We’ve often heard it said that Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism; as if Judaism is the parent and Christianity, the child. We believe a more accurate analogy is to see Judaism and Christianity as siblings, twins in fact, born out of the same event.
The belief that Christianity was born out of Judaism fails to take into account that the Judaism of the Second Temple period (i.e. right up to the time of Jesus and the Apostles) was not a single, uniform faith. There was the Judaism of the Pharisees, of the Sadducees, of the Essenes, of the Zealots and of the Samaritans, and numerous smaller sects, as well. Then at the beginning of the 1st century CE, there were the Nazarenes; Jews that believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
[see article Jewish Sects During the Second Temple Period http://www.jewishrootsofchristianity.ca/jewish-sects-second-temple-period/]
Jewish Sects; a Matter of Identity, Purity, and Boundaries
Of the three main sects of the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes each maintained their individuality by meticulously erecting walls around itself to separate itself from members from other sects, ordinary Jews and Gentiles. This social separation was rigorously mandated in a variety of ways; one of which was a strict defining of identity; which defined who members of the group were — and what defined those who were not members.
For example, the Essenes living in Qumran had very strict guidelines for entry into this sect, as well as the harsh punishment for those who failed to keep its rules. They were determined to maintain what they viewed as their ‘pure’ communal standards at all costs.
The Pharisees separated themselves from the ‘ordinary Jews’ and other sects by means of laws defining the havurah i.e. the community; with the stringent of rules for both membership and separation from ‘am haaret’ – the ordinary Jew.
Another means both of these groups had for separating themselves from others was through the strict observance of purity regulations which were very important to both the Essenes and the Pharisees. These purity regulations served to restrict any kind of social contact with those outside one’s group, including Jews of other sects and of course, Gentiles (who were viewed as idolaters, and thus impure).
When one became ‘defiled’ by a dead body, a discharge such as blood or by other means outlined in the (Written) Law of Moses (Essenes) or for the Pharisees, by a breach of either Oral Law or Written Law, ritual purification was necessary. This need for constant purification in both communities is evidenced by the ritual of mikvah (ritual immersion) that was accomplished through large constructed ‘baths’ used for the purpose of ritual immersion. (These baths are the origin of the ‘baptistery tanks’ seen in many denominations of churches). All around the Temple in Jerusalem were a multitude of miqva’ot (plural of mikvah) that were used for purification rituals as well as throughout Qumran, where the Essenes were centered. In fact the Essenes at Qumran practiced daily immersion in a mikvah before the communal meal and there was even an entire liturgy that accompanied it.
This segregation naturally prevented the groups from assimilating. They didn’t have contact with each other, except under proscribed circumstances therefore there was no point in time in which these groups “merge”. During the time of Jesus and the Apostles, there was no one single group which can be spoken of as “the Jews”.
Destruction of the Temple – the turning point
In 66 CE, the Jewish community as a whole, initiated by the Zealots protested Roman taxation which resulted in the Romans plundering the Temple and killing of 6,000 Jews. This was the start of the first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 CE).
At this time, the Nazarenes were seen as a Jewish sect by the Romans and fared no better than non-believing Jews. As a result of the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Jews fled Jerusalem. Since the Temple was the place of God’s presence, its destruction was seen as His defeat, both by the Romans and later on, by the largely Gentile Church.
After the destruction of the Second Temple, Rome governed Judea through a Procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. The first Patriarch was a former leading Pharisee (Yohanan ben Zakkai) and he re-established the Sanhedrin (Jewish court of judges) at Jamnia under Pharisaic control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and sacrificing offerings at the Temple, the rabbis instructed the Jews to give money to charities and to study in local synagogues.
With the Temple destroyed, the Nazarenes who were accustomed to attending synagogue to hear the Law and the Prophets read continued to do so until changes in the synagogue liturgy made by Gamaliel II (grandson of the Gamaliel referred to in Acts 5) in 72-73 CE made it impossible.
In 132 CE, the Emperor Hadrian threatened to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city dedicated to Jupiter. Some of the leading members of the Sanhedrin supported a rebellion led by Simon bar Kochba – which became known as “the Bar Kochba Revolt”.
The revolt ended in 135 CE when Bar Kochba and his army were defeated.
Pharisees – the last group standing
At the end of the Jewish-Roman wars and the Bar Kochba Revolt, the Zealots were wiped out.
Many of the Sadducees came to faith in Jesus (Acts 6:7) as did some of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5) and along with the thousands of Jews that became Nazarenes (Acts 21:20) soon found themselves to be considered heretics by the only surviving sect, the Pharisees.
