Peter had among the apostles a certain precedence, derived directly from his zeal and his activity.
Today we continue Christianity Appears
with a selection from Histoire des Origines du Christianisme by J. Ernest Renan published in 1881. The selections are presented in a series of installments for 5 minute daily reading.
Previously in Christianity Appears.
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.
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 went as far as decreeing death. It is recorded that at the voice of Peter several delinquents had fallen back and expired immediately. St. 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.” Excommunication was held to be equivalent to a sentence of death. 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. Accounts like those of the death of Ananias and Sapphira did not excite any scruple. The idea of the civil power was so foreign to all that world placed without the pale of the Roman 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.
Peter had among 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 equaled them in authority, at least among a fraction of the Church.
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. 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 among themselves, in order to be recognized and confirmed, was maran-atha, “the Lord is at hand.”
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 to 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 so 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 baptized you with water; but as for you, you shall be baptized 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 practiced with special liturgies by the Sabeans or Mendaites. The religion of Persia embraced also many rites of the same description.
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