The Origin of Christianity

Geza Vermes on the transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles

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.
 

 
In BAR, 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.

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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.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 
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
 


 

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  • jim says

    Faisal,Paul actually met Christ and realised straight away Jesus was God in the flesh,from that day on there was no corruption.
    nor would he tolerate corruption in his walk with the Lord,in fact he hated false teaching in all its shape and form.
    So your accusations against him comes under false teaching,unless you have evidence which I doubt you should present it.

  • Faisal says

    Going neutrally in line with the 4 recognized books Jesus line of teaching was corrupted by Paul,who never acknowledged Jesus when he was there,but started a mixture of pagan and Jewish teachings at his own. It could be Paulinity but not Christianity. He deviated from the main Abrahamic main stream laws that can be clearly seen.

  • Donald says

    Christianity started before the foundation of the world. 1 Peter 1: 20

  • brad says

    well as a christain jew.i strongly believe in god our creature,and in jesus Christ our savior,whom died on the cross for everyones sins.in the beginning he came as a lamb…know soon this month according to the bible codes he is on his way back as a roaring lion,the true lion of Judah.to save mankind from there own destruction..the 6th trumpet shall sound soon,so keep your ears open,and let them hear for the trumpet shall be loud and heard throughout thy world.for I have seen and talked to jesus several times in heaven and sky and on earth.be prepared for him.i also he told me he sent man his last warning through natan.the boy whom is also called Nathan,check out his prophecy..for he is telling thy truth says thy lord..for this is the last warning from me and thy father which art in heaven…thy 9th and 19th of august 2016,and the 2nd of oct 2016..all you have to do to be saved is repent and do good deeds towards others..hope your a listening to me and natan,for gods army is ready,and jesus the true lion of Judah is coming soon.

  • Karen says

    In reference to the new Gentile converts abstaining from all forms and practices relating to idolatry, consumming the meat of strangled animals, consuming blood and the practice of sexual immorality as specified in the law of Moses, this was given so as not to case apprehension among the new converts. Let it also be noted in the same scripture, that the Council made it clear the God’s Law given through Moses was taught every Sabbath in the synagogue. My understanding is this, after the converts joined The Way they would gradually learn and live according to the teaching they would receive on the Sabbaths. This important piece of truth has been conveniently read over and ignored so as to remain politically correct in keeping with the popular doctrine currently proclaimed throughout the planet. However, hard truths are rarely if ever, popular.

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