When and how did the church lose its original identity as a Jewish religious sect? This is a question that attracts more and more attention from Christians, but the answers are often wrong or misleading. The essential question is this: what happened to the Jewish followers of Jesus and their congregations? They wrote almost all the books of the New Testament (except for Luke/Acts); they planted all the first congregations. Where did they go and why did they disappear?
Recently, a pastor who is a friend of mine sent me this quote. One of his elders had used it during a Bible study in order to explain why the Jewish followers of Jesus faded out of Church history:
“Although persecuted by the Jews (I Thess. ii, 14) the Christians in Palestine long remained a group within Judaism. But the break became inevitable. A sentence in Suetonius' Life of Claudius could mean that as early as 50 AD rioting between Jews and Christians had broken out in Rome. In Judea the Jewish Christians kept the bridges open as long as they could, but they were severely harried and about 85, to make sure of their exclusion, a formal anathema was incorporated in the synagogue liturgy: 'May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.'” Owen Chadwick, The Early Christian Church, (Penguin, 1967) p. 20.
My friend wanted to know if the facts were correct and if the imposition of this “formal anathema” actually was a marker signifying the inevitable end of a Jewish presence in the church.
Here’s my answer, expanded for this space:
Thanks so much for your note. I appreciate that you are wrestling with this important issue of the separation of the church from its Jewish roots. Your elder used a credible source of information, but I think the information is misleading if not completely wrong. And here’s the problem: there is a common assumption that the original Jewish believers in Yeshua died out and no other Jews wanted to follow Jesus. But the facts are otherwise: historically, the Jewish believers in Yeshua disappeared because they were disowned and disinherited by the Gentile Christians who were instructed by Paul to honour them as “a remnant chosen by grace.” (Rom. 11:5; of course, the church so twisted this instruction by Paul, they eventually taught that Romans 11 had nothing to do with Jews, even though it promises the future salvation of "all Israel.")
The problem with the quote from Chadwick is that he begins with the commonly held assumption that Judaism and Christianity were already fixed as divided cultures. In fact, Judaism and Christianity were both very fluid in the first few centuries after Yeshua's death and resurrection; they had many different forms, and were not so hierarchical, nor did they answer to many authorities. Consider all the early heresies that existed during the first centuries of Christianity—from Marcion (rejecting the Jewish Bible as Scripture) to Arius (denying the divine nature of Yeshua) that would have completely transformed the nature of our faith. Judaism was equally fluid during the same period—and a single proscription from the synagogue doesn’t explain the full scope of historical events or attitudes of that period.
Besides, why would a wide ranging number of communities of Jewish followers of Yeshua—spread through ancient Palestine and North Africe—give up their identity? I have seen credible estimates that somewhere between 15-20% of all Jewish people in the first century after Yeshua became believers. They had their own congregations. In fact, their communities continued throughout the Holy Land region for centuries after 85 CE. According to the highly respected historian, Eusebius, there was a tradition of Jewish leaders of the church in Jerusalem until 132 CE, when all Jews (including Jewish followers of Yeshua) were expelled from the city by the Romans.
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Judaism was transformed by the Jewish leadership in order to survive the loss of the sacrificial system. During this time, they were also fighting to resist the theological influence of the minim who were one of the few Jewish groups to survive after the Temple's destruction, an event which Yeshua had predicted! That term, minim, refers to Jewish believers in Yeshua and means, in Hebrew, “believers,” although Jewish authorities regularly translate the term in this context to mean “heretics”.
Meanwhile, the communities of Jewish believers in Yeshua continued to thrive. One of the leading Messianic Jewish authorities on this issue (my late mentor and former Prof. of Systematic Theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto) Jakob Jocz, points out that the insertion of the curse on the minim into the liturgy of the Eighteen Benedictions around 90 CE is probably an indication of “a new surge” in the growth of the Messianic community after the fall of the Temple (see The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, Baker, 1949), p. 55. In other words, Chadwick’s proof of a diminishing or a disappearing Jewish believing community is considered by other historians as a sign of its resurgence.
The key turning point comes in 132 CE, when all the Jewish communities in the region of Palestina rose up to resist the newly imposed laws of the Emperor Hadrian (who, among other things, wanted to outlaw circumcision, a horrific act of mutilation from the Roman perspective). The uprising was widely joined by the minim communities. But then the spiritual head of the revolt (132-135 CE), Rabbi Akiva, declared their military leader, Bar Kochba, to be the Messiah. At this point, the minim—who gave their messianic allegiance only to Yeshua—left the fight.
After the revolt failed, the devastation among the Jewish communities throughout the region was horrific; Hadrian had most of the Jewish population sold into slavery or exiled as well as destroying what was left of the Temple and sowing Jerusalem with salt. However, as Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out in his book, Hebrew Christianity, Its Theology, History and Philosophy (Baker, 1974, p. 46—the book is now outdated, but the history is useful here), the communities of minim persisted throughout the region until the Arab conquest is the mid-7th century. In fact, the original father of church history, Hegesippus (born c. 140 CE) is a member of that community—his five volume work has been lost but he is quoted extensively by another famous member of the minim community, Eusebius. There continued to be prominent Church leaders from among the minim, including Epiphanius, Bishop of Constantinople, even into the time of Constantine.
