Tag Archives: church fathers

The Christianization of Acts 20

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.

Acts 20:7 (NRSV)

Christians sometimes cite Acts 20:7 as evidence that the early believers met on Sundays: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.” The narrative does not support that interpretation. If Paul met with the Troasian believers on Sunday morning, they had a very long church service. Paul spoke until midnight: “Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.”

The Greek text of Acts does not indicate that they met on Sunday morning at all. Instead it literally says, “On the first of the Sabbath …” The word “day” does not appear in the Greek. According to the Jewish reckoning of time, the first of the week begins Saturday after sunset.

-D. Thomas Lancaster
from Torah Club Volume 6: Chronicles of the Apostles
Tzav (“Command”): Acts 20:1-21:14, pg 653

It’s been awhile since I dug into a Torah Club study but I needed to get my bearings.

I probably shouldn’t even write this but part of my returning to church is to “experience church” relative to my own unique perspectives and practices.

I’d like to think that Pastor Randy, the head Pastor at the church I attend, and I have formed a friendship, and within the confines of that relationship, we are free to engage in candid and forthright conversation. He reads my blog, when he has time (he’s a really busy guy), so nothing I put here is meant to be kept from him.

I know that my criticism of “the Church” does frustrate him on occasion and I think he is authentically puzzled why, when he presents his educated and logical arguments about theology, I just don’t “get it” and accept his basic understanding of the fundamentals of Christianity.

Last Sunday morning, Pastor’s message was based on Acts 20:1-12. I was particularly interested in his lesson on the following verses:

On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were meeting. A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead. But Paul went down, and bending over him took him in his arms, and said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left. Meanwhile they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.

Acts 20:7-12 (NRSV)

Pastor always includes a page of notes in the Church bulletin, and I review what he’s going to talk about before services start. When I came across the section called ”Parenthetic Conclusion: Sunday worship,” I knew where he was headed. Then there was the quote from Justin Martyr he inserted. I’ll only use part of it here:

But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead.

-Justin Martyr
The First Apology
“Weekly Worship of Christians” (c. CE 155)

Justin MartyrI won’t try to replicate all of Pastor’s points, but he did say the phrase “first day of the week” (although as Lancaster states above, the word “day” does not appear in the literal Greek) appears only three times in the New Testament (actually, there are a few more). In addition to the above-quoted verse, it can be found in Mark 16:9, the declaration of when Jesus rose from the tomb, and 1 Corinthians 16:2, which is part of Paul’s instructions to set aside funds for Paul’s intended donation to the poor and needy in Jerusalem.

There were a number of conclusions Pastor derived from Acts 20:7-12:

  1. The Roman rather than Jewish calendar was being used to fix the date of the gathering, so that we see they were meeting on Sunday evening rather than Saturday night after Shabbat.
  2. The breaking of bread was likely an enactment of the “Lord’s Supper” indicating the practice of communion.
  3. Preaching and teaching of scripture was a common activity in such assemblies.
  4. Collecting tithes for the church on Sunday was becoming a more common practice.

Both Pastor and my Sunday school teacher said this is evidence that “church services” within Paul’s lifetime weren’t all that different from what we have today: preaching the Word, meeting on Sunday, gathering tithes on Sunday (presumably as part of the service), and taking communion.

Sunday Worship

I’ll get into my reaction in a moment, but the one thing that puzzled me was Pastor’s proof that Paul had to be meeting with these believers in Troas on Sunday evening rather than just after Shabbat had ended (Saturday at sundown). He says that if this was a Saturday night, Paul, who intended to leave by ship the next day, would have had to wait two days, until Monday, to depart, so it had to be Sunday night.

But I either couldn’t hear the rationale or it went by so fast that I just plain missed it. I’ve read Acts 20 numerous times since listening to the sermon, but I just can’t see where this is coming from. I emailed Pastor after I got home from services asking for details, and hopefully he’s respond soon. Once I receive a response, I’ll edit this blog post to reflect his views.

Addendum, Tuesday, March 18: Pastor responded to my email with his explanation. He’s pressed for time, so the rationale is brief. I’ll put it in the comments below rather than interrupt the flow of the narrative here more than I already am.

