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter) and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.

In the end he appeared even to me; though this birth of mine was monstrous, for I have persecuted the church of God and am therefore inferior to all the other apostles – indeed not fit to be called an apostle. However, by God’s grace I am what I am.

(I Cor. 15. 3-10 NEB)

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The verb ‘to appear’ can describe either a visible sighting or a spiritual experience. Here, Paul is writing to Christian friends who, even twenty years after the execution of Jesus, are finding it difficult to understand what the resurrection from the dead means. Whatever happened was always difficult to describe and explain. Moreover, Paul is not expressing his opinion about what happened or his own version of events. He tells us that he is reporting what was ‘handed on’ to him, probably at his baptism within a year or two of the events he is reporting. This was the authoritative account passed on to the first Christians as part of the baptismal liturgy from the very beginnings of the Christian community in Syria, if not also in Jerusalem and Palestine. Paul also says that his experience was like those of Peter and the others. We have no account in the gospels of Jesus’ appearance to Peter on the first Sunday, though we know (according to Luke) that it happened before the appearance to ‘the twelve’ (including Cleopas, but not – of course – Judas Iscariot). Paul’s own description of his experience is quite brief. He writes in another of his letters that God chose to reveal his Son to me.

In Luke’s ‘sequel’ to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, he describes Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he was going on a mission from the High Priest to arrest any followers of ‘the Way of the Lord’:

As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were travelling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he was not able to see a thing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.

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The experience of Saul/ Paul as it is written here differs in two ways from the five ‘gospel’ experiences I have written about below in two important respects. Firstly, this is not a physical appearance in the sense of Jesus appearing in physical form. Paul is instantly blinded, but neither do his Guards see anyone, though they too hear a voice. Secondly, this experience occurs long after the appearances in the gospels are reported to have taken place, during the forty days between the first Sunday and Jesus’ ascension. These two differences explain each other, however, and in Paul’s own long discourse on the resurrection of the body following his affirmation in I Corinthians 15 that the heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive, he makes it clear that the resurrection is not a raising to life of the mortal remains of the dead, but a transformation of human ‘beings’ into an ‘immortal’ physical form:

Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays. Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour.

There is meaning in the words of the Bible – ‘Death has been totally defeated’. For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.

(Dale’s New World paraphrase)

If we accept the whole story of Jesus, including the resurrection, we suddenly become aware of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in our families as parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and in the world of work as engineers, teachers, builders, shopkeepers, technicians, farmers, doctors, nurses, and administrators. But we are also member’s of God’s family and God’s fellow workers. It is not just our vocations in this life that matter. Since death has been totally defeated, this world is just an exciting beginning.

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Above: An illustrated page from the Stavelot Bible. 

In the corners are symbols to represent each of the Gospel writers.

The very divergences in the gospel reports reveal their honesty. They give the stories that were current in the great centres of the early Christian community. We should not try to make them fit together as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The original ending of Mark’s gospel was lost, and its current ending (16: 6-20) was added much later, so its accounts conflict in some important details with the other three gospels. The actual, ‘authentic’ appearances of Jesus given in the gospels can be listed as follows:

  • Matthew – to the women, to the eleven in Galilee;

  • Luke – to two disciples (not of the twelve) on their way to Emmaus;

    to the eleven (plus the two) in the upper room, followed by the Ascension from Bethany;

  • John – to Mary of Magdala, outside the tomb;

    to the ten, behind locked doors in Jerusalem (without Thomas); to the eleven a week later, behind locked doors (with Thomas);

    to the seven on the beach of the Sea of Galilee;

  • Mark (the added ending) – to Mary of Magdala;

  to two ‘as they were walking in the country’ (Emmaus?);

  to the eleven ‘at a meal’ before the Ascension (a summary of other    earlier accounts?)

Paul’s list is different still, as we have quoted above. He does not mention the empty tomb. Mark does (16: 1-5), and so do the other three evangelists, but this, by itself, was no proof of Jesus’ resurrection in itself, simply secondary evidence of how it might have taken place, which, without a physical body, would have been easy to ‘cover up’.  Matthew’s account of the Report of the Guard (28: 11-15) demonstrates how the chief priests were able to falsify evidence in order to claim that the disciples had stolen the body and to spread this false report among the Judean population. As the fictional Temple Guard, Maron, ‘narrates’ in David Kossoff’s 1971 Book of Witnesses, far from being severely punished for dereliction of duty, the guards were well-rewarded for their ‘discretion’ about what they had witnessed at the tomb:

No shame or dishonour; a reward. And that was the story. The only story. No other. Even if Governor Pilate himself were to ask us, that was the story. … the stealing of the body by a large gang of trained agitators. 

Then the elder gave us a bag of gold to share among the men … Before distributing the money to the men, the elder said, explain to them – the exact, and only, story.

And that’s it. You needn’t tell me any other stories, of the Carpenter rising from the dead and meeting his friends and so on, I’ve heard them. … if you don’t like one story, choose another, there are lots.

