The reasons and impact of Christianity’s separation from its Jewish parent.
Christianity first started as a grass-roots Jewish movement that had its origins in the Galilee and Jerusalem regions. In fact, the word Christian was introduced later. This article is an exploration into the events that forced the early followers of Jesus to move away from Judaism and into a different identity.
The late Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor, Gedaliah Alon, offers one of the best opinions in the book, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Gedaliah Alon is not a household name when it comes to North American religious discussions, so a little background is required.
Mr. Alon was a revered historian and the initial winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies. 1 He had an unrivalled commitment to detail, multidisciplined resourcing of historical texts, and ability to structure them into cohesive sense. Although he died in 1950, his contributions to the fields of first-century Judaism and to a lesser extent, Christianity, are substantial.
He wrote that there were two factors and a later final decision by a Jewish authority around 80 AD that led to the early followers of Jesus to become disenfranchised from their Jewish parent.
But there were two factors that caused the atmosphere to change radically. The first was that, in moments of national crisis, the Jewish Christians turned their backs on the national cause of the Jewish people. In a report relayed by Eusebius, Hegessipus tells us how the Mother Church in Jerusalem left the besieged city in the year 68, and went to Pella. And again, when the battle-lines were drawn against the Roman occupation in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Jewish Christians refused to identify with the Jewish side.
Secondly, the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple brought about a sense of national emergency and a consequent closing of ranks. It would seem that the nation could no longer afford the latitude previously allowed to a wide range of sectarians and schismatics. (This may also account for the disappearance of the Sadducees and Essenes.)2
and then he concludes:
Whichever way we look at it, it will be seen that the Beth Din of Rabban Gamaliel at Yavneh took a fateful step, one that was to have far-reaching historical consequences. They declared in unequivocal terms that the Jewish Christian could no longer be considered part of the Jewish community nor of the Jewish people.3
The connection to Hegessipus making this statement about leaving Jerusalem is one that I cannot verify, though Eusebius clearly states this in his Ecclesiastical History:
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.4
Pella was a city slightly east of the Jordan river. It is located today in the country of Jordan, about 130 km north of Jordan’s capital city, Amman.
The Jewish Christians refusing to participate in the war on Jerusalem
The first evidence that the “Jewish Christians turned their backs” is a very credible one. The statement from Eusebius further enforces this fact. There are vestiges of this idea in Origen’s Against Celsius I:47 and II:13 but I don’t consider these very strong citations.
Even more important is the very words of Christ Himself warning of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem that would happen within a generation. He warned everyone listening to Him to flee at the slightest hint of instability:
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!5
Some readers may become suspicious of my usage of the quote here. The full text of Christ’s prophetic treatise does not fit so well into this paradigm. Indeed, this suspicion is a healthy one. However, we are looking at how some early Jewish Messianic groups may have reinterpreted this text with the impending doom of the Roman army coming to Jerusalem. There is no doubt this passage greatly weighed on their minds. The fourth-century church father, Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis, supports this view:
For that was its place of origin, since all the disciples had settled in Pella after their remove from Jerusalem—Christ having told them to abandon Jerusalem and withdraw from it.6
Indeed, the first Jewish war against Rome in AD 70 led to the destruction of the Temple, servitude and deportation of Jews to foreign countries. The conditions within the walls of Jerusalem by those revolting or caught in the revolt were deplorable. The ancient Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus, chronicles this in his work, The War of the Jews.
Jewish Christians refusing to participate in the Bar Kochba revolt
Alon stated that the Jewish Christians then later refused to side with the Jewish resistance in the Bar Kochba revolt. This uprising occurred between 132–136 AD and was crushed by Rome under the leadership of Hadrian. This war significantly changed the geographic identity of the Middle East and made the Jewish race stateless for the next 2000 years.
Alon draws this from Eusebius, but it is not convincing.7
There are two factors that would make these two parties working together against the Romans almost impossible. The animosity that the nationalist Jews held against Jewish Christians and maybe vice versa, and the apocalyptic views of the Jewish Christians. From the data available today, it demonstrates that the Jewish Christians did not participate in the Bar Kochba revolt. This moment was a significant contributor to the break between the two parties.
The Beth Din of Rabban Gamaliel II against Jewish Christians
This assertion by Alon about a legislative ruling against Jewish Christians is intriguing and perhaps overhyped. Some background is required before proceeding. After the destruction of Jerusalem, a new form of Jewish leadership arose and formed its Roman-sanctioned base in a place south of Tel-Aviv called Yavneh. Here is where post-Temple Judaism shaped its new identity. The first leader was Johanan ben Zakkai who later was followed by Rabban Gamaliel II. Gedaliah Alon blames Gamaliel II on the severance between established Judaism and its fledgling.