Justin Martyr, Sunday, and Supersessionism

Now to my response. In the absence of the information Pastor possesses regarding why the assembly at Troas must have been meeting on Sunday, it is my opinion that a shift from a Saturday to Sunday Sabbath occurs here much too early in history. We have Justin Martyr’s writing declaring that Sunday is the proper day of Christian worship, but that isn’t published until some time after Paul’s death (and I find the reasoning, that it’s the day God separated light and darkness, completely disconnected from anything taught by Jesus or the Apostles). I don’t know that Martyr is relying exclusively on his interpretation of scripture and I suspect that he, like many of the other “church fathers,” may have had attitudes about Jewish people and Judaism that colored his thinking and possibly had him making doctrinal decisions about practice based on that bias.

I know Wikipedia is a poor source to quote, but it will have to do for my current analysis:

Justin was confident that his teaching was that of the Church at large. He knows of a division among the orthodox only on the question of the millennium and on the attitude toward the milder Jewish Christianity, which he personally is willing to tolerate as long as its professors in their turn do not interfere with the liberty of the Gentile converts; his millenarianism seems to have no connection with Judaism, but he believes firmly in a millennium, and generally in the Christian eschatology.

Justin saw himself as a scholar, although his skills in Hebrew were either non-existent or minimal. His opposition to Judaism was typical of church leaders in his day but does not descend to the level of anti-semitism. After collaborating with a Jewish convert to assist him with Hebrew, Justin published an attack on Judaism based upon a no-longer-extant text of a Midrash.

-from the Wikipedia page on Justin Martyr

Economic supersessionism is used in the technical theological sense of function. It is the view that the practical purpose of the nation of Israel in God’s plan is replaced by the role of the Church. It is represented by writers such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, and Barth.

-from the Wikipedia page on Supersessionism (Replacement Theology)

HavdalahNone of what I just quoted is rock-solid evidence that Martyr’s declaration of Sunday as the proper meeting day for Christians was motivated by supersessionistic ideology (and it was stated above that Martyr was probably not anti-Semitic), but it does open the door to the possibility that Martyr may not have been operating purely on his understanding of scripture. Based on my understanding of early supersessionistic bias and the church fathers (See my four-part article ”Origins of Supersessionism in the Church” in issues 109-112 of Messiah Journal), I believe there was a focused effort to create a set of practices of worship that specifically separated the budding Gentile Christian Church from its Jewish origins and heritage, replacing the Jewish institutions to which Paul and the other Apostles were accustomed with completely separate rituals, including a calendar disconnected from the Jewish holy days.

Please keep in mind that I have no problem with Christianity choosing a day of the week for corporate worship, but I consider it a tradition based on an emerging (in the mid-second century) reverence for the day of Jesus’ resurrection, not necessarily on a decision of Paul or any of the other Apostles.

Breaking Bread

Depending on the translation you’re using for Acts 20:7, the words the NRSV Bible renders as “break bread” are also read as “the Lord’s Supper” (New Living Translation) or “break the Eucharist” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English). Actually, all of the other translations I’m looking at just say “break bread”. I can’t access the Greek for this term, so I don’t know if it contains something that doesn’t translate into English, but, as Sigmund Freud is supposed to have said, ”Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” In other words, just because something is longer than it is wide, doesn’t mean it’s a phallic symbol.

Applied to the current context, I might say, “Sometimes breaking bread is just breaking bread, grabbing a loaf and tearing it in two or more pieces.” The term “breaking bread,” as far as I know, could just as easily indicate a meal of fellowship. It’s typical to “break bread” with friends and companions as a sign of affiliation and trust. Why does it have to mean communion unless we’re trying to make this verse fit a later institution created by the Church?

We were gathered for the disciples came, A.V. and T.R.; discoursed with for preached unto, A.V.; intending for ready, A.V.; prolonged for continued, A.V. The first day of the week. This is an important evidence of the keeping of the Lord’s day by the Church as a day for their Church assemblies (see Luke 24:1, 30, 35; John 20:19, 26; 1 Corinthians 16:2). To break bread. This is also an important example of weekly communion as the practice of the first Christians. Comparing the phrase, “to break bread,” with St. Luke’s account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist (Luke 22:19) and the passages just quoted in Luke 24, and St. Paul’s language (1 Corinthians 10:16; 1 Corinthians 11:24), it is impossible not to conclude that the breaking of bread in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is an essential part of the holy sacrament, which man may not for any specious reasons omit.

