Outlines Of New Testament History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.

(Acts 1–12)



(Acts 1–5).

              1. Pentecost:

              The disciples gathered in the upper room.


                            The descent of the Holy Ghost and the discourse of St. Peter.




              2. The First Converts:

              Circumstances of their conversion.


                            Their manner of life.


                            The apostles before the Sanhedrim.






(Acts 6–8).

              1. Their Ordination, Names and Office.


              2. Zeal and Martyrdom of St. Stephen.


              3. The Work of St. Philip (Conversion of the Samaritans—Baptism of the Eunuch, etc.).






(Acts 9:31; 11:23).

              1. Peter’s Visitation of “the Saints”:

              “The peace of the Church.”


                            St. Peter at Lydda and Joppe.




              2. The Conversion of Cornelius: the fact and its importance.




              3. St. Peter in Antioch:

              Early introduction of Christianity into that city.


                            Tradition as to St. Peter’s residence in Antioch.






(Acts 12).

              1. Herod Agrippa I.: The Man and His Rule (A.D. 41–44).


              2. Martyrdom of St. James. Arrest and Deliverance of St. Peter.


              3. Tradition Respecting the Departure of the Apostles from Jerusalem.


§ 1. Pentecost and the First Converts

1. Pentecost. It was in compliance with the parting recommendation of their risen Master that, leaving the Mount of the Ascension, the disciples of Jesus returned to Jerusalem. They carried with them the explicit promise that within a few days they should receive the Holy Ghost, and they instinctively felt the need to prepare for this heavenly blessing by cultivating a devout frame of mind. Day after day they were assiduous in the Temple at the time of the morning and evening sacrifices, and outside these sacred hours they gathered in the upper room—probably the one wherein their Master had celebrated His last supper—and “persevered with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.”

Soon they were joined by former disciples of Jesus, and one day, when there were about 120 gathered together, Peter, whose right of pre-eminence was unquestioned, invited those present to fill up the vacancy in the number of the apostles caused by the treachery and death of Judas. The one finally selected for the apostolic office was Matthias, one of those who had best known Jesus during His mortal life.

It was not long after the mystical number of twelve had thus been restored when the promised outpouring of the Holy Ghost was granted to the gathered disciples of Christ. This occurred on the fiftieth day after the Passover-Sabbath, under circumstances the miraculous character of which is clearly implied in the sacred narrative. But as might naturally be expected, this miraculous character was not realized by the Jewish multitudes which “out of every nation” had convened in Jerusalem for the celebration of the Pentecost festival: while most witnesses of the event simply wondered, saying one to another: “What meaneth this?” Many of a less serious turn of mind derided the ecstatic condition of the apostles and exclaimed: “These men are full of new wine.” Whereupon Peter, again taking the lead, boldly addressed the assembled Jews. In what they witnessed he bade his hearers to see the fulfilment of ancient prophecy regarding the last days—that is, the days of the Messias; and in that Jesus of Nazareth whom he called “a man approved of God among them by miracles, and wonders, and signs,” and whom they had lately crucified and slain, he showed that they should recognize the true Messias whose death and resurrection had been foretold by the Royal Prophet.

2. The First Converts. Great indeed was the effect of this first public discourse of St. Peter. It brought home to his hearers the magnitude of the crime committed by their nation, and numbers among them, “about 3000 souls,” pricked to the heart, willingly heard the further instructions of the apostle, believed his words, received baptism, and thus became the first converts to Christianity.

Similar results soon followed on the great miracle of the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, which is detailed with such vividness in the sacred record, and after which St. Peter addressed a second discourse course to the Jewish multitudes. He reproached them with their great crime against “the Holy One and the Just” whom God had raised from the dead, and bade them to secure themselves against the day of Christ’s second coming by a sincere conversion and by a heart-felt obedience to Jesus Christ as “the Prophet” predicted by Moses and all the prophets of old. Finally, he exhorted them, as the children of Abraham, that they should avail themselves of the divine blessing, of which Christ’s resurrection was the pledge, first to them and next to all nations.

