The reasons and impact of Christianity’s separation from its Jewish parent.
Christianity started as a grass-roots Jewish movement that had its origins in the Galilee and Jerusalem regions.
There were two reasons that this offspring of a Jewish parent split: the destruction of Jerusalem, and their excommunication by Rabban Gamaliel II. This separation was distinct by the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt.
One must keep in mind that the separation was a gradual one. There were amicable relations between the two parties for centuries—so close that it caused competing interests.
The rest of the article is devoted to explaining these factors in detail.
Table of Contents
- A Closer Look at Why Jewish Christians were Separated from their Parent
- Jewish Christians and the War on Jerusalem
- Jewish Christians and the Bar Kokhba Revolt
- The Beth Din of Rabban Gamaliel II against Jewish Christians
- The Amicable Relations between Judaism and Earlier Christianity
- Jews Constituted the Majority of Followers before 136 AD
- What should we call the Earliest Christians?
The late Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor, Gedaliah Alon, offers the above explanations in his book, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age.
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.)1
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. And 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 were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.2
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.
Mr. Alon was a revered historian and the initial winner of the Israel Prize for Jewish Studies. 3 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.
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!4
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.5
The earlier quote from Eusebius about Christians leaving for Pella also adds to the prophetic narrative.
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.
Alon believed the Jewish Christians either later refused to side with the Jewish resistance, but this is too general and lacks citation. Christians may have been barred from contributing in the Bar Kokhba revolt, punished for not participating, or they were already separated to such an extent that their involvement was not expected.
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.
This section required some further research and there is not much information to glean from. The early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (100–165 AD), believed that Christians were persecuted under the Bar Kokhba regime.6
Eusebius described Rome’s suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the devastating consequences of it in his Ecclesiastical History. Any particulars on the Christian community and their inner workings with the Jewish leadership was left out of his description.7 8 9
Overall, one can build a portrait from the earlier War on Jerusalem, these two small later Christian accounts, and the excommunication by Rabban Gamiliel II (covered further below). These factors 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 were tall barriers. One could argue the Bar Kokhba revolt was a significant contributor to the break between the two parties, but more realistically, it demonstrated by this time how far apart they had become.10
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.11
Gedaliah Alon blames Gamaliel II on the severance between established Judaism and its fledgling. He went into great detail to describe this break which is covered below.
A brief historical description is required before proceeding. After the destruction of Jerusalem, a new form of Jewish leadership arose and established 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. His leadership began around 80 AD and he died probably before 115 AD.12 So the earliest that he would have supplied the the declaration is around 80 AD and the latest is 115 AD.
Gamaliel II severed the cord when he initiated or approved an additional prayer into the Amida. It formalized excommunication against any Jew who professed belief in Jesus.
The Amida is an old set of prayers. The prayers existed before the fall of the Temple but lacked uniformity. Gamaliel II standardized the Amida with the addition of the new exclusion clause. It originally contained 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 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.13
It is the use of the 12th prayer 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.14
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.15 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.16
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;. . . 17
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.
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.18 –Rabbi Tarphon
Another example is found from Tosephta Hullin II:22-23 and replicated in other parts of the Talmud.19
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. . .’20
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 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.
