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The Split in the Early Church

In his book, The Lost Religion of Jesus, Keith Akers looks closely at the history of early Christianity and finds a church with many conflicts and much discord. He states we cannot understand Jesus without first understanding early church history. Akers looks at the factions in the early church and then focusses on the Pauline influence and its' conflict with Jewish Christianity. The Jewish Christians are of particular interest because in the beginning Jesus and all his followers were Jews, yet by the fourth century the church condemned the Jewish Christians as heretics. This book argues that the Jewish Christians, who were condemned as heretics in the fourth century and ultimately disappeared sometime in the fifth century, were the direct spiritual descendants of Jesus and his followers. There were a number Jewish Christian sects in the third and fourth centuries, and Akers has gathered reliable information about the beliefs and practices of these sects, particularly a group called the Ebionites. Jewish followers of Christ came into major conflict with the Pauline faction of the church and this conflict began not long after Paul started his ministry and is demonstrated in the New Testament itself.

It is important to understand that there were many conflicts about beliefs and practices in the early Christian church and that stability in the church did not really come until the ascension to power of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 312 and the latter Council of Nicea in 325. This stability arose from the fact that the Gentile faction of the early church became dominant and suppressed the ideas and theologies of other factions with the help of the the Emperor. It seems there is good reason to give serious consideration to the idea that the early Jewish Christians were the keepers of the Jesus tradition and that the Pauline or Gentile faction watered down or left out some of the core teachings of Jesus. Akers uses many sources of information to build up his case and the New Testament is but one of these. Some of the others include Eusebius: an orthodox Christian historian of the fourth century; Ephiphanius: a fourth century orthodox Christian who denounced heresies in much of his writing and two books that were used by the Jewish Christians: The Recognitions of Clement and The Clementine Homilies. In this essay I will not attempt to cover many of the issues that Akers raises but will concentrate on the early split in the church between Paul and the Jewish Christians.

Jesus and his disciples were Jews whose goal was a reformation of Judaism. Paul did not ever meet Jesus, he heavily persecuted Jesus' followers and after his conversion he had significant differences with the leadership of the first church. Akers argues that the major difference between Paul and the church leadership was food. Eusebius tells us that the twelve apostles "embraced and persevered in a laborious and strenuous life, with fasting and abstinence from wine and meat.' (Proof of the Gospel 3.3). The same orthodox Eusebius also spells out that James, the brother of Jesus, is a vegetarian: "James .... was holy from his mother's womb; he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh." (Ecclesiastical History 2.23.5-6). Matthew and Peter are also described as being vegetarian in other sources. (Akers 132). Remember that these sources are staunchly orthodox. Jesus' disciples obviously would find themselves at odds on this matter with Paul because Paul declares all foods clean (Rom 14; 19-2), he seems contemptuous of vegetarians - '...the weak man eats only vegetables' (Rom 14: 1-2) and he apparently has no concern for animals - 'does God care for oxen? Of course not!" (1 Corinthians 9: 9). This position conflicts not only with the disciples but with Jewish tradition. In Genesis 1:29-30, humankind is given a vegetarian diet, in psalm 145: "His compassion rests on all his creatures", Isaiah 66:3 states that sacrificing an ox is like killing a man and in Genesis 9:12-17 God repeatedly makes His/Her covenant with Noah and all living creatures. Jesus is quoted as saying not one sparrow is forgotten by God (Luke 12:6-7). This dispute between Paul and the Church leadership comes out in the letters of Paul - "Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble." (Romans 14:19-21). Again - "I will never eat meat lest I cause my brother to fall." (1 Cor 8:13). This suggests that the meat eating of Paul and his followers was causing people to 'fall', most likely meaning they were leaving the church. It became such an issue that Paul declared he would become a vegetarian even though he did not believe it was necessary. Despite this the church eventually took Paul's views on food as standard, that is, all foods are clean. One may argue that Jesus himself declared all foods clean in the synoptic gospels (Mark 7: 19). Akers argues that this is obviously an insertion at a later date. The convincing argument in favour of this is Peter's dream recounted in Acts 10:9-16. Peter dreams that God has instructed him to eat unclean beasts that are rained down from heaven. In this dream Peter declares that he has never eaten unclean food. If Jesus had given instructions that all foods were clean then Peter, a man who lived and ate with Jesus most of the time for three years, surely would have taken this instruction on board. His obvious response would have been to recall the words and actions of Jesus as quoted in Mark. Peter does not at any time consider that God is suggesting that he should eat animals but rather he interprets the dream allegorically to mean he should meet with gentile peoples in his preaching.