Changes in the Jewish liturgy were designed to expose what Gamaliel II considered “minim” or heretics, including the Essenes and Nazarenes and was accomplished by adding a prayer to the Amidah (the central prayer of the liturgy) cursing the “mimin” (heretics); which the Nazarenes could neither say, nor respond ‘amen’ to it.
It is important to understand that heresy from a rabbinic perspective is not seen primarily as incorrect theology but a separation from the community. Unlike the Qumran community, which was a minority group setting laws of seclusion or in their own words of separating themselves from the rest of society, the rabbinic laws of minim are those of a majority and are the laws of exclusion.
The rabbinic authorities drew boundaries and defined deviance from those they viewed as infidels; setting out they defined as right and wrong.
Forty years after Jesus’ death, the synagogue was no longer open to Jewish believers. Nazarenes, Jewish believers in Jesus as the Messiah were now excluded from the Jewish community.
Biblical Support for the banning of the Nazarenes from the Synagogue
It is thought by scholars that there are two clear references in the Gospel of John regarding the Jewish believers “being put out of the synagogue” by the Jewish leadership and that this was a reference to the introduction of the “blessing” (cursing) of the heretics during the early second century.
“His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jews, since the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him as Messiah, he would be banned from the synagogue.”
“Nevertheless, many did believe in Him even among the rulers, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, so they would not be banned from the synagogue.”
Jesus Himself also warned the Jewish believers that they will be made “outcasts from the synagogue”, but there was coming a day when there will be those that will kill them, thinking they are offering service to God;
“These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling. They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. “These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me”.
Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism – the birth of twins
For the first two or three centuries of their common lives, Judaism in all of its forms (including the Nazarenes) coexisted with the emergence of Gentiles coming to believe in Jesus – the birth of Christianity.
Rabbinic Judaism and (Gentile dominated) Christianity were twins in a womb — contending with each other for identity and precedence. Both emerged out of the same event; the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE — as much a reaction to each other and to Rome as defined by themselves.
Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism – the first twin
After the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile.
In an effort to preserve the Oral traditions of the elders, around 200 CE Judah haNasi edited together judgements and traditions of the Oral Law into an authoritative code, called the Mishnah. This was the final transformation of the Judaism of the Second Temple period into Rabbinic Judaism – a form of Judaism that is centered on the belief that the Written Law of Moses cannot be properly understood without the Oral Law (the Mishnah).
The Rabbinic midrashim (plural of Midrash) refers to many groups they viewed as deviants of various types; Samaritans, Gnostics, Sadducees, Boethusians, and other sects. Out of 30 passages in these midrashim, only one is said to refer unequivocally to Nazarenes, the Jewish believers in Jesus.
The interpretation of this Rabbinic literature focuses on what behavior is deemed to be sanctioned by the Law; and this body of interpretations is called “halakha” (the way).
Christianity and Abandonment of Jewish Practice – the second twin
The decision of the Jerusalem Counsel (Acts 15) that Gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised seemed inconsequential when the bulk of the believers were Jews, but when Gentiles Christians outnumbered Jewish believers (Nazarenes), not being circumcised delineated Christianity as being “not Jewish”.
Rabbinic Judaism wasn’t alone in its declaring of “heretics”.
The now largely Gentile Church formally rejected the Jewish practices of the Nazarenes and adopted decidedly “Christian” practices. Sabbath observance on the 7th day of the week (Saturday) was changed to Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead, as early as 110 CE by Ignatius of Antioch.
As discussed in an earlier article, the continued observance of the death of Jesus (in what was known as the “Paschal feast”) by Church Father Polycarp and the Church at Jerusalem and Antioch continued on 14 of Nisan (the same day as the Passover for Jews) until it was disputed by Bishop Victor (who later became Pope Victor I between 189–199 CE. Polycarp and several other bishops came very close to being excommunicated by the Church simply for continuing to observe the Lord’s death on the Jewish Passover, as they maintained the Apostle John had taught them.
The dominantly Gentile Church formally rejected any Christian celebration on Passover at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. From that time onward, the observance of the death of Jesus was exclusively to be on the first Sunday following Passover — and was renamed “Easter”. Conversation and fellowship with Jews was also forbidden.
Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel were forced to “convert” to Christianity and to be baptized as “Christians” and to assimilate into the Gentile-dominated Church and in the 4th century, Jews that tried to obstruct the conversion of other Jews to Christianity incurred the death penalty.
