Freethought Archives > Jeremy Bentham > Not Paul, But Jesus


Paul disbelieved continued.—His third Jerusalem Visit.—Paul and Barnabas delegated by Antioch
Saints, to confer on the Necessity of Jewish Rites to Heathen Converts to the Religion of Jesus.



We come now to the transaction, on the occasion of which, the grand object of Paul's ambition received, in part, its accomplishment: namely, that, by which,—though without any such popular election as, in the instance of Matthias, had been necessary to constitute a man an associate to the Apostles,—he was, in some sort, taken by them into fellowship, and admitted, with their consent, into a participation of their labours.

This occasion was—the dispute, which, in the Syrian Antioch, took place, according to the author of the Acts, on the question—whether, under the religion of Jesus, circumcision was necessary to salvation: a question, in which,—whether explicitly or no,—was implicitly, it should seem, and perhaps inextricably, understood to be involved, the so much wider question—whether, under that same new religion, the old ceremonial law should, in any part of it, be regarded as necessary.

[Pg 212]

On this same occasion, two important subjects present themselves to view at the same time: the one, a question of doctrine relative to circumcision, as above; the other, a question about jurisdiction, as between Paul on the one part, and Peter, with or without the rest of the Apostles.

As to what concerns the debate about circumcision, we have no other evidence than the statement of the author of the Acts.

As to what concerns the jurisdiction question, we have the evidence of Paul himself, as contained in his letter to the Galatian converts: and an original letter, howsoever dubious the correctness of the author in respect of matters of fact, is more trustworthy than a multitude of anonymous narratives.[29]

In respect of the progress made by the religion of Jesus,—Antioch, it has already been observed—the Syrian Antioch—had become a second Jerusalem; and, so far as concerned the Gentiles at large, its maritime situation gave to it a convenience, that was not shared with it by that inland city.

At the time here in question,—the Gentiles had received more or less of instruction, from three different sets of teachers:—1. from the disciples who had been driven from Jerusalem by the tragical death of Saint Stephen; 2. from Saint Peter, principally on the occasion of the excursion made by him to Lydda, Saron, Joppa, and Cęsarea; and 3. from Paul and Barnabas, on the occasion, and by the means, of the long tour, made by them for that special purpose, as above.

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At this maritime metropolis of the faith, the new religion was spreading itself,—and, as far at least as depended on exemption from all disturbance from without, in a state of peace and tranquility;—when, by a set of nameless men from Judea,—if to the author of the Acts credit is to be given on this point, for by him no mention is made of any one of their names,—the harmony of the Church was disturbed.

Converts as they were to the religion of Jesus, yet,—in their view of the matter, if the author of the Acts is to be believed, without circumcision, no salvation was to be had.

By Paul it is said, "they came from James," Gal. 2:12, which is as much as to say that they were sent by James: and accordingly, when James's speech is seen, by him will these scruples of theirs be seen advocated.

If the Gospel history, as delivered by the Evangelists, is to be believed,—nothing could be more inconsistent, on many occasions with the practice, and at length with the direct precepts, of Jesus, than this deference to the Mosaic law: if human prudence is to be regarded,—nothing could be more impolitic—nothing more likely to narrow, instead of extending, the dominion of the Church. On this principle, no man who was not born a Jew, could be a Christian without first becoming a Jew, without embracing the Mosaic law; and thus loading himself with two different, and mutually inconsistent, sets of obligations.

From Paul, this conceit,—as was natural,—experienced[Pg 214] a strenuous resistance. No recognition as yet had Paul received, from the body of the Apostles. In Jerusalem, for anything that appears,—though this was at least seventeen years after the death of Jesus—they remained alive—all of them:—at any rate the two chiefs of them, if Paul is to be believed, who, Gal. i. 19, says he saw them, namely, Saint Peter "and James, the Lord's brother": which two, he says, he saw, out of a number, the rest of whom, he studiously assures his Galatians that he did not see: though by his historiographer, Acts 15:4, by his all-comprehensive expression, "the Apostles," we are desired to believe, that he saw all of them.[30] Whichever be the truth,—at Jerusalem, the metropolis of Judaism, no employment could, under these circumstances, be reasonably expected for Paul: whereas, out of Judea,—wherever the language of Greece was the mother tongue, or familiarly spoken,—the advantage, which, in every address to the Gentiles, he would have over those unlearned Jews, was universally manifest.

