Jewish Roots, part I: the Divide

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.

Seder Passover Dinner

When I was on my European tour, there was another tour group we consistently bumped into. They were bilingual, so their signage read “Groupo Pablo’s Group.” We loved Pablo (and his group), and the witticism of his bilingual signage. I think of that now for Passover, when I ask my Jewish boyfriend, “Isn’t Passover Seder redundant?” In theory, yes—the Seder is only for Passover, and only a dinner—but I couldn’t help but borrow from Pablo when talking of the multiple Seder Passover dinners I partook in this year.

My knowledge of the Seder was limited, but with Passover landing on Good Friday this year, it seemed the right time to learn. (The boyfriend, and thus extended Jewish family, also helps.) The meal is a foreign entity to a Gentile at first, and his siblings may have been less than amused by my incessant questions. I had a lot. What’s with the extra glass of wine? And that roasted egg? Or, the question we all bonded over, is it time to eat yet?

But when reading through the ritual, the basic concept isn’t foreign at all. The shankbone, representing the sacrificial lamb. The bitter herbs, consumed by the Israelites with the meat. The charoset, representing the brick-making mortar when enslaved. Passover is an eight-day celebration of God’s victory over the Egyptians, a liberation from slavery!

(Mortar is delicious)

I’ve always desired to understand Jewish tradition, wondering especially why Christians don’t recognize them. This is our history, too, and Jesus’s life didn’t negate the miracles God wrought before his coming. In fact, Jesus himself was a practicing Jew—he worshiped in the Temple and celebrated the holidays, especially Passover. The Seder itself was his last meal, and honoring this tradition helps to better understand his sacrifice. Because as a Christian, there’s even more in this honored meal. And that we learned in our second Passover celebration—we also visited my old Baptist church, who hosted a Messianic Seder.

We ended up at a table with another Christian/Jewish couple, which I joked were the only two Jews in the room (probably true). They sang along to the prayers in Hebrew, and the rest of us followed in English. A Messianic Seder throws you off at first, because there are some new prayers in the mix. In addition to liberation and freedom, there are Hebrew prayers about Jesus. They talk of the Last Supper. The “Paschal Lamb” takes on a new meaning, in addition to being the last meal before the Hebrews fled.

A couple of my favorite Passover Jesus moments in the Seder:

  • The four cups of wine, drank throughout the meal: Each cup is symbolic, representing different promises from God. During the Last Supper, Jesus offers a cup (“in remembrance of me”) after they’ve eaten, making it the third cup of wine—the Cup of Redemption.
  • The hiding of the Matzah: Before they eat, the father breaks off a piece of bread, wraps it in a linen napkin, and hides (“buries”) it. Afterward, it is again unveiled (or, “risen”) and the father breaks off a piece for everyone at the table—the breaking (i.e., death), burial, and resurrection. Bonus – distribution to all!

When I shared my Seder experiences on social media, a friend replied, “Passover adds such a richness to the Easter experience!” It is, after all, the very same meal that we recognize on Holy Thursday. If it were up to me (clearly, I have control over these things), the Seder would follow that Thursday Mass—in the very same way it did for Jesus and his disciples.

I almost forgot my actual favorite part of the Messianic Seder—beating up on Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Besides the obvious fact they occupy the same side of the table, and are sitting rather than reclining, the table also features… dinner rolls. How ’bout that leven?

Books of Advent

Part of my Advent goals included reading two books off the pile of Catholic texts to read (and trust me, it is literally “a pile”), so you get a two-for-one book review this time around!

First on the list: The Crucified Rabbi, by Taylor R. Marshall
When my Jewish boyfriend first attended Mass, I expected him to be completely lost. After all, I had felt completely lost the first few times, and I was already coming from a Christian background. Instead, he said a lot of it felt familiar. A lot of the prayers and motions were like Temple. So I had to find out what else might be the same.
There’s a lot, which this book nicely lays out. We forget that the early Christians were Jewish first, and this book explores those origins through its Jewish foundation. Those Christians took their existing religion and integrated Jesus into it. It’s why the layout of a synagogue is similar to a church, and why we have the same prayers. It delves into religious life itself as well, discussing things like the Jewish nazarites and consecrated Catholics. And, yes, it does talk about the Pope’s “yarmulke.”

Book two: Praying the Mass, by Jeffrey Pinyan
This one is a great study of the Mass, for anyone who attends—whether it’s newbies to the Church (hi!), or people who need a refresher as to why things are done, or those who wonder why in the world the words have changed. (Spoiler: the updated translations are now more accurate to the Latin text.) It reviews each part of the Mass, in order, and references accompanying Scripture verses to where the words come from. There are also references to the original Latin and Greek texts to further explain the origin of the translations. And it’s all presented in a way that makes sense, even to a newbie like me. I should’ve read this one a year ago when it was first gifted to me!

It’s more than just the Mass, too—there’s an overarching reminder that church isn’t just an hour sitting in a pew on Sunday morning. From the moment you arrive to the final dismissal, it’s a constant prayer and a reminder that we should be living for Him the rest of our days, too.

For 2019, I plan to get through the rest of my Catholic books pile. And pick up some others to replenish the stack, too, of course.