Born in turbulent times, Christianity emerged from its intensely Jewish roots to become the official religion of the Roman Empire within a remarkably brief period of time. As a daughter religion to Judaism, however, dissent between the two faiths slowly dominated the discourse as Christianity became less of a Jewish movement, and more of a choice favored by gentiles throughout the Empire.
Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”
4. Judaism and the Origins of Christianity
From a Jewish perspective, the pivotal figure in the birth of Christianity was Saint Paul rather than Jesus. A self-described persecutor of the early followers of Jesus, he never met Jesus in life, but recounts a dramatic conversionary experience while on the road to Damascus sometime around the year 35 CE. Jesus appeared to him and addressed him by less well-known Jewish name Saul, asking why he insisted on attacking the nascent movement. Struck blind for three days, Paul emerged from the encounter as Jesus’ most devoted disciple, ultimately traveling throughout the eastern Mediterranean and initiating the landslide of support for Jesus that would culminate in the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th century CE. Without Paul’s activity (and precluding any Divine status, of course), the ultimate trajectory of Jesus’ teachings Jesus would probably have been lost to Jewish history.
Who was Jesus, Jewishly speaking? Despite the phenomenal impact he had on world history, the sources we have to understand his life are precious few and deeply flawed. Specifically, we must rely on the testimonies of his followers, recorded often decades after Jesus’ death sometime in the 30s, and later redacted into the Christian Bible. Four of these texts, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, describe the life of Jesus and his relationship with the larger Jewish community. The nuanced changes between these texts reflect not only the relationship of the authors to Jesus himself, but the image of Jews as they were perceived in the decades following Jesus’ death when the Gospels were set to writing. Other books in the Christian Bible, notably the many works of Paul, are also valuable as insights into the way Jesus was perceived by the Jews of his day.
Working with the four basic religio-political orientations of the early first century, it seems clear that Jesus be understood as a “rebellious Pharisee.” The predominant thrust of his teachings are certainly well in line with the Rabbis, in particular Hillel, whom Jesus borrows from liberally. Jesus’ emphasis on humility, pacifism, and the importance of basic ethical conduct place him squarely within the parameters of traditional Pharisaic, or Rabbinic, Judaism. Indeed, many of his most eloquent pronouncements are actually paraphrases or even direct quotations of biblical passages or rabbinic teachings, including Matthew 22:36-40, in which Jesus refers explicitly to the Hear, O Israel prayer (the shema, Deuteronomy 6:5) as the greatest commandment, followed by “love your neighbor as yourself” (quoting Leviticus 19:18).
At the same time, Jesus was known for his unconventional and often assertive challenges to authority, even Rabbinic authority. Consider for example one of his childhood exploits, the “overturning of the tables of the moneychangers,” described in Matthew 21:12-13. The Temple rituals required a large number of sacrificial animals, including doves that were purchased by pilgrims in Jerusalem. Furthermore, certain mandatory offerings required the use of specific coinage such as the half-shekel contribution. As a result, the Temple courtyard was a place of considerable business transactions, a market where buyers and sellers would trade for religious purposes. Jesus evidently found this crass commercialism unbecoming to the dignity of the Temple, and created something of a ruckus, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and exclaiming “it is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer”…and you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The sentiment would sit well with the Rabbinic aversion to duplicity in business, but Jesus’ actions would clearly put him on the extreme end of the spectrum of Pharisaic response to corruption, hardly the “strategic retreat” described in a previous chapter.
Another example of Jesus’ difference from conventional Pharisees would be his pronounced populism, a tendency that often put him in circles that the Rabbis would generally avoid, including prostitutes, thieves, and even tax collectors. Invariably, these individuals were admirably transformed by their contact with Jesus, but the very fact that Jesus ministered to them stands in contrast to many Rabbinic teachings, such as Nitai of Arbel’s statement, i”distance yourself from an evil neighbor” (Avot 1:7). Jesus clearly defined his own path, although the general direction of his teachings were clearly in line with the views of the Pharisees.
Readers of the New Testament may therefore be puzzled by the fact that Jesus has some remarkably strong debates with Pharisees. How could he be a Pharisee himself, and voice such harsh criticism? Consider for example Matthew 23, in which Jesus launches into a chapter-long condemnation of the Pharisees, describing them as two-faced, cold, arrogant figures who care only for their own honor and little for the people as a whole. Passages such as this have caused the word “Pharisee” to enter the English language as a synonym for “hypocrite” or “self-righteous.”
