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



              1. First Residence at Ephesus:

              Why and how questioned in our century?


                            Conclusive arguments in its favor.


                            Its probable motives and duration.




              2. Banishment to and Sojourn in the Island of Patmos.


              3. Second Residence at Ephesus (Legendary Incidents).


              4. Death of St. John. His Character.






              1. The Church and the Roman Empire:

              Territorial extension.


                            Legal status of Christians.




              2. Internal Organization:

              Conditions of membership.


                            Church officers and their support.


                            Public worship (relation to the Jewish worship).


                            Church discipline.


                            Bonds uniting the various churches.




              3. Growing Influence of Christianity upon Public Morals.


§ 1. Labors of St. John

1. First Residence at Ephesus. The same silence of Holy Writ which surrounds the labors of St. Peter after the opening chapters of the book of the Acts may be noticed in connection with those of his fellow-apostle St. John, the beloved disciple of the Lord. We learn indeed from a passing reference to him in the Epistle to the Galatians (2:9) that he was in the Holy City at the time of the Council and was then considered with James and Peter as one of the pillars of the Church, but we are nowhere told in Holy Writ of the scene or precise nature of his labors after the Council of Jerusalem, and it is only through an old tradition that we know of his long residence at Ephesus, in which city also he would have written our fourth canonical gospel. This silence of the New Testament records, combined with that of St. Ignatius Martyr, has led many scholars—most belonging to the Rationalistic school—to suppose that this tradition, first mentioned by Irenæus, originated in a wrong identification made by this ecclesiastical writer of a certain Asiatic presbyter John with the beloved apostle. This they seem the more authorized to suppose because in point of fact at least in one case recorded by Eusebius St. Irenæus wrongly identified the presbyter John with the apostle of that name.

Notwithstanding these and other no less plausible arguments, the tradition is too strong to be shaken. The testimony of Irenæus to St. John’s residence in Asia derives a peculiar force from the fact that he was a pupil of St. Polycarp, a personal disciple of the beloved apostle, and is confirmed by the independent testimony of Polycrates, bishop of Hierapolis in the latter part of the second century, and of his contemporary Clement of Alexandria. To this external evidence it may be added that an internal study of the writings ascribed to St. John proves beyond doubt that in the latter part of the first century there lived in Asia Minor a personage “who had himself felt the direct influence of Jesus and who stamped his conceptions upon a large circle of disciples” personage such as the apostle John, to whose presence in Ephesus tradition bears direct and explicit testimony.

But while the residence of the beloved disciple in the capital of proconsular Asia may well be considered as an unquestionable fact, its motives and duration still remain shrouded in the greatest obscurity. If, however, we bear in mind, on the one hand, the great political, commercial, and religious importance of Asia Minor, and, on the other hand, the early rise of heretical doctrines in the great churches which St. Paul had founded in that region, we shall probably have a correct view of the general conditions which induced St. John to take up his residence in Ephesus; but beyond this we cannot go, data failing us regarding the special circumstances of the time when he resolved to settle there. In point of fact, although in a general way it seems pretty clear that his sojourn in proconsular Asia was a lengthened one, as required by his lasting influence upon its various Christian communities, we have no sure clew as to the precise date of his arrival at Ephesus. It is indeed taken for granted that, since St. Paul in his last epistle to Timothy, just written before his death, does not make, any more than in his other epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, even the least reference to St. John, the beloved disciple did not appear in Ephesus before the death of the Apostle of the Gentiles: this, however, is but an argument ex silentio, and, furthermore, does not help us in determining positively the date when St. John began to reside in proconsular Asia. In like manner the end of his residence is uncertain unless we admit what Tertullian is the first to relate, viz., that in the persecution under Domitian the apostle was taken to Rome and thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil, which, however, did not hurt him; for in this case John’s first sojourn in Ephesus may have been of about fourteen or fifteen years.

2. Banishment to and Sojourn in the Island of Patmos. It is also under Domitian that most of the early ecclesiastical writers who speak of the fact place the banishment of St. John to Patmos, one of the islands in the Ægean Sea. The aspect of this small, rocky, and barren spot agrees well with what we know of the custom of the period to send exiles to the most desolate islands. Of the apostle’s sojourn there we have no record outside the statement often found in ecclesiastical writers that it was there that St. John wrote the inspired book of the Apocalypse. His banishment was brought to an end at the death of Domitian (A.D. 96), when Nerva, his successor, restored to liberty all those whom the tyrant had unjustly sent into exile.

