Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka
Paul is the other key figure in the Acts of the Apostles. His career is the concern of Acts 12-28. While not a companion of Jesus, Paul experienced a profound and disturbing vision of Jesus, and became a passionate missionary. Paul concentrated his ministry in the towns outside the Jewish province of Palestine, around the eastern Mediterranean and west to Rome. While Peter focused his evangelism among the Jews of Jerusalem, Paul's evangelical mission to the Roman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond extended his message to Gentiles as well as Jews.
In the years before the life of Jesus, there were many Greek-speaking, non-Jewish devotees of Judaism in the Roman Empire. Called "God-fearers," these individuals were not full converts and were therefore not required to be circumcised or to keep the other strict Jewish rituals. Many of the early Gentile converts of Paul were "God-fearers." By embracing the Christian gospel, they were often entering into largely Jewish communities.
As both Jews and God-fearers joined the ranks of the early Christians, these Christian communities faced their first major dispute. Christian Jews showed their commitment to the God of the Jewish scriptures, who is also the Christian God, by keeping the Jewish religious laws as they always had. God-fearers did not have the same dedication to the laws and religious rites of traditional Judaism. Did all converts to Christian faith have to keep all Jewish religious laws?
Although more than one issue was at stake, the real tension circled around the question of circumcision. Did adult males wishing to be baptized also have to undergo circumcision? The problem arose in Antioch in Syria, when representatives of the Jerusalem Church reportedly began telling new converts that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised. Essentially, they argued that becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus, who was Jewish, meant practicing all the older Jewish customs as well.
Paul, who was preaching in Antioch at the time, disagreed. Senior Christian leaders tackled this problem by holding the first Church council, the Council of Jerusalem. Accounts of this meeting are found in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Galatians. Paul and a companion, Barnabas, traveled from Antioch in Syria to Jerusalem to meet with the elders of the Jerusalem Church, including Peter and James, in order to reach agreement on the touchy question of Jewish law and non-Jewish converts.
According to Acts and Galatians, Paul and his followers prevailed on the question of circumcision. In a decision issued by James, the Council affirmed that new converts were excused from following most of the requirements of Jewish law, including circumcision. However, all Christians were required to follow some of the Jewish dietary restrictions, as well as prohibitions against sexual immorality and idolatry.
The Council of Jerusalem, and James's decree, may represent the first episode in which the early Christians differentiated themselves from Judaism. While it would take time for Christianity and Judaism to completely divide, the die was cast. For many years, the relationship between Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians was fluid and indeterminate.
Christians believe that Peter ultimately settled in Rome, and was crucified there, probably during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero (c. 64). Christians also believe Paul was executed in Rome, by beheading, also during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. These traditions have contributed to the special prestige Rome has for many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics.
1. What event within Jesus' life made him central to the Christianity movement?
2. Why were Jesus' disciples important founders of Christianity?
3. Who was Peter? Who was Paul? What did they contribute?
4. How did Jewish tradition affect the development of early Christianity?
5. When did Christianity separate from Judaism? How?