These words—to which many unrecorded were added by Peter and John—sank so deeply into the minds and hearts of the listeners that, as the sacred text tells us, “many of them who had heard the word believed: and the number of the men was made five thousand.”

Converts made under the influence of such extraordinary events were naturally filled with the greatest ardor and generosity. Not only did they listen eagerly to the further instructions of the apostles, but they also carried them out earnestly in their daily life. All around them were struck with their faithful attendance at the public services of the Temple, and especially with their wonderful love for one another. In point of fact this brotherly love was, according to the wish of Christ, the feature which most distinguished the nascent church of Jerusalem, of which it is written that “the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul.” It united them every evening at a meal which to all appearances ended with the reception of the Holy Eucharist, and it led them to a real community of goods, not unlike that which had existed between Jesus Himself and His apostles, the wants of all being defrayed from a common purse. Of course the selling of their property by the first converts, as well as their entrusting of the price to the apostles for the relief of needy brethren, was a free act on their part, and the awful death which befell Ananias, and Saphira his wife, was a chastisement inflicted on them simply because of their sinful attempt at gratifying their avarice while appearing to practise perfect detachment from worldly goods.

The admirable life of the first converts, together with the numerous miracles performed by the apostles, contributed powerfully to increase the number of the believers, and this in turn called forcibly the attention of the Jewish authorities to the fact that the followers of Jesus of Nazareth had rallied—nay, even that they were making rapid and numerous conquests in Jerusalem. This was of course a movement most unwelcome to the Jewish leaders, and they resolved to check it without delay. In consequence, while Peter and John were still speaking to the people after the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, the priestly guardians of the Temple, together with the Sadducees (these last being especially annoyed at the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead implied in the apostolic preaching of Christ’s resurrection), arrested the two apostles and put them into prison, intending on the morrow to institute a formal trial. The next day the Sanhedrim in full meeting inquired of Peter and John: “By what power or by what name have you done this?” Whereupon Peter declared openly that the miracle had been wrought by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, whom the Sanhedrists had indeed crucified, but whom God had raised from the dead, and who was the only Saviour ever to be expected.

This bold language astounded the Jewish authorities and threw them on the defensive. Unable alike to deny the reality of the miracle, because patent to all, and to inflict any punishment on its authors because praised for it by the people at large, they were finally compelled to dismiss Peter and John, threatening them, however, with severe punishments should they persevere in teaching in the name of Jesus.

The first arrest was soon followed by another, which was also caused by the desire of the Jewish leaders to put a stop to the miracles of the apostles and to prevent the growth of the Church in Jerusalem. The news of the miraculous deliverance of the prisoners during the night after the arrest disconcerted, at first, the Sanhedrists who had hastily convened to judge the refractory apostles. But when the culprits appeared before their tribunal, and openly declared their preference “to obey God rather than men,” and their firm resolve to continue their preaching of the resurrection and Messiahship of Jesus, the Jewish authorities, considering themselves despised, thought of putting the prisoners to death. But the more moderate view of the venerable Gamaliel prevailed in the council. His colleagues agreed with him that if the movement originated by the apostles was not of God it would soon come to nothing, in the same manner as the movement started some time before by Theodas, and after him by Judas of Galilee, those two bold deceivers who, despite their great pretension and temporary success, had met with speedy destruction without the least intervention of the Sanhedrim. In consequence, the apostles were simply scourged, and then dismissed with the renewed injunction “that they should not speak at all in the name of Jesus,” an injunction which was of course soon disobeyed by men who, like the apostles, “rejoiced that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for that sacred name.”

§ 2. The First Deacons

1. Their Ordination, Names and Office. As time went on and the Church greatly increased in numbers, the wonderful harmony of mind and heart which had hitherto prevailed among the believers was seriously endangered by the neglect which the Hebrews or Palestinian Jews charged with the care of the widows gradually showed in ministering to the needs of the widows of the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews, born out of the Holy Land. Naturally enough, the apostles, to whose ears the murmurs of the Hellenists came, did not think it proper that they should restrict their preaching of “the word of God” to ascertain themselves that at table each and all received their due share. Desirous, however, of righting everything, they called on the body of believers to choose seven men of unexceptionable character, “whom they might appoint over this business.”

