I’ve been (slowly) reading Marvin R. Wilson’s Our Father Abraham, a study of the Jewish roots of Christianity. I’ve always wondered, “What happened?” Jesus was a devout Jew. Why don’t we Christians celebrate Jewish festivals? When did the split happen?
These are my reading notes, a super-condensed version of the book itself and perhaps a little haphazard.
It could be said that St. Stephen was the catalyst for the divide. Christianity was a Jewish sect at first, but they began disagreeing over major Jewish teachings. Stephen was a Hellenist—a Christian Jew of the Diaspora—and therefore heavily influence by outside cultures to begin with. This was no small matter for the Hebraic (a.k.a. “pure”) Jews who had never left Jerusalem. So when Stephen began arguing that God didn’t merely dwell in a structure, it was seen as an attack on the Holy Temple itself. In being stoned to death, he became the first recorded Christian martyr. Christian Jews scattered, and began their missionary journeys as Jesus had originally instructed.
An obvious byproduct of mission work is the introduction of non-Jews into this Jewish sect—that is, the Gentiles. These converts adopted Jewish Law and worshipped in synagogues, but most drew the line at circumcision. This didn’t go over well with the Hebraic Jews, but ultimately the Council in Jerusalem ruled that they weren’t required to follow that particular Law. After all, they weren’t Jewish. But as things go, people weren’t happy about that.
But circumcision wasn’t the only Jewish teaching up for new interpretation, and it began long before the Gentile converts. Jesus himself stirred up the pot, by rejecting Jewish teaching authorities and redefined symbols of worship to himself (the Temple of his body, the Passover lamb, etc.). Jesus was also friendly with “lesser” citizens (women, tax collectors, Samaritans) and frequently called God “My Father,” rather than “our,” thus declaring himself the Son. Though he was ultimately killed, his followers were still going around preaching those radical ideas. So his opponents went after the followers, too.
The Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. —John 9:22
More and more, Jewish Christians were being ostracized from the synagogues. There’s no formal historical evidence that they were excommunicated; rather, it’s more likely they were socially ostracized, being looked down upon the same way that Jesus was.
But the real divide began with the fall of the Temple.
Jerusalem had been under Roman rule since 63 B.C. (before Jesus’s birth), and by 66 A.D. the Jews had had enough. They’d stopped offering the daily sacrifice for the Roman Emperor’s health, and it’s said that this kickstarted the first Jewish Revolt.
In the end, though, the Romans won—they overtook Jerusalem, and in their victory tore down the Temple. But the revolt didn’t end there. It spread through Israel, and didn’t end until the last Jewish fortress was overtaken—the seemingly impenetrable Masada.
But during the revolt, the Jewish Christians were nowhere to be found. They’d fled to the east, and didn’t come to their fellow Jews’ aid. This spoke volumes. By not being there to defend Jerusalem, it was clear that the Temple—and therefore Israel itself—was no longer a part of their religious identity. The Christians also saw the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgement upon the Jews for rejecting the Messiah.
But this wasn’t the end—the Second Jewish Revolt occurred nearly 60 years later, and again, the Christians were nowhere to be found. During that time, a military leader (Bar Kokhba) claimed the messiahship and lead the Jews into defense against Roman occupation. But, again, they failed. Not only were the Christians absent, they already had a Messiah and therefore no need for Bar Kokhba. Needless to say, this more or less sealed the split from traditional Judaism.
There were still Jewish Christians lingering in the synagogues, but by this point were mostly driven out. They hadn’t backed up Jerusalem multiple times, and were changing the face of worship itself. As the original disciples began dying out, their successors were taking over as leaders in the church—Gentile successors, hailing from those new areas of Christian growth in Rome and Antioch. This was also when worship was shifted to Sundays, rather than the Sabbath, yet another move seen as a rejection of the Law.
With the confirmed ostracizing of Jewish Christians, a new Judaism emerged based on the teachings of the strongest Jewish sect, the Pharisees. Over time, most other sects were vanishing. But the Christians are not wholly innocent. In not participating in Jewish customs or defending their homeland, they rejected Israel just as much as the Jews rejected them. They claimed to be a “new” Israel, a replacement for old customs. Later, the Crusades were a forced attempt at conversion, and Jews would be blamed for the black plague. They were, and still are, seen as lesser people, a literal plague upon the world.