1. The Canonical Books of the New Testament. - The twenty-seven books of the New Testament are better supported than any ancient classic, both by a chain of external testimonies which reaches up almost to the close of the apostolic age, and by the internal evidence of a spiritual depth and unction which raises them far above the best productions of the second century. The church has undoubtedly been guided by the Holy Spirit in the selection and final determination of the Christian canon. But this does, of course, not supersede the necessity of criticism, nor is the evidence equally strong in the case of the seven Eusebian Antilegomena. The T'fcbingen and Leyden schools recognized at first only five books of the New Testament as authentic, namely, four Epistles of Paul-Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians and the Revelation of John. But the progress of research leads more and more to positive results, and nearly all the Epistles of Paul now find advocates among liberal critics. (Hilgenfeld and Lipsius admit seven, adding First Thessalonians, Philippians, and Philemon; Renan concedes also Second Thessalonians, and Colossians to be Pauline, thus swelling the number of genuine Epistles to nine.) The chief facts and doctrines of apostolic Christianity are sufficiently guaranteed even by those five documents, which are admitted by the extreme left of modern criticism.
The Acts of the Apostles give us the external, the Epistles the internal history of primitive Christianity. They are independent contemporaneous compositions and never refer to each other; probably Luke never read the Epistles of Paul, and Paul never read the Acts of Luke, although he no doubt supplied much valuable information to Luke. But indirectly they illustrate and confirm each other by a number of coincidences which have great evidential value, all the more as these coincidences are undesigned and incidental. Had they been composed by post-apostolic writers, the agreement would have been more complete, minor disagreements would have been avoided, and the lacunae in the Acts supplied, especially in regard to the closing labors and death of Peter and Paul.
The Acts bear on the face all the marks of an original, fresh, and trustworthy narrative of contemporaneous events derived from the best Resources of information, and in great part from personal observation and experience. The authorship of Luke, the companion of Paul, is conceded by a majority of the best modern scholars, even by Ewald. And this fact alone establishes the credibility. Renan (in his St. Paul, ch. 1) admirably calls the Acts “a book of joy, of serene ardor. Since the Homeric poems no book has been seen full of such fresh sensations. A breeze of morning, an odor of the sea, if I dare express it so, inspiring something joyful and strong, penetrates the whole book, and makes it an excellent compagnon de voyage, the exquisite breviary for him who is searching for ancient remains on the seas of the south. This is the second idyl of Christianity. The Lake of Tiberias and its fishing barks had furnished the first. Now, a more powerful breeze, aspirations toward more distant lands, draw us out into the open sea.”
2. The Post-Apostolic and Patristic writings are full of reminiscences of, and references to, the apostolic books, and as dependent on them as the river is upon its fountain.
3. The Apocryphal and Heretical literature. The numerous Apocryphal Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses were prompted by the same motives of curiosity and dogmatic interest as the Apocryphal Gospels, and have a similar apologetic, though very little historical, value. The heretical character is, however, more strongly marked. They have not yet been sufficiently investigated. Lipsius (in Smith and Wace’s, “Dict. of Christ. Biog.” vol. I. p. 27) divides the Apocryphal Acts into four classes: (1) Ebionitic; (2) Gnostic; (3) originally Catholic; (4) Catholic adaptations or recensions of heretical documents. The last class is the most numerous, rarely older than the fifth century, but mostly resting on documents from the second and third centuries.
(a) Apocryphal Acts: Acta Petri et Pauli (of Ebionite origin, but recast), Acta Pauli et Theclae (mentioned by Tertullian at the end of the second century, of Gnostic origin), Acta Thomae (Gnostic), Acta Matthaei, Acta Thaddei, Martyrium Bartholomaei, Acta Barnabae, Acta Andreae, Acta Andreae et Mathiae, Acta Philippi, Acta Johannis, Acta Simonis et Judae, Acta Thaddaei, The Doctrine of Addai, the Apostle (ed. in Syriac and English by Dr. G. Phillips, London, 1876).
(b) Apocryphal Epistles: the correspondence between Paul and Seneca (six by Paul and eight by Seneca, mentioned by Jerome and Augustine), the third Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Epistolae Mariae, Epistolae Petri ad Jacobum.
(c) Apocryphal Apocalypses: Apocalypsis Johannis, Apocalypsis Petri, Apocalypsis Pauli (or 'e1̓'ed'e1'e2'e1'f4'e9'ea'ef̀'ed 'd0'e1'f5́'eb'ef'f5, based on the report of his rapture into Paradise, 2Co_12:2-4), Apocalypsis Thomae, Apoc. Stephani, Apoc. Mariae, Apoc. Mosis, Apoc. Esdrae.
