Christians and Jews; an unhappy story and separation.
Jesus was a Jewish man, and most of those who first followed him were also Jewish. The first Christian congregations were Jewish believers who were convinced that Jesus represented the fulfilment of the promises of the prophets. As they started to organise themselves as followers of Jesus, they carried on meeting in the Temple, and did not appear to feel the need to go somewhere else (see, for example, Acts 2:46). They were still at home thinking of themselves like others who worshipped in the Temple. The Judaism of this period was not monolithic; there were many strands, and many competing schools of thought, and those who followed Jesus, for the first generation of Christians, were able to be seen, and content to be seen as another strand within the complexity of Judaism.
However, although the different strands could co-exist for some time, even with some disagreements and tensions, things finally fell apart in AD 70, when Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed. Even before this, there had been times when the tensions between the older and the newer community had flared up – there are records of a riots in Rome which appear to have been between Christians and Jews in AD 50, which resulted in expulsions from the city. In AD 66, a rebellion of Jews against Rome started in Judea, and continued for the next four years, until in AD 70, Rome eventually conquered and destroyed Jerusalem. The Jews were expelled from the city. For the Roman authorities, those who followed Jesus were simply one of the parts of the Jewish nation that they had defeated. They didn’t make a distinction, and expelled both Jews and Christians. In fact, most of those who followed Jesus had already left the city. This made other Jews even more suspicious of them. It looked as if they had run away to save their own skins, and this seemed to be abandoning their identity as part of the Jewish nation.
Jesus was a Jewish man, and most of those who first followed him were also Jewish.
For the Jews, being expelled involved not just the loss of the city, but also the loss of the Temple, which was the centre of the community’s practice of religion. Although the synagogues were already in existence and were places where people gathered to study the Scriptures and to pray, the Temple was the heart of the faith – and its loss meant that there needed to be a new way to organise the religious life of the community.
This was worked out over the next years – a gathering of Rabbis at a place called Jamnia was largely responsible for setting the framework that was to shape the continued life for Jews now that the Temple was no more.
Among the decisions made as a result of this framework was a tightening up of the definition of what constituted Jewish faith - and that involved the exclusion of those who followed Jesus. This was not entirely inevitable, but nor was the pressure towards it easy to resist. Even before this, the movement around Jesus was already developing a life independent of its Jewish origins. Peter, and then even more definitely Paul, had insisted that the good news of Jesus while it was for Jews, was not only for them, and so what is called “the mission to the Gentiles” (non-Jews) gradually developed. We can see the beginnings of it in Peter’s vision that is recorded in the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 10, and we can hear Paul arguing for it in the Council reported in Acts 15. There are also traces of it in many of Paul’s letters. The Council discussed whether those who had not started out keeping Jewish Law needed to keep it if they were going to be followers of Jesus. The decision was that these Gentile believers did not need to be circumcised or to keep the Jewish food laws. This caused real difficulties for those who remained loyal Jews – and even more for those Jews who were not convinced that Jesus fulfilled the prophets’ promises.
The various Laws that marked Jews off from non-Jews – notably circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and the food laws - were an important mark of identity when they were trying to survive within the Roman Empire and stay loyal to their faith and their God. And their fear was that the blurring of boundaries in this new sect, who did not demand that Gentile converts adopt these laws, was that they would further undermine an already precarious existence.
So, there was a drift apart driven by different things on each side, but which was eventually to prove irresistible, and the changes following the expulsion from Jerusalem made the separation much more fixed.
As the synagogues became the centre of Jewish life, and as Jews had to make homes far from their holy ground, so the synagogues became much less hospitable to followers of Jesus – changes were made in the shape of the prayers and the kinds of blessings and curses that people might use which made it impossible for anybody who trusted in Jesus or who believed that he was the fulfilment of the prophets’ promises to stay as part of a synagogue congregation.
On the Christian side, as more and more people who were not Jewish became followers of Jesus, there grew up a suspicion of, and a rejection of Jewish teaching and in particular law. It came to be seen as legalism, which was contrasted with the free grace offered in Jesus. The misunderstanding of each side of the other led to a growing alienation, and a damaging caricaturing of each by the other.
For Christians, it was probably inevitable that there would be a move away from the synagogues as more and more non-Jews became followers of Jesus, and that was an impetus from the very beginning of the faith. It is possible to say that such a direction is there in Jesus’ own ministry. The conversation with the Syrophoenician woman reported in Mark 7 suggests that this writer wanted to show that Jesus was interested in connecting with Gentiles. However, even if it had to happen, several sad things result from it.
Firstly, there is the very long and tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism. This is a shameful part of our story, and one of which the Christian community need to repent and we need to continue to question our attitudes and reactions.
many Christians have been rediscovering the Jewish roots of our faith
Secondly, we have all too easily and completely forgotten that Jesus is a Jew – which means that there are basic ways in which, if we are not attentive, we can misunderstand what he says and how he says it.
Thirdly, we can forget that what we call the Old Testament is a shared book, and that Jesus would have read it, and read it as a Jew. The more we can understand this, and pay attention to it, the more rewarding will be our study of the Old Testament and our understanding of Jesus.
As Christianity moved further and further away from its Jewish roots, it drew nearer to Greek philosophy and forms of thinking about the world. Clearly, Christian thinking has to engage with the all sorts of cultures and thought forms as people from all sorts of communities become followers of Jesus. However, this has sometimes meant that some of the emphases that were taken for granted by Jesus and by those who shared his culture can get distorted or forgotten. In the Hebrew Bible, for example, God is known through God’s activity – it is stories not philosophical discussion. When this background got forgotten more and more emphasis has been placed on understanding God through concepts and theories and God has become understood as an idea to be discussed, not a loving and active Creator known in relationship. The Christian faith has never completely forgotten the importance of stories and events. Nevertheless, the impact of an overemphasis on abstract concepts has not been helpful.
A fourth consequence is that in some Christian traditions, there has been a distorted emphasis on certain kinds of understanding Jewishness, which has taken on a political shape around the nation of Israel. This partisanship has had painful consequences for other Christians in the area, in particular those who are Palestinian.
There were also positive results. Christians began to work out their own form of life, including developing a specifically Christian body of Scripture, and Christian forms of worship and of structuring the community. When followers of Jesus were no longer seen by others as a part of Judaism, they began to work at exploring their own ways to announce and defend their faith. The Church took on a life of its own.
In the last few generations, many Christians have been rediscovering the Jewish roots of our faith, and this has enriched our reading of the Bible, and our understanding of Jesus, as well as strengthening good relationships with Jewish people of our own generation. While the hurt of the past cannot be erased, there are now ways open to a healthier and more hopeful future relationship.