The Amida Prayer
The strength of Alon’s assertion falls on an ancient Jewish custom of reciting a specific prayer called the Amida. The Amida is a prayer formula originally containing 18 benedictions with one more added later to make it 19. Which one out the 19 was last added? We are not sure today. The prayer existed before the fall of the Temple but lacked uniformity. Gamaliel II standardized the Amida and modified it to exclude Jewish Christians.
The concept of the Amida within the first-century synagogue is a popular research topic among historians. It is not settled about the origins or progression of this prayer rite within the earlier part of the first century. It was not until Rabban Gamaliel II codified it that we have a clearer picture.8
The actual Benediction that excludes Jewish Christians
It is the use of the 12th here that Alon is taking aim and gives credence for such a bold statement.
All we really know about the creation of this 12th benediction is a single Talmudic text; Talmud Bavli Berakoth 28b.
Our Rabbis taught: Simeon ha-Pakuli arranged the eighteen benedictions in order before Rabban Gamaliel in Jabneh. Said Rabban Gamaliel to the Sages: Can any one among you frame a benediction relating to the Minim? Samuel the Lesser arose and composed it. The next year he forgot it.9
The understanding of minim refers to Jewish Christians. Some believe it was aimed at Sadducees while others that it was towards any group that was deviant to standard Judaism.10 Alon was well aware of the different interpretations and copiously demonstrated through other Talmudic citations, early Christian literature, and especially the Cairo Geniza that it was directed towards Jewish Christians.
The texts found at the Cairo Genizah are not old documents when it comes to manuscript dating. Their start dates begin around 900 AD. However, these texts often contain older, unrevised transmissions. This originality relates to the location of the Geniza in Cairo, Egypt—a place where European Christianity had a less forceful effect. In the case of the Geniza Amida, Alon feels it best reflects the 12th benediction in the first century. Here is a translation of the Geniza text:
May the apostates have no hope, unless they return to Thy Torah, and may the Nazarenes and the Minim disappear in a moment. May they be erased from the book of life, and not be inscribed with the righteous.11
For those inquisitive minds, a weakened text changed to pass the Christian censors from fourteenth-century Spain:
May there be no hope for apostates; And may all the minim and all the informers and all the traitors all immediately be lost;. . . 12
The Cairo Geniza, if considered the correct version, builds a portrait where those who chose the life of a Messianic Jew were stripped of their Jewish identity. This set the stage for a complete severance. However, there is still more to ponder.
Excommunication of Jewish Christians by traditional Judaism
Alon cites numerous examples demonstrating a complete ostracism with Jewish Christians—talking with one, touching, reading or even disposing their literature was considered a sin.
“Indeed, if I were fleeing from a deadly pursuer, I had rather take refuge in a house of heathen worship than enter into a house of such as these. For the heathen do not know Him and (so) deny Him; but these do know Him, and (yet) deny Him.”13 –Rabbi Tarphon
Another example is found from Tosephta Hullin II:22-23 and replicated in other parts of the Talmud.14
Once it happened that Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama was bitten by a snake, and Jacob of Kefar Sama came to heal him in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera. Rabbi Ishmael would not permit it., saying: ‘Ben Dama, you are not allowed! He answered: ‘But I can prove to you that it is permissible for him to heal me.’ However, before he could manage to cite his proof, he died. Rabbi Ishmael exclaimed: ‘Happy are you, Ben Dama, because you have departed in peace without having broken down the barrier erected by the Sages. . .’15
The case for excommunication and the rise of Christianity is very evident from Alon’s thesis. However, the remarks are all situated in Israel major or regions close by. For regions further outside of Israel, there was a different kind of relationship.
The amicable and warm relations between Judaism and earlier Christianity
The third century takes us to Alexandria, Egypt, and then later to Caesarea, Palestine, where one of the most pious and intelligent Christians, Origen, lived, studied and breathed. He had considerable warm relations with the Jewish community.
This type of relationship was demonstrative of the period. So much so, that in the fourth century the great Christian orator, John Chrysostom, whose homilies modern historians liberally quote, took aim against Judaism as a threat against his flock. His attack was in response to his followers vacillating attendance between Jewish institutions and his Church. Chrysostom took great lengths to attack Jews and their structures to sever such an affiliation. His vitriol results in one of the worst examples of high profile Christian anti-semitism.
The close relationship was also concerning to the Christian-dominated Roman Government led by Constantine early in the fourth century. He made a decree that ended any official interchange between Christians and Jews on the scheduling of Easter. The wording suggests that it had an impact on the greater relations between the two parties.
For more information on this topic, see Anti-Semitism in the Ancient Church which focuses on Church, Jewish and pagan relations up until the 8th century.
