The Jewish Foundation of Christianity
Because this topic is so crucial at the present time, it is important to define what exactly we mean when we say that Christianity has a Jewish foundation.
This is a part of our series of Perspective Papers. These papers are not official statements or positions from Gateway Church, but are our thoughtful perspectives on complex issues related to Israel.
There is much chatter in the Church today about the “Jewish roots” of Christianity. To complicate the issue, there is also something called the Hebrew Roots Movement, which, in its most radical form, teaches that all Christians should consider themselves as Jewish and keep the Law of Moses. We at GCFI prefer to avoid this connotation altogether by using the word “foundation” instead of “roots.” However, because this topic is so crucial at the present time, it is important to define what exactly we mean when we say that Christianity has a Jewish foundation. The following paper will outline the Jewish context of the New Testament and explain how early Christianity developed in relation to Second Temple Judaism.
The Shared Foundation
As Evangelicals, we believe that the Bible has two parts: The Old Testament and the New Testament. But the question of how these two bodies of literature relate to one another is not so simple to answer. For the most part, the world of the Old Testament, with its Ancient Near Eastern laws and customs, seems to be far more peculiar and foreign when compared to the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. This should come as no surprise, due to the fact that some portions of the Old Testament formed nearly a millennium before the New Testament, containing histories and traditions that stretch back to the beginning of time itself. Long before these writings were ever called by the name “Old Testament,” they functioned in various ways for various different communities. To this day, the title “Old Testament” remains problematic for a number of reasons that we will explain further below, but chiefly because the word “old” often has negative connotations in the English language. Since the texts were primarily written in ancient Hebrew, many scholars prefer to call the Old Testament “the Hebrew Bible,” but we will intentionally use both names throughout this paper.
As believers in Jesus living thousands of years later in time, we must ask the often-ignored question: whose histories and whose traditions does the Old Testament preserve? When viewed as a whole, one of the most remarkable things about the Old Testament is not the ancient world or customs it reveals but rather the familial story it tells. After encountering numerous genealogies and family trees within the first few pages, it becomes clear that the Old Testament tells a particular story about a particular people. In actuality, the Old Testament Scriptures are Israel’s Scriptures. Beginning in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, and on through to the final chapter of Malachi (or 2 Chronicles, in the Hebrew Bible), the story focuses upon one man’s descendants who multiply and increase into a great nation. Within these pages are a particular people’s cherished memories, laws, prayers, and songs, as well as their traumas, fears, hopes, and lessons learned. The Hebrew Scriptures were written by and for the people of Israel, concerning their law, temple, and land; and they continue to remain relevant for Jewish people today in a way that Gentile Christians will never quite be able to understand.
However, all of these facts do not mean that Israel’s Scriptures are irrelevant for Gentile Christians. Even from the beginning, when Abraham first obeyed the word of the Lord to leave his father’s house and travel to the land of Canaan, the God of Israel declared a reality that could not be contained within the borders of any one plot of land or any one tribe of people; by his divine plan and purposes, he established a universal horizon that stretched out toward the nations: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Thus, the story that the Old Testament tells involves more than just Israel. Instead, we can rightly define the Hebrew Bible as an open-ended narrative centered around three characters: God, Israel, and the Nations. But from the standpoint of the New Testament, the key question to ask is whether or not the same narrative carries on. Do all three characters continue interacting with one another on the divine stage of salvation history, or does Israel somehow drop out from the story?
For Christians, Jesus is the convergence of the Old Testament’s story and the one figure in whom all three characters of the drama intersect. The very God who sustains and undergirds all creation is the Triune God who has revealed himself to the world through Jesus. With confidence, therefore, Jesus could say, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46), and Luke similarly recalled Jesus on the road to Emmaus, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them the things concerning himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27).
Nevertheless, for the purpose of this paper, it is important to recognize that the way the New Testament reads the Old Testament is not the only possible way to read it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus frequently uses the speech formula, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you…” There were already many competing schools of interpretation in Jesus’s day. If interpretations abounded in the first century, then how much more today! The tension only became more amplified when an increasing number of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians began to appropriate Israel’s Scriptures as their own and to use the methodology of Luke 24:27 to find Jesus hidden on every single page. Over time, there has now become a “Christian” way of reading the Hebrew Bible, which is revealed in the name “Old Testament” itself.
