Jew & Gentile: Parting Ways
For all intents and purposes, Judaism and Christianity are two separate world religions, each with their own traditions, histories, denominations, commentaries, etc. However, this was not always the case, as we know that Christianity was originally a sect of Judaism and all of the original Christians were Jews. So, how did a first-century reform movement within Judaism evolve into a predominately gentile religion, sometimes with great hostility toward its Jewish forebears?
The split between Judaism and Christianity started during the First Jewish-Roman War (AD 66–70), when the Zealots warred against the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christians refused to join the war effort with their Galilean and Judean compatriots, instead fleeing to the Jordan Valley foothills town of Pella. In his book Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260–340) wrote, "The people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, given to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. When those that believed in Christ had come there from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea" (Eccl. Hist. 3.5.3). This warning coincided with Jesus' Olivet discourse when he cautioned, "So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel [9:27] (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains" (Matt. 24:15-16). Today, we mistakenly read this passage as a future event, when, in fact, it was a historical one. The sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 was not unlike the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 in the national memory of Israel. When the Roman general Titus (AD 39–81) entered the Jerusalem temple, his soldiers burned it down and looted its treasures. Even today, Jews visit what was once its Western Wall to lament the loss of their temple, and the Arch of Titus in Rome still memorializes this victory. A bas-relief on the Arch, built eleven years afterward in AD 81, illustrates Roman soldiers plundering the Jewish temple and carrying away its menorah. Matthew wanted to "let the reader understand" that Titus was the one who committed the desolating sacrilege by standing in the Jerusalem temple and stealing its holiest implements reserved for the Levites alone (cf. Lev. 24:9).
No Question of Jewish Identity
As a demonym, the basic definition of Jew is "a person from the land of Judah/Judea." However, as an ethnonym, a Jew is someone who is a covenant member of Israel, with circumcision being the mark of their citizenship (cf. Gen. 17). Originally, Israel had twelve tribes, each named for a son of the patriarch Jacob with Judah being of them (Gen. 49:28 ff.). God had given Judah's father Jacob the name Israel (H3478), "one who strives for God" (Gen. 32:28). After the glorious reign of King Solomon, his successors divided Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea (1 Kgs. 12:1-24; 2 Chron. 10). In about 722 BC, Assyria conquered Israel and forced its ten tribes into exile (2 Kgs. 17:5-23), leaving only the two tribes from Judah to continue Abraham's lineage. That said, traced his Jewish heritage through the line of Judah (cf. Matt. 1:2-3; Luke 3:33; Heb. 7:14). Likewise, Paul of Tarsus defended his Jewish heritage when he wrote, "[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Phil. 3:5).
Jesus' twelve apostles were all Jewish. In fact, they represented the twelve tribes of a fully restored Israel (cf. Matt. 19:28). When Simon Peter gave his Pentecost sermon, he exhorted, "Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36). In response, about 3,000 Jews were baptized and devoted their lives to Jesus as their national Messiah (Acts 2:37-42). Luke, the writer of Acts of the Apostles, testified about these new Jewish believers in Jesus: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (2:46). Yes, the first Christians still worshiped in the Jewish temple! A theology of the church replacing the Jews as a new Israel would not develop for yet another century, as neither Jesus nor Paul taught this. In fact, when Paul visited Jerusalem one last time, he went to the temple and completed the purification rites of his Nazirite vow, sacrificing a turtledove or pigeon, a lamb, and a ram according to the Law of Moses (Acts 18:18; 21:26; cf. Num. 6:1-21). Paul did this specifically to demonstrate his faithful observance of Judaism: "I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor" (Acts 28:5).
Between Two Councils: From Jerusalem to Jamnia
Jesus' brother James led the Council of Jerusalem around AD 50 (cf. Acts 15:1-35). Paul's first missionary journey was very successful between AD 46 to 48, but caused a rift between his gentile converts and the Jewish-dominated church in Jerusalem. The Jewish Christians believed that gentiles should undergo circumcision, thinking the church was some form of "greater Israel." At the council, James heard both arguments, deciding: "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:19-20). James appealed to the Covenant of Noah, a list of seven laws that God expects from all nations (cf. Gen. 9:1-17). This resolution worked for the Jewish elders because they understood the Covenant of Noah was a precursor to the Law of Moses, so they did not contradict. In essence, the Council of Jerusalem treated Christian gentiles as foreigners among Jews, realizing that both groups have equal access to Jesus. The elders had, at first, viewed the Christian gentiles as gerim (H1616), or naturalized foreigners living in Israel (cf. Num. 15:15-16). However, James ruled they were zarim (H2114) or nochrim (H5237), foreigners residing for a short time in Israel (cf. 2 Chron. 6:32). This was a fair hearing for both Jewish Christians whose national constitution was the Law of Moses, and the Christian gentiles who came from many nations. Given James' wisdom and patience, the Council of Jerusalem should have prevented at least the Jewish and the gentile expressions of Christianity from parting ways. Nevertheless, its resolution was a temporary one.