The only information we have on the ethnic makeup are two distinct sources. One is a second century anonymous text called II Clement. This text claims that the Greek adherents had formally overtaken the Jewish ones anywhere between 95 and 140 AD.21
And about this, it is said; that the many children of the desolate are more than the woman who has the virtuous man. Seeing that the desolate was supposed to be those of us people distant from God, yet now, having come to an active state of belief, we have become more numerous than those supposedly that have God.22 23
It was written from a Gentile perspective and likely composed in or around Rome or Athens. The text suggests the majority makeup of the earliest assembly previous to this was those of a Jewish descent. In the Middle East, the Bar Kokhba revolt that happened between 132 and 136 AD also revealed a change in identity. All the Bishops of Jerusalem were of Jewish descent from the beginning of Christianity until this time. Afterwards, the appointment of the first Gentile Bishop occurred and the Jewish leadership connection was permanently broken.24 The fourth-century historian, Eusebius, posited that it was a forced change. The consequences of the Bar Kockba revolt resulted in the Jewish people put to death, sold into slavery, or forced into the diaspora. Eusebius described those Christians that remained as Gentiles.25 26
The question comes to mind at the dating of the writing of II Clement. The latest date for its composition is 140 AD. This late date as the time of Greeks overtaking Jews in the ethnic makeup of the church is difficult to maintain. There may have been a different rate of ethnic mixing between the Greco-Roman and Middle-East worlds. The Bar Kokhba revolt reveals 136 AD is where the shift decidedly change to non-Jewish attendees in Israel. 136 AD applies for the Middle-East which geographically contained a greater proportion of those with a Jewish identity. The change in the Greco-Roman world was likely earlier, probably 100–110 AD, after the first generation of Jewish leaders had died.
The Book of Acts forwards that the title Christian originated in Antioch somewhere around 60 AD.27 The word Christian as an appellation for the earliest followers is only written three times throughout the New Testament writings.28 The Roman historian, Tacitus, marks the word Christian as a common descriptor in 116 AD.29
Paul uses the word the Way to describe the movement,30 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.
See the following article: The Church, Synagogue, and St. Paul for more information.
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.
The separation and distinct identity of what would later be called Christianity did not happen until after 80 AD and no later than 115 AD. The final demarcation is found in the Bar Kokhba revolt that ended in 136 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. The reasons and impact of Christianity’s separation from its Jewish parent.
- 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
- Eusebius. Church History. Book III:5:3 Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
- 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
- Justin Martyr. The First Apology. Chapter 31. Some older documents cite this from Justin, “Apologia,” ii. 71 but this either this citation system is old or the quote is not referenced correctly.
- Eusebius. Church History. Book IV:6 Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
- The translator, theologian, and translator, Jerome (347–420 AD) casually mentions the Bar Kokhba revolt but did not address Jewish—Christian relations in this context.
- This section previously substantiated its position by a quote found from Eusebius describing the War on Jerusalem (Eusebius. Church History. Book III:5:3). This was an error.
- For more information on Christians and the Bar Kokhba revolt see: Jewish Followers of Jesus and the Bar Kokhba Revolt: Re-examing the Christian Sources.
- 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. 307
- No biography gives fixed dates on his beginning or demise. One biography states that he started his leadership 10 years after the fall of the Second Temple, which makes his start at 80 AD. This concept was derived from a traditional Jewish site called the dailyzohar. We do know he died before the insurrection that Trajan started to address in 115 AD.
- 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. This is the period most scholars think II Clement was written.
- My translation from MPG. Vol. 1. Clement. *Epistola II Ad Corinthios.* Chapter II. Col. 333. MPG incorrectly identified this as a legitimate text of Clement of Rome. Later research has indicated this is not the case. It is uncertain about the original author.
- Ὅ δὲ εἷπεν, ὅτι πολλὰ τὰ τέκνα τῆς ἐρήμου, μᾶλλον ἤ τῆς ἐχούσης τὸν ἄνδρα· ἐπεὶ ἔρημος ἐδόκει εἶναι ἀπὸ τοῦ Θεοῦ ὁ λαὸς ἡμῶν, νυνὶ δὲ πιστεύσαντες, πλείονες ἐγνόμεθα τῶν δοκούντων ἔχειν Θεόν. MPG. Vol. 1. Clement. *Epistola II Ad Corinthios.* Chapter II. Col. 333. For alternative translations see, earlychristianwritings.com
- Eusebius. Church History. Book IV: Chapter 5
- Church History. Book IV: Chapter 6:4. For a historical perspective on these events, see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s entry on the The Bar Kochba Revolt
- The header previously stated “Jews Constituted the Majority of Followers before 120 AD” but this was changed to 136 AD after looking again at the evidence.
- Acts 11:26
- Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; and I Peter 4:16
- Tacitus on Christ: Wikipedia
- Acts 22:4