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The Judean Christians

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Early Christianity
1012 Lecture 3

The history of early Christianity bridges over the period from the death of Jesus Christ and birth of the Apostolic Age in about the year 30 to the First Council of Nicaea in 325.

The first part of the period, when some of the Twelve Apostles are believed to have been still alive, is called the Apostolic Age. The earliest followers of Jesus composed an apocalyptic, Second Temple, Jewish sect. During the Apostolic Age, Saul-Paul of Tarsus had great success spreading the religion to gentiles. Early Christianity gradually grew apart from Judaism and established itself as a predominantly gentile religion.

In the Ante-Nicene period following the Apostolic Age, both incredible diversity and unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period emerged simultaneously. Part of the unifying trend was an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism and Jewish practices. By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean, and to North Africa and the Near East.

The Axumite empire (Ethiopia) was among the first civilizations in the world to make Christianity its state religion. The Queen of Sheba, mentioned in the Bible as an admirer of King Solomon’s wisdom, was allegedly the queen of Ethiopia (not likely).  Axum converted to Christianity in the year 343 AD. King Ezana is credited with making Christianity Ethiopia’s official religion.

The First Council of Nicaea (the origin of the term “Nicene”) in 325 and the promotion of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I in the Roman Empire are commonly used to mark the end of early Christianity, beginning the era of the first seven Ecumenical Councils

The term “Christians” (Greek ??????????) occurs three times in the New Testament. The disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch (as related in Acts 11:26). The term also appears in Acts 26:28, used by Herod Agrippa II. In the final New Testament usage, the First Epistle of Peter tells believers not to be distraught if they suffer because the name was applied to them (1Peter 4:14-16). Ignatius of Antioch was the first Christian to use the label in self-reference and made the earliest recorded use of the term Christianity (Greek ?????????????), around 100 AD.  “Christ” is a modified transcription of the Greek word christos, meaning “anointed one”. The form of the Greek term ?????????? (Christianoi) indicates it was a transcription of a Latin word. It was mostly like coined by a Roman official in Antioch, which was the seat of Roman administration in the eastern Mediterranean.

The suffix (Latin -iani, Greek -ianoi) means “belonging to the party of”, much like the suffixes -er and -ite are used in modern English. It (-iani, -ianoi) was a standard wording used for followers of a particular person (such as Pompeiani and Flaviani). It was this “follower” wording that led Claudius to blame “Chrestus” for the disputes among Roman Jews that led to their expulsion from Rome in circa 49. Suetonius’s report that it was on account of “Chrestus” that the Jews were expelled from Rome in 49 was due to the use by some pagans (for whom “Christ” was an unusual and meaningless name, but “Chrestos” a common name) of “Chrestians” in place of the term “Christians”.

Accordingly, “Christians” (with the variant “Chrestians”) was by 49 already a familiar term in the Latin-speaking capital of the Roman Empire. As the church spread throughout Greek-speaking Gentile lands, the appellation took prominence and eventually became the standard reference for followers of the faith. Dr. James Tabor suggests that Christian (in essence meaning a “Messianist”) was an attempt to approximate Nazarene in Greek.

A common self-reference among the early Christians was “the disciples”, meaning “the learners” or “the followers of a teaching“. For example, “disciples” is the most common appellation used in the Acts of the Apostles.  The terms “Nazarene” and “Galilean“, were used as polemics by opponents of Christianity. “Nazarene” is one of early names for followers of Jesus, as evidenced in Acts 24:5. Tertullus, a lawyer for the Jewish high priest Ananias (as noted in Acts 24:1) called Paul “a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes”. Jesus was called “the Nazarene”, as mentioned in the biblical books of Matthew, John and Luke-Acts. According to Matthew 2:23, this is because of his relation with the town of Nazareth.  According to Philip Esler, the Jewish term Notzrim (Nazarenes) is the subject of considerable debate. Exactly how broadly the appellation applied to followers of Jesus, or when exactly it was adopted, is believed to be unknown. Esler states that it may or may not have referred to all Christians, but certainly referred to Jewish Christians.

Apostolic Age

The apostolic period between the years 30 and 130 CE produced writings attributed to the direct followers of Jesus Christ, and is traditionally associated with the apostles and apostolic times. In the traditional history of the Christian church, the Apostolic Age was the foundation upon which the entire church’s history is founded.

The Desposyni (relatives of Jesus) lived in Nazareth during the first century. The relatives of Jesus were accorded a special position within the early church, as displayed by the leadership of James the Just in Jerusalem.

Earliest Christianity took the form of a Jewish eschatological faith. The book of Acts reports that the early followers continued daily Temple attendance and traditional Jewish home prayer. Other passages in the New Testament gospels reflect a similar observance of traditional Jewish piety such as fasting, reverence for the Torah and observance of Jewish holy days. The earliest form of Jesus’s religion is best understood in this context.

Disputes over the Mosaic law generated intense controversy in early Christianity. This is particularly notable in the mid-1st century, when the circumcision controversy came to the fore. The issue was addressed at the Council of Jerusalem where Saint Paul made an argument that circumcision was not a necessary practice, vocally supported by Peter, as documented in Acts 15. This position received widespread support and was summarized in a letter circulated in Antioch. Four years after the Council of Jerusalem, Paul wrote to the Galatians about the issue, which had become a serious controversy in their region. According to Alister McGrath, Paul considered it a great threat to his doctrine of salvation through faith and addressed the issue with great detail in Galatians 3.