Editions and Collections:
Fabricius: Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti. Hamburg, 1703, 2d ed. 1719, 1743, 3 parts in 2 vols. (vol. II.)
Grabe: Spicilegium Patrum et Haereticorum. Oxford, 1698, ed. II. 1714.
Birch: Auctarium Cod. Apoc. N. Ti Fabrician. Copenh. 1804 (Fasc. I.). Contains the pseudo-Apocalypse of John.
Thilo: Acta Apost. Petri et Pauli. Halis, 1838. Acta Thomae. Lips. 1823.
R. A. Lipsius: Die apokryph Apostel geschichten und Apostel legenden. Leipz. 1883 sq. 2 vols.
4. Jewish Sources: Philo and Josephus, see 'a7 14. Josephus is all-important for the history of the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem, a.d. 70, which marks the complete rapture of the Christian Church with the Jewish synagogue and temple. The apocryphal Jewish, and the Talmudic literature supplies information and illustrations of the training of the Apostles and the form of their teaching and the discipline and worship of the primitive church. Lightfoot, Sch'f6ttgen, Castelli, Delitzsch, W'fcnsche, Siegfried, Sch'fcrer, and a few others have made those Resources available for the exegete and historian. Comp. here also the Jewish works of Jost, Graetz, and Geiger, mentioned 'a7 9, p. 61, and Hamburger’s Real-Ecyclop'e4die des Judenthums (f'fcr Bibel und Talmud), in course of publication.
5. Heathen writers: Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Lucian, Celsus, Porphyry, Julian. They furnish only fragmentary, mostly incidental, distorted and hostile information, but of considerable apologetic value.
Comp. Nath. Lardner (d. 1768): Collection of Ancient Jewish and Heathen Testimonies to the Truth of the Christian Religion. Originally published in 4 vols. Lond. 1764-’67, and then in the several editions of his Works (vol. VI. 365-649, ed. Kippis).
II. Histories of the Apostolic Age
William Cave (Anglican, d. 1713): Lives of the Apostles, and the two Evangelists, St. Mark and St. Luke. Lond. 1675, new ed. revised by H. Cary, Oxford, 1840 (reprinted in New York, 1857). Comp. also Cave’s Primitive Christianity, 4th ed. Lond. 1862.
Joh. Fr. Buddeus (Luth., d. at Jena, 1729): Ecclesia Apostolica. Jen. 1729.
George Benson (d. 1763): History of the First Planting of the Christian Religion. Lond. 1756, 3 vols. 4to (in German by Bamberger, Halle, 1768).
J. J. Hess (d. at Zurich, 1828): Geschichte der Apostel Jesu. Z'fcr. 1788; 4th ed. 1820.
Gottl. Jac. Planck (d. in G'f6ttingen, 1833): Geschichte des Christenthums in der Periode seiner Einf'fchrung in die Welt durch Jesum und die Apostel. G'f6ttingen, 1818, 2 vols.
*Aug. Neander (d. in Berlin, 1850): Geschichte der Pflanzung und Leitung der Christlichen Kirche durch die Apostel. Hamb. 1832. 2 vols.; 4th ed. revised 1847. The same in English (History of the Planting and Training of the Christ. Church), by J. E. Ryland, Edinb. 1842, and in Bohn’s Standard Library, Lond. 1851; reprinted in Philad. 1844; revised by E. G. Robinson, N. York, 1865. This book marks an epoch and is still valuable.
F. C. Albert Schwegler (d. at T'fcbingen, 1857): Das nachapostolische Zeitalter in den Hauptmomenten seiner Entwicklung. T'fcbingen, 1845, 1846, 2 vols. An ultra-critical attempt to transpose the apostolic literature (with the exception of five books) into the post-apostolic age.
*Ferd. Christ. Baur (d. 1860): Das Christenthum und die christliche Kirche der drei ersten Jahrhunderte. T'fcbingen, 1853, 2d revised ed. 1860 (536 pp.). The third edition is a mere reprint or title edition of the second and forms the first volume of his General Church History, edited by his son, in 5 vols. 1863. It is the last and ablest exposition of the T'fcbingen reconstruction of the apostolic history from the pen of the master of that school. See vol. I. pp. 1-174. English translation by Allen Menzies, in 2 vols. Lond. 1878 and 1879. Comp. also Baur’s Paul, second ed. by Ed. Zeller, 1866 and 1867, and translated by A. Menzies, 2 vols. 1873, 1875. Baur’s critical researches have compelled a thorough revision of the traditional views on the apostolic age, and have so far been very useful, notwithstanding their fundamental errors.
