Christianity’s Forgotten Jews

How many of us think of The Last Supper as thirteen Jews attending a seder? In fact, the heroes of the New Testament were believing Jews--a historical truth that's been lost in time.

Reform Judaism Magazine/Fall 2006
By Julie Galambush

Jesus of Nazareth was born into the unstable world of Roman Palestine in about 4 B.C.E. About thirty years later, he died by crucifixion. Judging from the little we know of either Roman Palestine or the events of Jesus' life, his story does not seem all that unusual. Crucifixion was the standard Roman punishment for insurrection and the predictable fate of Jewish rebels--of whom there were many--in Roman Palestine.

But if Jesus' death was unremarkable, what followed was unprecedented. As the historian Josephus put it, "Those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him" (Ant. 18.63)--in other words, his followers did not give up their belief in Jesus as messiah, even after his death. Such loyalty would have been utterly inexplicable in terms of Jewish messianic expectations. The messiah was, by definition, someone who would triumph over evil as part of God's cosmic plan. The exact content of messianic expectations varied from group to group, but a messiah who died without establishing something like peace and justice was simply not the messiah. If Jesus' painful and humiliating death proved anything, it was that he had not been the messiah. Why, then, did his disciples persist in saying he was?

Shortly after Jesus' crucifixion, his followers came to believe that, far from marking the end of their messianic hopes, his death had marked the beginning of God's promised kingdom. They experienced Jesus as present in their midst, and as somehow empowering them to perform miracles like those he had performed during his lifetime. Jesus, they were convinced, had been resurrected. And if the resurrection of the dead had begun with Jesus, then Jesus was the Chosen One of God; God's final triumph over evil must be at hand. Seemingly overcome by the powers of this world, Jesus had instead overcome the power of death itself.

After his execution, Jesus' followers regrouped and began to spread their apocalyptic message among the restless Jewish population. The end was at hand, they preached, and Jesus, God's now-exalted servant, was offering the hope of resurrection to all who followed his way. And so it was that within a few years of Jesus' death, a band of his disciples had coalesced into a new sect within the turbulent mix that was first-century sectarian Judaism--a sect that believed God would soon intervene to redeem the Jewish people by defeating not only Rome, but death itself.

The Jews who proclaimed Jesus' resurrection did not see themselves as members of a new religion. On the contrary, they continued to observe Jewish law, including temple worship and sacrifice. Yet within only a few generations, this marginal sect of Jews would be transformed into a largely gentile religion whose adherents would span the Mediterranean world.

The Parting of the Ways

The nature, causes, and timing of the so-called parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity are hotly debated among scholars. A few things, however, are universally agreed upon: although Jesus' first followers were Jews, mostly from the Galilee, by 100 C.E. the majority of Jesus sect members were gentiles living outside of Israel, and by the fifth century "Christianity" had become a fully separate religion from "Judaism."

How did the Jesus movement stop being Jewish and become gentile? A sect that believed that Jesus' resurrection represented the beginning of God's cataclysmic judgment would hardly have seemed "un-Jewish" in first-century Judea, where new versions of Judaism, many of them heralding the apocalyptic end times, emerged regularly, either to flourish or to vanish. Certainly, most Jews of the time did not consider a now-deceased Galilean preacher named Jesus to have been the messiah; but neither would they have been offended by someone claiming that he was. The Jesus sect simply offered a variation on the popular theme of messianic expectations. The Temple authorities, of course, would have eyed the sect with suspicion. To the high priests--the Jewish community's liaisons with Rome and, as such, responsible for keeping the peace--a group that venerated a condemned criminal, a man who had been executed for rebellion against Rome, would have been cause for concern. Yet even those who saw Jesus' followers as renegades would have perceived them as Jewish renegades.

