The Origin of Christianity

Geza Vermes on the Transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles

A turning point in the Jesus movement, Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius, the first non-Jewish Christian, in Jerusalem (Acts 10), as shown in one of five baptism scenes on a 12th-century baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, Belgium. Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont.

Today the concept of “Jewish Christians” may sound like a confusion of two religions. However, to understand the origin of Christianity, one must begin with the population of Jewish Christians who lived during Jesus’ lifetime. In the November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity scholar Geza Vermes explores the origin of Christianity by examining the characteristics of the Jewish Jesus movement to see how it developed into a distinctly gentile religion.

In the New Testament, Jesus only preaches to a Jewish audience. Geza Vermes describes the mission of the 11 apostles to preach to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) as a “‘post-Resurrection’ idea.” After the crucifixion, the apostles began to champion a new faith in Jesus and the ranks of the Jesus movement (known as “the Way” at the time) swelled to 3,000 Jewish converts. At first, these followers were distinctly Jewish, following Mosaic law, Temple traditions and dietary customs.

Geza Vermes writes that “Acts identifies the demographic watershed regarding the composition of the Jesus movement. It began around 40 C.E. with the admission into the church of the family of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10). Later came the gentile members of the mixed Jewish-Greek church in Antioch (Acts 11:19–24; Galatians 2:11–14), as well as the many pagan converts of Paul in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. With them the Jewish monopoly in the new movement came to an end. Jewish and gentile Christianity was born.”

In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.


As gentiles joined the Jesus movement, focus on Jewish law decreased and we start to see the origin of Christianity as a distinct religion. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem participated in separate Jewish services from the gentile Christian population, and while the two groups agreed on Jesus’ message and importance, the separate rites and communities led to increasing division between the groups.

The early-second-century Epistle of Barnabas is one of the earliest expressions of gentile Christianity and describes Jesus as quasi-divine. ©The British Library

Geza Vermes presents the late first century C.E. Jewish Christian Didache as an important text for understanding the Jewish Jesus movement. The Christian document focuses on Mosaic Law and the love of God and the neighbor, and describes the observance of Jewish traditions alongside baptism and the recitation of “Our Father.” The Didache treats Jesus as a charismatic prophet, referring to Jesus with the term pais, a word for servant or child that is also used for King David, rather than the “Son of God.”

By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.


For more on the origin of Christianity, read Geza Vermes’s “From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2012, 53-58, 76, 78.

Many people assume that Jesus’ Last Supper was a Seder, a ritual meal held in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover. And indeed, according to the Gospel of Mark 14:12, Jesus prepared for the Last Supper on the “first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” However, in “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” Jonathan Klawans explores the development of the Passover tradition to suggest that the famous meal may have very little to do with our current understanding of the Passover meal. Read the full article in Bible History Daily as it appeared in Bible Review.

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  1. john says

    By repetitively using the term “Christian” Wiener misleads the reader. By doing so he is suggesting that there was a “Christian” identity as early as early as 40 CE. Not only is it anachronistic it suggests a schism that simply did not exist. On top of that Wiener fumbles around with finding ‘a’ date for what he suggests was a clear parting of the ways. Scholarship should be moving away from such biased readings.

  2. Rose says

    There are several parts to the history of Christianity. This includes the actual history with Josephus and Philo as the best sources, and the traditional history with the book of Acts as its framework. People who have made the Bible their life’s work (i.e. Professor Bart Ehrman) have written that the book of Acts purports to tell historical facts, but instead presents made up stories. This article is about Christian tradition as it deviates from actual history.

    After Paul’s trial in the book of Acts, Albinus succeeded Festus as the Procurator of Judea and Cestius Gallus became the President of Syria(about 62/63 CE). Josephus was the Governor of Galilee and men named Jesus, Justus and Silas were leaders in Tiberius. Josephus tells what happened in his autobiography, Life. You can find much of the build-up in paragraphs 55-58. The historical crucifixion reference is found in paragraph 75. Josephus tells us in paragraph 65 that Justus of Tiberius wrote a false history of the events, but waited to publish it until after Titus and Vespasian were dead. They were both gone by 82 CE, and the book of Acts is thought to have been published about 85 CE. (Col. 4:11)

    Article >> the religious practice of the first Jewish Christians also included the “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:46).

    Rose> Typically the word ‘bread’ in the New Testament is symbolic of the Torah (Matt. 16:12). Bread is not broken in John’s gospel, they must have cut their bread. Most common folk in first century Judea would have known the sayings of Pythagoras. The synoptic gospels are a counter to the Pythagorean teachings.

    The Symbol of Pythagoras XXIV
    Never break the Bread. I’anem ne frangito
    The life of Pythagoras, Dacier, 1707

    …But if thou art so hardy as to affirm, that thou hast written that history better than all the rest, why didst thou not publish thy history while the emperors Vespasian and Titus, the generals in that war, as well as king Agrippa and his family, who were men very well skilled in the learning of the Greeks, were all alive? for thou hast had it written these twenty years, and then mightest thou have had the testimony of thy accuracy. But now when these men are no longer with us, and thou thinkest thou canst not be contradicted, thou venturest to publish it….
    Josephus Life, 65


  3. charles says

    Of all 3 religions namely Judiasm Islam and Christianity, they all claim the same God as their own, but these religions are in a majority of cases all mans intrpretations,. I have to say that Jewish people have been steered in th wrong direction by their leaders, the sanhedrin, and for the last 2000 years have blindly stumbled along.

    As for Islam, it is up to the follower to seek out the truth of a righteous person as to what God expects of a righteous man, and not blindly follow the precepts of man.

