Thoughts on the First Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Easter


The word of God continued to spread,
and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly;
even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
Acts 6:7

The sixth chapter of Acts has as its subject the mission of Peter which was blessed with the increase of the disciples in Jerusalem. We know that many of these first converts were Jews and some were Hellenists. Then Acts gives the surprising information that a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith. These were members of the hereditary priesthood, serving the Temple in shifts of three per week, witnesses to the dawn and evening, ninth hour, sacrifice of lambs, each having been inspected to assure that there were no blemishes, washed, given water from a golden cup, and tied, fore and hind legs together, as depicted by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664), in his “Agnus Dei,” and sacrificed in expiation for Israel’s sins. Later the meal offering would be made, the second lamb sacrificed, and the Ten Commandments and the Shema read: “Hear O Israel, the Lord Your God is one Lord.”

This is what the priests who were beginning to believe in Jesus would leave behind. The Lamb of God would now be Jesus. The liturgical phase, “Behold the Lamb of God” was introduced into the Roman Rite by Pope Sergius I (687–701) in the context of his rejection of the Council of Trullo (692), which was well received in the East and called the Quinisext Council, but whose canons had forbidden the iconographic depiction of Christ as a lamb. Jesus is named the Lamb of God nineteen times in the prophet John’s Apocalypse, a much-valued text in Rome, including Jesus depiction as the Lamb as having been slain, bearing still the marks of His wounds, standing on His throne, surrounded by the rainbow glory of the Father, in 5:6.

On two other occasions in the literature of the early church reference is made directly to the Jerusalem priesthood. The author of the Didache, written perhaps before the fall of Jerusalem, a Christian still much in the ambiance of the Temple and its worship, reminding his readers of the importance of the prophetic office, wrote: “The prophets are your high priests” (13:1). A century later Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, remembered that John the author of the Gospel had been a priest wearing the breastplate, information difficult to assimilate to any traditional account of the origin of John, but the evidence is from a weighty source.

Such references as well as the text from Acts above, serve to remind us just how Jewish the Jerusalem Church was in the beginning and how Jewish it has remained. This is of course inevitable, for the history of the Church is the history of Israel; it is not for nothing that at the Easter Vigil, the most solemn celebration in the Christian year, the Exultet: “Rejoice, O ye heavenly legion of angels,” is sung commemorating God’s redemption of Israel: This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea. The means of their escape had been the lamb slain, his redemptive blood spread on the doorposts. This is the lamb to which the sacrifices of the Temple before 70 AD always made implicit reference, and it is to the same Lamb to which the Eucharistic Sacrifice makes implicit if remote reference daily in the Church through the Agnus Dei: Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” The sacrifice of the Lamb in Egypt was the distant warrant for both the sacrifices of the Temple and for the recollected sacrifice of Christ the Lamb of God.

Our entire picture of Christian origins is inevitably colored by the extensive literature, thirteen or fourteen letters from Paul. Most were directed to Greek congregations in Asia, Macedonia, or Achaia, in which Paul’ efforts were largely, first, to tear new believers away from the Greco-Roman culture, and second to encourage the holy transformation of hearts by the virtues of faith, hope, and love, while always carrying on a stiff opposition to the belief that good works were salvific or necessary, and until late enjoying a tension-ridden relation to the apostles at Rome, Peter and James, to whose authority he submitted, reluctantly, to be sure that his Gospel did not differ from theirs. The heresies men leave are hated most, and while Paul a tenderness toward his own people, he was deeply convinced that any reliance on good works led away from the Gospel.

The Jerusalem Church, of whom the Epistle of James is representative, was fed by the Gospel of Matthew, written originally in Hebrew, and cherished by those who did not think that either its teaching or, in some cases, it language could be left behind. The theology of Matthew devolves entirely in the last chapters on the simple question of charitable works done to the poor, hungry, and naked. This is the piety of Judaism perfected. Similarly, John’s Apocalypse, despite the prophet’s warning to the Church at Philadelphia against those who say they are Jews but are not (3:7), is, like Matthew and James, born of a Jewish background and piety. Quite simply, the books are opened and all are judged by what they have done (Revelation 20:13). When one turns to the letter of James, one finds inspired moral advice but also a rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from good works that made Martin Luther wish the book could be excised from the Bible (James 1:22–25, 2:14–26).

Throughout the second and third centuries there are rare references suggesting the survival of these Hebrew-speaking Christians, who are never cited for any defect in their faith but are always described with puzzlement as still clinging to the Hebrew Matthew, which is probably the core around which the Greek Mathew was written. Papias of Hierapolis, writing about 110, remembered that the Gospel of Matthew was written originally in Hebrew, but that everyone translated it, into Greek, as they were able. After the destruction of the Temple in 69–70, its sacred furnishings carried off in triumph by the Emperor Titus, his victor’s booty still to be seen carved in the arch that bears his name in the Roman Forum, the Jerusalem Church with James as its head disappears.

The site was the scene of destruction until a new city, Colonia Aelia Capitolina, named in part for Hadrian, whose gentile cognomen (clan or extended family name) was Aelius, and also for Jupiter Capitolinus, the Jupiter of Rome’s Capitoline Hill, was built during his reign (117–38), and then Jerusalem was a gentile city, having already been consecrated to Zeus, the Greek Jupiter, by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV in the BC 168. But Jerusalem was so rich in sites associated with the life and teaching of Jesus that as the Church became a legal institution Jerusalem became the object of Christian pilgrimage, as it still is. Saint Helena, Constantine’s mother, made the discovery of Biblical sites her project, causing churches to be built at these holy places. The remnants of the Hebrew speaking Church disappeared or were swept into the Constantinian Church of the early fourth century. But there were words that could not be put into Greek, notably Jesus’ last words from the cross, “Eli, Eli, Lama sabach-thani?” My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 


 – Dr. James Patrick

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