I closed the last issue on eschatology noting that the Patristics were anti-Semitic. It is amazing that men the Jewish apostles discipled so quickly turned on the Jews, especially since Jesus was a Jew. Let’s analyze this strange phenomenon. Although it may be somewhat technical, it is fascinating and filled with application for today.
In the early life of the Church, most of the conflict existed between Jews. Gentiles had not yet entered the picture. In one sense, the conflict was endemic to the ministry of Jesus; He constantly called into question the Jews’ commitment to God. All of the gospels record this antipathy between Jesus and Judaism, culminating in the cross.
So too in Acts, the conflict was primarily between Jewish Christians and Judaism. As most of Israel had rejected the teachings of their Messiah, so too they rejected His followers. As Jesus said, “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20). The last recorded conflict in Acts is Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and his subsequent appeal to Caesar.
The apostolic Church was almost exclusively Jewish, especially in the pre-missionary days of Paul. Christians naturally saw themselves as the “true Israel,” the faithful of God. If Jesus was indeed Messiah, then His followers were the true people of God. Wasn’t it true that the elect of the Old Testament were always a remnant? Why would it be any different in the early Church? The unbelieving Jews were apostate because they rejected God’s Anointed.
Granted, they believed in a future for Israel in fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. This is clear from their question to Jesus at the Ascension, “Wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Nevertheless, they were the remnant, the true Israel.
For this reason, when the disciples began their ministry after Pentecost, they reasoned that it was necessary for Gentile converts to enter the household of faith via Judaism. Jesus and the twelve never had an argument against Judaism as a religion, but rather the hypocrisy of Israel’s religious leaders.
The followers of Christ believed in His imminent return. It never occurred to them that almost two-thousand years would lapse between His first and second coming. In a relatively short period of time Jesus would return, establish His kingdom, and at that time the Gentiles would be included in God’s program. This is what the Old Testament led the Jews to expect. Meanwhile, Gentiles were welcome via Judaism.
“The problem of the mission to the Gentiles had not yet presented itself in Jerusalem. The mission of the Twelve focused on the Jews and proselytes; they have not begun even to consider evangelizing the Gentiles yet. As far as the tradition of Jesus is concerned, the apostles can continue to entrust them to God’s care until the peoples’ pilgrimage to Zion at the end time.”
When Cornelius came to Christ in Acts 10, Peter anticipated that he would be converted in the same manner as Gentiles in the Old Testament; Cornelius would be circumcised and embrace the rites of Judaism. It required a “sheet let down from heaven” to persuade Peter otherwise. This in turn prepared Peter for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.
Acts 15 opens with, “And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The “brethren” of this verse were Jewish Christians who believed that Gentile converts had to come to faith via Judaism. This verse is not saying that they believed circumcision saved, for all Christians believe that salvation is through faith in Christ alone.
By way of example, Paul says in I Cor 6:9-10: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul is not saying that you must stop these acts and clean up your life in order to come to Christ for salvation. Rather he is arguing that people properly related to Christ do not do these things. So too in Acts 15:1, the Jews were merely arguing that circumcision must accompany salvation, much like we believe regarding baptism.
Paul Johnson begins his account of A History of Christianity with an analysis of the Jerusalem Council in AD 49. Of the two accounts, in Acts 15 and Galatians 2-3, the latter reflects the view of the person most responsible for delivering Christianity from “becoming another Jewish sect.”
“For Luke, the Jerusalem Council is an ecclesiastical incident. For Paul, it is part of the greatest struggle ever waged. What lies behind it (is an)…unresolved question. Had Jesus Christ founded a new religion, the true one at last? Or, to put it another way, was he God or man? If Paul is vindicated, Christianity is born. If he is overruled, the teachings of Jesus become nothing more than the hallmarks of a Jewish sect, doomed to be submerged in the mainstream of an ancient creed” (p. 5).