A. P. Stanley (Dean of Westminster): Sermons and Essays on the Apostolic Age. Oxford, 1847. 3d ed. 1874.
*Heinrich W. J. Thiersch (Irvingite, died 1885 in Basle): Die Kirche im apostolischen Zeitalter. Francf. a. M. 1852; 3d ed. Augsburg, 1879, “improved,” but very slightly. (The same in English from the first ed. by Th. Carlyle. Lond. 1852.)
*J. P. Lange (d. 1884): Das apostolische Zeitalter. Braunschw. 1854. 2 vols.
*Philip Schaff: History of the Apostolic Church, first in German, Mercersburg, Penns. 1851; 2d ed. enlarged, Leipzig, 1854; English translation by Dr. E. D. Yeomans, N. York, 1853, in 1 vol.; Edinb. 1854, in 2 vols.; several editions without change. (Dutch translation from the second Germ. ed. by J. W. Th. Lublink Weddik, Tiel, 1857.)
*G. V. Lechler (Prof. in Leipzig): Das apostolische und das nachapostolische Zeitalter. 2d ed. 1857; 3d ed. thoroughly revised, Leipzig, 1885. Engl. trsl. by Miss Davidson, Edinb. 1887. Conservative.
*Albrecht Ritschl (d. in G'f6ttingen, 1889): Die Entstehung der altkatholischen Kirche. 2d ed. Bonn, 1857. The first edition was in harmony with the T'fcbingen School; but the second is materially improved, and laid the foundation for the Ritschl School.
*Heinrich Ewald (d. at G'f6ttingen, 1874): Geschichte des Volkes Israel, vols. VI. and VII. 2d ed. G'f6ttingen, 1858 and 1859. Vol. VI. of this great work contains the History of the Apostolic Age to the destruction of Jerusalem; vol. VII. the History of the post-Apostolic Age to the reign of Hadrian. English translation of the History of Israel by R. Martineau and J. E. Carpenter. Lond. 1869 sqq. A trans. of vols. VI. and VII. is not intended. Ewald (the “Urvogel von G'f6ttingen”) pursued an independent path in opposition both to the traditional orthodoxy and to the T'fcbingen school, which he denounced as worse than heathenish. See Preface to vol. VII.
*E. de Pressens'e9: Histoire des trois premiers si'e8cles de l’'e9glise chr'e9tienne. Par. 1858 sqq. 4 vols. German translation by E. Fabarius (Leipz. 1862-’65); English translation by Annie Harwood-Holmden (Lond. and N. York, 1870, new ed. Lond. 1879). The first volume contains the first century under the title Le si'e8cle apostolique; rev. ed. 1887.
*Joh. Jos. Ign. von D'f6llinger (Rom. Cath., since 1870 Old Cath.): Christenthum und Kirche in der Zeit der Gr'fcndung. Regensburg, 1860. 2d ed. 1868. The same translated into English by H. N. Oxenham. London, 1867.
C. S. Vaughan: The Church of the First Days. Lond. 1864-’65. 3 vols. Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles.
J. N. Sepp (Rom. Cath.): Geschichte der Apostel Jesu his zur Zerst'f6rung Jerusalems. Schaffhausen, 1866.
C. Holsten: Zum Evangelium des Paulus und des Petrus. Rostock, 1868 (447 pp.).
Paul Wilh. Schmidt und Franz v. Holtzendorf: Protestanten-Bibel Neuen Testaments. Zweite, revid. Auflage. Leipzig, 1874. A popular exegetical summary of the T'fcbingen views with contributions from Bruch, Hilgenfeld, Holsten, Lipsius, Pfleiderer and others.
A. B. Bruce (Professor in Glasgow): The Training of the Twelve. Edinburgh, 1871, second ed. 1877.
*Ernest Renan (de l’Acad'e9mie Francaise): Histoire des origines du Christianisme. Paris, 1863 sqq. The first volume is Vie de J'e9sus, 1863, noticed in 'a7 14; then followed II. Les Ap'f4tres, 1866; III. St. Paul, 1869; IV. L’Antechrist, 1873; V. Les 'c9vangiles, 1877; VI. L’'c9glise Chr'e9tienne, 1879; VII. and last volume, Marc-Aur'e9le, 1882. The II., III., IV., and V. volumes belong to the Apostolic age; the last two to the next. The work of a sceptical outsider, of brilliant genius, eloquence, and secular learning. It increases in value as it advances. The Life of Jesus is the most interesting and popular, but also by far the most objectionable volume, because it deals almost profanely with the most sacred theme.
Emil Ferri'e9re: Les Ap'f4tres. Paris, 1875.