A crucial moment for the early Church took place in the mid-second century with the repudiation of the heretic Marcion of Sinope. Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was different and lesser than the God of the New Testament, and he therefore sought to erase the Old Testament from the Church’s canon and to only include his modified version of the New Testament. Faced with the difficult decision of what exactly should be considered “Christian” Scripture, the early Church decided to affirm and appropriate Israel’s Scriptures as their own, teaching that the God of Israel was the very same God revealed in the New Testament. In this way, early Christianity embraced the authority of the Hebrew Bible while simultaneously elevating the New Testament’s unique interpretation, making it possible for there to be a distinction between the “Old” and the “New.” Paul’s polemic in 2 Corinthians 3 is sometimes used as support of this distinction, but it is important to recognize that the canon of the New Testament did not exist at the time he was writing his letters to Corinth. Paul certainly could not have been contrasting a new set of Scriptures against an older set.
The authority of the New Testament and the revelation of Jesus have always been definitive for Christian approaches to the Old Testament, whereas the authority of the Talmud has historically shaped the Jewish approach. These distinctions have caused two separate interpretive traditions concerning the same body of literature to develop alongside of one another. For example, Jewish interpreters often argue that the divine “we” passages (e.g., “Let us make man in our image”) refer to God and his heavenly court, whereas Christian interpreters consider it evidence for the Trinity. Similarly, some Jewish interpreters say the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 is the nation of Israel, whereas Christians say it is Jesus. These interpretive tensions highlight the fact that both Judaism and Christianity have a unique relationship to one another. We share the same holy text, but we read it differently. This shared foundation is fundamental to understanding both the similarities and differences between early Judaism and Christianity.
To borrow the analogy of the Apostle Paul in Rom 11, Judaism and Christianity can be viewed as two branches stemming from the same root. Theologically, that root consists of the God of Israel, the Scriptures of Israel, and the Patriarchs of Israel. You can learn more about this topic in our paper, “To the Jew First.” Nevertheless, it is also important to understand how both Judaism and Christianity have the same root historically. The movement that first started in the Galilean foothills of Roman-occupied Judea had a vastly different historical context than it does now, nearly two-thousand years later.
Religious historians identify the setting of the New Testament as “late Second Temple Judaism,” because it details the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It is out of the seedbed of Second Temple Judaism that the two separate religions of Christianity and Judaism eventually emerged. Over the course of centuries, after the canonization of the New Testament and the codification of the Talmud, the two faith communities began to separate more clearly from one another. But even within just a few decades after the ascension of Jesus, the originally Jewish movement began to struggle with its Jewishness. The Pauline epistles detail some of the controversies that were developing between Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus, like whether believers should be judged for keeping dietary laws (Rom 14), or whether Gentiles must be circumcised in order to belong to the believing community (Gal 5:2-6).
These tensions became more prominent over time, when the followers of Jesus no longer consisted of a Jewish majority. Indeed, the only reason the Church could make a claim on Israel’s Scriptures in the first place was due to the identity of the earliest followers of Jesus. The writers of the New Testament were, in fact, insiders. They were the very Israel to whom Israel’s Scriptures were addressed. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who came to inaugurate the new age that Israel’s prophets had promised would come, and even after his death and resurrection, the Jewish followers of Jesus continued to seek the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). However, before continuing to discuss how the Church lost touch with its Jewish foundation, it is first important to paint a picture of what that Jewish foundation actually looked like.
What Does Christianity Have to Do with Judaism?
Trick question! Before being able to answer how Christianity relates to Judaism, it is necessary to define what we mean by “Judaism.” The age-old question continues to baffle scholars and laymen alike. Is Judaism a nationality? An ethnicity? A religion? A culture? Regardless of how we answer, it is undeniable that the Judaism of today looks very different from the Judaism of the first century. The same is also true when comparing the Judaism of the first few centuries to the Judaism represented in various parts of the Old Testament. To a certain extent, it is wrong to say that “Judaism” even existed in the eyes of some of the authors of the Old Testament. Abraham did not have the Torah—although early rabbis argued that he observed the commandments of Moses before the Law was even given (M. Kiddushin 4:14)! Nevertheless, what might be anachronistically termed “Judaism,” underwent many significant changes throughout the history of the Jewish people.