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The empty tomb was not, in itself, evidence of the resurrection. The dramatic story of the appearance of ‘the man in white’ which both Matthew and Mark relate (Luke and John report that there were two men) seemed like ‘nonsense’ to the disciples, Luke tells us, when they heard it from the women (24: 11). John’s account also confirms (John 20: 9 ff.) that he had looked in the tomb before Peter arrived, seeing the lengths of cloth which had been wound around the body lying in their original position as though they were still ‘moulded’ around it. There was nothing undone and trailing on the floor. He knew that the body could not have been removed without the lengths of cloth being unwound. When Peter arrived and they went in together, this mystified both of them. John tells us that he was prepared to believe that something miraculous might have happened, but he doesn’t seem to have shared this belief with Peter. If he did, Peter seems to have rejected it. It was only after they had seen the risen Jesus, that they began to understand the Scripture predicting that the Messiah would rise from the dead. If the disciples themselves were not deeply impressed by the discovery of the empty tomb, why would anyone be? They did not claim that Jesus was alive simply because they could not find his body.

In addition, a contemporary Jewish record informs us that Caiaphas ordered Joseph of Arimathea to appear before the Sanhedrin for questioning and openly accused him of being the prime instigator of a plot to remove the body, demanding to know where the body had been moved to. Joseph refused to say anything about the disappearance. Of course, there was very little he could say since he had not been to the tomb since before the Sabbath. He must also have known that, as a member of the Sanhedrin, he could not be prosecuted, even if, inadvertently, he said something which could be twisted and used against him. He would have been more wary of revealing the whereabouts of the disciples. Of course, the chief priests continued to insist on, and believe in, their false story that the body of Jesus had been stolen and secretly buried by Joseph and the disciples. Though they knew they had no evidence to support their story other than the lies of the bribed guards, they must have believed that this had indeed been what had happened. After all, they had taken every precaution not to arouse further anger among the population of Judea and cause further anxiety to Pilate.

We can well believe that the Sadducees had nothing to do with the disappearance of the body. If they had had the body removed they would never have left the linen in the tomb, neither would they have left the entrance open. The guard was theirs, and they would certainly have concealed their crime by having them replace the stone and giving them orders to forbid anyone entry. Since they themselves had not moved the body, who else, other than the disciples, would have done so? For their part, the disciples only had to believe the evidence of their own eyes, not that of angels or even of the women, that he had risen according to his word, on the third day, to be the first-fruits of all who slept. Therefore, the question of who moved the stone? soon became an irrelevance in the contest between truth and falsehood.    

If we read the reports of this ‘fresh evidence’ for the resurrection in chronological order, as below, we also note the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the appearances. We may notice that they differ in their locations for similar events, but this misses the fundamental point, that in each ‘appearance’ Jesus ‘challenges’ the disciples with questions, just as he had done in his ministry. These are not ghostly appearances, but ‘interactions’ with a walking, talking teacher. These ‘interactive’ appearances of the risen Lord to his friends take place as follows:

1. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, alone outside the tomb).

Woman, why are you crying? 

Jn. 20: 14-15;

Mary has returned to the tomb, having been the first to find it empty earlier that morning, and is standing in the garden outside, crying. Peter and John have now gone back home, having found the empty grave-clothes in the tomb. She too looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting at either end of the empty, moulded grave-clothes. They ask her the question first, Woman, why are you crying? and she answers that the body has been removed, but she doesn’t know by whom or to where. Jesus appears outside the tomb but is not, at first, recognised by Mary. He repeats the question put to her by the angels. The simple, heartfelt question reveals the initial, natural reaction of confusion, bewilderment and distress that Mary is experiencing. Her tears also show that her mixture of emotions is genuine; she obviously has no idea what has happened to Jesus’ body and could not have been part of some elaborate plot by the disciples to steal the body, the ‘smear’ that the chief priests bribed the guard to spread.

Let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the context of his relationships with his female disciples. Is it significant that the risen Jesus appeared first to the women, and in John’s account to Mary Magdalene? After all, as John also tells us, he and Peter had been in the empty tomb only seconds before and had seen no-one, not even the angels, who also appeared to Mary. There’s little doubt, by all accounts, that Jesus had an unorthodox perspective on the importance of women among his followers, although he chose twelve men as his apostles. What is significant, perhaps, is that Mary is the only follower to witness the risen Jesus as an individual. It is the testimony of the evangelists, especially Luke, that Jesus had a special regard and limitless compassion for the ‘outsiders’ of society, or ‘sinners’ as they were referred to by the religious authorities. Earlier in his gospel, Luke records that as Jesus travelled about the towns and villages of Galilee he was accompanied not only by the twelve disciples but also…

… by some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

(Luke 8: 1-3)

