Most folks think of the Apostolic Age as a period between Pentecost, cir. 31 CE, and the death of the last of the original twelve Apostles. To some degree this is true, but as far as the New Testament is concerned, the centrality of apostolic authority is a dwindling one and ended much earlier—at least as far as the Jerusalem church was concerned.
Luke shows the Apostles are the sole authorities in the beginning of Acts. However, by the time we arrive at Acts 6, we find ourselves in the middle of a dispute within the body of believers that ends with the creation of a new body of believers with modified objectives, but with the blessing of the Apostles. That is to say, the new body is not in opposition to the original body of believers, but a separation of some sort was needed to solve the dispute—the widow matter was merely the tip of the iceberg, which we shall see presently.
The dispute involved the Hellenist or Grecian believers of the Diaspora who had resettled in Jerusalem. They may have resettled upon believing the Gospel and receiving Jesus as their Messiah, or they had resettled in Palestine some time before Pentecost, 31 CE. Saul of Tarsus (Paul) says he was the son of a Pharisee and grew up at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Later, after his arrest, his nephew who lived in Jerusalem with his mother, Paul’s sister, was helpful to Paul in discovering a plot against his life. So, it seems many Grecian Jews—Hellenists or those of the Diaspora—had resettled in Palestine. Luke mentions some of them in Acts 6, showing their involvement in a dispute which proves to be centered around how Jesus should be preached to the world.
Almost immediately the unbelieving Jews became disturbed over the new thrust the Jesus Movement was taking. This resulted in the arrest and execution of Stephen, one of the leaders of the new body of believing Jews. It is necessary that some doctrinal difference or method of evangelism was the underlying issue that differentiated them from the Apostolic believing sect, because the latter were left unscathed in the resulting bloody uprising against their Hellenist brethren (Acts 8:1). Of course, this doesn’t mean the Apostles didn’t have to be careful, but their more conservative approach to preaching Christ escaped the ire of the Jewish authorities.
Sometimes it gets overlooked that, when the Hellenist brethren parted with their more conservative brethren led by the Apostles, a large group of believing priests joined themselves to the Apostles. It seems the presence of the Hellenist Jewish believers was viewed as ceremonially unclean, as far as the priest’s ability to continue in their duties in the Temple were concerned. That is, if the priests kept company with the liberal Hellenists, they would be unable to perform the duties of their office in the Temple. With the exit of the Hellenists, this new body of believers joined themselves to the Apostles, and the main body of believers became even much more conservative than before the Hellenists left! This implies that the apostles were at least giving the outward appearance of observing the Oral Law with all its ceremonial washings. They felt this needed to be done in order to reach their Jewish brethren. After all, if someone viewed you as so unclean that he could not eat with you, how could you share Jesus with him? How could you together share the Lord’s Supper?
It was inevitable that a new leader should arise within the conservative group, and he did in the person of James, the Lord’s brother. By the time of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road and his eventual return to Jerusalem (cir. 38 CE), Luke informs us that James was among the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 1:19). Paul claimed he specifically returned to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, but, while he was there, he also had a private meeting with James, who by this time was also considered an apostle.
Afterward, in Acts 10 that Peter had a vision from the Lord, which ultimately ended in the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and a group of gentiles in his home without their having to be circumcised—i.e. without their having to become Jews. The news of this event spread rapidly and by the time Peter returned to Jerusalem, he had a lot of explaining to do before those of the circumcision (Acts 11:1-3). Undoubtedly, the term, those of the circumcision, refers to the believing Pharisees and priests who joined the Apostles in Acts 6 and later.
Further along in Acts, and just prior to Paul’s arrest, we find James as the sole leader of the church at Jerusalem. By this time the original Apostles were long gone. What happened? It seems they were expelled in a second wave of persecution against the Jesus Movement during the reign of King Agrippa (Acts 12), cir. 43 CE. Nearly a decade after the execution of Stephen, King Agrippa executed James, the brother of John and then arrested Peter, intending to execute him also. Luke tells us that Peter escaped, but he and the more moderate believers had to flee Jerusalem, leaving James, the brother of the Lord, as the sole leader of the remaining ultra conservative believers there. This implies that the new apostolic approach to evangelism, which included receiving uncircumcised gentiles into the Jesus Movement, may have been too similar to the Hellenist Gospel approach in Acts 6 and 7. Remember, at this time the Jesus Movement was still considered a sect of the Jews, and the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem saw themselves as its ultimate authority.
I don’t mean to imply that James, the brother of Jesus, would not have recognized believing gentiles as his brethren in Christ. Acts 15 shows he did. Nevertheless, he understood a need for differing evangelistic methods. Paul and company went to the gentiles, but Peter and he were directed toward the Jewish community who were zealous for the Law of Moses.
One cannot help but notice the diminishing of the overall authority of the original Twelve as time went on. By the time Luke records Paul’s imprisonment, the great names of the early church would be dead in less than a decade. The fact is, we no longer hear of Apostolic authority in Jerusalem after Acts 15, cir. 49 CE. Even then, James, the Lord’s brother, is the one making the decision for all. The Apostles, Paul and the elders have had an impact, but it is James who has the final word, showing he is running the show in Jerusalem. The original Twelve returned at the risk of their lives.
I don’t wish to imply any animosity between the Apostles and James. The early church did what it had to do in order to serve Christ as best they could. I am merely pointing out how Luke and Paul seem to record events and how those events affected the leaders of the Jesus Movement as the Gospel spread throughout the ancient world.