Jewish Christians

Jewish Christians were among the earliest followers of Jesus and an important part of Judean society during the mid to late first century. This movement was centered around Jerusalem and led by James the Just. They held faithfully to the Torah and Jewish law, including acceptance of Gentile converts based on a version of the Noachide laws (Acts 15 and Acts 21).

In Christian circles, “Nazarene” later came to be used as a label for those faithful to Jewish law, in particular for a certain sect. These Jewish Christians, originally a central group in Christianity, were not at first declared to be unorthodox, but were later excluded and denounced.

Some Jewish Christian groups, such as the Ebionites, were considered to have unorthodox beliefs, particularly in relation to their views of Christ and Gentile converts.  The Nazarenes, holding to orthodoxy except in their adherence to Jewish law, were not deemed heretical until the dominance of orthodoxy in the fourth century.

The Ebionites may have been a splinter group of Nazarenes, with disagreements over Christology and leadership. After the condemnation of the Nazarenes, “Ebionite” was often used as a general pejorative for all related “heresies”.

Jewish Christians constituted a separate community from the Pauline Christians, but maintained a similar faith, differing only in practice. There was a post-Nicene “double rejection” of the Jewish Christians by both Gentile Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. It is believed that there was no direct confrontation, or persecution, between Gentile and Judaic Christianity. However, by this time the practice of Judeo-Christianity was diluted, both by internal schisms and external pressures. The true end of ancient Jewish Christianity occurred only in the fifth century. Those remaining fully faithful to Halacha became purely Jews, while those adhering to the Christian faith joined with Pauline Christianity. Gentile Christianity remained the sole strand of orthodoxy and imposed itself on the previously Jewish Christian sanctuaries, taking full control of those houses of worship by the end of the fifth century.

The  Judaizers

It is widely held that Paul accused cof teaching that observance of the Abrahamic ritual was necessary to be justified and hence saved, i.e. Legalism. These groups taught that Gentile followers of Jesus needed to become Jewish proselytes and by so doing also observe the various requirements of the written Torah and oral Torah.

According to Eusebius’ the first 15 Bishops of Jerusalem were “of the circumcision”, although this in all likelihood is simply stating that they were Jewish Christians (as opposed to Gentile Christians).

The issue was an early source of controversy in the church of and came to a head during the Council of Jerusalem. According to the account given in Acts 15, it was determined that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to go through the proselyte ritual to secure a place in the World to Come; but in addressing the second question as to whether or not they should obey the Torah they encouraged the Gentiles to “abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication,” in order for the Gentiles to be able to immediately participate in Jewish community:

For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath. (Acts 15:22)

The expectation was that the Gentiles, upon immediately renouncing their idolatrous practices and ways (the four prohibitions), could now get through the door of a synagogue and hence learn the rest of Torah in the synagogues where they were still expected to attend.

Paul also addressed this question in his Epistle to Galatians in which he condemned those who insisted that the proselyte ritual had to be followed for justification as “false believers” (Galatians 2:4):

But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us — we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. [. . .] “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” – yet we know that a person is justified not by the group requirements for getting “in” to the Jewish family through the proselyte ritual, but through faith in Jesus Christ! And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by becoming Jewish according to the way of Jewish authorities, because no one will be justified by becoming Jewish in the way proscribed by the Jewish authorities. (Galatians 2:3-9, 15-16 NRSV)

Also Paul warned the early Galatian church that Gentile Christians who submit to the laws of  Torah will be alienated from Christ:

5:2 Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 5:3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 5:4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-4).

The Epistle to Titus 1:11, often attributed to Paul, is, according to some Biblical scholars, also a condemnation of these practices.

The influence of the Judaizers in the church diminished significantly after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Jewish-Christian community at Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans during the Great Jewish Revolt.

However, Christian groups following Jewish practices did not completely vanish, although they had been designated by the Catholic Church as heretical by the 5th century. Old Testament practices are still practiced among Gentiles to this day, including. The Coptic churches practice circumcision, but this may reflect ancient Egyptian influence or be a response to the culture of the Islamic majority. In Torah-submissive Christian groups which include the Ethiopian Orthodox church, dietary laws and Saturday Sabbath are observed as well.

Split with Judaism

There was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews, rather than a sudden split. Even though it is commonly thought that Paul established a Gentile church, it took centuries for a complete break to manifest. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism. The Council of Jamnia circa 85-90 is often stated to have condemned all who claimed the Messiah had already come, and Christianity in particular. However, the formulated prayer in question (birkat ha-minim) is considered by other scholars to be unremarkable in the history of Jewish and Christian relations. There is a paucity of evidence for Jewish persecution of “heretics” in general, or Christians in particular, in the period between 70 and 135. It is probable that the condemnation of Jamnia included many groups, of which the Christians were but one, and did not necessarily mean excommunication. That some of the later church fathers only recommended against synagogue attendance makes it improbable that an anti-Christian prayer was a common part of the synagogue liturgy. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.

During the late first century, Judaism was a legal religion with the protection of Roman law, worked out in compromise with the Roman state over two centuries. Observant Jews had special rights, including the privilege of abstaining from civic pagan rites. Christians were initially identified with the Jewish religion by the Romans, but as they became more distinct, Christianity became a problem for Roman rulers. Circa 98 the emperor Nerva decreed that Christians did not have to pay the annual tax upon the Jews, effectively recognizing them as distinct from Rabbinic Judaism. This opened the way to Christians being persecuted for disobedience to the emperor, as they refused to worship the state pantheon. It is notable that from c. 98 onwards a distinction between Christians and Jews in Roman literature becomes apparent. For example, Pliny the Younger postulates that Christians are not Jews since they do not pay the tax, in his letters to Trajan.


Original Date: 
June 17, 2010
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