-from the Pulpit Commentary on Acts 20:7

The key scripture as far as “the Lord’s Supper” goes seems to be 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 but Acts 20:7 only mentions “breaking bread”. In comparison to that verse, almost all translations of 1 Corinthians 11:20 refer to “the Lord’s Supper”, so I can only imagine the original Greek is more specific here (only the Aramaic Bible in Plain English states, ”When therefore you assemble, it is not according to what is appropriate for the day of our Lord that you eat and drink.”).

I’m going to have to set the early initiation of what Christians call “communion” today to one side for the moment except to say that it is certainly not definitive that the group in Troas was assembled for the specific purpose of taking a weekly communion or Lord’s Supper. It’s even possible, as I mentioned above, that the very concept of a communion might have been a later invention of the Church.

Tithing

We see a strong record of Paul collecting money or directing the various assemblies to set aside money which he would collect when he arrived (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32). However, we also see Paul having a specific concern for the poor in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10). Paul’s companions we find in Acts 20:4 were to accompany Paul to Jerusalem, presumably with donations from the various congregations they represented.

TithingSo Paul was collecting money for the poor and needy in Jerusalem, but this does not mean he was collecting money to pay for the operational costs of the local churches or the Jerusalem “church”.

No, I’m not saying that it’s wrong for the church to ask for donations from the congregants to support the costs incurred in running such an institution, I’m just saying the practice can’t be directly attributed to specific references in the Bible.

It is true that in ancient times, the Israelites did donate materials and services in the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert (Ex. 35:4-36:7), and King Solomon heavily taxed his citizens and required tens of thousands to contribute labor in the service of building the Temple in Jerusalem (starting 1 Kgs 6). But again, none of these point specifically to a church tithe. Frankly, neither does Abraham’s offering to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:20).

But like I said, I don’t think it’s wrong for the administrative office of the local church to request that members and attendees contribute to the upkeep of the church, since those attending are consuming the church’s resources. I also think it’s reasonable and Biblical for churches to collect money for the poor and even money to support missionaries (Paul alluded that he deserved to be supported but preferred to support himself to avoid being a burden). But I maintain that the modern concept of tithing, especially by having men pass around metal plates through the pews so that people can give their weekly donation, isn’t exactly what we see in Acts 20 or any of the other referenced scriptures.

Resurrection Day

I’m returning to the issue of Sunday here but with an eye on it being a day of reverence early on in the first century community of “the Way.” Do we actually see concrete evidence that the day of the Master’s resurrection was directly revered and added to (or replaced) the list of holy days traditionally observed in the various Judaisms? Did the followers of Christ move away from a Sabbath rest because Sunday became so incredibly important to them?

There’s no smoking gun but a lot of inference. I know that Sunday was an important day of gathering in the mid-second century, but is that because of what was gleaned from the Bible, or because the men establishing Sunday as the Christian assembly day needed to separate their religion from Judaism? In the latter case, the “invention” of Sunday worship would have come after the Apostolic Era ended and the church fathers would have just “mined” the various scriptures and verses to support such a decision, declaring it “Biblical” and “Holy Doctrine” of the Church.

Revelation 1:10 was brought up in Pastor’s sermon as well. John was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” when he had his well-known (but not always well understood) set of revelations and visions, but what did “the Lord’s Day” mean to him at that time? It’s assumed by many Christians to mean “Sunday” but Pastor thinks rather that it indicates Resurrection Day, that is, Easter.

Frankly, I don’t think anyone knows, and I think Christian theologians have developed various educated theories over the centuries. Each church denomination has adopted a set of practices that appear to map to certain parts of the Bible, but the question for me is which came first?

Do we believe, for example, that Sunday is the official day of Christian worship because it was established in the Bible, or was Sunday established nearly a century after the Apostles were all in their graves because the leaders of the Gentile Christian church needed to separate their movement from Judaism (and in this case, especially Shabbat observance) and they found portions of scripture they could leverage to support their requirements?

Past and Present

I know that sounds terribly cynical and I know this will make a lot of Christians feel hurt and angry. I know it can’t possibly please Pastor Randy when I write these things, and I know he’s being absolutely honest and sincere when he preaches on Acts 20 and draws conclusions that are consistent with modern Christian practices.