3. Second Residence at Ephesus. Of the life of St. John after his return to Ephesus we have only legendary reports, which harmonize more or less happily with the character of the apostle. We briefly mention here the three which are best known and are probably grounded on fact.

The first one is recorded by Clement of Alexandria, who relates that after his return to the capital of proconsular Asia St. John, making a visitation tour to appoint bishops and organize churches, met in a town a young man to whom he felt himself strongly attracted and whom he specially commended to the bishop. The lad was first well instructed and next admitted to Baptism; but by and by the bishop took less care of him, with the final result that the young man became the chief of a band of robbers. Great indeed was the grief of St. John when some time afterwards he revisited the town and learned what had happened. Then it was that the aged apostle hurried off to the place infested by the bandits, was taken by them to their chief, who, recognizing his old friend the apostle John, betook himself to flight. But the good shepherd pursued after him and succeeded in bringing about his conversion.

A second legend which illustrates another feature of St. John’s zeal is told by St. Irenæus, who narrates that in his time “people were still living who had heard Polycarp relate that John, the disciple of the Lord, having entered a bath-house at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out without bathing, saying: ‘Let us fly lest even the bath-house fall upon us, since it contains Cerinthus, the enemy of truth.’ ”

The third legend is recorded by St. Jerome, who tells us that when the aged apostle was no longer able to walk to the Christian assemblies he was wont to be carried thither, and that his address consisted every time in these simple and affectionate words: “Little children, love one another.” Wearied with this constant repetition of the same lesson, his hearers asked him: “Master, why dost thou always say this?” to which he answered: “Because that is the Lord’s command, and if this alone is done it is enough.”

4. Death of St. John. His Character. Despite the rumor which circulated about the beloved disciple that he was not to die, and of which we read in the last chapter of our fourth gospel as of a misinterpretation of the words of Jesus in his regard, St. John slept in the Lord and was buried in Ephesus under the reign of Trajan (98–117 A.D.). Of the various legends connected with his death and burial, such as, for instance, that he did not actually die, but, like Enoch, was translated without death, etc., the least that can be said is that they are fanciful. The age at which he died has been variously estimated, some affirming that he lived eighty-nine years, others one hundred, and others again one hundred and twenty. The exact circumstances of his closing hours are of course unknown.

Of all the primitive apostles of Jesus, John was the best loved by his Master, and none loved Him more in return so that he is justly spoken of as the “apostle of love.” From beginning to end he was the sincere, loyal, and devoted friend of Christ, and because of this he stood by Him at the foot of the cross, and later rejoiced “at having been accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus.” His was indeed a contemplative love, yet it never degenerated into that sentimentality which several, especially painters, have wrongly conceived as one of the traits of the apostle’s character. No doubt before the effusion of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost some traces of jealousy, of personal ambition, and of wrathful feelings may be discovered in him, and in so far prove that his nature needed perfecting, but they do not necessarily betray the weakness and fickleness of a feminine character. His courage in resisting the Sanhedrists astonished the supreme judges of Israel no less than that of Peter, and his virile conduct during the first fifteen years of Christianity caused all who knew him best to look upon him as “one of the pillars” of the Church, as they did upon James and Cephas. His severe words against heretics or unworthy Christians, his desire to be reunited with Christ, his commendation of God’s love towards men, and the high value he sets upon brotherly love, together with countless other features noticeable in his writings, prove that he closely resembled St. Paul in his manner of urging the truths of the Gospel upon his fellow-men; and it is well known that, like the Apostle of the Gentiles, he led a life of perpetual celibacy, thus teaching by his own example how to preserve one’s heart undivided. Finally, to John alone it was given to behold the Word of God in the bosom of the eternal Father, to lean his head in restful love upon the Sacred Heart of the Incarnate Word, and to take the place of Christ Himself near His bereaved mother: and these invaluable privileges clearly point to corresponding high features in the apostle’s character, such as lofty views, delicate affection, and absolute trustiness.

