Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The First Christians and the Organization of the Early Church

Reading N°5 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

As soon as the Apostles were released by the Sanhedrin after the Miracle of the Beautiful Gate, they returned to their brethren and related to them what the chief priests and the ancients had said. 
Who having heard it, with one accord lifted up their voice to God and said: "Lord, Thou art He that didst make heaven and earth, the sea and all things that are in them. Who, by the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of our father David, Thy servant, hast said: 'Why did the Gentiles rage, and the people meditate vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes assembled together against the Lord and His Christ.' [...] And now, Lord, behold their threatenings, and grant unto Thy servants that with all confidence they may speak Thy word, by stretching forth Thy hand to cures and signs and wonders to be done by the name of Thy holy Son Jesus." And when they had prayed, the place was moved wherein they were assembled; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with confidence. 
And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but all things were common unto them. And, with great power did the Apostles give testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. And great grace was in them all. For neither was there anyone needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses, sold them and brought the price of the things sold, and laid it down before the feet of the Apostles. And distribution was made to everyone, according as he had need.[1]
In these few lines, the Acts of the Apostles sketches the first Christian community. Let us attempt to complete the picture with the help of various documents furnished by archeology, tradition, sacred and profane history.

Saint Peter
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
It is plainly to be seen that the little society has a head. This head is the one who, after the Ascension, presided at the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas, so as to fill up the number of the Twelve. He is also the one who, on Pentecost, spoke to the crowd in the name of the Apostolic College. And it is he who defended the rights of Christian preaching before the Sanhedrin. It is Simon, son of Jona, to whom Jesus gave the power of binding and loosing, that is, of governing His Church; it is Peter, to whom were given the keys of the kingdom and who was commissioned to "confirm his brethren" in the faith.

The Galilean fisherman's burning faith, the promptness of his zeal, the clear-sighted intuition of his soul, which led him first of all to proclaim his belief in Christ the Son of the living God, and the thrice repeated avowal of his love for Jesus, may have prepared him for this office; in fact, he received it by the free choice of his Master. And this headship was religiously recognized and accepted by all. The Pauline tradition, represented by St. Luke,[2] and the Johannine tradition, represented by the Fourth Gospel,[3] as also the Palestinian tradition, echoed in St. Matthew,[4] and the Roman tradition, expressed in St. Mark, agree in representing Simon Peter as the head of the infant Church.

At the same time, another authority seems to hover over the community of Christ's disciples: it is the authority of the Holy Ghost. Nothing in the Acts of the Apostles is more remarkable than the frequency with which that book mentions the Holy Ghost. Every important event in the infant Church[5] is attributed to His inspiration.

The name of the Holy Ghost is one of the first words on Peter's lips when, for the first time, he addresses the disciples, gathered together to choose a successor for Judas the traitor.[6] From the Holy Ghost the Apostles receive the gift of tongues.[7] To the Holy Ghost Peter attributes all the supernatural manifestations on Pentecost.[8] The Apostle charges Ananias with having lied to the Holy Ghost,[9] and Saphira with having tempted the Spirit of the Lord.[10] Stephen, the first martyr, is spoken of as a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,[11] as one by whose mouth the Spirit of God speaks.[12] Later on, we note that the Holy Ghost sets apart Paul and Barnabas,[13] and prevents Paul and Silas from passing into Asia.[14]

And this Spirit is represented as a Spirit of peace, of charity, and of joy.[15] Under His influence, and under the paternal authority of the head of the Apostles, the young community is organized and develops as a united family. A superficial outsider might have observed in them only a group of pious Jews, or a community of cenobites like the Essenes and Therapeutae.[16] They still kept the Mosaic observances, prayed at the appointed hours,[17] and showed themselves scrupulously faithful to the Law. They were liked by the people because of their simple, pious, and gentle life.[18] This the chief priests had seen at the time of the arrest of Peter and John. From the little group there radiated a fragrance of kindliness, uprightness, and wholesome joy. Among them labor was held in honor, in their midst the destitute found the charm of an enlarged family which generously opened for them all its treasures of affection and its material resources. The members of the community called one another brother, to show the tender charity that united them. The Temple porches, the galleries that formed part of that edifice, were their usual meeting-place during the day.[19] There were to be found the memories of their Master's most endearing words and discourses. In the evening they returned to their lodgings and, in small groups,[20] took part in a mysterious meal that still more intimately recalled to their mind the last hours of Jesus. The people called their meeting by the Hebrew word Kahal, which was applied to gatherings of this sort; but they themselves used the Greek word Ekklesia (Church), by which the old Hellenic cities designated the meeting of the people for deliberation on matters of state.

