Christianity

The Opponents of Paul: First Century Disputes Within Christianity

Throughout the writings of Paul we find about competing and different set of beliefs that are being passed around, and we know this thanks to Paul himself, who condemns and attacks these people for preaching a different message to what he was. The only unfortunate issue is that we don’t have the writings of those people, rather we can only rely on Paul.

The main importance of this is that it shows early differences in first century Christianity, THE very first decades of Christianity itself! Modern day Christians often try to downplay Christian groups that disagree with their doctrine based on their dates, for instance many Christian sect and groups that vastly disagree with orthodox Christianity appeared during the 2nd-4th century, and modern day Christians say since they aren’t first century, and come sometime after Jesus, they aren’t to be taken too seriously. Although this logic is faulty because there was no official orthodox position until the 4th century! Hence anything between the first century and 4th century could be considered fair game, in fact the term early Christianity denotes the time between the 1st century to the 4th, after the Council of Nicaea!

In this case though, Christian apologists won’t be able to play that game, as we are appealing to the very writings of Paul, in the first century, and a couple of decades after Jesus. So with all of that said, let us go into the writings to see the disputes and differences he was having.

We start with the book of Galatians, where Paul writes the following:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel? which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:6-12)

So according to Paul, another Gospel was being preached, and not only was it being preached, but many people were deserting Paul’s teaching for this other Gospel! Off course Paul is not too pleased about that, and he condemns the people who are preaching the different Gospel, he claims that they are eternally condemned, and that they are trying to pervert the Gospel message. Paul warns the people, to not dare follow any other Gospel message that is different from his, even if it was an angel giving the message!

What gets more interesting is that Paul begins to try and convince the people that the Gospel he has is divine, and not from any normal man, but it was revealed to him by Jesus Christ. Obviously he makes this plea because people were beginning to doubt him and his authenticity, yet he is trying to convince the people otherwise, that his message is from Jesus.

Now what could these opponents be preaching? Well we know they were preaching something different to Paul, hence we ask what was Paul preaching? One of the hallmarks of Paul’s theology is that the Law doesn’t matter anymore, that the Jewish Laws and customs are useless, and it’s all about faith and grace now. So we can assume that these opponents were obviously preaching something opposite to this.

In the next chapter we get the context of what Paul is talking about, and WHO Paul is talking about in Galatians chapter two:

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. As for those who seemed to be important?whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance?those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

So in this chapter we see the differences arise again, and this time we see the specific people who are being confronted by Paul, and it happens to be Peter! The very same Peter who was a disciple of Jesus, and said to be the right hand man of Jesus! Paul confronts Peter, and calls Peter a hypocrite! The obvious major disagreement here has to do concerning the Jewish Law, as Paul makes it clear, the Jewish Law in no way saves a person, rather it is by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice that people are saved. Obviously this means that Peter and his group were preaching something different, the opposite to this, that the Jewish Law DID matter, and was not as useless as Paul was making it out to be.

Now let us not forget, in the previous chapter, Galatians 1, Paul CONDEMNS his opponent, and claims they are perverting the Gospel, now is it possible that these harsh rebukes were in fact directed towards Peter as well? We could speculate about this, and it would seem that Paul is not only talking about Peter, but all those others who are disagreeing with him as well, so we can see major differences arising here.

In fact in the book of Acts were read more about the major disagreements Paul is having:

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do?They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everybody will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” The next day Paul took the men and purified himself along with them. Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them. When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.) The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!” (Acts 21:17-36)

So according to the above, Paul was summoned to Jerusalem, and they were obviously concerned with what they were hearing about Paul, that he was effectively turning the Jewish Law into nothing, which was true. The situation completely heats up later on when a group of Jewish followers see Paul, and they want to get at him because of his teachings against the Jewish Law, and Paul is eventually forced into protection. So you can see how tense and heated the situation is, this isn’t some minor small disagreement we have here, this is a major issue running through the early Christian church.

In fact the situation is so heated that as we saw in the book of Galatians, Paul is eternally condemning his opponents, and warning the people to not follow them!

In Acts 22 we continue to read more about this situation:

“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ” ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “?I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me. “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked. “‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me. “A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. 13He stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight!’ And at that very moment I was able to see him. “Then he said: ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’ “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. ‘Quick!’ he said to me. ‘Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’ ” ‘Lord,’ I replied, ‘these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr[a] Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’ “Then the Lord said to me, ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!” As they were shouting and throwing off their cloaks and flinging dust into the air, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. “What are you going to do?” he asked. “This man is a Roman citizen.”The commander went to Paul and asked, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” “Yes, I am,” he answered. (Acts 22:1-27)

So here Paul tries to explain himself to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, and they are having none of it, they all become very agitated at Paul, and eventually Paul escapes punishment because he is a Roman citizen. Many scholars often point to this incident and call this the moment Christianity split, the split between the Jewish Christians and Paul’s version of Christianity.

We continue to read about the differences other Christians were having with Paul, this time from 2 Corinthians:

I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness; but you are already doing that. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may not be a trained speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.

Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (2 Corinthians 11:1-15)

Paul yet again warns the people to be wary of following another Gospel, or following another different Jesus that is being preached! Paul goes on to call these people false apostles, deceitful workers, fakes, and he even likens them to satan!

Now since we don’t have the writings of these people we don’t really know what they were preaching, but what we do know is that it was something different to what Paul was preaching, as Paul said, they are preaching a different Jesus, a different Gospel. Obviously this means that these Christians had something different, they most likely taught that the Law should be applied, and should be followed, and that it wasn’t as useless as Paul was teaching, that salvation was not on faith alone. Anything else is speculation, it could be on a wide range of issues in which they disagreed with Paul, and preached something different, what it was, we don’t really know. What we DO KNOW is that these texts prove that there were some serious early disagreements within the early Christian Church, and that there were competing messages being taught.

Christians may simply try to downplay this, but the text doesn’t allow them to do so, for if these were some minor disagreements, then Paul would not have been so harsh in his condemnations, and he would not be so eager to make sure that this different message to his was not being accepted and followed. Therefore it’s quite clear that there were some major disagreements happening here, and indeed it should be a cause for concern!

In fact according to Philippians chapter 4, Paul claims that many churches rejected him:

Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only (Philippians 4:15)

So there were several Churches rejecting Paul, not wanting to work with him! Now if that’s not a major difference then I really don’t know what is! And this is from the FIRST CENTURY! A few decades after Jesus!

So let us summarize everything we have:

1-Other gospels and opposing teachings were being made

2-These teachings were gaining followers, and people were abandoning Paul’s message

3-Paul condemned his opponents, calling them deceivers, fakes, and likened them to satan

4-Some of Pauls opponents included the disciples, such as Peter, whom Paul confronted and insulted

5-Paul was summoned by the Church in Jerusalem, who themselves had disagreements with Paul, the Christian Jews of Jerusalem under James, forced Paul out of Jerusalem

6-Many Churches were rejecting Paul, and refused to work with him

So we can clearly see some major disagreements in early Christianity, first century Christianity, just a few decades after Jesus, and many of these Christians who disagreed with Paul eventually became to known as Ebionites, and other early Christian 2nd century groups, their foundations all lied in the first century.

Categories: Christianity

3 replies »

  1. You ignore all the moral admonitions in Paul’s writings. It’s a very distorted picture of Paul on this website.

    They were all preaching the same gospel of the resurrection of Jesus and remission of sins through his name. Peter was behaving in denial of the gospel that he preached and so Paul had every right to rebuke him.

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