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Christianity and Judaism |
In the Christians

Christianity and Judaism is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 84, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

With the Temple and Jerusalem gone, rabbinical Judaism rises into being, and a struggle with Christianity begins that will rage on for centuries

Christianity and Judaism - In the Christians’ first big schism, they and the Jews part company

Christianity and Judaism - In the Christians’ first big schism, they and the Jews part company
This reconstruction of the interior of a third-century synagogue at Dura Europos, Syria, displayed at the National Museum in Damascus, was built on a prominent escarpment above the river Euphrates. Dura Europos, a remote Roman outpost, was destroyed in A.D. 256, the town literally disappeared for more than sixteen hundred years. It was rediscovered during the First World War and excavations began in 1928 (see also p. 264.) The walls of the synagogue are adorned with episodes from the Torah, even though Jewish law forbids the representation of living creatures. Thus did Roman culture influence the synagogue, just as it did the Christians.

Nearly a thousand years before Western and Eastern Christians parted in bitterness, fifteen centuries before Roman Catholics and Protestants divided, and even longer before the Protestants themselves splintered into countless denominations, the first and most painful division of them all rocked Christianity to its core. It would fiercely separate the Christians and their earliest brothers, the Jews.

The Jews and Christians had, after all, sprung from the same root, as third-generation Hebrew Christian writer Jakob Jocz observes in his book-length study of the controversy, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ. Jocz, a prominent twentieth-century Messianic Jewish theologian, writes: “The parting of the roads between the Messianic movement and Judaism began upon Jewish soil as a result of a religious controversy between Jews and Jews.” Put simply, the first Christians were Jews, as was Jesus himself.

Jesus was born into a Jewish family, growing up with Jewish faith and life and customs, studying the Hebrew Bible, observing Jewish Law, and accepting it as divinely appointed. His disciples were Jewish, his ministry was carried out almost exclusively among the Jews, and the first church in Jerusalem was a Jewish church. Jesus was welcomed in the Jewish synagogues, where he worshiped and preached. The eager crowds that surrounded him were overwhelmingly Jewish. The devoted multitude following him, as he made his way to the cross, was largely faithful Jews, weeping in sorrow. Many Jewish people showed themselves deeply devoted to him.

What happened? The Jews were his blood relatives, his family in the strictest sense of the word, and it was to them, he said, that he had been sent. But he would come to be seen by his own people as an enemy, his name a curse, his teachings reviled or, worse, utterly ignored.

One common view explains Jesus’ persecution in political terms–he was a rabble-rouser, a threat to Rome as much as to Judaism. But Jocz notes that Jesus remained aloof from political issues, except for his startling advice that a man should render unto Caesar–that is, the government–what the government was owed; debt to God was a separate issue.

Another popular explanation blames the division between Christians and Jews on the apostle Paul. Jesus’ message was welcomed by Jews of his time, this claim goes, but Paul turned it into something else, something that Jesus never intended and the Jews could no longer accept.

That theory, however, ignores significant facts: chief among them the Crucifixion itself, which took place long before Paul’s arrival on the scene, as well as the heavy persecution of the Christians immediately following Jesus’ death. Jewish leaders were already working hard to root them out, rounding them up and killing them, with the as-yet-unconverted Saul leading the charge.

Such persecution was inevitable, Jocz declares, because Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah demanded a response. Either he was right, and the only response was to submit to him, or he was wrong and a blasphemer. The Jews declared him wrong.

According to Jocz, Christianity begins with humanity in crisis, helpless to act on its own behalf, while central to Judaism is the assertion of human strength. It’s a basic difference in the understanding of mankind’s deepest problem, Jocz says, and the terrible division was therefore inevitable.

But the Christians were only part of the Jews’ dilemma. “Without their religion, the Jews had no history, and without their history no religion,” writes the scholar Alfred Edersheim in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. How could a religion rooted in a specific geographical location and structure, Jerusalem and the Temple–both now destroyed–survive with its heart, so to speak, ripped out? This they answered by addressing two vexing problems.

First, they quickly dealt with the troublesome presence of those Christians who continued to attend Jewish religious observances, and to argue forcefully there for the new faith. In about a.d. 85, the Birkat ha-minim was added to the twelfth of eighteen benedictions recited daily in the synagogues. In its earliest form, the Birkat ha-minim was a single sentence calling down a specific curse upon Christians: “[M]ay the Nazarenes and the minim (heretics) perish as in a moment, and be blotted out from the book of life, and with the righteous may they not be inscribed.”

Though by medieval times the text would be softened and directed against undefined “slanderers,” its initial impact was profound, John writes: “The Jews . . . agreed that if any one should confess him [Jesus] to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22 RSV). The separation, of course, had been a two-way street from the beginning, with many of the earliest Christians distancing themselves from the Jews.

Their second task was to refashion out of a Temple-based, sacrificially centered faith one that could survive its grievous loss. A pattern, of course, had already been set in the synagogues of the Diaspora, functioning far from Jerusalem. But these had always been subsidiary to the Temple and the Holy City.

The Mishna, a collection of oral traditions and teachings of the rabbis, emerged in about a.d. 200 in Palestine under Rabbi Judah (called “The Prince”), and helped resolve the dilemma. In the Mishna, the core of what would become the Talmud in the fifth and sixth centuries, Judaism shifts its focus from the Temple to the synagogue and, therefore to the dispersed nation of Israel itself.

Similarly, Johanan Ben Zakkai, a first-century scholar of the Torah or written Law, taught that study of the Torah, wherever undertaken, was as valuable and important as sacrifices in the Temple had been. Another scholar, Gamaliel of Jamniah, head of the Sanhedrin after Jerusalem was destroyed, established uniform rites of worship and a standardized calendar for religious observances, which were to take place thenceforth in synagogues, no matter where they were.

By the end of the first century, Christians were actively competing with Jews for Gentile converts, each side hurling increasingly vehement abuse against the other. The pagan philosopher Celsus, who was opposed to them both, recorded the Jewish explanation of Jesus. He was born, they said, the illegitimate child of a Jewish peasant woman and a Roman soldier named Panthera, the woman having been divorced by her husband, a carpenter, for adultery.

When grown, Jesus emigrated to Egypt, worked as a laborer, learned magic, and returned to his own country, cocky, conceited, and proclaiming himself to be God. His supposed miracles were never authenticated, his prophecies were proved false, and in the end God abandoned him and let him die on the cross. His disciples stole his body and pretended he had risen from the dead. Such was the Jewish story.

Moreover, observes the historian W. H. C. Frend in his Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, the Jews had “all the advantages of wealth, lawful status, a coherent religious sense, and revolutionary appeal to dissatisfied provincials.” However, “these were nullified by one fact. Judaism remained a national cult, protected indeed by its claim to antiquity, but repellent to most non-Jews.”

Nevertheless, Judaism endured, and in the two millennia that followed, Christianity and Judaism would grow independently, acknowledging and bewailing but often nevertheless exacerbating the deep wounds separating the two great faiths.

This is the end of the Christianity and Judaism category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 84, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Christianity and Judaism from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at