AN UNEASY TENSION: Jews and Christians Through the Ages Part One
The relationships between Jews and Christians have always been characterized by an uneasy tension. This tension has broken out at times into violence of the worst kind. At other times the relations between the two have been more peaceful, but there has always been a recognition of the differences as well as the similarities between these two faiths who command over one-fourth of the world’s population.
It is common knowledge that the early movement which eventually became known as Christianity began as a sect within the Jewish community. Jesus was born of Jewish parentage and raised in a Jewish town and in a Jewish culture. All of the early disciples were Jews. During the first few decades of her existence, the Church was predominantly Jewish. During these early days the tensions between the two communities began to be manifest. In the early chapters of Acts, the Jewish religious leaders strongly opposed the preaching of the apostles. Because they preached the resurrection of Jesus they were apprehended and interrogated by the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). Later they were arrested, thrown in prison, and stood trial again before the same Sanhedrin (Acts 5:17-32). Only the tolerant counsel of the wise Gamaliel prevented their being killed then and there (Acts 5:34-40). In spite of this, however, serious persecutions against the Nazarenes continued to take place. One of the ringleaders of this persecuting movement was a young rabbi named Saul (Acts 8:1-3), whose hate-filled career would soon be radically altered by the very One whom he hated (Acts 9:1-9). When the grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa I, came to power in Judea, he desired to please the Jewish religious establishment. Therefore, he killed the Apostle James and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-4). In spite of all this opposition, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection continued to spread, even beyond the Jewish communities to the Gentiles as well (Acts 11:19-20).
When Paul began to take the message of Jesus into the lands of the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion), he always ministered first to his own Jewish people (cf. Acts 13:5, 14; 14:1; 16:13; 17:2). The Jewish opposition, however, continued unabated, sometimes threatening his very life. At Lystra, Jews from Antioch and Iconium stirred up the people who stoned Paul and left him for dead (Acts 14:19). In Thessalonica, the Jewish leaders stirred up a riot and sought to apprehend Paul, but they failed (Acts 17:5-9). When Paul visited Jerusalem, the rumor spread that he had brought a Greek into the Temple and a crowd almost “lynched” him (Acts 21:27-31). Alt of this opposition did not embitter the apostle, however. Right to the end of Acts, he continued to reach out to those brethren of his in the flesh (cf. Acts 28:17-29). He expressed that love in these notable words: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge (Rom. 10:1-2).
As has been mentioned, during the first few decades of her history, the early Church was composed predominantly of Jewish people. It was not until after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A. D. that Gentiles began to compose the majority of believers. The churches in the land of Israel, however, continued to be primarily Jewish. The records indicate that the pastor or bishop of the church in Jerusalem was a Hebrew Christian for at least one hundred years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. Some Jewish believers, during this transition period, continued to visit the synagogue on occasion. The problem of the legal status of these Hebrew Christians continued to perplex the rabbis after the destruction of the Temple.
The Sanhedrin reorganized itself after 70 A. D. in the coastal town of Yavneh below present-day Tel Aviv. Here during the next thirty years the rabbis decided many important matters, including the final listing of the Old Testament canonical books. One of the problems they dealt with was what to do about Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Around 90 A. D., there was introduced into the daily liturgy of the synagogue a petition that was intended to flush out any Nazarenes who might be present. This petition requested that “the Nazarenes and the heretics perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed.” Obviously, a Nazarene (i.e., a Jewish believer in Jesus) could not pray this curse on his own head. Thus it became impossible for any of them to remain in the synagogue. The inevitable “parting of the ways” had taken place. From then until now, the official position of Judaism has been that Hebrew Christians are not welcome as synagogue participants. Although they were always considered as remaining Jewish, they were now to be considered as heretics. Some modern Jewish believers who style themselves Messianic Jews and seek to proclaim themselves as the fourth branch of Judaism, need to recognize this historical fact. Although the two faiths share a common heritage, there are irreconcilable differences in regard to Messiah, the nature of God, and the nature of redemption.
Over sixty years after the Temple’s destruction, Jews and Nazarenes continued to live side by side in the same communities, though worshipping in different ways. The final breach came during the Second Jewish Rebellion against Rome in 132-135 A. D. During this war, the great Rabbi Akiba proclaimed that the Jewish general, Ben Koseba, was the Messiah. Akiba renamed him Bar Kochba (son of the star), a reference to Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17. The Jewish Christians living in Israel obviously could not follow this false messiah, since they believed that the Messiah had already come. For this refusal to participate, they were castigated by the Jewish community. Whereas, they had been expelled from the Jewish synagogues a few decades before, now they were expelled from the Jewish communities. It was during these troubled days that the term meshumed, meaning destroyer or apostate, was applied to the Jewish Christian.
Although the records indicate that during the early days of the Church it was often the Jewish leaders who persecuted the believers, that situation eventually changed drastically. As a matter of fact, the persecuted actually became the persecutor! That long and sad story of Jewish suffering at the hands of the medieval Church will be told in the next article in this series.