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Such, however, were the impressions, made by these unnamed manufacturers and disseminators of scruples, who, if Paul is to be believed, came from James the brother of our Lord—that, by the whole Church, as it is called, of Antioch, a determination was taken—to send to Jerusalem, to the Apostles and the Elders that were associated with them, a numerous mission, headed by Paul and Barnabas, who are the only two persons named. Accordingly, out they set, "after having been brought on their way," says the author of the Acts, 15:3, "by the Church," which is as much as to say, by the whole fraternity of Christians there established.



Against the pretensions of a man thus supported, vain, on the part of the original and real Apostles, would have been any attempt, to resist the pretensions of this their self-constituted rival: they, Barnabas and Paul, were received, says the author of the Acts, of the Church and of the Apostles and Elders.[31]

[Pg 216]

Arrived at Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas told their own story—related their adventures and experiences—declared, to use the language of the Acts 15:4, all things that God had done unto them.

Notwithstanding the utmost exertion of Paul's ever-ready eloquence,—some, it is stated, there were, who, believers as, in a certain sort, they were in the religion of Jesus,—were not to be persuaded, to give up so much as a single tittle of the Mosaic law: these were, as it was natural they should be, of the sect of Pharisees. "There rose up," says the Acts 15:5, "certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying that it was needful to circumcise them (the Gentiles), and to command them to keep the law of Moses."

Of these private discussions, the result was—the convocation of an assembly of the managing body, in which, associated with the Apostles, we find others—under the name of Elders.

How, on an occasion, on which the proposed subject of determination was a question of such cardinal importance to the religion of Jesus;—how it should have come to pass, that the Apostles, to whom alone, and by whom alone, the whole tenor of the acts and sayings of Jesus had been made known—made known by an uninterrupted habit of exclusive intimacy, and especially during the short but momentous interval between his resurrection and ascension;—how it should have happened, that, to the Apostles, any other persons not possessed of these first of all titles to credence and influence, should have come to be associated,—is not mentioned. Upon no other authority than that of this author, are we to believe it to be true? On the supposition of its being true,—there[Pg 217] seems to be, humanly speaking, but one way to account for it. That which the Apostles, and they alone, could contribute to the cause, was—the authority and the evidence resulting from that peculiar intimacy: what they could not contribute was—money and influence derived from ordinary and external sources: to the exclusive possession of these latter titles to regard, will, therefore, it should seem, be to be ascribed, supposing it credited, the circumstance of an incorporation otherwise so incongruous.

"Received," say the Acts 15:4, they were.—But by whom received?—By the Church, by the Apostles, by the Elders, says that same history in that same place. By the Apostles: to wit—so as any one would conclude—by all the Apostles—by the whole fellowship of Apostles.

Whether in any, and, if so, in what degree that conclusion is correct, we have no determinate means of knowing.

If, however, it was so to the utmost,—nothing appears in favor of the notion, that between Paul on the one part, and the Apostles and their disciples on the other, there existed at this time any real harmony. For, in what character was it that he made his appearance? In that of a commissioned envoy, from the whole body of the Church, established in that station, which was next in importance to Jerusalem, to which he was sent. And who was it that, at that time, as on both the former times, he, Paul, had in his company? Still his constant patron and associate Barnabas—the munificent friend and patron of that church which he was visiting—the indefatigable Barnabas.

By Paul himself, in his Epistle to the Galatians, 2:9, 10, 11, the idea of any such extensive cordiality,—say[Pg 218] rather of cordiality to any the smallest extent,—is pretty plainly negatived.[32] On that occasion, it was that of the Partition Treaty, what his interest required was—that, on the part of the Apostles and their disciples, the concurrence given to it, should appear as extensive as possible. If then they had all of them, really and personally concurred in it,—or even if the contrary had not been notorious, this is the conception which he would have been forward to convey and inculcate. No such notion, however, does he venture to convey. When speaking of them in general terms—of no affection on either side, more kindly than that of ill humor, does he give any intimation. Gal. 2:6. "Of those who seemed to be somewhat, whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepted no man's person: for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me."

