Jewish Christians (sometimes called also Hebrew Christians or Christian Jews) is a term which can have two meanings. The first describes the members of the early Christian movement, who were Jews that accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah but continued to live as Jews. The second refers to a Jewish movement within contemporary Christianity.
Jewish Christians predominated in the movement of early Christianity. They bore the brunt of persecution from their fellow Jews, who rejected Jesus' messiahship. They sent missionaries to the Gentiles (2 Cor. 11:22), and Saint Paul (himself a Jewish Christian) was among them. Paul's innovations in his mission field—notably the doctrine of salvation by faith and the sufficiency of Christ's redemption by his death on the cross—led to tensions with some of the more conservative Jewish-Christians, so-called "Judaizers," who persuaded Gentile converts to also take up the full practice of Judaism.
The Gospel of Matthew is for the most part an expression of Jewish-Christian theology. As Jews who believed in Jesus' promise of the Kingdom of God, they expected the imminent return of the Son of man in glory (Matt. 24:30, 26:64) to vindicate the believers and defeat the Romans. In this they stayed close to the Jewish expectation of a royal Messiah who will rule on earth as the son of David.
The Jewish Christian movement declined as Gentile missions prospered, and the church as a whole took on a Gentile character. The continued delay of the parousia (return of Christ) was demoralizing to many. The defeat of the Jewish Revolt of 70 C.E. spelled an end to the central role of the Jerusalem church in the Christian movement and ensured the ascendancy of Gentile Christianity.
After this, Christian theology, as well as church tradition, took on an increasingly Hellenistic quality, rejecting Jewish law and promulgating doctrines such as Christ's death on the cross as atonement for sin, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Trinity, which were deeply offensive to Jews. In time, Christianity took on a distinctly anti-Jewish character, and Jewish Christians were treated as heretics if they continued to observe Jewish traditions. By the sixth century, Jewish Christianity had been virtually destroyed except in small pockets, although some groups with semi-Jewish Christian roots still survive.
The contemporary movement of Jewish Christians includes both observant and non-observant Jews who otherwise accept traditional Christian teachings about Jesus. They are treated with suspicion by mainstream Jews and are usually considered no longer truly Jewish.
The term "Jewish Christians" is often used in discussing early Christianity. Jesus, his family, the Twelve Apostles, and essentially all of his early followers were Jewish. After Jesus' death, the 3,000 reported converts on Pentecost described in Acts of the Apostles , were virtually all Jews or recent converts to Judaism in Jerusalem. Samaritans were also numbered among the early followers of Jesus, but there were only a few Gentiles, such as the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8).
The church included both Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Jews—Jews who spoke Koine Greek (Acts 6) and those who spoke Aramaic (Acts 1:19). Saint Stephen and the other deacons became leaders of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians, while Peter and the other Twelve Apostles were the leaders of the Judean and Galilean Jews. Later, Philip (the deacon, not the apostle) led a successful mission among the Samaritans, who were mixed-blood Israelites but not Jews.
The relationship between Jewish Christians and traditional Judaism varied from place to place and in different periods. The Book of Acts reports that Jewish Christians were persecuted by Jewish authorities in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8) shortly after Saint Stephen's disastrous confrontation with a mob outside the Temple that resulted in his death. However, subsequently James the Just appears to have established cordial relations with Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Paul, meanwhile, had been allowed to preach in synagogues throughout the Gentile world, but usually ran afoul of local Jewish leaders not so much for his declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, but for his teaching that Gentiles did not need to accept the Jewish laws in order to be brought into a full covenant with God in the Christian tradition. By the time the Gospels were written in the second half of the first century, Jewish Christians were clearly alienated from their fellow Jews, even though they continued to practice Jewish traditions for the most part.
The Book of Acts does not use the term "Jewish Christians." Instead, it refers to the members of the Jerusalem church as followers of "The Way." The term "Christian" was first applied to those who followed the movement after Paul of Tarsus and his companion, Barnabas, both of whom were Jewish Christians, started preaching at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Antioch was apparently a thriving Jewish-Christian community, where the Gospel of Matthew was written in about 85 C.E. It was written for a Jewish-Christian audience, and in it we can find Jewish-Christian beliefs and recognize their situation at that time.