The worship of Abraham (c. 2000 BCE) was quite different from the worship seen in the Tabernacle of Moses (c. 1300 BCE). Likewise, the glory of Solomon’s Temple (c. 950 BCE) was qualitatively different than the glory of the Second Temple (c. 500 BCE). Undoubtedly, the trauma of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles had a profound impact upon the religious practices of the Jewish people. Ezekiel aptly illustrates this by depicting the Divine Presence leaving the First Temple and going into exile with Israel (Ezek 10–11). The once Temple-centric Jewish faith necessarily transformed into being far more community-centric, as prayers prayed toward Jerusalem became the temporary substitute for the daily Temple sacrifices (Dan 6:10). For these and many other reasons, some scholars prefer to locate the beginnings of “Judaism” in the postexilic time of Nehemiah, with the completion of the Second Temple and the reforms of Ezra.
Nevertheless, many significant developments transpired in the five-hundred or so years between the building of the Second Temple and the birth of Jesus at the beginning of the first century CE. The Babylonian context was markedly different than the Greek and later Roman contexts. The cultural and historical whirlwind of events that happened between the fifth and first centuries BCE suggests that it would be a mistake to conflate even the “Judaism” of Ezra and Nehemiah with the “Judaism” of Caiaphas in the first century. The New Testament makes plain that some kind of oral law existed and various sects of Judaism, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, were well developed by the first century CE. Cultural divisions between “Hellenistic” and “Hebraic” Jews even existed (Acts 6:1). Therefore, considering our identification of “Second Temple Judaism” above, it would be wrong to assume that all forms of Judaism throughout history simply equate with the Old Testament. The situation is far more complex than that.
Given the above background, it is now possible to zoom out and consider where the New Testament fits in relation to Second Temple Judaism. Some scholars of the late Second Temple period prefer to use the term “Judaism(s)” to signify the plurality of views and sects that existed in the first century. The book of Acts clearly identifies the early Jewish followers of Jesus as “a sect called the Way” (Acts 24:14). The question is whether or not the early Church saw themselves as belonging to the wider family of Judaism(s), or if they sought to differentiate themselves in a more significant way. Were the followers of Jesus aiming to start a new religion? This relates to what is sometimes referred to as the tension between continuity versus discontinuity. Or in other words: How “new” is the New Testament?
The Gospels reveal that Jesus and the disciples were often at odds with the interpretations of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees—the latter of which are said to have “plotted to put Jesus to death” (Matt 12:14). However, just because two parties disagree on one issue does not automatically mean they disagree on every issue. There are many points of contact between the Jewish “sect of the Way” and other so-called sects of late Second Temple Judaism. These points of contact will be outlined below, paying careful attention to how Jesus and his Jewish followers sought to reform Judaism from within, rather than to be the founders of a new religion.
The Jewish Jesus
Images of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus are finally beginning to give way to those of a dark and rough-skinned Mediterranean man. It is becoming increasingly common to emphasize that Jesus was indeed Jewish, born of a Jewish woman, and descendant of the patriarchs of the Jewish people. However, some questions and feelings of uneasiness remain. Just how Jewish was Jesus? Didn’t God become a man in order to save the entire world and not just the nation of Israel (John 3:16)? If the end goal was the salvation of all the nations of the earth, then Jesus’s Jewish identity becomes merely a pitstop on the road to something far more universal. Along these lines, some Christians believe that God might have reluctantly took on a Jewish ethnic identity as a means to an end, in order to accomplish a global redemption that the Jewish people could never have imagined. In other words, the “scandal of particularity” becomes secondary and insignificant when compared to Jesus’s universal mission. Is this really the case? Again, we ask the question: Just how Jewish was Jesus?