In reality, Jesus’ invective must be understood as a type of family dynamic: Jesus condemns the Pharisees so harshly precisely because he is closest to them. Just as a sibling will not hesitate to voice strong criticism to a brother or sister because their close relationship permits such communication, so too Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because he considers himself (and was probably so considered) a member of the family. Jesus and his teachings are best understood as the expressions of a strong statement of Pharisaic Judaism, perhaps couched in a stronger form than was considered appropriate for the Rabbis of his day, but nevertheless squarely within the family dynamic.
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From the perspective of Jewish history, however, Jesus’ death was far more significant than his life. Jews have suffered centuries of persecution for their perceived role in his crucifixion, a charge which not only has no basis in historical reality, it also has no relationship to the Gospel text itself. Nevertheless, Jesus’ cruel fate, known as the Deicide or “killing of god,” was often the pretext for violence against Jewish communities well into the twentieth century.
The basics of Jesus’ end are well known to readers of the Christian New Testament. Jesus is betrayed by one of his own followers (the unfortunately named Judas) to the Roman authorities. This betrayal was likely viewed with sympathy by the Sadducees, represented by the High Priest Caiaphas, who convened a trial in the Jewish court of the Sanhedrin to condemn Jesus (described in Matthew 26). The Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate jailed Jesus and, as per a custom undocumented in any other source, he offered the Jews the opportunity to free him as an act of Roman clemency. The Jewish mob assembled before Pilate, however, insisted that he free Barabbas, a common thief, instead. When Pilate asked the Jews to confirm this choice, they responded “his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). Pilate then famously “washed his hands” of the affair, sealing Jesus’ fate. He was scourged and crucified, the typically Roman form of capital punishment. The Jews’ response, recorded by the author of the Gospel According to Matthew several decades after Jesus’ death, would be understood by contemporary readers as a prefigurement of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Unfortunately, readers in later centuries have interpreted this passage as a biblical sanction for Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, with dire results.
Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus is also a direct violation of the very basic Christian theological principal that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, and not because of historical accident of any particular group’s behavior at the time, neither Jew nor Roman nor Greek (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). As we will discuss in later chapter, however, even a fundamental and inspiring Christian theological concept of the collective human guilt for Jesus’ death is no match for the elemental force that is human hatred. As Jean-Paul Sartre once famously put it, “if the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”
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The rise of Paul, Jesus’ most prominent disciple, signified a dramatic change in the fledgling Christian movement. Born in Tarsus to a middle-class Jewish family of tent makers, Paul’s personal conversion to early Christianity marked the beginning of an increasing gentlization of the movement, as more and more non-Jews chose to become followers of the martyred Jesus. Paul, in contrast to many of the other apostles, encouraged this trend, arguing that Jesus’ message of salvation was too big for the tiny circle of Jewish followers he had attracted in Judea, and deserved to be heard by Greeks and Romans as well.
Paul’s position provoked a major debate among early Christians with regards the proper role of the Torah, or as Paul repeatedly put it in Greek, “the Law” (nomos). Two aspects of the debate are especially relevant for our purposes. First, what was the relationship of the practical commandments of the Law for Christians, Jew and Gentile? Did Jesus’ ministry obviate the standard requirements of Jewish life, including the dietary laws, the Sabbath and so on, or did halakhah remain as authoritative as ever? Furthermore, were Gentile converts to Christianity similarly obligated as Jewish Christians to submit to circumcision and other Jewish practices? It must be remembered that “Christianity” per se did not even exist at this time, merely a circle of Jews struggling to articulate the legacy of their late, charismatic leader. Paul’s record on the demands of the Law is somewhat ambivalent, but history decided the matter for him: as Gentile Christians steadily outnumbered the dwindling percentage of Jewish Christians through the second and third centuries, the observance of any form of halakhah withered.
The second debate concerning the role of the Law was perhaps still more significant. As mentioned earlier, the very antiquity of Judaism was highly valued in the ancient world, and the Torah was correctly viewed as the central proof for the validity and value of the faith. If Jesus’ teachings were viewed as a departure from that text, the movement would lose a considerable amount of prestige among would-be Gentile converts. A passage in Deuteronomy illustrates the disdain the ancients had for the faddish new religions that Jews seem prone to adopt “for they worship gods that no one heard of, and people say, ‘oh, that’s just a new Jewish thing.” Christianity’s organic connection to the Torah was obvious to the early Jewish followers, but how would Gentiles understand it? Furthermore, it was very clear that the Torah and later prophetic writings were an extended story of a particular people and their God–how did the new religion describe the relationship of Gentiles to this story? In particular, what was to be done with the numerous passages that affirmed the Jews as God’s “chosen people”?