A crucial issue in understanding this dispute is the fact that the Jewish Christians recognised James, the brother of Jesus, as the leader of the first church. Peter is seen to be a very powerful disciple but not the leader. This is quite a shock for modern day Christianity where Peter's leadership has never been questioned. Akers gives the following evidence that would seem to indicate that it was indeed James who led the early church:

*Acts 15: At the Jerusalem council Peter, Barnabas and Paul all speak but it is James who delivers the 'verdict' about the gentile converts adherence to the law of Moses.

*Acts 21:18: Paul is described as paying a special visit to James when all the elders are present. That Paul is talking to James when all the leaders of the church are present suggests that James was the important person to talk to about matters in the church.

*Galations 2: Peter submits to James' authority when he is told by 'certain men from James' to stop taking meals with the gentiles. Even Paul's fellow worker Barnabas follows James' message on this occasion. (Why James may have asked Peter to stop taking meals will be discussed later).

*Eusebius states in Ecclesiastical History that James assumed his position of leadership immediately following Jesus' death (Ecclesiastical History 2.1.2, 7.19), and received leadership directly from his brother Jesus.

* The Gospel of Thomas, not an exclusive Jewish Christian text, explicitly states "The disciples said to Jesus 'We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, 'No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.'" (Thomas 12).

There is only one text in the four Gospels that describes Peter as Jesus' anointed leader after his death - Matthew 16: 13-20. Why do Mark (8:27-30) and Luke (19:18-21) leave out the point of Peter being the 'rock' of the church? In line with Akers' theory, it would be because there were people in the church of the third and fourth centuries that did not want it known that James was the leader of the first church, and that the text in Matthew is an insertion to undermine the authority of James1 . Christianity, in becoming a state religion, was more than ever demanding orthodoxy. James, as mentioned earlier, is acknowledged as a vegetarian teetotaller from birth - by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History and as a vegetarian by Epiphanius in Panarion (see p165). It would be very important to sideline James, as his relationship to Jesus would suggest that Jesus was also a vegetarian and this contradicts Paul's theology and the lifestyle of Constantine and nearly all Roman citizens. Akers points out that Jesus' relationship to his family may have been much closer than most people realise and he cites Acts 1:13-14 to show that Jesus' mother and brothers were with the disciples almost immediately following Jesus' death.

The importance of James as the leader of the early church is obviously highly significant. The New Testament mentions two different James - James the disciple and James the brother of Jesus. How do we know that it is not James the disciple who may have been the leader of the church? In Paul's letter to the Galatians (1:19) Paul says that James was the "Lord's brother." Keith Akers states:
Paul then goes on to describe James as in a position of leadership - since evidently even Peter reverses himself and follows James' lead in Galatians 2. Josephus (an early Jewish historian), at Antiquities 20.9.1, also describes James as the brother of Jesus. Acts never says that James is the brother of Jesus; however, Acts 12:2 says that James the brother of John was killed, but later we see that in Acts 15 and Acts 21 "James" is still around in a position of authority, so this must be a different James, not the brother of John. Since Paul, Josephus and Eusebius all agree that there was a James, the brother of Jesus, in a position of leadership in the early church, it would appear pretty certain that the first leader of the church after Jesus was James the brother of Jesus. (In a personal e-mail to the author)

In this scenario we have the vegetarian James as leader of the church coming into conflict with the new convert, Paul, who has taken it upon himself to spread his message of Jesus to the Gentile peoples and who is antagonistic to vegetarianism. (Actually the New Testament is contradictory on the issue of Paul's relationship with the church leadership. In Galations Paul asserts that the law does not need to be observed and that "all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse" (Galations 3:10) and he goes to Jerusalem on the basis of a revelation. This is in contrast to Acts where he goes to the temple to spend seven days in fulfilment of a vow and he goes to Jerusalem because he has been appointed by church officials (Acts 2:2 and 15:2). Acts was written decades after the letters of Paul and Galations is claimed to be more accurate.) Galations depicts Paul as the apostle from God standing alone often in defiance of the Jewish church leadership.This is seen strikingly in Galatians 2 where Peter is with Paul at Antioch eating with the Gentiles but after messengers from James come he withdraws and eats apart from them. Paul is outraged and strongly condemns the submission of Peter and others to the message from James.

