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This question came up for me in a discussion of the meaning of "saved" in Acts 15:1.

But certain ones having come down from Judea were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you are not able to be saved [σῴζω]."

The questioner wanted to know the meaning of "saved" in that specific verse. What I'm interested in here is finding resources dealing with the how the earliest church thought about salvation generally. In other words, how did the church think about salvation before Paul wrote about it and before the Gospels were disseminated? Questions that come to mind include: did pre-Pauline Christians think of salvation as being related to eternal life per se? Or did they still think in traditional Jewish terms, such as Jesus being the one who would "restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). Were some of them expecting Jesus to return in their lifetimes to liberate Israel from Roman rule, rather then thinking of him as a spiritual savior who would liberate them from death and sin, as Paul thought.

I would appreciate references to scholarly works on this subject, including relevant quotes if possible.

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    Virtually no Christian writings precede Paul and the Gospels; actually it may not even be that "virtually" none precede them. I'm not sure how anyone is supposed to supply a scholarly source that isn't just wild speculations about things we have no historical evidence to support.
    – jaredad7
    Aug 12, 2023 at 5:20
  • Some things can be gleaned from existing texts. For example, 1 Cor 15:12: "how can some of you say there is no resurrection of dead?" To me this indicates that a part of the church did not think salvation = eternal life. From this the question arises about the definition of salvation. A similar point goes for Acts 1:6 where the disciples were still asking about whether Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel -implying they still held to the Jewish concept of national salvation rather spiritual salvation. Aug 12, 2023 at 13:52
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    I posted my answer before seeing your comment above. I thought you did not want info. from the writings of Paul. So, just to add, that my answer shows such a diametrical difference between the Jewish view of salvation and the new Christian church's teaching, it took a while to make the transition. Jewish views did not cease overnight! But Acts 15 was a decisive blow to ideas about keeping the law as vital for salvation. Paul's theology then went to town on that, but Jesus kept teaching eternal life for those saved from their sin, don't forget!
    – Anne
    Aug 12, 2023 at 15:47

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This is all I could glean from "scholarly sources" about this matter. First, under the heading "Biblical Concept of Salvation", this Catholic source shows a change in view after the destruction of Israel and Judah; it was viewed as bringing home the 'remnant', which would result in a kingdom of peace in which God reigns as king.

"In the post-exilic period, there appears as well as God the figure of an actual bringer of salvation; cf. the prince of peace, Zech 9:9. ...later books of the OT show the development of the idea that on the day of judgment Israel can expect final salvation but the (pagan) nations which have oppressed Israel must expect final perdition (Wis 5:2...) This restriction of the idea of salvation to Israel appears even more strongly in the non-biblical books of Judaism, e.g. Jubilees, Psalms of Solomon, Enoch. They hold in common that the Gentiles were really created only for destruction...

In later Judaism the Torah was regarded as a saving gift because with its help men could faithfully fulfil the commandments and thus acquire merit for themselves. God must pay them a well-earned reward in the next world...

In the NT the word salvation is a religious term... any healing is a sign of the bestowal of salvation by Jesus. With Jesus, salvation has come to men. ... Man of himself can effect no salvation; even faith, conversion, baptism and constancy in earthly life acquire for him no 'right' to salvation, but are only its necessary presuppositions. Salvation is not restricted to particular groups, as in the OT and in Qumran, but extends in principle to all men because of the universal efficacy of Jesus' death." Encyclopedia of Theology, pp.1504-6, article by Ingrid Maisch, Burns & Oates, 1981

Second, under the heading "The Christian church and the Jews" another source makes this point:

"At first Christians were regarded as a Jewish sect by both Jews and Gentiles. This led to opposition and persecution of the church by the Jewish authorities, who objected to its doctrines and the admission of Gentiles without their accepting the Law." The History of Christianity, p.50, this article by H. L. Ellison, Lecturer & writer on the OT, Dawlish, England, Lion, 1977

This is the matter raised in Acts 15:1. It is about Gentiles becoming Christians without having been circumcised, as were all the Jewish Christians, up to that point. They were circumcised on the eighth day from birth, but Gentile converts never had been. There was a move to get them circumcised, but this is what the apostles showed to be contrary to the Christian faith. Salvation was based on faith in Jesus Christ, but anyone getting circumcised obliged themselves to keep all of the Mosaic Law. The writings of the early Church (as detailed in the book of Acts) show that not only was circumcision unnecessary, it would actually violate the Christian stance that salvation from God to individuals came with their putting total faith only in what Christ had done to save them from their sin.

The Jewish take on salvation was very different. The faith of Abraham and other faithful people of old was lauded, but their hope (as a nation) was for the Messiah to come, to remove the hated Roman yoke (at that time) and re-establish a literal throne of David. They thought about being saved from their enemies. It was only with the advent of Jesus Christ that the concept of being saved from sin by God, through faith in Christ, emerged. After his resurrection, the new Church burst onto the scene, first with Jewish converts, then with Gentiles being added en masse.