The Gospels spare no expense in detailing the Jewish mission of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew, written for a predominantly Jewish audience, is perhaps the most explicit. Within the very first verse, Matthew identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” and he devotes his introduction to Jesus’s genealogy, putting to rest any doubts about his Jewish heritage. Matthew then goes on to cite the Hebrew Prophets for each significant event in Jesus’s infancy: the virgin birth, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Matt 1:22-23), the birth in Bethlehem, spoken of by Micah (Matt 2:5-6), the flight to Egypt, as told by Hosea (Matt 2:15), and Herod’s slaughtering of the babies, as prophesied by Jeremiah (Matt 2:17-18). Although the Gospel of Luke adds more details about Jesus’s childhood, Matthew jumps straight from his infancy to the next significant moment—Jesus’s immersion (baptism).
Each of the four Gospels speak of the forerunner, John the Immerser, and how “all of Israel” came out to be immersed by him in the waters of repentance. Rather than viewing himself as greater than John, Matt 3:15 says that Jesus was immersed by John in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” Therefore, according to Matthew, Jesus fully identified himself with Israel and submitted himself to the covenantal obligations of the Jewish Law through his immersion by John. This point is fundamental to Jesus’s earthly ministry. Just as Jesus came to serve, not to be served (Matt 20:28), he did not come to immerse, but to be immersed (John 4:2). He was immersed fully into Israel and into humanity through his incarnation: “When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). It would not have been enough for Jesus to be born of a Jewish woman; he also needed to be immersed and born “under the Law.” To deny that Jesus was Law-observant would be tantamount to denying that he perfectly fulfilled the “righteous requirement of the Law” on our behalf (Rom 8:4).
After beginning his ministry in Galilee, Jesus wastes no time in expounding upon the very same Law into which he was immersed: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18). Jesus therefore not only spoke of himself as the Jewish Messiah, but he also established himself as an interpreter and teacher of the Jewish Law. His own continuity with the Hebrew Bible remained fundamental to his identity and ministry.
When asked by a Jewish expert in the Law what the most important commandment is, Jesus responded by quoting the famous words of the Shema (which to this day remains the most important and central creed of Judaism): “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Matt 22:37; Deut 6:4-5). And to this Jesus added, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:39-40; Lev 19:18). After hearing his response, Mark records that the scribe completely agreed with Jesus and added that to love God and one’s neighbor means “much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:32-33). The response of this expert of the Law perfectly illustrates how Jesus was situated within the bounds of first-century Judaism. His interpretations of the Law were not always at tension with those around him.
Although Jesus was certainly a revolutionary figure, as will be discussed shortly below, he nevertheless sought to reform Judaism from within. The numerous debates between him and the scribes and Pharisees should be considered “intra-Jewish” debates—insiders debating with insiders. Ironically, despite the connotations that “Pharisee” has for many Christians, some scholars suggest that Jesus probably resembled the Pharisees the most in comparison with the other Jewish sects existing in the first century. The tension between his respect for and judgment against the Pharisees is illustrated well in Matt 23:2-3, “The scribes and the Pharisees are seated in the chair of Moses; therefore, do whatever they tell you, and observe it. But do not do according to their deeds, because they do not practice what they teach.” Jesus here respects the teaching and the office of the Pharisees, but he rejects their hypocritical actions.
It is also likely that Jesus wore fringes on his clothing (known as tzitzit) in obedience to the Law of Moses (Num 15:37-40; Deut 22:12). The Gospels record how the sick would merely touch the “fringe” of his garment and become healed (Matt 9:20; 14:36; Mark 6:56; Luke 8:44). Jesus specifically mentions the use of fringes and phylacteries (tefillin) in Matt 23:5. Instead of rebuking the practice altogether, as he does with the Pharisees’ use of titles in Matt 23:7-12, he merely points out that they make their phylacteries and fringes more noticeable, so as to receive praise from man. However, the fact that Jesus himself wore fringes points to the likelihood that he also wore phylacteries, even though the Gospels do not explicitly state this.
In addition to his outward appearance, Luke records that Jesus resembled other teachers of the Law by attending the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16) and “daily” being found in the Temple (Luke 22:53). Jesus’s devotion to the Temple is exemplified in his violent driving out of the money changers, when he shouted to them, “It is written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’” (Matt 21:13). In this scene, Jesus quotes both Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11, clearly identifying himself with the great prophets of old who frequently rebuked Israel for their idolatry and impurity. Once again, he aligns himself with Israel’s history as an insider and does not stand against it from the outside.