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That a travelling Rabbi should be accompanied by women is surprising enough, but two of the women, Mary of Magdala and Joanna were outsiders in a particular sense. There is no evidence that Mary had been a prostitute, as she has sometimes been portrayed in films. The text says that Jesus had cast out from her seven demons, which means, in modern terms, that she had suffered a severe mental breakdown. In itself, this would make Mary an ‘outsider’; one under the judgement of God. Yet Jesus admitted both her and Joanna, who probably lived in the ‘defiled’ Roman city of Tiberius, to his group of friends. Mary may have continued to suffer from mental illness, and we have some evidence from Mark that Jesus was particularly concerned about people with such conditions. In the first century, like Mary, such people were stigmatised. Jesus himself seems to have suffered from such prejudice, even from members of his own family. For example, in Mark 3: 21 the original text seems to imply that they were concerned about his own sanity during the early part of his ministry in Galilee. This seems to have embarrassed some of the scribes copying the gospel, so that in some early manuscripts the wording has been changed in order to point to the ‘madness’ of the crowds around him, trying to seize him, rather than to any concern for his own mental health. In particular, Mark goes on to tell us (probably on the basis of what Peter told him), the religious leaders from Jerusalem were spreading false rumours that he was possessed by Beelzebub, the chief of demons, who was giving him the power to cast out lesser demons in others (3: 22-30). After dismissing this accusation, Jesus receives a message from his family to join him outside the house into which he has gone. He seems to dismiss their concerns, however, suggesting that he now has a new family of followers (31-35).

We should be careful not to speculate about Jesus’ mental state or inner emotional life, or to weave fantasies about his relationships with women. These reports reveal more about the customs and conventions of his contemporaries, some of which he had little time for. What we do know, from the gospels, is that Jesus was not afraid to show his emotions and that he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41–42). His fellow Jews, at that time, would have found it unusual for a man to weep in public, even in front of close friends. Women were only supposed to do so when in mourning for a close relative, or as a part of an official group of mourners, otherwise they were expected to remain indoors. We also know that Jesus responded to the emotions of those, including the sisters Mary and Martha, who were weeping at the death of their brother and his ‘dear friend’ Lazarus. As Jesus approached their home in Bethany, two miles from the city, Martha met him outside the house while her sister stayed weeping within, being comforted by friends. Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and he asks her if she believes that he has the power over death, foreshadowing his own resurrection. She then declares him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. When Mary arrived, she fell weeping at his feet. His heart was touched, and he was deeply moved, weeping himself (John 11: 17-36). He then raised Lazarus, a miracle which made him supremely popular among most Judeans and led the Jewish authorities, in their jealousy, to make plans to arrest him (38-53).

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John also tells us that, at the beginning of the week before Passover, Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha again. John apparently identifies Mary ‘the sister’ as the ‘woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, possibly also ‘the other Mary’ who accompanies Mary Magdalene to the tomb, according to Matthew. Other traditions have associated Mary Magdalene with the act. When Judas (only identified by John) asks, Why wasn’t this perfume sold … and the money given to the poor?, Jesus berates his hypocrisy and tells him to stop ‘bothering’ her, seeing this act as a ‘sacred’ foreshadowing of his burial (John 12: 1-8). Whichever Mary does the anointing, there is an obvious symbolic connection between the spontaneous, emotive events which take place in Bethany and this event outside the empty tomb.

When Jesus asks Mary of Magdala, Woman, why are you crying? he is, at first, repeating the question put to her by the angels. We might think it obvious why a woman might be crying outside a tomb, but Mary’s sorrow is different from that of a ritual mourner. Of course, the implication of the question is that she has no reason to cry since her Lord has risen. Jesus is not criticising her, however, or asking her to stop, but is rather meeting her in her vulnerability and empathising with her emotional state. But realising that she doesn’t recognise him, he doesn’t wait for her to repeat the answer she has given him but offers his help…

The Challenge for Today: Jesus meets us where we are, in all our human weakness, and speaks to our condition. Our emotions are important, as an indication that we have a problem to solve, and we should not be ashamed of them. They must be recognised as an important initial stage in confronting our problems and we should not try to leave them behind when we seek to engage our minds to these problems. We should value them, not simply dismiss them as irrational responses. Neither should we allow ourselves to get waterlogged by our tears, unable to see through them to what is in front of us; unable to turn around, to face the reality of the risen Christ and move onwards in our faith. 

2. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, outside the tomb):

Who are you looking for? 

Jn. 20: 15-16;

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Archaeologists have discovered that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

stands on the site of a Jewish cemetery dating to the time of Jesus.

