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The Gentile Church, III: The Galileans

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By:Thomas Fleming | July 18, 2014

The early Church faced many grave crises and challenges, many of which can be summed up in one question: What kind of Church was it to be? In an important sense, this question was whether it was to be a Judeo-Christian Church limited to Jews, including Gentile converts to Judaism, or a Christian Church liberated from most of the peculiarities of Jewish law and custom? But a second part of this question was whether this Church was to be a sect alienated from everyday life, like the Essenes, or an institution that existed in the world, and if the latter, what was to be its relationship to the Empire, the Roman legal and political order and Greek culture. The Master himself had provided hints that could be interpreted in various ways. On the one hand, he had declared that he had not come to change one jot or tittle of the law; but, almost in the same breath he had claimed to be the fulfillment of the law, which implies something a good deal less than Pharisaic legalism. He had also scandalized the scrupulous by picking grain and healing the sick on the Sabbath.

There are several important incidents in the Gospels that clearly indicate that his mission was directed at more people than “the lost sheep of Israel.” Returning to Galilee by way of Samaria, Jesus shows His power to a Samaritan woman and reveals He has not come to save only the Jews but also the Samaritans, a semi-Jewish people who worshipped God not in the temple but on their sacred hill. Reminded of the differences between the two peoples, Jesus tells the woman, “the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.” [John 4:21]

Christ, early in His ministry, knew that His mission was not just to the people of Israel but to the whole world. His mission to all mankind is further revealed in His conversation with the Syrophoenician woman [Mark 7:24-30], who asks Him to heal her demon-possessed child. She is at first rebuffed as a “dog” (that is, a gentile), and not one of the lost sheep of Israel He has come to save, but her appeal is the occasion on which His mission to the entire world is disclosed. St. Luke [17:11-19 ] tells the story of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one of whom—a Samaritan alien—returned to give thanks.

Before examining the development of the Gentile Church, however, we should remind ourselves that Jesus' initial followers were not only Jews, but Galilean Jews. In the previous and overlong installment, I gave some account of the historical peculiarities that made Galileans an object of mistrust to Jews in Judea. Samaria lies between Galilee and Judea, and Jesus Himself Jesus (John 8:48) was accused of being a Samaritan, presumably because he preached the inner meaning of the Law while not always observing every external rule.

The first Christian brothers were from Galilee. Indeed, 11 out of 12 of the Disciples appear to have been from Our Lord's native region, while only Judas of Kerioth is clearly identified as from Judea. When Peter denies Christ, he is recognized as one who had been with Jesus. "Of a truth this fellow also was with him: for he is a Galilean."  [Luke 22:59]. What gave him away? Perhaps his manner of dress, and certainly his speech: "Surely thou art a Galilaean, and they speech agreeth thereto," [Mark 14: 70] and" "Thy speech bewrayeth thee." [Matthew 26:73]

It is in John's Gospel that we can best see the significance of this provincial or even quasi-ethnic split, though the situation is complicated by the fact that the word Ioudaios means both "Jew/Jewish" in a general sense, when someone is being distinguished from gentiles, but also "Judean," in contrast to Jews from other parts of the country. At the beginning of John 7, Jesus remains in Galilee and "would not walk in Jewry," that is in Judea, "because the Jews [that is the Judean Jews] sought to kill him." He then goes to the feast held in the Temple in Jerusalem, and "the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, Where is He?." [7:11] "Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews [that is, the Judeans]." [7:13]. It is not at all insignificant that once resurrected, the Master proceeds his disciples into Galilee.

Among the faithful, the first Christians seem to have addressed each other as "brothers" and were taught to regard each other—and God Himself—as friends. To Jews who rejected Christ, the followers of "Jesus of Nazareth" (as opposed to "Jesus born in Bethlehem") were derided as Galileans. Thus, from the beginning—whether they liked it or not—Christians were singled out as different from the run-of-the-mill Jewish community. The epithet Galilean must have endured, since the Emperor Julian's famous dying words—and Julian admired the Jews and attempted the rebuilding of the Temple—were said to have been, "Thou has conquered, O Galilean."

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