Supernatural Religion. An Inquiry into the Reality of Divine Revelation. Lond. 1873, (seventh), “complete ed., carefully revised,” 1879, 3 vols. This anonymous work is an English reproduction and repository of the critical speculations of the T'fcbingen School of Baur, Strauss, Zeller, Schwegler, Hilgenfeld, Volkmar, etc. It may be called an enlargement of Schwegler’s Nachapostolisches Zeitalter. The first volume is mostly taken up with a philosophical discussion of the question of miracles; the remainder of vol. I. (pp. 212-485) and vol. II. contain an historical inquiry into the apostolic origin of the canonical Gospels, with a negative result. The third volume discusses the Acts, the Epistles and the Apocalypse, and the evidence for the Resurrection and Ascension, which are resolved into hallucinations or myths. Starting with the affirmation of the antecedent incredibility of miracles, the author arrives at the conclusion of their impossibility; and this philosophical conclusion determines the historical investigation throughout. Dr. Sch'fcrer, in the “Theol. Literaturzeitung” for 1879, No. 26 (p. 622), denies to this work scientific value for Germany, but gives it credit for extraordinary familiarity with recent German literature and great industry in collecting historical details. Drs. Lightfoot, Sanday, Ezra Abbot, and others have exposed the defects of its scholarship, and the false premises from which the writer reasons. The rapid sale of the work indicates the extensive spread of skepticism and the necessity of fighting over again, on Anglo-American ground, the theological battles of Germany and Holland; it is to be hoped with more triumphant success.
*J. B. Lightfoot (Bishop of Durham since 1879): A series of elaborate articles against “Supernatural Religion,” in the “Contemporary Review” for 1875 to 1877. They should be republished in book form. Comp. also the reply of the anonymous author in the lengthy preface to the sixth edition. Lightfoot’s Commentaries on Pauline Epistles contain valuable Excursuses on several historical questions of the apostolic age, especially St. Paul and the Three, in the Com. on the Galatians, pp. 283-355.
W. Sanday: The Gospels in the Second Century. London, 1876. This is directed against the critical part of “Supernatural Religion.” The eighth chapter on Marcion’s Gnostic mutilation and reconstruction of St. Luke’s Gospel (pp. 204 sqq.) had previously appeared in the “Fortnightly Review” for June, 1875, and finishes on English soil, a controversy which had previously been fought out on German soil, in the circle of the T'fcbingen School. The preposterous hypothesis of the priority of Marcion’s Gospel was advocated by Ritschl, Baur and Schwegler, but refuted by Volkmar and Hilgenfeld, of the same school; whereupon Baur and Ritschl honorably abandoned their error. The anonymous author of “Supernatural Religion,” in his seventh edition, has followed their example. The Germans conducted the controversy chiefly under its historic and dogmatic aspects; Sanday has added the philological and textual argument with the aid of Holtzmann’s analysis of the style and vocabulary of Luke.
A. Hausrath (Prof. in Heidelberg): Neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichte. Heidelberg, 1873 sqq. Parts Il. and III. (second ed. 1875) embrace the apostolic times, Part IV. (1877) the post-apostolic times. English translation by Poynting and Quenzer. Lond. 1878 sqq. H. belongs to the School of T'fcbingen.
Dan. Schenkel (Prof. in Heidelberg): Das Christusbild der Apostel und der nachapostolischen Zeit. Leipz. 1879. Comp. the review by H. Holtzmann in Hilgenfeld’s “Zeitschrift f'fcr wissensch. Theol.” 1879, p. 392.
H. Oort and I. Hooykaas: The Bible for Learners, translated from the Dutch by Philip H. Wicksteed, vol. III. (the New Test., by Hooykaas), Book III. pp. 463-693 of the Boston ed. 1879. (In the Engl. ed. it is vol. VI.) This is a popular digest of the rationalistic T'fcbingen and Leyden criticism under the inspiration of Dr. A. Kuenen, Professor of Theology at Leyden. It agrees substantially with the Protestanten-Bibel noticed above.
*George P. Fisher (Prof. in Yale College, New Haven): The Beginnings of Christianity. N. York, 1877. Comp. also the author’s former work: Essays on the Supernatural Origin of Christianity, with special reference to the Theories of Renan, Strauss, and the T'fcbingen School. New York, 1865. New ed. enlarged, 1877.
*C. Weizs'e4cker (successor of Baur in T'fcbingen): Das Apostolische Zeitalter. Freiburg, 1886. Critical and very able.
*O. Pfleiderer (Prof. in Berlin): Das Urchristenthum, seine Schriften und Lehren. Berlin, 1887. (T'fcbingen School.)