The question is more of an offer of help to find the ‘missing’ person which makes Mary think that the man before her is the gardener, perhaps someone she has met before as an acquaintance or servant, perhaps the ‘caretaker’ of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was probably well-known to the friends of Jesus, although he kept his discipleship secret since he was afraid of the Jewish authorities. Luke’s account has the women carrying spices, which might suggest that they had some contact with Joseph. He and Nicodemus had had to act quickly on the Friday evening, as the Jewish Sabbath began at dusk. They may not have had time to apply all the spices (a hundred pounds in weight) that Nicodemus had provided. In Mary’s initial report of the missing body to Peter, she used the plural, we don’t know where they have put him! This would confirm Luke’s account of at least three and possibly several women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning. On finding the empty tomb, they may have thought that there had been some misunderstanding with Joseph and that his servant, the gardener, had helped him to remove the body for embalming elsewhere. Hence her words, at this point, to the man she thinks is the gardener. At this point, Jesus decides to abandon the role in which Mary has cast him…

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‘The Good Shepherd’  is one of the most common themes in early Christian art.

Jesus’ parable of the ‘Lost Sheep’ stresses his ‘pastoral’ concern for the ‘outcasts’.

When Jesus, ‘the Good Shepherd’, calls Mary, ‘the outcast’ by name, she turns towards him and recognises him, calling him “Rabboni!” in Hebrew, meaning “Teacher”. It is only when she turns to him that she is able to overcome her shame and see clearly through her tears. This is not some ghostly appearance: the verbal, eye-to-eye and then the physical contact between them is so real and overwhelming for Mary that Jesus has to tell her to let him go, as he still has his earthly body. Then he gently instructs her, as her “Teacher”, to go to her brothers and tell them that his body is returning to God. In Matthew’s gospel (28: 8-10), Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (possibly, again, the sister of Martha, from Bethany), as they are running away from the tomb following a dramatic earthquake, the rolling away of the stone by ‘the angel of the Lord’ and his injunction to them to tell the disciples of the resurrection. Just as in John’s account, there is physical contact in the form of ‘worship’ between the women and him, and he instructs the women to tell their brothers to meet him in Galilee. In John’s story, the resurrection is not a stage on the way to Galilee, but on the way to the Father.

The Challenge for Today: While Jesus deals with us at an emotional level, he quickly moves us on to define the problem we are trying to solve. We need to turn and face the problem, and then acknowledge the reality of the resurrection, which provides us with the power to solve it.

3. To Cleopas (husband of Mary) and another ‘follower’ (later the same day, on the way to the village of Emmaus):

What are you talking about to each other, as you walk along? 

Luke 24: 17;

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This would appear to be the same story as that referred to by Mark (16: 12-13), but Luke uses his own sources to provide the all-important conversations. Jesus ‘catches up with’ his two ‘followers’ (not of ‘the eleven’) who do not recognise him. His question makes them sad and they suggest, in response, that he must be the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening there in the last few days! He follows up his question by asking them to what things they are referring…

The Challenge for Today: The third stage in resolving the problem, or conflict, is to clarify the issues. Jesus challenges us to get our story straight and understand what is really happening in our lives. Otherwise, we are just indulging in meaningless chatter, unable to create a meaningful narrative.

4. To the two followers as they came near to the village, (following their ‘discourse’ on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’):

Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter his glory? 

Luke 24: 26-27;

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Jesus chides the two followers, who still do not recognise him, for being slow to believe everything the prophets said about ‘these things’. He then explains to them what was said about himself in ‘all the Scriptures’, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets. Only after he agrees to sojourn with them and breaks bread with them inside their place of rest do they recognise him. They reflect on their walk by asking each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

The Challenge for Today: Jesus challenges us to understand and interpret what we have experienced, and when we do so we are able to connect our narrative to our experience. ‘These things’, these events then become real to us; we experience the resurrection for ourselves.

5. To ‘the eleven’ (with ‘the others’) plus Cleopas and the other ‘follower’ (who have returned to Jerusalem, later that same evening, to tell their news and to hear that Simon Peter has also seen the risen Christ):

Why are you alarmed? Why are these doubts coming up in your minds?

Luke 24: 38-40;

Jesus suddenly stands among ‘the thirteen’ and greets them with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you.”) They think that they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet and to feel his body, since a ghost does not have flesh and bones. Those gathered still could not believe, they were so full of joy and wonder; so he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” A polite request, rather than a question, but an important one, nonetheless, proving the continuing contact between the risen Jesus and the material world (Luke 24: 41-43).

They give him a piece of cooked fish, which he takes and eats in their presence. He goes on to remind them of what he taught them concerning everything that was written about himself in the Torah (Books of Moses), by the prophets and in the Psalms. He then ‘opens their minds’ to understand the Scriptures, telling them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” As witnesses to these things, they are to wait in the city until the ‘power from above comes down’ upon them, which he himself will send, as promised by his Father (44-49).

In John’s gospel, this is the second appearance and Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. They have locked themselves in, afraid of the Jewish authorities and, again, Jesus is suddenly standing among them. After greeting them in the same way as in Luke, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He then inaugurates ‘the second creation’ by breathing on the disciples as God had breathed on Adam, and he gives them the Spirit and power over sin for their universal mission. Thomas is not with them at this time, according to John.

