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FIRST CHURCH OF JERUSALEM; IT IS ENTIRELY CENOBITICAL.
The custom of living together, holding the same faith, and indulging the same expectation, necessarily produced many common habits. Very soon rules were framed, which made that primitive church resemble, to some extent, the establishments of the cenobitical life, rules with which Christianity subsequently became acquainted. Many of the precepts of Jesus conduced to this; the true ideal of evangelical life is a monastery, not a monastery enclosed with iron bars, a prison after the type of the Middle Ages, with the separation of the sexes, but an asylum in the midst of the world, a place set apart for spiritual life, a free association or little private confraternity, surrounded by a barrier, which may serve to ward off the cares which are prejudicial to the liberty of the Kingdom of God.
All, then, lived in common, having but one heart and one mind. No one possessed anything which was his own. On becoming a disciple of Jesus, one sold one’s goods and made a gift of the proceeds to the society. The chiefs of the society then distributed the common possessions to each, according to his needs. They lived in the same quarter, They took their meals together, and continued to attach to them the mystic sense that Jesus had prescribed. They passed long hours in prayers. Their prayers were sometimes improvised aloud, but more often meditated in silence. Trances were frequent, and each one believed oneself to be constantly favoured with divine inspiration. The concord was perfect; no dogmatic quarrels, no disputes in regard to precedence. The tender recollection of Jesus effaced all dissensions. Joy, lively and deep-seated, 42was in every heart. Their morals were austere, but pervaded by a soft and tender sentiment. They assembled in houses to pray, and to devote themselves to ecstatic exercises. The recollection of these two or three first years remained and seemed to them like a terrestrial paradise, which Christianity will pursue henceforth in all its dreams and to which it will vainly endeavour to return. Who does not see, in fact, that such an organisation could only be applicable to a very small church? But, subsequently, the monastic life will resume on its own account that primitive ideal which the church universal will hardly dream of realising.
That the author of the Acts, to whom we are indebted for the picture of this primitive Christianity at Jerusalem, has laid on his colours a little too thickly, and, in particular, exaggerated the community of goods which obtained in the sect, is certainly possible. The author of the Acts is the same as the author of the third gospel, who, in his life of Jesus, had the habit of adapting his facts to suit his theories, and with whom a tendency to the doctrine of ebonism, that is to say, of absolute poverty, is very perceptible. Nevertheless, the narrative of the Acts cannot here be destitute of some foundation. Although Jesus himself would not have given utterance to any of the communistic axioms which one reads in the third gospel, it is certain that a renunciation of worldly goods and of the giving of alms pushed to the length of self-despoilment, were perfectly conformable to the spirit of his preaching. The belief that the world is coming to an end has always produced a distaste for worldly goods, and a leaning to the communistic life. The narrative of the Acts is, however, perfectly conformable to that which we know of the origin of other ascetic religions—of Buddhism for example. These sorts of religion commence always with monastical life. Their first adepts are some species of mendicant monks. The layman does not appear in them until later, and when these religions 43have conquered entire societies, in which monastic life can only exist under exceptional circumstances.
We admit, then, in the Church of Jerusalem a period of cenobitical life. Two centuries later Christianity produced still on the Pagans the effect of a communistic sect. It must be remembered that the Essenians or Therapeutians had already given the model of this species of life, which sprang very legitimately from Mosaism. The Mosaic code being essentially moral and not political, its natural product was a social Utopia (church, synagogue and convent) not a civil state, nation or city. Egypt had had for many centuries recluses, both male and female, maintained by the state, probably in fulfilment of charitable legacies, near the Serapeum at Memphis. It must especially be remembered that such a life in the East is by no means what it has been in our West. In the East, one can very well enjoy nature and existence without possessing anything. Man, in these countries, is always free, because he has few wants; the slavery of toil is there unknown. We readily admit that the communism of the primitive church was neither so rigorous nor so universal as the author of the Acts would have. What is certain is, that there was at Jerusalem a large community of poor, governed by the apostles, and to whom were sent gifts from every quarter of Christendom. This community was obliged, no doubt, to establish some rather seven rules, and some years later, it was even necessary, in order to enforce these rules, to employ terror. Some frightful legends were circulated, according to which the mere fact of having retained anything beyond that which one gave to the community, was looked upon as a capital crime and punished by death.