Let us examine the inner life of this Church more closely. There we shall discover an autonomous organization, capable of sustaining its life independently.

St. Peter Healing with His Shadow
Masaccio (1401-1428)
The Apostles exercised an undisputed authority over the faithful. They had been the Savior's confidants, specially chosen by Him to accompany Him and aid Him. Hence, in the mind of the new converts, they are the authentic witnesses of the departed Master. To them one turns for an authorized account of His discourses, promises, blessings, and examples. The mystery of Pentecost, by designating them as in a very special manner filled with the Holy Ghost, and the gift of miracles, which is more particularly reserved to them,[21] vests them with an altogether exceptional authority. When Peter passes by, the sick are carried out and put on beds or cots, so that his shadow may fall upon them.[22] Such privileges made their authority absolute and their teaching infallible.[23] Moreover, Christ had in a positive manner confided to them the power of teaching,[24] and, subject to Peter's authority, the power of governing the faithful.[25]

It is possible that, under the Apostles, the community had for a short time only the ministry of prophets directly inspired by the Holy Ghost. But if this embryonic state ever existed, it lasted only a very short time.[26] The Apostles soon instituted a governing authority, which was frequently entrusted to those who were favored with these mystical communications. A council of elders (presbyteri, priests) and a college of seven deacons later completed the organization.

Saint James the Lesser
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
After the other Apostles dispersed, James "the brother of the Lord" took their place at Jerusalem and filled the office of head of the local Church. At his death (A.D. 61), a successor was appointed; he was likewise a relative of the Lord, Simeon, who lived until about the year 110. This Jerusalem hierarchy presents exactly the grades of rank which, later on, became universal.[27]

A close examination of the early Church at Jerusalem shows that, besides the exercises of devotion in the Temple, which the disciples of Jesus attended along with their Jewish brethren, they had their own special services in private houses, where their meetings were held. There the Master's life and discourses were repeated. "These various accounts, a thousand times retold, finally led to a uniform oral version, which was a sort of traditional catechism. The Gospel thus assumed its first authentic and authorized form. We have no need to look for any other cause for the identity of expressions and turns of phrase that characterize the three synoptic Gospels."[28] More precisely, this early preaching took two forms, which it borrowed from the traditions of the synagogue: the agada, a kind of historical narrative or discourse, and the alaka, a form of dogmatic or moral teaching.[29] The synoptic Gospels are related to the agada; the Apostolic epistles belong rather to the form of the alaka, and the Gospel of St. John to both.


[1] Acts 4:23-35.
[2] Luke 22:31.
[3] John 21:15-17.
[4] Matt. 16:18.
[5] Lebreton, Histoire du dogme de la Trinité, I, 284-288.
[6] Acts 1:16.
[7] Acts 2:2 ff.
[8] Acts 2:17.
[9] Acts 5:3.
[10] Acts 5:9.
[11] Acts 6:5.
[12] Acts 6:10.
[13] Acts 13:2, 4.
[14] Acts 16:6. The Acts of the Apostles has been called the "Gospel of the Holy Ghost." Cf. Lebreton, op. cit., I, 285.
[15] Acts 13:52.
[16] On the religious societies of Essenes and Therapeutae, see Hergenröther-Kirsch, Kirchengeschichte, vol. I, bk. I, chap. 2. Cf. Philo, On the Contemplative Life; also Massebiau, "Le Traité de la vie contemplative et la question des thérapeutes," in the Revue de l'histoire des religions, 1887, pp. 170, 284.
[17] Acts 3:1.
[18] Acts 2:47; 4:33; 5:13, 26.
[19] Acts 2:46; 5:12.
[20] Acts 2:46.
[21] Acts 5:12.
[22] Acts 5:15.
[23] Bainvel, art. "Apôtres," in Vacant's Dict. de théol.
[24] Matt. 28:18 ff.; Mark 16:15.
[25] Matt. 18:17 f.; Ephes. 4:1-13. Cf- 1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28.
[26] Prat, art. "Evêque," in the Dict. de théol., IV, 1657.
[27] Duchesne, Early History of the Christian Church, I, p. 63. The author supposes James, "the brother of the Lord," to be distinct from James the Apostle, the son of Alpheus. This distinction, though held by a number of modern scholars, does not seem to be well founded. (See Ermoni, art. "Jacques," in the Dict. de la Bible.)
[28] Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 41.
[29] Vigouroux, Manuel biblique, I, 338.


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