Initially (as the books of Acts and Matthew 28:15 report), the Jesus movement only sought to reach other Jews. We know, for example, that a decade or so after Jesus' death, when a group of non-Jews from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) wanted to join the sect, the core group in Jerusalem was called upon to decide the basis for including gentiles as members. They did not reach consensus. Some refused to admit non-Jews unless they underwent full conversion to Judaism, which included circumcision for the men; others argued for their unqualified acceptance and went so far as to allow missionaries the authority to grant gentiles full membership without circumcision.

Undoubtedly, circumcision was the greatest single barrier facing potential male converts to Judaism; in a world without antiseptics, circumcision was not only painful but dangerous. Moreover, most Romans considered the rite to be both barbaric and shameful. The Jesus sect's offer of circumcision-free membership would therefore have opened the door to many male "God-fearers"--gentiles who were already loosely affiliated with diaspora synagogues, serving as patrons and observing Jewish customs.

From a modern Jewish perspective, the decision by some within the Jesus movement to accept converts without circumcision seems inexplicable. How could observant Jews so easily abandon the rite that had for centuries been a universal requirement for the conversion of males? The answer lies in the group's apocalyptic expectations. Biblical end-day prophecies regularly included visions of the gentiles ("the nations") joining Israel: "Many nations shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths'" (Isaiah 2:3). Jesus' followers believed the last days had come. What better confirmation than the arrival of gentiles on their doorstep? And yet, while the ancient prophecies had predicted the gentiles' arrival, they gave no instructions regarding what to do with the gentiles once they showed up. Did they need to become Jews, or only to join in worshiping the God of Israel? At first, members of the Jesus sect reached different answers on this issue. In time, however, as the movement expanded across the Roman world, those who insisted on full gentile conversion quickly became the minority.

Appealing to Pagans

As word of the Jesus sect spread throughout the Empire, the group began to attract gentile pagans--worshipers of the Greek and Roman gods who had no association with synagogues. For them, as for other gentiles, the Jesus movement had a certain cachet: it was both exotic and, as part of an ancient tradition, venerable. Moreover, the sect offered two "advantages" over other forms of Judaism: a specific savior-figure through whom one could attain both spiritual transformation and personal immortality; and, so to speak, membership on reasonable terms (no circumcision). Many first-century Jews believed in a coming resurrection of the dead in which all would be raised and judged, "some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). Jesus' followers added two distinctive claims: that the resurrection had already begun in the person of Jesus; and that, having himself been raised from the dead, Jesus was now available both as a source of spiritual transformation (empowering believers to lead holier lives) and as the conduit to attaining a favorable outcome at the last judgment.

These three elements--personal immortality, spiritual transformation, and a heavenly patron to assist in both--were already known in the ancient world from the teachings of other "exotic" religious groups. The cult of Isis, for example, offered adherents spiritual transformation as well as the promise of an afterlife--benefits not generally available in either the Greek or Roman popular religions. The Jesus sect, however, provided both the attractions of an exotic/mystery religion and also the dignity of an ancient and respected tradition.

A New Controversy

Over time, as an increasing number of non-Jews joined the Jesus sect and fewer Jews signed on, the sect's composition changed from primarily Jewish to primarily gentile. It was during this period, roughly 50-100 C.E., that the writings later collected together as the New Testament were composed. Most of the New Testament authors were troubled by the greater Jewish community's lack of interest in or even hostility toward their group. After all, if Jesus were the messiah, surely Jews should be flocking to join the new sect. Jewish disinterest in Jesus strongly suggested that either Jesus' followers or the majority of Jews must be wrong.

Paul, the earliest of the New Testament authors (writing in the 50s C.E.), explained the Jews' failure to embrace Jesus by positing that just as Pharaoh's heart had been hardened, so now a "part" of Israel (that is, the larger part) had become hardened, temporarily preventing Jews from accepting God's work in Jesus (Romans 11:25). Following Paul's line of thought, the author of Luke-Acts, in a two-volume work specifically intended for gentile members of the sect, carefully identified Jesus, his family, and his followers as "faithful Israel" (Christians), which he contrasted with "failed Israel," defined as any Jew who did not follow Jesus. To validate the sect's Jewish legitimacy while explaining why most Jews demonstrated no interest in joining, Luke posited that "faithful" Jews did join; only those Jews who were essentially hostile to God "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30).