The porticoes of the temple, especially the portico of Solomon, which looked down on the Valley of Cedron, was the place where the disciples usually met during the day. There they could recall the hours Jesus had spent in the same place. In the midst of the extreme 44activity which reigned all about the Temple, they were little noticed. The galleries, which formed a part of the edifice, were the resort of numerous schools and sects, the theatre of endless disputations. The faithful followers of Jesus were, however, regarded as extreme devotees; for they still, without scruple, observed the Jewish customs, praying at the appointed hours, and observing all the precepts of the Law. They were Jews, differing only from others in believing that the Messiah had already come. The common people who were not informed as to their concerns, and they were an immense majority, regarded them as a sect of Hasidim, or pious people. One needed not to be either a schismatic or a heretic, in order to affiliate oneself with them, any more than one need cease to be a Protestant in order to be a disciple of Spencer, or a Catholic, in order to belong to the sect of Saint Francis or of Saint Bruno. The people loved them, because of their piety, their simplicity, their kindly disposition. The aristocrats of the Temple looked upon them, no doubt, with displeasure. But the sect made little noise; it was tranquil, thanks to its obscurity.
At eventide, the brethren returned to their quarters, and partook of the meal, being divided into groups, in sign of paternity, and in remembrance of Jesus, whom they always believed to be present in the midst of them. The one at the head of the table broke the bread, blessed the cup, and sent them round as a symbol of union in Jesus. The most common act of life became in this way the most sacred and the most holy. These meals en famille, which were always enjoyed by the Jews, were accompanied by prayers, pious raptures, and pervaded by a sweet cheerfulness. They believed themselves once more to be in the time when Jesus animated them by his presence: they imagined they saw him, and it was not long before the rumour went abroad that Jesus had said: “As often as ye break the bread, do it in remembrance of Me.” The bread itself became 45in some sort Jesus, conceived to be the only source of strength for those who had loved him, and who still lived by him. These repasts, which were always the chief symbol of Christianity, and the soul of its mysteries, took place at first every evening. Usage, however, soon restricted them to Sunday evenings. Later on, the mystic repast was changed to the morning. It is probable that at the period of the history which we have now reached, the holy day of each week was still, with the Christians, the Saturday.
The apostles chosen by Jesus, and who were supposed to have received from him a special mandate to announce to the world the Kingdom of God, had, in the little community, an incontestable superiority. One of the first cares, as soon as they saw the sect settle quietly down at Jerusalem, was to fill the vacancy that Judas of Kerioth had left in its ranks. The opinion that the latter had betrayed his master, and had been the cause of his death, became more and more general. The legend was mixed up with him, and every day one heard of some new circumstance which enhanced the black-heartedness of his deed. He had bought a field near the old necropolis of Hakeldama, to the south of Jerusalem, and there he lived retired. Such was the state of artless excitation in which the little Church found itself, that, in order to replace him, it was resolved to have recourse to a vote of some sort. In general, in great religious agitations we decide upon this method of coming to a determination, since it is admitted on principle that nothing is fortuitous, that the question in point is the chief object of divine attention, and that God’s part in an action is so much the more greater in proportion as that of man’s is the more feeble. The sole condition was, that the candidate should be chosen from the groups of the oldest disciples, who had been witnesses of the whole series of events, from the time of the baptism of John. This reduced considerably the number of those eligible. Two only were found in the ranks, 46Joseph Bar-Saba, who bore the name of Justus, and Matthias. The lot fell upon Matthias, who was accounted as one of the Twelve. But this was the sole instance of such a replacing. The apostles were hitherto regarded as having been nominated, once for all, by Jesus, and not as having successors. The danger of a permanent college, reserving to itself all the life and the strength of the association, was, with extraordinary instinct, discarded for a time. The concentration of the Church into an oligarchy did not happen until later.
For the rest, it is necessary to guard against the misunderstandings, which the name of “apostle” might provoke, and which it has not failed to occasion. From a very early period, people were led by some passages in the Gospel, and, above all, by the analogy of the life of Saint Paul, to regard the apostles as essentially wandering missionaries, distributing in a kind of way the world in advance, and traversing as conquerors all the kingdoms of the earth. A cycle of legends was founded upon that data, and imposed upon ecclesiastical history. Nothing could be more contrary to the truth. The body of Twelve lived, generally, permanently at Jerusalem. Till about the year 60 the apostles did not leave the holy city except upon temporary missions. This explains the obscurity in which the majority of the members of the central council remained. Very few of them had a rôle. This council was a kind of sacred college or senate, destined only to represent tradition, and a spirit of conservatism. It finished by being relieved of every active function, so that its members had nothing to do but to preach and pray; but as yet the brilliant feats of preaching had not fallen to their lot. Their names were hardly known outside Jerusalem, and about the year 70 or 80 the lists which were given of these chosen Twelve, agreed only in the principal names.
