Judges, Early Church Redux

The Importance of the Successors

After the death of Moses, Israel crossed the Jordan River, and much more than their geographic location changed. A sea change of lifecycle rhythms and an entirely new mission lay in front of them. The manna which had fed them from the time of Moses ceased, and their new source of sustenance was the land promised to their fathers many years ago. The survival of the fledgling traveler nation relied on their belief that God would provide as he had in the wilderness in this new set of circumstances, and that Joshua’s leadership as a hand–picked successor to Moses would be stalwart.

An early catastrophe against the small city of Ai proved that the relationship with God had changed; Israel learned that there was a necessity that they seek out God. They would not be given every bit of direction by Moses or the moving of the cloud by day and fire by night. They needed to seek it and raise up leaders to maintain and perpetuate the cultural underpinnings of the new nation. If they did not, hidden sin in the nation would hamstring them as they sought to fulfill their destiny.

Israel had corruption, as Achan had defied the commandment of God and retained some of the spoils from the conquest of Jericho. Israel was expected to seek God for instruction and purification, since different corruptions and temptations would prey on them in this new phase of the fledgling nation’s existence. Total war with the corrupt inhabitants of the land would be necessary.

The land had long ago been promised to Abraham, but this was no guarantee of an easy stroll into the inheritance. The earth had also long ago also been promised to Adam as a place to be fruitful and multiply. The subsequent fall, corruption, the flood, and the scattering at Babel had changed the earth and demanded a confrontation. Now, it was necessary to unseat the inhabitants of these lands who had nested themselves in the void left by Israel’s 430–year departure into Egypt and 40–year sojourn in the wilderness. The evils practiced by the people who dwelt in Canaan now had reached an apex, as it had been written, “in the fourth generation” after going down to Egypt “the iniquity of the Amorites” had become complete.

Joshua’s role as the right hand of Moses served him well, and the unique experience of accompanying him part of the way on Sinai when Moses received revelation from God sets him apart. He was close enough that he was able to receive some of Moses’ vision and natural gifts. He would need every shred of it to direct Israel to a successful set of operations in the promised land. It would be very different from his experiences in Egypt or in wandering around with Moses, and Joshua’s diligence to heed the words of warning and advice in the first chapter of the book that bears his name would be paramount for Israel.

As a man who had been immersed in the law as an aide to Moses, Joshua was uniquely qualified to lead Israel’s advance and conquest of the inheritance. In addition to warfighting strategy and training, legal questions, and day–to–day judgments, the culture of Israel would be defined by this period. They would need to have a firm undergirding to resist assimilation into the surrounding peoples. Israel was to be planted in the land and to uproot the nations that had grown there in its absence. One of the difficulties is that many of the surrounding tribes had similar mythologies, and there would be a temptation to compromise or test the various cult practices of the other nations when they were not fully driven out of the land.

Many years before, Joshua and Caleb were the only two who stood against the other spies who had also seen the land as well as the multitude of people at Kadesh–Barnea. The challenge was to hold firm in belief that God had brought them to take the land, not to fall back and return to Egyptian slavery as the people desired upon hearing from the other ten spies how powerful the inhabitants were. Kadesh–Barnea sealed the fate of most of Israel: to die before entering the good land promised to them. Joshua and Caleb would lay a foundation that would serve Israel through the time of David and Solomon. Caleb’s conquest of Hebron was pivotal since that city was David’s staging point for a unified Israelite kingdom. There would be many early victories, but after the death of Joshua and the elders who followed Joshua, roughly 250–300 years of struggles lay before Israel until centralized rulership and an elevation of the nation’s status among the inhabitants of the land would occur.

The Apostles and the Church in its Infancy

The early disciples were given around 40 days with Jesus in which he explained the meaning of his crucifixion, resurrection, and what the future held for his disciples. However, one can only fit so much explanation and question–and–answer into such a short window of time for the most monumental event in human history.

It can be said that Christians were essentially an underground movement from Pentecost to around 312 AD, the edict of Christian toleration known as the Edict of Milan. They endured periods of relative peace and lax enforcement of anti–Christian laws between waves of overt persecution. Their beliefs were largely misunderstood and laughed at by dyed–in–wool Romans, particularly in the early periods due to necessary secrecy and initiation rites. Pagan Romans were told that Christians were cannibals or that they believed all sorts of strange things, and in one case had Nero blame them for a set of fires in Rome as justification for persecuting them. Most of these notions had steadily died off by 312, however.

The dominant struggle of Christians before 312 was not to compromise and syncretize their beliefs with the surrounding world, even on pain of death, even when they were offered ways to lie and avoid martyrdom. Many faithful martyrs and contenders of the faith arose and paid that ultimate price. During certain periods, intense pressure was placed on early believers to survive to the next day intact. Teaching which had been vetted and approved by church authorities was not widely available, and word of mouth and personal instruction were the primary means of Christian learning.

