Thursday, June 16, 2011

Understanding the Early Development of the House Churches in Rome, part 2

I’m following up on my previous post about William L. Lane’s discussion of the origins of Christianity in Rome and the development of a network of house churches (pointing an absence of a “bishop of Rome” generally, and in particular, an absence of a Vatican I notion that Peter was a pope and that there were “successors” in any sense.) Returning to Paul, Lane says that he:
makes it clear that he does not want to intrude upon the Roman Christians. The Roman communities had not acknowledged his authority, and Paul exercises deliberate reserve in addressing them. His approach remains tactful and diplomatic. He assures his readers that he is confident of their faith and ability to instruct each other and that he writes only as a reminder (Romans 15:14-15). He concedes that he has written boldly on some points, but he goes on to explain his apostolic mission and plans and to inform the church that his stay in Rome will be temporary, not permanent (Romans 15:24) (201).
Moo, in his NICNT Commentary on the “Epistle to the Romans” (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, ©1996) agrees with this, noting that the tone is “almost apologetic”. “Undoubtedly Paul walks on eggshells in his desire not to offend the Christians in Rome by assuming an authority over them that they would not recognize” (887). Still, “however much Paul might want to tiptoe carefully around the Romans’ sensibilities. He will not surrender his right to address them, and to address them with authority. For, as he indicates in the last part of [15:15], his ‘bringing to their remembrance’ gospel truths is based on ‘the grace that was given to [him] by God.’ By this, of course, Paul does not mean that general divine grace that underlies and empowers all Christian existence. As in [many other places], Paul refers to that special gift of God’s grace which established him as an apostle; cf. 1:5, ‘the grace of being an apostle’” (889).

Lane continues, noting the nature of the tensions and disagreements at Rome that Paul seeks to gingerly address:
Although “the strong” and “the weak” of Romans 14-15 do not represent strictly defined factions and parties and their precise identity remains ambiguous, these units provide evidence of a troubled church. Paul’s special exhortations are not purely hypothetical, the fact that Paul’s counsel repeats and echoes the arguments of 1 Corinthians 8-10 does not imply that these principles could apply to any Christian community. It seems certain that some form of Jewish piety influenced the stance of “the weak.” This consideration, coupled with Paul’s warning to the Gentiles not to display arrogance [and in Rome, they could be arrogant] before their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters (Romans 11:13-21), suggests that Paul’s appeals for mutual acceptance addressed actual strained relationships between the Christian communities in Rome. Paul’s admonitions, then, however deliberately reserved and general, address real tensions (201).
Lane pauses here to go back and establish what is known about the actual foundation of Christianity in Rome. It should be noted that while there are some questions as to the precise situation of the church or churches at Rome (i.e., the Jewish/Gentile composition, and the number and locations of house churches, for example), Paul’s letter to the Romans is so well attested that there is virtually no dispute at all that he wrote the letter from Corinth in 56 or 57 AD, during the reign of the emperor Nero.
The early years of Nero’s reign were popular and belevolent. The young emperor was under the tutelage of Seneca and Burrus during the years 54-59 C.E., and the result was a five-year period of responsible government (Tacitus, Annals 13.51). Romans may be assigned to this period. The letter appears to have been written from Corinth during the spring of 56, just prior to Paul’s journey to Jerusalem with the collection (Romans 15:25; Acts 20:2-3). The letter implies a Christian presence in Rome for an extended period before this, since Paul states that he had desired to visit the Christians in the city “for many years” (romans 15:23). The origins of Roman Christianity are buried in obscurity. It is plausible that Christianity penetrated Rome through Hellenistic Jewish Christians engaged in commerce with the great Jewish colony in Rome, given the social mobility in the Roman Empire at this time. This supposition is consistent with our sources, both Christian and Pagan, that agree that the earliest Christian presence in Rome was Jewish Christian in character.

Early Roman Christianity
In the preface to his Exposition of Romans, written ca. 375 C.E., Ambrosiaster commented on the character of early Roman Christianity:
It is established that there were Jews living in Rome in the time of the apostles and that those Jews who had believed [in Christ] passed on to the Romans the tradition that they ought to profess Christ but keep the Law. . . . One ought not to condemn the Romans, but to praise their faith, because without seeing any signs or miracles, and without seeing any of the apostles, they nevertheless accepted faith in Christ, although in a Jewish manner [ritu licet Judaico].
The period to which Ambrosiaster refers would seem to be the earliest mission to Rome. The statement that these early believers embraced a tradition that Christian confession should be supported by adherence to the provisions of the Law is intriguing because it suggests a Judaizing type of Jewish Christianity which is associated with the strict wing of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:1,5; cf. Galatians 2:3-5, 12-14; 3:1-5; 5:1-12; 6:12:16).
It seems possible to suggest that there were Christians in Rome from the time of Acts 2 (“Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven . . . and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes . . .”), though this does not seem to be attested anywhere else.

Too, at this time, it seems apt to note that Raymond Brown has identified at least four separate and identifiable groups of believers in the New Testament, (more than Lane identifies here), and interplay between some of these groups may be responsible for the conflicts that Paul is addressing. These include:
1. Jewish Christians and Gentile Converts who insisted on full observance of the Mosaic Law, including circumcision. Brown believes that it is this group that Paul refers to as “false brothers who slipped in to spy out our freedom” (Galatians 2:4). He says that “Paul’s whole letter to the Galatians shows that Jewish Christians of similar persuasion had made inroads among his Gentile converts in Galatia” and that Philippians 3 “shows a fear of similar Jewish Christian propaganda”.

2. Jewish Christians and their Gentile Converts who did not insist on circumcision, but did require converted Gentiles to keep some Jewish observances. He calls this a “moderately conservative Jewish/Gentile Christianity” and citing Acts 15, Galatians 2 and the Gospel of Matthew, places James and Peter and “the Jerusalem apostles” into this group, and suggests that their views are “mediating”, and “inclined to see a value in openness” with no demand for circumcision “but preserving some of the wealth of the Jewish Law as part of the Christian heritage”.

3. Jewish Christians and their Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision and who did not require observance of the Jewish (“Kosher”) food laws. Without having required Christians to abstain from food dedicated to idols (1 Corinthians 8), Paul was probably an advocate from this group, and not Group 4, because, for example, he kept some Jewish feasts and had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16).

4. Jewish Christians and their Gentile converts who did not insist on circumcision or observance of the Jewish food laws, and who saw no abiding significance in Jewish cult and feasts. He cites “Hellenists” such as Stephen (Acts 6), and also places the Gospels of Mark and John into this category, along with the Epistle to the Hebrews.

(from “Antioch and Rome”, New York, NY: Paulist Press, ©1983, pgs 2-9).
Despite these various groupings, and some of the conflicts among them, there were still, as Kostenberger and Kruger note in “The Heresy of Orthodoxy” (Wheaton, IL: Crossway ©2010), an essential set of “Christological core beliefs” among these groups that held that Jesus died by crucifixion, rose from the dead and ascended; that he was the promised Messiah, and that these were “considerably earlier, more wide spread, and more prevalent” (66) than some modern-day opponents of Christian orthodoxy have been suggesting.

Next time, I’ll turn to the way that Lane sees some of these difference playing out in the city of Rome.

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