In Luke’s account, Jesus then leads them out of the City as far as Bethany, where he raises his hands and blesses them. According to Luke’s gospel, he departs from them and is taken up to heaven while blessing them (50-51). Mark’s gospel agrees, in shorter accounts, with Luke’s order of events to this point, but in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke corrects himself by telling his patron that ‘the Ascension’ took place after forty days in which Jesus appeared to his apostles many times, in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. Luke repeats the instruction given by Jesus that they are to remain in Jerusalem and await the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 1-5).

The Challenge for Today: It’s only natural to have doubts; we have to be sure of what we believe. We mustn’t pretend, or just go along with what everyone else believes. We need to be fully convinced as individual believers for faith to work in practice and provide us with our unique purpose in life.

6. To Thomas the Twin (a week later, behind locked doors, with some of the other eleven):

Do you believe because you see me? (how happy are those who believe without seeing me). Jn. 20: 29;

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This is the third appearance reported by John, the second to the disciples. Jesus again greets the disciples with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you”), then tells Thomas to place his finger in the wounds on his hands and his (Thomas’) hand in the wound in his side. He tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe. In the presence of the reality of the risen Lord, Thomas utters the highest confession of faith, comparable with the opening words of the prologue, as the basis of the faith of future believers. The dramatic nature of this encounter is captured by Paul White and Clifford Warne in their Drama of Jesus (1979):

“Peace be unto you”. The voice startled them.

They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing.  No one spoke. Instinctively they turned to towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes.

He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong,

“Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord … and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

And as suddenly as He had appeared, He vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

John spoke with infectious enthusiasm.  “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.”

At this point in his gospel (Jn 20: 30-31), John inserts an important parenthesis, affirming the miraculous nature of these events, but also making it clear that he is not concerned to record them purely as miracles performed by Jesus, perhaps in the way that other gospel writers have recorded the many other miracles not written down in this book. His purpose is to point posterity towards faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through that faith in the power of the resurrection, believers are to experience the resurrection life for themselves, without, unlike Thomas, being material witnesses to the resurrection body themselves. His purpose is to give testimony to the risen Christ, not to produce a chronicle of events, nor even a biography. It is natural that this passage should be inserted here, following Thomas’ confession of faith, though some scholars believe that this is the original ending of John’s gospel.

The Challenge for Today: Thomas’ predicament is a familiar one: Seeing is believing. We need to see the evidence for ourselves, and quite right too. But sometimes, like Thomas, we find it difficult to suspend our disbelief, especially because, unlike Thomas, we cannot experience the risen Christ at first hand. We need to keep faith with our first convictions and trust the testimony of others, even if we continue to doubt.

7. To the Seven ‘young men’ fishing (off the shores of Lake Galilee):

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Young men, haven’t you caught anything?

Jn. 21: 5;

Chapter 21 is probably an addition, and some scholars suggest that it was written by ‘another hand’, although the vivid nature of the eye-witness testimony would suggest that it must have been from a source involved in the intimate conversations which take place in this account. Also, the author is clearly aware that this is the third appearance of the risen Jesus to his male disciples reported in the gospel, though the fourth overall. It certainly reflects the Galilean traditions of Mark and Matthew. In it, disciples whose work has been fruitless until the Lord appears, make a perfect catch of fish under his direction, clearly symbolic of the apostolic mission to the world. Jesus stands on the water’s edge at sunrise, teasing his disciples by remaining ‘incognito’ and calling to them as ‘young men’, which many of them, doubtless no longer were after their three years of following him as “fishers of men”.

The challenge for today: Can you put an old head on young shoulders or a young head on old shoulders? Probably, the answer to both is negative, but we can all, young and old, try casting our nets on the other side of the boat, rather than just letting them drift, aimlessly. We must be careful not to miss opportunities to evangelise, to share the gospel, in whatever way works best. We have to cast our nets where the fish are, not where we expect them to be.

8. To Simon Peter, after the ‘barbecue’ on the shore:

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?

Jesus addresses Peter by his original name, and by the name of his fisherman father. He then begins a three-fold interrogation of him, corresponding to the threefold denial made on the night of his arrest and hearings before the Sanhedrin. The first question, like the last one in his denial, is more ‘barbed’ than the other two, however. It requires more than a Yes/No response and is perhaps calculated to disturb Peter on two levels because Jesus is really asking him ‘how deep’ his love really is, compared with that of the other disciples, especially John, the beloved disciple who is to some extent Peter’s rival right throughout the Passion Narrative. Jesus is really asking Peter whether he still loves him enough to die for him, as Peter had declared before. However, Peter only answers in the affirmative, perhaps more concerned to atone for his denials. Jesus responds, passing on the mantle of the Good Shepherd, by telling Peter to take care of the lambs in the flock of followers. In other words, he is charging him with a special responsibility for the younger apostles and disciples, perhaps including the ‘two others’ of the seven whose names are not given.

The Challenge for Today: How deep is our love? Are we prepared to sacrifice everything, even our lives, for our faith? There are still many Christians worldwide who suffer imprisonment, torture and death for what they believe in. We may not be called upon to make such sacrifices, but how can we prove our love for Jesus?