§ 2. Condition of the Church at the Death of St. John

1. The Church and the Roman Empire. As we have but a scanty and more or less reliable information about the scene and extent of the labors of almost every other apostle besides Peter, James, John, and Paul, it is, of course, impossible to give anything like an exact idea of the territorial extension which the Christian Church had reached at the death of St. John. It is beyond question, however, that, like the mustard seed, to which it is compared in the Gospel, Christianity had, less than seventy years after the death of its Founder, taken deep roots in the Roman Empire, stretched forth its branches into almost all its provinces, and offered shelter to its various nationalities. Long, indeed, after Pentecost the early preachers of the Gospel had lingered in Jerusalem or its vicinity; but, once started to conquer the world to Christ, they rapidly founded great centres of Christian worship not only in western Asia, but also in southern Europe (Spain included) and in northern Africa.

Many things contributed towards this rapid and extensive diffusion of the glad tidings of salvation. There was, first of all, the enthusiasm of the early witnesses to Christ’s words and deeds, an enthusiasm backed up by examples of heroic virtue and by stupendous miracles. Next, there was the wonderful unity which characterized the Roman rule over all the districts of the empire, and which, in many ways, prepared for their religious unity under the sceptre of Christ. Again, the feelings of countless souls, disgusted with heathenism and made acquainted with the worship of the true God and with the Messianic promises by the proselytism of the Jewish race, led them willingly to embrace the Christian religion, which offered a fulfilment of the Messianic predictions, and did away with the circumcision and other odious peculiarities of Judaism, while it preserved and perfected the monotheistic belief and the high morality of the Jews. Finally, there was the legal status of the Christians, who for long years appeared in the eyes of the Roman authorities throughout the empire simply as a Jewish sect, entitled, despite the opposition it met with from their fellow-Jews, to the same religious and civil toleration as the other worshippers of Jehovah. True the Jewish leaders were anxious to do away with this confusion, to show that Christianity was no mere sect of Judaism, and that, in its distinctive features, it was hostile to Cæsar; in fact it was probably to their exertions, seconded by Nero’s wife, Poppæa, who was a Jewish proselyte, that we must refer the final condemnation of St. Paul, together with those features of the Neronian edict of persecution which, representing the Christians as the enemies of the state, made of it a permanent law of the empire. Yet even this unjust decree, and especially its first sanguinary application in the circus and gardens of the Vatican, forced the existence of Christianity and its distinction from Judaism upon the attention of many, gave them an opportunity to admire the heroic courage of its martyrs, to inquire into and finally embrace its doctrine. Furthermore, a reaction set in even before Nero’s death, the persecution abated, and for long years after the demise of the tyrant the Church enjoyed a period of peace, during which it made numbers of converts, some of whom belonged even to the family of the Emperor Diocletian.

2. Internal Organization of the Church. Together with this rapid growth as to territory and membership, Christianity gradually and rapidly assumed its special internal organization. The conditions of admission into any of its distinct churches were of the simplest kind: it sufficed to believe “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” to repent sincerely for one’s sins, and to receive Christian Baptism, which was administered by immersion as far as circumstances of time, place, health, etc., allowed. It is also probable that usually when the head of a family was received into the Church all the persons of the household were admitted to membership, the adults by submitting freely to the same conditions as the head of the family, and the children by receiving Baptism, which made of them members of the Christian Church, just as circumcision had made of children born under the Old Covenant members of the chosen people of God.

Besides the men who founded any particular Church and were accordingly called its apostles, each Christian community was placed practically from the beginning under the rule of special officers charged to watch sedulously over its various interests. Differently from the apostles—and apparently also from the “prophets” and “doctors” who exercised a general ministry resembling in many ways the apostolate regular officers of a church were appointed over that special church and intrusted with all the administrative powers required by its peculiar circumstances. It seems probable that these pastors of the flock of Christ were bishops,| who governed particular churches with the help of deacons, and who had full power to raise others to the same dignity. As the welfare of a Christian community depended so much on the prudence, integrity, and other moral qualities of these pastors, it is not surprising that high personal qualifications, such as those we find described in the Pastoral Epistles, should have been required in the officers of the early Church. It is indeed conceivable that, after the example of St. Paul, some of them worked at a trade for their own support, but they had certainly a right, founded on the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament and on one of the sayings of the Lord, to receive some help from the community to whose spiritual needs they ministered.