    And for christianity, men have taken so many different paths from that what was given by Jesus, and many following a different path each claiming that they are on the right path.

    The Jewish elite, the leaders of their religion failed to hear the words of their prophets, and because of their stubbornness, have suffered their afflictions that have been told so many times in their Torah, even to this day they have no leaders to understand exactly that their messiah had come

    Moslems on the other hand recognise jesus but only as a prophet, and I think this may be the reason they live in a backward manner without much progress

    God gave us the 10 commandments to live by, men have added their own values to suit themselves,, Jesus came as the word of God to fullfill the laws of God
    Those 10 laws are not hard to follow, and if you adorn yourself in the teachings of Jesus you will reach paradise


  4. Darrell says

    Charles, this article was meant to give us an overview Christianity as it evolved from a closed group of purely Jewish disciples to a much broader gentile phenomena. The exploration is interesting and compelling.

    Your overly enthusiastic simplification of all three religions does nothing to further our understanding of that time and your veneer of self righteousness is a perfect example of how careful study is often clouded by messianic nonsense. In short, you missed the point.

  5. B. says

    I think Geza has mis-stated the case. “Christianity”, defined as a faith in Christ being the person of Jesus of Nazareth, was something new and unique in the culture. That “faith” was “born of a virgin” and opposed the religion of Judaism. As this “Gospel of Christ”, then called “The Way”, spread and grew out of the Jewish system of synagogs, it appeared to morph from Judaism into Christianity and eventually the Church.

  6. Thomas says

    The idea that Jesus established a religion “opposed” to Judaism is pure bunkum. The religion that we today call Christianity was deeply rooted in Judaism. Did Jesus not say that he came to uphold the law, not to abolish it? An excellent exploration of this point is Gary Wills’ book, “What Paul Meant.”

  7. JAllan says

    Given that what Jesus said was passed along orally at first, with “oral editing” due to people’s theologically selective memories, then when written, copies and copies of copies were made by hand (and at first, not by trained “scribes” but by whoever was handy that COULD read and write), with selective editing then also, we are not sure just how observant Jesus intended his followers to be; it APPEARS that he was more concerned with moral considerations, and the INNER morality at that, than with ceremonial rules, while accepting that ceremonial rules were useful when subservient to moral principles (e.g. “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”). Some early followers, like some Christians today, surely felt that his primary emphasis, both for Jews and for gentiles, was to realize one’s EXISTING connection with God through meditation and prayer, and express it through service to others, not to “fix” one’s basic wickedness by believing the “right” things about him as a person, anymore than one could “fix” wickedness by performing the “right” ceremonial or moral rules for the wrong reasons.

    It is possible that, due to the influence of Paul, who may have PERSONALLY felt something like the later concept of “original sin”, independent of his actual behavior, the “Jesus fixes me” attitude became the norm for the Christian church. After all, it is easier to teach, and gives the human authorities a greater role in controlling the people, than personal spiritual empowerment.

  8. Gaddi says

    It is lovely to understand the origin of our faith, but you shows the origin of christianity by reffering to new testament.Could you please elaborate more by reffering to the old testaent,because in old testament we saw traditional life and belief, sohow shall we associate that life withchristianity

  9. stephania says

    Jesus said at Matthew 23:37,38 Speaking about Jerusalem and how they (Jerusalem/Isrelites) killed the prophets GOD sent to them.’ 38 Says because of that (killing the Prophets God sent) that their house will be abandon to them.’ Meaning Isael was nolonger the choosen people because THEY killed Prophets that God sent to them and they murdered Jesus Christ. Then in Acts Chapter 15 verse 14 God said that he is turning his attention toward the Gentile Nation. Why? Because the Israelires were so disobedient and THEY killed Jesus as well, so God turned away his attention to look at other nations for obedience to him. Judaism which means Monotheism (One God). When Jesus came and started to prwach at tbe age o30 he started the beginning o.f Christianity. Judaism turned into Christianity. What happened to the purity of Christianity from Judaism is that pagans started to mix with TRUE followers of Christ. However they still exist. Isaiash 43: 1,3,6,7,10, and 21. From reading Isaiah you will find out who they are. They are Gods Witnesses and they go by HIS name. Gods namw is not God THAT is a Title. God has a name. My story is how Judaism went frim Judaism to Christianity. It is just TRUE Judaism/Chritians are here and SO CALLED who r truly NOT CHRIST followwes.

  10. Kim says

    @ stephania The Jewish people are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI writes a book to be published next week.

    Many Catholics and other Christians blamed Jews for Jesus’ death for hundreds of years, but the Catholic Church formally repudiated that assertion in the 1960s
    Book is called Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week – From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection maybe you should invest the money and buy a copy. Seems like you have a lot of hate in your heart.

  11. Yeremyah says

    If scholars don’t wise up and realise there was never any such things as “Jewish Christians” then the question of Christianity’s origins can NEVER be answered factually. What makes Cornelius a Christian? Absolutely nothing. He was baptised into the Jewish sect of the Nazarenes. There isn’t a single Christian in the new testament or that period.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. SUNDAY MORNING EDITION | Big Pulpit linked to this post on November 18, 2012

    [...] On the Transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles – Noah Wiener, Bible History Daily [...]

  2. The Solemnity of Christ the King | St. John linked to this post on November 24, 2012

    [...] The Origin of ChristianityToday the concept of “Jewish Christians” may sound like a confusion of two religions. However, to understand the origin of Christianity, one must begin with the population of Jewish Christians who lived during Jesus’ lifetime. In the November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity scholar Geza Vermes explores the origin of Christianity by examining the characteristics of the Jewish Jesus movement to see how it developed into a distinctly gentile religion.…more [...]

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