Judaism and the Origins of Christianity HIS 155 Lecture 1.4

Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.

Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

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.

Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.

* * *

Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Judaism and the Origins of Christianity HIS 155 Lecture 1.4

  1. the day of the last supper , could not have fallen of the second of Peach since the in the land of Israel in those days, they only celebrated the first day only and in the diaspora at was celebrated 2 days

  2. I enjoyed learning about Jesus and the birth of christianity. I hadn’t before been officially taught the subject, and am happy to now have some knowledge on the subject.

  3. I wanted to know, if there are any at all, what similarities or repeating story lines in the new testament are there in the old testament as well?

  4. Throughout my Jewish education this was the first class that I learnt about Christianity. This really gave me more of an open mind about matters regarding different religions. Because I believe to really respect an-others belief we have to be educated and well informed about the matter.

  5. Before learning this lesson, I had no idea that Judaism and Christianity were so closely linked. Now, having been informed of the history behind these two similar yet deeply conflicting religions, I have gained a new and improved appreciation for my heritage and my religion as whole. I no longer solely base my beliefs on spirituality; I have gained a newfound logical understanding of my religion.

  6. I found it interesting that we learned about the origins of Judaism by tapping into other religions such as Christianity. The origins of Jesus and how he was a Jew , his principle teachings, and relationships with other Jewish groups truly explained his relevance in the feud between Jews and Christians.

  7. Another intriguing topic in this lecture was the beginning and rise of Christianity leading to the absolute domination of the religious world. How it began as a tiny pariah faith and rose in three hundred years time to become the largest and most popular religion was fascinating.The Pauline Doctrine, using replacement theory from “old testament” to “new testament” and making many believe this was true is nothing short of impressive.

  8. The incident with Rabbi Yehoshua B. Perahayah was something I never even heard of. The “Blessing on the Heretics” something we recite everyday in Shemonah Esrei. This particualr bracha was added in something so major. Now I always notice when I say Velamalshinim in my prayer.

  9. Contrary to what is taught by so many Christian Pastors and Bible study books, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Constantine coauthored the Edict of Milan with Licinius. It was Theodosius who declared that Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the only legitimate Imperial religion. Now the thought police of religion and orthodoxy was unshackled to attract the independent thinkers and persecute them

    About Passover it is believed that the last supper was a Passover meal in the synoptic gospels, but not so in John.

    Jhn 18:28
    Then they *led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.

    Luk 22:15 NASB
    And He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;

    May the One G-d our Father be with you. May His only begotten Son Jesus the Christ my Lord be for you and may the Holy Spirit be with you.

      1. Replacement theology is actually new. Its now pual’s theology. The specific biblical passage talks about gentiles as being grafted as a vine is grafted. That is by the sacrifice of jeses, gentiles are “grafted” to the salvation of the covenant.

        As for the trial and passion of jesus.. While some passages refer to pilate making the jews choose… Earlier passages actually point out that 1. The trial and arrest was actually illegal.. It was done in the middle of the night.. The sanhedrin had to bring him to pilate so they dont get blamed. 2. The pharisees in the sanhedrin actually opposed the seducees. 3. Theres actually a confusion about who barabbas was.. Some say he was athief but there are also some saying he was a zealot and the crowds gathered on the day pilate asked who was to be freed was majority zaelot and seducees.. The essenes were in the desert and the pharisees were in hiding probably because they dont want to have to do anything involving the romans.. 4. In the trial of st. Stephen, it was again the pharisees who came to his defence especially gamaliel the elder.

        So in essence, rabbinic judaism and christianity were both porducts of pharisaic judaism.

        Although some say the seduccees are alive and kicking in modern israel.

  10. I am not a Jew, but I never ceased to be inspired in so many ways by Dr. Abramson. Another great lecture, indeed. Just to reiterate an earlier reply with regard to Christianity and its status as the official state religion of Rome. Constantine and Licinius (Caesar in the East) with the Edict of Milan in 313 granted religious liberty to Christians. In fact, the edict actually granted religious liberty to all faiths. However, it was not until Theodosius I’s Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, in 380 that Christianity became the official state religion of the empire.

  11. What’s up every one, here every person is sharing tthese kinds of knowledge, therefore it’s
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  12. This lecture is absolutely fascinating in so many ways. Perhaps one of the most interesting points, is that it is Paul, not Jesus who is really responsible for expanding Christianity. Maybe even more thought-provoking than this is that Jesus was a Pharisee and a Torah scholar. It makes me wonder what his feelings on Christainity would be if he were to see it as it is today. Did he intend for it to become this? Does he share the religion’s beliefs? I only ask as a non-christian Jew who has not had much exposure, if any at all, to christianity. These are thought-provoking questions that i would love to know the answer to!

  13. Very interesting lecture. Brought up great points about the origin of christianity and anti semitism that developed. We begin with the story of Jesus, here the lecture painted a great picture of how Jesus challenged his teachers and even twisted some of their teachings. The lecture provides the example of Jesus asking Hillel to sum up the torah on one foot. Hillel says “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” Jesus switches this to a positive, “Do to your neighbor, what you would do to yourself.” The lecture brings up a great point that Jesus philosophy was not intended for the Jewish people. His intention was for the Jewish people to follow their principles but also adopt these knew ideas. This leads us into the Pauline Doctrine which basically says, everything in the hebrew scripts is true, the Jews had their chance and they blew it, now it’s time for a new religion that everyone should adopt. It is truly amazing that in such a short amount of time a small group of Jews took Jesus philosophy and turned it into the official religion.

    The lecture makes a very important distinction about the word chosen. When it is written that the Jews are the chosen people it does not mean they are better than anyone else. It means they are chosen for a specific purpose. The end of the lecture introduces the origin of anti semitism which developed when the christians tries to rid the Jews of their principles and adopt these new ones, instead of saying you should have yours plus these.

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