In order to grasp the deep roots of “the Way” in Israel’s past, I will ask you to sequentially follow a series of clues in Scripture. By following these hints and allusions, we will peel back the temporal onion to reveal the core significance of the early Christian’s self-description as “the Way.” So, returning to Paul’s words in Acts 24:14–16, we find the language of ancient philosophic practice overlapping with unmistakably Hebraic emphases.
But this I do confess to you. In keeping with the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the Ancestral God believing everything written in the Law and the Prophets and having a hope in God (a hope that these men also expect) that a resurrection of the righteous and of the unrighteous is coming. Because of this conviction, I myself train to maintain a blameless conscience before God and before men at all times.
This is the first clue, the top layer of the onion.
In particular, Paul links “the Way” with a mode of worship entailing belief in a broad collection of sacred writings (everything written in the Law andthe Prophets) and hope in the resurrection of the dead. As Paul notes, these two entailments name regions where “the Way” and the Pharisaic approach to worship travel in parallel lanes. Formally, these are shared convictions – but only formally.
For while adherents of “the Way” agree with the Pharisees in endorsing a much more expansive collection of writings as authoritative than the Sadducees would, they also read those shared writings in a very different way than the Pharisees. Likewise, the resurrection of the dead for which the Pharisees hoped had no place for a single person, apart from the great heroes of Israel, being raised in the middle of history. On their own, these two elements do not tell us why Jesus’ followers consider themselves adherents of ‘the Way’. So why this particular self-description?
Another element in Paul’s terse summary might surprise but, upon reflection, surely sheds light on the matter. For Paul designates “the Way” as an approach to the ancestral or patriarchal God. Mull it over. “The Way,” Paul implies, actually goes back to the Patriarchs and their peculiar way of interacting with God. He implicates Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in this enterprise.
Paul’s evocation of the ancient Hebrews in relation to “the Way” is not his alone. Jesus too alludes to this association with Israel’s deep past in Matthew 11:28-30. Only one who knew the Hebrew prophets well would catch it. But Jesus could count on his audience to possess such background knowledge. Jesus’ words are familiar.
Come to me all you who are worn out and weighed down, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and “you will find rest for your souls.” For my yoke is kind and my load is light.
For our present purposes, I would draw your attention to a key scriptural allusion – Jeremiah 6:16.
In this context, Jesus uses the fairly common metaphor of the yoke to refer to his entire way of life. Jesus invites people to assume his teachings and example as a total life package – the analogue to the “yoke of the Torah” routinely prescribed by the Rabbis. Tucked away within Jesus’ invitation, however, is a promise quoted from Jeremiah 6:16. As so often, Jesus drops in a telltale fragment and expects this to evoke the whole within his listeners’ minds.
In the fragment’s original context, Jeremiah is pronouncing judgment upon Israel. Because of the mounting weight of their rebellion, YHWH will send armies to ransack their land and carry their best into exile. Corruption is rife in Israel. Both priest and prophet are culpable. In order to protect their religiously garnered income, the priests content themselves with offering superficial cures through ritual purifications and cultic rites of forgiveness. Prophets glibly voice false assurances of YHWH’s deliverance. Despite injustice in the land, these prophets claim Israel’s ancestry guarantees God’s favor. Nobody stands to denounce injustice. And their motivations are thinly veiled. They want to keep their source of income happy, namely, the kings.
In this setting Jeremiah harkens back to a day before priests and before any sacred building requiring formal cultic procedures. He refers to a day before a special group of ‘prophets’ arose alongside Israel’s kings. You may recall, Jeremiah intimates, that God interacted with human beings before temple and priest, before king and prophet, even before the tabernacle or the Torah. “Thus says YHWH, ‘Stand by the wayside. Search out and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is. Then walk in it and you will find rest for your souls.’”
Thus Jesus, by evoking this passage from Jeremiah, claims to be teaching the “Good Way” or the “Ancient Way.” Think about it. This “Way” that Jesus offers was already ancient in Jeremiah’s time, some 600 years before Jesus walked the Galilee. How could that be? How far back does it go?
The Way beyond Death: “Walking with God” in Genesis
As it turns out, “the Way” goes right back to the early chapters of Genesis. Before even Israel had a religion, YHWH called specific people to walk before him – to join him in “the Way.” The walk before God, complete with examples of those who do or don’t engage in it, constitutes a major theme in the book of Genesis. The first two occurrences show contrasting human responses to God’s invitation to walk together. Together these two passages highlight the significance of all later references to walking with God.
The first occurrence is in Genesis 3:8, immediately following Adam and Eve’s choice to bypass dependence upon God. So, unsurprisingly, the human response to God’s invitation is distinctly negative. Adam and Eve, we are told, “heard the voice of YHWH God walking in the garden with the breeze of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of YHWH God among the trees.”