Jewish-Christians were faithful Jews in matters of halakhic practice, keeping circumcision, observing the Sabbath and kosher laws, and worshiping at the Temple. They believed that Jewish law would stand until the return of Christ, which they believed would be soon.
Jewish-Christians believed that the Messiah came to establish the Kingdom of God. They knew the traditional Jewish expectations that the Messiah would defeat the Roman oppressors and establish a reign of peace and freedom, first in Israel and then throughout the world. Jesus' message in the Gospel of Matthew focused on the kingdom. But Jesus did not intend to become an earthly king; instead he promoted a new ethic:
Jesus' death on the cross seemed like a defeat for conventional Jewish messianic hopes, but the Jewish-Christians recognized it as obedience to God, and a foretaste of his return in glory. Their texts for understanding the meaning of Jesus' death and resurrection included Zechariah chapters 11-13, which describes a Shepherd-king who is sold for 30 pieces of silver and pierced, but then the people who pierced him mourned for him as he arose at the last judgment. Another is Psalm 110:1, quoted in Matt. 22:42-44:
This verse predicts that Jesus' resurrection to "sit at the right hand of God" would be prelude to his return in power. A third is Daniel 7:13 about the Son of man coming on the clouds, which will be how the Messiah's future glory would be manifest to all. This is what Jesus is said to have confessed to the high priest:
Thus the Jewish-Christians lived in hope of Christ's imminent return (Matt. 24:30). On the other hand, they did not develop the concept of Jesus' death on the cross as atonement for sin. This was Paul's original contribution, leading to an individual soteriology and faith in Jesus as personal Savior. Gentiles would embrace this understanding of the Christian faith, but it never sat well with the Jewish-Christians, who held on to their traditional expectation that the Messiah should establish the kingdom as a socio-political reality.
During the forty years from Jesus' death to the destruction of the temple (70 C.E.) the Jews were divided over whether to humbly submit to Roman rule or rebel and throw off the Roman yoke. Many Pharisees preferred a peaceful course, but the Zealot party grew in strength, until ultimately they convinced the people to revolt.
During this time, Jewish-Christians of Jerusalem preached Jesus' peaceful message of the Sermon on the Mount, They taught non-resistance to Roman rule. One of the Romans' most irksome practices was to force Jewish men to carry their equipment. To this Jesus said, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." (Matt. 5:41) Jesus refused to resist paying taxes, saying, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s." (Matt. 22:21) It is conceivable that the Jewish-Christians represented a genuine peace movement, vying for the hearts and minds of the Jerusalemites to steer them away from a tragic war with Rome.
During this period Judaism had many diverse streams, and the Jewish-Christians under James the brother of Jesus were tolerated and even respected by many Jews. But in time the Jewish leadership hardened against them and the Jewish-Christians became isolated, their message of peace ignored. The Jews revolted against Rome, and they were crushed, with Jerusalem reduced to ruins. Just as the Gospel of Jesus was the way to peace, his rejection, according to Matthew, was the cause of Jerusalem's downfall.
The Romans put down the Jewish Revolt with great cruelty, destroying Jerusalem, killing over a million people, and deporting hundreds of thousands as slaves. In the period after the destruction of the temple, mainstream Jews were left to come to terms with this tragedy. But they could not stomach the Jewish-Christian assertion that it was punishment for rejecting Jesus and the Gospel. At the same time, the Pharisees, who with the destruction of the Temple and the power of the Sadducees, had become the dominant group, were consolidating Judaism into a single orthodox community governed by rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. Relations between the two communities deteriorated sharply as a result. By the time Matthew was written, there was total estrangement.
This was the context for some of Matthew's most anti-semitic passages. The dominance of the Pharisees after 70 C.E. (rather than the Sadduccees, who were in the main responsible for arresting and condemning Jesus) is reflected in passages where Jesus singles out the Pharisees for special condemnation:
The Passion narrative where the crowd demanded the blood of Jesus and called for the release of Barabbas, a known insurrectionist, was symbolic of the choice the Jews made in rejecting the Gospel and taking the path of rebellion against Rome.