When, again, he comes to speak of the sort of intercourse, such as it was, which he had with the Apostles,—who are the persons that he speaks of? All the Apostles? the body of the Apostles in general?—No: James, Cephas, the Hebrew name of which Peter is a translation, and John: these three, and no more. These are the men, whom, to him Paul and his protector Barnabas in conjunction, he on that same occasion speaks of, as "giving the right hand of fellowship:"[Pg 219] to wit, for the purpose of the Partition Treaty, the terms of which immediately follow.

And, even of these men, in what way does he speak? As of men "who seemed to be pillars:" so that, as to what concerned the rest of the Apostles, he found himself reduced to speak no otherwise than by conjecture. And this same "right hand of fellowship"—what was their inducement for giving it?—It was, says he, that "they perceived the grace that was given unto me": i.e., in plain language, and ungrounded pretension apart,—the power, which they saw he had, of doing mischief:—of passing, from the character of a jealous and restless rival, into that of a declared enemy: into that character, in which he had originally appeared, and with such disastrous effect.

Immediately after this comes the mention of the visit, made by Peter to Antioch: and therefore it is, that, no sooner is Peter—that chief of the Apostles of Jesus—mentioned,—than he is mentioned, as a man whom this Paul "withstood to his face, because he was to be blamed." Gal. 2:11.

Peter was to be blamed: those other Jews that were come to Antioch from James—they were to be blamed. Barnabas, under whose powerful protection,—by the Church at Jerusalem, her justly odious persecutor had, at three different times, been endured,—he too was to be blamed. He too was, at that time, to be blamed; and, as will be seen presently after, openly quarrelled with; and, if on this point the Acts are to be believed, parted with. Acts 15:39. "And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus."

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Of what passed at this assembly, the only account we have—the account given to us by the author of the Acts—is curious:—curious at any rate; and whether it be in every particular circumstance true or not,—in so far as it can be depended upon, instructive.[33]

[Pg 221]

We have the persons mentioned as having spoken: they are, in the order in which they are here enumerated, these four:—to wit, Peter, Barnabas, Paul and James. Of the speech of Peter, the particulars are given: so likewise of that of James: of Barnabas and Paul, nothing more than the topic.

Against the Mosaic law in toto, we find Peter; and such contribution as he is represented as furnishing to this side of the cause in the shape of argument. On the same side, were Barnabas and Paul: what they furnished was matter of fact:—namely, in the language of the Acts, "what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them:"—in plain language, the success they had met with among the Gentiles.

On this question, on the side of the chief of the Apostles, were—the manifest interest of the religion of Jesus as to extent of diffusion,—the authority derived from situation,—the express command of Jesus as delivered in the Gospel history,—and Jesus' own practice: not to speak of the inutility and unreasonableness of the observances themselves. Yet, as far as appears from the author of the Acts,—of these arguments, conclusive as they would or at least should have been,—it appears not that any use was made: the success, he spoke of as having been experienced by himself among the Gentiles,—in this may be seen the sole argument employed in Peter's speech. Thus,—in so far as this report is to be believed,—thus, upon their own respective achievements, did,—not only Paul but Peter,—rest, each of them, the whole strength of the cause.

Spite of reason, religion, and Jesus, the victory is in this account, given to James—to Jesus' kinsman, James. The motion is carried: the course proposed, is a sort of middle course—a sort of compromise. At[Pg 222] the hands of Gentile proselytes, in deference to the Mosaic law, abstinence from four things is required: namely, meats offered to idols, blood, things strangled: these, and the irregularities of the sexual appetite,—whatsoever they were, that were meant by the word, rendered into English by the word fornication.

If any such decision were really come to,—by nothing but necessity—necessity produced by the circumstances of place and time—will it be found excusable. Abstinence from food killed in the way of sacrifice to heathen gods, on the occasion of public sacrifices: yes; for, for such food, little relish could remain, on the part of persons devoted to the religion of Jesus: from fornication, yes; for, for a sacrifice in this shape, even among the Gentiles, some preparation had been made by stoicism. But, as to blood and things strangled,[34] that is to say, animals so slaughtered as to have more blood left in their carcasses than the Mosaic law would allow to be left in them—animals slaughtered otherwise than in the Jewish manner,—thus forbidding teachings of the religion of Jesus, to eat a meal furnished by Gentile hands,—this, as above observed, was depriving them of their most favourable opportunities, for carrying their pious and beneficent purposes into effect, by adding to the number of believers.

