HOW DID A NICE JEWISH CHURCH BECOME GENTILE?
Jesus, the founder of the Church, was a Jew. Not only was Jesus a Jew, but his disciples were all Jewish. They were all born as Jews and they lived as Jews. They worshipped regularly at their synagogues and at the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem (Lk. 4:16;Acts 2:46). The early church was a Jewish church, with a Jewish constituency and Jewish leaders. Let us consider some evidences of these facts.
BACK WHEN CHRISTIANITY WAS ALL JEWISH
We know from scripture that Jesus’ followers kept the Sabbath and Jewish festivals (Acts 13:13-15; 17:2). Although the Apostle Paul was the disciple to the Gentiles, he was still thoroughly Jewish. He once hurried from Gentile lands to Jerusalem that he might arrive in time to keep the Jewish festival of Pentecost (Acts. 20:16). When he arrived in Jerusalem he underwent a Jewish ceremony of purification in the company of other Jews who had made vows to God (Acts 21:26). It is evident that the earliest Christians showed deep respect toward the requirements of the Jewish law (Acts 21:20).
The Church in Jerusalem continued as a Jewish Church for several generations. The historian, Eusebius, reports that the first fifteen bishops of Jerusalem, until the time of Hadrian (AD 135), were all Hebrews. After the fifteenth bishop, Narcissus, we finally hear of Marcus, who is listed by Eusebius as being the first Gentile bishop of Jerusalem. He also reports that the whole church consisted of Hebrews.
EARLY RELATIONS WITH GENTILES
The Church was so thoroughly Jewish from its earliest days that it greatly struggled with the problem of Gentiles. In Matthew 10:5-6, we see this tension reflected even in the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. We see the problem regarding Gentiles continuing on for some time in the early Church. In Acts 8, we see a problem emerging as the evangelist Philip went down to Samaria and proclaimed the Gospel. It was apparently necessary in this instance for leaders from Jerusalem to come down and approve the outreach to this mostly Gentile people (Acts 8:14).
Later, Peter had an experience with Gentiles in relation to the centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:1- 11:18). The angel of God appeared to the devout Cornelius in Caesarea, and requested that he send for Peter. While Peter was in Joppa he himself had a vision, and in the vision God showed him many unclean animals and requested that he kill and eat of them. Although Peter was hungry, he still protested that he had never eaten of such non-kosher food. In the vision the Lord spoke to Peter that he should not call anything unclean that God had made clean (Acts. 10:15).
We remember from Acts how Peter heeded the vision and went to visit with the Gentile Cornelius and his friends. As he began to preach the Holy Spirit fell upon them all just as he had fallen on the Jews at Pentecost. After this episode Peter apparently felt it necessary to go up to Jerusalem and explain this event to the disciples. There the circumcised believers criticized him saying, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3). Peter then had to relate his whole experience to the leaders. After they heard it, they all agreed that God had indeed granted repentance to the Gentiles.
Later, Paul who was called as an apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13) found it necessary to defend his ministry before the leaders in Jerusalem. This great confrontation concerning Gentiles resulted in what is called the Council of Jerusalem and is mentioned in Acts 15:1-35 and in Galatians 2:1-10. The question at this conference was whether or not believing Gentiles would be required to become circumcised and keep all the requirements of the Law.
At this conference Peter was able to speak up on behalf of the Gentiles. After him, James, the leader of the church, gave his opinion that they should not make it difficult for Gentiles coming to the faith (Acts 15:19). The question was resolved and it was determined that Gentiles would not have to become circumcised and keep the law.
We see that up until this time the Church in Jerusalem was very Jewish. This situation continued on throughout the first century and well into the second century. Gruber remarks about this saying: “In the first century, the most heated, controversial, doctrinal issue of all that the Church faced was: ‘How do the Gentiles fit into all this?’…Today the most heated, controversial, doctrinal issue that the Church faces is: ‘How do the Jews fit into all this?’” *
It is clear even in the early days of the Gentile Church that it was closely connected to the Jewish Church in Jerusalem. Paul apparently patterned the Gentile churches after those in Judea (1 Thess. 2:14). He taught Gentile churches of their great debt to the people of Israel. He even insisted that because of this great debt, the Gentile churches should take an offering for believers in Israel (Rom. 15:27).
It is a surprising fact of church history that the first general offering mentioned in the New Testament is an offering taken among the Gentiles on behalf of Jews in Israel. It is also surprising that the bulk of stewardship teaching of the New Testament is based upon this offering for Israel. Today the world-wide Church raises money for every conceivable program. Unfortunately, the modern Church seldom follows the biblical and blessed pattern of taking offerings for Israel.
A PARTING OF THE WAY
The decision of Jerusalem in Acts 15:5-29 concerning circumcision, undoubtedly helped to widen the growing rift between the Jews and Gentile Christians. Circumcision was, and is today, a critical matter for the Jews. We realize that before AD 70, the Christians were still considered a sect of Judaism. We see this clearly in Acts 2:47, where the Church is described as “enjoying the favor of all the people.” We see it again in Acts 24:5, where the “Nazarine sect” is mentioned.
