Dr IAN ELMER…
Over the last two weeks Dr Elmer has explored two possible candidates for the honour of founder of the Church in Rome, Paul and Peter. His exploration of the material from Paul's letter to Rome suggests that neither of these apostles can claim that title — although the later Roman apologists would make that claim for them. This week he looks at further scholarly speculation about who the true founders of the Roman church may have been and when Christianity first came to Rome.
A Divided Community…
While we do not know the circumstances in which the Jesus movement first came to Rome, scholars generally propose that, as elsewhere with the first congregations of believers in Jesus Messiah (eg. Jerusalem and Antioch), the movement in Rome probably emerged first within the context of the Jewish synagogues (Byrne, 1996; Dunn, 1988). The one significant difference is that in the case of Rome it is the Gentile membership that seems to predominate the disparate communities in the Imperial capital — which naturally raises the question, how could such a situation have arisen?
The Letter to Romans is addressed to Gentile converts to the Jesus movement (1:6, 13; 11:13-32; 15:7-12, 15-16); but these Gentiles appear to be embroiled in a dispute over Law observance involving Law-free Christians (Jews, like Paul himself, as well as Gentiles) and Law-observant Christian-Jews (ethnic Jews and their Gentile associates). On this understanding, it has been proposed that Paul, aware of these problems and conscious of the possible threat such a division posed to his prospective missionary schemes in Rome and beyond, calls for tolerance and acceptance between the warring parties.
Paul's comments on the 'weak' and 'strong' (Rom 14:1-15:13) appear to be directed at a community predominantly composed of Gentiles (but also including some Jews), the majority of whom have embraced the Law-free faith-practice. His call to acceptance (14:1) is, therefore, best understood as a request made to the dominant group, both Jews and Gentile alike, to tolerate and accept those few individuals (again, probably both Jews and Gentiles) within the communities who continue to cling to their former, Jewish ritual and dietary practices
We noted earlier, that some hint as to the origins of this conflict may be found in the oft-cited report by the Roman historian Suetonius (Claudius 25:4), who relates how the Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 CE) was forced to 'expel the Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (impulsore Chrestus)'. We noted also, that biblical scholar F. Watson (1986) argues that that Paul took advantage of the situation presented by Claudius' expulsion of the Jewish leaders of the Christian communities to win the now predominantly Gentile congregations to the Pauline camp.
Watson points to the large number of people Paul can greet in Romans 16 whom Paul designates as associates and co-workers. This suggests, Watson argues, that Paul sent a contingent of missionaries to the imperial capital to clear the way for his own impending mission in the city. On this understanding, Paul's sole purpose in writing to Rome was to encourage the returning Jewish Christians to sever their former ties to the Jewish synagogues and unite with the newly arrived Pauline Gentile mission.
Why Paul Wrote to Rome…
While Watson is probably correct in asserting that Paul intended this group to be an advance party for his own missionary activities in Rome, this does not necessarily mean that the establishment of Law-free Christianity in Rome was entirely the work of Paul and his associates. Similarly, Watson may be right to argue that Claudius' edict in 49 CE had left the Gentile constituency in the ascendant at Rome creating division and dispute when the former Jewish leadership of the Christian communities returned to Rome with the death of Claudius in 54 CE. But this need not mean that Paul's sole purpose in writing Romans was to win the returning Jewish Christians to the cause of Paul's Gentile mission.
Paul probably had several reasons for writing to Rome, but his primary purpose was to establish his credentials with a view to using Rome as a base for his future missionary endeavours in Spain (Rom 15:24). There is very little in the text of Romans to suggest that Paul wanted to facilitate a complete divorce between Christianity and Judaism. On the contrary, Paul addresses his comments to Gentiles, arguing that they must continue to recognise their continuing bond with the people of the covenant (3:25-26; 4:16; 11:11-32; 15:27) and accept those Christian Jews who maintain the faith practice of their Jewish heritage (14:1; 15:7).
Furthermore, it seems incredible to imagine that Paul would have selected Rome as the foundation for his plans to evangelise Spain if a significant proportion of the Roman communities were not already in sympathy with Paul's Law-free mission.
Finally, the intermingling of Jewish and Gentile names amongst those whom Paul greets in 16:3-16 suggests that the primary cause of the divisions at Rome was not simply a matter of ethnic distinctions, but more likely ideological differences concerning Law observance — differences that we must assume predated the arrival of the Pauline contingent in Rome.
The Arrival of the Law-Free Mission in Rome…
On this last point, we must return to Suetonius' report on Claudius' expulsion of the Jews, and ask again: what was the nature of the threat that Christianity posed to Jews of Rome in the forties? Watson argues that this dispute could not have been over Law observance. But, surely, such was the seriousness of the conflict in 49 CE that it could hardly have been the result of a dispute between Law-abiding Jews who did not believe in Jesus Messiah and Law-observant, Christian Jews. In an earlier commentary on the Apostolic community in Jerusalem (Elmer, 2006a.), we saw that the dominant Law-abiding faction of the Jerusalem church managed to flourish and prosper unhindered by either serious persecution or sustained conflict.
