Jewish-Christian Relations from 70-135 A.D.

The following quote is one of the most accurate and yet succinct summaries of developing Jewish-Christian relations in the primitive Church period that I’ve ever come across.

Jewish-Christian Relations (70–135)

The boundaries of this period are provided by two important dates in Jewish history: the repeated destruction of Jerusalem during the first (66–74) and second (132–135) Jewish revolts against Rome. Though Christians participated in neither, both (the first more directly than the second) affected the church and its future, and therefore merit a closer look.

Though the first revolt lasted until the fall of Masada in a.d. 74, the key event was the destruction of the temple in 70 by the Roman general Titus. He put down the rebellion hoping that the loss of the temple would contribute to the extermination of both Jews and Christians. While his hope went unrealized, his impact was in some respects greater than he might have anticipated.

In response to the loss of the temple, Judaism underwent a major reformulation. The temple as a focal point for the faith was replaced by the synagogue and an academy at Jamnia (Yavneh), and scholarly rabbis like Johanan ben Zakkai and Akiba eventually replaced the priests as key leaders of the people. Of all the various strands and varieties of Judaism that existed before the revolt, only the Pharisaic branch appears to have survived the ensuing turmoil, and it did so largely by transforming itself into rabbinic Judaism. The reformulation included a purge of sectarian tendencies, especially those thought to be responsible for starting the war. Further, the dividing line between Jew and non-Jew was more sharply defined; for example, the twelfth of the “Eighteen Benedictions,” the oldest part of the synagogue service, was reworded to exclude sectarians and heretics, including Christians: “For the renegades let there be no hope, and may … the Nazarenes and heretics perish as in a moment; may they be blotted out of the book of life and not enrolled with the righteous.…”7 At the same time evangelistic efforts directed toward outsiders continued apace; Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote at least in part to commend the Jewish faith to his fellow Roman citizens.

The eventual effect of the reworded Twelfth Benediction on the church was gradually to close off access to the synagogue on the part of Jewish Christians, which increased the distance and sharpened the distinction—and the hostility—between the synagogue and the church. Each thought that it was the true Israel, and consequently that the other had fallen away from God. Classic statements of this perspective from the Christian side include Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jewish rabbi, and the anonymous Epistle of Barnabas, likely written from Alexandria between 70 and 130. Among other things the latter writer collects a number of scriptural prophecies that allegedly prove that the Jews missed their opportunity due to ignorance and disobedience and were rejected and replaced as God’s people by the Christians. The bitterness of this intramural fight, however, goes beyond theological differences; anti-Semitism, a not uncommon feature of Greco-Roman culture, was on occasion to be found within the church as well.

The second revolt of 132–135, led by messianic aspirant Simon Bar Kochba, marks the beginning of the end of this overtly hostile phase of Jewish-Christian relations. After Hadrian succeeded in putting down the revolt he leveled and rebuilt Jerusalem (now called Aelia Capitolina) and forbade Jews from entering. One consequence was that many Jews increasingly isolated themselves from non-Jewish people and culture and heightened the social barriers between themselves and the rest of society. Thus there arose a sense of increasing distance between the two movements at a time when each was being more and more distracted by other pressing concerns, and the open hostility began to fade. The levels of suspicion and hostility remained high, however, and though individuals from each side might establish contact (Origen and Jerome would learn Hebrew from rabbinic instructors), Judaism and Christianity would not be on good terms for centuries to come.

Though less noticed at the time, the gradual closure of the synagogue to Christians also meant the loss of an important source of learned converts for the church. From this point on the intellectual focus of the church would shift increasingly toward the Greek philosophical tradition [emphasis mine] from which a growing percentage of the more intellectually inclined converts was being drawn. This laid the basis for a Jewish reform movement to eventually express its most fundamental tenets in terms drawn primarily from Greek philosophy.[1]

7 The full text can be found in C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York: Macmillan, 1957), 167; rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 211.

[1] Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers : Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999), 6-8.

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