Some of the earliest writings on Christian living which distilled theological concepts to the believer such as the Didache were not widely available. This means that we should reasonably expect that early Christians had a somewhat varying set of beliefs alongside what we consider normative Christian belief, since so much depended on oral transmission. These disputes would have to be handled by the centers of authority – the successors to the Apostles, and their successors, and so on.

This implies the relative importance of Jesus’ apostles as figureheads of authority in the early church to decide questions of faith, doctrine, and to create a genuinely “Christian” culture that could endure not only early Jewish persecution but long–term Roman persecution. The notion of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity was blasphemous to Jews, while the notion of his kingship was offensive to Romans’ view of Caesar as Lord, as well as standards of morality that were opposed to public nudity, sexual immorality, etc. The importance of the authority of the eleven who had walked and talked with Jesus – as well as Paul, who had tremendous authority as a highly trained and regarded scholar of the law – cannot be overstated to early Christianity. The apostles’ personal authority and the authority of their successors became crucial to deciding questions of faith.

The apostles of Jesus were given a command to make disciples of all nations, and the continuity of the Christian sect with its Hebraic and Abrahamic roots would need centuries of debate to be fully fleshed out. The apostles and their successors were uniquely qualified to lay the foundations for the Church such that their successors could be expected to continue to grow the branches out of the root of Christ. Simply being given an Old Testament and being told that Jesus was the Messiah leaves no space for a concept such as sola scriptura for the early church and left a lot of questions that would have to be answered at an organizational level.

For the early movement, the revelation to Peter that both Jew and Gentile should be admitted without the typical Jewish requirements (such as circumcision) was a decisive point that would have implications for the rest of Christian history. It increased the potential “market” for the faith from the scattered Jewish communities in the Roman Empire to the entire world. The Judeo–Christian tradition represented a complete fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise to bless all nations, in time, starting from the base of the Roman Empire: Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Levant. It also introduced a tremendous number of obstacles since non–Jews were not steeped in the concepts that made Jesus’ acts and teachings so significant. New foundations would have to be laid for those reared among the idols, classical literature, and rhetoric of the Greeks and Romans. Paul, as a Roman citizen, was uniquely qualified to bridge this gap and bind the components of the cultures of the two civilizations together into something that made sense for all Christianity such that it not needlessly fracture.

This is the foundation of western civilization on which the diversity of European ethnicity could be nurtured – the tenuous union of the Roman, Greek, Barbarian tribes of the low countries, and Judeo–Christian cultures in Europe by the fabric of Christ’s own body. It is not surprising that the fault lines of this union were east/west initially in the Schism of 1054 following a “drifting apart” of these civilizations – Roman and Greek – but eventually also what was essentially Christian versus uniquely Greek or uniquely Roman. Today, we see many of those Roman and pre–Roman identities emerging in the various identitarian movements emerging in Europe – even a deep interest in folklore and pre–Christian pagan practices. Among other things, the Reformation was a haphazard attempt to get back to what was uniquely Judeo–Christian rather than Roman or otherwise corrupted, which was impossible at that stage. It was eventually driven by the influences of the cultures in which the various Reformers were reared: Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, Calvin in France, and others.

Laying such a foundation was difficult work, not least because the apostles were martyred or brutally tortured. Many unnamed martyrs suffer without a mention in historical texts and are long–forgotten to our world. The work of the precious few who could perform scribal tasks or who used their homes as the base of worship for the new faith was critical for the survival of the nation – which are things that were not necessary when the twelve and other followers of Jesus were simply wandering around with him around the area of the Galilee or when the Apostles were mainly evangelizing Jews in the diaspora.

In this sense it was a much more difficult life – the apostles and followers who witnessed Jesus before his death and resurrection were under far less pressure or persecution versus afterward. While the Pharisees did apply some pressure to early believers such that any public disciple of Jesus was kicked out of synagogues, they hadn’t yet been harassed, chased, stoned, or imprisoned by such people as Saul of Tarsus as they would be after Jesus’ ascension.

The new movement’s job was to conquer the world in the way that Jesus conquered death – humility, self–sacrifice, social responsibility within the local community, charity, morality, and teaching the history and roots of their faith. Jesus had promised them that the entire world would hear the testimony of the gospel and commanded them to fulfill that promise. In this geographical sense, the new Christian movement differed from their Hebraic roots. Not only was their calling explicitly global from the beginning (natural Israel’s was, initially), but the inheritance before them was global and uniquely theirs in which to bear fruit. Instead of “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you…from the wilderness to Euphrates,” it was “…this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” as well as “…the ruler of this world is judged.” This was a spiritual invasion of enemy–occupied territory in the earth.

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