Jews and Jesus
Standpoint, December 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
In the first century of the Common Era, encounters with Jewish Christians
were a daily occurrence both in the Holy Land and in the diaspora.
During his days of preaching, Jesus of Nazareth addressed Jews. His
disciples were even instructed not to approach Gentiles or Samaritans. On
the few occasions that Jesus ventured beyond the boundaries of his homeland,
he never proclaimed his gospel to pagans, nor did his disciples do so during
his lifetime. Jesus was concerned only with Jews.
We learn from the
Acts of the Apostles that the primitive community of Jesus followers
consisted of 120 Jewish persons, including the 11 apostles and the mother
and brothers of Jesus. His brother James is presented as the leader of the
Jerusalem church and the married brothers of Jesus acted as missionaries.
The Jerusalem Jesus party was known as the Way. They were called
Christians only later. In many ways they were like their Jewish neighbors.
They considered themselves Jews, their outward behavior and dietary customs
were Jewish, they observed all the rules and regulations of the Mosaic Law,
and they continued to frequent the Temple of Jerusalem. But they were
Prior to the admission of Gentile candidates,
the affiliates of the Jesus party appeared to represent a Jewish sect. They
were like the Essenes and exhibited similar customs such as the daily solemn
meal and life from a common kitty. They were referred to in the middle of
the first century as the sect of the Nazarenes and later as the the Poor.
On the feast of Pentecost that followed the crucifixion, Peter and the
rest of the apostles were metamorphosed under the influence of the divine
Spirit into born-again champions of the faith in Jesus, the risen Messiah.
The author of the Acts of the Apostles identifies the big
demographic watershed regarding the composition of the Jesus movement. The
revolution started around 40 CE with the admission into the church of the
family of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea, and later that of the
Gentile members of the church in Antioch. The Jewish monopoly in the new
movement came to an end and Jewish and Gentile Christianity was born.
In the Syrian city of Antioch in the late 40s CE, members of the
Jerusalem church were joined by Gentiles evangelized and baptized by Jewish
Christians originating from Cyprus and Cyrene. The mother church of
Jerusalem dispatched Barnabas to run the new mixed community, and Barnabas
persuaded his friend Saul or Paul to join him. The Jewish and the Gentile
Christians of Antioch coexisted happily and ate together. When visiting the
community, Peter willingly participated in their common meals. However, when
some zealous representatives of the Jerusalem church headed by James the
brother of Jesus arrived in Antioch, their disapproving attitude compelled
all the Jewish Christians to discontinue their table fellowship with the
brethren of Greek stock. The outraged Paul called Peter a hypocrite,
creating the first major row in Christendom.
After Paul's first
successful missionary journey to Asia Minor, the entry of pagans into the
Jesus fellowship became an acute issue. A council of the apostles, attended
by Paul and Barnabas, was convened in Jerusalem, at which James the brother
of the Lord, the head of the mother community, overruled the demands of the
extremist members of his congregation and proposed a compromise solution.
Gentiles wishing to join the church would be exempted from the full rigors
of the Law of Moses.
The new rules were intended for converts in the
diaspora. In Jerusalem different conditions prevailed. The Jerusalem council
of the apostles marked the beginning of the separate development of Jewish
and Gentile Christianity. They both agreed on some essentials and ardently
expected the impending second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the
dead, and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. But in other respects they
saw things differently. The original Judaeo-Christian baptism and the
breaking of the bread were transformed in the Gentile church under the
influence of Paul. The former developed into a mystical participation in the
death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, and the latter became a sacramental
reiteration of the Last Supper. The perceived differences soon led to
animosity and to an increasing anti-Jewish animus in the Gentile church.
The Didache, or Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles, probably composed in
Palestine or Syria, is our last major Jewish Christian document preserved in
full. First published in 1883 from an 11th-century manuscript, it is
generally assigned to the second half of the first century CE, thus probably
antedating some of the writings of the New Testament.
program is built on the essential summary of the Mosaic Law, the love of God
and of the neighbor, to which is added the golden rule in its negative
Jewish form, "Whatever you do not want to happen to you, do not do to
another", instead of the positive Gospel version, "Whatever you wish that
men would do to you, do so to them". The lifestyle recommended is religious
communism: "Share all things with your brother and do not say that anything
is your own". The Didache seems to recommend observance of the Mosaic Law.