“What the apostles were preaching was a form of Jewish revivalism. It had strong apocalyptic overtones – very much part of the Jewish tradition – and it used the resurrection event to prove and heighten the urgency of the message…. Their Judaic instincts were still powerful and conservative. They were oriented wholly to Temple-worship…. The inference is that the leaders of the movement in Jerusalem were much closer to Judaism than Jesus, and indeed had been all along…. The gospel of John says that the earliest disciples came from the circle of the Baptist, and this at a time when Jesus’ early, simple teaching was strongly reflective of the Baptist’s…” (pp. 32-33).
“It is thus misleading to speak of an ‘apostolic age’, and equally misleading to speak of a primitive Pentecostal Church and faith. The last point is important, because it implies Jesus left a norm, in terms of doctrine, message, and organization, from which the Church subsequently departed. There was never a norm…. The impression we get is that the Jerusalem Church was unstable, and had a tendency to drift back into Judaism completely. Indeed, it was not really a separate Church at all, but part of the Jewish cult” (p. 33).
It is hard to over emphasize the impact Paul had on the direction the Church took. Paul, the “Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee,” argued adamantly that it wasn’t necessary for Gentile converts to practice the Old Testament rites. Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus road as “the end of the law for everyone who has faith,” and free association between Jew and Gentile in Christ was demanded.
Paul prevailed at the Jerusalem Council, but in the process dealt a death blow to Jewish evangelism. It was one thing for Judaism to reckon with another sect giving allegiance to Jesus; it was quite another to teach that Christianity had superseded Judaism as the people of God.
“This is…also supported by explicit statements from Jewish sources which have been collected by Professor Kilpatrick who quotes, as the most informative piece of evidence, the Birkathha-Minim composed by Samuel the Small at Jamnia c. AD 85. In its earliest form it reads: ‘for the excommunicate let there be no hope and the arrogant government do thou swiftly uproot in our days; and may the Christians and heretics suddenly be laid low and not be inscribed with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humbles the arrogant.’ The insertion in the liturgy henceforth made it impossible for Christians of Jewish descent to attend the synagogue, as undoubtedly some of them had done up to that time, and the breach was made absolute before AD 100 by sending out of letters from Palestine to all synagogues informing them of the necessity of excluding Christians from their assemblies….A Jew had to be either a Christian or a Jew; he could not be both at the same time.”
Two threads, running in different directions, wove together to produce an anti-Semitic Church: First was the conviction of the followers of Christ that He was Messiah and they, therefore, were the true people of God. As the in the Old Testament the true Israel always encompassed a small minority of the nation, so also in the days of the Twelve.
Second was the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church and Paul’s insistence that they need not practice the Law. From this time on, Jewish Christians became a struggling minority, and as the liturgy of Birkathha-Minim indicated, Jews encouraged “the arrogant government (to) do thou swiftly uproot in our days; and may the Christians and heretics suddenly be laid low…”
It was natural, therefore, that the Church became anti-Jewish and excluded them from any eschatological hope. As we stand back and look at this from the objective advantage of almost two-thousand years, it is easy to see how their cultural meiliu influenced their theology. In all probability they never perceived it happening.
This provides a warning to us regarding our culture’s ability to shape and distort our understanding of Biblical truth. We are best served by challenging everything the world teaches in light of Scripture. It will not entirely eliminate culture’s influence, but it will be a mitigating factor.
Grateful for so great a salvation,
Note Isaiah 11, esp. v. 10, and other related passages out of the OT prophets.
Stuhlmacher, Peter, The Approach, Style, and Consequences of Primitive Christian Mission, Part two of a Dialogue at Trail West, Buena Vista, Colorado with Young Life in the spring of 1980, translated by Michael Douglas and William Lee, p. 8.
Johnson, Paul, A History of Christianity, Atheneum, New York, 1980.
Barnard, L.W., Studies in The Apostolic Fathers and Their Background, Basis Blackwell, Oxford, 1966, pp. 52-53.