Persecuted by their own Jewish brethren, Jewish-Christians became heavily involved in evangelizing the Gentiles (Matt. 28:19). Paul was one of these evangelists, and his work prospered, especially after he began teaching that Gentile converts need not become Jews in order to participate fully in fellowship.
A particularly contentious issue was that of the circumcision of adult males who wished to join the church, considered absolutely essential by many Jewish Christians but adamantly opposed by Paul. Another issue was whether Gentiles needed to follow other Jewish laws, such as the kosher dietary rules. Paul made explicit the division between those who were circumcised and those who were not circumcised in his Epistle to the Galatians 2:7-9. Referring to a meeting between himself and the leaders of the Jerusalem church to deal with the question of whether Gentile members of the group needed to be circumcised, Paul wrote:
When they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised… and when James and Cephas (Peter) and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (NRSV).
This so-called Council of Jerusalem, according to Acts 15, determined that circumcision was not required of Gentile converts. The leaders of the Jerusalem church gave Paul permission, only that converts should follow the Noahide Laws incumbent upon "God-fearers," Gentile adherents to Judaism:
James replied... we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him. (Acts 15:19-21)
If the Gentiles followed the Noahide Laws, they would be within the classical definition of "God-fearers" according to Jewish law. While this may have satisfied the council, Paul apparently did not abide by it. For example, he excused eating food offered to idols (1 Cor. 8:4-13) as long as it did not cause offense to Jewish sensibilities. This was because his doctrine of salvation was based on faith, not on the Mosaic law.
Not all Jewish Christians accepted the view of Council of Jerusalem. Some Jewish-Christian missionaries continued to insist that as Jews they practiced a higher form of Christianity—the "original" Christianity of Jesus, a Jew. Therefore non-Jewish church members who wanted to reach the pinnacle of faith should become Jews and adopt Jewish customs. Paul called them "superlative apostles" (2 Cor. 11:5) because they boasted of their superiority as Jews. In response, he taught that receiving circumcision would nullify the freedom that comes from Christ, whose grace stands above any law. "You who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:4)
In addition, the compromise reached at Jerusalem did not solve certain halakhic problems for Jewish Christians who as Jews were forbidden by the Mosaic Law from eating with Gentiles. Paul refers with disgust to certain "men from James" who came to Antioch and refused to eat with the Gentile Christians there. When Peter sided with the "men from James," Paul rebuked him in public (Gal 2:14). However, Barnabas, Paul's partner up till then, sided with Peter (Gal 2:13). Shortly after this, Paul seems to have left Antioch, and he and Barnabas parted ways (Acts 15:39-40). Throughout Paul's later letters, the struggle between him and the "Judaizers" is apparent.
On the other hand, some Gentiles took Paul's teaching to such an extreme as to reject the Old Testament law altogether, something which Paul clearly did not do, despite his emphasis on salvation being a matter of "faith" and not "works." In I Corinthians and several other letters, Paul goes out of his way to emphasize that although the Jewish ceremonial and dietary laws are not binding on Gentile Christians, the fundamental points of the Jewish moral commandments—such as the prohibitions against idolatry, fornication, adultery, and incest; and the positive commandments to obey authority, honor one's parents, and to love God and one's neighbor—still hold.
Moreover, at least according to Acts, Paul insisted that Jewish Christians like himself continue to follow Jewish law. For example, he caused his companion Timothy, who had a Jewish mother but a Gentile father, to be circumcised (Acts 16). Later, on returning to Jerusalem (Acts 21:24-26) Paul made a public act of atonement at the Temple in order to prove that he did not teach Jewish Christians to abandon the Law.
According to Eusebius (History of the Church 4.5.3-4), the first 15 bishops of Jerusalem were "of the circumcision." Meanwhile, the Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed in 70 C.E. The Romans exiled any remaining Jewish leadership in Jerusalem in the year 135, during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. These events put an end to the central position of the Jerusalem church. Henceforth, the Christian community at Rome would emerge as the most important church, and Pauline Christianity would predominate over Jewish Christianity.
