The Rise of Christianity

Nascent Christianity was one of several apocalyptic Jewish sects active during the Second Temple period.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Apocalypse Now

Christianity was firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism. Various documents from the corpus of materials discovered in the Qumran caves tell us of the extreme apocalypticism of some groups of Jews in this period. These groups hoped for the immediate revelation of a messiah who would redeem them from their misfortunes and tribulations.  [The Qumran caves, located near the Dead Sea, housed scrolls containing writings of the Dead Sea sect, an apocalyptic sect active during Second Temple times, as well as substantial fragments of Jewish literature from the period.]

As time went on, and political and economic conditions worsened, they became more and more convinced that the messianic delivery would be accompanied by a cataclysm. The forces of evil, usually identified both with Israelite transgressors and with the non-Jewish powers that dominated the Jewish people, would then be totally destroyed. This view took its cue from the prophetic idea of the Day of the Lord. The destruction would be accompanied by a utopian messianism wherein an ideal society would come into existence with the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.

Christians Identified Jesus as the Davidic Messiah

When Christianity came to the fore in the first century C.E., its adherents saw themselves as living in the period of the fulfillment of these visions. They identified Jesus as the Davidic messiah who would usher in the eventual destruction of all evil.

Any study of the career of Jesus and the rise of the Christian church must acknowledge that Palestine in this period gave rise to occasional messianic and prophetic figures. Among these was John the Baptist, who, according to the New Testament, was the teacher and inspiration of Jesus. John preached repentance as well as the need for baptism (immersion) in the Jordan River as a one‑time experience designed to bring about repentance. (John was put to death around 29 C.E. by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Peraea in Transjordan from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E.) […]

Jesus' Early Life and Teachings

It is difficult to date with precision the exact point, sometime around the turn of the era, when Jesus was born. Christian traditions placing his birth in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, must be seen as an attempt to identify Jesus as the messiah son of David whom the Jewish people expected to redeem them from Roman domination.

Jesus grew up in Galilee, where he became a preacher. Many of his ideas were similar to those of his brethren in the various sects, including the Phari­sees [characterized by their Near Eastern culture, middle to lower class economic status, and acceptance of non-biblical laws and customs] and the Dead Sea and apocalyptic sects. [The Dead Sea Sect, also known as the Qumran sect, was also an apocalyptic sect that lived according to strict guidelines of purity and holiness near the caves of Qumran on the shore of the Dead Sea.]  Yet already in his early career, as portrayed in the Gospels, he disagreed with the Pharisees on matters of Jewish law. The New Testament ac­counts presage the later Jewish‑Christian schism and may even be a reflection of it.

The Crucifixion and its Consequences

In any case, Jesus'steachings apparently raised the ire of some of the Hellenized Jews in the leadership of the high priesthood, as well as of the Romans, who decreed his crucifixion. It is impossible from the incomplete accounts we have to determine exactly what led to the execution of Jesus, yet we know the tragic results of the widespread Christian assumption that the Jews were responsible for it.

The challenge posed by Jesus to the Jewish authorities cannot have been of such significance as to warrant a demand for his execution. The Romans, however, had both a vested political interest in his death and the authority to execute him. To a large extent, however, it was the fact that his followers came to believe that he had been resurrected from his grave that gave impetus to the emerging faith.

The followers of Jesus in the early days of his career and soon afterwards gathered together in Jerusalem and formed (accord­ing to the Acts of the Apostles) a small group which sought both to live as Jews and to accept the messiahship of Jesus. It was only later that the notion of the divinity of Jesus appeared, toward the end of the New Testament redactional process in the second half of the first century C.E. Thus the early Christian sect began as a coterie of Jews seeking to propagate the belief in Jesus as messiah and evolved into an apostolic group seeking to convert the world.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

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