Why Did Christianity Stop Looking So Jewish?

Those who believed Yeshua was Messiah simply saw him fulfilling prophesies and expectations that were taught and understood within an existing religion.

I would like to share a progression of history that is not taught in many churches today. In fact, there are teachers and leaders in many churches that have never learned of this history; yet this history sheds light on the soil in which the early church grew and was nurtured. Yeshua, or as most of us in the West know him, Jesus, is believed by many to be Messiah and is Jewish. His message was about repentance (turning/returning) and was directed toward a particular people.[3] What he was not doing was attempting to steer people toward another god, nor was he attempting to install a new religious system or set of practices. Those who believed Yeshua was Messiah simply saw him fulfilling prophesies and expectations that were taught and understood within an existing religion. So, until the time of the destruction of the second Temple, and perhaps for a short while longer, Christianity by and large was seen as a sect of Judaism.[4] And not only was the leader of this sect Jewish, his 12 apostles were all Jewish, and his message, for the most part, went forward in and around Judea. On top of this, the Book of Acts contains examples where the disciples retained access to synagogues despite their theological differences with other Jews at that time, and we even see Paul going into synagogues week after week reasoning with both Jews and Greeks.[5] It is actually difficult to ignore the fact that the face of early Christianity was Jewish. So what happened?

There are 3 events that began to reshape the face of what we now call Christianity. Two of them happened so close in time that it is hard to differentiate the effect that each of these events had on the body. The first is the death of James, the brother of Yeshua. There are some early historical references and hints within the NT that James was the head of the Church of Jerusalem.[6] One might consider this congregation to be the first mega-church as it appears to have had over 20,000 members out of a population of 80,000 that lived in Jerusalem at that time[7]; so much for the teaching that all Jews rejected Yeshua![8]

James is said to have died before the destruction of the second Temple. Early Christian tradition states that James was invited to speak at Passover before many Jews who did not believe Yeshua was Messiah. When James began to speak of the Passover and its relation to the work of Yeshua, he was killed. Shortly thereafter, the Temple was destroyed and many Christians (read: Jews and non-Jews who followed Yeshua) saw this as an abomination, and thus used the warning in Matthew 24:16 to flee to the mountains. It is estimated that about half of the Jews who believed that Yeshua was Messiah left and did not return.[9] The remaining half stayed and began to expand in numbers again until the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135AD. Simon Bar Kosiba was a Jewish military leader who led the final revolt against Roman occupation, which ultimately failed. A Rabbi by the name of Akiva, in an attempt to rally support behind the effort, gave him the name Bar Kokhba (a Messianic title) and the remaining Jewish believers in Yeshua would not fight for the sovereignty of Jerusalem under the banner of one whom they believed to be a false Messiah. They too left and did not return to the area.[10]

As this sect of Judaism began to spread geographically, and as those from areas outside of Judea became part of this movement, animosity beyond what already existed between the two groups began to grow. It wouldn’t be long before both sides, but perhaps mainly the Christians, began to pass decrees to make themselves appear less Jewish in appearance. For example, at the Council of Elvira[11] decrees were passed that tried to keep Jews and Christians apart by ordering the latter never to share a meal with Jews, never to marry Jews, never to use Jews to bless their fields, and that Christians were never to observe the Jewish Sabbath (of course, these decrees also serve to substantiate that Christians had been doing these things up until this point).[12] Slowly, over time, more decrees and similar teachings began to come together in such a way that there would eventually be no mistaking Judaism and Christianity. What was once a sect of Judaism became, at least in outward form, a new religion. And within that religion, the view that the Jews were “Christ Killers” was already gaining momentum. For example, in the homily Peri Pascha, Melito of Sardis (circa middle of the second century) wrote “The God has been murdered; the king of Israel has been put to death by an Israelite right hand.”[13] Another example, Justin Martyr (also circa middle of the second century), in his Dialogue with Trypho, A Jew, explains why the Jews have suffered exile and the destruction of the Temple, saying to his Jewish interlocutor “tribulations were justly imposed on you since you have murdered the Just One [Jesus].”[14]

I do want to state, however, that this is not the view of many or even most Christians today. I am simply stating that over the course of history, there have been times where Jews were wholly blamed for Yeshua’s death. For the purposes of this article, I am looking at the general view of early Christians which informed the views of many who would come later.[15]

[3] See Matthew 4:17, Luke 5:32, and Matthew 15:24
[4] See Acts 24:1-6, also verse 14, and Acts 28:22
[5] Acts 18:4
[6] Fragment X of Papias, Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 2:1:2, 3:5:2, Acts 15:13, etc.
[7] Estimating the Population of Ancient Jerusalem, Magen Broshi, BAR 4:02, Jun 1978
[8] See Acts 21:20 and look at the underlying word for “many thousands.”
[9] Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 3:5:3, de Mens. et Pond., 15, Haer 29:7, etc.
[10] Justin, “Apologia”, ii.71, Eusebius 4:6:2-3, Orosius “Hist.” vii.13
[11] Generally accepted to be 306AD
[12] The Council of Elvira. CUA.EDU. Text of 81 Canons in English. Web. Accessed 22 Aug 2014. http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/Canon Law/ElviraCanons.htm
[13] On the Pascha, 68; Melito of Sardis. On Pascha and fragments, ed. S.G. Hall (1979), p. 55.
[14] Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 16
[15] For a more in-depth historical treatment of this topic, see Jeremy Cohen’s Christ Killers: The Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

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