John's gospel includes three references to Jewish followers of Jesus being put out of the synagogue (cf. 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). However, this does not mean John dates between AD 70 and 100, as some liberal scholars posit. During Jesus' ministry, synagogue leaders did threaten to excommunicate Jesus' disciples. These were localized threats, not yet reaching the level of a national ban across Galilee and Judea. Jesus himself distinguished between them when he warned: "They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God" (John 16:2; emp. added). John probably wrote his gospel between AD 64 to 70, since he made no allusions to the destruction of Jerusalem. However, when he penned Revelation around AD 90, John did imply the lack of a temple (cf. 21:22) and to Christians being thrown out of the synagogues (cf. 2:9; 3:9). Tensions between the Jews and Christians reached their breaking point after AD 70, however, when the emperor Vespasian (AD 9–79) enforced the fiscus Judaicus, or "Jewish tax." The fiscus Judaicus forced Jews to give money to the Jupiter Capitolinus temple in Rome instead of the Jerusalem temple Vespasian had destroyed. The emperor Nerva (AD c. 30–98) reformed the tax in AD 96, officially recognizing Judaism and Christianity as separate religions. While the Christians no longer had to pay the fiscus Judaicus, the Roman Empire would go on to persecute the church until the Edict of Milan in AD 313.
In AD 68, a pacifist rabbi named Yochanan ben Zakkai faked his own death and told his disciples to carry him out of besieged Jerusalem in a casket. Afterward, he sought an audience with the Roman general Vespasian, whom he conveniently prophesied would become emperor. When Vespasian did ascend to the throne, he granted ben Zakkai's request to build a Pharisee academy at the coastal town of Jamnia (Hebrew: Yavneh; H2996). The Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, moved to there from Jerusalem. ben Zakkai had been a student of the well-known rabbi Gamaliel, who taught Paul as well (cf. Acts 5:34; 22:3). Today, modern Rabbinical Judaism traces its lineage not only to the Pharisee sect, but most especially to the revisions of ben Zakkai. In AD 90, his Sanhedrin held the Council of Jamnia, which reinterpreted Judaism as a religion without temple and allowed diverse opinions. However, the rabbis at Jamnia also banned the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament quoted exclusively by the New Testament writers. They reordered the Hebrew Bible to de-emphasize messianic and apocalyptic readings, instead focusing on the reinforcement of Law observances. By AD 90, the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity was finished. The rabbis of Jamnia published the Birkat haMinim (H1293; H4327), or "Blessing on the Heretics," i.e., Jews with unorthodox kinds of beliefs. Many Orthodox Jewish synagogues recite it liturgically to this day. It reads:
For the apostates let there be no hope . . . Let the nozerim ["Nazarenes," believers in Jesus of Nazareth, cf. Acts 24:5] and the minim [Jewish heretics] be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed are you, LORD, who humbles the arrogant.
The Second Jewish-Roman War from AD 132 to 135 resulted in the total separation of Judaism and Christianity. A messiah claimant named Simon bar Kochba (d. AD 135) led Jewish insurgents to overthrow the Roman government of Judea. He successfully led an independent Israel for two years, but was ultimately defeated at the Masada fortress. The Jewish Christians did not join bar Kochba because he claimed to be messiah, thereby conflicting with their belief in Jesus. However, Jesus himself warned, "For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am the Messiah!' and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet (cf. Matt. 24:5-6). bar Kochba was certainly the most notable of these false messiahs. Because Rabbinical Judaism denied—and still denies—that Jesus is the Messiah, they gave up on the idea of literal fulfillment of messianic prophecies. Rabbinical Jews gave up hope, rather settling for a religion with no salvation, no messiah, and no real kingdom of God. Instead, the Romans dispersed the Jews across their empire, forbidding them to enter Judea at the threat of death. Unfortunately, Christianity as a gentile religion would take some dark turns toward persecuting and killing Jews, leading up to the Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah: H7724b) from 1939 to 1945 (see "Auschwitz & Biblical Studies"). Nevertheless, we Christian gentiles have a great responsibility in remembering our Jewish heritage, and reconciling the parting of ways.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you established your covenant with Abraham and his seed: Hear the prayers of your church, that the people through whom you brought blessing to the world may also receive the blessing of salvation, through Jesus the Messiah our Lord. Amen.
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