Altogether remarkable is the consideration, upon the face of it, by which, if the historian is to be believed, this decision was produced. "For Moses of[Pg 223] old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in synagogues every sabbath day," Acts 15:21. "May be so: but what if he has? what is that to the purpose? Good, if the question were about the Jews: but, it is not about the Jews: the Gentiles, and they only, are the subjects of it. And the Gentiles—what know or care they about Moses? what is it that is to send them into the synagogues, to hear anything that is "read in synagogues"?

By this imaginary abstinence from blood,—for, after all, by no exertion of Mosaic ingenuity could the flesh ever be completely divested of the blood that had circulated in it,—of this perfectly useless prohibition, what would be the effect?—Not only to oppose obstacles, to the exertions of Christian teachers, in their endeavors to make converts among the Gentiles,—but, on the part of the Gentiles themselves to oppose to them a needless difficulty, in the way of their conversion, by rendering it impossible for them, consistently with the observance of this prohibition, to associate with their unconverted friends and families at convivial hours. Thus much as to what concerns the Gentiles.[35]

Since, and from that time, the religion of Jesus has spread itself:—we all see to what extent. Spread itself: and by what means? By means of the decision thus fathered upon the Apostles? Upon the Apostles, the Elders, and the whole Church?—No: but in spite of it, and by the neglect of it.

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Charged with a letter, containing this decision, did Paul, together with his friend Barnabas, return from Jerusalem,—if the author of the Acts is to be believed,—to the society of Christian converts, by which he had been sent thither: charged with this letter, carrying with it the authority of the whole fellowship of the Apostles. Paul himself—he Paul—what sort of regard did he pay to it? He wrote against it with all his might. No more Jewish rites! No more Mosaic law! Such is the cry, that animates the whole body of those writings of his which have reached us.



Of a decision, agreed upon and pronounced to the above effect—a decision expressed by a decree;—and of a copy of that decree, included in and prefaced by a letter addressed to the saints at Antioch,—were Paul and Barnabas, along with others who were associated with them, on their return to that city, the bearers:—that is to say, if, as to these matters, credence is given, to the statement, made by the author of the Acts; by whom the alleged decree and letter are given, in words, which, according to him, were their very words:—these words are those which follow:

ACTS 15:22 to 32.

22. Then pleased it the Apostles and Elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch, with Paul[Pg 225] and Barnabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren.—And they wrote letters by them after this manner: The Apostles and elders, and brethren, send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia.—Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment:—It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul,—Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.—We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth.—For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things;—That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.—So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle.—Which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.—And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them.

Supposing it genuine,—a most curious, important and interesting document, this letter and decree must be allowed to be. Supposing it genuine: and, in favor of its genuineness, reasons present themselves, which, so long as they remain unopposed, and no preponderating reasons in support of the contrary opinion are produced, must decide our judgment.

Not long after the account of the acceptance given at Antioch to this decision,—comes that of a conjunct missionary excursion from that place made by Paul, with Timotheus, and perhaps Silas, for his companion. At the very commencement of this excursion—if, in the decree spoken of, this decree is to be understood as included; and there seems no reason why it should not be, they are represented as taking an active part in the distribution of it. Acts 16:4. "And says the historian, as they" (Paul, &c.) "went[Pg 226] through the cities, they delivered them the decrees for to keep, that were ordained of the Apostles and Elders that were at Jerusalem."

That, by Paul, this token, of association with the Apostles, should at that time be exhibited and made manifest, seems altogether natural. It affords a further proof, of the need, which, at that period of his labors, he regarded himself as having, of the appearance—the outward signs at least—of a connection with the Apostles.

True, it is, that the persuasion of any such need is altogether inconsistent with that independence, which, in such precise and lofty terms, we have seen him declaring in his Epistle to his Galatians,—is sufficiently manifest. But, in the current chronology, the date, ascribed to that Epistle, is by five years posterior, to the date ascribed to the commencement of this excursion: date of the excursion, A.D. 53; date of the Epistle, A.D. 58: difference, five years: and five years are not too great a number of years, for the experience of success and prosperity, to have raised to so high a pitch, the temperature of his mind.[36]