The “brothers of the Lord” appear often by the side of the “apostles,” although they were distinct from them. Their authority, however, was equal to that of 47the apostles. Here two groups constituted, in the nascent Church, a sort of aristocracy, founded solely on the more or less intimate relations that their members had had with the Master. These were the men whom Paul denominated “the pillars” of the Church at Jerusalem. For the rest, we see that no distinctions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy yet existed. The title was nothing; the personal authority was everything. The principle of ecclesiastical celibacy was already established, but it required time to bring all these germs to their complete development. Peter and Philip were married, and had sons and daughters.
The term used to designate the assembly of the faithful was the Hebrew Kahal, which was rendered by the essentially democratic word Ecclesia, which is the convocation of the people in the ancient Grecian cities, the summons to the Pnyx or the Agora. Commencing with the second or the third century before Jesus Christ, the words of the Athenian democracy became a sort of common law in Hellenic language; many of these terms, on account of their having been used in the Greek confraternities, entered into the Christian vocabulary. It was, in reality, the popular life, which; restrained for centuries, resumed its power under forms altogether different. The Primitive Church was, in its way, a little democracy. Even election by lot, a method an dear to the ancient Republics, had sometimes found its way into it. Less harsh, and less suspicious, however, than the ancient cities, the Church voluntarily delegated its authority. Like all theocratic societies, it inclined to abdicate its functions into the hands of a clergy, and it was easy to foresee that one or two centuries would not roll over before all this democracy would resolve itself into an oligarchy.
The power which was ascribed to the Church assembled and to its chiefs was enormous. The Church conferred every mission, and was guided solely in its choice by the signs given by the Spirit. Its authority 48went as far as decreeing death. It is recorded that at the voice of Peter, several delinquents had fallen back and expired immediately. Saint Paul, a little later, was not afraid, in excommunicating a fornicator “to deliver him to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor., v. vii.). Excommunication was held to be equivalent to a sentence of death. It was not doubted that any person whom the apostles or the elders of the Church had cut off from the body of the Saints, and delivered over to the power of evil, was not lost. Satan was considered as the author of diseases. To deliver over to him the corrupted member was to deliver over the latter to the natural executor of the sentence. A premature death was ordinarily held to be the result of these occult sentences, which, according to the expressive Hebrew phrase, “cut off a soul from Israel.” The apostles were believed to be invested with supernatural powers. In pronouncing such condemnations, they thought that their anathemas could not fail but be effectual. The terrible impression which their excommunications produced, and the hatred manifested by the brethren against all the members thus cut off, were sufficient, in fact, in many cases, to bring about death, or at least to compel the culprit to expatriate himself. The same terrible ambiguity was found in the ancient law. “Extirpation” implied at once death, expulsion from the community, exile, and a solitary and mysterious demise. So with the apostate, or blasphemer. To destroy his body in order to save his soul came to be looked on as legitimate. It must be remembered that we are treating of the times of zealots, who regarded it as an act of virtue to poignard anyone who failed to obey the Law; and it must not be forgotten that certain Christians were or had been zealots. Accounts like those of the death of Ananias and Saphira did not excite any scruple. The idea of the civil power was so foreign to all that world placed without the pale of the 49Roman law, people were so persuaded that the Church was a complete society, sufficient in itself, that no person saw, in a miracle leading to death or the mutilation of an individual, an outrage punishable by the civil law. Enthusiasm and faith covered all, excused everything. But the frightful danger which these theocratic maxims laid up in store for the future is readily perceived. The Church is armed with a sword; excommunication is a sentence of death. There was henceforth in the world a power outside that of the state, which disposed of the life of citizens. Certainly, if the Roman authority had limited itself to repressing amongst the Jews precepts so condemnatory, it would have been a thousand times in the right. Only, in its brutality, it confounded the most legitimate of liberties, that of worshipping in one’s own manner, with abuses which no society has ever been able to support with impunity.
