James Patrick’s Blog

March 22, 2010

Primary Doctrinal Issues of the First Three Decades (Winds of Doctrine #4)

False teachings had been making the rounds in the Christian churches in the early- to mid-60’s AD, but these were of a different sort from those in earlier decades.  When Paul wrote to the south Galatian churches (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe) around AD48, the primary heresy he had to address was the insistence of Jewish followers of Jesus that Gentiles turning to the Messiah had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law (Gal 6:12‑15).  Just weeks or months after dashing off this epistle to the Galatians, the Council of Jerusalem agreed with Paul that Gentiles did not need to become Jewish to follow the Jewish Messiah (Acts 15).  Once the Council’s official letter began to be circulated, the door was now wide open to Gentile conversion.  [See my post on Galatians and Acts for a defence of this scenario.]

Only a year later, however, in AD49, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome over disputes about the Messiah (evidently the gospel had arrived!), which eventually resulted in the next big doctrinal issue Paul had to address – the place of Israel.  Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish couple from Rome who chose to settle in Corinth, may have already been believers when they met Paul there on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-4).  When Paul left Corinth after eighteen months, around AD51, they went with him as far as Ephesus.  Although Paul continued on to Antioch, they chose to settle in the Jewish community in Ephesus, and were thus ready to teach Apollos when he arrived there soon afterwards (Acts 18:18‑28).  At the start of Paul’s third missionary journey he spent two years teaching in Ephesus (Acts 19), and during this time, around AD54, he wrote to the church in Corinth, mentioning Aquila and Prisca’s house church to them (1Cor 16:19).  Resurrection was clearly a problem subject for several churches planted during the second missionary journey (e.g. Thessalonica – 1Thes 4:13–5:11; 2Thes 2:1‑15; Corinth ­– 1Cor 15), but this doesn’t seem to have been due to ‘winds of false teaching’ so much as localised misunderstandings.

Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians from Macedonia about a year after his first letter (see 1Cor 16:8‑9; 2Cor 1:8‑11, 15‑23; 2:12‑14; 7:5‑7; 8:1‑6; 9:1‑5), but by this stage Priscilla and Aquila had probably already returned to Rome from Ephesus; Jews were now being allowed back, and when Paul wrote his letter to Rome from Corinth just a few months after writing 2 Corinthians, his friends were already leading another house church there.  Naturally, Jewish believers returning to Rome would expect to pick up where they had left off, as qualified teachers of the Jewish scriptures in the believing congregations.  However, the Gentiles were now confident in their access to grace by faith without any need for the detailed cultural regulations of the Jewish Law, and looked down on Jewish believers for their ‘weak faith’ that prevented them eating meat from the markets.  When Paul arrived in Corinth as planned around AD57 (Acts 20:2‑3), he heard news of the Jewish / Gentile divisions in Rome, perhaps in a letter from Priscilla and Aquila (Rom 16:3‑5).  Although he had often wanted to travel to Rome, he could not travel there himself quite yet, because he had a responsibility first to deliver the financial Collection from the Gentile churches to the church in Jerusalem (Rom 15:22‑32; Acts 20:4, 16).  Instead, he decided to write an extended letter to the Roman church, setting out clearly why neither Jew nor Gentile could claim moral superiority, even though the gospel was still ‘to the Jew first’ and Israel still had a crucial place in God’s future purposes [see my two posts on Romans 1-8 and 9-11].  Because of the five years of Jewish absence, Rome had been ahead of its time in having to deal with issues raised by being a ‘Gentile majority’ church, even though it had been less than ten years since Paul had addressed the ‘Jewish majority’ issues of the Galatian churches.

The 30’s had dealt with the question of ‘Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?’, the 40’s resolved the problem of ‘Do Gentiles need to become Jewish to be saved?’, the 50’s asked the question, ‘What value is there in being Jewish at all?’, but the 60’s would return to questions of Jesus’ identity and nature.  By this stage, the Jewish churches were less in touch with those who had known Jesus personally, who by now were taking the gospel to distant corners of the world, and Christian thinkers were beginning to engage more with the Jewish apocalyptic philosophy and revolutionary ideology prominent in the final decade before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, to which we turn in the next post.

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