The Origin of Christianity
Geza Vermes on the transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles
January 07, 2017
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2012.—Ed.
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 Scroll
and early Christianity scholar Geza Vermes
explored 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 described 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.
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.
, Geza Vermes wrote: “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.”
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 Biblical Archaeology Society presents: Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two
. Never before has this multi-faceted process been documented so engagingly and so authoritatively by so many eminent scholars.
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
, November/December 2012.
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in November 2012.
Related reading in Bible History Daily:
The Archaeological Quest for the Earliest Christians: Part 1 and Part 2 by Douglas Boin
Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax by Nathan T. Elkins
When Did Christianity Begin to Spread?
Uncovering the Jewish Context of the New Testament
Amy-Jill Levine reveals what Jews (and Christians) should know about Christian scripture and Jesus the Jew
Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians by Mark Wilson