All the candidates chosen bore Greek names, whence many have inferred that no Palestinian Jew was numbered among them. This, however, is at best a very questionable inference, inasmuch as Greek names were very frequent among Jews born in the Holy Land. Indeed, the reverse is much more likely; it is even probable that the two principal elements of the early Church—the Hebrews and the Hellenists—had an equal number of representatives among the future deacons, while its least numerous element, that of the proselytes, had only one representative, the candidate Nicolas, whom the sacred text distinctly calls “a proselyte of Antioch.” However this may be, the apostles ratified at once the choice of the multitude. They prayed fervently to God, and then solemnly imposed hands upon the seven candidates, thereby consecrating them for the ministry of the Church.

The precise nature of the functions entrusted to the newly ordained deacons can hardly be defined in the present day. They were of course in harmony with the circumstances which attended this first step in Church organization, and in consequence they certainly extended to whatever was then intimately connected with the daily ministration at tables. Whether preaching and baptizing are also to be counted among the regular functions of the first deacons does not appear.

2. Zeal and Martyrdom of St. Stephen. Most happy results soon followed on this ordination of the first deacons. The holy ministration of these men, “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom,” restored promptly perfect harmony within the Church, and secured to the apostles all the freedom from material care, which they needed to push with renewed vigor and success the preaching of “the word of the Lord.” In point of fact, Jews in great numbers became converted, and even “a large multitude of the priests obeyed the faith.”

Conversions so numerous and so important were also caused, to a large extent, by the great miracles and fearless zeal of St. Stephen, the first and foremost of the newly ordained deacons. As a valiant champion of his faith, he did not hesitate to sustain a series of disputations with the Hellenistic Jews of five different synagogues, “his companions in race and birthplace.” Unable to bear calmly their repeated defeats by the inspired disciple of Christ, and fearing the effect of his victories upon the people at large, several adversaries of St. Stephen resolved to compass his ruin. For this purpose they artfully spread the rumor that he had uttered blasphemous words “against Moses and against God,” and when the public mind was sufficiently prepared for his arrest, they rushed upon him and dragged him before the Sanhedrim. There they set up false witnesses, who declared: “We have heard this man saying that Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the traditions which Moses delivered unto us.”

Instead of a direct answer of the holy deacon to these calumnious charges, the sacred text records, a long discourse, the general purport of which can alone be mentioned here. By means of an historical retrospect, St. Stephen exhorted his hearers to see in Jesus the Messias foretold by Moses and all the prophets, and not to show themselves imitators of the rebellious spirit which had ever animated their forefathers. His words were bold, nay, even aggressive, especially when he denounced his judges as “the betrayers and murderers of the Just One”; yet they afforded nothing to substantiate the charge of blasphemy brought against him and to justify a sentence of death. Not so, apparently, with his exclamation, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” for scarcely had he uttered it when “with one accord they ran violently upon him, and casting him forth without the city, they stoned him.”

The book of the Acts clearly implies that no permission was asked from the Romans to put Stephen to death, and even that his execution was carried out without a formal sentence by the Sanhedrim. The place where Christ’s first martyr died praying for his murderers is most likely somewhat to the north of the present Damascus Gate, and very near the grotto of Jeremias.

3. The Work of St. Philip. With the death of St. Stephen began a most severe persecution of the faithful of Jerusalem, which led to the dispersion far and wide of a large number among them, and thereby contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity. The surviving deacons had fled also; and the successful work of St. Philip, one of them, is now narrated in the book of the Acts. We are told how, being on Samaritan territory, he made by words and miracles numerous converts, among whom was Simon the magician; how he was soon after directed to go and overtake the eunuch of the queen of Ethiopia, then on his return from Jerusalem, and how he converted and baptized him; finally, how, miraculously withdrawn from the sight of the eunuch, he was found in Azotus, whence he reached Cæsarea, preaching the Gospel to all the cities on his way.