Did Jesus observe the Jewish festivals? The Gospel of John repeatedly mentions Jesus’s concern for keeping the festivals (John 2:13; 5:1; 6:4; 7:2-10, 37; 10:22). In fact, the entire middle section of John, chapters 11–18, revolves around Jesus’s celebration of Passover, beginning with John 11:55-56, “Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover to purify themselves. So they were seeking for Jesus, and were saying to one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think; that He will not come to the feast at all?’” At this point it is also important to note how John connects the feast with purification. If Jesus went to the Temple often (Luke 22:53), then he also must have frequently participated in ritual washing, which in many cases was a requirement for entrance into the Temple complex. Therefore, not only did Jesus observe the Jewish feasts, he also practiced the purity rituals that were associated with the Second Temple.
Many more examples could be multiplied. But it is hopefully clear by this point how Jesus undoubtedly kept the Law of Moses and participated in many of the Jewish customs of his day, like any Second Temple rabbi would have done. In fact, as mentioned above, the very redemption and salvation promised to the world depends upon his complete and perfect observance of the Jewish Law (Gal 4:4-5). The only question left is whether or not he remains a Jew. One may be willing to accept that Jesus condescended to become a Jewish man and take on the trappings of Jewish identity, but was it all just a means to an end? After his resurrection and glorification, does Jesus still have a Jewish ethnic identity? Does he remain a Jew now and forever?
The Jewish Authors of the New Testament
Three out of the four Gospels were written by Jewish men, and some scholars even suggest that Luke could have also been Jewish, or at least a proselyte, due to his intimate knowledge of the Jewish faith. The thirteen letters of the New Testament traditionally attributed to Paul (not including Hebrews) were also written by someone born of Jewish descent, “from the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1). Although, again, even if Hebrews was not written by Paul, its contents reflect someone well acquainted with the Jewish faith. Additionally, James, Jude, the Petrine and Johannine epistles, and the book of Revelation are also all associated with the Jewish men which bear their names. Therefore, if Luke, Acts, and Hebrews are the only three books that arguably could have been written by a Gentile, something like 93% of the Christian biblical canon was written by Jewish men. The remaining 7% also reflects a close connection with Jewish faith and religious experience. The Bible is undoubtedly a Jewish book.
Just as Jesus was “daily” found in the Temple (Luke 22:53), the disciples continued to go “daily” to the Temple, even after the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:46; 5:42). And although the Gospels never directly say that Jesus “prayed” in the Temple, Acts 3:1 explicitly says that Peter and John continued going up to the Temple for prayer. Much later, after the mission to the Gentiles begins, Acts 21:26 also recounts how the Apostle Paul eagerly returns to Jerusalem for Shavuot to purify himself in the Temple and offer sacrifices. Furthermore, just as the Gospel of John frequently connects Jesus to the biblical festivals, there are numerous other places in the New Testament where the disciples and Paul are portrayed as observing the feasts. These are not the actions of those who sought to separate themselves from the Judaism of their time.
Out of all the New Testament authors, it is often believed that the Apostle Paul teaches against any observance of the Law and removes any significance attributed to Jewish identity markers. However, in recent decades, many scholars have begun to read Paul “within Judaism.” Just as Jesus and the disciples were thoroughly Jewish and observed the Law in their own unique way, Paul also continued to identify as a Torah-observant Jew and to practice Jewish customs.
In a way, the topic of Paul’s Jewishness is actually far more critical than the subject of Jesus’s Jewishness for the reason outlined earlier: Jesus’s Jewish identity is often viewed as necessary for God’s plan of world redemption—if he did not fulfill the requirements of the Law for us, then we could not be reconciled with God (Gal 4:4-5). However, if Paul, the great “Apostle to the Gentiles,” continued to affirm Jewish identity and Torah-observance even after the death and resurrection of Jesus, then many of his supposed “anti-Law” statements need to be revisited.