III. The Chronology of the Apostolic Age
Rudolph Anger: De temporum in Actis Apostolorum ratione. Lips. 1833 (208 pp.).
Henry Browne: Ordo Saeculorum. A Treatise on the Chronology of the Holy Scriptures. Lond. 1844. Pp. 95-163.
Karl Wieseler: Chronologie des apostolischen Zeitalters. G'f6ttingen, 1848 (606 pp.).
The older and special works are noticed in Wieseler, pp. 6-9. See also the elaborate Synopsis of the dates of the Apostolic Age in Sch'e4ffer’s translation of Lechler on Acts (in the Am. ed. of Lange’s Commentary); Henry B. Smith’s Chronological Tables of Church History (1860); and Weingarten: Zeittafeln zur K-Gesch. 3d ed. 1888.
21. General Character of the Apostolic Age
“Der Schlachtruf, der St. Pauli Brust entsprungen,
Rief nicht sein Echo auf zu tausend Streiten?
Und welch’ ein Friedensecho hat geklungen
Durch tausend Herzen von Johannis Saiten!
Wie viele rasche Feuer sind entglommen
Als Wiederschein von Petri Funkenspr'fchen!
Und sieht man Andre still mit Opfern kommen,]
Ist’s, weil sie in Jakobi Schul’ gediehen: -
Ein Satz ist’s, der in Variationen
Vom ersten Anfang fortt'f6nt durch Aeonen.” - (Tholuck.)
Extent and Environment of the Apostolic Age
The apostolic period extends from the Day of Pentecost to the death of St. John, and covers about seventy years, from a.d. 30 to 100. The field of action is Palestine, and gradually extends over Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The most prominent centers are Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome, which represent respectively the mother churches of Jewish, Gentile, and United Catholic Christianity. Next to them are Ephesus and Corinth. Ephesus acquired a special importance by the residence and labors of John, which made themselves felt during the second century through Polycarp and Irenaeus. Samaria, Damascus, Joppa, Caesarea, Tyre, Cyprus, the provinces of Asia Minor, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Crete, Patmos, Malta, Puteoli, come also into view as points where the Christian faith was planted. Through the eunuch converted by Philip, it reached Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. (Act_8:27) As early as a.d. 58 Paul could say: “From Jerusalem and round about even unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” (Rom_15:19) He afterwards carried it to Rome, where it had already been known before, and possibly as far as Spain, the western boundary of the empire.
The nationalities reached by the gospel in the first century were the Jews, the Greeks, and the Romans, and the languages used were the Hebrew or Aramaic, and especially the Greek, which was at that time the organ of civilization and of international intercourse within the Roman empire.
The contemporary secular history includes the reigns of the Roman Emperors from Tiberius to Nero and Domitian, who either ignored or persecuted Christianity. We are brought directly into contact with King Herod Agrippa I. (grandson of Herod the Great), the murderer of the apostle, James the Elder; with his son King Agrippa II. (the last of the Herodian house), who with his sister Bernice (a most corrupt woman) listened to Paul’s defense; with two Roman governors, Felix and Festus; with Pharisees and Sadducees; with Stoics and Epicureans; with the temple and theatre at Ephesus, with the court of the Areopagus at Athens, and with Caesar’s palace in Rome.
Sources of Information
The author of Acts records the heroic march of Christianity from the capital of Judaism to the capital of heathenism with the same artless simplicity and serene faith as the Evangelists tell the story of Jesus; well knowing that it needs no embellishment, no apology, no subjective reflections, and that it will surely triumph by its inherent spiritual power.
The Acts and the Pauline Epistles accompany us with reliable information down to the year 63. Peter and Paul are lost out of sight in the lurid fires of the Neronian persecution which seemed to consume Christianity itself. We know nothing certain of that satanic spectacle from authentic Resources beyond the information of heathen historians. A few years afterwards followed the destruction of Jerusalem, which must have made an overpowering impression and broken the last ties which bound Jewish Christianity to the old theocracy. The event is indeed brought before us in the prophecy of Christ as recorded in the Gospels, but for the terrible fulfilment we are dependent on the account of an unbelieving Jew, which, as the testimony of an enemy, is all the more impressive.
The remaining thirty years of the first century are involved in mysterious darkness, illuminated only by the writings of John. This is a period of church history about which we know least and would like to know most. This period is the favorite field for ecclesiastical fables and critical conjectures. How thankfully would the historian hail the discovery of any new authentic documents between the martyrdom of Peter and Paul and the death of John, and again between the death of John and the age of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.
