Sunday, 31 July 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 21

The cave church of St. Peter in Antakya (Antioch)

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.

Peter At Antioch
by G.R. Balleine

WHEN Peter reached Jerusalem, he found the Church disturbed by news from Antioch. During Peter's absence Paull had become a problem. When we saw him harrying the Church, we could not have guessed that his Jewish creed was failing to satisfy him. Yet such was the case. The Mosaic Law had been to him the very essence of religion. But, the more he tried, the more impossible it seemed to keep it. It set an ideal, but gave no power to reach it. Nay, by some queer kink of human nature, it provoked disobedience. The fact that a thing was forbidden seemed to make it attractive. No one ever gave the Law a fairer trial than Paul. He outstripped his fellow-students in `zeal for the traditions of the Fathers'. But the result was frustration.

Stephen had made him face a new conception of religion. After a miserable time of `kicking against the pricks', repressing the hateful thought that his creed would not work, a vision of Jesus convinced him that the Nazarenes were right, and he fled to Arabia to think out a new creed. As we have seen, after three years he reappeared in Jerusalem. Barnabas had persuaded Peter to receive him, and he met James. For a fortnight they talked; but their convictions were poles apart. Peter was still a loyal `son of the Law'. It was a relief when Paul went home to Tarsus.

Peter then lost sight of him for twelve years; but Barnabas did not. When he found himself in Antioch, the capital of Syria, where a Church was growing up, he summoned Paul to help him. Like many Jews Saul of Tarsus had two names, Saoul, and a Greek name, Paulos.

Later they went on a missionary tour through South Galatia; and here, when the Jews howled him down, Paul said, `If you feel unworthy of eternal life, we will turn to the Gentiles.' In four Galatian towns they founded Churches, composed largely of Gentiles, to whom Paul said nothing about circumcision or the Jewish Law. And, when they returned to Antioch, the Church there approved their action.

This was the problem that awaited Peter on his return from Rome. Circumcised Gentiles had from the first been received into the Church. One of the Seven `Deacons' had been a proselyte. The case of Cornelius had opened the door wider to uncircumcised, but Godfearing, Gentiles. But a mission to pagan Gentiles, and one that ignored the Law-this was a different matter!

To every Jew the Law was God's Law, something it was sin to disobey. And could anything be clearer than, `This is My Covenant, which you are to keep between Me and you; every male child must be circumcised.'

In his own heart Paul had renounced the Law. Faith was the secret of victory. He taught the Galatians: `Neither circumcision nor lack of it is of any importance. The thing that matters is a faith that finds expression in love.' He formed a theory that the Law deliberately set up unattainable ideals to make men feel their need of a Saviour. But he could hardly expect old-fashioned Jews to agree with him.

Visitors from Jerusalem came to Antioch; `false brethren', Paul calls them, `sneaking in to spy out our freedom'. They bluntly threw down the gauntlet, `Unless you are circumcised, you cannot be saved'; and `no small dissension' arose. To Paul this was heart-breaking. If the Mother Church was going to send censors to contradict his teaching, then he had `run in vain'. So he went to Jerusalem to thrash the matter out.'

James, the Lord's brother, a staunch Conservative, now led the Church there, and under him the Church had grown more strict in its Hebraism. This was partly due to Paul, for by scattering Stephen's group, he had left the Conservatives in control; and respect for James had drawn into the Church many whose piety, like his own, was based on the Mosaic books.

We read now of `Pharisees who believed' and of `thousands of Jews who believe and are all zealous for the Law'. Their position seemed unassailable. Had not Jesus said, `Till heaven and earth pass away, not a jot or comma shall pass from the Law, till its purpose is fulfilled?'

Peter's return to Jerusalem at this moment seemed providential, before Paul the Radical and James the Reactionary met face to face. Paul's critics arrived first, reporting that he was bringing with him, not only Barnabas, whom the Church respected, but an uncircumcised convert named Titus, to show how good a Christian a young pagan could become. This brought matters to a head. It was one thing to hear of uncircumcised Christians in distant cities. It was quite another to welcome one to the Jerusalem Love-Feast.