The Parting of the Ways between Judaism and Christianity
If Jesus and the early Church were thoroughly and undeniably Jewish, then what happened? Why did the Church so quickly become divorced from its Jewish roots? Contrary to common perceptions, many scholars now argue that there was no single, defining split that formed two separate religions. Rather, in the melting pot of the ancient Roman Empire, some Jesus-believing faith communities looked more Jewish and some looked more Gentile than others. All those associated with a Jewish sect who believed in a Jewish Messiah and read the Jewish Scriptures were not easily distinguishable from other forms of Jewish faith that existed in the first few centuries CE. For example, many Americans know that Hinduism is a religion, but is the average American able to distinguish between the various Hindu sects and why some are in conflict with one another? Nevertheless, there are a few key historical factors we can discuss that contributed to the gradual parting of the ways.
One of the first significant factors was the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. Just as the destruction of the first Temple had enormous ramifications for Jewish life and faith, so did the second Temple’s destruction. The reason this had great impact was not simply because the early Church gathered itself around the Temple precincts, but rather because its leadership was primarily based in Jerusalem. As seen in the book of Acts, the elders in Jerusalem had authority over the ever-expanding movement (Acts 15).The first Jewish–Roman war that led to the destruction of the second Temple began a series of insurrections that culminated in the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 135 CE and subsequently the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem by Hadrian, which decentralized the early Church’s already waning Jewish leadership.
Growing animosity toward the Jewish people as “rebels” of the Roman Empire only further created tensions within a movement whose new members were increasingly Gentile. As Paul comments in Romans 11, the success of the gospel among the Jewish people was mixed. Although a remnant existed, the majority did not believe. Paul himself began to recognize that more and more Gentiles were flooding into this little Jewish sect that once identified itself as “the Way” (Acts 24:14). The most pressing issue for the growing movement in the first century was whether or not Gentiles must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses. This had been no question for the many Jews who had believed in Jesus so far, for they were naturally already circumcised and Torah-observant. Yet, Paul taught that “each man must remain in that condition in which he was called” (1 Cor 7:20), so the controversy needed to be settled by the elders in Jerusalem.
The first Jerusalem Council, recorded in Acts 15, decided that Gentiles did not need to be circumcised and only needed to adhere to four specific laws. Their decision effectively opened the doors wide for membership in the young Jewish movement. A Gentile did not need to become a proselyte or convert through circumcision and adherence to the Law of Moses; membership was based solely on the criterion of “faith” (Acts 15:9), and peace was maintained by the respectful Gentile observance of the four rules laid out by the council. This was great news to the burgeoning Gentile presence in the early Church—and something we can all be grateful for today! But at the same time, the flexible inclusion of Gentiles set into motion an irreversible trend. Since Gentiles did not need to become Jewish, many began to assume that ethnic identity no longer mattered at all. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem by Hadrian nearly a century later, the number of Jewish believers in Jesus quickly became overwhelmed by the number of Gentile believers.
As the early Church grew, it began to focus on its own self-definition. The example of rejecting Marcionism was mentioned above, but many more heresies began to surface, requiring the followers of Jesus to decide upon key theological issues. At first, these issues centered upon whether Jesus was actually divine. For example, the early Ebionites rejected the virgin birth and argued that Jesus was human but not fully divine, while another group, the Docetists, argued Jesus was divine but only seemed to be human. These controversies shifted in the third and fourth centuries to focus more on the Trinity and Jesus’s relationship to the Father. Is Jesus merely another name for the Father (Modalism), or is Jesus a separate being but lesser than the Father (Subordinationism)? These were key debates that helped to shape the distinct identity of “Christianity” as a religious tradition separate from Judaism.
While believers in Jesus were grappling with heresies and self-definition from the second to fourth centuries, the Mishnah and Tosefta were also being compiled. These texts signal the beginnings of what would later be termed Rabbinic Judaism. Eventually, by the end of the fifth century CE, both religious communities were relatively well defined and distinct from one another. The “Parting of the Ways” is therefore more complicated than it is often assumed. In answering the earlier question, “What does Christianity have to do with Judaism,” it all depends on which Judaism and which Christianity. Some forms are more similar than others. At the same time, it is right to say that the Judaism of the first century also had earlier roots, being historically grounded in the Scriptures and in all of God’s dealings with Israel from Abraham to the Maccabees. But the point is that we cannot ignore the historical and theological development of Judaism. We will now turn to discuss why making this distinction matters.
