Yearning for the advent of the Messiah and freedom from the constraints imposed by Roman Empire, the Jews instigated the Macabbean Revolt. This began a conflagration that would burn for many centuries to come between the Jews and those who sought to oppress them. Into this milieu of social and spiritual apprehension came Jesus Christ. His purpose was to break the spiritual bonds upon the children of Israel, as opposed to beginning the temporal deliverance they so anxiously awaited. Christ’s Gospel and His Messianic claims led to His death and the emergence of what would become the fledgling group of believers who would found the Christian Church. The establishment of the early church cannot be adequately understood independent of its Judaic roots nor its relevant Greek influences. The conflict between the early Christian church and Judaism invoked an ideological schism with Jewish culture, as many previous orthodox practices were replaced by new beliefs. Still, it was the basic Hebraic underpinnings, to include the cultural and ethnic aspects of Jewish faith that guided the early Church.
The Macabbean Period from 164 B.C. to 63 B.C. was a product of a Jewish liberation movement that was instituted in response to a decree given by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C. forbidding their religious practices. This period is described by Stephen Wylen as the event which “shook the Jews out of their contentment and initiated the era of creative change that culminated in Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.” A priest from the town of Modein, Matthathias, ignited the revolt against Antiochus by killing a Hellenistic Jew who had offered a pig as a sacrifice to an idol in the streets of Modein . Matthathias’ son Judah Maccabee led the larger military campaign which resulted in the retaking of Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple in 164 B.C. and the institution of the festival of Hanukkah. This revolt represented a stand against outside influences upon the beliefs of the Torah observant Jews.
Hellenistic culture and a continued influence of Greek culture remained integrated into the teachings of the Pharisaic movement, eventually reaching its zenith during the time of Christ. Skarsaune notes that even the famous Jewish scholar Hillel adopted, “Greek methods of exegesis.” The influence of Hellenistic thought with its Greek philosophical foundations often clashed with the Torah observant sects of Judaism and Judaism had, as a result of the successful Macabbean insurrection, initiated a push to make disciples to Judaism. Skarsaune states that,
“The Macabbean era had created new self-confidence among the Jews, and there seems to have been an increasing flow of converts to Judaism, partly as the result of active Jewish mission…In the first century A.D., many Jews seem to have been convinced that their religion was ultimately to become the religion of all people. Accordingly Judaism had to make itself know in the language of all people: Greek.”
The influence of Greek thought greatly influenced the secular and religious atmosphere of the period preceding Christ. Greek thought had pervaded Jewish beliefs and Greek was the language used to write the New Testament. It was into this Greek world, that the early church spread its gospel message. Leo Baeck, in reference to the Apostle Paul’s encounter with God on the road to Damascus, further reiterates the Jewish missionary mindset concerning the Gentiles. He states:
“A Greek who had experienced such a vision would have reflected, talked, and mused, or spoken and written about it; he would not have heard the Jewish command: “Go – “Thou shalt go.” The Greek had no God who laid a claim on him and sent him to be his messenger. Only the Jew would be always aware that the revelation entailed the mission, that a prompt readiness to follow the way was the first sign and testimony to the faith. Paul knew now that to him had fallen the apostolate in the name of the Messiah.”
Jewish believers of the Early Church displayed the same missionary fervor that had existed in Israel prior to Christ, but this zeal passed through the added filters of a ‘Greek conditioned’ mind. In addition to this missionary fervor was the continued expectation for the Messiah to arrive on the scene. The purpose and prophetic manifestation of the Messiah varied amongst the Jews. Most desired a king appointed from God to marshal in freedom from cruelty and injustice and to conquer malevolence in the name of God. Meanwhile, the Early Christian Church viewed Christ as their Messiah, while the Jewish religious leadership continued to deny Christ as Messiah, especially since Christ never ushered in the Jewish kingdom on earth they expected.