If we are to maintain that Roman Christianity emerged first within the context of Roman Judaism, then it seems that the first communities of believers in Jesus Messiah at Rome would have been composed almost entirely of Jews, and probably Law-observant Jews at that. As long as this situation endured, those few Gentiles who joined the movement in Rome would have been required to become full Jewish proselytes or remain, as with their previous relationship with the Jewish synagogues, mere 'God-fearing' associates.
There is nothing in this analysis to suggest any possible reason why the Roman Christian communities should incite the disputes as they are described by Suetonius, which were sufficiently prolonged and severe enough to attract the attention of the Roman authorities. The only plausible explanation is that the conflict must have been initiated by the arrival of an aggressive, Law-free Christian mission that threatened to poach both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles from the Roman synagogues and, more particularly, from the Law-observant, Christian-Jewish communities affiliated with those synagogues.
We know that the first conflicts over the Law occurred in Jerusalem prior to Paul's conversion in 36 CE. The combatants in that case were the Hebrews and the Hellenists, whose clash was further played out on the public stage with a dispute between Stephen and his Hellenist supporters on the one hand, and other Greek-speaking Jews on the other. As result of these disputes, Stephen was martyred, the Hellenists were dispersed, and a new, independent, Law-free form of Christianity was established in Samaria, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Syrian Antioch (Acts 8:1, 4-13, 26-40; 11:19-26).
We are told by Luke that many of the Hellenists belonged to the 'Synagogue of the Freedmen', a term which must be understood as referring to Jews who had been emancipated and who could probably trace their ancestry back to Pompey's Jewish captives who were brought to Rome. On this point, it is probably significant that at least 14 of the 24 people greeted in Romans 16 bear names that were common amongst families with a servile heritage (Lampe, 2003: 141-153). This suggests that some of the Hellenists may have been Roman Jews who had immigrated to Jerusalem. It does not, therefore, stretch the bounds of logic to imagine that those persecuted Hellenists who were formally from Rome would have made their way back home in the late 30s and early 40s, carrying with them their new-found, Law-free, Christian convictions.
Furthermore, the author of Acts (13:1-14:27), commonly identified as the Evangelist Luke, tells us that during the mid-forties those Hellenists who established the Antiochene congregation embarked on an aggressive missionary program to promote the Law-free mission to Gentile communities far beyond the city of Antioch. Luke tells us of only one such mission, that undertaken by Barnabas and Paul to Cyprus and Asia Minor. But there is no reason to doubt that the Antiochene community would have sanctioned other missions to other destinations. One of these missionary delegations could certainly have been sent to Rome, since there may have been a pre-existing relationship between the Hellenists at Antioch and other former members of Jerusalem's 'Synagogue of the Freedmen' (Hengel, 1979: 107-108).
The Founders of the Church in Rome…
If we are right in assuming that it was a missionary delegation from the Hellenists who first established the Church in Rome, this presents us with an interesting possibility. The founders of the Roman community were dissidents! Just as they found their way to Syrian Antioch in the aftermath of the persecution that followed Stephen's martyrdom (Acts 11:19-26), they probably arrived very early on in the Roman synagogues where their preaching of a Law-Free Messianic Judaism led to very public divisions, which forced the Roman civil authorities to expel the ringleaders (cf. Acts 18:2-3).
Long before all of this, the Hellenist troublemakers' peculiar take on the Jesus story led to a schism in the Jerusalem church, as they dissented from the authority of Peter and the Twelve and their Law-observant faction (Acts 6:1-8:4). We have no firm data to determine precisely what factors led the Hellenists to eschew their previous attachment to the Law observance and Temple worship (Elmer, 2006b). We can certainly surmise that, given that the Hellenists could function linguistically only in Greek, the Hebrew-language services of the Temple would have made it extremely difficult for the Greek-speaking Hellenists to participate either fully or enthusiastically in the national cult. Similar linguistic and social differences probably also led to the isolation of the Hellenists from the Aramaic-language ceremonies celebrated by the original Palestinian-Jewish converts to the Jesus movement.
As Diasporan Jews they would have been accustomed to different Scriptures (the Greek Septuagint as opposed to the Aramaic Targum) and differing exegetical traditions; and they belonged to a different synagogue association. The advent of two distinct liturgical groupings within the Jerusalem church, each with its own language, its own Scriptures, its own worship services, its own leadership group, and its own missionary fields must have led inevitably to a serious rift between the two. But this still doesn't fully explain the schism that would ultimately lead to the Law-free mission to the Gentiles. We simply don't know — except of course to credit it all the divine inspiration.