Jews constituted the majority of followers until about 120 AD
The only information we have on the ethnic makeup is a second century anonymous text covering II Corinthians. This text claims that the Greek adherents had formally overtaken the Jewish ones by this time.16 One can reasonably assume the majority makeup of the earliest assembly previous to this was those of a Jewish descent. The information gleaned from all the sources shown so far demonstrates Judaism was part of the core identity of the earliest gatherings of the assembly.
What should we call the earliest Christians?
The Book of Acts forwards that the title Christian originated in Antioch somewhere around 60 AD.17 The word Christian as an appellation for the earliest followers is only written three times throughout the New Testament writings.18 The Roman historian, Tacitus, marks the word Christian as a common descriptor in 116 AD.19
Paul uses the word the Way to describe the movement,20 which underlies a more Middle Eastern perception while Christian has a more Western Greek influence. Paul never uses the term Christian in any of his documents. Paul, along with all the New Testament texts, never describe any local Jewish Christian institution as a synagogue either. The term ecclesia ἐκκλησία is typically translated as Church or assembly into English. Ecclesia was Paul’s preference when addressing any organization that involved his leadership. This word, however, had a different meaning to Paul than our understanding. The word ecclesia has important underpinnings in the Mosaic assembly and implications on the Dead Sea Scroll groups. This etymology is not well represented in popular English translations.
The understanding of ecclesia in Paul’s writings is in development. It is in an upcoming article, Paul and the Synagogue.
Gedaliah Alon liked to refer to the earliest members of this movement as Jewish Christians. It is an awkward title that I grudgingly use for consistency throughout this document. Ancient Jews referred to them as Nazarenes, or more harshly, Minim (separates or heretics). Messianic Jews is closer to the earliest state, but this can easily connect with the current Messianic Jewish movement happening in pockets globally. These are two different entities so it should be done with caution, though I use it infrequently where Jewish Christian is too repetitive. Restorationist Judaism is another good qualifier because the earliest adoptees of Christ saw this event as restoring and completing Judaism. However, restorationist has a whole set of dynamics that would easily entangle one in semantics for a long time. Jewish Christians has to be used for want of a better term.
What does this all mean?
The separation and distinct identity of what would later be called Christianity did not happen until after 80 AD. Any New Testament studies before this period must approach the pre-80 era first as a Judaic sect that had admixtures of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. This mixture likely existed into the first quarter of the second century too, but conservatively, 80 AD holds true.
An approach of the New Testament from a sole Greek perspective leaves the researcher with vacuous holes and extra energy to find connections through classical Greek literature. Many results are inconclusive and lead to conjecture. This problem is especially apparent in the rites of speaking and praying in tongues—there are little antecedents in Greek literature, while there is much more available in Jewish ones.
One must exercise caution with this conclusion about 80 AD. The Jewish Christian community never reciprocated the same exclusion. Christian records show a mixed network of affiliation between the two parties that caused problems within Church leadership. Exclusion from the Christian perspective happened later. The total separation was gradual and finalized around the fourth century when the Roman Emperor Constantine introduced Christianity as a tolerated (though not official) religion of the Roman Empire.
For more information on the destruction of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Jewish faith see The Struggle for Jewish Identity after the Destruction of the Temple
- Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Translated and edited by Gershon Levi. Vol. 1. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1980. Pg. 305-306
- IBID. Alon. Vol. 1 Pg. 307
- Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius. Book III, Chapter 5.
- Matthew 24:15-19 See also Luke 23:27-30
- The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis translated by Frank Williams. 29:7,7 Book I Sects. 1-46) Second Edition. Nag Hammadi and Manichaeaen Studies. Volume 63. Pg. 129
- See Jewish Followers of Jesus and the Bar Kokhba Revolt: Re-examing the Christian Sources for further information.
- See Megilah 17 to 18 for more details.
- Berakoth 28b
- Birkat ha-Minim: Wikipedia
- Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Translated and edited by Gershon Levi. Vol. 1. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1980. Pg. 289. There is also a second version on this page that is very similar. I have not included it for the sake of brevity.
- Ruth Langer. “The Tzedah Laderekh’s Apologia for the Birkat Haminim” as found in Ke-Tavor Be-harim: Studies in Rabbinic Literature. Arnon Atzmon and Tzur Shafir eds. Gush Etzion: Tevunot Press Herzog College. 2013 Og. 9*
- IBID Alon. Vol. 1. Pg. 291
- Alon Vol. 1 Pg. 292 lists as Tos. Hul. II:22-23 (Zuck 503); Bavli, Av. Zar. 27B; Yer. Ibid. II, 40d-41a, and Shab. XIV:14d
- IBID Alon Vol. 1 Pg. 292
- MPG Vol. 1. Clement. Epistola II Ad Corinthios. Chapter 2. Col. 333
- Acts 11:26
- Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; and I Peter 4:16
- Tacitus on Christ: Wikipedia
- Acts 22:4