The Early Church strongly believed in the continuity of their religious practice and they maintained their adherence to traditional Jewish religious practice and ceremonies. Explicating the Jewish custom of circumcision and its relationship to modern practitioners of Christianity, even an Orthodox Jewish theologian like Michael Wyschogrod writes:
“If the Jesus event had changed Jewish Torah obligation, then it would hardly make any sense to argue whether non-Jews required circumcision and Torah obligation. The debate concerned Gentiles; both sides agreed about the Torah obligation of Jesus-believing Jews.”
What such a statement affirms is the unequivocal relationship to Jewish practice that is decidedly prevalent in the message and actions of Jesus Christ. Trying to separate the two for the sake of New Testament belief devoid of Jewish culture is enigmatic and essentially impossible, as much of Christ’s mission was encompassed within the framework of Old Testament prophecy. Wylen notes that the “earliest Christians were loyal Jews. They would gather in the Temple porticos. They faithfully brought sacrifices to the Temple. They observed the food and purity laws of Judaism.” It was this dedication to their religious heritage which formulated much of the understanding of the Early Church and it was to this heritage that they continued to cling.
The early church was merely a gathering of Christians, a term that had been applied to the followers of Christ. The moniker of Christian was merely a description given to those who followed Christ and was not initially intended to depict a religious group separate from Judaism. Schaeffer notes that the gospel message and its adherents were not anti-Jewish. She also notes that Christianity was “embraced by Jews because…it is the fulfillment of what had been promised and handed down by faithful Jews through the centuries, therefore it is far more Jewish than Gentile.” It is interesting to note that the location where the Apostle Peter preached his Pentecost sermon was a synagogue on the Sabbath day. The Apostle Paul also taught in the synagogues when he traveled, as this was where the early church continued to gather. Author Ron Moseley substantiates this and claims that the Church remained very much a component of first century Judaism, particularly the leadership’s continued association in many Jewish affairs. There was not an instantaneous split from the synagogue and Christians peacefully coexisted with Jews in Jerusalem well into the second century.
Moseley remarks on the similarities between the structure found in the synagogue and that of the early church. “The synagogue was led by the nasi or president. Christian fellowships were led by what was called a pastor who was called a ‘president’ as late as AD 50 by such non-Jewish writers as Justin Martyr.” In addition to the nasi, there was also what was known as the chazen. The chazen were responsible for general oversight of the reading of the Law and other congregational duties within the synagogue. Moseley postulates that this is perhaps where the Church developed the function of the deacon. The chazen were also accountable for selecting seven readers each week. These readers consisted of one priest, one Levite, and five regular Israelites. Moseley suggests that it was from this example that the early church developed the concept of selecting seven good men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom. The early church also adopted the function from the synagogue of the shaliach, otherwise known as the announcer. This position developed in the early church into the position of the apostle responsible for “announcing the gospel.”
The early church consisted mostly of Jewish believers who maintained strict adherence to tradition, the keeping of the Sabbath, and the “various laws that differentiated them from non-Jews, strictly as an identification code…they did not require it for non-Jewish believers.” Continued observance of Jewish laws was of significant importance to the early church, serving as a constant reminder to them of the covenant made between themselves and God. The book of Acts is replete with references to the early church frequenting the Temple, observing the hours of prayer and observing the previously established feasts and sacrifices. The Apostle Peter developed his famous speech in Acts 2 during the feast of Pentecost. Don Finto notes that this was “not a new religion, this was Judaism fulfilled” in the eyes of the early church.
