How Jewish Christians Became Christians

Three views of the Jewish-Christian schism.

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At the same time, they expanded an old prayer to include an imprecation against the minim, Jews with incorrect beliefs. In this period, this could only have meant the early Jewish Christians, who observed the laws of Judaism but accepted the messiahship of Jesus. Although the rabbis continued to regard the early Christians as Jews, they reformulated this prayer in order to expel them from the synagogue, as testified to by the Gospel of John and the church fathers.

In addition, the tannaim enacted laws designed to further separate the Jewish Christians from the community by prohibiting commerce and certain interrelationships with them.

Hereafter, it is possible to trace the process of separation from the end of the first century C.E. until the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132‑135 C.E.), when the tannaim outlawed the writings of the early Christians, declaring that Torah scrolls or texts with divine names copied by Christians had no sanctity. This was clearly a polemic against the Gospels, which must have been circulating in some form by now.

In the time of Paul, about 60 C.E., the decision to open Christianity to gentiles had taken place, and the tannaim grad­ually found themselves facing a church whose members were not Jews from the point of view of halakhah [Jewish law]. To the rabbis, they were not Jews with incorrect views about the messiah but gentiles who claimed to be the true Israel. For this reason, the tannaim began to see the Christians as the other, not as Jews who had gone astray.

This process was complete by the Bar Kokhba period [a brief period of Jewish sovereignty following the revolt of Shimon Bar Kokhba against the Romans in 132 CE]. Jewish Christianity had been submerged, while Gentile Christianity had gained the ascendancy. Since it was now virtually the only form of Christianity the rabbis encoun­tered, they termed the Christians notzerim ("Nazarenes"), re­garding them as a completely separate and alien religious group.

The Roman View

The third point of view, that of the Romans, can be traced as well. The Romans at first regarded the Christians as part of the Jewish people. When Christianity spread and took on a clearly different identity, as acknowledged by both Jews and Chris­tians, the Roman government modified its view. The emperor Nerva (96‑98 C.E.) freed the Christians (probably including the Jewish Christians) from paying the fiscus judaicus, the Jewish capitation tax decreed as a punishment in the aftermath of the revolt of 66‑73 C.E.

Clearly, the Romans now regarded the Christians as a separate group. The way was paved for the legitimization of Christianity as a licit religion. The decline of the old pagan cults, coupled with the tremendous success of Christianity, would eventually lead to the acceptance of the new faith as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 324 C.E.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.