Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Assembly of God (Gal. 1:13)

Exploring a line of thinking this morning that I'm sure is sixty years old but not finding the paper trail.

1. In most of Paul's writings, he uses the word "church" (ekklesia) in regard to local assemblies, house churches. So he writes to the church, singular, at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2) and Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1). But he writes to the churches, plural, in Galatia (1:2).

One interesting variation is in Galatians 1:13. Here he talks about persecuting "the church of God" in Jerusalem. There is something "ground zero" about this reference. It doesn't seem that he is referring to just another church--the church of God in Jerusalem. He was persecuting the church of God.

Nor do I think this is an abstract reference to the Church universal like we find in Ephesians or Colossians. In fact, this is one shift in these two letters from Paul's use in his earlier letters. In Galatians 1:13 Paul is not referring to "the Church" in a universal sense like Ephesians. [Indeed, it is a source of endless frustration to me how much discussion just mows over these sorts of revealing distinctions.]

No, there is something else going on here, a glimpse into primordial Christianity. I believe the earliest community in Jerusalem saw themselves in some way as the assembly of God.

2. Paul gives us a hint of what James, Peter, John, and others were thinking when he tells us they were known as "pillars" (Gal. 2:9). Pillars of what? Pillars of a temple, I presume (cf. Rev. 3:12).

Herein is a hint, I suspect, that the earliest Christian community saw themselves as a spiritual temple of sorts. Paul of course will use this imagery in 1 Corinthians 3:16 when he calls the Corinthian church a temple of God. He uses imagery of spiritual sacrifice more than once elsewhere (e.g., Rom. 12:1-2, 15:16; Phil. 2:17, 4:18).

So the earliest "church of God" in Jerusalem was a temple of sorts, it would seem. Was it a replacement temple? I think it is at least safe to say that it was a parallel temple. Yet what do we make of the picture in Acts of an early church that participated freely in the temple? It is true that this is "Luke" giving us a picture of an orderly community, so it would fit his thematic tendencies to omit temple critique (he lets Stephen slip by).

Perhaps there is a middle ground. Perhaps, like Jesus, like Stephen, like the Essenes, the earliest church had a critique of the temple. But perhaps they did not yet connect the dots to its complete replacement by the community. Critique short of replacement.

3. I mentioned the Essenes. I'll admit I find it hard not to think that there is some influence here. Not going in the same direction as Jesus, I don't think. He was on a path of inclusion. They were on a path of separation. But the earliest church was a mixture. There were Pharisees in it, for example (Acts 15:5). James clearly insisted on keeping purity rules (Gal. 2:12).

In short, I find no compelling reason to think that the earliest church might not have taken at least the language of Qumran in thinking of themselves as the definitive yahad of God and have also taken the sense of the Essenes that they were a kind of parallel temple.

Here is a relevant passage in 1QS: "The council of the community shall be established in truth. It shall be an everlasting plantation, a house of holiness for Israel, an assembly of supreme holiness for Aaron. They shall be eyewitnesses to the truth at the judgment, and shall be the elect of goodwill who shall atone for the Land and pay to the wicked their reward. It shall be that tried wall, that 'precious cornerstone, whose foundations shall neither rock nor sway in their place.' It shall be a most holy dwelling for Aaron with everlasting knowledge of the covenant of righteousness, and shall offer up sweet fragrance. It shall be a house of perfection and truth in Israel that they may establish a covenant according to the everlasting precepts.

"And they shall be an agreeable offering, atoning for the land and determining the judgment of wickedness, and there shall be no more iniquity. When they have been confirmed for two years in perfection of way by the authority of the community, they shall be set apart as holy within the council of the men of the community. And the interpreter shall not conceal from them, out of fear of the spirit of apostasy, any of those things hidden from Israel which have been discovered by him. And when these become members of the community in Israel according to all these rules, they shall separate from the habitation of ungodly men and shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him, as it is written, 'Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a path for our God.'" (1QS 8.5-14)

It is very hard not read such passages and not eventually see a cumulative case for Essene influence on the early church, at least in language.

4. Even if we could make a plausible case for the impact of Essene language on the earliest believers in Jerusalem, we have no information to know exactly what the contours of that influence were. For example, it is easy enough to think that the earliest Christians saw themselves as an eschatological community. So here is the easiest point of contact with Qumran.

If parallel temple imagery was part of the Essenes' eschatological language, then it could be that they absorbed it along with the language of eschatological community. It would not thereby imply an end to the temple as an institution in itself, any more than the Qumran language implied the end of the temple as an institution. Those dots would not be connected until later, particularly after the temple was destroyed in AD70.

Some thoughts...

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