Schisms in Jewish History: Part 4
This post was originally published on Professor Schiffman’s website as the fourth part of a series of articles on schisms in Jewish history. Bible History Daily republished this article with the consent of the author. Visit lawrenceschiffman.com for print and multimedia resources on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Babylonian Talmud, Jesus, Hellenism, Christianity and more.
It was not long, however, until a different schism was to have markedly different results. Among the sects of the Second Temple period, one of the major controversies concerned the Messianic idea. Whereas many Jews saw the Messianic age as coming in the far-off future, others took a more apocalyptic view, expecting the end of days to emerge very soon out of the struggles and suffering of the present age. Such tendencies ultimately helped to foster the conditions necessary for the rise of Christianity.Early in the first century C.E. there coalesced around Jesus a group of disciples attracted to his teachings and to his expectations of the dawn of a new age. His crucifixion at the hands of the Romans transformed him in the eyes of his disciples into a Messianic figure, whose death in some way paved the way for redemption. As such, his followers, still living as Jews and basically following the mandates of Jewish law, were distinguished only by their belief that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.
In the aftermath of the destruction, the tannaim attempted to draw Judaism together around a common tradition. They regarded Christianity as heretical, and branded the early Christians as minim, Jews holding incorrect beliefs. Although they regarded the Christians as Jews, since they were Jews according to halakhah, the tannaim took a strong stand. They excluded the Christians from serving as precentor in the synagogue, then declared their scriptural texts to have no sanctity, even if they contained the name of God, then prohibited certain forms of commercial and social contact. Yet throughout this first period, there was no challenge to their halakhic status as Jews and no decree that prohibited marriage with them.
All this was soon to change as a result of developments which took place within the nascent Christian church. Sometime in the mid-first century, the apostle Paul returned to Jerusalem from one of his journeys abroad with a new concept. He had found great interest among gentiles in Christianity. This was especially the case since many had come into contact already with Jewish ideas. Yet as can be seen from the phenomenon of semi-proselytes there was substantial hesitation to formally convert to Judaism in the Greco-Roman world. Full conversion involved the observance of Jewish law, including circumcision and the dietary laws. Paul proposed to his fellow Christians to make it possible to be a Christian without first becoming a Jew. He himself would have preferred the abandonment of the Law for all Christians, since he saw this as the natural result of the coming of Jesus, yet the proposal he made was a compromise with others more attached to Jewish practices. Ultimately, Paul’s approach was accepted and Christianity was opened to gentile believers who streamed into the new faith, quickly spreading it throughout the neighboring countries.
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.
It was not long before the tannaim reacted to the changed nature of the Christian community. Whereas the earlier tannaim had faced Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Rabbis now confronted non-Jews (from the halakhic point of view) who constituted a separate religious community. These were not minim, Jews with heretical beliefs, but noserim, Christians. During the Bar Kokhba Revolt, the Christians, unable to support the Messianic pretensions of Bar Kokhba, sided with the Romans. By the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Rabbis regarded the entire Christian community as non-Jewish. Even the Bishop of Jerusalem was now gentile since Jews (even Jewish Christians) were prohibited from living in the Holy City. It no longer mattered that a few of the Christians were technically Jewish. The lack of Jewish status of the group as a whole led the Rabbis to disqualify them as a whole. Henceforth, from the Rabbinic perspective, the Christians were a separate religion and a separate people. Marriage with them was now prohibited.
It is also possible to follow this process of separation from the perspectives of the Romans and the Christians. The Romans were outsiders who concluded that the schism was permanent at the end of the first century and, accordingly, began to regard the Christians as a separate religious community, excused from paying the fiscus Judaicus, the Jewish poll tax.
Learn more about the fiscus Judaicus in “Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax” by Nathan T. Elkins in Bible History Daily.
In the case of the Christian sources, the matter is somewhat more complex. We can trace the schism in the New Testament itself. In the earliest accounts in the Gospels, the Christians see their enemies as the Pharisees. After all, they themselves are Jews. By the time we get to the Gospel of John, the Jews as a whole are identified as the opponents of Jesus. Clearly, by the time the later books of the New testament were authored, this schism had become complete from the Christian point of view. Yet, of course the Christians saw themselves as the true Israel and the Jews as having gone astray.
As we noted, from the point of view of the Rabbis it was the abandonment of the traditional definitions of who is a Jew that led to the complete separation of Christianity from Judaism. Theological differences would not have been enough. The eventual result of this separation was a long history of hatred by the daughter for the mother who had begotten her and centuries of suffering for the Jewish people. Yet the Rabbis stood firm. The Christians were not Jews according to halakhah, and marriage with them was forbidden; they had left the Jewish people.
Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Judge Abraham Lieberman Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies in New York University’s Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies. He is also the director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies. He has extensive experience analyzing and publishing the Dead Sea Scrolls, including positions as co-editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2000) and editor-in-chief of the Center for Online Judaic Studies from 2005 to 2008.
Part 3: Sectarianism in the Second Temple Period
Part 4: The Jewish-Christian Schism
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.