As in most Conferences, the vital decisions were made in committee. When Paul and Barnabas arrived, Peter and James and John met them, and talked matters over in private. `I laid before them,' wrote Paul, `the Gospel I preach to the Gentiles.' To the Three much of his teaching must have seemed question-able; but the wonder of the many conversions impressed them. If God was blessing this strange teaching, how could they condemn it? `They recognized,' said Paul, `that my Gospel was for the Gentiles and Peter's for the Jews, and that both had been given us by God.'

Then came the problem of Titus. Round him there was evidently a tussle. Months later Paul could not write about it calmly. The Three, who knew the feeling in Jerusalem, urged that he should be circumcised, if only for the sake of peace. `Not for an instant,' wrote Paul, `did I yield as an act of submission';

`Titus was not compelled to be circumcised.' These words have been interpreted in opposite ways. Did Paul refuse to budge an inch? Or was the stress on the word `compelled'? Titus became well known later. Paul left him in charge of Crete. If it was common knowledge that he had been circumcised (perhaps he had volunteered), Paul meant that this was not done under compulsion, but as a gracious concession. This view seems gaining ground.'

James called a Church meeting. At first there was `much disputing'. Many renewed the demand, `Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep the whole Law.' But Peter acted as moderator, reminding them that this point had been settled in the case of Cornelius. His speech gained a hearing, first for Barnabas, then for Paul, as they described `what wonders God had worked among the Gentiles'. Finally James summed up: `If God has chosen to take out of the Gentiles a People to be called by His Name, we may be surprised, but we dare not resist. We must not put obstacles in the way of men who are turning to God.' Paul had won.'

He and Barnabas returned to Antioch, and before long Peter followed, for the controversy had roused his interest in these Gentile Churches. At Antioch he saw for the first time Greeks, Syrians, and Jews united in one Church. Every Sunday they met for a Love-Feast, and Peter at first joined in these without scruple. But fresh critics arrived from Jerusalem. They were shocked to find Jewish Christians breaking the diet laws.

The Jerusalem Conference had freed Gentiles from the Jewish laws, but certainly not Jewish Christians. Peter began to feel uneasy about these common meals. Everyone brought something to the supper; so a Jew might be eating meat bought from a Gentile butcher. Peter chose a table, where he was sure of kosher food, and Barnabas and the other Jewish Christians did the same. Paul was furious. He saw the Church being split in two before his eyes. Luke with his usual tact does not mention this dispute, but Paul's Epistle to the Galatians shows how fierce it was. He publicly rebuked Peter: `I withstood him to his face.' `I said, so that all could hear, You, a born Jew, have been living as a Gentile. Are you now trying to make Gentiles live as Jews?'

How did it end? Commentators generally assume that Peter saw his mistake; but this seems doubtful. If Peter had owned himself wrong, Paul could hardly have failed to mention such a triumph. But he left Antioch, which had been his headquarters for several years, and never returned, except for one passing visit. Peter was left in control.

Tradition says that he remained there seven years. As soon as Christians began to take an interest in Church History, Peter was regarded as first Bishop of Antioch. Origen calls Ignatius `the second Bishop of Antioch after Peter'. Jerome, who was ordained there, says, `Having been Bishop in Antioch, Peter passed on to Rome.' Even Rome claimed no monopoly in him. It acknowledged the Antioch episcopate, and kept, and still keeps 22 February as the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter at Antioch.

Antioch was the third city in the Empire, surpassed in size and influence only by Alexandria and Rome. We have no details of Peter's work there; but if, as many scholars believe, `Matthew' was the Antioch Gospel,' certain things can be inferred. Clearly he must have left there most majestic memories. This is the Gospel, the only Gospel, that mentions the tremendous assertion, that he was the rock, on which the Church was built, the head of the household, to whom were entrusted the keys of office, the Viceroy, whose decrees would always be ratified in Heaven.

