Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.
This is one of the few places we are told about the amount of time passing during a narrative. This passage covers at least the course of a year, which gives us some bearing going forward.
If you were to go back to yesterday’s text, of Peter talking to the disciples about the acceptance of Gentiles, this passage seems to stand on its own, almost as if one of two stories was written by someone else and placed into the text.
What i find particularly interesting in this text is that it gives us more details of the expanded mission to the gentiles, and that concurrently with Peter’s work, some of the disciples in Antioch had also started talking with the Gentiles, and Barnabas couldn’t refuse the Grace working in the community. This is also the beginning of the partnership between Saul/Paul and Barnabas. And it is Antioch that members of the Way start to be called Christians. This passage also highlights that Saul/Paul spent a good deal of time there, meaning he would have been strongly influenced by the Antioch community’s acceptance of Gentiles, surely feeding his ministry of reconciliation in profound ways.
One thing to keep in mind is that there were subsets of Judaism, much like there are currently subsets of Christianity. The two primary branches we encounter in the New Testament are the Hebrews and the Hellenists, both Jewish people though. The Hebrews would have centered in and around Jerusalem, and would have included probably all the apostles and the earliest disciples. They would have spoken aramaic and most likely would have heard the torah in Hebrew. In many respects they can be thought of as Traditionalists. The Hellenists were Jewish people from the diaspora. Antioch and Alexandria were considered hubs. Hellenistic Judaism was transmitted in greek (it is were we get the Septuagint from) and would have been heavily influenced by Greek thought. Chances are there were a bunch of other subsets as well that we don’t learn about in the New Testament. The early church, know as the Way, would have most likely been another subset of Judaism, rather than an independent religion, but for how long we don’t really know. The inclusion of the Gentiles would have certainly separated them from the mainstream of Judaism, but the early church might have still understood its self as jewish for a while after that, much in the same way Calvin and Luther still considered themselves Roman Catholic for a while after starting the reformation. In other words, we don’t have great indicators as to when Christianity fully saw itself as a new religion, certainly by the time of Constantine, when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire it would have been separate, but most likely it was a subtle shift, that worked its way out in fits and starts.
Questions for Reflection:
What do you think the significance of the early church finally being called “Christian” is?
Even though Peter was professing acceptance of the Gentiles as well, how were the Jerusalem church and the Antioch churches different (more on that to come in future readings), and what does this say about differences between particular churches today?
The passage refers back to the scattering of disciples as a result of the stoning of Stephen, in many ways the lowest day of the early church, but also the beginning of the spread of the church, clearly a major turning point. Has there ever been a time in your life that could be compared to the event?