The Church that was at Antioch

A presentation by Lancelyn Green at a Kipling Society
Discussion Meeting, November 17 1965

This is a story that is likely to be near, if not in, everyone’s list of Kipling’s twenty best stories. Nor is it a difficult story in the way that “Mrs. Bathurst” is on the one hand, or “Uncovenanted Mercies ” on the other. But it is a thoughtful story in the senses both of being written with careful thought and demanding careful thought for its full appreciation. As with so many of Kipling’s mature stories it is, as he said in Something of Myself (Chapter VII page 190) of the ‘Puck’ tales, ‘worked…in three or four overlaid tints and textures, which might or might not reveal themselves according to the shifting light of sex, youth and experience’.

If I can reveal perhaps two or possibly three of the overlays I shall at least, I hope, have led the way for some of you to go deeper and reveal more. On the simple story level the tale deals with the events described in Chapter XV of The Acts of the Apostles, illuminated by St. Paul’s own recollection of the incident as touched on by him in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians. It presents an important turning-point in the birth-pangs of the young Christian Church (remember that the apostles were first called ‘Christians at Antioch’) as seen through the eyes or from the point of view of a young Roman officer — a follower of the mystery religion of Mithras which was just beginning to take hold of the more thoughtful among the younger Romans (particularly in the Army) who could no longer be satisfied with the old classical polytheism and the purely utilitarian Emperor-worship.

The title of the story is taken from an earlier chapter (No. XIII) in Acts: ‘Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon which is called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen which had been brought up with Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul’. Saul was still under his Jewish name, which is dropped for Paul, his name as a Roman citizen, a few verses further on. Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch from one of their missionary journeys, to Cyprus, where they have converted the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus — ‘a prudent man’, not to be identified with Kipling’s Lucius Sergius, though doubtless they belonged to the same
patrician family of Sergia Gens. They dwell in Antioch peaceably for a long time, until trouble-makers from Jerusalem bring division to the church over the question of whether the Gentile Christians must conform to the strict Laws of Moses which bound all Jews. In Acts and Galatians the main cause of doubt is over circumcision, but Kipling in the story makes it turn only on the lesser disagreement, the Mosaic law concerning food. This is not only because the main cause was one difficult to treat in a work of fiction in 1927 when he was writing the story, but also for a less obvious reason which I shall come to later on.

Acts, by the way, does not mention that St. Peter came to Antioch on this occasion: Paul, Barnabas and Titus went to see him and the Elders in Jerusalem, and returned with a letter from St. James, the brother of Our Lord. But Galatians suggests that Peter did indeed come back with them:

‘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.

With great skill Kipling shews us the matter from both sides. The Biblical echoes are more than enough to stress it from the Christian point of view: the Roman side is shewn more subtly — Valens’s contemptuous remarks about what he takes to be mere thefts from the Mithraic ritual; the reference to Peter preaching to ‘a Roman officer of irregulars down-country’ (the centurion Cornelius of Acts X); and the casual remark, naming no names, about Pilate: ‘One of our Governors tried that game (feeding a trouble-maker to the Jews) down-coast — for the sake of peace — some years ago. He didn’t get it.’

With this last we may compare the official Roman attitude of some fifty or sixty years later, when Christianity was spreading fast, as given by Tacitus in his Annals. When speaking of the year 64 A.D. he refers to Nero’s persecution of the Christians:

‘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.

When “The Church that was at Antioch” was the subject of discussion at a previous Kipling Society meeting on 9 July 1958, Colonel Bagwell Purefoy who was introducing the story said that it was objected to by a member who wrote that it “debases a profound difficulty of the early Church to the level of a Hindo-Moslem riot in India …” Now this, I think, is precisely what Kipling meant to do, not debase, but make the problem all the more real and vital by the analogy. This is why he makes the cause of the rift in the Church solely dependent on the food question. The parallel, which I think he makes obvious in the story, is with the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny — with the famous rumour of the cow’s fat and the hog’s lard on the cartridges — and he shews how, faced with what to him was a similar threat to peace, Valens overcame it, or helped Paul and Peter to prevent it.
Perhaps, too, there is a forward-looking echo of the Indian problem in this scrap of dialogue:

“‘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.
” 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 . . .’

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.

But there seems to be an even deeper meaning: the blasphemy is in the use of the words ‘any God’ instead of simply ‘God’ . If we read the story rather quickly or superficially — as any reader of a story in a magazine would do (it was first published in the London Magazine for August 1929) we would probably take it as simply a rather striking interpretation of a well-known incident in the New Testament, written by a Christian.

Perhaps it is only because we have ‘questioned other than the books he left behind’, and know that in spite of his very great humility Kipling was a Theist rather than a Christian. ‘No unbeliever’, as Rider Haggard wrote in his diary after a long day of intimate talk with Kipling, ‘only like the rest of us, one who knows nothing and therefore cannot understand ‘.

Surely Our Lord’s saying about the rich man who could more easily pass through the eye of a needle than enter into the Kingdom of Heaven refers as much to those who are rich in intellect as in worldly goods? Yet who are we, lesser men, to judge? Such a man will surely pass through the eye of the needle. Remember what follows: ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God : for with God all things are possible.’

However, we are speaking as men — and maybe we — or I — think in a narrow, Pauline sense.
‘Carpenter, or Cameleer, or Maya’s dreaming son’, says Kipling in the poem that rounds off the story — and doubtless he is right, and seeing with a vision that is denied to the ordinary disciple like Paul, though not to Peter who, by the Divine antithesis, being the greater sinner is the greater saint. Perhaps this is why Kipling constantly overstates the case for Mithras — and never so flagrantly as in this story. Mithraism was the last new religion to come into being before the revelations of Jesus Christ: and if we accept C. S. Lewis’s suggestion that the supreme event of the Resurrection cast shadows before on the many pagan cults of the Dying God, the most lifelike shadow should naturally be cast immediately before the dawn. ‘Rum thing’, as an Atheist once said to Lewis, ‘all that about the Dying God. Seems to have really happened once.’

There are undoubtedly close similarities between Mithraism and Christianity: but even if you are considering the two as equally valid, or invalid, there is absolutely no reason to assume that Christianity borrowed anything from this slightly earlier and rival religion. Where Kipling got his Mithraic knowledge from I have not been able to discover. He may have been misled by some atheistical author of his own day who wished to prove that Christianity was derived from Mithraism.

I have found no evidence for the scraps of Mithraic teaching which Kipling quotes, and he is completely wrong in suggesting that Mithras died and was resurrected — as he does in this story. Mithras accompanied the sun in his chariot up to heaven when his work on earth was done. And his main work was the creation of a new race of men out of the body of the sacred bull which he pursued and slew at the command of God (Ahura Mazda of the Persians), just as the world in Scandinavian mythology is created out of the body of a dead giant, and out of other corpses in many other mythologies. (And ‘the Light and the Voice of God’ leading to ‘a rending change of heart’ is equally present in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and the sublime attempt of Pharaoh Akhenaton to substitute his own pure monotheism for superstition-clogged polytheism of ancient Egypt).

But none the less Kipling’s point is superbly made by the end of the story — and maybe would not have been so good if he had stuck to facts — or not let his imagination play such tricks with the evidence.