Jewish-Christianity also declined from within, as their expectations of the return of Christ failed to materialize, and their doctrinal adherence to the Mosaic Law became increasingly marginalized in the Christian churches. By the late first century, Gentile Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the early stages of trinitarian doctrine became widespread, which marginalized the Jewish-Christians theologically.
Jewish Christianity continued to flourish in some places. In cities with strong Gentile Christian churches, however, it found itself increasingly on the defensive. Whereas previously Jewish Christians had predominated and argued about whether Gentile Christians had to follow the Jewish law, now Gentile Christians held sway. The question was now whether it was even possible to be a practicing Jew and a Christian at the same time.
As Gentile Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the early Church Fathers developed an Adversus Judaeos tradition that flourished from the second to the sixth centuries. The main accusation was that the Jews had rejected the Messiah, and so God had justly rejected them. The Christian apologist Justin Martyr in his, Dialog with Trypho the Jew (c. 150 C.E.), stated:
The circumcision according to the flesh, which is from Abraham, was given for a sign that you may be separated from other nations and from us; and that you alone may suffer that which you now justly suffer.(Dialog with Trypho, ch. 16).
The famous "golden-tongued" orator John Chrysostom (4th century C.E.) directed several homilies of against the Jews: "The Jews are the most worthless of all men." "It is incumbent upon all Christians to hate the Jews" ("Adversus Judæos," I). His sermons indicate, however, that not all of his flock obeyed him. Indeed, many Christians continued to fellowship with Jews, attend synagogues, and participate in Passover Seders.
Yet after the triumph of Constantine and the Christianization of Rome, the situation of Jews became increasingly desperate. In 329, Constantine issued an edict providing for the death penalty for any non-Jew who embraced the Jewish faith. He also forbade marriages between Jews and Christians and imposed the death penalty upon any Jew who transgressed this law. The Justinian Code later stripped Jews of many of their civil rights, and church councils throughout the sixth and seventh century further enforced anti-Jewish provisions.
In this climate of Christian Anti-Semitism, the position of Jewish-Christians became increasingly tenuous. Remaining Jewish-Christian groups like the Ebionites were branded heretical by the orthodox church. By the sixth century they had disappeared.
During the time of Spanish Inquisition, a number of Jewish converts to Christianity attempted to continue to practice Jewish customs. Their treatment by Catholic authorities remains one of the most shameful acts of church history.
The Ebionites were a group of Jewish Christians who continued to follow Jewish tradition well after the fall of the Temple of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jerusalem church. They rejected the orthodox Christian teaching of Jesus being God incarnate, insisting that he was a human Messiah as taught in the Hebrew Bible. Some seem to have accepted the Gospel of Matthew, although there are also fragmentary quotations in the Church Fathers from a Gospel of the Ebionites. However, the Ebionites' writings are basically lost. How long the group survived is a matter of debate. Some scholars find traces of them as late as the fifth century C.E.
The Nazarenes (Hebrew: Netzarim, נצרים) were an early Jewish Christian sect similar to the Ebionites, in that they maintained their adherence to Jewish law. However, unlike the Ebionites, they apparently accepted the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and divinity of Jesus.
Among Christian communities of Jewish origin and maintaining some Jewish traditions that survive to this day are the Nasrani community in Kerala, India and the Fallasha of Ethiopia. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. The Knanaya, a sub-ethnic group among the Syrian Malabar Nasrani, are the descendants of early Jewish-Christian settlers who arrived in Kerala in 345 C.E. Although affiliated with a variety of Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox denominations, they have remained a cohesive community, shunning intermarriage with outsiders.
The Fallasha of Ethiopia likewise reflect a Hebrew tradition.
"Jewish Christians" is sometimes used as a contemporary term in respect of persons who are ethnically Jewish but who have become part of a "mainstream" Christian group which is not predominantly based on an appeal to Jewish ethnicity or the Law of Moses. This term is used as a contrast to Messianic Jews, ethnic Jews who have converted to a religion in which Christian belief is grafted onto Jewish ritual. To outsiders at least, their tradition resembles Judaism more than Christianity. There are important similarities and differences between "Jewish Christians" and "Messianic Jews."