§ 3. Work of St. Peter outside Jerusalem

1. Peter’s Visitation of “the Saints.” In the midst of the general dispersion caused by the persecution then raging against the church of Jerusalem, the apostles had considered it their duty to remain firm in the Holy City, as the great capital of the Messianic kingdom. It is there that they heard the comforting news of the successful preaching of St. Philip in Samaria, and that, in their desire to strengthen the new converts, “they sent unto them Peter and John.” Soon after their arrival the two apostles imposed their hands upon those who so far had only received Christian baptism, and by this rite—in which Catholic theology has ever seen the sacramental rite of Confirmation—imparted to them the Holy Ghost. Before returning to Jerusalem Peter and John availed themselves of their passage through the Samaritan territory to preach the Gospel in many villages.

The visit of the other districts evangelized by St. Philip was prudently postponed until the persecution should have abated, and, in point of fact, peace was restored to the Christian communities of Palestine not long afterwards. This occurred when the prolonged attempts of the Emperor Caligula to have his statue set up and worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem caused so much alarm among the Jews that they had neither time nor thought to continue their persecution of the disciples of Christ. Under these circumstances the postponed visit could be safely made, and it was now carried out by St. Peter alone.

Of this visitation of “the saints,” that is, of the baptized believers, only two miraculous incidents are recorded in the sacred text. The first was the healing of the paralytic Eneas, which St. Peter performed in the important town of Lydda, some 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. The second was the raising to life of a pious widow named Tabitha, which he wrought soon after his arrival at Joppe, a seaport only 10 miles distant from Lydda. These two miracles were of considerable importance for the Christian Church outside Jerusalem: besides confirming the faith of those already converted, they won to the Gospel numbers of Jews whom the preaching of St. Philip had failed to convince.

2. The Conversion of Cornelius. An event of still greater importance for the Church at large occurred not long afterwards: it is detailed in the inspired record of the Acts, and is in substance as follows. During the “many days” of St. Peter’s abode in Joppe an uncircumcised centurion of Cæsarea, named Cornelius, in compliance with an angelic message, sent for the apostle, to learn from him the divine will in his regard. As the men dispatched by Cornelius approached the city on the following day, St. Peter was favored with a vision, the exact meaning of which he realized only after the messengers of the centurion made known to him the purport of their mission. The interview solicited took place, and while St. Peter was addressing Cornelius and the friends he had gathered around him “the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word”: whereupon the apostle ordered that these Gentiles, who had visibly received the Holy Ghost in exactly the same manner as the Jews, should be baptized at once in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

This event marked a new and important stage in the development of the early Church. Hitherto the preachers of the Gospel had addressed themselves only to their fellow Jews or to the Samaritans, who might be considered as belonging to the same stock as Israel, or, again, to proselytes already adopted into the Jewish people by the rite of circumcision; henceforth they will endeavor to make the Gentiles also disciples of Jesus and sharers in His Messianic kingdom. As, however, St. Peter “had gone into men uncircumcised and eaten with them,” the Jewish Christians found fault with such close fellowship, and were reconciled with his line of action only when, upon his return to Jerusalem, he made it clear by his detailed recital of what had happened, that from beginning to end he had acted by divine commission.

3. St. Peter in Antioch. It is not improbable that this first admission of Gentiles into the Church without subjecting them to the rite of circumcision was considered by the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem simply as an exception granted by Heaven to Cornelius and a few of his friends; and in point of fact, those of the Jewish Christians of the Holy City who had been dispersed by the recent persecution, and had been preaching “as far as Phenicia, and Cyprus and Antioch,” continued to preach “to the Jews only.” Fortunately, a different view of the occurrence was taken and acted upon by men less wedded to the old Jewish notions. At their arrival in Antioch, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, treading in the footsteps of St. Peter, preached the Gospel to the Gentiles of that city, and did not impose upon their converts the obligation of being circumcised. Their conduct was wonderfully blessed by Heaven, and it soon afterwards received what maybe considered the formal approval of the church of Jerusalem. This church, which still acted as the metropolis of the Messianic kingdom, sent Barnabas as far as Antioch, to inquire into the condition of the nascent Christian community of that city; and this official deputy approved heartily all that he noticed there, because he clearly recognized in it the effect of divine grace.

