Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ananias, Saphira and the Baptism of Cornelius the Centurion

Reading N°11 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

"They shall deliver you up to councils," the Savior had said, "and in the synagogues you shall be beaten. [...] Be not thoughtful beforehand what you shall speak."[1] But He had also foretold that the enemy would sow cockle in the field of the householder, and that false prophets would rise up among the people.[2] The Church would not escape persecution, nor would she be spared schisms and heresies. The early Christian community of Jerusalem was well acquainted with both.

From the beginning, two currents were discernible among the disciples of Christ: that of the Jews of Palestine and that of the Hellenist Jews. The latter name was applied to those Jews who, during the period of the dispersion, had adopted the Greek language and to some extent also the customs of the Greeks. The diaconate was instituted in consequence of the demands of the Hellenists, who complained that their widows were neglected "in the daily ministrations."[3] The opposition between the two parties remained a permanent source of strife in the community.

More serious difficulties arose from the fact of its economic organization. We have already observed that, through a natural prompting of charity, most of the first Christians sold as much of their possessions as they could and gave the price into the community treasury. During the Savior's own life, the Apostles had had a community purse: an attempt was made to continue this early tradition in a larger circle. Christianity spread especially among the poor. For the rich to place their possessions into a common fund was the most delicate means they had to come to the relief of their poor brethren.[4]
A certain man named Ananias, with Saphira his wife, sold a piece of land, and by fraud kept back part of the price of the land, his wife being privy thereunto; and bringing a certain part of it, laid it at the feet of the Apostles. But Peter said: "Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost, and by fraud keep part of the price of the land? Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power? [...] Thou hast not lied to men, but to God." And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and gave up the ghost. [...] And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. [...] And Peter said to her: "Why have you agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold the feet of them who have buried thy husband are at the door, and they shall carry thee out." Immediately she fell down before his feet and gave up the ghost. [...] And there came great fear upon the whole Church and upon all that heard these things."[5]
The Death of Ananias
Raphael (1483-1520)

By this terrible example, God showed the members of the young Church that one does not deceive His ministers with impunity, and that nothing is more unworthy of a Christian believer than to evade a duty or even a counsel by an act of disloyalty.

A like event was never witnessed again. The economic regime of the early Church soon disappeared, made impossible by the very fact of its growth. But a source of more lasting conflict presently arose in connection with the question of admitting pagans into the Church.

The Savior, speaking to His disciples of the signs that would portend the fall of Jerusalem, had said: "Unto all nations the gospel must first be preached."[6] The Apostles took advantage of every opportunity to carry out the Master's injunction.

Peter lived habitually in Jerusalem. But his duties as head of the Church obliged him to visit the Christian groups founded in various places.[7] The districts evangelized by the deacon Philip were the first to which he went, to consolidate and extend the work so happily begun. God blessed his apostolate by numerous miracles. At Lydda, in the southern part of the rich plain of Sharon, "he found a certain man named Eneas, who had kept his bed for eight years, who was ill of the palsy. And Peter said to him: 'Eneas, the Lord Jesus Christ healeth thee: arise, and make thy bed.' And immediately he arose. And all that dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him; who were converted to the Lord."[8] At Joppa,[9] an important seaport which appears to have been a center of Christianity, he raised to life a widow, Tabitha, a woman "full of good works," who seems to have devoted her fortune to the needs of the early Church.[10]

In these cities, with their mixed population, the problem of admitting pagans into the Church presented difficulties which the Apostle did not hide from himself. The question was not to decide whether the infidels should enter the kingdom of God; the Master had solved this question in their favor. It concerned the conditions on which they were to be admitted. Must they first become Jews in order to become Christians? Would they have to pass through Judaism to come to the Gospel? This was the point at issue. The Jerusalem Jews (Hebrews, they were called) were clearly inclined to answer the question in the affirmative. But the Hellenist Jews (the Greeks) inclined to the negative. Little by little the views were formulated with sharper cleavage between them. It is not surprising that the conflict was long and even bitter. Christianity and Judaism seemed to be striving for their existence. If, said the Hebrews, "the Gentiles enter the, Church directly, and there obtain through faith alone the same rank and privileges as the Jews, what becomes of the rights of Israel? What advantage has the elect people over other nations? Is not this to deny the absolute validity of Judaism? On the other hand, if circumcision be imposed on the Gentile converts, is not that in itself a declaration that faith in Christ is insufficient for salvation? Does it not reduce the Gospel to the position of a mere accessory to Mosaism? Is not this to deny the absolute validity of the work of Jesus Christ?"[11]

Saint Peter's Vision
Domenico Fetti (1589-1623)
Peter was deeply concerned over this problem, when a heavenly vision brought him the light. One day, as he was at prayer on the roof of a tanner's house, which he had chosen for his residence, in view of that sea by which the Gospel was to spread in the pagan world, he had a prophetic ecstasy. He saw the heavens open and a sort of linen sheet let down. It was knotted at the four corners and was suspended from the firmament. When he looked into it, he saw therein all kinds of four-footed beasts, reptiles, and birds. And he heard a voice saying to him: "Arise, Peter; kill and eat." But he answered: "Far be it from me. For I never did eat anything that is common and unclean." We know that, according to the Mosaic Law, certain animals were called unclean, and no one could eat them without himself becoming defiled. This mixing of clean and unclean animals in the great sheet made the whole collection unclean. The voice replied: "That which God hath cleansed, do not thou call common." This was done three times. Then the sheet was taken up into heaven.