There is here a salutary lesson for us, caught up in the occasional stoush with self-styled 'magisterial Catholics' who hang on to legalistic interpretations of the faith, which owe more to past understandings of faith practice than present realities. The brawl between the legalistic Hebrews and the antinomian Hellenists is echoed afresh today. It is interesting to note that the antinomian Hellenists were the ones whose primary understanding of the faith was missionary and evangelistic, while legalists remained inward looking and completely uninterested in mission or outreach (outside the narrow cultural and ethnic parameters).
Empowered by this passion for mission and armed with an exciting new form of Jewish faith-practice that eschewed strict Law-observance and adherence to the Temple cult, the Hellenists embarked on an aggressive missionary endeavour that eventually brought them to the Imperial capital.
I have to admit that this seldom-noticed group have always intrigued me. They rate only a few chapters in the Acts of the Apostles (6-8, 11), yet their break with the Christian-Jewish apostolic community had such far-reaching consequences. Ernst Haenchen (1971) in his commentary on Acts refers to the split between the Hebrews and the Hellenists as 'the first confessional schism in Church history'. As a result we have two competing communities: one, Aramaic-speaking and led by the Twelve; the other, Greek-speaking and led by the Seven. The Twelve focused on the Law-observant Jewish mission and the Seven later initiated the Law-free Gentile mission.
An interesting echo of this split may be found in Mark's Gospel (also a product of Rome) where we have two feeding stories: one, on Jewish territory with twelve baskets of leftovers (Mk 6:34-44); the other, on Gentile territory with seven baskets of leftovers (Mk 8:1-10). But what led to the original split between the Hebrews and the Hellenists?
Acts 6:1-6 suggests a brawl over financial mismanagement that led to the widows in the community of the Hellenists being overlooked in "the daily distribution". But the story of Stephen, accused of blasphemy (against the Temple) and apostasy (from the Law) suggests that theological differences may have played an even more significant part in the rift.
The feminist scholar, Elisabeth Schusler Fiorenza, has even suggested that the phrase 'daily distribution' should be interpreted as a reference to the Eucharist and, thus, the Apostles were 'overlooking' the Hellenist widows leadership at the Eucharistic gatherings of the Hellenists. In this case, the rift was caused by the Hellenists' more equalitarian form of ecclesiastic leadership; but, as we have noted above, other social, cultural and demographic factors probably also played a role.
All of these were divisive pressures that must have made not just the distribution of charity amongst the two groups, but also basic social commerce between the Hellenists and Hebrews, extremely difficult. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine why the Hellenist widows were initially overlooked, nor how it came about that from within the Hellenist community natural leaders emerged to assume de facto the pastoral and missionary functions that the apostles performed (in effect only) for the Hebrews.
I wonder how often supposed splits in the Church turn on matters as simple as social and cultural differences, rather than serious theological ones? Or to what extent do social and cultural differences lead to theological disagreements?
And, Even More Radically...
One further, and perhaps more radical, question occurs to me as I reflect this weekend on the Hellenist founders of the Roman community. Does God really need or care about our religious devotions? Is God responsible for inspiring a particular religious practice?
It is interesting to note, and I have alluded to this earlier (Elmer, 2006c), that both Paul and the Apostles (especially Peter and Jesus' brother James) claimed to have had Christophanies. Paul's experience (according to him anyway) led him to 'convert' to the Hellenists' Law-free mission, while the experience of Peter and James led them to remain Law-observant Jews and even oppose the Law-free mission. Acts (11:21; 13:1-3; cf. Gal 2:2) suggests that the Hellenists had similar numinous experiences that led them to believe that the Jewish Law was no longer relevant and that Gentiles could be admitted to movement without being circumcised or adopting a strictly Law-observant lifestyle. So who was right: Paul and the Hellenists or Peter, James and the Twelve?
Perhaps numinous experiences do not impart actual messages. Does God speak directly to the recipient of such an experience, or does the recipient "interpret" the experience according to his or her own presuppositions and assumption? Paul was persecuting the Hellenists, so his experience led him to believe that God wanted him to change his ways and convert to their movement. Peter and James knew Jesus to be Law-observant so they interpreted their Christophanies as confirmation of what they were already doing.
So I throw open the lines for discussion. What do we all think? Is 'revelation' a matter of direct communication, or do our presuppositions and assumptions play a role in the interpretation of our experience of God? If the latter, then how does God influence us? Must we then assume that all of our life experiences are part-and-parcel of God's communication, not just those 'high' moments? On this understanding the Hellenists turned to the Gentiles, with whom they already shared much in common, because their previous experiences as Diaspora Jews living as part of a minority group within the much greater majority pagan society. And, it was to this group of dissidents that we probably owe the foundation of the community in Rome, which would eventually attain leadership of the Catholic Church — how intriguing?!
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2007 Ian Elmer