“Grand Scale Culture Wars” – Part 7 – Authority by Apostleship
“What in the world does ‘apostolic authority’ have to do with me today?”
The concept still impacts us all… nearly 2000 years since its inception. We last covered what “apostolic authority” was about – that conveyed by contact with Jesus. It came to include Paul, although some of his letters make clear that in his lifetime he had to fight to be regarded, among his followers, as an authority on par with the original Apostles and leaders in Jerusalem, mainly “President” James, not the Apostle James. (Paul had not known the earthly Jesus… not the only reason for his tenuous status.) All this took place prior to the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E., ending in the death or scattering of the Jerusalem Jesus-followers when Jerusalem was burned and largely leveled. With this pivotal development, the structure of Judaism, along with Jewish-Christian and Gentile-Christian practice, was radically changed.
Suffice it to summarize with this for now: The massive disruption of the Palestinian Jesus-as-Messiah sect, which seems to have still been Jewish Law-observant, opened the way for Luke and others to incorporate more of Paul’s theology and upgrade his status. His teaching had set aside Jewish Law as required for either Jewish or Gentile Jesus-followers (Post-war, this increasingly involved “Christians” largely severed from Judaism). Paul’s letters, which we know were not all collected and preserved, were placed in higher regard and gathered best they could be. This was a couple decades or more (probably over three decades) after their original, probably limited circulation.
It appears that it was mainly the work of Luke in Acts of the Apostles which conferred lasting apostolic authority on Paul, decades after his death. The book of Acts, read comparatively with Paul’s letters, clearly shows an agenda of smoothing over, largely disguising, the serious conflict that existed between Paul and the Jerusalem authorities. Luke’s accounts so blatantly go counter to Paul’s of the same events, at points, that some scholars seriously doubt Luke even possessed Paul’s letters (and was not the supposed traveling companion that some believe he was). He had sources of fair detail about Paul, but not necessarily Paul’s own writings, or many of them. Paul wrote before the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Luke after. Thus, Luke shows a strong desire to present Christian faith as superseding Judaism and harmless to Roman rule. This was somewhat an issue but not so clear or urgent for Paul.
As to Luke perhaps not having Paul’s letters, we tend to forget that it was expensive and time-consuming to reproduce documents, one copy at a time. The result: only those judged particularly important were much copied and able to survive long-term. Some of Paul’s writings were permanently lost. (In 1 Thess. he references a letter later lost.) By the time of Luke’s writing perhaps not many of them were collected and widely enough copied to be available to him.
On the other hand, if Luke did possess at least some of what we have by Paul, he may have suspected what turned out to be true, even largely to this day: Hardly anyone would notice or care about discrepancies between his accounts and Paul’s, or discover his bending of the real history of the earliest Church.
Whether once created and then lost, we have no documents similar to Acts covering the period from Jesus’ death to the time of Paul’s final imprisonment and journey to Rome (early 60s)… and unfortunately, nothing similar for a couple more centuries. There were theological writings giving limited historical clues, and a few archeological finds pertinent, but no attempts at historical accounts of Christianity until the early fourth century from the “father of Church history”, Eusebius.
So the great PR accomplishment of Luke was creating the impression of a quickly and fully united Christian Church, with Paul essentially a late-adopted 13th Apostle. Misleading as it was, this was picked up and perpetuated by subsequent church leaders within the proto-orthodox and later orthodox (dominant) wing of a multi-faceted Christianity. Incorporating Paul within a faith that was supposedly united in both theology and practice through the years of the Apostle’s lives (roughly up to the mid 60s C.E.) set the stage for making a loose category of authority by “apostleship” (meaning commissioning by Jesus). And of course there is also a natural tendency to put greater value and trust in the initial generation of any new movement. Thus the early and strong effort to connect the four eventually canonized gospels (and other books) with the original disciples of Jesus, even when there must have been little to suggest it.
This apostolic standard of authority was eventually, from mainly the later 2nd century to the later 4th century, used to help establish and validate a canon for the New Testament. It would confer “Scripture” status on not only the writings of Paul, but ironically, on others which seem to differ significantly from Paul (particularly “James”, not surprising as contrasting with Paul, representing the likely perspective of the loyally-Jewish James). The special authority of apostleship for composing Scripture has to have been invented well after the fact. Still, it became a powerful tool to help separate writings that generally agreed on major theological points from those which didn’t (“heresies”).
The result of encoding apostolic authority was a New Testament considered inspired and historically reliable, at least eventually if not in the first or 2nd century before its writings were fully collected. As we will see in later articles, this development assisted the creation of black/white, in/out, heaven/hell dichotomies that soon came to characterize Christian orthodoxy. This is critical in terms of our larger subject of often-conflicting worldviews and the cultural battles they spawn. (Part 7 to be continued.)
Is this presentation of early Christian history and the development of our New Testament different than what you’ve encountered previously?
Do you see how battles for authority were going on, especially if you now read its books with this in mind (especially the 7 or so “genuine” letters of Paul and Acts)?