Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Early Church and Civil Government

Reading N°7 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Though separated from the Jewish and the pagan world by their hierarchy, beliefs and rites, the disciples of Christ had no wish to adopt an attitude of rebellion or sullenness in the society in which they lived. St. Paul, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, writes: "They, are Hebrews; so am I. They are Israelites; so am I."[1] And when the tribune of Rome asked him, "Art thou a Roman?" he proudly answered: "Yea."[2] "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's,"[3] Christ had said; the Apostle adds: "Let every soul be subject to higher powers; for there is no power but from God."[4]

The temporal powers with which the infant Church came in contact were the leaders of the Jewish nation and the Roman emperors. Forty years before the Christian era, the title king of Judea became the prerogative of the family of the Herods, who, thanks to the backing of the Romans, supplanted the Machabees. The scepter was gone forth from Juda; a stranger reigned in the promised land. No doubt the policy of the Herods tended to constitute an independent realm, its unity assured by Judaism; but, to accomplish this purpose, they needed the protection of Rome; hence their equivocal attitude. The summary appointment and removal of high priests, which they subordinated to the varying needs of their political calculations, lowered the standing of the priesthood, and their deference to the Roman authorities favored the introduction of pagan customs into Palestine.[5]

The early Christians took a clear and frank attitude toward the government and the laws; they celebrated the national feasts and holidays,[6] taking part in the Temple worship and the synagogue devotions,[7] and carefully avoiding every legal defilement.[8] They obeyed all the laws, whether fiscal or otherwise, and, save for disputes arising among themselves -which they reserved to the judgment of their community - they carried their cases to the regular civil tribunals. This strict loyalty won the people's esteem and admiration.[9]

Rome's protectorate in Palestine was not clearly defined. It was represented at Jerusalem by a procurator, who reserved to himself the ius gladii,or the judgment of important matters. But he rarely exercised this supreme right, and often, like Pilate, followed the policy of non-intervention, being disinclined to place his power at the service of the local parties and priestly grudges. 

The Christians' attitude toward the imperial laws and authorities was as loyal as it was toward the Jewish authorities. They paid the taxes levied for the Roman metropolis; they obeyed their masters, if they were slaves;[10] if they were Roman citizens, they did not hesitate to exercise their right to appeal their case to the tribunal of Rome.[11]

But the authorities, Jewish as well as Roman, soon manifested their hostility against the Christians. The Romans, according to their custom, showed themselves more cautious on Palestinian territory; but the ill-restrained hatred of the priestly caste, who had put Jesus to death, quickly burst forth against His disciples.

Caiphas and Annas
The Sadducean family of the high priest, which brought about the condemnation of Christ, was still in power. Up to the year 36, the office of high priest really belonged to Caiphas, who left its exercise to his brother-in-law Annas and his relatives Alexander and John.[12] These ambitious and heartless schemers were ill-pleased to see the continued growth of a community invoking the name of one whom they had crucified. The very fact that the disciples of Jesus had won the favor of the populace made the Christians even more suspect in the eyes of the authorities. While it is true that many, at sight of the Christian practice of charity, said: "See how they love one another," others (as the Acts of the Apostles insinuates) were seized with a sort of terror at seeing the miracles which they performed.[13] The disciples of Christ did indeed frequent the synagogues and go up to the Temple; but they also held meetings of their own in private houses, and there created centers of religious activity independent of the sacerdotal authority. Thus especially reasoned the Sadducees, who cherished the most persistent hatred for Christ and who were exasperated by the preaching of the resurrection of the flesh. A number of Herodians and Pharisees were won over by the same bitterness and apprehension. The arrest of the Apostles, the stoning of St. Stephen, the beheading of St. James and the imprisonment of St. Peter were the sequels of this sinister coalition.