9. To Simon Peter, the same:

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

By asking him the ‘same’ question three times, Simon thinks that Jesus is trying to remind him of his denial of him, three times, before the cock crowed twice, on the night and early morning of his trial by the Sanhedrin. We can imagine Peter seeing flashbacks of his three failed challenges. In fact, the question he was asked on that night were not identical either. The first two, asked by the serving girl and the others (Jn. 18: 17, 25) were Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man? The third was far more precise and thereby significant, asked by a relative of the injured steward of the High Priest, Didn’t I see you with him in the garden? His denial here was operating on two levels. If, as some accounts state, Peter was the assailant in this incident, any equivocation on his part could have led to his instant arrest and imprisonment for attempting to incite a riot against the Roman authorities, perhaps even his own execution, since the ‘steward’ might have been a far more significant man than a simple ‘slave’ in Roman terms. In his third denial, Peter is not simply denying Jesus but also betraying his promises to fight and die for him.

Following the second and third answers, Jesus commands Peter to ‘feed’ his ‘sheep’. Presumably, he is referring to the older disciples, revealing that he still regards Peter as their leader going forward. Jesus then reveals his reasons for ‘interrogating’ Peter. He does so, however, by lifting Peter’s mood by again joking about him not being a young man anymore, reminding him that life is now too short for him to go on being an ‘angry young man’, arguing about the future. He tells him that he must prepare himself, as the new leader and as his first follower, to sacrifice his life for the glory of God. He ends the conversation with the invitation that he first issued to Simon, follow me! By doing so, he indicates that Peter is forgiven, now that he has committed himself to becoming the new good shepherd, in charge of the flock.

The Challenge for Today: How many times do we have to forgive, or ask for forgiveness ourselves?: How often must we declare our love, when the one we declare it to already knows how our minds and hearts work? Are we prepared to face the costs of discipleship?

10. To Simon Peter, when they meet John:

If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you?

Peter turns around to see John, the beloved, standing nearby. This gives him a flashback to the Seder meal in the Upper Room, when John leaned close to Jesus and asked him, Lord, who is going to betray you? This was when everything started to go wrong for them as a group, and for him in particular, when he was replaced in Jesus’ affections by John. Later that night he had angered Jesus by drawing his sword and injuring the steward of the High Priest, which didn’t help, and when his Lord was in agony on the cross, it was John who stood nearby with Mary his mother and the other women, the two other Marys. Jesus asked him, not Peter, to be a son to his mother, and she went to live in his new home in Galilee. He, therefore, had already been given a special role as the ‘protector’ of the women in the group. It was natural for Peter to expect that Jesus would have chosen John to become the new leader of the group, even though he, Peter, was the more senior disciple. John was quicker of body and mind and he was the first to realise the significance of the empty tomb and to believe in the resurrection.

Now Jesus had chosen Peter once more, overheard by John, Peter asked him what was to happen to his ‘rival’.  Jesus’ question indicates that John is not to suffer martyrdom like Peter, using humorous hyperbole to chide Peter; What if I want John to live forever? That’s none of your business! Some of the early Christians still alive when John was writing his gospel, his other letters and his eschatological book, The Revelation, took this statement to be a promise to John that he would witness the second coming of Christ in person. This was preventing them from spreading the ‘good news’ more widely, so John re-edited the ending of his book to make it clear that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but simply told Peter to expect not just the persecution that they would all suffer,  but also a premature death. He should, therefore, focus on his own life and mission, and not concern himself with John’s role.

The Challenge for Today: Being ‘single-minded’ is not the same as being ‘self-centred’. Paul was single-minded when he wrote, this one thing I do. We all have to work out our own salvation, and our own mission statement. In doing so, Jesus reminds us not to be jealous of each other, or to compare ourselves with others, but to encourage each other in our divergent vocations. As Jesus’ followers, both as individual believers and fellowships, we are called upon to act now on our own consciences and to follow our unique missions and vocations, not to wait for God to act in some dramatic fashion, trying to predict where, when and how the Second Coming and the End of Days will take place.

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Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles opens with a picture which is usually thought of as ‘the ascension’ of Jesus. It raises many problems, however, not just for modern minds, but for the whole of the New Testament. It is safer to approach his account indirectly and to try to understand Luke’s account against the background of the New Testament as a whole. Other writers describe what happened to Jesus after his death, leading to the birth of the church, in two different ways, as the resurrection and as an exaltation. These, together with the coming of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) are seen as aspects of one complex event, reported in Paul’s letters as well as in Matthew (28: 16) and John (20: 22). Luke, however, splits the complex into three distinct parts and, following his practice of portraying divine action in the world in the form of vivid, objective pictures, has given each aspect a life of its own.

