(Published in Grail World 16/2000)
The history of the origins of the first Christian communities is still incompletely known. The most important source has always been the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, which, however, was only written between 80 and 100. It takes the standpoint of the doctrine preached by Paul. This was spread by the so-called "Heidenmission", from which the large church later developed.
The Jewish Christians
Historians assume that the first Christian community came about through the apparitions of Jesus after his crucifixion and the event of Pentecost. As the apostles seven weeks after the crucifixion in memory of their master in celebration of Shavuoth[i] came together, they had a shared mystical experience that is described in the second chapter of Acts as the "outpouring of the Holy Spirit". This religious experience was the trigger for a momentous denunciation and missionary work.
At the head of these early Christians were twelve apostles (Judas was replaced by Mathias, Acts 1, 15-22), including the "three pillars" Peter, James and John. After Peter had to flee Jerusalem because of Jewish stalking, James, "the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1:19), remained the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem community until his stoning in 62. His death at the instigation of the high priest was lamented by the Pharisees (3, p. 54).
The Jewish Christians kept strictly to Jewish law and lived as a commune (Acts 2, 44-45) in the immediate expectation of the Lord's return.
Shortly before or at the beginning of the Jewish War (66-70), an uprising of the Jews that the Romans put down, most of this early Christian community, including blood relatives of Jesus, migrated, presumably because of a prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24, 15 -20) to Pella (today Tabakat-Fahal in East Jordan). Since Irenaeus[ii] they were called "Ebionites" (from Hebrew "the poor", Greek Ebioneans or Nazorae). Their teaching had a lot in common with that of the Essenes.
These Jewish Christians were expelled by devout Jews and later rejected by the major Gentile Christian Church. So they became increasingly isolated, and in the 4th or 5th century their communities disappeared from history.
The Gentile Mission
In the early Christian community there were different views on the nature and goal of missionary work from the very beginning.
The “Jewish Christians” only wanted to convert Jews. They insisted on strict adherence to Jewish laws, which they - like the Essenes - tightened through special food and Sabbath regulations. They also persisted in circumcision.
Such ancient Jewish rules were difficult to enforce when converting “Gentiles” (defined here as non-Jews). So Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, including Stephen, recommended a more flexible approach.
About three years near the crucifixion of Christ, Stephen - later venerated as the first Christian martyr - was stoned by fanatical Jews. This was the first persecution of Christians directed against Christian Hellenes, while the Jewish Christians remained fairly unmolested until around 44.
Further persecutions of the Hellenic Christians (Acts 8), in which Saul participated, and the dispersal of the "Gentile Christians" soon followed. They fled to Antioch via Samaria. Saul, who had become Paul, should have joined them there. Soon he became the dominant figure of the pagan mission.
The tensions between the Gentile mission and the Jerusalem church had thus escalated. Because the apostles working in Jerusalem rejected Paul and his teachings. The Acts of the Apostles reports two visits by Paul to Jerusalem, but only hinted at differences of opinion.
With the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, the dispute between Jewish Christians and the Gentile mission was initially settled. The pagan mission, dominated by Paul and his theology, spread throughout the Roman Empire and became a major church that condemned the Ebionites, including descendants of the first apostles and also the blood relatives of Jesus, as “heresis soleratissima”, as “a particularly heinous sect”. These heretics denied the virgin birth (as relatives they maybe knew differently, 2, p.181) and rejected Paul and the doctrine of redemption developed by him.
[i] Schavuoth, the “Festival of the Weeks”, is celebrated seven weeks after Passover (Easter) as a commemoration of the Foundation of the Ten Commandments. Christianity adopted this date for its Pentecost festival.
[ii] Irenaeus, Greek church father and most important theologian of the second century, died in 202.
(1) Drehsen, Volker et al.: Dictionary of Christianity, Orbis, Munich, 1995.
(2) Lehmann, Johannes: "The secret of Rabbi J.", Droemer-Knaur, Munich, 1990.
(3) Schneider, Carl: "Spiritual history of Christian antiquity", DTS, Munich, 1978.