April 10, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

What we know about the early history of Christianity

John F. Fink(First in a series of columns)

Between Easter and Pentecost, the first liturgical readings during Masses are taken from the Acts of the Apostles. It tells how the Gospel was spread beyond Jerusalem, all the way to Rome, after the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles.

But Acts has its limitations, and weekly Massgoers really don’t hear much of Acts during those seven weeks before Pentecost. Even daily Massgoers learn only a little about the early history of Christianity.

Although we like to think of Luke, who wrote both his Gospel and Acts, as an historian of the early Church, he really didn’t try to cover everything that happened. For example, even though he probably wrote Acts sometime between the years 80 and 90, there’s no mention of what happened to the Church in Jerusalem after the Romans destroyed the city in 70.

Luke also says nothing about the martyrdom of Peter and Paul. The last time he mentions Peter was at the Council of Jerusalem, around the year 50, when it was determined that Christians didn’t have to follow most of the Law of Moses. Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome for the first time, in the year 60. Then what happened?

Or what about the other Apostles? The book is called the Acts of the Apostles, but it says nothing about the Apostles who spread the Gospel in directions other than northward and westward.

But, of course, the Church began in Jerusalem. The first Christian community developed on what is today known as Mt. Zion, a hill in the southwestern corner of Jerusalem. This is where the Last Supper took place, where the Apostles hid after Jesus’ crucifixion, and where they still were when the Holy Spirit descended on them.

It’s clear, from Acts, that Peter immediately assumed the authority given to him by Jesus. He presided at the meeting that chose a replacement for Judas, and he was the main speaker to the crowd on Pentecost and again after, in the name of Jesus, he cured a crippled beggar. When he and John were arrested, Peter did the talking.

For about 12 years, the Apostles (or, at least, most of them) seem to have stayed in Jerusalem. Acts says that they met daily in Solomon’s portico (Acts 5:12), which was part of the Temple, and they continued to be devout Jews, not yet realizing that they should also go to the gentiles.

But they also ventured out. For example, after the deacon Philip’s mission in Samaria, Peter and John traveled there (Acts 8:14-15).

As the community grew in Jerusalem, Acts tells us about the appointment of deacons, including Stephen, and then the lengthy story of Stephen’s martyrdom, witnessed by Saul.

It’s possible that the Apostle James did not stay in Jerusalem because it’s believed that he traveled to Spain to preach there. However, he was back in Jerusalem in the year 44, when he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa, and became the first Apostle to be martyred. Peter was imprisoned, but was miraculously rescued by an angel.

I’ll begin next week’s column with that story. †

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