How Jewish Christians Became Christians

Three views of the Jewish-Christian schism.

The split between Judaism and Christianity did not come about simply or quickly. It was a complex process which took some one hundred years, starting from the crucifixion [of Jesus], and which had different causes and effects depending on whether it is looked at from the point of view of Judaism or Christianity. Further, the question of legal status as seen through Roman eyes also had some relationship to the issue.

The Christian View

From the standpoint of Christianity, the schism is not difficult to trace. In the earliest Gospel texts, which picture Jesus as debating issues of Jewish law with the Pharisees, no hostility is observed. The crucifixion is said to have been carried out by the Romans with the support of some (apparently Hellenized) priests. As we trace the history of the New Testament traditions, they move from disputes with Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests [all members of various Second Temple-era Jewish sects] to polemics against the Jews and Judaism, from the notion of some Jews as enemies of Jesus to the demonization of the Jewish people as a whole.

By sometime in the first century, the New Testament redactors had clearly decided that they were no longer part of the Jewish people. Therefore, they described Jesus as disputing with all the Jews, not just some, as would be appropriate to an internal Jewish dispute. Once Christians saw Jews as the “other,” it was but a short step to the notion that all Jews were responsible for the rejection of Jesus and, hence, for the failure of his messianic mission to be fulfilled.

The Jewish View

From the Jewish point of view, the matter is more complex. By this time, tannaitic Judaism [that of the early rabbinic sages, characterized by the emergence of the Oral Law] was already the dominant form of Judaism, for the Pharisees had emerged from the revolt against Rome as the main influence within the Jewish community. After the destruction, the tannaim immediately recognized the need to standardize and unify Judaism. One of the first steps was to standardize the Eighteen Benedictions, which, along with the Shema, constituted the core of the daily prayers.

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.

Reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

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