One of the many duties of those Church officers was that of conducting the public worship, which, in the apostolical age, resembled closely that of the Jews. This resemblance was, of course, closest in Jerusalem, where the Christian community exhibited such a Jewish appearance, but it was also striking in the various towns and cities of the Roman empire. Thus, outside the extraordinary divine manifestations, such as prophesying, speaking with tongues, etc., of which we read in the religious meetings of the primitive Church, the public services comprised most likely the reading of a portion of Scripture, together with preaching, prayer, and singing of psalms. Among the new features which could be noticed, we may mention here the public reading of the Apostolic Epistles, the giving of alms for the support of the brethren in need, and above all the celebration of the Holy Eucharist at the close of a common evening meal; to these may also be added the weekly celebration of the first day of the week (our Sunday), while of the great yearly festivals of the Jews two only seem to have been retained, viz., the Passover and Pentecost.

It was also the personal business of the heads of each particular church to watch over the good order of the Christian community outside the public meetings. Every moral abuse they had to reprove, and, as far as possible, they had to ward off heresies, to put an end to dissensions or law suits between brethren, and even when necessary to cut off from their communion obstinate men of unsound faith or morals. Other points of church discipline had also been authoritatively determined by the apostles before their death, as, for instance, the regulations concerning the selection of widows, deacons, and other church officers, the rules to be observed when accusations were laid to their charge, etc. That in these early days of Christianity the disciplinary power of the Church was at times vindicated by direct visitations from God for certain sins cannot well be denied; but, of course, then as now, the ecclesiastical power of coercion was not a physical one, and had for its direct object the spiritual welfare of the culprit as well as of the community.

Finally, these same heads of a particular church did not look upon themselves as upon rulers altogether independent of those from whom they had received ordination; nor did they look upon the special church entrusted to their care otherwise than upon an integrant part of the flock of Christ and of the house of God. This last feeling was the natural outcome of that community of faith, hope, purpose, and interests which bound together so intimately all the early believers, and which manifested itself in many different ways, such as the welcoming of itinerant prophets and teachers, the exchange of apostolic or other important letters, the sending of official delegates to other communities whenever occasion offered, etc. To find the central authority established by Our Lord recognized and exercised we have, however, to wait until a somewhat later period.

Of course, when our canonical gospels made their way into general circulation, they contributed powerfully to keep up and increase the unity of mind and heart which bound together the various churches; and this was also the result of the early persecutions and heresies which befell either the whole extent or individual parts of the mystical body of Christ.

3. Growing Influence of Christianity upon Public Morals. It is impossible in the present day to define the precise extent to which the rapid growth of Christianity during the apostolic age influenced directly the public morals of the time. Of course all those who sincerely embraced the faith came under the direct influence of the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and in proportion to their efforts to tread in the footsteps of Christ and of His apostles contributed by their lives to raise the tone of society at large. A great change for the better was easily noticed in them—whether Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, freedmen or slaves—after they had become Christians, and this, together with their perseverance in avoiding former occasions of sin, in practising the virtues befitting their station in life, was calculated to give a high idea of a religion which was capable of producing such results and to prove that its beliefs and its morality were conducive to the public good. It must have been, however, very slowly and indirectly that the spirit of the Gospel, so opposed to that of the pagan world, succeeded in effecting a noticeable difference in the public condition of morals, the more so because the bulk of Christians belonging to the lower ranks of society could have but little, if any, positive influence upon the leading classes. Yet it cannot be denied that Christian rules about marriage and family life were throughout that period incomparably more effective than the imperial decrees of Augustus on the same points; that Christianity, which caused so many men to look upon and deal with the poor and the slave as God’s children and as members of one and the same mystical body of Christ, had done very much more than all the philosophers of the time towards raising the dignity of human nature. It is also beyond doubt that the preaching of the Gospel had revealed to countless thousands the purifying power of suffering, the supremacy of conscience, the full value of the human soul, the blessedness of self-sacrifice, the pure joys of close union with God, etc., and thereby awakened in the depths of their hearts a holy enthusiasm for everything good, noble, and generous that would gradually force admiration and provoke imitation. Finally, if we contemplate what the new religion had already accomplished in the line of checking evil passions and of enabling men of all classes to practise heroic virtue, it must be admitted that the Church was destined to influence more and more powerfully public morals by a slow but sure undermining of the selfish views and degrading rites of paganism, and by “leavening,” as it were, the whole of human society by the purity of its doctrine and by the grace of its sacraments: “The kingdom of heaven is like to leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened.”

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