The “discourses of heresy” of both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity eventually led to the two becoming separate entities, with the Jewish believers being welcome in neither.
Anti-Jewish Sentiment in the Church
Anti-Jewish sentiment started early and continued through the centuries.
Here are but a few examples from the early Church;
In ~135 CE, Justin Martyr, said that the Jews defeat in the Jewish Roman Wars and the destruction of the Second Temple were God’s visitation and a deserved punishment “For ye slew the Just One and His prophets before Him, and now ye reject, and … dishonor those who set their hopes on Him and God Almighty and Maker of the universe who sent Him”.
In 240 CE, Origen of Alexandria wrote that the Jews “have committed the most abominable of crimes” in conspiring against Christ and for that reason “the Jewish nation was driven from its country and another people was called by God to the blessed election“.
In 248 CE, St. Cyprian wrote that the Jews “have fallen under the heavy wrath of God because they have departed from the Lord and have followed idols”.
Anti-Jewish sentiment continued in Christian Byzantine society (529-553 CE), where Jews were forbidden to read the Torah in Hebrew in synagogue, and the Mishnah and other rabbinic literature were banned. In the third Council of The Council of Orleans, synods held in the Frankish kingdom (538 CE), decreed that Jews could not be seen in the streets during Passover Week. In 681 CE, The Synod of Toledo ordered the burning of the Talmud and other books.
The history of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Church did not end with the Reformation.
The leader of the Reformation, Martin Luther initially hoped that the Jews would be enthusiastic at the prospect of his reformed version of Christianity but when they did not convert, Luther denounced the Jewish people and called for their persecution and destruction. In a paragraph from his “On the Jews and Their Lies”, Luther wrote “What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews“. If that were not enough, Luther made a horrific list of what Christian should do to Jews;
“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools … This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
“Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
“Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
“Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb …”
“Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside …”
“Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them …”
“Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow … but if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., then eject them forever from the country …”
Actions flow from Beliefs
The Church not only held anti-Jewish sentiments, it persecuted the Jewish people – in fact, often treating us worse than the Muslim Arabs that ruled before or after the Christians. For example, when the Arabs conquered Jerusalem in 638 CE, the majority of the population was Christian. Umar, the first Caliph (Islamic representative) lifted the almost 500 year ban against Jewish residence that had been imposed by the Christians under the Byzantine Empire and invited the Jews to return, live and worship once again in Jerusalem. Muslims permitted Jews access to Jerusalem, yet the Christians banned us.
Christians, regained control of the Holy Land in 1099 CE and once again prevented the Jews from living in Jerusalem.
When Jerusalem fell to the (Muslim) Ottomans in 1517 CE, Jews were allowed once again to practice their religion and the Holy Land became a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution of the Christian Crusaders in Europe.
In fact, it was under Ottoman rule of the early 1900’s, that the first waves of Jewish immigrants from Russia were permitted to build a better life for themselves in the Holy Land – yet how many so-called “Christian” nations closed their doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis – including Canada.
What people believe about Jews affects how they treat them.
What the Church today believes about Jews also determines how they treat them now and in the days ahead.
Some Final Thoughts
While many Gentile Christians now would distance themselves from the virulent anti-Jewish sentiment and actions of the past, how inclusive is the Church for Jews today?
The Jerusalem Counsel of Acts 15 established that Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism, be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to follow Jesus, but does the Church of today expect Jews to “convert” to Christianity, renounce the everlasting Covenant God made with their forefathers at Sinai and abandon the Law and the Prophets that Messiah Himself taught and explicitly upheld?
What would Paul think of a church that teaches that they replace the Jews as God’s chosen people – while using his own letters to the early Church for justification?
What would Jesus have to say about Jewish believers keeping Torah being referred to as having “fallen from grace” — when He Himself taught that he who keeps these things will be called “great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:17-19).
The Reformation was intended to bring the Church back to its roots, but how is that possible devoid of its Jewish context?
Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity, by Adiel Schremer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010
McIver, Robert K., Roennfeldt, Ray C. W. Text and Interpretation: Christian Understandings of Authoritative Texts in the Light of Social Change, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 2009; 20(3):257-276
Peter J. Tomson – review of Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity, (2012), Review of Biblical Literature, Society of Biblical Literature, Judaism: Rabbinic and Medieval
Tomson, Peter J, Jewish Food Laws in Early Christian Discourse, Semeia,1999; Issue 86, p193