Teaching authority in the Didache lay in the hands of itinerant
prophets, supplemented by bishops and deacons. These were not appointed by
the successors of the apostles, as became the rule in the Gentile churches,
but democratically elected by the community.
The Didache contains no
theological ideas about the redeeming Christ or the divine Word and never
calls Jesus the Son of God. This expression is found only once in the
Didache where it is the self-designation of the Antichrist, "the seducer of
the world". The Jesus of the Didache is the great teacher, who is expected
to reappear soon and gather the members of his church into the Kingdom of
God. Ideas of atonement and redemption are nowhere visible.
Epistle of Barnabas is one of the earliest expressions of Gentile
Christianity. It is probably from Alexandria and was most likely written in
the 120s CE. It almost made its way into the sacred books and is included in
the oldest New Testament codex, but was finally declared non-canonical.
The aim of Barnabas is to instruct his readers in "perfect knowledge"
(gnosis) by revealing to them the true meaning of the essential biblical
notions. He insists that the Jews are mistaken in taking the institutions
and precepts of the Old Testament literally. The laws of Moses are
spiritualized in the new law revealed by Jesus. Sacrifice should not amount
to cultic slaughter but demand a broken heart. According to Barnabas, those
endowed with gnosis know that the grace of the true circumcision of the
heart is dispensed by means of the cross of Jesus.
For Barnabas and
his Gentile Christian followers, the covenant between God and the Jews was
never ratified. When Moses smashed the two stone tablets inscribed by God,
he rendered the Jewish covenant null and void. It had to be replaced by the
covenant sealed by the redemptive blood of Jesus in the heart of the
Barnabas' portrait of Jesus is considerably more advanced
than the Didache's Servant of God. He calls Jesus the Son or the Son of God
a dozen times. This Son of God had existed since all eternity and was active
before the creation of the world. Barnabas explains that the Son of God took
on a human body because without such a disguise no one would have been able
to look at him and stay alive. The ultimate purpose of the descent of "the
Lord of the entire world" among men was to suffer "in order to destroy death
and show that there is resurrection".
The outlook represented by the
Didache has no place in the religious vision of Barnabas. The parting of the
ways between Jewish and Gentile Christianity is manifest. The Epistle of
Barnabas marks the start of the future doctrinal evolution of the church on
exclusively Gentile lines.
Judeo-Christianity began to decline in the
second century CE. As St Jerome wrote in a letter to St Augustine: "While
they wish to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor
By Rowan Williams
The Guardian, July 11, 2012
Edited by Andy Ross
Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed a radically simplified version of the law of
Moses and the religion of the Hebrew prophets. The early community of his
followers is shaped by charismatic phenomena, tight corporate discipline,
the expectation of the end of the world, and certain social rituals. They
talk about Jesus as a man of high spiritual dignity.
What follows is
a steady drift away from the religion of Jesus and a loss of interest in
Judaism. The greater the dignity ascribed to Jesus, the stronger the urge to
denigrate and disown his Jewish identity. The Christian community develops a
complex cosmology in which Jesus has become a divine being manifested on
earth. It is different from the religion of Jesus and of his first
Geza Vermes is familiar with Jewish thinking in the age of
Jesus and Paul. His Jesus represents an intensified version of Mosaic and
prophetic faith. Vermes sees Platonic themes among the elements that work
the change in Christianity. If he is right, claims about the revealed
authority of traditional Christian faith are dubious. The creeds are the
product of secular political and intellectual influences.
of the Dead Sea Scrolls thought of their community at Qumran as the real
temple. The temple in Jerusalem was an empty shell. In the New Testament,
God lives among his people. And if the community around Jesus is now a
temple, the high priest is Jesus. As this develops into the idea that the
angelic high priest really carries in himself the divine name and power, the
doctrine of incarnation steadily takes form.
Vermes does not quite
allow us to see the energy behind the extraordinary claim that Jesus was the
vehicle of unconditional creative power and the enabler of a new kind of
worship that the creed of 325 enshrined.
Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325
By Geza Vermes
AR Modern Christians need to get back to the
more realistic understanding of Jesus of Nazareth.