Even before this time, we find him even outstretching the concessions, which, in that decree, in the case of the Gentiles, in compliance with the scruples of the Jewish disciples they had to deal with, we have been seeing made by the Apostles, in favor of the Mosaic law. Abstinence—from meat offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from fornication—composed all the Mosaic observances exacted in[Pg 227] that decree. To these, he, in his practice, at this time, added another, and that, in respect of extent, in a prodigious degree a more important one: to wit, the submitting to circumcision. For, to this painful observance,—in which a submission to all the other Mosaic observances was implied,—he had already subjected his new convert Timotheus, whom, in this excursion, in addition to Silas, he took with him for a companion. Born of a Greek father as he was,—adult as he was,—he took him, says the historian, and circumcised him. Circumcised him—and why?—"Because of the Jews, which were in those quarters."[37]

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[29] Acts xv. 1 to 4:—"1. And certain men which came down from Judea, taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.—2. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the Apostles and Elders about this question.—3. And being brought on their way by the Church, they passed through Phenice and Samaria, declaring the conversion of the Gentiles: and they caused great joy unto all the brethren.—4. And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church, and of the Apostles and Elders; and they declared all things that God had done with them."

[30] Gal. i. 18, 19. "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.—9. But other of the Apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother."

Acts 15:4. "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church, and of the Apostles and Elders; and they declared all things that God had done with them."

The cause of this contrariety lies not far beneath the surface. Paul had one object in view; his historiographer another. In the two passages, they wrote at distant times, and with different purposes. In his address to his Galatian disciples, Paul's object was to magnify his own importance at the expense of that of the Apostles: to establish the persuasion, not only of his independence of them, but of his superiority over them. The generality of them were not worth his notice; but having some business to settle with them, Peter, the chief of them, he "went" to see, and James, as being "the Lord's brother," he vouchsafed to see. On that particular occasion, such was the conception which Paul was labouring to produce: and such, accordingly, was his discourse. As for the historiographer, his object was, of course, throughout, to place the importance of his hero on as high a ground as possible. But, in this view, when once Paul had come to a settlement with the Apostles, the more universal the acceptance understood to have been received by him—received from the whole body of Christians, and from those their illustrious leaders in particular,—the better adapted to this his historiographer's general purposes would be the conception thus conveyed: accordingly they were received, he says, "of the Church, and the Apostles, and Elders."

[31] Acts xv. 4. "And when they were come to Jerusalem, they were received of the Church and of the Apostles and Elders, and they declared all things that God had done unto them."

[32] Gal. ii. 6. "But of those who seemed to be somewhat, whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person: for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me.—And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.—Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do.—But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed."

[33] Acts 15:5-21. 5. "But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.—And the Apostles and Elders came together for to consider of this matter.—And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel and believe.—And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us;—And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.—Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?—But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.—Then all the multitude kept silence, and gave audience to Barnabas and Paul, declaring what miracles and wonders God had wrought among the Gentiles by them.—And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me:—Simon hath declared how God at the first did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.—And to this agree the words of the prophets; as it is written,—After this I will return, and will build again the tabernacle of David, which is fallen down; and I will build again the ruins thereof, and I will set it up:—That the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom my name is called, saith the Lord, who doeth all these things.—Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.—Wherefore my sentence is,—that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:—But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.—For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day."

[34] After the word blood, the mention made of things strangled seems to have been rather for explanation than as a separate ordinance. Of strangling, instead of bleeding in the Jewish style,—what the effect would be, other than that of retaining blood, which the Mosaic ordinance required should be let out, is not very apparent.

[35] Another observation there is that applies even to the Jews. By Moses were all these several things forbidden. True: but so were a vast multitude of other things, from, which (after the exceptions here in question) the prohibition is, by this decision, taken off. These things, still proposed to be prohibited, as often as they entered a synagogue, they would hear prohibited: but, so would they all those other things, which, by this decision, are left free.

[36] In the account of this excursion, Galatia—now mentioned for the first time in the Acts,—is mentioned, in the number of the countries, which, in the course of it, he visited. It stands fourth: the preceding places being Derbe, Lystra, Iconium and Phrygia. Acts 16:1 to 6. In Acts 18:23, "He ... went over [all] Galatia ... strengthening the disciples."

[37] Acts 16:1 to 3. Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and behold, a certain disciple was there named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess and believed: but his father was a Greek:—Which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium.—Him would Paul have to go forth to him, and took and circumcised him, because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek.

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