It is difficult to state, in the present day, at what precise time the direct connection of St. Peter with the church of Antioch began. On the one hand, a tradition which goes back to the middle of the third century of our era affirms that the prince of the apostles was its founder and first bishop. On the other hand, the inspired book of the Acts clearly implies that a large and well-organized Christian community had been in existence in the capital of Syria long before St. Peter visited it in person.

§ 4. Persecution under Herod Agrippa I

1. Herod Agrippa I.: The Man and His Rule. With the accession of Claudius, the successor of Caligula, to the empire, the power of a grandson of Herod the Great, named Herod Agrippa I., reached the highest point, for to the territories already bestowed upon him by Caligula, the new emperor added those of Judæa and Samaria. The man who thus became king of “all Judæa,” as Josephus puts it, had hitherto been a bold adventurer who showed himself wherever he went a crafty, frivolous and extravagant prince; and of course, when he took possession of his new estates, he did not think for a moment of seriously amending his evil ways. All that he cared for, in fact, during the three years of his rule, was to be well with the Pharisees, who then held the nation under their control. With this end in view he selected Jerusalem as his usual place of residence, carried out with punctiliousness the Jewish observances, and showed himself a zealous defender of the interests of Judaism at home and abroad.

2. Martyrdom of St. James. Arrest and Deliverance of St. Peter. It was simply in harmony with his constant Judaistic policy, that Herod Agrippa I. should sooner or later “stretch forth his hands to afflict some of the Church.” The first victim of this new persecution—which apparently aimed at the heads of the nascent Church—was no less a personage than James, the brother of John, who formerly had asked Jesus to allow him to sit at His right hand in His kingdom, and who now was the first of the twelve to drink of His chalice. James was beheaded, that is, suffered a death which was at that time regarded as most disgraceful by the Jews, and which, on that very account, was most welcome to the hatred of the Jewish leaders and people. This King Agrippa perceived, and was therefore encouraged to proceed farther. In consequence, Peter, the well-known leader of what was then considered as a sect, was arrested, and detained in prison with the utmost care, till the Paschal festivities, already begun, should be over. The intention of the tyrant was himself to sentence his prisoner to death in the presence of the countless Jewish multitudes which had gathered in Jerusalem from all quarters of the world for the Paschal festival, but his hope was frustrated at the last moment. The very night which was to precede the condemnation and death of the prince of the apostles was marked by his miraculous deliverance, which is so graphically described in the inspired narrative. The next morning came, and as it was impossible to find Peter, who had prudently betaken himself to a sure hiding place, the mortification and rage of the king knew no limits; the keepers of the prison were tried and put to death, and the king himself withdrew to Cæsarea. There it was, that, while delivering a solemn discourse, Agrippa did not object to the blasphemous exclamation of the people: “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man”; whereupon he felt himself stricken with a frightful disease which soon carried him to the grave. This sudden death of the king (A.D. 44) seems to have brought the persecution to an end.

The inspired narrative of Agrippa’s death found in the book of the Acts is in perfect harmony with the description of the same fact in Josephus, for while the main incidents are identical, the differences are not greater than might be anticipated between two independent narratives of the same event.

3. Tradition respecting the Departure of the Apostles from Jerusalem. Among the various traditions connected with the early times of the Church, there is one to which much credence has been given by several ecclesiastical writers. This tradition is recorded by Eusebius, who tells us| that one of the Christian apologists of the beginning of the third century, named Apollonius, mentions “as handed down by the elders, that Our Saviour commanded His disciples not to depart from Jerusalem for twelve years.” This length of time before the departure of the apostles from the Holy City seems, indeed, required by the manner in which the book of the Acts describes the events it records, and this was distinctly realized by Cardinal Baronius (1538–1607); but it is difficult to reconcile it with other traditions, which make St. Peter go to Rome before 42 A.D. and preach the Gospel to several Asiatic provinces before he arrived at the capital of the Roman empire.

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