Peter wondered what might be the meaning of this vision, when three men came and told him that a certain Roman centurion named Cornelius, a just and God-fearing man, to whom the whole Jewish nation gave good testimony, had been directed by an angel to find Peter and hear his words. Peter's eyes were opened. He saw God's purpose: the legal observances abolished or at least given their death blow by the sacrifice of Christ; the Old Law gradually giving way to the New; and, as a direct consequence, the Gentiles entering the Church through Baptism alone, without the need of first being circumcised.

Saint Peter baptizing Cornelius
Francesco Trevisani (1656-1746)
Peter went to the centurion's house and instructed him in the chief truths of the faith. He was preparing to confer Baptism on Cornelius and all the members of his household, when the Holy Ghost, this time before Baptism had been given, descended upon the catechumens. The mystical graces of prophecy and of the gift of tongues were bestowed upon these still pagan souls. God Himself came to purify them in a manifest way. No longer was any hesitation possible. Then Peter said: "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost, as well as we ?" And he poured the water of Baptism upon the head of the pagan Cornelius, and likewise baptized his entire household.[12]

Word of this event soon reached Judea and there caused a great stir. When Peter returned to Jerusalem, "they that were of the circumcision," as the Scripture calls them, found fault with him. They said to him: "Why didst thou go in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them?" The Apostle boldly faced the storm. He related the details of what had occurred: the vision on the roof, the appearance of the angel to the Roman centurion, the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the household of the unbaptized man. Their murmuring was silenced by this simple and firm narration. Peter concluded by saying: "If then God gave them the same grace as to us also who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that could withstand God?"[13] The malcontents held their peace. But "they that were of the circumcision" soon started their complaints again, loudly recriminated, and made the first schism in the infant Church.

On the other hand, those who were urged on towards new countries by zeal for the Gospel, those who were fired by the memory of the Savior's words to announce the Gospel "to every creature," were moved with a new enthusiasm, seeing the great prospects opening before them. On the Phenician coast, at Tyre, Sidon, Berytus, and Byblus, the Gospel missioners, after preaching in the synagogues, met pagans who were troubled by religious unrest, who longed for purification, and were seeking for the truth. The same was true of the island of Cyprus, where the Jews had settled in large numbers in the time of the Maccabees.[14] But there was another city where the Jewish world was found even more mingled with the pagan: Antioch, the capital of Syria.

At the time of the dispersion following the martyrdom of Stephen, Apostles and disciples took refuge in Antioch and there preached the glad tidings in the synagogues.[15] Shortly afterwards, some Christians from Cyprus and Cyrene, more familiar with Gentile society, came to Antioch and there announced the Gospel to the pagans themselves.[16] Upon learning that Peter had baptized a Roman centurion, they redoubled their zeal. It was in this city, the third largest of the world,[17] the "metropolis of the East," that the Church, for the first time, was about to have extensive contact with the Greco-Roman civilization.


[1] Mark 13:9-11.
[2] Matt. 13:25; Mark 13:22.
[3] Acts 6:1.
[4] "There is a surprising likeness," says Renan, "between such attempted organizations of the proletariat and certain Utopias that have been undertaken in times not very remote." (Renan, Les Apôtres, p. 112.) But it is evident that profound differences separate this common life of the first Christians and the organization contemplated by Communism. True it is that, in both cases, the distribution is made according to each one's needs, not in proportion to his contribution; but among the Christians, the offering is spontaneous, without any sort of constraint: any doubt as to this is removed by St. Peter's words to Ananias. Moreover, no mention is made of the proceeds of labor. Did they remain the property of the worker or did they, too, become part of the community fund? The text gives no indication. Furthermore, between the Communist soul, altogether concerned with the division of earthly things, and the Christian soul, with its thought in Heaven, any supposed likeness is artificial. To call this primitive organization a Utopia and to say that the Church was eager to abandon it as soon as it was seen to be chimerical, is no less erroneous. In fact, the Church never has abandoned that ideal. Renan himself acknowledges this to be so. He says: "When whole countries became Christian, the rule of the primitive Church took refuge in the monasteries. In a certain sense, the monastic life is but the continuation of that primitive Church. The convent is the result of the Christian spirit. There is no perfect Christianity without the convent, because nowhere else can the Gospel ideal be realized." (Op. cit., p. 128.)
[5] Acts 5:1-11.
[6] Mark 13:10.
[7] Acts 9:32.
[8] Acts 9:32-35.
[9] Now Jaffa.
[10] Acts 9:36-42.
[11] Sabatier, The Apostle Paul, p. 125.
[12] Acts 10:1-48.
[13] Acts 11:17.
[14] Cf. 1 Macc. 15:23.
[15] Acts 11:19.
[16] Acts 11:20 f. The names of these first apostles are unknown. It has been conjectured that the principal ones were Lucius the Cyrenean, Manahen (foster brother of Herod Antipas), and Simon who was called Niger (mentioned in Acts 13:1). From St. Luke (Acts 6: 5) we learn that Nicolas, one of the first seven deacons, was from Antioch.
[17] Rome and Alexandria were the first two. See Josephus, Jewish War, III, ii. 
4. Cf. Strabo, Geography, XVI, ii, 5.


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