Ministry in Antioch on the Orontes
The news that St. Paul had allowed Gentiles into the church was shocking for the Jewish circles of Judea and was met with violent opposition. The latter claimed that the people who did not observe the Jewish dietary obligations and who were not circumcised, could not adhere to Christianity. Thus, in Antioch, a major controversy arose, concerning Jewish purity laws governing food, sharing of meals with Gentiles and circumcision.
One of the practices which separated the Gentile converts from the Jewish Christians was sabbath, the day of prayer and rest during which the latter withdrew from public life. However, Jewish groups differed about regulations of sabbath and when Jesus healed the man who was ill for thirty-eighth years at the pool of Bethesda Un 5: 1-1 8) he had made the latter carry his bed on the sabbath. A second distinguishing mark was the food laws commanded for Jewish people. Even if the very complicated prescriptions detailed in the book of Leviticus may not have been generally practiced in the first-century Jewish world, what was applicable segregated Jews from Gentiles.
The main reason why Jews were against sharing meals with Gentiles was the fact that much of the meat which would have been available to the latter at the market came from the sacrifices to pagan gods. Consequently, an invitation to a Gentile dinner always carried the potential danger of eating this meat and compromising, unknowingly, with pagan sacrifice. Some Jewish groups to prevent this danger provided their own food. although this problem had already found its answer by the visions of the centurion Cornelius and St Peter which ended up with Gentiles’ receiving the Holy Spirit Just as the Jewish Christians (Acts 10) it seems that some Jewish Christians had began avoiding Gentile dinners.
In his letter to the Galatians St. Paul informs us that when they met in Antioch he criticized St Peter for stopping sharing food with the Gentiles: I said to Kephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2: 14). Obviously the practice of St Peter would have resulted in two groups of Christians who could not meet for the Eucharist. Another problem, as important as the dietary laws, was more evident. At the time of St. Paul, circumcision had been in practice in Africa and although biblical tradition claims it to have been practiced since the patriarch Abraham it may have been first introduced into the Semitic world of Mesopotamia by Jews at the time of the Exodus.
It was originally indicated by a tattoo showing that the circumcised person was a member of the tribe. The law of Moses required that all male Jews had to be circumcised in infancy. The obligation had come to be regarded as more important during the later history of the Jewish nation when they lived under the rule of the Babylonians and Persians who did not practice it, and gained a religious meaning. The Jews claimed that all the converts to Christianity had also to be circumcised. The Old Testament refers to the employment of primitive flint knives for the operation. At that time it was also a dangerous and painful operation especially for adults. It was decided that St. Paul and St. Barnabas taking Titus with them should go to Jerusalem, to discuss such matters with the elders and Apostles there.
In Jerusalem after much discussion, it was decided that as long as Gentiles did not eat meat sacrificed to the idols and blood-meat and avoided marriage within forbidden degrees of affinity, there was nothing to prevent them from becoming Christians. Thus the complex obligations of the Jewish law had been reduced to a few prohibitions. Although in the conclusion summarized by St James the Just (Acts 15) there is no word about circumcision, and other obligations such as the eating of pig or sabbath, one may conclude that they were abrogated as well. Although it is known that with the resolution of these matters pagans did not flee to baptism, their cancellation would ultimately determine the charocter of the doctrine and practices of Christianity and help its spread.
The Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem also decided that St. Paul should continue to preach to the Gentiles and Sts James the Just, Peter and St. John to the Jews (Gal 2:2-10). St. Paul’s fluent Greek may have been one of the reasons why he was chosen to preach to the Gentiles and Hellenized Jews.
Following the meeting Judas, who was called Barsabbas, and Silas (also called Silvanus) were chosen to accompany the Apostles to Antioch with a letter to the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia stating that St. Barnabas and St. Paul had been chosen, together with Judas and Silas, to take the message that they were required only to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from meats of strangled animals, also from blood in any flesh, and from unlawful marriage.