Causes of Success
As to the numerical strength of Christianity at the close of the first century, we have no information whatever. Statistical reports were unknown in those days. The estimate of half a million among the one hundred millions or more inhabitants of the Roman empire is probably exaggerated. The pentecostal conversion of three thousand in one day at Jerusalem, (Act_2:41) and the “immense multitude” of martyrs under Nero, favor a high estimate. The churches in Antioch also, Ephesus, and Corinth were strong enough to bear the strain of controversy and division into parties. (Gal_2:1 sqq.; 1Co_3:3 sqq.) But the majority of congregations were no doubt small, often a mere handful of poor people. In the country districts paganism (as the name indicates) lingered longest, even beyond the age of Constantine. The Christian converts belonged mostly to the middle and lower classes of society, such as fishermen, peasants, mechanics, traders, freedmen, slaves. St. Paul says: “Not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called, but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God.” (1Co_1:26-29) And yet these poor, illiterate churches were the recipients of the noblest gifts, and alive to the deepest problems and highest thoughts which can challenge the attention of an immortal mind. Christianity built from the foundation upward. From the lower ranks come the rising men of the future, who constantly reinforce the higher ranks and prevent their decay.
At the time of the conversion of Constantine, in the beginning of the fourth century, the number of Christians may have reached ten or twelve millions, that is about one-tenth of the total population of the Roman empire. Some estimate it higher.
The rapid success of Christianity under the most unfavorable circumstances is surprising and its own best vindication. It was achieved in the face of an indifferent or hostile world, and by purely spiritual and moral means, without shedding a drop of blood except that of its own innocent martyrs. Gibbon, in the famous fifteenth chapter of his “History,” attributes the rapid spread to five causes, namely: (1) the intolerant but enlarged religious zeal of the Christians inherited from the Jews; (2) the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, concerning which the ancient philosophers had but vague and dreamy ideas; (3) the miraculous powers attributed to the primitive church; (4) the purer but austere morality of the first Christians; (5) the unity and discipline of the church, which gradually formed a growing commonwealth in the heart of the empire. But every one of these causes, properly understood, points to the superior excellency and to the divine origin of the Christian religion, and this is the chief cause, which the Deistic historian omits.
Significance of the Apostolic Age
The life of Christ is the divine-human fountainhead of the Christian religion; the apostolic age is the fountainhead of the Christian church, as an organized society separate and distinct from the Jewish synagogue. It is the age of the Holy Spirit, the age of inspiration and legislation for all subsequent ages.
Here springs, in its original freshness and purity, the living water of the new creation. Christianity comes down front heaven as a supernatural fact, yet long predicted and prepared for, and adapted to the deepest wants of human nature. Signs and wonders and extraordinary demonstrations of the Spirit, for the conversion of unbelieving Jews and heathens, attend its entrance into the world of sin. It takes up its permanent abode with our fallen race, to transform it gradually, without war or bloodshed, by a quiet, leaven-like process, into a kingdom of truth and righteousness. Modest and humble, lowly and unseemly in outward appearance, but steadily conscious of its divine origin and its eternal destiny; without silver or gold, but rich in supernatural gifts and powers, strong in faith, fervent in love, and joyful in hope; bearing in earthen vessels the imperishable treasures of heaven, it presents itself upon the stage of history as the only true, the perfect religion, for all the nations of the earth. At first an insignificant and even contemptible sect in the eyes of the carnal mind, hated and persecuted by Jews and heathens, it confounds the wisdom of Greece and the power of Rome, soon plants the standard of the cross in the great cities of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and proves itself the hope of the world.
In virtue of this original purity, vigor, and beauty, and the permanent success of primitive Christianity, the canonical authority of the single but inexhaustible volume of its literature, and the character of the apostles, those inspired organs of the Holy Spirit, those untaught teachers of mankind, the apostolic age has an incomparable interest and importance in the history of the church. It is the immovable groundwork of the whole. It has the same regulative force for all the subsequent developments of the church as the inspired writings of the apostles have for the works of all later Christian authors.
Furthermore, the apostolic Christianity is preformative, and contains the living germs of all the following periods, personages, and tendencies. It holds up the highest standard of doctrine and discipline; it is the inspiring genius of all true progress; it suggests to every age its peculiar problem with the power to solve it. Christianity can never outgrow Christ, but it grows in Christ; theology cannot go beyond the word of God, but it must ever progress in the understanding and application of the word of God. The three leading apostles represent not only the three stages of the apostolic church, but also as many ages and types of Christianity, and yet they are all present in every age and every type.
The Representative Apostles
Peter, Paul, and John stand out most prominently as the chosen Three who accomplished the great work of the apostolic age, and exerted, by their writings and example, a controlling influence on all subsequent ages. To them correspond three centers of influence, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome.
