Christianity Spreads Among First-Century Jews
AN IMPORTANT meeting took place in Jerusalem about 49 C.E. “The ones who seemed to be pillars” of the first-century Christian congregation—John, Peter, and Jesus’ half brother James—were there. The other two named as attending the meeting were the apostle Paul and his companion Barnabas. On the agenda was how to divide the vast territory for the preaching work. Paul explained: “[They] gave me and Barnabas the right hand of sharing together, that we should go to the nations, but they to those who are circumcised.”—Galatians 2:1, 9.*
How should we understand this agreement? Was the territory in which the good news should be preached divided into Jews and proselytes on the one hand and Gentiles on the other? Or was the agreement rather a geographical division of the territory? To find a possible answer, we need some historical information about the Diaspora, Jews living outside of Palestine.
The Jewish World in the First Century
How many Jews were in the Diaspora in the first century? Many scholars seem to agree with the publication Atlas of the Jewish World: “Absolute figures are hard to arrive at, but it has been plausibly estimated that shortly before 70 there were two and a half million Jews in Judaea and well over four million in the Roman diaspora. . . . It is likely that the Jews represented something like a tenth of the whole population of the empire, and in the places where they were most concentrated, in the cities of the eastern provinces, they may have been a quarter or more of the inhabitants.”
The main centers were in Syria, Asia Minor, Babylon, and Egypt, in the East, with smaller communities in Europe. Some well-known early Jewish Christians had a Diaspora background, such as Barnabas from Cyprus, Prisca and Aquila from Pontus and then Rome, Apollos from Alexandria, and Paul from Tarsus.—Acts 4:36; 18:2, 24; 22:3.
The Diaspora communities had many links with their homeland. One was the annual tax sent to the temple in Jerusalem, a way to participate in temple life and worship. Regarding this, scholar John Barclay observes: “There is good evidence that the collection of this money, supplemented by extra donations from the wealthy, was scrupulously undertaken by Diaspora communities.”
Another link was the tens of thousands of pilgrims who went to Jerusalem every year for the festivals. The account at Acts 2:9-11 about Pentecost 33 C.E. illustrates this. The Jewish pilgrims present came from Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Rome, Crete, and Arabia.
The temple administration in Jerusalem communicated with Jews in the Diaspora in writing. It is known that Gamaliel, the law teacher mentioned at Acts 5:34, sent letters to Babylon and other parts of the world. When the apostle Paul arrived as a prisoner in Rome about 59 C.E., “the principal men of the Jews” told him that “neither have we received letters concerning you from Judea, nor has anyone of the brothers that has arrived reported or spoken anything wicked about you.” This indicates that letters and reports were frequently sent from the homeland to Rome.—Acts 28:17, 21.
The Bible of the Diaspora Jews was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. A reference work notes: “It is plausible to conclude that the LXX [Septuagint] was read and received throughout the diaspora as the diaspora Jewish Bible or ‘holy writ.’” The same translation was extensively used by the early Christians in their teaching.
The members of the Christian governing body in Jerusalem were familiar with these circumstances. The good news had already reached Diaspora Jews in Syria and beyond, including Damascus and Antioch. (Acts 9:19, 20; 11:19; 15:23, 41; Galatians 1:21) At the meeting in 49 C.E., the ones present were evidently planning for future work. Let us consider the Biblical references to the expansion among the Jews and proselytes.
Paul’s Travels and Jews in the Diaspora
The apostle Paul’s original assignment was “to bear [Jesus Christ’s] name to the nations as well as to kings and the sons of Israel.”* (Acts 9:15) After the Jerusalem meeting, Paul continued to reach out to the Diaspora Jews wherever he traveled. (See the box on page 14.) This indicates that the territorial agreement likely became a geographical one. Paul and Barnabas expanded their missionary work to the west, and the others served the Jewish homeland and the large Jewish communities in the Eastern world.
When Paul and his companions started the second missionary trip from Antioch in Syria, they were guided westward through Asia Minor up to Troas. From there they crossed over to Macedonia because they concluded that “God had summoned [them] to declare the good news to [the Macedonians].” Later, Christian congregations were started in other European cities, including Athens and Corinth.—Acts 15:40, 41; 16:6-10; 17:1–18:18.
About 56 C.E., at the end of his third missionary trip, Paul planned to move even farther westward and expand the territory that he had been assigned at the Jerusalem meeting. He wrote: “There is eagerness on my part to declare the good news also to you there in Rome,” and, “I shall depart by way of you for Spain.” (Romans 1:15; 15:24, 28) But what about the large Diaspora communities in the East?
Jewish Communities in the East
During the first century C.E., Egypt had the largest Diaspora community, especially in its capital, Alexandria. This center of trade and culture had a Jewish population numbering into the hundreds of thousands, with synagogues scattered all over the city. Philo, an Alexandrian Jew, claimed that in all of Egypt, there were at least a million Jews at that time. A considerable number had also settled in nearby Libya, in the city of Cyrene and vicinity.
