I know that some of you have been waiting for the next episode of the Hidden Messiah series – and I will return to that subject very soon. In just a couple of weeks, we will begin studying the “hidden Messiah” concept in the New Testament. But for now, as promised, we will take a short break from this intriguing theme and look at some posts on seemingly different topics – although they are all definitely related, they are all pieces of this fascinating puzzle that is called “Israel and Yeshua”.
There is a very deep and important statement of John: He came to His own and His own received Him not – and in order to understand fully this statement, we need to see a broader picture. Thankfully, there is a growing recognition on the both sides that Yeshua “came to His own”; not only that He was a Jew and was born and raised as a Jew, but also that the New Testament is part of 1 AD Palestinian Judaism. We need to understand also, why His own received Him not – and I hope and believe that my articles about Hidden Messiah, who was as though hiding His face from us, will help us in this understanding, However, there were many Jews (or Israelites, the actual terminology) who did receive and accept Yeshua, – and today I would like to tell you about these first Jewish believers. It will be also an important part of this broader picture, one more piece of this puzzle.
As you probably know, the “first church”, the community of the early followers of Yeshua, was completely Jewish. With all the profound differences that faith in Yeshua would make, outwardly the gathering and the fellowship of the early church was no different from a synagogue. The synagogue was the place where Jews and God-fearing Gentiles would gather together to read the Torah. From the book of Acts we know that it was a regular custom of Apostle Paul to attend synagogue every Shabbat. Paul explicitly states that his apostolic mission was to reach the Gentiles with the gospel – and yet, in every new town where he arrives (in predominately Gentile regions), he goes to a synagogue. It was in synagogues that he met with Jews and Gentiles alike who were interested in the Word of God. Here are just some scriptures:
When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. (Acts 13:5)
But they … came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down.( Acts 13:14-16)
Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed (Acts 14:1)
They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures (Acts 17:1-3)
The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue (Acts 17:10)
So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. (Acts 17:17)
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth… And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath (Acts 18:1-4)
And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. (Acts 18:19)
This situation lasted for quite some time. For at least a century after Yeshua’s death, there were people who believed that He was the Messiah, but who also attended synagogue, kept Shabbat, ate kosher and circumcised their sons. Unlike now, these people didn’t see any problem in being both a Jew and a Christian. So when did this period come to an end? When did the final “parting of the ways” happen?
Until recently, many believed that this period ended with the Council of Yavneh (around 90 AD): According to Jewish sources, there was a great Jewish council where all Jews agreed to follow mainstream rabbinic tradition, and those who didn’t were expelled. However this view has recently been challenged by different scholars (see Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels). In reality, the Jewish believers and the Jews who didn’t accept Yeshua continued to worship together in synagogues at least until the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-136 CE), maybe even later. Most scholars now believe that Birkat ha-Minim (Heb. בִּרְכַּת הַמִּינִים, “benediction concerning heretics”, a Jewish curse on heretics (minim), the twelfth benediction of the weekday Amidah) was composed after the Bar Kochba revolt. The language of the benediction clearly demonstrates that it was specifically aimed against “Jewish separatists” and that the prayer was composed to expose those who followed Yeshua and had accepted Him as Messiah. There would have been no need for such a prayer in synagogues if the Jewish followers of Yeshua were not amongst the gatherings there.
However, there were the later Christian councils that drove a final separation line between traditional Jewish beliefs and practices, and the new religion of Christianity – especially the famous Council of Nicaea and its successor, the Council of Constantinople. As Daniel Boyarin writes: “Nicaea effectively created what we now understand to be Christianity and, oddly enough, what we now understand as Judaism as well. Across the seven decades between the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, options for ways of believing or being Christian were cut off through this process of selection, especially the option to be both Christian and Jew at the same time. One could not both believe in Jesus and go to synagogue on Sabbath”.
Thus, we arrive at a very sad conclusion: Even though the first cracks in the relationship between the disciples of Yeshua and Jewish mainstream could already be seen in the first century, it was only through the common efforts of the Jewish Rabbis and Christian scholars and writers (even though both sides would deny angrily any reference to the common efforts) that the process of delegitimization of Jewish believers who defined themselves as both Jewish and Christian, was completed. From that time on, one had to either: believe in the Nicene Creed, leave the synagogue, and be called a Christian; or, if one decided to stay in the synagogue, he would have to drop belief in Yeshua and then he would be called a Jew.
From that time on, we’ve had two distinct and very different religions: Judaism and Christianity – and as a good friend of our family, Boaz Michael, wrote: “All of us – all Christians and Jews – are children of this ugly divorce” between Judaism and Christianity. – “Let’s all become children of the reconciliation.”