The consensus that emerged from Paul’s ministry is known as the Concept of Election, an aspect of the Pauline Doctrine that transformed Christianity into a Gentile movement. Basically, the solution to the contradiction between the chosen status of the Jews in the Bible and the elevation of the Christians (including Gentile converts to Christianity) was that Jews had lost God’s favor through their refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. This act of betrayal irreparably severed the relationship between the Jews and God, argues the theory, and this connection can only be regained through acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. The true inheritors of the biblical promise are the Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, and the Hebrew scriptures must be read as an extended and sophisticated prefigurement of Jesus’ ministry and the future life of the Church.
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The separation between traditionalist Jews and Jewish Christians was mutually reinforced by the turn of the first century with the institution of a specific “blessing” in the daily Amidah prayer. Composed by Samuel the Lesser, the text of this liturgical insertion specifically calls down condemnation on the “informers” (malshinim) understood in context as a reference to Jewish Christians who may have slandered the Jewish community to Roman authorities. This insertion—which remains in the traditional liturgy to this day—was used as public litmus test to eliminate Jews who harbored Christian sensibilities from the broader community. A person suspected of Christian leanings would be asked to lead the prayer services, and the audience would listen carefully for the inclusion or exclusion of this new passage: if the prayer leader uttered it, that was a demonstration of fidelity to the community and a rejection of Christian belief. Omitting the passage would reveal the individual’s sympathy for the Christian movement, and could lead to forcible eviction from the synagogue and widespread communal ostracism. Some scholars believe the apostle John suffered such a fate, and in fact the Gospel of John contains some of the strongest anti-Jewish language of the all Christian scripture.
By the second or third decade of the second century, the rift between Judaism and Christianity was complete. Belief in a corporeal son of god was simply incompatible with traditionalist beliefs, let alone a deceased Messiah. Unlike many other heterodox movements within Judaism, however, the increasing proportion of Gentiles participating in the early Church, particularly given their non-observance of Jewish law, made reabsorption of Jewish Christians into the traditionalist community impossible. Writing decades and even centuries later, the Rabbis of the Talmud look back on this separation with a variety of perspectives, often condemning Jesus in harsh terms. One passage found in Tractate Sotah (47a), however, presents a more wistful perspective. The section is hardly historical, yet it says much about how the Rabbis retrospectively viewed the development of Christianity.
The passage is cited in the context of a discussion of proper pedagogic behavior: teachers are urged to “draw close with the right hand and push away with the left,” meaning, make students feel valued (draw close with the right, stronger hand) while maintaining appropriate professional distance (push away with the left). Teachers should not, the Talmud warns, “push away with both hands…like Yehoshua ben Perahyah, who pushed away his student with both hands.” His student is identified as none other than Jesus, and the Talmud records an incident that, at least metaphorically, marked the origins of Christianity.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah were traveling and stopped at an in, where they were treated with great honor and hospitality by a female inkeeper. The Rabbi remarked to Jesus, “How pleasant is this woman,” using a Hebrew word (na’ah) that could be misunderstood as “beautiful.” Jesus, the story goes, took the Rabbi’s comment the wrong way, and responded “well, her eyes are a little too round.” Incensed that Jesus thought he was speaking of her physical appearance, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah placed Jesus in excommunication with a blast of four hundred shofar horns (a typical Talmudic use of hyperbole). Chastened, Jesus begged forgiveness on several occasions, only to be repeatedly rejected. Finally, Jesus approached his teacher during the shema prayer, which may not be interrupted. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah had in mind to accept Jesus back into his good graces, and held up his hand to indicate that he should wait until the prayer was concluded. Once again Jesus misunderstood the gesture, thinking it was yet another rejection, and he left for good. The separation—the result of tragic miscommunication—was complete.
The fascinating aspect of this story, and its inclusion in the Talmud, is that the point of the story for Jewish readers is not the origins of Christianity, but the criticism of Jesus’ teacher. His overly harsh treatment of Jesus, “pushing away with both hands,” contributed to the divorce between Judaism and early Christianity, with far-reaching ramifications.