EARLY CHURCH (AD 33 TO AD 50)
The importance of Jerusalem to the early church developed from the words of Christ in Luke 24:27. The gospel was to be preached to all nations “beginning in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem continued to be the center of importance for the early church as it was still considered to be the “seat of authority” for all Jews. As the temple was the center of the Jewish worship experience and their direct link to God, this is where the early church began their ministry in response to the execution of the great commission given to them by Christ. Initially, the early church was considered as nothing more than a sect within Judaism as referenced in Acts 24:5 enabling the early church leaders to have access to Jerusalem and the Temple. Scripture speaks of the apostles having access to the Temple to worship and preach and the Apostle Paul is described as having contact with the High Priest. Jerusalem held high importance to the apostles as they considered Jerusalem and the Temple to be the starting point from which to reach the Jews and later the world with the gospel. Concerning the early Christian affinity, Skarsaune notes:
“Centrality of the Jerusalem community and its position as the “mother church” of all Christianity, as reported in Acts, is also substantiated by important evidence in Paul’s epistles. The Christian church had its decisive beginning in Jerusalem; its first doctrinal decisions were made there; its first organizational patterns were developed there; its basic self-definition was worked out there.”
The Torah and its associated writings continued to be the source from which the early church derived its theological foundations. This is especially prevalent in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who often drew upon his Pharisaic roots as he connected the ideas outlined in the Law with the teachings of Christ. Paul’s recognizes the observance of Torah Law and throughout his gospels communicates that there was nothing inappropriate with keeping the festivals and adhering to the dietary laws. However, it was not the festivals or Torah observances which provided the means of salvation. Paul was influenced heavily by the training he had received under the great Hebrew scholar and Pharisee Gamaliel and it is this lifelong understanding of Torah from which he “upheld the teachings of Jesus as well as the authority of the law and the prophets.”
The relationship between Gentile and Jewish believers was often a source of contention for the early church, as the Jewish believers faithfully held on to the observance of the festivals and the dietary regulations outlined in the Mosaic Law. In fact, the Jewish believers in Christ felt no obligation or necessity to depart from their Jewish heritage in order to follow Christ. The Apostle Paul, as well as the other leaders of the early church, looked constantly to the Torah as their source of guidance with no desire to abrogate their Jewish roots. Paul, however, understood the difference between the strict Pharisaical observance of the law and how Christ actually viewed the law. This concept is shown in Romans 8:2 when Paul describes the Torah as the “law of the spirit and the law of sin and death.” Not to negate the earlier writings, Paul nonetheless eschewed them for their rigor and failure to bring spiritual fulfillment, which he found instead through Christ. For Paul and similar members of the early church, the Torah was the source of spiritual inspiration and Christ’s expository guidance was seen as the fulfillment of the Torah.
SEEDS OF DISPUTE
The once tolerant attitude amongst the early Christian church and the Jews converted into extreme animosity following the Bar Kokhba revolt in AD 135. This event was disastrous for the Jews, as it forced them out of Jerusalem and likewise destroyed the once amicable relationship between practitioners of both Judaism and Christianity. The schism that followed resulted in the formulation of anti-Semitic literature and attitudes between the religious groups which soon developed into bitterness and distrust that lasted for centuries.
The rebellion was begun by Bar Kokhba, a ruthless military leader and Jew, who led a rebellion against the Romans between AD 132 and 135. Dan Juster notes that in the beginning stages of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, many Jewish believers followed Bar Kokhba and “sought by this means to demonstrate their loyalty to Israel.” Once Rabbi Akiba pronounced Bar Kokhba as the Messiah, the Jewish Christians remaining in Israel retracted their loyalty to the cause of the rebellion. This withdrawal of support by the Jewish Christians incensed Bar Kokhba and he massacred anyone who would not grant him total allegiance. This ranks among the most important singular events in the divide between Christianity and Judaism. Juster notes that,
“With the loss of this bridge of understanding, Church-Synagogue hostility increased. In competition, they formed their theologies in opposition to each other. Christian theological positions were adopted because they freed the Church from Jewish roots and were contrary to Jewish teaching. To the theologians of the day, there was no longer a Covenant with Israel as a nation; there was no longer a purpose for a Jewish identity.”
