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(1) When the disciples realized that they had seen the risen Christ for the last time and that it had now become their duty to spread His message, they gathered themselves together and restored the number of “witnesses” to the appointed Twelve. Immediately afterward the outpouring of the Holy Spirit gave them the signal to begin work. At first, this work was rigidly centered in Jerusalem, and the first journeyings were the result of forcible dispersion and not of planned effort (Ac 11:19). But pilgrims to the feasts had carried away the gospel with them, and in this way, Christianity had been spread at least as far as Damascus (Ac 9:2,19). The dispersion itself widened the circle to Cyprus and to Antioch and marked the beginning of the Gentile work (Ac 11:19-20). Here the extreme prominence of Paul’s ministry in the New Testament should not obscure the success of the other missionaries. When the apostles began their journeys we do not know but at the time of Gal. 1:19, only Peter represented the Twelve in Jerusalem. Paul mentions their extended work in 1 Cor. 9:5-6 and it seems certain that Peter was in Babylon, not Rome shortly before his death. The troubles caused Paul by the Judaizers at least give evidence of the missionary zeal of the latter. Barnabas and Mark worked after their separation from Paul (Ac 15:39) and Gentile Christianity existed in Rome long before the latter’s arrival there (Rom. 1:13). By the year 100 A.D., it appears that Christianity extended around the Mediterranean from Alexandria to Rome (and doubtless farther, although data are scanty), while Asia Minor was especially pervaded by it. By the year 150 A.D. there were now over one million Christians. (2) Many factors cooperated to help the work: Peace was universal and communication was easy. Greek was spoken everywhere. The protection given Judaism sheltered from civil interference. The presence of Judaism insured hospitality and hearers for at least the first efforts to convert. The Jews’ own proselytizing zeal (Matt. 23:15) had prepared Gentiles to receive Christianity. And not the least element was the break-up of the old religions and the general looking to the East for religious satisfaction. (3) For the methods, Paul’s procedure is probably typical. Avoiding the smaller places, he devoted himself to the cities as the strategic points and traveled in a direct route, without side-journeys. In this way, a “line of fire” (Harnack) was traced, and the flame could be trusted to spread of its own accord to each side of the road. So as fruits of Paul’s work at Ephesus there appear churches at Colosse and Laodicea some hundred and twenty miles away (Col. 2:1; 4:16). The churches founded needed revisiting and confirming, but when the apostle felt that they could shift for themselves, he felt also that his work in the East was over (Rom. 15:23).
The Jerusalem Church
The members of the earliest Jerusalem church thought of themselves simply as Jews who had a true understanding of the Messiah and so constituting a new “way” or “party” (hardly “sect”) in Judaism (Ac 22:4, especially). At first, they were suffered to grow unmolested and their right to exist was apparently unquestioned, for the Sadducean actions of Ac 4:1; 5:17 were in the nature of police precautions. And it is significant that the first attack was made on a foreigner, Stephen. He seems to have angered the crowds by preaching the impending destruction of the Temple, although he was martyred for ascribing (practically) Divine honors to Jesus (Ac 7:56). Yet the apostles were not driven from the city (Ac 8:1) and the church was able to continue its development. In 41 A.D., the Roman representatives gave way to the Pharisaically inclined Agrippa I and (for reasons that are not clear) persecution broke out in which James was martyred and Peter delivered only by a miracle (Ac 12:1-25).
With the resumption of Roman rule in 44 A.D., the persecution ceased. Some peaceable mode of living was devised, as appears from the absence of further allusions to troubles (compare Ac 21:17-26) and from the accounts of Josephus and Hegesippus of the esteem in which James the Lord’s brother was held. His martyrdom (in 62 A.D.?) was due to the tension that preceded the final revolt against Rome, in which the Christians of Jerusalem took no part. Instead, they retired across the Jordan to Pella (Rev. 12:13-17), where they formed a close, intensely Jewish body under the rule of the descendants of Christ’s brothers according to the flesh. Some mission work was done farther to the east but in the 2nd century, they either were absorbed in normal Christianity or became one of the factors that produced Ebionism.
Many members of this body (and, doubtless, other Jewish Christians outside it) showed various degrees of inability to understand the Gentile work. The acceptance of an uncircumcised Christian as “saved” offered fairly slight difficulty (Gal. 2:3; Ac 15:1-41). But to eat with him was another thing and one that was an offense to many who accepted his salvation (Gal. 2:12-13). The rigorous conclusion that the Law bound no Christian was still another thing and one that even James could not accept (Ac 21:21). At the time of Ga 2:9, the “pillars” were as yet not thinking of doing Gentile work. Paul’s controversies are familiar and probably the last friction did not end until the fall of Jerusalem. But the difficulties grew gradually less and 1 Peter is evidence that Peter himself finally accepted the full status of Gentiles.
The Relations with Rome
From the Roman power, Christianity was safe at first, as the distinctions from Judaism were thought too slight to notice (Ac 18:14-16; 25:19). (Troubles such as those of Ac 17:9 were due to disturbance of the peace.) So the government was thought of as a protector (2Th 2:7) and spoken of in the highest terms (Rom. 13:1; 1Pe 2:13-14). But, while absolute isolation was not observed (1Co 10:27), yet the Christians tended more and more to draw themselves into bodies with little contact with the world around them (1Pe 4:3-5), so provoking suspicion and hostility from their neighbors. Hence they were a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the burning of Rome in 64 A.D. It is uncertain how far his persecution spread or how far persecutions occurred from his time until the end of the reign of Domitian, but in Revelation, Rome has become the symbol for all that is hostile to Christ.
The influence of the “pagan” religions on Christianity is not very perceptible in the 1st century. But syncretism was the fashion of the day and many converts must have attempted to combine the new religion with views that they held already (or that they learned still later). Apparently, little attention was paid to this attempt, if restricted to entirely minor details (1Co 15:29?), but in Col 2:8-23 a vital matter is touched. The danger is more acute in the Pastorals (1Tim. 1:4; 4:3; Tit 3:9) and in Rev. 2:1-29 great harm is being done. And Jude, 2 Peter, and 1 John contain direct polemics against the systems so arising, the beginnings of what in the 2nd century appeared as Gnosticism.
by Burton Scott Easton and Edward D. Andrews