Chapter 10: Paul Disbelieved Continued.—Jerusalem Visit IV. Continued. His Arrival and Reception. Accused by All the Disciples of the Apostles, He Commences an Exculpatory Oath in the Temple. Dragged Out by Them—Rescued by a Roman Commander—Sent in Custody to Rome
Section 4: Accused by the Disciples, He Commences, At the Recommendation of the Apostles, An Exculpatory Oath in the Temple
Such being in their eyes the danger; now comes their expedient for the arresting of it. It is an altogether curious one: and among those persons styled elders—all the elders—to every sincere and pious Christian it will naturally be matter of no small satisfaction that no one of the whole fellowship of the Apostles is to be found.
According to the description here given of it, the expedient is of such a sort, that—but for the occasion on which it is represented as being proposed,—scarcely would it be possible to divine what is meant; what it was that was proposed to be done; or, whatever it was, what could be the use or effect of it?
Continuing the speech attributed to these elders,
In the terms of the historian, the matter of the accusation in question is this: namely,
Such is the accusation: such the act charged upon him, in the character of an offence:—the teaching of the doctrine in question.
In regard to the question—whether the doctrine he is thus said to have taught, had really ever been taught by him,—much will depend upon the difference between simple permission and prohibition: in English, upon the difference between need not and ought not. If,—in the doctrine, the teaching of which is thus charged upon him as a crime,—simple permission was included—if, in speaking of the converts in question, the saying was—that they need not circumcise their children—that they need not walk after these customs—this and no more;—in this case, that the charge, such as it is, was true, is altogether out of doubt:—if, on the other hand, the act he was charged with, went so far as to the teaching that they ought not to circumcise any of their children, or that they ought not to walk after the customs prescribed in the Mosaic law—on this supposition, the truth of the charge will at any rate not be quite so clear as in the other case.
According to the English translation, that which is charged as an offence, was not committed, unless, in the doctrine taught, a direct prohibition was contained: to a doctrine importing nothing more than a simple permission to abstain from the acts and forbearances in question, the charge would not have any application. Not thus unambiguous, however, is the Greek original; either by prohibition, or by ample permission, might the doctrine charged as criminal have been taught.
Such is the description of the obnoxious practice, with which Paul is here stated as having been charged: the practice by which the odium is stated as having been incurred.
But this imaginary guilt, in what view do they mention it as imputed to him? In this view evidently, viz., that at their recommendation he may take that course, by which, in their view, he will escape from the wrath of which he had become the object. The effect thus aimed at is,—that the indignation of which he is the object, may be made to cease. How made to cease? in one or other of two ways: for the nature of the case admits not of any other: either by proving that that which he had been supposed to have taught, had not in truth ever been taught by him, and thus, that no such offence as he was charged with, had, in fact, ever been committed by him; or that, if any such offence had been committed, the practice recommended might be accepted as an atonement: or rather as an assurance, that whatever in his past conduct had given them offence, would not be repeated by him in future.
When the supposed remedial practice has been explained,—then immediately after comes, we see, a more particular indication of the good effects, for the production of which it is recommended. These are—in the first place, that, whatsoever were the doctrines he was charged with having taught it, it will be generally known that no such doctrines were ever taught by him: in the next place, that it will in like manner be known, that by himself no such habitual offence as that of an habitual violation of the law in question was committed.
Such are the effects, stated as resulting from his performing the ceremony, the performance of which was thus recommended to him.
This ceremony we see: and what we see at the same time is—that it could not be, in the nature of it, productive of any such effects.
Here is a certain doctrine, which he had been charged with having taught. If the case was, that he had taught it; let him have purified himself ever so purely, whatsoever was meant by purification,—let him have purified himself ever so completely, let him have paid ever so much money, let him have shaved his head ever so close,—by any, or all of all these supposed meritorious acts, how could that be caused, not to have happened, which in fact had happened? by what means could they afford proof of his performance of any ceremony, other than those very same purification ceremonies themselves?
As to the purpose of furthering the temporal interest of the individual in question; namely, by removing the load of odium, with which at that time it seems he was burdened,—how far, in relation to this object, the expedient promised to be an effectual cure, is more than at this time we can find any ground for saying: as to any good purposes of any other kind, that it was not in the nature of it to be productive of any, may be pronounced without much danger of error.
Here at any rate was a ceremony—a ceremony the object of which was—to apply, to the purpose of ensuring obsequiousness, the power of the religious sanction.
The object, to which it was meant to apply that form, comes, it may be seen, under the general denomination of an oath. An oath is either assertory or promissory: if it be an oath of the promissory kind, it is called a vow. An oath which is not a vow cannot respect anything but what is past: upon that which is past, no human act can any longer exercise any influence. A vow has respect to something future—to the future conduct of him by whom the vow is taken: and to this conduct a man, in and by the taking of the vow, engages to give the form therein mentioned.
Whatsoever, therefore, these ceremonies were in themselves,—thus much seems plain enough, respecting the immediate effect they were designed to answer: namely, either the delivery of a certain species of evidence, or the entering into an engagement to a certain effect: the evidence being a denial of the act charged: the engagement, a promise not to practice any acts of the sort in question in future.
Whatsoever was the effect looked for, and intended, by the ceremony,—thus much we know, if the historian is here to be believed: namely, that, in conformity to the advice, Paul betook himself to the performance of it.