We are to understand, it seems, that YHWH God customarily conversed with Adam and Eve at a certain time of day when the breeze rustled through the garden. This daily walk, in which God invited Adam and Eve to join him, solidified their partnership in the little particulars of running the garden. Presumably, Adam and Eve could acquire whatever knowledge and resources were necessary for their task that day simply by entering God’s presence and talking as they strolled. So long as they were content to relate with God in trusting dependence, their interactive relationship with God in exercising dominion over the garden could be described as walking with God.
From the moment they entertained suspicions against God and chose to avoid any dependence upon God for their knowledge, Adam and Eve began to evade God’s presence rather than join him in the walk. So walking before God and hiding from God emerge as fundamental alternatives for human life. When human beings opt for suspicion-driven attempts at self-sufficiency, and thus desire to shield themselves from God’s presence, God kindly grants their wish. God dignifies human beings, even in their rebellion, by not pressing his presence upon them.
The “curses” pronounced in Genesis 3:14–19 are so many delineations of what naturally follows when human beings attempt to exercise dominion over creation without God. In essence, God tells Adam and Eve, “So you want to run the show alone? Be my guest. I will not stop you.” But creation resists the reign of human beings when they step outside partnership with the Creator.
The supreme sign of creation’s resistance, in Genesis 3:19, is death. Our very bodies oppose our attempts at mastery over them. Pain in childbirth and physical distress in procuring nourishment betoken something larger. As beings fashioned from dust, it is to dust we inevitably return when separated from our Creator’s presence and power. The consequence of refusing “the Way” is dissolution and death.
Genesis dramatizes the decay. Once sin gets its foot in the door, it takes on a life of its own and death spreads with it. Cain falls into competitive jealousy and hatred of Abel before killing him. Just a few generations later Lamech boasts of murdering a mere lad for striking him. Sin is taking over.
Then comes the chapter where we typically stop reading. The “begats” of Genesis 5. It looks boring, so we just skip it. But this genealogy is part of Genesis’ dramatization. For a pattern emerges as one reads:
- “So and So” lived this many years and became the father of someone.
- Then “so and so” lived this many more years and had other kids.
- So all the days of “so and so” were this many. And he died.
The pattern is relentless. Adam lived, begat, died. Seth lived, begat, died. On it goes with the refrain, and he died… and he died… and he died. No exceptions. Well, almost none.
In the seventh generation from Adam, the pattern is ruptured.Enoch enters the scene in Genesis 5:21. The first line is standard, “Enoch lived sixty-five years and became the father of Methuselah.” But then everything changes. Instead of just ‘living’ so many more years, we are told that “Enoch walked with God three hundred years” and had other children (Genesis 5:22). Enoch did not just exist for a span. He did not merely eat and breath and spawn before expiring. Enoch walked with God. He took up YHWH God’s invitation, which Adam and Eve had refused. And the reign of sin and death loses its grip. “So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:23–24). The pattern, with its single rupture, is striking, and stands in Genesis as a witness to “the Way” Adam and Eve could have taken but did not.
Enoch stands as the archetype of one who follows the Way that leads beyond death.From this point on, Genesis will describe a few persons, used in key ways by God in world-redemption, as those who “walk with God.” Amid a world in which every thought of the human heart had grown wicked, “Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Likewise, Abram’s initial call from God is simply to “Go … to the land which I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In other words, start walking! And when God gives Abraham the covenant of circumcision, he mixes challenge and promise thus. “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I will make a covenant between me and you, and I will make you multiply exceedingly” (Genesis 17:1–2). Two echoes are prominent. God’s intention for Abraham’s family is to reconnect Enoch’s mode of relating to God – the walk – with the blessing initially given to Adam in creation, “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).
To what is this “walk before God” referring? Genesis uses the phrase to gesture toward a form of life pursued through obedient, interactive relation with God in the humdrum details of everyday life.
This everydayness of interaction appears first through the contrast between Adam hiding and Enoch’s walk. Genesis reinforces this depiction by narrating Noah’s and Abram’s peculiar ways of relating to God.
While evil continuously fills other human hearts, Noah is upright, filled with integrity and walks with God. As part of this walk, he is called to obey through the rather banal task of constructing a big boat and collecting critters to fill it.
Abram cultivates an intentionally dependent, conversational relation with God amid the details of managing livestock, negotiating family quarrels, defending against military incursions, and procuring a wife for his son Isaac.
So Genesis offers us a stubborn witness. God intends to restore humanity by this strategy. He will welcome persons into an interactive relation wherein they may learn to ‘walk before him’ by deploying the myriad tasks that everyday life demands, but doing so in an attentive reliance on God. This “Way” – this “walk” – leads beyond the curse, beyond death, back to the relation for which we were created.
Descriptions of “the Way” as a Philosophy
Paul’s adversaries have already started the process of translation. They refer to him as a ringleader of the “sect of the Nazarenes.” Paul repeats the term “sect” (αἵρεσις) and simply connects it to Jesus’ followers’ own self-description as “the Way.”