It is very doubtful whether these words were ever spoken by Jesus; but they show how deep an impression Peter left at Antioch. No ordinary leader leaves traditions like this behind him. The first test for his statesmanship was the problem Paul had left. Could Jew and Gentile unite in one Church? Peter had no misgivings about the admission of Gentiles. The case of Cornelius was conclusive. Even `Matthew' includes the command, `Make disciples of all nations.' But he hesitated about ignoring the scriptural plan of campaign. When the Old Testament thought of a converted world, Jews were always the converters. `They shall declare My glory among the Gentiles.' They were the missionary race, trained in the truth and scattered among the nations, to win the world for God.

Paul was making this impossible. He was putting the Jews' backs up, and forming a Church without them. Yet the older plan might prove more fruitful. If enough Jews were converted first, the world might be won more quickly. Jews generally succeed. `You and I,' said Disraeli to a young Jew, `belong to a race that can do everything but fail.' Epstein and Einstein, Strauss and Spinoza, Marx and Disraeli, Rothschild and Heine, show what success Jews win in almost every sphere. And they have a genius for religion. Paul proved that; and in recent years Booth's Salvation Army and Barnardo's orphanages show what can be done by Christians with Hebrew blood in their veins.

Moreover Jews are everywhere. The Bombay Jews are as Indian as their Hindu neighbours. Every negro accepts the Abyssinian Jews as fellow-Africans. For a thousand years there have been Jews in China, whom no Chinaman regards as foreigners. And this is no recent dispersion. Josephus boasted, `Jews form part of every nation on earth.' This point seems worth emphasizing, because it explains the line Peter took - 'We must not alienate the Jew.' He regarded himself as primarily a missionary to his own nation. And `Matthew' reflects this attitude. It alone reports Christ's saying, `I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel', and His order to the Twelve, `Go not along Gentile roads, but to the lost sheep of Israel', and His declaration of the permanence of the Mosaic Law, `Whoever relaxes the least of these commands will be reckoned the least in the Kingdom.'

On the question of table-fellowship Peter realized as clearly as Paul the importance of Church unity; but he secured it in a different way. To this period probably belong the Decrees, which Luke mistakenly attributed to the Jerusalem Conference.' These read like Rules made by Peter for Antioch Love-Feasts. If Gentile Christians would refrain from bringing to the table four kinds of food forbidden to their Jewish brethren-meat from idol-sacrifices, pork, strangled birds, and flesh containing blood-all obstacles to their eating together would vanish.

Two queer stories in `Matthew' may fit in here. One problem that confronted Peter was the half-shekel a member which each synagogue paid to the Temple.2 Should the Christian synagogue pay it? The collectors came to him, and he promised to pay. Then he wondered whether he had done right. That night he saw Christ in a vision, Who said: `Kings do not tax their sons. So as God's children you could go free. But, to avoid giving offence, it will be best to pay.' So far all is clear. But visions seldom are. They fade into the fantastic. This one became tinged with memories of an old folk-tales `Catch a fish,' the Vision said, `and you will find the coin in its mouth.' In the vision Peter did not see himself actually catching the fish; but he accepted the message, `Christian Jews had better pay'.

Another of `Matthew's strange stories may also be an Antioch vision. Peter seemed back on the Lake of Galilee. A storm was raging, and Jesus appeared. Peter sprang overboard to meet Him. While he kept his eyes on Jesus, he was safe. When he looked at the waves, he began to sink. Generations of preachers have used this story as a parable of faith. `Look at your difficulties, and you fail. Look to Christ, and you succeed.' This was probably its original meaning. Some sudden storm shook the Church in Antioch. Peter's faith almost failed. But the thought of Jesus clasping his hand brought him through safely.

Peter, however, did not spend the rest of his life in Antioch. The Liber Pontificalier makes him stay there seven years; and this may be correct. Claudius' Edict sent him back to Jerusalem in 49. The Conference and Peter's visit to Antioch followed that same year. Seven years later in his Letter to Corinth Paul mentioned that Peter and his wife were travelling as missionaries. Many Jewries had not heard his message. He must move on.

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