The Early Church in Jerusalem

A small sect within Judaism — viewed superficially, this is a possible definition of the Christian status in Jerusalem during the very early years. There were many similar sects and religious factions in the Jewish world of that era. It was a period of religious and political excitement, of a heightening of the hopes and expectations connected with Israel’s national destiny and the biblical prophecies of the ultimate triumph of the chosen people. The time of the final revolt against the hated Roman rule was approaching; the destruction of Jerusalem was near at hand. “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). The question the disciples addressed to their departing Master burned deep in Jewish hearts. But for the Christians (and at first almost all of them were Jews) their own faith was the answer, for the confession of Jesus as the Christ was central to it, and in bringing their own kindred to the Messiah they saw their first goal, for He had come to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If He had been crucified by the rulers of the people, Israel could still repent and turn to her Savior. “For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39); these words of Peter’s first address to the Jews were the basis of all the early preaching. For the first Christian generation, which was by birth almost completely Jewish, the conversion of Israel seemed the fulfillment of Christ’s covenant. He had charged His disciples to begin preaching about Him in Jerusalem and Judea, and we are told in Acts that a great many Jews were converted at the very beginning. Later there was to be a final and total break with Judaism, but before that event the Church lived believing in the possible conversion of Israel.

The explanation for this belief is a fact which seems strange to us now: the first community in Jerusalem not only did not separate itself from Judaism, but even preserved Jewish religious forms intact in its own life. The apostles observed the appointed hours of prayer and all the ritual injunctions concerning food; when St. Paul came to Jerusalem, he agreed without objection to a request by St. James and the presbyters that he perform the ceremony of ritual purification, in order that “all may know…that thou thyself also walkest orderly, and keepest the law” (Acts 21:24). The Temple at Jerusalem remained for Christians a place of prayer, instruction, and preaching. Even when the initial link with it was broken and Christian worship began to develop independently, that worship retained — and always will retain — the stamp of its Jewish origins. The fundamental principles of Orthodox worship were determined almost entirely by the Temple and the synagogue.

Although we do not at first see any sharp break with Judaism, this does not mean, as some historians once thought, that Christianity began to experience its own radical newness only later, after entering the Greco-Roman world; that only then, under the influence of that world, did it create its “original” pattern of life and organization. The fact is, this sense that a radical change had taken place in world history and human life was the most basic and outstanding trait of the early Christian community as described in Acts and St. Paul’s epistles. But we must understand that for the Christians of Jerusalem the preservation of the Jewish religious tradition and mode of life was not a mere survival of the past from which they were released as they grew in understanding of their own faith. On the contrary, they observed the tradition because for them it all bore witness to the truth of their faith. Christ Himself had declared His work to be the fulfillment of the Scriptures: “Thus it is written…thus it behoved…” (Luke 24:46). “You pore over the scriptures…it is of these I speak as bearing witness to me” (John 5:39). The old accustomed words and ancient rites were now radiant with new light, and in them Christians were always discovering new points to confirm the truth and plenitude of the New Testament. St. Matthew’s Gospel, written in the Judeo-Christian milieu, was later to express this fundamental Christian belief in the Old Testament as prophecy and doctrine about Christ.