A presentation by Lancelyn Green at a Kipling Society Discussion Meeting, November 17 1965
|notes on the text|
'But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles; but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him . . . But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, " If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews . . . knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ . . ."'This controversy, which rent the tiny sect of Christians at Antioch, was vitally important in the early history of the Church, being in fact the moment at which it was realized that salvation was open to all men, Jew and Gentile alike, and that the law of man was superseded by the law of God. It must, though, have seemed a storm in a very small teacup even to broadminded Romans like Valens and his uncle in the year 50 A.D. when the events of the story happened.
'This name comes to them from Christ, who was executed in the reign of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the detestable superstition, suppressed for a time, broke out again and spread not only over Judea, where this evil originated, but even throughout Rome.'The description of the Love Feast appears to be taken from the letter which Pliny the Younger wrote to the Emperor Trajan in 110 A.D. from Bithynia, where he was serving as pro-consul. He says that:
'they were accustomed, on a stated time, to meet together before daylight, and sing a hymn with one another, to Christ as God, and that they bound themselves by an oath not to do any wickedness; that they should not rob or steal or commit adultery; that they should not deny any pledge intrusted to their hands, when called upon for it. After these things were over, their custom was to break up and depart, and meet together again to take a morsel of bread . . .'And Pliny concluded that he could really find nothing against them but 'an odd extravagant kind of superstition.' To which Trajan replied that they were not to be sought out, but that if denounced and proved to be Christians they must, of course, be punished for their refusal to burn incense or do reverence before the statue of the Emperor.
"'Permit separate tables for Hebrew and Greek, as I once said,' Petrus spoke suddenly. 'That would end in separate churches. There shall be but one Church,' Paulus spoke over his shoulder, and the words fell like rods."This may, on the surface, refer to the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. between the Greek and Roman Churches: but seems also to look forward to the division of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan which we have seen, and Kipling feared to see. Perhaps this parallelism between Romans administering a province where Christian and Jew were at odds, and Britons performing the same office in a land rent between Moslem and Hindu is the second level in Kipling's story. If so, I can, I think, point to a third level. The superb and moving culmination is in the echoes in the words of the dying Valens of those spoken by Christ on the cross. We are subtly prepared for the parallel by Petrus saying 'Give him drink and wait. I have seen — such a wound', after we have already been told that it is 'the deadly upper thrust under the ribs.' And the denouement of the whole story is in Saint Peter's last words and actions:
'Painfully, that other raised the palsied hand that he had once held up in a hall to deny a charge.On the face of it Peter is saying that, Valens having spoken at the moment of death words that are in essence the most sublime words ever spoken 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,' needs no mere act of man like baptism to be saved. And that Paul, sticking to the letter of the law — even if it is, apparently, the new law of Christ Himself — overlooks the blasphemy on Baptism implicit in Peter's words. And this is borne out by the poem which follows the story, which tells us that the simple gospel shall be made complicated — perverted even — by the too ardent disciple.
" Quiet! " said he. " Think you that one who has spoken Those Words needs such as we are to certify him to any God? "
'Paulus cowered before the unknown colleague, vast and commanding, revealed after all these years.
'" As you please — as you please," he stammered, overlooking the blasphemy . . .'