Contemporary Jewish Christians identify themselves primarily as Christians. They are (mostly) members of Protestant and Catholic congregations and are not strict about observing kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) or the Sabbath. They are generally assimilated culturally into the Christian mainstream, although they retain a strong sense of their Jewish identity which they desire to pass on to their children. In Israel, there is a growing population of Christians of this type who are of Jewish descent and conduct their worship mostly in Hebrew.
Messianic Jews, on the other hand, consider their primary identity to be Jewish. For them, belief in Jesus is the logical conclusion of their Jewishness. They try to structure their worship according to Jewish norms; they circumcise their sons and often abstain from non-kosher foods and observe the Sabbath. Many (but by no means all) do not use the label "Christian" to describe themselves.
The existence of such groups within the Christian world today shows how dramatically the attitude of Christianity has changed since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, prior to which either type of modern Jewish Christianity would be punished as heresy. However, while evangelical Christians welcome them, mainline and liberal Christians find these groups an embarrassment. Since the 1960s American mainline Protestants have sought an ecumenical modus vivendi with Jews, pledging not to proselytize Jews on the theory that (Gentile) Christianity and Judaism are equally valid paths to salvation. Contemporary Jewish-Christians are an uncomfortable reminder that Christian theology has always held faith in Jesus to be a higher path than Torah-centered Judaism, and that from the beginnings of Christianity there were those felt called to witness to Jews out of love.
The Jewish community generally rejects Jewish Christianity as un-Jewish, largely because most Jewish Christians accept evangelical Christian doctrines about the divinity of Jesus and his vicarious atonement for sin, considered anathema to normative Judaism. Although the issue of Jesus' messiahship is a major sticking point, it is not unprecedented for Jews to follow a "false" Messiah and still be accepted as Jews. The great early talmudist Rabbi Akiva followed Simon Bar Kochba as the Messiah, and countless otherwise orthodox rabbis accepted Shabbatai Zevi as the Messiah in the seventeenth century. Yet these were clearly Jewish deviations, and are not viewed as in the same category as adopting the beliefs of another religion. Jews in general are extremely sensitive to the threat of Christian evangelism aimed at Jews, and view the modern movement of Jewish Christianity with much suspicion.
For the early church, Jewish-Christians were repositories of knowledge about the Scripture and they carried the oldest memories of Jesus, who was a Jew. The Jewish-Christians collected traditions about Jesus and created the basic outline of the Gospels, thus transmitting to future generations everything we know about Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew, a Jewish-Christian document, are preserved Jesus' greatest ethical teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. As Paul wrote,
From Jewish-Christians Christianity inherited its social message, encapsulated in the expectation of the Kingdom of heaven on earth, a world where all injustices are remedied and peace extends from God and Christ to all creation. During the decades before the Jewish Revolt they preached Jesus' message of peace, seeking to counteract the growing strength of the Zealots who preached revolution.
From Jewish-Christians, who with their kingdom-orientation could never reduce salvation to a matter of personal atonement, Christianity inherited its hope in the Second Coming of the Messiah, drawing on older Jewish apocalyptic doctrines refashioned afresh in the light of Jesus' death and resurrection.
On the other hand, the intense conflict between the Jewish-Christians and the synagogue left a negative legacy of anti-Judaism in Jewish-Christian documents like Matthew—diatribes against the Pharisees and casting blame on the Jews for killing Christ. Unfortunately, towards their Jewish persecutors the Jewish Christians were unable to practice Jesus' ethic of love for the enemy. Their compromise of the Christian message, while humanly understandable, created the bitter root of Christian Anti-Semitism that would flourish in future generations.
Today with the revival of Jewish-Christianity, we are once again reminded that Jesus was a Jew, and that Jews can be true to their own faith and still believe in Jesus. This can be seen as a negative by those who think that "good fences make good neighbors" and that the way to peaceful relations between the two communities requires keeping them separate. However, Jewish Christians at their best demonstrate a harmony and openness between Judaism and Christianity that can well serve the cause of peaceful interfaith relations.
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