Sunday, 15 May 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 16

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

The Left Wing Forces The Pace
by G.R. Balleine

PETER now had to face a crisis. Enthusiasts will not long submit to cautious leadership. New men came to the front, who belonged to the broader Judaism that had grown up in foreign cities. There were two types of Jew at this time, Hebrews and Hellenists.

Hebrews were Palestinians, who spoke Aramaic. Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews, who had lived in Gentile cities. Hebrews were largely conservative; but Hellenists were more accessible to new ideas. There were men of both types in the Church.

On one side were the original disciples, led by the Twelve and the family of Jesus, regular Temple-worshippers and strict observers of the Law. On the other, some of the Hellenist converts, progressive, scorning moderation.

The crisis took time to develop. Luke leaves long gaps in his story; and we have now reached a date at least four years after Pentecost.'

[In 2 Cor xi. 32 Paul says that Aretas ruled Damascus, when he escaped. Aretas could not have received the city before A.D. 37. In Gal. i. 18 A Paul says that his escape was three years after his conversion. So this could not have happened before 34. And Pentecost was probably in 30. So, since the martyrdom of Stephen and the scattering of the disciples was soon followed by his conversion, the earliest date for the point we have reached is 34.]

One of the new group was Stephen, a young Jew from abroad, possibly from Alexandria, where a school of liberal Judaism had sprung up, which Jerusalem viewed with suspicion. He may have been a theological student, sent to Jerusalem to be trained as a Rabbi. But he found his way to the Nazarene Synagogue and became a disciple. Three phrases reveal the impression that he left. He was `full of faith and the Holy Spirit', `full of grace and power', and at moments of stress his face looked `like the face of an Angel'. With him was another young Hellenist, Philip (who must not be confused with Philip the Apostle).

Luke now leaves documents A and B, and relies on one describing the Acts of Stephen, and another the Acts of Philip.

These young men began to create difficulties for Peter. We first hear of them when trouble arose over the poor relief. Jewish synagogues all provided alms for their poorer members. The kuppah or basket was sent round every Friday to collect rations for those in need. The Nazarenes evidently did the same, though in their case the food was paid for out of the common purse.

Complaints arose that Hellenist widows were being overlooked, which was possibly true, for the Hebrew women would be better known to the Apostles. Peter met the complaint quite frankly. He confessed that the Twelve were too busy to attend to food-distribution, and suggested that seven men should be chosen specially for this work. Stephen and Philip were two of the Seven, and all were commissioned by the laying on of the Apostles' hands.

But Stephen was too energetic to confine himself to almoner's work. He adopted a new and highly provocative form of propaganda. He began to proclaim his faith in the other Jerusalem synagogues. Here we may draw a parallel from the early Quakers.

They often felt called to testify in the Parish Churches; and this not unnaturally sometimes led to violence. `At Atherstone,'wrote Fox, `I went to the steeple-house' (his contemptuous name for a church), `and found a man preaching; when he had done, I spake the truth, and set them in a rage.' `I moved on to Bosworth, and spake to the priest and people in the steeple-house, and the people fell on us and stoned us a great way out of the town.'

In somewhat the same way Stephen testified in the synagogues.

Alexandrians, Cyrenians, Cilicians, and Asians formed four of the world's largest Jewries, and the Libertines, Jews who had been sold into slavery and had regained their freedom, numbered several thousand. These five groups had their own synagogues in Jerusalem, as French, Norwegians, and Dutch have their churches in London. Their synagogues were now disturbed by Stephen's visits; and in one, the synagogue of the Cilicians, he met an extremist as hot-blooded as himself.

Saul, a Pharisee from Tarsus in Cilicia, was a student in the school of Gamaliel. To him the thought of a crucified Messiah seemed sheer blasphemy. With fierce indignation he argued with Stephen, and, when two of his kinsmen joined the Nazarenes, he felt personally disgraced, and swore to stamp out this heresy.

Other synagogues too were scenes of angry controversy. Men `sprang to their feet disputing with Stephen'; but, to the friendly chronicler at any rate, it seemed that `they could not withstand the wisdom and the spirit with which he spoke'.

Stephen's was more than a new method. His was a new message. He was accused of attacking the Temple and the Law: `We heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this Holy Place, and change the customs which Moses gave us.' Luke admits that this is true. The speech that he puts on Stephen's lips may be Luke's own composition; but it is so unlike other speeches in Acts, that it seems based on definite information, which possibly came from Paul, who was present at Stephen's trial.

He makes Stephen plead that history shows that God has no need of a Temple. He spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia. He was with Joseph in Egypt. He appeared to Moses at Sinai. Even Solomon, the Temple's founder, acknowledged, `The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.' Such views would horrify Jerusalem, where the Temple was the people's pride, the magnet that drew pilgrims to the city, and so the main source of its prosperity. To slight the Temple was to touch Jerusalem on the raw. No wonder, when Stephen spoke, eyes flashed, fists were clenched, voices shouted furiously.

With all this Peter must have profoundly disagreed. A devout Temple-goer, Stephen's radicalism would have displeased him deeply. Luke, however, sympathized with Stephen. So for a time he lets the Apostles fade out of the picture. But they must have made their disapproval clear, for, when Stephen's followers were scattered, the Twelve were left undisturbed. Yet Stephen's thought, that Law and Temple had had their day, was going to haunt Peter. At first it seemed abominable. It took him years to adjust his mind to it. But his greatness lies in the fact that he did not utterly reject it, and gradually drew together the old teaching and the new, so that the main body of the Church did remain united.