Why First-Century Faith is not the Goal
Both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism sprang from the same wellspring of Second Temple Jewish faith, which itself was rooted in the transformations that first began in the time of Israel’s exile. However, it is a common error to suggest that both religions should aim to return back to their roots in the first century, as if Second Temple Judaism is the most authentic form of Judaism or Christianity. The fact of the matter, as we have seen, is that both faiths did not become separate and distinct “religions” until many centuries later. GCFI recognizes this and suggests that there is a better way forward.
It is often taught that the early Church, especially as witnessed in the book of Acts, should be the model or “blueprint” for the modern Church. While it is important to recognize that the apostles were eyewitnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus and that they deserve special honor, it nonetheless remains essential to see how they passed the baton to future generations. There is a tendency in Evangelicalism to only elevate the importance of the first century and view everything that came after, especially post-Constantine, as corrupted by human error. This absolutely cannot be true. Not only does this call into question God’s faithfulness to his Church, it also discredits the formulation of many key Christian doctrines. One example of this is the articulation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in 381 CE. The doctrine of the Trinity and of the hypostatic union of Jesus’s divine and human natures were not fully articulated until centuries after the Apostle Paul lived. Nevertheless, countless Christian denominations and modern churches wholeheartedly believe in these doctrines. (It might be hard for many Protestants to accept, but God was actually involved in the Church before the Reformation set in motion by Martin Luther!)
In the same way that Rabbinic Judaism developed out of Second Temple Judaism and its own unique interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, the separate religion of Christianity developed out of the New Testament and out of its belief in Jesus as the one to whom the Hebrew Bible points. The religious world of the New Testament is different than the modern world, there is no denying it. The way the earliest disciples daily went to the Temple and the liturgies they used in their gatherings might have looked very different than the band-driven worship commonly found in many churches today. But that does not mean we should throw away the Church’s history in order to get back to some “authentic” New Testament faith that God intended. Rather, the Church, as it stands today, is what God has been carefully watching over and maturing throughout the millennia. Corrupt human nature means that there are certainly many dark spots in the history of the Church, but there are also many bright patches that bear the marks of our Redeemer. Only by affirming where we have been, can we begin to construct the perfect tomorrow.
To say that Christianity has a “Jewish” foundation is to agree with Jesus’s own words that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). It is to affirm that Jesus and his earliest followers were all first-century Jews who attended synagogue, kept Jewish customs, and observed the Law of Moses within the bounds of Second Temple Judaism. It is to recognize that the Old Testament Scriptures were first Israel’s Scriptures long before they were shared with Christians, and it is to never forget the Jewish context and authorship of the New Testament. Most importantly, it is to understand that Christian theology and the basic assumptions of the gospel only make sense after being set upon the right Jewish foundation. The gospel is forever to the Jew first , and the Jewish people forever serve a key role in God’s ongoing plan for world redemption .
At the same time, it is important to know what emphasizing the Jewish foundation does not mean. It does not mean that the Church should try to replicate Second Temple Judaism or discard the development of Christian theology over the last two millennia, as discussed above. It also does not mean that we should over-emphasize the continuity of the Judaism of the New Testament with other forms of first-century Judaism. The New Testament makes many claims that are indeed new and revolutionary. In aiming to remind the Church of the Jewish foundation of Christianity, we are not arguing that Jesus fit the mold of Second Temple Judaism without controversy. The Gospels and Acts often report how Jesus’s Jewish listeners were divided by his message (John 7:43; Acts 28:24). There is much that is new about the New Testament; the entrance of Jesus into the world represents a definitive and climactic moment for humankind—though it should be remembered that this new development was prophesied long ago by the Jewish prophets! Certainly, the three-character divine drama of Israel’s past, present, and future converges in Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah, the one in whom all the Gentiles also put their hope (Matt 12:21).
- The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine. HarperOne, 2017.
- When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, Paula Fredriksen. Yale University Press, 2018.
- In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, Oskar Skarsaune. InterVarsity Press, 2002.