There is some doubt about the exact place of the ascension in Luke’s sequence. According to the majority of ancient manuscripts, one ascension, on the day of the resurrection, is recorded at Luke 24: 51, which clashes with the ascension after forty days in Acts 1: 9. It has been suggested that the passage between these two verses was supplied later when the New Testament was given its present order and what was originally a single book, Luke-Acts, was split. This removes some, but not all, of the difficulties. It would be wrong, however, to place too much emphasis on these problems, or to lay too much stress on the physical features of the ‘ascension in Acts. After all, the description of the two ascensions together occupies less than two verses. It is the message that accompanies them that is more important.

Luke tells us, in this passage, that Jesus continued to teach them about ‘the Kingdom of God’ (v 3). He goes on to describe them as questioning him as to whether he would give the Kingdom back to Israel. Jesus tells them that “the times and occasions” are set by his Father’s authority, and are not for them “to know when they will be.” They must wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before moving out from Jerusalem to be witnesses “in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This account, intriguingly, ends with a question asked by angels, just as they asked the first question in Luke’s account of the resurrection (to the women at the empty tomb), Why are you looking among the dead for the one who is alive? Now they ask the apostles, Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? They are told that Jesus will come back in the same way as they saw him go to heaven. The implication, for them and for us, is that they (and we) are not to wait around ‘star-gazing’, talking about what will happen in the ‘Last Times’. Having received the Spirit, true disciples must get on with living the resurrection life here and now, sharing it with all mankind.

For Luke, the ascension is a means to an end. It marks his recognition that the period of the church is not like the period of the earthly ministry of Jesus and that Jesus must take on a new status if he is to give the Spirit to the church. Luke depicts this transition in a way which was meaningful to the audience of his day and which had the stamp of ‘biblical’ authority. Thus, the way to understand the ascension is to concentrate on Luke’s use both of Old Testament and first-century imagery to express what he wanted to say.

So, in the three-storied universe, heaven, the home of God, was ‘above’. Luke then fills the interval between the ascension and Pentecost with an account of the election of Matthias to fill the vacant place in the twelve left by Judas’ death. Significantly, he is to be chosen as one of those who witnessed the entire ministry of Jesus, the resurrection and the ascension. The Spirit is not yet given, so the disciples pray before using the time-honoured tradition of drawing lots to determine God’s will. Matthias does not appear again, and the twelve as a group fade out of the subsequent narrative.

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The list of the disciples given in Acts differs from those given in the gospels, which suggests that some of them were soon forgotten. We only have legendary details about the later careers of most of them. They seem to have been chosen by Jesus not so much as leaders of a future church, but rather as partners and interlocutors in the proclamation of the coming kingdom. Except in prayer, there were no more questions to be asked or answered. They had a new job to do: they had been given good news, not just for their own people, but for the whole world, everybody everywhere, regardless of all frontiers of race, class or creed. But first, they needed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to come alongside them. Even then, some of them, it seems, tackled it rather unwillingly, since it went against the grain of their Judaistic belief. They were to be given a new vision of God and of themselves and of the world in which they lived. This new vision was to make them rethink everything in a way very different from the conventional, traditional ways of ‘doing religion’ they had been brought up in. They found themselves in a world where, for the first time, a world vision could mean something to ordinary men and women. The Roman Peace gave freedom of travel on land and sea across the known world, and the Greek language, the common language of that world, gave the small group of men and women whom Jesus had gathered around him the tools they needed to communicate with that world.

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In addition to their ten interactions with the risen Christ, we can add Jesus’ challenge to Saul on the road to Damascus, though that belongs to a later period in the growth of the Christian movement known then as The Way of the Lord. Paul himself refers to other ‘appearances’ but gives no details of the interactions or conversations involved, so that we know nothing of the purposes of the appearances. In a spiritual sense, all Christians are witnesses to the resurrection and have responded to a challenge of the risen Lord in their living and thinking. The act of believers’ baptism in itself is an act of remembrance of the resurrection and the individual’s experience of being raised to a transformed life within the wider Christian community. The debate among Christians as to what reportable events happened and what sort of events they were is as old as our earliest records. The rise of scientific inquiry in the twentieth century and the development of archaeological and historical methods of research have brought it acutely before the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Of course, historical questions must be asked about the evidence for the resurrection. For us, as for the first friends of Jesus, it is a matter of the utmost importance in order to ensure that what we claim happened actually happened. Otherwise, we would all be living a gross lie. Just as he did in his earthly ministry, and with his disciples, Jesus invites our questions, including those prompted by disbelief, doubt and scepticism. We are expected to seek the answers in the most rigorous way. When all is said and done, however, we are dealing with an event which is not a purely historical event. It is closely involved in the reality of Christian experience, not just another incident in an unfolding story. It was not the reports of what had happened to a limited number of witnesses that changed men’s lives; it was the event itself. It was the revealing climax which made all the difference to the story. They could only say God raised him from death.