Why would James insist that Christians not eat with Gentiles? The answer can only be food as there were in fact no Jewish laws that prohibited Jews from eating with Gentiles if the other food laws were met. Most interpreters have assumed that the problem was that James was insisting that kosher laws be observed, but this view is completely without support in Paul's letters:
Nowhere in Paul's letters does he attack the kosher laws as we commonly understand them (e.g. prohibition on pork, not mixing milk and meat.) What he does attack is vegetarianism and the prohibition on meat sacrificed to idols. (Akers 149)

In Romans, Paul states that all food is clean, but he is not arguing against traditional kosher requirements:
As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables.... Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats: it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble (Romans 14:1-2, 19-21)

Paul specifically mentions meat and wine as the contentious food issues - the same foods that the disciples and James are said to have shunned by orthodox early church historians. As I stated in the second paragraph, the vegetarian issue became such a problem for Paul that he decided to shun meat 'lest I cause my brother to fall' (1 Cor 8:13). To sum up this dispute, we can say that there is good evidence that the disciples of Jesus were all vegetarian and that James the brother of Jesus became the leader of the church soon after Jesus' death. James was also a vegetarian and felt that strongly about the issue that he forbade Christians from even eating at table where meat was served. This causes much hostility from Paul who ridicules the need to be vegetarian but seemingly becomes one himself to quell the disputes over meat eating. Peter and others seem to come to the idea that it is O.K. to eat at a table where meat is served but stop doing it when a message comes from James.

Vegetarianism also seems to be very common in the early church with people such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nanziance, Arnobius, Cassian, the Desert Fathers, Paul (the Hermit), Antony, Hilarion, Macharius, Columbanus, Arsenius, John Chrystostom, Jerome and Tertulian standing out as having been vegetarian based on writings by or about them (Akers p132). Eusubius gives more weight to the evidence of vegetarianism in the early church when he recounts the story of a martyr who is tortured for being suspected of being a Christian. Initially she denies she is a Christian but when she is asked to confirm that Christians eat their own children she replies:

But she recovered herself under the suffering and... contradicted the blasphemers. "How," she said, "could those eat children who do not think it lawful to taste the blood even of irrational animals?" And thence forward she confessed herself a Christian...(Ecclesiastical History 5.1.26)

She is obviously not referring to Kosher drained meat here, she is stating on her deathbed that Christians would certainly not eat their own children for they do not even eat animals. Akers' research points to the surprising conclusion for many, that Jesus himself was a vegetarian:
The view that Jesus ate meat creates a paradox: vegetarianism was practised by the apostles and numerous early followers of Jesus, including Jesus' own brother, but not by Jesus himself! ... The much more likely explanation is that the original tradition was vegetarian, but that under the pressure of Paul's writings in the second century vegetarianism was first dropped as a requirement and finally even as a desideratum. (Akers p134)

Most of Akers' research and conclusions cannot be proven and scripture could also be used to argue against his case. However, he gives very good circumstantial evidence for his claims and deserves much credit for his intelligent investigations. At the very least, Akers' research brings up important information that I believe all seeking Christians should consider. The fact that there was a major conflict over the eating of meat in the early church is uniformly ignored or unknown in Christian circles. This conflict is beginning to raise its head again in a different way as a small number of Christians are not only shunning meat but are actively encouraging their fellow Christians to adopt a non-violent diet.

The Lost Religion of Jesus deals with many issues but this essay has dealt mainly with the issue of vegetarianism for the reason that I believe that this is one of the most urgent messages of our time. It seems that the eating of meat was a major issue for James, even forbidding eating at a table where it was served. Is this stand by James just another time when Jesus' followers became overly legalistic and concerned with rules? The church leadership had already dispensed with the need for circumcision (see Gal:1-4) but the eating of meat was not such an issue of Jewish tradition, it was an issue of violence. It is possible that Jesus saw the slaughter of animals as a grave and violent sin that causes the killer to undergo much suffering 'either in this life or the next'. To quote Paul (despite Paul's weak points his wisdom at times is undeniable) "As you sow so shall you reap" (Gal 6:7). Maybe sowing the seeds of killing animals grows a harvest of suffering for the perpetrators and James was trying to emphasise this point by his hard line. Jesus himself is quoted as saying 'the measure you deal out to others will be dealt out to you in turn' (Luke 6:38). If this applied to the measure we deal out to other sentient beings then no wonder James was so emphatic about not eating meat. The idea that animals have this sort of moral worth is Biblical, as God created all sentient beings, called them good and made His/Her covenants with all the creatures (Gen 9: 12 -17). According to the Bible the only time there is peace on Earth is under a vegetarian diet - at the beginning in Genesis 1: 29-31 and at the end in Isaiah 11: 6-9. In the meantime Christian theology has been a leading cause of the cruel treatment of animals, especially food animals, in the Christian world at least. In line with the 'As you sow so shall you reap' theory, we may not only be saving the animals by shunning meat, we may be saving ourselves and our world from untold suffering.

By Peter Milne(Click for profile)

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