Chapter 6: Paul Disbelieved Continued.—Jerusalem Visit III. Deputation Visit.—Paul and Barnabas Delegated by Antioch Saints, To Confer on the Necessity of Jewish Rites to Heathen Converts to the Religion of Jesus
Section 1: Occasion of This Visit
We come now to the transaction, on the occasion of which, the grand object of Paul's ambition received, in part, its accomplishment: namely, that, by which,—though without any such popular election as, in the instance of Matthias, had been necessary to constitute a man an associate to the Apostles,—he was, in some sort, taken by them into fellowship, and admitted, with their consent, into a participation of their labours.
This occasion was—the dispute, which, in the Syrian Antioch, took place, according to the author of the Acts, on the question—whether, under the religion of Jesus, circumcision was necessary to salvation: a question, in which,—whether explicitly or no,—was implicitly, it should seem, and perhaps inextricably, understood to be involved, the so much wider question—whether, under that same new religion, the old ceremonial law should, in any part of it, be regarded as necessary.
On this same occasion, two important subjects present themselves to view at the same time: the one, a question of doctrine relative to circumcision, as above; the other, a question about jurisdiction, as between Paul on the one part, and Peter, with or without the rest of the Apostles.
As to what concerns the debate about circumcision, we have no other evidence than the statement of the author of the Acts.
As to what concerns the jurisdiction question, we have the evidence of Paul himself, as contained in his letter to the Galatian converts: and an original letter, howsoever dubious the correctness of the author in respect of matters of fact, is more trustworthy than a multitude of anonymous narratives.29
In respect of the progress made by the religion of Jesus,—Antioch, it has already been observed—the Syrian Antioch—had become a second Jerusalem; and, so far as concerned the Gentiles at large, its maritime situation gave to it a convenience, that was not shared with it by that inland city.
At the time here in question,—the Gentiles had received more or less of instruction, from three different sets of teachers: 1. from the disciples who had been driven from Jerusalem by the tragical death of Saint Stephen; 2. from Saint Peter, principally on the occasion of the excursion made by him to Lydda, Saron, Joppa, and Cæsarea; and 3. from Paul and Barnabas, on the occasion, and by the means, of the long tour, made by them for that special purpose, as above.
At this maritime metropolis of the faith, the new religion was spreading itself,—and, as far at least as depended on exemption from all disturbance from without, in a state of peace and tranquility;—when, by a set of nameless men from Judea,—if to the author of the Acts credit is to be given on this point, for by him no mention is made of any one of their names,—the harmony of the Church was disturbed.
Converts as they were to the religion of Jesus, yet,—in their view of the matter, if the author of the Acts is to be believed, without circumcision, no salvation was to be had.
By Paul it is said, "they came from James,"(See Galatians 2:12.) which is as much as to say that they were sent by James: and accordingly, when James's speech is seen, by him will these scruples of theirs be seen advocated.
If the Gospel history, as delivered by the Evangelists, is to be believed,—nothing could be more inconsistent, on many occasions with the practice, and at length with the direct precepts, of Jesus, than this deference to the Mosaic law: if human prudence is to be regarded,—nothing could be more impolitic—nothing more likely to narrow, instead of extending, the dominion of the Church. On this principle, no man who was not born a Jew, could be a Christian without first becoming a Jew, without embracing the Mosaic law; and thus loading himself with two different, and mutually inconsistent, sets of obligations.
From Paul, this conceit,—as was natural,—experienced a strenuous resistance. No recognition as yet had Paul received, from the body of the Apostles. In Jerusalem, for anything that appears,—though this was at least seventeen years after the death of Jesus—they remained alive—all of them:—at any rate the two chiefs of them, if Paul is to be believed, who, Galatians 1:19, says he saw them, namely, Saint Peter "and James, the Lord's brother": which two, he says, he saw, out of a number, the rest of whom, he studiously assures his Galatians that he did not see: though by his historiographer, Acts 15:4, by his all-comprehensive expression, "the Apostles," we are desired to believe, that he saw all of them.30 Whichever be the truth,—at Jerusalem, the metropolis of Judaism, no employment could, under these circumstances, be reasonably expected for Paul: whereas, out of Judea,—wherever the language of Greece was the mother tongue, or familiarly spoken,—the advantage, which, in every address to the Gentiles, he would have over those unlearned Jews, was universally manifest.
Such, however, were the impressions, made by these unnamed manufacturers and disseminators of scruples, who, if Paul is to be believed, came from James the brother of our Lord—that, by the whole Church, as it is called, of Antioch, a determination was taken—to send to Jerusalem, to the Apostles and the Elders that were associated with them, a numerous mission, headed by Paul and Barnabas, who are the only two persons named. Accordingly, out they set, "after having been brought on their way," says the author of the Acts 15:3, "by the Church," which is as much as to say, by the whole fraternity of Christians there established.
The cause of this contrariety lies not far beneath the surface. Paul had one object in view; his historiographer another. In the two passages, they wrote at distant times, and with different purposes. In his address to his Galatian disciples, Paul's object was to magnify his own importance at the expense of that of the Apostles: to establish the persuasion, not only of his independence of them, but of his superiority over them. The generality of them were not worth his notice; but having some business to settle with them, Peter, the chief of them, he "went" to see, and James, as being "the Lord's brother," he vouchsafed to see. On that particular occasion, such was the conception which Paul was labouring to produce: and such, accordingly, was his discourse. As for the historiographer, his object was, of course, throughout, to place the importance of his hero on as high a ground as possible. But, in this view, when once Paul had come to a settlement with the Apostles, the more universal the acceptance understood to have been received by him—received from the whole body of Christians, and from those their illustrious leaders in particular,—the better adapted to this his historiographer's general purposes would be the conception thus conveyed: accordingly they were received, he says, "of the Church, and the Apostles, and Elders."