So, if the Jewish believers persisted, why did they eventually disappear—apart from the rise of Islam which swept before it all other religious groups? Why didn’t they integrate into the larger Christian culture with other ethnic Christian communities? It has nothing to do with their exclusion from the synagogue. The real reason was the onerous, racial prejudices of the early church fathers who deliberately chose to purge all evidence of Jewish roots from Christian theology.
Consider the declarations of the council of Nicea, 325: “We ought not to have anything in common with the Jews…we desire, dearest brethren to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews…” A major focus at that council was to separate forever the celebration of Easter from the timing of Passover.
By the fifth century, successive acts by church councils led ultimately to the declaration of all Jews as second class citizens in every Christian community. Until the Enlightenment, Muslim treatment of the Jews was often considered relatively enlightened by comparison with Christianity. The source of these calumnies can be placed at the feet of the church fathers who fixed in Christian theology the perspective of Jews as “Christ killers.” Gregory of Nyssa (331-396 CE) calls my people: “Slayers of the Lord, murderers of the Prophets, enemies of God…”
Nevertheless, many Christians tried to maintain contact with their Jewish roots—they may have read Paul’s letter to the Romans and sought to do what he instructed: not to be "arrogant” (11:20) but instead, recognizing that the Jewish people are still “loved [by God]” (11:28).
In Antioch, the local church had sympathetic ties with the Jewish community, attending Jewish festivals and praying with them during the Sabbath. (Some think the local body included Jewish believers; it’s a matter of discussion.) But then a new pastor arrived, a monk called John Chrysostom (347-407 CE) who was later the Archbishop of Constantinople. He castigated the congregation for their behavior. Famous for his preaching (his name means “golden mouth”) he denounced the synagogue as “a place of prostitution” and “a house of idolatry.” He declared, “The Jews live for their bellies… In shamelessness and greed they surpass even pigs and goats…you should turn away from them as the pest and plague of the human race.” Those ancient sermons, in popular circulation for centuries, remain the basis of a continuing church bias about Jews as inherently evil.
It is this inhospitable climate that destroyed the relations between the church and synagogue—and devastated the relations between Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua, even as the church literally outlawed any continuing spiritual contact of Jews and Christians—forbidding shared worship on the Jewish Sabbath and definitely not at Passover (councils of Antioch, 341 CE and Lodicea, 434 CE.) Finally, these councils declared as heretical the remnants of the Messianic Jewish congregations in North Africa, often called Ebionites, which included the last remaining members of Yeshua's own family. (See Olivier Melnick’s book, They Have Conspired Against You: Responding to the New Anti-Semitism, 2007).
Much of our own perspective on this issue is so tainted by these old, ingrained prejudices that we don’t even recognize them. This is a point emphasized by my friend, Daniel Gruber (author of The Separation of Church and Faith, Copernicus and the Jews (Elijah, 2005). He asks, why do our Bibles not translate the word “Christ” in the New Testament? What is a Christ? Many people think it is the last name of Jesus—Christians know it is a title—but there is no content to it, except as the Greek translation of a Jewish term: Messiah. We don’t translate it “Messiah” because the term points to us as “Christians.” But more important, the term “Messiah” inherently suggests Yeshua’s Jewish identity, so it is rarely used. Gruber asks more pointedly: name a major creed which refers to Jesus as a Jew or as the Jewish Messiah?
The original New Covenant congregations began as Jews who followed the Holy Spirit in reaching out to Gentiles. But the Greek and Roman cultures were very anti-Semitic. They thought that the God of Israel wasn’t invisible, only ugly; they certainly couldn’t understand the Jewish dislike of pork—their visions of heaven had pigs literally jumping onto roasting skewers and I’ve already mentioned their view of circumcision. Within a few generations, this cultural divide led the early church fathers to deny the Jewish origins of the Gospel and then erase them with disdain.
Paul tried to get the early churches to understand that the unity of Jews and Gentiles was evidence of Messiah’s transformative power. In Eph. 3:4-6, he states that the “mystery of Messiah” is revealed by the Spirit of God uniting Jews and Gentiles in the Body of Messiah-but the positive attitudes he worked so hard to promote, particularly in Romans 9-11, were subverted. A new awareness of the mystery has revived with the rise of Messianic Jewish communities around the globe—but it’s still hidden from many Christians who have no knowledge of our significant growing Messianic community, particularly in Israel.
To summarize, it was not historically inevitable for Jewish believers in Yeshua to disappear from the ranks of the larger body of Messiah. There may well have been a large gap between Jewish and Gentile cultures-and between the Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua. But one single proscription from the Jewish community did not determine the fate of the Jewish followers of Messiah. Nor did it justify the negative attitudes towards the Jewish people which appeared in successive Church councils. But as those Christian attitudes were ingrained over the centuries, the very idea of a Jew believing in Jesus became as peculiar to Gentile Christians—who worshiped the Jewish Messiah—as it was to Jews.