In short, the New Testament authors divided the world into "us" and "them." But because the sect was originally Jewish, that us-them division was expressed as a division among Jews: in effect, between good Jews and bad Jews.

In addition to the clearly visible "good Jew-bad Jew" division, a second, less obvious schism emerged within the Jesus sect over the issue of circumcision. According to Luke, when non-Jews began to join the sect, "believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees" insisted that non-Jewish converts be "circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses" (Acts 15:5). Luke suggests that a single meeting sufficed to convince everyone to allow conversion without circumcision, but Paul's letters (written about thirty years earlier) reflect a break between the factions. The letters are filled with invective against sect members who "persecute" gentile congregations by urging them to become circumcised (Galatians 4:29). Those advocating gentile circumcision are "dogs" and "mutilators" (Philippians 3:2); rather than circumcising converts, they should go "castrate themselves" (Galatians 5:12).

Debates over dietary restrictions caused additional ruptures. In Romans 14, for example, Paul tried desperately to develop guidelines for a congregation in which some members kept kosher while others did not.

Another issue pitting Jew against Jew within the sect was Jesus' status as messiah. The communities associated with the apostle John vehemently opposed sect members who denied "the Father and the Son" (1 John 2:22)--that is, who denied Jesus' unique relationship with God. By the end of the first century, the author of John's gospel had labeled Jews within the sect who rejected Jesus' divine origins "children of [their] father the devil" (John 8:44). In general, the New Testament authors portrayed three different kinds of Jews: Jews who accepted Jesus as messiah, Jews who "reject[ed]" Jesus as messiah, and Jews who accepted Jesus as messiah but did so on different terms than those of the authors themselves. And of the three kinds of Jews, the dissenting Jewish Christian--the third type of Jew--was assailed with the worst invective. In this war of words, the competing Jewish followers of Jesus, rather than Jews as a whole, were the ones vilified as "a synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9).

The New Testament

Over the course of the second to fourth centuries C.E., as non-Jewish Christians came to dominate the sect, the New Testament's tripartite division of the Jews came to look very different than it had when the sect was clearly Jewish. The term "Christian," literally "messianist," had originally designated members of the Jesus sect as "messiah-followers" (Acts 11:26). Only gradually (between perhaps 100 and 150 C.E.) did a "Christian" come to be perceived as a member of a new and non-Jewish religion. And once "Christian" had come to describe the polar opposite of "Jew," the original "good Jews" of the New Testament, church leaders and role models such as Mary and Paul, came to be seen as "Christians." Future generations of Christians would find it incredible that the heroes of the New Testament, the first Christians, had been pious Jews. According to conventional wisdom, the Jews had opposed Jesus, not followed him.

Ironically, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the New Testament is the passion with which its authors fought to affirm the legitimacy of their Jewish identity. Faced with criticism from other Jewish factions of the day, Paul proclaimed himself a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5), while Matthew insisted that Jesus did not abolish the Torah, but fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). The author of Hebrews painstakingly recounted how Jesus' followers were called to join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, extending the great chain of those who had lived by faith (Hebrews 11). This campaign of self-defense nonetheless came at a cost: sectarian "defenses" often took the form of invective against those Jews who criticized the group. And once such invective against "the Jews" came to be seen as part of Holy Scripture, it formed the root of Christian anti-Semitism.

Difficult as it is to affirm today, the New Testament authors wrote out of a deeply grounded love of the heritage entrusted to them, the tree of life that was and is Judaism. For both Jews and Christians, the task of taking the New Testament authors seriously as Jews is demanding, often even threatening. And yet, however challenging it is, in the twenty-first century, it is important that we pause to consider our shared roots as well as our distinctiveness--in short, how reluctant the parting of Jew and Christian really was.

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