The term translated “sect” is the standard way of referring to any specific philosophic school in distinction from the others. The Stoics could be referred to as a αἵρεσις and so could the Epicureans, Academics and others. (In the same period, we find Josephus representing differing Jewish religious groups to outsiders as so many philosophic schools. Unsurprisingly, Josephus has a project of depicting Judaism as a philosophy and thus downplaying revolutionary associations after the Jewish War of 66–70 A.D. We get our word “heresy” from the term, but the basic meaning is simply “choice.” Philosophic schools were designated by this term because they demanded a choice of a way of life.
But how could one possibly imagine Jesus-devotees as philosophers? It is not only our contemporary understanding of Christianity that hampers our comprehension here. We also have some grave misconceptions about philosophy. We are used to thinking of philosophy in terms of an academic subject within a university curriculum. Of course, the formal institutions that developed into our present-day universities did not come along for another thousand years.
So, what made one a philosopher in the ancient world? Philosophy was a way of life to which one converted. In other words, philosophy required fundamentally re-describing one’s life in terms of before and after – the life lived prior to embarking on the philosophic journey and everything else that followed from that choice. The philosopher was the one who had converted – taken on a new form of life.
Conversion was the paradigm because any philosophy worth the name offered a total life orientation. As a lived pursuit of wisdom, the philosophic school claimed to offer an integrated, consistent way of life shaped according to “nature” as distinct from mere “custom” or “convention.” In other words, the philosopher sought to bring every detail of his or her life into conformity with the way things really are (“nature”) instead of simply keeping step with what had come to be affirmed and expected within human society (“convention”). As such, philosophy was an all or nothing life option. One converted and became, say, a Stoic, or one did not. Dabbling with the ideas of a school and being able to speak lucidly about them did not make one a philosopher.
It is easy to see why the early Christian’s self-description as adherents of “the Way,” would have held philosophic overtones in Paul’s world. Felix and his Roman friends would certainly also have caught the emphasis upon a total way of life. Only philosophers aspired to such in their world.
Paul quite intentionally evoked this categorization in the minds of his Roman listeners. Grammatically, Paul links his adherence to “the Way” with two principal actions in this passage – worship (with a set of very Hebraic sub-activities) and “spiritual exercise” or “training.” This second principal focus names the acknowledged core of any philosophic regime in the ancient world.
The term Paul uses (ἀσκέω) simply means to train or work to re-shape something, and it was often used both of athletic training and of the philosopher’s strategic efforts to re-shape the character of his soul. By means of a Latin gloss (exercitatio animi), we get our own term “spiritual exercise.”
As an adherent of the Way, Paul says, he engages in spiritual exercise or character training to a specific end. His training consists of maintaining a blameless conscience in the presence of God and men. Conscience seems to be Paul’s standard way of translating the Old Testament notion of the heart for Gentile audiences. He routinely glosses the more Hebraic language of a pure heart with the more philosophically tinged “good conscience” or “clean conscience.” “Conscience,” both in Greek and in the Latin from which our word is derived, literally means something tucked away within or accompanying any act of knowing. It is what youalso know, whether you want to or not. We will have a fair bit to say about the heart in pages to come. But here simply note that Paul describes his fundamental spiritual exercise – the training designed to reshape his character – as consisting in consciously living, even in secret, as if his every action were performed before the face of God and other persons. Though certainly distinguishable from any of the specific character exercises described by Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, this activity holds all the distinctive marks of a philosopher’s exercise.
A few verses later, we are told that the conceptual content of Paul’s ongoing conversation with Felix was “about faith in Jesus… discussing justice, self-mastery and the judgment to come” (Acts 24:24–25). The primary aim of the philosophic exercises was to produce human beings that were just (the same word can be translated as “righteous”) and capable of prodigious feats of self-control. Paul sandwiches these between two distinctives of Christian thought – faith in Jesus and the coming judgment. Clearly Paul is self-consciously presenting the Way in terms indigenous to the philosophic enterprise among the Greeks and Romans. The early Christians, almost unanimously, followed suit for the next three centuries.
Conclusion: Fulfilling the Hopes of Two Worlds
So we return in closing to Paul in Acts 24. By the specific words he chose, Paul described ‘the Way’ as embodying the culmination of hopes from two worlds. Now we can more clearly see why.
On the Greco-Roman side, ancient philosophy had been crafted in response to a question. How does one make a better person – a person that lives according to nature and her reasons, not according to the rot of human convention? Philosophy sought a way of life entire. All-inclusiveness was constitutive to its project. Thus the philosophic schools offered total life packages. They purported to enable new ways of thinking, new actions, new modes of relating, new forms of seeing. Paul claims that Jesus’ way too is a sort of philosophy – the true one.
On the other hand, ‘the Way’ also answered to ancient Hebrew promises concerning an interactive relation with God. Rooted in a state of heart, the walk with God offered a way beyond death, beyond the curse of sin. With their attention fixed on God’s activity, his people would one day learn to live in a continual openness to God’s presence. They would learn to walk before God with a pure heart at long last. At least, so the prophets promised. Jesus lived, taught and enabled this form of life for any who would follow. This ‘Way’ is available to anyone who will simply call upon the name of the Lord Jesus and train to live continually before God’s face.