Some Jews who became Christians were from these areas. We read of “Apollos, a native of Alexandria,” “some men of Cyprus and Cyrene,” and “Lucius of Cyrene,” who supported the congregation in Syrian Antioch. (Acts 2:10; 11:19, 20; 13:1; 18:24) Otherwise the Bible is silent about the early Christian work in Egypt and its vicinity, except for the Christian evangelizer Philip’s witnessing to the Ethiopian eunuch.—Acts 8:26-39.
Babylon, with extensions into Parthia, Media, and Elam, was another major center. One historian says that “every territory in the plain of the Tigris and Euphrates, from Armenia to the Persian gulf, as well as northeastward to the Caspian Sea, and eastward to Media, contained Jewish populations.” The Encyclopaedia Judaica estimates their number at 800,000 or more. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that tens of thousands of Babylonian Jews traveled to Jerusalem for the annual festivals.
Were some of the Babylonian pilgrims baptized at Pentecost 33 C.E.? We do not know, but among those who heard the apostle Peter on that day were ones from Mesopotamia. (Acts 2:9) We do know that the apostle Peter was in Babylon about 62-64 C.E. While there, he wrote his first letter and possibly the second one as well. (1 Peter 5:13) Babylon with its large population of Jews was obviously considered part of the territory assigned to Peter, John, and James at the meeting referred to in the letter to the Galatians.
Jerusalem Congregation and Jews in the Diaspora
James, who also attended the meeting where territories were mentioned, served as an overseer in the Jerusalem congregation. (Acts 12:12, 17; 15:13; Galatians 1:18, 19) He was an eyewitness at Pentecost 33 C.E. when thousands of visiting Jews in the Diaspora responded to the good news and were baptized.—Acts 1:14; 2:1, 41.
Then and thereafter tens of thousands of Jews came for the annual festivals. The city became overcrowded, and visitors had to stay in the neighboring villages or encamp in tents. Besides their meeting friends, Encyclopaedia Judaica explains, the pilgrims entered the temple to worship, offer sacrifices, and engage in the study of the Torah.
No doubt, James and the other members of the Jerusalem congregation used these opportunities to witness to Diaspora Jews. Perhaps the apostles did so with great discretion during the period when the “great persecution arose against the congregation that was in Jerusalem” as a result of Stephen’s death. (Acts 8:1) Before and after this event, the record indicates, the zeal of these Christians for preaching resulted in continued increase.—Acts 5:42; 8:4; 9:31.
What Can We Learn?
Yes, the early Christians made sincere efforts to contact the Jews wherever they lived. At the same time, Paul and others reached out to the Gentiles in the European field. They observed Jesus’ parting command to his followers to make disciples “of people of all the nations.”—Matthew 28:19, 20.
From their example, we can learn the importance of preaching in an organized way in order to have the support of Jehovah’s spirit. We can also see the advantages of contacting those who have respect for God’s Word, especially in territories with few of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Are some areas of the territory assigned to your congregation more productive than others? It might be beneficial to cover these more frequently. Are there public events in the neighborhood suitable for special efforts of informal and street witnessing?
It is enriching for us not only to read in the Bible about the early Christians but also to acquaint ourselves with some of the historical and geographic details. One tool that we can use to expand our understanding is the brochure “See the Good Land,” with its many maps and photographs.
This meeting was probably held at the time of or in connection with the discussion of the first-century governing body on the matter of circumcision.—Acts 15:6-29.
This article focuses on Paul’s witnessing to the Jews, not on his activities as “an apostle to the nations.”—Romans 11:13.
[Chart on page 14]
THE APOSTLE PAUL’S CONCERN FOR JEWS IN THE DIASPORA
BEFORE THE MEETING IN JERUSALEM IN 49 C.E.
Acts 9:19, 20 Damascus — “in the synagogues he began to preach”
Acts 9:29 Jerusalem — “talking . . . with the Greek-speaking
Acts 13:5 Salamis, Cyprus — “publishing the word of God in the
synagogues of the Jews”
Acts 13:14 Antioch in Pisidia — “going into the synagogue”
Acts 14:1 Iconium — “entered . . . into the synagogue of the
AFTER THE MEETING IN JERUSALEM IN 49 C.E.
Acts 16:14 Philippi — “Lydia, . . . a worshiper of God”
Acts 17:1 Thessalonica — “a synagogue of the Jews”
Acts 17:10 Beroea — “the synagogue of the Jews”
Acts 17:17 Athens — “reason in the synagogue with the Jews”
Acts 18:4 Corinth — “give a talk in the synagogue”
Acts 18:19 Ephesus — “entered into the synagogue and reasoned
with the Jews”
Acts 19:8 Ephesus — “entering into the synagogue, he spoke
with boldness for three months”
Acts 28:17 Rome — “called together . . . the principal men of
[Map on page 15]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Those who heard the good news at Pentecost 33 C.E. came from a wide area
[Bodies of water]