The real problems began to develop somewhere around AD 66-70, with the Jewish revolt against Rome. At this time the Christians in Jerusalem fled to Pella in Perea. Pella was located in the present Jordanian foothills, about 60 miles northeast of Jerusalem. The Christians probably fled Jerusalem because of the specific instructions of Jesus (Lk. 21:20-22). Although some from Jerusalem seem to have returned after the war, we can understand how Christians from this point on, must have been regarded as traitors to the Jewish cause.
Not only was there a change in the Christian situation, there was also now a drastic change in the Jewish situation. In AD 70, Jerusalem was conquered and the Temple was destroyed by the Roman general, Titus. The Jewish Temple, the sacrificial system, and numerous customs and practices of Judaism came to an abrupt end.
However, very quickly a new center of Judaism arose and continued along Pharasaic lines at a place called Yavneh near the Mediterranean coast. The Yavneh School accomplished many constructive things. The Old Testament canon was defined and considerable work was carried on toward establishing the official text of the Hebrew Bible. However, Yavneh was also responsible for one other thing that made the division between Jew and Christian much deeper. Somewhere around AD 90, the Birkat ha-Minim (the Heretic Benediction) was adopted and came into regular synagogue usage. The Heretic Benediction, which was a condemnation of sects, may not have been drafted specifically against the Christians, but it certainly included them. From this point on it would be exceedingly difficult for Jewish Christians to sit comfortably in the synagogue while their own faith was being cursed.
The final parting of the way was now close at hand. The stage was fully set with the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome in AD 132-135. Probably because Bar Kochba was looked upon as a messianic figure, and even acclaimed as such by the famous Rabbi Akiva, the Jewish Christians could not be involved. This war was the final blow that severed the two communities.”
After Rome’s second conquest of the Jews, the Emperor Hadrian renamed the city of Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. On the Temple Mount he constructed a temple to Jupiter and forbade Jews to enter Jerusalem. Many of the surviving Jewish leaders went into hiding and eventually the Jewish center of learning was transferred to the Galilee. We can understand how contacts between Jews and Christians would become much more difficult after all this.
THE RIFT WIDENS
We can clearly trace the events within Judaism that separated Jews and Christians. However, there were also events and movements within Christianity itself that contributed to the separation and even widened it. There was an early and continuing debate over the proper date for the celebration of Easter. In primitive days Easter was celebrated along with the Jewish Passover, but in time the Church began to grow uneasy with this Jewish connection. The problem flared up in AD 167 in Laodicea and later in 190, with several church synods being held to try and reconcile the problem. Later at the Council of Nicea the problem was settled once for all and a permanent separation was made with the Jews and their Passover.
There soon arose a tendency in the early Church to deprecate the Jewish people and the biblical position of Israel. This tendency can be seen even as early as the church father Justin Martyr (ca. AD 160). There was probably no writer who did any more damage to the Hebrew roots of Christianity than Origen (185?-254?), the early church father from Alexandria. Origen has been credited as being the father of the allegorical method of interpreting the scriptures. Through this methodology the biblical position of Israel and the Jewish people was allegorized and simply rendered irrelevant. Although Origen was considered a heretic in his lifetime and was later officially branded as such by the Church, his influence lived on and greatly increased. Because of the popular church father, Eusebius, Origen’s heresy finally triumphed at Nicea.
THE COUNCIL OF NICEA
With the supposed conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the nature of Christianity began to undergo a rapid and radical transformation. Constantine was eager to consolidate his gains and was determined to quell the various divisions within Christianity. Two problems were particularly difficult, the Arian Controversy, which contested the divine nature of Christ, and the continuing divisions over the proper date and celebration of Easter.
In the year AD 325, the Council of Nicea was called together by the new Emperor. The Arian controversy was settled and the council ruled that Easter would be celebrated according to Roman and western practices. The anti-Israel spirit of this meeting can be seen in some of the statements of the council: “Let us then have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews….In pursuing this course with a unanimous consent, let us withdraw ourselves…from that most odious fellowship [the Jews].” * The opinion of the Council was not to be taken lightly. Now the Church had behind it the full power of the Roman Empire. Any dissent would be looked upon as criminal. From this point on the sword of the Empire and not the sword of the Spirit would determine church doctrine and practice. There is no doubt that this council was an important turning point in the history of the Church. Israel was cast aside and the Church officially became the “new Israel.” *
The triumphalistic Church of Constantine was now effectively cut off from its Jewish roots. It would receive its sustenance from the Greco-Roman and pagan culture around it. It could no longer be truly biblically-based. The trend would continue to modern times. In its attempt to appropriate the heritage of Israel, the Church has been the real loser. In its bungled attempt, it has almost lost the heritage of Israel altogether. Today the modern Church tries to draw its life from every possible source, yet it withers; it fades; it starves for true nourishment
GENTILE CHURCHES PATTERN AFTER JEWS