Peter had amongst the apostles a certain precedence, derived directly from his zeal and his activity. In these first years, he was hardly ever separate from John, son of Zebedee. They went almost always together, and their amity was doubtless the corner stone of the new faith. James, the brother of the Lord, almost equalled them in authority, at least amongst a fraction of the Church. In regard to certain intimate friends of Jesus, like the Galilean women, and the family of Bethany, we have already remarked that no more mention is made of them. Less solicitous of organizing and of establishing a society, the faithful companions of Jesus were content with loving in death him whom they had loved in life. Absorbed in their expectation, these noble women, who have formed the faith of the world, were almost unknown to the important men of Jerusalem. When they died, the most important elements of the history of nascent Christianity were put into the tomb with them. Only those who played active parts earned renown. Those who were content to love in 50secret, remained obscure but assuredly they chose the better part.
It is needless to remark that this little group of simple people had no speculative theology. Jesus wisely kept himself far removed from all metaphysics. He had only one dogma, his own divine sonship and the divinity of his mission. The whole symbol of the primitive church might be embraced in one line: “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” This belief rested upon a peremptory argument—the fact of the resurrection, of which the disciples claimed to be witnesses. In reality nobody (not even the Galilean women) said they had seen the resurrection. But the absence of the body and the apparitions which had followed, appeared to be equivalent to the fact itself. To attest the resurrection of Jesus was the task which all considered as being specially imposed upon them. It was, however, very soon put forth that the master had predicted this event. Different sayings of his were recalled, which were represented as having not been well understood, and in which was seen, on second thoughts, an announcement of the resurrection. The belief in the near glorious manifestation of Jesus was universal. The secret word which the brethren used amongst themselves, in order to be recognized and confirmed, was maran-atha, the “Lord is at hand.” They believed to remember a declaration of Jesus, according to which their preaching would not have time to go over all the cities of Israel, before that the Son of Man appeared in his majesty. In the meanwhile the risen Jesus had seated himself at the right hand of his Father. Here he is to remain until the solemn day on which he shall conic, seated upon the clouds, to judge the quick and the dead.
The idea which they had of Jesus was the one which Jesus had given them of himself. Jesus had been “a prophet, mighty in deed and word,” a man chosen of God, having received a special mission on behalf 51of humanity, a mission which he had proved by his miracles, and especially by his resurrection. God had anointed him with the Holy Spirit and had clothed him with power; he passed his time in doing good, and in healing those who were under the power of the devil, for God was with him He is the Son of God; that is to say, a perfect man of God, a representation of God upon earth; he is the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, announced by the prophets (Acts x. 38). The reading of the books of the Old Testament, especially of the Prophets and the Psalms, was habitual in the sect. They carried into that reading a fixed idea—that of discovering everywhere the type of Jesus. They were persuaded that the ancient Hebrew books were full of him, and from the very first years they formed a collection of texts drawn from the Prophets, the Psalms, and from certain apocryphal books, wherein they were convinced that the life of Jesus was predicted and described in advance. This method of arbitrary interpretation belonged at that time to all the Jewish schools. The Messianic missions were a sort of jeu d’esprit, analogous to the allusions which the ancient preachers made of passages of the Bible, diverted from their natural sense and accepted as the simple ornaments of sacred rhetoric.
Jesus with his exquisite tact in religious matters had instituted no new ritual. The new sect had not yet any special ceremonies. The practices of piety were Jewish. The assemblies had, in a strict sense, nothing liturgic. They were the meetings of confraternities, at which prayers were offered up, devoted themselves to glossolaly or prophecy, and the reading of correspondence. There was nothing yet of sacerdotalism. There was no priest (cohen); the presbyter was the “elder,” nothing more. The only priest was Jesus: in another sense, all the faithful were priests. Fasting was considered a very meritorious practice. Baptism was the token of admission 52to the sect. The rite was the same as administered by John, but it was administered in the name of Jesus. Baptism was, however, considered an insufficient initiation. It had to be followed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were effected by means of a prayer, offered up by the apostles, upon the head of the new convert, accompanied by the imposition of hands.
This imposition of hands, already as familiar to Jesus, was the sacramental act par excellence. It conferred inspiration, universal illumination, the power to produce prodigies, prophesying, and the speaking of languages. It was what was called the Baptism of the Spirit. It was supposed to recall a saying of Jesus: “John baptised you with water, but as for you, you shall be baptised by the Spirit.” Gradually, all these ideas became amalgamated, and baptism was conferred “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” But it is not probable that this formula, in the early days in which we now are, was yet employed. We see the simplicity of this primitive Christian worship. Neither Jesus nor the apostles had invented it. Certain Jewish sects had adopted, before them, these grave and solemn ceremonies, which appeared to have come in part from Chaldea, where they are still practised with special liturgies by the Sabæans or Mendaïtes. The religion of Persia embraced also many rites of the same description.
