Status-Quo in the First Century Church vs Today

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When greeting visitors in church, do you start by explaining what pews are, what they are expected to do when someone upfront is praying or why we sing songs.  Why not?  Because it is presumed and uncontroversial.  People in our culture “know”.  What was status quo in the first century was different than today; there was no need to explicitly address Jewish practice in the writing of the New Testament because the vast majority of believers were Jews and Jewish practice was understood and uncontroversial.

Jewish practice needed no elaboration by the writers of the New Testament because it was understood by all at the time.  The Church was a Jewish movement, led by Jews and made up of Jews. It is only later, long after the death of the (Jewish) Apostles, when the Church had become led and populated by Gentiles that practices of the first century were presumed to be as they understood them and with no identifiable Jews remaining, these presumptions became ‘understood’ and likewise uncontroversial. The problem was, the assumptions that were made bore little resemblance to the Jewish practices of the early Church.  What was ‘status quo‘ when the Apostles were alive had changed.

Jews knew what they and others did in synagogue, so when Luke wrote in Chapter 4 that Jesus went to the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth and read the Isaiah scroll that was handed to Him (Luke 4:16-30), they would have known that He was the reader of the Haphtorah portion for that week. They also would have understood that what He said after reading the Isaiah scroll was the derashah (short sermon) that He was able to give because He was the Haphtarah portion reader. There was no need on the part of the Gospel writers to explain this as it was common knowledge.

What Gentiles now refer to as the “Early Church” was viewed at the time both internally and by Rome to be a sect of Judaism, not a separate religion called “Christianity”.  There were Jews that believed (e.g. John 8:31) and Jews (implication, those that did not believe) and later Gentiles that came to believe. The concept of a predominantly Gentile Church with no understanding of Jewish practices that were implicitly understood could not even be conceived of by the writers.

What Jesus did that Sabbath in the synagogue in Nazareth was common place, ordinary, unremarkable. Of course what He said was anything but unremarkable, but in the record of the events themselves, it was unnecessary for the New Testament writers to elaborate on Jewish practice; it was understood, presumed and needed no explanation.  Jesus going to the synagogue (Matt. 4:23), teaching in them (Matt. 13:54), healing in them (Luke 4:33-35; Mark 3:1-5) and debating the interpretation of Torah in them (John 6:28-59) likewise needed no explanation — as Jesus was in synagogue on the Sabbath “as was His custom” (Luke 4:16) and Jews knew what other Jews did in synagogue.

Such is also the case with other Jewish practice including the celebration of the Sabbath or pilgrim festivals or other holidays, circumcision and Jewish Dietary Laws. Jews understood what was meant by the Scriptures saying that Paul was circumcised the eight day (Phil 3:5) or that Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3); an explanation of practice was unnecessary.  Likewise, it was unnecessary to explain in the New Testament why Jesus was at the Temple for the Passover (John 2:13-22, John 5) or for Succoth / Feast of Tabernacles /Booths (John 7) because every Jew knew these were two of the three yearly pilgrim festivals in which Jews were required go to the Temple. First century Jews needed no explanation as to why Jesus was at the Temple for the Festival of Chanukah / Feast of Dedication (John 10) and also with his disciples (Matt 20:17-19; Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34) as His Jewish practices were presumed and unremarkable.

What was not presumed and not unremarkable was Gentiles coming into the ekklesia (the Church). This was a huge deal!  It was such a big deal, that the Jerusalem Counsel had to meet (Acts 15) to determine what they [as Jews] should reasonably expect Gentiles to do and not do.  The decision was made that Gentiles did not need to become proselytes to Judaism; they did not need be circumcised, did not need to observe the Sabbath or other festivals or to keep the Jewish dietary laws.

The decision of the Jerusalem Counsel was that Gentiles (also called foreigners) were to continue to follow the same protocol set in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 17 & 18); that is “(1) abstain from things polluted by idols (Leviticus 17:7-8), (2) from sexual immorality (Leviticus 18:1-26), (3) from eating anything that has been strangled (Leviticus 17:15) and (4) from blood” (Leviticus 17:10,12).

The New Testament is explicit when it comes to what Gentiles were expected to do because this was something out of the ordinary.  Jewish practice by Jews isn’t remarkable and needed no explanation.  Jesus and the Apostles continued to do what the Law of Moses set out for Jews to do.  As elaborated on in an earlier article, Jesus upheld what God had revealed in the Law because to do otherwise would have caused the people to stray from the way God had already spoken and would have warranted the Jews rightfully putting Him to death. Jesus said in the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t assume that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17) and then goes on to exhort the Jews that had followed him there from all over the region not to set aside the commands of God but to practice and teach them.

In the previous article, we elaborated that what the Pharisees expected Jesus and His disciples to do and what they actually did were often at odds. The Pharisees interpretation of the Law of Moses was held by them to be  equal in authority to the “Written Law” of Moses and we believe it is this that Jesus was referring to when He quoted the prophet Isaiah and said that the Pharisees and scribes were “teaching as doctrines the commands of men” (Matt 15:9).  Jesus and His disciples got into all kinds of trouble for breaking the Pharisees interpretation of the Law, rather than the written Law of Moses. It is important to note that the Scribes and Pharisees were said to “sit on Moses’ seat” (Matt 23:3a); which meant they had the authority to interpret the Law of Moses.  From what Jesus said in this section of Matthew, He held them responsible for how they used this authority. Jesus said that they teach commandments of men which make void the commandments of God (Matt 15:6) and that their teachings are plants which will be uprooted (Matt 15:13) as they were not planted by God (13:37-39). We do not feel that Jesus was making a wholesale denunciation of everything the Pharisees taught, but it was the Pharisees emphasis on doing things that made the outer man look good, while leaving the inner man untouched (Matt 23:25-28) that seemed to be at the heart of Jesus’ strong words. They focused on the omission of tiniest detail of observance while it seemed, failing to teach the essence of the command that  had Jesus describe them as straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:24).  Since the Pharisees sat on the “seat of Moses” and were responsible to interpret the Law and how it should be lived out, the charge by Jesus that “they didn’t know the Scriptures” (Matt 22:29) seems to underscore their focus on finding the tiniest of infractions while neglecting the weightier matters of the Torah (Matt 23:23).

Getting back to where we started in this article, Jewish practice needed no elaboration by the writers of the New Testament because it was understood by all at the time but after the death of the (Jewish) Apostles, when the Church had become led and populated by Gentiles that practices of the first century were presumed to be as they understood them and with no identifiable Jews remaining, these presumptions became ‘understood’ and likewise uncontroversial. The problem was, the assumptions that were made bore little resemblance to the Jewish practices of the early Church.  What was ‘status quo‘ when the Apostles were alive had changed.  One example discussed at length previously, was how the Jerusalem and Antioch church (including the Church Father Polycarp) continued to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus in association with the Jewish festival of Passover for the first 200 years and while there was much dialogue between the church at Rome and the church at Jerusalem and Antioch, ruling came down from Rome that the Church was to no longer commemorate His death on the 14 of Nisan, in association with the Jewish Passover, but that it must now occur on the first Sunday after Passover on a holiday they named Easter.

[for more on this, with extensive references, please refer to http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/early-church-including-polycarp-continued-to-celebrate-passover/]

From the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE until the present day, what has been presumed and been viewed as uncontroversial is that the Church has always celebrated Easter on a Sunday, but that was not the case. What is status quo wasn’t always so.