Stephen's reckless courage, however, was bound to end in tragedy. One day the angry argument reached boiling-point. With a howl of rage his hearers surged over the synagogue benches. Someone shouted that the Law ordered blasphemers to be stoned. Stephen was rushed before the Sanhedrin. What began as a trial seems to have ended as a lynching. He was dragged outside the city gate and stoned, the first Christian martyr. And Saul stood watching with approval. He then decided to hunt down all Stephen's supporters.

Rome allowed the Jewish Church large powers of internal discipline. The Temple had its own prison; and scourging, the `forty stripes save one', was frequent in every synagogue. Now `with authority from the Chief Priests' Saul `made havoc of the Church, visiting house after house, and arresting men and women, and throwing them into prison'. `I imprisoned and beat Believers,' he said, `from one synagogue to another, being mad with fury against them.' Most Christians fled from Jerusalem, some to Antioch, some to Damascus. To Peter this must have been heart-rending. His four years' work seemed shattered. The Church in Jerusalem almost ceased to exist.

Philip found refuge in Samaria. The Samaritans were a mixed race, planted in Central Palestine, when the ten tribes were deported. They had adopted the religion of `the God of the land'. They worshipped Jehovah, kept the Mosaic Law, and in the course of time considered themselves Israelites. So they were deeply hurt when the Jews who returned from Babylon refused to allow them to help in rebuilding the Temple. They built a rival Temple of Jehovah on Mount Gerizim, and a surly, rancorous feud began between the Jews and themselves. Refugees from the wrath of the Sanhedrin could rely on finding asylum in Samaria.

Philip found more than a refuge. He found a field for work. Samaritans, like the Jews, were looking for the Messiah,' and when Philip announced that the Messiah had come, crowds flocked to listen. He preached the power of Jesus so fervently that healing miracles began, of the type still frequent at pilgrimage centres, the cure of lameness and paralysis and nervous disorders (then diagnosed as possession by demons).

Converts were made and Philip baptized many, `both men and women'. When Peter heard this, he was faced with a new problem. These young men were stirring up endless difficulties for their elders. Could the unity of the Church continue, if Samaritans were admitted?

Nazarenes worshipped in the Temple, which no Samaritan might enter. Would these new converts use the Gerizim Temple? Or would they, like Stephen, consider Temples obsolete?

The question was complicated by news that Philip had baptized a sorcerer. Wandering Magi were familiar figures in Roman civilization. Some were possibly honest dabblers in psychical research, able to produce, hypnotically perhaps, results that seemed miraculous. Many were rogues and impostors, peddling love-philtres and poisons. The majority probably, like Sludge the Medium, were half deceivers, half deceived.

Simon the Magus played so large a part in early Christian literature, that he must have been a more important person than we should gather from Acts. He established a sect which was still alive in the fourth century, and became a minor rival of early Christianity. The Samaritans thought him superhuman. `All gave heed to him from the greatest to the least.' But, when he watched Philip, and saw cripples throw away their crutches and demoniacs grow calm, he felt that here was a magic stronger than his own. He asked for baptism, and Philip probably felt proud of winning so unexpected a convert.

News of this brought Peter and John to Samaria. Peter had all an honest fisherman's scorn for mumbo-jumbo, and in addition a Jew's detestation of witchcraft. `There shall not be found with thee,' said the Law, `any sorcerer or necromancer, for whoso doeth these things is an abomination to the Lord.'

Philip's rashness must be curbed, or the Cause would be compromised. Two problems had to be solved on the spot: Could Samaritans be received as disciples? And could there be any concord between Christ and Magic? To both these questions Jerusalem would have given an emphatic No. But on the first point Peter was already wavering. He wanted his Master to have as many disciples as possible.

Ex-heathens, who had become Proselytes, had already been received into the Church. One of the Seven `Deacons' was `Nicolas, a Proselyte of Antioch'. So why should these circumcised, semi-Israelite Samaritans be refused?

The question was settled in an unlooked-for way. When he and John laid their hands on the heads of Philip's converts in blessing, `they received the Holy Spirit'. This probably means, `they began to speak in tongues', the only visible sign yet known that the Spirit had come. Peter's hesitation vanished. If God gave His Spirit, could Peter refuse the right hand of brotherhood?

Simon's own act settled the other problem. To him this was a new magic that he would like to add to his own repertory. He came to Peter as a brother-magician, and offered to buy the secret. `Sell me power to get this Holy Spirit, this queer gift of "speaking in tongues", for all on whom I lay my hands.' This enraged Peter. `To Hell' with you and your money! Repent of your baseness, and pray that your wicked thought may perhaps be forgiven.'

Simon was thunder-struck. To him the curse of a master-magician was a deadly danger. He began to whimper, `Pray for me, that no evil may happen to me.' And there Luke's story ends. The Apocryphal Acts, however, are full of wild and fantastic tales of later conflicts with Peter.

Luke never calls attention to differences between Church leaders. Philip may have resented Peter's treatment of his chief convert. At all events he left Samaria. But he had won an important victory. He and Stephen had saved Christianity from fossilizing into a purely Jewish Sect. They had forced their conservative leaders to recognize that the new wine was too explosive for the old bottles. And so fully did Peter and John accept the idea that Samaritans should be welcomed, that on their way back to Jerusalem `they preached in many villages of the Samaritans'.

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