Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 

01 The Council of Jerusalem

Break between Christianity and the Jewish faith

The "Council" of Jerusalem is the term frequently used for a gathering of the Apostles and other Christian leaders which took place in the Holy City at the end of the fifth decade of our Christian era. It was at this meeting that the early Church officially broke out of the womb of the Jewish tradition, to reach out to all people regardless of race, language, or cultural background

At the beginning, the early followers of Jesus considered themselves to be fulfilling their Jewish inheritance. They did have practices that were typical of their new beliefs -- Baptism, the celebration of the Eucharist, prayer directed to Christ as God --, and they lived in a companionship of love which, across the centuries to this very day, still appears as ideally beautiful. But they appeared to all to be a Jewish sect. They lived as Jews; they participated in Jewish worship; they practiced the traditional Jewish forms of piety; and they observed the ancient Jewish law that had come down from Moses

They were also growing. And, inevitably, on at least two occasions, they had admitted into their community persons who did not share their Jewish background. The first was an important official in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He was travelling in Palestine when he was instructed and baptized by one of the new deacons. This Ethiopian, whose name remains unknown, was "the first-born of the pagan world," in the words of the early historian Eusebius. The second "convert" was the Roman Centurion, Cornelius, who was received into the Church by St. Peter.

These conversions, as well as the believers' insistence on preaching the divinity of Jesus, soon led to open conflict with the authorities of the Jewish faith, especially the Pharisees. Twice the followers of Jesus were commanded to desist from their way of life. When they refused, they were put to death. The first persecution, which took place in the mid-30's, led to the stoning of the deacon Stephen; the second to the execution of the Apostle James the Elder about the year A. D. 44.

Meanwhile, the young Church had spread, and especially to the important metropolis of Antioch, the capital city of the Roman Province of the East and an important centre of Greek culture. It was in Antioch that the name of Christian was first given to the believers. And it was there that people of many religious backgrounds, Greeks especially, but also Cypriots and Romans, came to accept the teaching and divinity of Christ. For the first time -- about the years A.D. 42-45 -- the Church began to appear as more than just another Jewish sect. It was becoming "Catholic."

This posed a problem. The great majority of Christians were Jews. In Antioch as in Jerusalem, they considered themselves bound to circumcision, to their dietary laws, and to the customs that forbade their eating with Gentiles. Since the Eucharist took place on the occasion of a meal, the Jews considered it impossible to celebrate it together with their new Gentile brethren. And for an Apostle like St. Peter, the difficult dilemma was to decide whether he, a Jew, should refuse to share communion with Gentiles; or, as an Apostle, should rise above such distinctions; or again whether he should insist that the non-Jewish Christians, a small minority living among Jews and well aware of Jewish prescriptions at the time of their Baptism, submit freely to Jewish ritual and law.

To many, the matter seemed clear. Christ had commanded His disciples to spread His Good News to all nations. Yet, to pious Jews, the Baptism of non-circumcised members into the Church was an act of treason towards Judaism, while St. Peter's lodging and eating with them was even more shocking and contrary to the law.

The matter had to be settled, especially since both Jewish and Gentile converts were coming under intense and disruptive pressures from extremist Jewish nationalists who were now persecuting Christians for betraying their heritage and country.

The Apostles met in Jerusalem Historians argue about the date, their various theories ranging from A.D. 48 to 52. Scripture scholars wonder whether the assembly described in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles refers to one meeting or two. But no one disagrees that the assembly was one of the great moments in the history of' the Church.

The leading Apostles were there: Peter and Paul, John, and James the Less. So were their close assistants and companions, Barnabas, Silas, Titus, and others. Many, especially those of the Pharisees' party in Jerusalem, insisted that the Gentiles should be circumcised and instructed to keep the prescriptions of the law of Moses. Others, especially Paul and Barnabas, argued against them. St. Luke tells us that the discussion went on a long time. In the end the issue was settled: no conditions arising out of the Jewish law were to be imposed on converts to the young Christian Church.

The decision of the Council was of course a vital one. It marked the break between Christianity and the Jewish faith. The Christian faith would be represented henceforth and preached in a variety of traditions.

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