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Chapter 19

Chapter summary

Chapter 19

Christian Conflicts with Jews and Pagans: Hebrews and 1 Peter

Chapter Summary:

When scholars refer to the "catholic" epistles (Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude), they use the term "catholic" to mean "general" or "universal." The catholic epistles were not written to specific communities with specific problems. Rather, they address universal issues in Christianity.

Christians and Jews
Although Jesus and his earliest followers were Jews, later Christians understood their religion as something different, even if it did stem from Judaism. Thus, conflicts arose between those Jews who believed in Jesus and those who did not. The tension became even greater when Christians taught that Gentiles, too, were included in God's promises even if they did not adhere to the Jewish Law. These theological problems led Christians to develop a self-definition, a group identity that explained the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

Early Christian Self-Definition
All social groups establish criteria by which individuals are measured as a means of defining group boundaries. Christianity eventually sought an identity independent of Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. The development of a Christian identity stemmed, at least in part, from a need to defend themselves in a polytheistic world. Jews were exempt from worshipping the pagan gods because their religion was ancient. By claiming Judaism as their ancestry, Christians were able to protect themselves from persecution. The development of this identity is apparent in some early Christian writings.

Continuity and Superiority: The Epistle to the Hebrews
Although Hebrews is often called a letter, it does not contain an epistolary prescript, it does not name the author or the addressees, and it does not include an opening prayer or thanksgiving. It is more likely an early Christian homily. The book is anonymous, although it has traditionally been attributed to Paul. The emphases in the book, however, are not Pauline.

The Epistle to the Hebrews asserts the superiority of Christ over the prophets, the angels, Moses, Joshua, and the Jewish priesthood. Christ brings a superior covenant, a superior tabernacle, and makes a superior sacrifice. Like many other authors whose task is Christian self-definition, this author uses the Hebrew Scriptures to illustrate the authenticity of his claims; Scripture itself anticipated a future act of God that would surpass everything that had come before. For example, several Old Testament prophets mention a new covenant that God will make with the Jews. Drawing on Platonic thought, this author argues that the old covenant was a foreshadowing of the new, an imperfect reflection of a perfect reality. According to this author, God's new covenant, brought by Christ, nullified the previous covenant; the covenant made with the Jews was no longer valid.

Scholars do not know when or where this book was written. It is clear, though, that the author was concerned to define group boundaries. He argued that Christianity represented the perfection of Judaism. Christianity was the religion foretold by the prophets. Those who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, moreover, were not the true people of God. It may be that the author was addressing the problem of Christians converting to Judaism to avoid persecution. This, asserts the author, would be to prefer the foreshadowing of God's promise over the promise itself. The Jewish Law is imperfect and unable to save; Judaism is completed and perfected in Christ. Thus, although Christianity stands in continuity with Judaism, it is superior to it.

Christians and Pagans
Christianity made very little impact on the Roman Empire in the century after Jesus' death. Although Christianity was known, the Romans did not consider it a threat. There was, moreover, no imperial legislation against Christianity per se and no empire-wide persecution of Christians until around 250 C.E.

If Christianity was not, strictly speaking, illegal in the Roman Empire, why were Christians occasionally persecuted? Each province in the Empire was ruled by a governor or client king whose primary task was to keep the peace and collect taxes. Christians rather frequently seemed to be involved in socially disruptive behavior, and, thus, drew the attention of these rulers.

Historians believe that the first imperial persecution of Christianity came at the hands of the emperor Nero who used Christians as scapegoats for the fire in Rome. Nero's persecution, though, was confined to Rome and specifically related to the charge of arson. The next official persecution of Christianity seems to have occurred in 112 C.E. Pliny, a governor in Asia Minor, received complaints about the Christians in his province and put them on trial to test their loyalty. Pliny did not, though, punish Christians for worshipping their God. The crime was the Christians' refusal to worship the state gods-a refusal that could, according to Roman thought, provoke the gods to punish the Empire. Both of these instances of persecution were localized. In neither case was a law enacted that banned Christianity.

Many early Christian books dealt with the social and theological impact of persecution. These writings attempted to unify Christians against their pagan opponents and to offer an explanation of their suffering.

Christians in a Hostile World: The Letter of 1 Peter
1 Peter claims to be written by Jesus' disciple, Peter. Scholars doubt that Peter wrote this letter, in part because he was most likely a lower-class fisherman who was illiterate and spoke Aramaic. The author of this letter, however, is a literate Greek-speaking Christian.

The letter's addressees, "exiles" and "aliens," have experienced some kind of suffering, and the author urges his readers to live moral lives-apparently thinking that their behavior might stem public outcry against them. In addition, the author tried to unify the communities in an effort to keep members from falling away from the faith. He reminded the Christians that since Jesus suffered, they should expect to suffer as well.

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