The beliefs in popular medicine, which constituted a part of the force of Jesus, were continued in his disciples. The power of healing was one of the marvellous gifts conferred by the Spirit. The first Christians, like almost all the Jews of the time, looked upon diseases as the punishment of a transgression, or the work of a malignant demon. The apostles passed, just as Jesus did, for powerful exorcists. People imagined that the anointings of oil administered by the apostles, with imposition of hands, and invocation of the name of Jesus, were all powerful to wash away the sins which 53were the cause of disease, and to heal the afflicted one. Oil has always been in the East the medicine par excellence. For the rest, the simple imposition of the hands of the apostles was reputed to have the same effect. This imposition was made by immediate contact. Nor is it impossible that, in certain cases, the heat of the hands, being communicated suddenly to the head, insured to the sick person a little relief.
The sect being young and not numerous, the question of deaths was not taken into account until later on. The effect caused by the first demises which took place in the ranks of the brethren was strange. People were troubled by the manner of the deaths. It was asked whether they were less favoured than those who were reserved to see with their eyes the advent of the Son of Man. They came generally to consider the interval between death and the resurrection as a kind of blank in the consciousness of the defunct. The idea set forth in the Phædon, that the soul existed before and after death, that death was a boon, that it was the philosophical state par excellence, inasmuch as the soul was then free and disengaged; this idea, I say, was by no means settled in the minds of the first Christians. More often it would seem that man, to them, could not exist without the body. This conception endured for a long time, and was only given up when the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, in the sense of the Greek philosophy, made its entry into the Church, and united in itself so much good and bad with the Christian dogma of the resurrection and with the universal renovation. At the time of which we speak, belief in the resurrection almost alone prevailed. The funeral rite was undoubtedly the Jewish rite. No importance was attached to it; no inscription indicated the name of the dead. The great resurrection was near; the bodies of the faithful had only to make in the rock a very short sojourn. It did not require much persuasion to put people in accord on the question as to whether the 54resurrection was to be universal, that is to say, whether it would embrace the good and the bad, or whether it would apply to the elect only. One of the most remarkable phenomena of the new religion was the reappearance of prophecy. For a long time people had spoken but little of prophets in Israel. That particular species of inspiration seemed to revive in the little sect. The primitive Church had several prophets and prophetesses analogous to those of the Old Testament. The psalmists also reappeared. The model of our Christian psalms is without doubt given in the canticles which Luke loved to disseminate in his gospel, and which were copied from the canticles of the Old Testament. These psalms and prophesies are, as regards form, destitute of originality, but an admirable spirit of gentleness and of piety animates and pervades them. It is like a faint echo of the last productions of the sacred lyre of Israel. The Book of Psalms was in a measure the calyx from which the Christian bee sucked its first juice. The Pentateuch, on the contrary, was, as it would seem, little read and little studied; there was substituted for it allegories after the manner of the Jewish midraschim in which all the historic sense of the books was suppressed.
The music which was sung to the new hymns was probably that species of sobbing, without distinct notes, which is still the music of the Greek Church, of the Maronites, and in general of the Christians of the East. It is less a musical modulation than a manner of forcing the voice and of emitting by the nose a sort of moaning in which all the inflexions follow each other with rapidity. That odd melopœia was executed standing, with the eyes fixed, the eyebrows crumpled, the brow knit, and with an appearance of effort. The word amen, in particular, was given out in a quivering, trembling voice. That word played a great part in the liturgy. In imitation of the Jews, the new adherents employed it to mark the assent of the multitude to the words of the prophet or the precentor. People, perhaps, 55already attributed to it some secret virtues and pronounced it with a certain emphasis. We do not know whether that primitive ecclesiastical song was accompanied by instruments. As to the inward chant, by which the faithful “made melody in their hearts,” and which was but the overflowing of those tender, ardent, pensive souls, it was doubtless executed like the catilenes of the Lollards of the middle ages, in medium voice. In general, it was joyousness which was poured out in these hymns. One of the maxims of the sages of the sect was: “Is any afflicted among you, let him pray. Is any merry, let him sing psalms” (James v. 13). Moreover, this Christian literature being destined purely for the edification of the assembled brethren, was not written down. To compose books was an idea which had occurred to nobody. Jesus had spoken; people remembered his words. Had he not promised that the generation to whom he had spoken should not pass away, until he appeared again?
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