My Faith—A Philosopher’s Look At Christianity, 2

Truths

Truths are typically learned by steps in understanding. They come basically in two ways. Either as a new perception and then we work through them until we adopt the new, but also they can come displacing an already believed truth. In either case there are those times we have an “ah ha” moment when it all makes sense. We call this moment an epiphany.

The disciple Peter, when Jesus called him to join the team, found himself facing new truths. It’s why in the Gospels you will several times read him saying, “Now I believe.” Those moments saw Peter allowing new truth to push out old truth, a step process not all truth at once. It would be the weight of all these truths that would explode for him, with some nudging, in an epiphany. When the epiphany happened he stepped outside Israel’s boundaries, not to preach religion to the world but ontological truth he learned in the Jesus Academy. It didn’t happen until after Jesus’s death and resurrection because the weight of those truths hadn’t reached a tipping point where it all came together for him.

Peter’s Epiphany

This happened when a Roman soldier who had accepted the teachings of Jesus called Peter to his home in Caesarea, sort of half-way between the Sinai desert and Lebanon along the coast. Here’s the interesting story:

“At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”

“Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.

“The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”

“When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.” (Acts 10:1-8.)

One question I have is why didn’t God directly go to Peter like he did with Paul? Here he uses a non-Jew, a Roman, to set up the epiphany moment which happened even before Peter got to Cornelius’s house. 

“About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

“The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

“This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” ( Acts 10:9-13.

And now we reach the raisin d’etrafor Cornelius:

“While talking with him, Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?” (Acts 10:27-29.)

Peter’s dream was his epiphany moment when everything he learned at the feet of Jesus now made sense. “Peter,” Jesus was saying, “you’ve lived your life in a religious box, the walls of the box preventing you from seeing everything beyond those walls believing outside was not God’s world. Religion was preventing you from seeing this. Now step outside the box.” 

So why Cornelius? He was from outside the box but he had learned the fundamental truths that were both inside and outside the box, beyond religion. It wasn’t a matter of “deeper” truths, unless you imagine religion covering over those otherwise obvious truths. You just have to break down the walls hindering your vision.

Paul’s Epiphany

Enter in 49 AD a man who, like Peter, and around the same time when Peter had his epiphany moment, Paul of Tarsus. Paul the Apostle, original name Saul, born around 4 BCE in Tarsus in Cilicia, now in Turkey. He died sometime between 62–64 CE in Rome. He was born into a Jewish family in a Greco/Roman colony giving him citizenship both in Israel and Rome.

“The first historical record of Tarsus is its rebuilding by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (705/704–681 BCE). Thereafter, Achaemenid and Seleucid rule alternated with periods of autonomy. In 67 BCE Tarsus was absorbed into the new Roman province of Cilicia. A university was established that became known for its flourishing school of Greek philosophy. The famous first meeting between Mark Antony and Cleopatra took place there in 41 BCE.” (Encyclopedia Britannic.)

It was quite the city to be born into and Paul would have received a unique education there that shows in his writings and wisdom, especially when he goes to Athens. Paul is believed to be a member of the religious order of Pharisees.

“The Pharisees were an influential religious sect within Judaism in the time of Christ and the early church. They were known for their emphasis on personal piety (the word Pharisee comes from a Hebrew word meaning “separated”), their acceptance of oral tradition in addition to the written Law, and their teaching that all Jews should observe all 600-plus laws in the Torah, including the rituals concerning ceremonial purification.” (From GotQuestions.com.)

At some time in his life Paul ended up in Jerusalem around the time when the teachings of Jesus were influencing many, perhaps after Jesus’s death as he doesn’t seek out Jesus but his followers. He was called upon to help stop this new movement and went about searching out those followers of Jesus to have them killed. This brings us to Acts 6 and Stephen, and in the background is Paul. We learn here that among the Hebraic Jews (those born and lived in Israel) were also Hellenic Jews, part of the diaspora Jews living in the Greco/Roman world, which would include Paul. In Acts 6 we learn that some Hebraic and Hellenic Jews who had accepted Jesus there rose a dispute between them regarding the treatment of widows, and the sharing of food with them, a requirement of Judaism to take care of the widows. The solution: “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Stephen would be one of the chosen.

“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” (Acts 6:8-10.)

What makes these verses of special interest is that the Synagogue of the Freedmen was the Synagogue of Cilicia, located in Cilicia where Paul came from and the Hellenic Jews who didn’t become followers of Jesus were upset with Stephen’s message. In Acts 7: 57-58 we read about the stoning to death of Stephen and read these curious words: “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Luke, with the help of some of the disciples first wrote the biography of Jesus and his ministry, now writes the biography of the Christian church. He could have learned the story of Paul’s presence at Stephen’s stoning, or other disciples might have later understood the one person there they saw was Paul. Either way it is a fascinating juxtaposition of these two giants in the faith, one ending his role, the other soon to begin his.

Continuing with Paul’s epiphany moment, just down the road from where Peter had his epiphany moment Paul had his. Sometime after the stoning of Stephen, Paul left Jerusalem for the city of Damascus to further track down those followers of Christ, obviously unimpressed with Stephen’s powerful messages. Damascus began as a Canaanite city around 2500 BC, then fell under Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and many other empires until 64 BC when it fell to the Romans and was under Roman control when Paul went there.

(A note: I have not used the term Christian yet because the term “Christian” was first used as a pejorative for the followers of Jesus. It was first used at Antioch of Syria—a trade route that held a large diaspora of Jews and new followers of Jesus. Otherwise the followers of Jesus were known among themselves as “brethren,” “the faithful,” “elect,” “saints,” “believers.” Eventually the name “Christian” came to be universally accepted as simply a description, not a slur. This name occurs but three times in the New Testament in Acts 11:26; 26:28;1 Peter 4:16.)