But, in so doing, thus much also we know: namely, that he consented to, and betook himself to one of two things: an act of perjury, if the effect of the ceremony was to convey an assertion, that he had never taught, that a Jew, on being converted to the religion of Jesus, need not circumcise his children, or walk after the Mosaic customs: an act of apostasy, if the effect of it was an engagement never to teach this same doctrine in future: an act of apostasy—and for what? only to save himself from the displeasure entertained towards him on unjust grounds by a set of ill-advised and inconsistent disciples.
Under the general head of Paul's Doctrines, particular title Faith and Works, it will be seen what pains he had taken, on so many occasions, to weed out of men's breasts, Gentiles and Jews together, all regard for the Mosaic law—to cause them, in the words of the charge, to forsake Moses. Paul says in his letter to the Galatia,
In this same letter, and in the same paragraph,—he speaks, of a speech which he had made, of a reproof which, at Antioch, he had given to Peter:—given to him, at a point of time long before the time here in question, namely, that of his last preceding visit—his third visit to Jerusalem,—this being the fourth. Let us see, once more, on what occasion, and for what cause, this reproof: we shall thereby be the better enabled to judge—how far, supposing the ceremony to have the effect of an assertory oath,—how far that oath can have been conformable to the truth.
Speaking of Peter, Paul says,
Before me lies a book by Thomas Lewis, M. A., in four 8vo volumes, entitled Origines Hebraicae. In this book, under titles Vow and Purification, my expectation was, to find some explanation of this matter: as also of the other vow taken by Paul at Cenchrea, Acts 17:18, in the interval between his third visit to Jerusalem, and this fourth: but no mention is made of either: nor does anything appear, by which any light can be reflected upon either.
On the four men, whom, in pursuance of the recommendation in question, Paul is said to have taken, that he might "purify himself along with them," the intended effect of the ceremony in question is said to be—the making or performance of a vow. But, from the circumstance of its being a vow in their case, it follows not absolutely that it may not have been an oath—an assertory oath, in his case.
At Jerusalem, for the taking or performance of a vow, a man was received into the temple:—a district more extensive by far, it appears, than the district called Rules of the King's Bench at London: from the account given by Lewis, as well as by this,—it appears that, on every such occasion, fees were taken by the priests. As to the four men here in question—having already, as it is stated, a vow on them, but nothing as yet done in consequence,—it looks as if it had been by poverty that they had hitherto been kept from the accomplishment of their purpose: on which supposition, Paul being the head of a considerable party, and as such having a command of money,—part of the recommendation seems to have been—that, to acquire the reputation of liberality, he should open his purse to these his proposed companions, and pay their fees.
On the occasion here in question, whatsoever was the purpose and intended effect of the ceremony, what appears from verse 27, Acts 27, is—that seven days were regarded as necessary for the accomplishment of it: no mention of this in Lewis.
On this occasion, by the author of the Acts, once more is mentioned the conciliatory decree of the Apostles and Elders. Still, not a syllable about it is to be found in any Epistle of Saint Paul, or in any other of the Apostolical Epistles that have come down to us.
Humanly speaking,—in what motives, in what circumstances, in what considerations, shall we say, that the causes, final and efficient, of this temperament—this mezzo termino—this middle course—are to be found? The answer that presents itself is as follows:
Two stumbling-blocks were to be steered clear of:—the scruples of the Jewish converts, and the refractoriness of the Gentiles. So far as regarded abstinence from idolatrous feasts, and from meat with the whole blood in it, killed and dressed in a manner other than that in practice among the Jews,—conformity, it was judged, need not be dispensed of, at the hands of the Gentiles: and, so long as they would be content with meat killed and dressed after the Jewish mode,—the Jewish teachers might, without giving offence to their Jewish converts, have the convenience of partaking of the tables of the Gentile converts. As to the rest—the endless train of habitual observances, by which so large a portion of a man's life was occupied and tormented, neither these permanent plagues, nor the initiatory plague of circumcision, though the affair of a minute, and performed once for all, were found endurable: neither upon himself nor upon his children would a man submit to have it practiced.
After all, if the author of the Acts is to be believed,—it was by the Jews of Asia, and not by those of Jerusalem, that, at Jerusalem, the tumult was raised, by which this purification of Paul's was rendered incomplete, and his stay at Jerusalem cut short: he being removed for trial to Rome; at which place the history leaves him and concludes.
Of the behaviour observed by the Jerusalem Christians, on that occasion—Apostles, Elders, Deacons and ordinary brethren all together—nothing is said. Yet, of these there were many thousands on the spot, Acts 21:20: all of them of course informed of the place—the holy place,—in which, at the recommendation of the Elders, Paul had stationed himself. By the Jews of Asia
At this period ends all that, on the present occasion, it will be necessary to say, of this last recorded visit to Jerusalem. Of the two inconsistent accounts said to have been given by him of his conversion—one to the Jerusalem mob, the other to King Agrippa—full notice has been taken under the head of his conversion: of the miracles ascribed to him at Malta, mention is here made, in the chapter allotted to the history of his supposed miracles. Of any other subsequent acts or sayings of his, no notice will require to be taken in this place. The matter here in question has been—the sort of relation, stated as having had place, between this self-constituted Apostle, and those who beyond controversy were constituted such by, and lived as such with, Jesus himself: and to this have incidentally been added the causes, which have continually been presenting themselves, for suspicion, in respect of the verity and authenticity, or both, of the history, which, under the name of the Acts of the Apostles, has come down to us, connected by the operations of the bookbinder, in the same volume with the several histories of the four Evangelists, and the Epistles—not only of Paul himself but of others among the Apostles; and with the work styled, as if in derision, "The Revelations."