For some Christians, the customary ways of approaching the resurrection closely resemble the way they approach the miracles of Jesus in general. The traditional faith of the church in the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body is straightforward, and to be accepted. The tomb was empty; Jesus appeared to his disciples and later ascended to heaven. The New Testament says so; why complicate things further? Of course, there are discrepancies between these accounts, but that is only to be expected when the same event is described by several different people. For others of us, however, it is impossible to prove the question either way in definite scientific or historical terms. So we might settle for the way in which John Hick presented it:

We shall never know whether the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily event; or consisted instead in visions of Jesus; or in an intense sense of his unseen personal presence. But we do know the effects of the event and we know that whatever happened was such as to produce these effects. The main result was the transformation of a forlorn handful of former followers of an executed and discredited prophet into a coherent and dynamic fellowship with a faith which determined its life and enabled it to convince, to grow, to survive persecution and become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

This view follows the belief that something happened together with the conviction that human reaction to Jesus was a constituent part of the event. His resurrection is a complex event. New Testament writers report it in different ways, and they differ in perspective as well as in detail. But they agree in including in this ‘event’ the consequences of the death of Jesus, up to and including the conviction of the church that Jesus, who had died, was the Risen Lord. What is to be distilled out from all this as the essence of the resurrection is less easy to say. An examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection reveals a wide divergence in the viewpoints and conclusions of the four evangelists. Rather than providing clear answers, they raise more questions, awkward questions that will not go away. But we are not merely asking historical questions. The central and essential truth, that those who doubted were transformed into a dynamic new movement, would still seem to be best explained by a recognition that this change had been produced by something that really happened, and which they knew to have happened, to Jesus of Nazareth. His followers had seen in him a love which was free from all self-concern. In his death, they recognised the perfect expression of that love. His cross became a symbol of a love which accepts the full consequence of self-centred human action. His resurrection symbolised the power of that love to renew human life and it held the promise of a life made perfect beyond death:

For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3: 3f)

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But the church around the corner rarely looks like a body of men and women whose ways of thinking and acting are controlled, even imperfectly, by their self-denying love for each other, let alone for their fellow men and women in wider society. Perfect love may be New Testament teaching, but it is seldom seen in popular Christian practice. It does not seem to cast out fear, prejudice and hatred. The only answer to this criticism is to acknowledge that a standard of perfection tends to produce hypocrisy and compromise in an imperfect world. At the same time, the church can point sceptics and doubters to contemporary examples of how that love evokes heroic responses and prophetic leadership in every generation. We must continue the dialogue begun by Jesus himself with every fresh generation.

Even in the early generations of the Christian community, the spirit of love was often defeated by the persistent power of self-interest, often stronger than love and concern for others. Paul constantly reminded the recipients of his letters that a new motivation should be at work among them (II Cor. 5: 14-17). He also found it necessary to urge them not to accept the grace of God in vain (II Cor. 6: 1). The new creation (II Cor. 5: 17) was not complete and perfect in the first century, so perhaps we should not expect it to be so in the twenty-first century, dominated by all-pervasive materialistic and hedonistic values. Those who seek fresh guidelines for action in our own day must turn back to ultimate Christian principles and must be conscious of true Christian motives. Only then can we inform the idealism of younger generations by New Testament teaching on love and law and guide it into fruitful channels of action.      

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The theology of the early church, as it was developed in the Epistles, arose out of the historical events of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, his victory over death and his continuing spiritual presence with his followers. The key to understanding the growth of the early Christian movement is the stimulus of the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to conceive that there would have been any Christianity without a firm belief by the early disciples in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were convinced that their master had conquered death and had appeared to many of them in person. Only this resurrection faith explains how the small, motley, demoralised group which Jesus left on earth after his reported ascension could have developed the enthusiasm to sweep all obstacles before them in their bold worldwide mission. A few disheartened followers were transformed into the most dynamic movement in the history of mankind. Without this firm belief in a risen Christ, the fledgling Christian faith would have faded into oblivion.

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Christian scholars today make different historical and theological judgements about the precise details and nature of the resurrection appearances, based on the differing first-hand reports. Our decisions on these matters are secondary to our decisions about the story of Jesus as a whole. How do we react to the witness of his remembered ministry, of his passion and of his resurrection? That same Jesus pushes our questions back to us as individual believers. There are three inescapable questions that we all face: Who am I? What is my place in society? What am I here for? The first is the one of identity, the second is the question of love and the third is the question of purpose. They are inescapable because though we may never formulate the answers in words, they will be answered by the way we live. Discussion of these questions always range far and wide and bring in many contemporary questions and issues, but the Christian’s starting-point and a constant source for reference-back must be the New Testament and the questions of Jesus within it. He continues to challenge us with these until we come to … You – who do you say I am? Any retelling of his story must bring us back to this question, and leave us to answer it as individual believers, according to our own consciences.

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Sources:

Robert C. Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM

David Kossoff (1978), The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow. Collins.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London. Covenant Publishing.

Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.)(1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul White & Clifford Warne (1980), The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton.

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