ShabbatHowever, I don’t think it’s all so clear. In fact, I believe if Paul were to walk into a Christian church today, even if he understood our language, he would hardly connect the experience to the practice of the assemblies he established in the diaspora nearly twenty centuries ago, and he absolutely wouldn’t see the Jewishness of everything he taught and the Jewish Messiah he lived and died for in modern Christian observance. I’m sure he’d wonder why modern disciples weren’t gathering on Shabbos.

I’m not saying modern Christian observance is bad or wrong as a set of practical traditions, just that it’s mostly not what Paul did. Yes, he’d understand collecting money for the poor. Yes, he’d understand preaching. Yes, he’d understand studying the scriptures with a learned teacher. Yes, he’d understand sharing a communal meal (though that’s more like Oneg than communion).

But I think it’s OK to admit that Christianity has evolved, and not in an entirely linear fashion, since the days when Paul planted his “churches.” I think it’s OK to admit that the majority of what Protestants believe and the majority of what they do has a history of more like five-hundred years rather than two-thousand. Evangelical Christianity is more a product of the Reformation than what you might call “Apostolic” or “Messianic Judaism”.

Purim

I knew it was Purim when I walked into the church Sunday morning. So did Pastor Randy and Pastor Virgil. So did those few people in the church I know to be Jewish. Most other people would have missed it, though. I kept pondering the significance of experiencing the “Christianization” of the scriptures in Acts 20 as I listened to the Pastor’s message in church on Purim. Why is there a desire to “rush” history, so to speak, and to give the early Judaism of our faith the bum’s rush out the door while the Pharisaic Apostle Paul (or Saul if you prefer) was still alive and desiring to reach Jerusalem before Shavuot or Pentecost (Acts 20:16). He’d already been delayed so he couldn’t be in the Holy city for the Pesach sacrifice and meal (Acts 20:5).

Paul and the Moadim

Paul was an observant Jew and as such, he desired to obey the mitzvot associated with the moadim, the appointed times chronicled in the Torah. This is a clue we should pay attention to. Paul’s desire to return to Jerusalem was connected to specific seasons and events, Passover and Pentecost, Pesach and Shavuot. Wouldn’t it make more sense to believe that Paul also revered the Shabbat as did his forefathers? The Church (big “C”) changed quite a lot of things later on, but for Paul, there was nothing inconsistent with being an Apostle of the Messiah and practicing the Judaism of the Way. In fact, departing from the Torah and the traditions would likely never have occurred to him.

Regrets and Conclusion

I’m actually feeling pretty down about having to write this. I’ve been keyed up since hearing the sermon. I was nervous around the others in Sunday school yesterday. I didn’t sleep well last night. Obviously this bothers me. Last week, I wrote about fellowship in the church and today it seems like I’m doing a big turn around by disagreeing with the conclusions of Pastor’s sermon. Believe me, I’m not disagreeing just to disagree. I’m not being oppositional or “anti-Church.” I’m being who I am as a believer operating with a particular understanding and perspective on the Bible. I’m looking through a different lens, I’m standing at a different look out point. The Bible I see looks a lot more “Jewish” than most of the people I worship with suspect. I apologize if what I’ve written results in hard feelings. That’s not my intention, believe me. But someone needs to stand up for the Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles, and represent who I believe he was and is, and what he was trying to teach.

I started writing this “meditation” early Sunday afternoon and stopped. I figured I needed a “cooler head” before actually getting into this, and I really thought about not writing it at all. I consulted with a good Christian friend. I agonized over it. Finally, I needed to do this. I’m sorry. It’s not against you, or Pastor, or anyone else. It’s for Paul and it’s to keep my head from exploding.

The Jewish PaulThere’s the Paul the Christian church sees, the murderous Jewish Pharisee who encountered Jesus on the way to Damascus one day and became blind. Having his sight restored, he converted to Christianity and left his Judaism behind, preaching a Torah-free faith to Jew and Gentile alike. Then there’s Paul the Jewish Pharisee, who met the Messiah in a vision and having been blinded and his sight then restored, embarked on a journey to tell the good news of Moshiach to his brothers and sisters as well as the Gentiles, that the Messianic Age was at hand, the pinnacle of the history of the Hebrews was within reach, and even the Gentiles could be redeemed by coming alongside Israel through Messiah.

When Messiah returns, we’ll know, everyone will know. For now, I am a loyal subject of the Jewish King and I await his return. May he come soon and in our day. Amen.

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