1902 Encyclopedia > Bible > [New Testament] Relation of the Earliest Christianity to the Literary and Intellectual Activity of the Age.

(Part 8)


Relation of the Earliest Christianity to the Literary and Intellectual Activity of the Age

The Scribes

In the literature of Palestine at the time of Christ we distinguish a learned and a popular element. The learned class or scribes were busy on their twofold structure or Halacha, or legal tradition and inference, supplementing and "hedging in" the Pentateuchal law, and Haggada, or fantastic exegesis, legendary, ethical, or theosophic, under which the religious directness of the Old Testament almost wholly disappeared.

Popular Apocalyptic

The popular religious literature of the day seems again to have been mainly apocalyptic. (See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE). The people never wearied of these mysterious revelations couched in strange symbolic and enigmatic forms, and placed in the mouths of ancient patriarchs and worthies, which held forth golden visions of deliverance and vengeance in a shape which, because crasser and earthlier, was also more palpable than the spiritual hopes of the old prophets. Beyond the limits of Palestine thought took a wider range.


In adopting the Greek language the Hellenistic Jews had also become open to the influences of foreign speculation, and the schools of Alexandria, whose greatest teacher, Philo, was contemporary with the foundation of Christianity, had in great measure exchanged the faith of the Old Testament for a complicated system of metaphysico-theological speculations upon the Absolute Being, the Divine Wisdom, the Logos, and the like, which by the aid of allegorical interpretation were made to appear as the true teaching of Hebrew antiquity. To these currents of thoughts the relation of the earliest Christianity, entirely absorbed in the one great fact of the manifestation of God in Christ crucified, risen, and soon to return to glory, was for the most part hostile, when it was not merely superficial. With the spirit of the scribes Jesus had openly joined issue.

Jesus and the Scribes

In the legal tradition of the elders he saw the commandments of God annulled (Matt. xv.) It was His part not to destroy but to fill up into spiritual completeness the teaching of the old dispensation (Matt v.); and herein He attached himself directly to the prophetic conception of the law in Deuteronomy (Matt. xxii. 37, ff.) And not only in His ethical teaching but in His personal sense of fellowship with the Father, and in the inner consciousness of His Messianic mission, Jesus stood directly on the Old Testament, reading in the Psalms and Prophets, which so vainly exercised the unsympathetic exegesis of the scribes, the direct and unmistakable image of His own experience and work as the founder of the spiritual kingdom of God (cf. especially, Luke xxiv. 25, ff.) Thus Jesus found His first disciples among men who were strangers to the theological culture of the day (Acts iv. 13), cherishing no literature but the Old Testament witness to Christ, and claiming no wisdom save the knowledge of Him. At first, indeed, the church at Jerusalem was content to express its new life in simple exercises of faith and hope, without any attempt to define its relation to the past dispensation, and without breaking with the legal ordinances of the temple. But the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles compelled the principles of the new religion to measure themselves openly with the Judaism of the Pharisees.

Paul and the Judaizers

In the heathen mission of Paul the ceremonial law was ignored, and men became Christians without first becoming proselytes. The stricter Pharisaically-trained believers were horror-stricken. The old apostles, though they could not refuse the right hand of fellowship to workers so manifestly blessed of God as Paul and Barnabas, were indisposed to throw themselves into the new current, and displayed considerable vacillation in their personal conduct. Paul and his associates had to fight their own battle against the constant efforts of Judaizing emissaries, and the rabbinical training acquired at the feet of Gamaliel enabled the apostle of the heathen to meet the Judaizers on their own ground, and to work out the contrast of Christianity and Pharisaism with a thoroughness only possible to one who knew Pharisaism from long experience, and had learned the gospel not from the tradition or teaching of men but by revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. i. 12).

The relation of the first Christians to the current apocalyptic was of a different kind. The Messianic hopes already current among the first hearers of the gospel were unquestionably of apocalyptic colour.

Christian Prophesy and Apocalyptic

And though the contents of Christian hope were new, and expressed themselves in a revival of prophetic gifts (1 Cor. Xii. 10; Acts xi. 27, &c.), it was not a matter of course that apocalyptic forms should be at once dropped, especially as Old Testament prophecy itself had inclined in its later stages towards an increasing concreteness in delineating the Messianic kingdom, and so had at least formed the bases for many apocalyptic conceptions. The apocalyptic books continued to be read, as appears from the influence of the book of Enoch on the epistle of Jude; and after the new spirit of prophecy had died away a Christian apocalyptic followed the Jewish models. But the way in which a genuine Christian prophecy, full of "the testimony of Jesus" (Rev. xix. 10), retained not a little of the apocalyptic manner (mainly, it is true, in dependence on the book of Daniel), appears clearly in the Revelation of John, which, whether we accept the prevalent tradition of its apostolic authorship, or, with some ancients and many moderns, ascribe it to a different John, is at least an undisputed monument of the prophecy of the apostolic age (according to modern critics, earlier than the fall of Jerusalem).

Hellenistic Thought in the Church

The influence on Christianity of Hellenistic philosophy, and, in general, of that floating spirit of speculation which circulated at the time in the meeting-places of Eastern and Western thought was for the most part later than the New Testament period. Yet the Alexandrian education of a man like Apollos could not fail to give some colour to his preaching, and in the epistle to the Hebrews, whose author, a man closely akin to Paul, is not a direct disciple of Jesus (Heb. ii. 3), the theological reflection natural to the second generation, which no longer stood so immediately under the overpowering influence of the manifestation of Christ, is plainly affected in some points by Alexandrian views. In the case of other books the assertion of foreign speculative influences is generally bound up with the denial of the authenticity of the book in question. That the gospel of John presents a view of the person of Christ dependent on Philonic speculation is not exegetically obvious, but is simply one side of the assertion that this gospel is an unhistorical product of abstract reflection. In the same way other attacks on the genuineness of New Testament writings are backed up by the supposed detection of Orphic elements in the epistle of James, and so forth.

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