The Acts thus relates the arrest of the Apostles: 
The high priest rising up, and all they that were with him (which is the heresy of the Sadducees) were filled with envy. And they laid hands on the Apostles and put them in the common prison. But an angel of the Lord by night opening the doors of the prison, and leading them out, said: "Go, and standing speak in the Temple to the people all the words of this life." Who having heard this, early in the morning entered into the Temple, and taught. And the high priest coming, and they that were with him, called together the council and all the ancients of the children of Israel; and they sent to the prison to have them brought. [...] But one came and told them: "Behold, the men whom you put in prison are in the Temple, standing and teaching the people." Then went the officer with the ministers, and brought them without violence; for they feared the people, lest they should be stoned. [...] And the high priest asked them, saying: "Commanding, we commanded you, that you should not teach in this name; and behold, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine. And you have a mind to bring the blood of this man upon us." But Peter and the Apostles answering, said: '"We ought to obey God rather than men." [...] When they had heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they thought to put them to death. But one in the council rising up, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, respected by all the people, commanded the men to be put forth a little while. [...] And he said to them: "Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men. [...] For if this council or this work be of men, it will come to naught; but if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it, lest perhaps you be found even to fight against God." And they consented to him. And calling in the Apostles, after they had scourged them, they charged them that they should not speak at all in the name of Jesus; and they dismissed them. And they indeed went from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus. And every day they ceased not in the Temple and from house to house, to teach and preach Christ Jesus.[14]
These events took place toward the end of the year 32. "The Sanhedrin evidently assumed the right to condemn the accused to be flogged; it seems that they wished to bring a capital charge against the Apostles. Subsequently, St. Stephen was put to death without any protest from the Roman authorities, and Saul was sent on a mission with letters patent from the Sanhedrin. All these facts show that Tiberius, already ill and completely addicted to the shameful passions of a lustful old man and hateful tyrant, had permitted the prevalence at a distance of a more liberal policy with regard to the provinces subject to the Empire. Pilate was still at Jerusalem; but he was preoccupied with the agitation that was beginning to brew in Samaria, a disturbance that he soon after stifled in blood by horrible massacres."[15]

Profiting by this political tranquility, the religious activity of the Christian community took on a new enthusiasm. The twelve Apostles, overburdened by the works of charity which the growing number of the faithful rendered more and more absorbing, "calling together the multitude of the disciples," asked them to designate assistants "full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom," who would be able to act in their place. The entire assembly accepted this proposal. Seven helpers were chosen, at their head Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost."[16] This was the institution of a new order of ministers, the diaconate.

If the passage where the Acts of the Apostles speaks of the institution of the diaconate is compared with other passages of the holy books where it is mentioned, notably the Epistles of St. Paul, it would seem that there is question, not of a transitory ministry established by a purely human will, but of a higher institution possessing a definitive character and prompted by the Holy Ghost. The great importance which the Apostles attached to the choice of the first seven deacons, their evident concern to indicate the conditions to be fulfilled by those chosen, the solemnity with which they surrounded the new institution, the enumeration of the rare qualities which St. Paul required of deacons, and the close association between them and the bishops, is to be explained only by this lofty idea of the diaconate. Even from a purely historical point of view, everything leads us to believe that the Apostles, by imposing hands on the newly chosen, were conferring on them a sacramental grace that would aid them to fulfill their important duties worthily.[17]

Scripture mentions three of these duties: the "serving of tables,"[18] that is, the daily distribution to the poor, especially the widows, of food supplied by the resources of the rich, the administration of Baptism,[19] and preaching.[20]

Scenes from the Life of St. Stephen
Chapel of Nicholas V, Rome
In this last duty, no one acquitted himself more brilliantly and zealously than the deacon Stephen. His ministry was exercised particularly among the Hellenist Jews, to whom the Apostles probably had less ready access. The power of his word[21] and the gift of miracles which accompanied it,[22] brought him great success with the populace, who gathered about him. His enemies began to dispute with him, but "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit that spoke" through him.[23]
Then they suborned men to say they had heard him speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God. And they stirred up the people and the ancients and the scribes; and running together, they took him and brought him to the council. And they set up false witnesses, who said: "This man ceaseth not to speak words against the holy place and the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us." And all that sat in the council, looking on him, saw his face as if it had been the face of an angel. Then the high priest said: "Are these things so?" [...] Stephen said: "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it." Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." And they, crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.[24]
Thus died the first Christian martyr. Like his Master, with his last breath he delivered his soul into the hands of the heavenly Father and prayed for his executioners.

The Stoning of St. Stephen
Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669)


[1] Cf. 2 Cor. 11:22.
[2] Acts 22:25-28.
[3] Matt. 22:21.
[4] Rom. 13:1.
[5] On the political organization of Palestine at this period, see Beurlier, Le Monde juif à l'époque de Jésus-Christ, and Mommsen, History of Rome, IV, I58.
[6] Acts 2:1; 18:18; 20:6; Rom. 14:5.
[7] Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42; 10:9.
[8] Acts 10:14.
[9] Acts 5:13.
[10] Cf. 1 Cor. 7:21.
[11] Acts 22:25-28; 25:11 f.
[12] Acts 4:6.
[13] Acts 2:43.
[14] Acts 5:17-42.
[15] Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 97.
[16] Acts 6:1-6.
[17] The Council of Trent (Sess. 23, canon 6) declares that the diaconate is of divine institution: Si quis dixerit in Ecclesia catholica non esse hierarchiam divina ordinatione institutam, quae constat in episcopis, presbyteris, et ministris, anathema sit.
[18] Acts 6:2.
[19] Acts 8:38.
[20] Acts 7:2-53.
[21] Acts 6:10.
[22] Acts 6:8.
[23] Acts 6:10.
[24] Acts 6:11-7:59.


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