Our Lord himself had chosen Three out of the Twelve for his most intimate companions, who alone witnessed the Transfiguration and the agony in Gethsemane. They fulfilled all the expectations, Peter and John by their long and successful labors, James the Elder by drinking early the bitter cup of his Master, as the proto-martyr of the Twelve. (Mat_22:23; Act_12:2) Since his death, a.d. 44, James, “the brother of the Lord” seems to have succeeded him, as one of the three “pillars” of the church of the circumcision, although he did not belong to the apostles in the strict sense of the term, and his influence, as the head of the church at Jerusalem, was more local than ecumenical.
Paul was called last and out of the regular order, by the personal appearance of the exalted Lord from heaven, and in authority and importance he was equal to any of the three pillars, but filled a place of his own, as the independent apostle of the Gentiles. He had around him a small band of co-laborers and pupils, such as Barnabas, Silas, Titus, Timothy, Luke.
Nine of the original Twelve, including Matthias, who was chosen in the place of Judas, labored no doubt faithfully and effectively, in preaching the gospel throughout the Roman empire and to the borders of the barbarians, but in subordinate positions, and their labors are known to us only from vague and uncertain traditions.
The labors of James and Peter we can follow in the Acts to the Council of Jerusalem, a.d. 50, and a little beyond; those of Paul to his first imprisonment in Rome, a.d. 61-63; John lived to the close of the first century. As to their last labors we have no authentic information in the New Testament, but the unanimous testimony of antiquity that Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome during or after the Neronian persecution, and that John died a natural death at Ephesus. The Acts breaks off abruptly with Paul still living and working, a prisoner in Rome, “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness, none forbidding him.” A significant conclusion.
It would be difficult to find three men equally great and good, equally endowed with genius sanctified by grace, bound together by deep and strong love to the common Master, and laboring for the same cause, yet so different in temper and constitution, as Peter, Paul, and John. Peter stands out in history as the main pillar of the primitive church, as the Rock-apostle, as the chief of the twelve foundation-stones of the new Jerusalem; John as the bosom-friend of the Saviour, as the son of thunder, as the soaring eagle, as the apostle of love; Paul as the champion of Christian freedom and progress, as the greatest missionary, with “the care of all the churches” upon his heart, as the expounder of the Christian system of doctrine, as the father of Christian theology. Peter was a man of action, always in haste and ready to take the lead; the first to confess Christ, and the first to preach Christ on the day of Pentecost; Paul a man equally potent in word and deed; John a man of mystic contemplation. Peter was unlearned and altogether practical; Paul a scholar and thinker as well as a worker; John a theosophist and seer. Peter was sanguine, ardent, impulsive, hopeful, kind-hearted, given to sudden changes, “consistently inconsistent” (to use an Aristotelian phrase); Paul was choleric, energetic, bold, noble, independent, uncompromising; John some what melancholic, introverted, reserved, burning within of love to Christ and hatred of Antichrist. Peter’s Epistles are full of sweet grace and comfort, the result of deep humiliation and rich experience; those of Paul abound in severe thought and logical argument, but rising at times to the heights of celestial eloquence, as in the seraphic description of love and the triumphant paean of the eighth chapter of the Romans; John’s writings are simple, serene, profound, intuitive, sublime, inexhaustible.
We would like to know more about the personal relations of these pillar-apostles, but must be satisfied with a few hints. They labored in different fields and seldom met face to face in their busy life. Time was too precious, their work too serious, for sentimental enjoyments of friendship. Paul went to Jerusalem a.d. 40, three years after his conversion, for the express purpose of making the personal acquaintance of Peter, and spent two weeks with him; he saw none of the other apostles, but only James, the Lord’s brother. He met the pillar-apostles at the Conference in Jerusalem, a.d. 50, and concluded with them the peaceful concordat concerning the division of labor, and the question of circumcision; the older apostles gave him and Barnabas “the right hands of fellowship” in token of brotherhood and fidelity. (Act_15:1-41; Gal_2:1-10) Not long afterwards Paul met Peter a third time, at Antioch, but came into open collision with him on the great question of Christian freedom and the union of Jewish and Gentile converts. (Gal_2:11-21) The collision was merely temporary, but significantly reveals the profound commotion and fermentation of the apostolic age, and foreshadowed future antagonisms and reconciliations in the church. Several years later (a.d. 57) Paul refers the last time to Cephas, and the brethren of the Lord, for the right to marry and to take a wife with him on his missionary journeys. (1Co_9:5; comp. Mat_8:14) Peter, in his first Epistle to Pauline churches, confirms them in their Pauline faith, and in his second Epistle, his last will and testament, he affectionately commends the letters of his “beloved brother Paul,” adding, however, the characteristic remark, which all commentators must admit to be true, that (even beside the account of the scene in Antioch) there are in them “some things hard to be understood.” According to tradition (which varies considerably as to details), the great leaders of Jewish and Gentile Christianity met at Rome, were tried and condemned together, Paul, the Roman citizen, to the death by the sword on the Ostian road at Tre Fontane; Peter, the Galilean apostle, to the more degrading death of the cross on the hill of Janiculum. John mentions Peter frequently in his Gospel, especially in the appendix, but never names Paul; he met him, as it seems, only once, at Jerusalem, gave him the right hand of fellowship, became his successor in the fruitful field of Asia Minor, and built on his foundation.