The schism was further exacerbated by unfulfilled prophecies, or at least the understanding by the religious groups of what should be happening. Ivor Davidson comments that for the Jews, “deliverance from Rome showed no signs of happening in the near future” and for the Christians “Jesus’ return had not yet taken place and so the faith was increasingly differentiated from its original context.” Documents such as the Epistle of Barnabas convey the growing resentment towards the Jews by the Christians and the growing willingness to “repudiate not only the mistakes but even the continuing place of Judaism as such.” Many Christian leaders in the 2nd Century began to increasingly question the reasons for remaining true to Jewish traditions or concepts at all as well as the belief that perhaps God had rejected the Jews. These viewpoints developed into what Davidson calls the “shocking traditions of Christian anti-Semitism, in which the Jews would be blamed directly for the crucifixion of the Messiah and regarded as apostates upon whom God’s judgment had justly fallen.” Those who continued to subscribe to their Jewish heritage while adhering to the teachings of Christ soon found for themselves very little room to exist in the increasingly anti-Semitic Christian community. The Jewish heritage which the Apostle Paul had once esteemed essential to the Christian walk became somehow irrelevant. The Christian writer Jerome stated that “both individuals wanted to be Jews and Christians, and in the end, they were able to be neither.”
It was the desire to separate themselves from any relation to the Jewish belief system that provided the opportunity for the formation of what became known as the Roman Catholic Church. This also contributed to the continued rejection of Judaism and the persecution of the Jewish people at many junctions throughout subsequent history. Subsequently, 2nd century Christian apologist Justin Martyr turned oppositional towards the Jews in tone so to speak and asserted that the Christians are the true Israel and the Jews are accursed. They could not, according to Justin Martyr, because of their wickedness, “discern the wisdom of their own Scriptures – in fact they had lost their Scriptures to the Christians since they cannot catch the spirit in them.” Condemnation toward the Jews by many of the 2nd century church fathers is addressed by theologian James Parkes who states:
“for the Gentile Church, the Old Testament no longer meant a way of life, a conception of the relation of a whole community to God, but a mine from which proof texts could be extracted. Instead of being the record of a single community, and the record of its successes and failures, it became the record of two communities, the pre-Incarnation Church symbolized by the Hebrew precursors of the Church and the evil and condemnations recorded could be directed toward the Jews.”
Jewish leaders, in response to the rhetoric seeping out from the early church leadership, made various claims against the validity of the Christian faith by stating that the gospels were a “revelation of sin”. They also spread slanderous stories regarding Christ’s virgin birth, claims of sorcery and that Christ’s death was deserved. Swinging to and fro, the pendulum of one side condemning the other was consequent to the ideological differences endemic within both religions, as well as the aforementioned Bar Kokhba revolt. In spite of the acrimony, there exists an ethno-cultural link between the two nonetheless.
University of Chicago professor and theologian Shirley Case states, “The debt of Christianity to Judaism is evident without further elaboration.” Christ was Jewish in physical form, in His cultural understanding, and in His worldview. He consistently expounded to His Jewish brethren, the relationship between the Old Testament prophecies and His messianic claims. The early church consisted largely of practicing Jews and many of its first converts were Jews. In addition, Torah, Writings, and Prophets, all constituted the foundation of early Christian beliefs and formed the basis from which the New Testament was founded. It is this heritage which formed the foundations of Christian doctrine as revealed in New Testament theology. Nevertheless, the formative years of the early church were wrought with growing pains and periods of persecution from both the Jews and Rome, initially spurring its remarkable growth but which, unfortunately, led to a massive schism and clash with the very foundation upon which it had been built upon – Judaism. The historical significance of the Jewish roots and the Jewish influence, both good and bad, upon Christian theology must be recognized in its entirety in order to have a proper understanding of the roots and belief systems of the Christian faith and its development through the centuries. Moreover, one cannot ignore the interspersion of Greek thought combined with Jewish theology, and the corresponding contextualization of culture which forms the basis of Christianity, since the relationship between them is undeniable.
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