In the chapter entitled 'What the First Christians Believed', it says more about Christianity and the Jews, including some of what I have stated above, so I won't repeat that as a quote. But here are relevant points:

"The resurrection of Jesus was emphasized more than his death in the earliest preaching to Jews, because it demonstrated that the man executed as a criminal was nevertheless God's Messiah. Following guidelines laid down by Jesus himself, the apostles pointed to Old Testament passages which had been fulfilled in his career and in the beginnings of the church. 'This is what was prophesied' was a phrase frequently on their lips...

But all early Christian theology was Jewish, since the language and concepts it used were quarried chiefly from the Old Testament. Some Jewish Christians were so conservative that they demanded, in effect, that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to be true Christians. They insisted on circumcision and other Jewish legal requirements, and frowned on social contact with 'unclean' Gentiles. These 'Judaizers' appealed to the Jerusalem church where James led a community of thousands of 'staunch upholders of the Law'...

In Jerusalem the harmony maintained between James and the Jewish authorities failed to survive his martyrdom in AD 62, and the Jewish war with Rome which began four years later. Jewish-Christian relations continued to deteriorate later in the first century. Judaism entrenched itself within the tight limits set by the rabbinic Pharisees. It excluded non-conformists like the followers of Jesus.

Conservative Jewish-Christianity disappeared into obscurity. Its strength filtered off into side-channels, such as the heretical Ebionite groups. It may also have merged with currents from other brands of Judaism... Fringe Judaism of one kind or another fertilized the emerging Gnostic sects which loomed so large in the second century." Ibid. pp. 97-100, article by David F. Wright, Snr. Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History, Uni. of Edinburgh Scotland

He also pointed out that the martyr Stephen boldly declared the old covenant obsolete, and that others in the next century portrayed Israel as an unbelieving and apostate people, which was why so few Jews in total responded to Christ's message of salvation from sin. Christians find their identity in Christ, not in belonging to any nation - they now belong to the Church, the Bride of Christ, which is spiritual Israel.

I have looked at other books but there is nothing about a definition of salvation given by the earliest Church outside of what they wrote in the New Testament. Most scholarly books seem to launch out from the second century onward, which is not the era you are looking at. Before Saul of Tarsus was converted and became Paul, the apostles spoke and wrote about salvation and life eternal commencing with repenting of sin and trusting only in Jesus, "to all who will believe". The book of Acts is full of that, even up to ch. 15, before Paul came along. Peter's address on the Day of Pentecost is about salvation from sin, and three thousand Jews and proselytes were converted on that day.

Jews thought in terms of salvation as God's chosen people, the nation of Israel, obliged to keep all the laws to please God, to show the world that they were a holy nation, exemplifying the worship and protection of God as a nation. Christianity opened up salvation to Gentiles without them having to keep that law in order to be saved. Salvation was for the Church, which included Jews and Gentiles, a spiritual, global people of God. But for the Jews salvation was for their nation, and Gentiles could only enter into that by being circumcised and keeping the law of Moses. For the Jews it was a system of law-keeping. For the Christians it was God bringing them into relationship through Christ, sin being the barrier, but faith brought them into the family of God, which now had nothing to do with physical nationality. That shows the crucial differences between Jewish views of salvation, and Christian ones, during the first century A.D.

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    This is a useful and well researched answer... so I upvoted it but didn't "accept" it yet in the hope that others will add additional resources, both biblical and scholarly. Although I think it's true that the earliest church emphasized Jesus' resurrection I still wonder if they thought of salvation in terms of sharing in the resurrection yet. Some clearly did not as we see in 1 Cor 15. Aug 12, 2023 at 15:59
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Acts 2:47 says : " And the Lord added to the church day by day, those who were being saved ". As such, joining the church itself meant that one was saved. On my side of the planet, converts to Christianity were called by members of indigenous religions as " people who joined the way " . What a meaningful definition of Christian life ! Connect this to the very saying of Jesus calling himself The Way (Jn 14 ).To the Apostles, who along with their followers constituted the Early Church, anyone who joined the 'Way ' had already been saved. But, we need to keep in mind how the Apostles perceived the Second Coming of Jesus. In Jn 14, Jesus says that he would go to the Father to prepare dwelling place for them ( the disciples) and come back to take them along. The Apostles including St Paul believed that the Second Coming was imminent ( See my question on the subject). Hardly did they assume that the church would go on in existence for millennia ! Thus, they cultivated a community life which could be called the kingdom of heaven on earth, by instilling the principles of staying together, sharing, listening to the Word of God, participating in Holy Eucharist etc. They had the anticipation that Christ would come back soon to take them to the place of His Father. To them, the heavenly abode was an extension of the kingdom of life which they had on earth. Thus, to the members of Early Church, salvation meant living by the principles enunciated by Jesus, on the earth itself, followed by life in the heavenly abode with the Father.

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  • + 1 another useful answer. The fact that they called themselves the Way does tend in this direction I think. It's also supported by the "two ways" doctrine taught in Didache. Aug 19, 2023 at 5:23
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How Did the Earliest Church Define Salvation?