Peter was the chief actor in the first stage of apostolic Christianity and fulfilled the prophecy of his name in laying the foundation of the church among the Jews and the Gentiles. In the second stage he is overshadowed by the mighty labors of Paul; but after the apostolic age he stands out again most prominent in the memory of the church. He is chosen by the Roman communion as its special patron saint and as the first pope. He is always named before Paul. To him most of the churches are dedicated. In the name of this poor fisherman of Galilee, who had neither gold nor silver, and was crucified like a malefactor and a slave, the triple-crowned popes deposed kings, shook empires, dispensed blessings and curses on earth and in purgatory, and even now claim the power to settle infallibly all questions of Christian doctrine and discipline for the Catholic world.
Paul was the chief actor in the second stage of the apostolic church, the apostle of the Gentiles, the founder of Christianity in Asia Minor and Greece, the emancipator of the new religion from the yoke of Judaism, the herald of evangelical freedom, the standard-bearer of reform and progress. His controlling influence was felt also in Rome, and is clearly seen in the genuine Epistle of Clement, who makes more account of him than of Peter. But soon afterwards he is almost forgotten, except by name. He is indeed associated with Peter as the founder of the church of Rome, but in a secondary line; his Epistle to the Romans is little read and understood by the Romans even to this day; his church lies outside of the walls of the eternal city, while St. Peter’s is its chief ornament and glory. In Africa alone he was appreciated, first by the rugged and racy Tertullian, more fully by the profound Augustine, who passed through similar contrasts in his religious experience; but Augustine’s Pauline doctrines of sin and grace had no effect whatever on the Eastern church, and were practically overpowered in the Western church by Pelagian tendencies. For a long time Paul’s name was used and abused outside of the ruling orthodoxy and hierarchy by anti-catholic heretics and sectaries in their protest against the new yoke of traditionalism and ceremonialism. But in the sixteenth century he celebrated a real resurrection and inspired the evangelical reformation. Then his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans were republished, explained, and applied with trumpet tongues by Luther and Calvin. Then his protest against Judaizing bigotry and legal bondage was renewed, and the rights of Christian liberty asserted on the largest scale. Of all men in church history, St. Augustine not excepted, Martin Luther, once a contracted monk, then a prophet of freedom, has most affinity in word and work with the apostle of the Gentiles, and ever since Paul’s genius has ruled the theology and religion of Protestantism. As the gospel of Christ was cast out from Jerusalem to bless the Gentiles, so Paul’s Epistle to the Romans was expelled from Rome to enlighten and to emancipate Protestant nations in the distant North and far West.
St. John, the most intimate companion of Jesus, the apostle of love, the seer who looked back to the ante-mundane beginning and forward to the post-mundane end of all things, and who is to tarry till the coming of the Lord, kept aloof from active part in the controversies between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. He appears prominent in the Acts and the Epistle to the Galatians, as one of the pillar-apostles, but not a word of his is reported. He was waiting in mysterious silence, with a reserved force, for his proper time, which did not come till Peter and Paul had finished their mission. Then, after their departure, he revealed the hidden depths of his genius in his marvellous writings, which represent the last and crowning work of the apostolic church. John has never been fully fathomed, but it has been felt throughout all the periods of church history that he has best understood and portrayed the Master, and may yet speak the last word in the conflict of ages and usher in an era of harmony and peace. Paul is the heroic captain of the church militant, John the mystic prophet of the church triumphant.
Far above them all, throughout the apostolic age and all subsequent ages, stands the one great Master from whom Peter, Paul, and John drew their inspiration, to whom they bowed in holy adoration, whom alone they served and glorified in life and in death, and to whom they still point in their writings as the perfect image of God, as the Saviour from sin and death, as the Giver of eternal life, as the divine harmony of conflicting creeds and schools, as the Alpha and Omega of the Christian faith.