15 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” - Acts 15:1

The Council of Jerusalem was a council which is described in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles, held in Jerusalem in or around 48–50 A.D.

The council decided that Gentile converts to Christian communities were not obligated to keep most of the rules prescribed to the Jews by the Mosaic Law, such as Jewish dietary laws and other specific rituals, including the rules concerning circumcision of males. The council did, however, retain the prohibitions on eating blood, meat containing blood, and meat of animals that were strangled, and on fornication and idolatry, sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Decree.

The purpose and origin of these four prohibitions were hotly debated at this moment in time.

It is obviously, from Acts 15:1 that the Early Church had to define what was meant in order to be saved. Christians are are still refining certain aspects of Christian living today in order to understand what is necessary for salvation and Acts 15:1 is a prime example of this...

The term salvation in general has different means according to the circumstances in which it is used. This is bared out in Scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments.

Salvation has in Scriptural language the general meaning of liberation from straitened circumstances or from other evils, and of a translation into a state of freedom and security (1 Samuel 11:13; 14:45; 2 Samuel 23:10; 2 Kings 13:17). At times it expresses God's help against Israel's enemies, at other times, the Divine blessing bestowed on the produce of the soil (Isaiah 45:8). As sin is the greatest evil, being the root and source of all evil, Sacred Scripture uses the word "salvation" mainly in the sense of liberation of the human race or of individual man from sin and its consequences. We shall first consider the salvation of the human race, and then salvation as it is verified in the individual man. Salvation

It is true salvation came from the Jews, for Christ Jesus was Jewish, but salvation is for the entirety of the human race. Those Jews who thought that you had to be circumcised in order to be saved were professing their own personal belief in this matter, until the Early Church was able to put this opinion to rest for good.

Disputes will continue to plague Christian communities, so be prepared to have theological points always at hand when necessary.

Acts 15:1. And certain men which came down from Judea — Probably such as had been of the Pharisees, (Acts 15:5,) or, perhaps, of those priests which were obedient to the faith, Acts 6:7. As they came from Judea, it is likely they pretended to be sent by the apostles at Jerusalem, or, at least, to be countenanced by them. Designing to spread their notions among the Gentiles, they came to Antioch, because that city abounded with Gentile converts, and was the headquarters of those that preached to the Gentiles; and if they could but make an impression there, they supposed their leaven would soon be diffused to all the churches of the Gentiles. And said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses — That is, Except ye keep the law of Moses, (see Acts 15:5; Galatians 5:3,) ye cannot be saved — Can neither enjoy God’s favour here, nor his kingdom hereafter. Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation — They strenuously opposed this doctrine; 1st, Because its direct tendency was to subvert the gospel, which they had preached, and which they knew was of itself sufficient for the salvation of men, without the works of the Mosaic law. And, 2d, Because it was a betraying of the natural rights of mankind, who, by the gospel, are left free, both to obey the good laws of the countries where they live, and enjoy whatever rights accrue to them from those laws. Whereas, by receiving the law of Moses, the Gentiles really made themselves the subjects of a foreign power; for that law included, the civil or political law of Judea; and all who received it actually put themselves under the jurisdiction of the high-priest and council at Jerusalem. Hence Paul and Barnabas, as faithful servants of Christ, could not see his truth betrayed; they knew Christ came to free men from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to take down that wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles, and unite them both in himself, and therefore would not hear of circumcising the Gentile converts, when their instructions were only to baptize them. And, as spiritual fathers to them, they would not see their liberties encroached on. There being, therefore, much contention upon this account at Antioch, where there were several converts from among the Gentiles, to whom this doctrine could not but be very disagreeable, and, doubtless, many Jewish Christians, who approved of it; and the peace of the church and the unity of its members being in danger of being broken, to prevent this, if possible, it was judged advisable to get the best satisfaction they could, in an affair which affected the liberties and consciences of many. They determined, therefore, that Paul and Barnabas, and certain others, should go to Jerusalem, about this question — This is the journey to which Paul refers, (Galatians 2:1-2,) when he says, he went up by revelation, which is very consistent with this; for the church, in sending them, might be directed by a revelation, made either immediately to Paul, or some other person, relating to so important an affair. Important indeed it was, and necessary that those Jewish impositions should be solemnly opposed in time, because multitudes of converts were still zealous for the law, and ready to contend for the observance of it. Indeed, many of the Christians at Antioch undoubtedly knew that Paul was under an extraordinary divine direction, and therefore would readily have acquiesced in his determination alone; but as others might have prejudices against him, on account of his having been so much concerned with the Gentiles, it was highly expedient to take the concurrent judgment of all the apostles on this occasion; since their authority was supreme in the church, and their decision alone could put an end to the controversy. It appears from Galatians 2:1, that Titus was one of those who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem at this time. Him, it is probable, Paul had converted in the Lesser Asia: and, being a person of great piety and ability, he had taken him as his assistant in the room of John Mark, at Perga, and had brought him to Antioch; and he, being a Gentile, had consequently much interest in the determination of this question. - Benson Commentary

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