If you had told Peter, Paul, or any of the early Christians that they had switched religion, they would look at you as if you were crazy. They were Jewish; they stayed Jewish; they believed in the Messiah of Israel, and they taught gentiles about the holy scriptures of the Jews. If that’s not Jewish, then what is?
However, as the centuries passed by, there was a gradual process which separated the Jews who followed the Pharisee version of Judaism and the Jews and gentiles who followed the Nazarene, or Christian, version of Judaism. Throughout this process, we can identify three very specific “watershed moments” which caused the two to grow even further apart.
Even though we today talk about theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, and many Rabbis and Judaism apologists point to doctrines like the trinity or the divinity of the Messiah as reasons Judaism and Christianity are incompatible, theology was never the prime reason for the split. Judaism had had diverse branches for centuries, with vastly different theologies. The groups of people who believed in Jesus, the Nazarene Jews and the Ebionite Jews, were initially just another couple of branches. Judaism had the capacity to contain different theologies. The chief reason for the split was cultural and historical.
The three stages contain both external causes, historic events forced upon them by the Romans, and also decisions made from the Pharisaic Rabbinic side to exclude the Christians. This implies that it was only because of the Romans and the Jews that the split occurred, and the “poor Christians” were the victims. This is not entirely true, the Christians earn part of the blame too. But at this stage they didn’t have the political power to enforce decisions that caused large watershed moments like these.
The three stages are:
1. The Great Rebellion and the destruction of the temple, 66-73 AD.
2. The inclusion of “birkat haminim” in the Jewish synagogue prayers, around 100 AD.
3. The Bar Kochba revolt and the declaration of Bar Kochba as the Messiah, 130 AD.
This is not to say that Judaism and Christianity were two entirely separate religions after 130 AD. Many still saw them as distinct versions of the same faith. It took additional centuries for them to grow apart, to be as different as we see them today.
- The destruction of the temple
The destruction of the temple caused a rift for two reasons, both from the Jewish and from the Christian side. I previously mentioned the capacity Judaism had to contain vastly different theologies. That was only true as long as all the different fractions could gather around the same temple. Once the temple vanished, it became more important for the new Rabbinic authority to streamline the theology, and there was less wiggle room for theologies that didn’t line up with their Pharisaic way of interpreting scriptures. Even the Sadducees who had been the leaders who held all the important positions, were pushed aside and disappeared. The same happened to the Nazarenes. From the Christian side, their missionary activity had created many gentile Christian churches throughout the Mediterranean area who all, at least initially, were subject to the apostles and their heirs in Jerusalem. With Jerusalem gone, the “Jewish head” of the church had disappeared. There was still a church in Jerusalem, but it was much smaller and not as powerful as it had been before. The larger Christian congregations in Antiochia, Alexandria, Ephesus and Rome became more central to Christianity as a whole which increased gentile influence.
2. The inclusion of “birkat haminim” in the Jewish prayers
Around 100 AD, although no one knows the exact date, the Sanhedrin added a curse against heretics, “minim.” The word “min” means type or sort, and it referred to heretic types and sorts of Judaism. Some believe that it was meant specifically about the Nazarene Jews, or Christians, and that “M.I.N.” was thought of as an abbreviation of “Ma’aminey Yeshua haNotzri,” “Believers in Yeshua of Nazareth.” The exact phrasing differs in different Jewish expressions nowadays. A Cairo Genizah from the medieval times include specific reference to the “Notzrim,” the Nazarenes, but no modern version does. The Talmud says that Rabbi Shmuel haKatan phrased it, following a request from Raban Gamliel ben Shimon. If you recognize the name Gamliel, it is because he has the same name as his grandfather who was mentioned in the New Testament – the teacher of Paul the apostle who advised against the persecution of the believers. Sadly, his grandson didn’t follow in his footsteps. The Talmud says that if a chazan in a synagogue hesitates when reading this specific curse, they remove him from his position, as he is suspected of being a heretic. This shows it was used as a litmus test – rejecting the Christians from the synagogues.
But it shows something else that we maybe don’t think of – that the Nazarenes did go to the synagogue as late as 100 AD, and it was so prevalent the Rabbis felt the need to add a curse to oust them from it. This proves that it was not the choice of the Christians to part from the synagogue.
Antisemitic versions of Christianity often think of Christianity as distinct from Judaism from the very start. We can clearly see in history that it’s utter rubbish.
3. The Bar Kochba revolt
In 130 AD, the military leader Bar Kochba revolted against Rome. It was the last large Jewish rebellion, and the war raged for two years. It ended with a crushing victory for Rome, and a full-scaled attempt to erase the Jewish nation. Jerusalem was destroyed, and on its ruins they built a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina (if you have visited Jerusalem and seen the old Roman pillars – sorry, they are not from Jesus’ time; they are from Aelia Capitolina). They erased the name of Judea, and enlarged the Philistine area, which they called Palestine, to encompass all the land. Prior to this, the name “Palestine” only referred to the coastal area of Gaza and Ashkelon, inhabited chiefly by gentiles.
Before the defeat, Judea was independent for a couple of years. During that time, Bar Kochba ruled Judea based on Jewish law, and some talmudic references indicate that it is very possible that a sizeable amount of Nazarene, or Messianic Jews were executed during this time. Partly because of their “heretic” faith, but also because they didn’t assist their Jewish brethren in fighting against the Romans, and they refused to accept Bar Kochba as the Messiah. The de facto leader of the Sanhedrin at this time was Rabbi Akiva, the giant of faith who established the modern Rabbinic Judaism and died a gruesome death by the hand of the Romans. Religious Jews of today will talk about him with reverence and often minimize that fact that he believed in a false Messiah. Some will acknowledge that he made a crucial mistake of thinking of Bar Kochba as the Messiah. Others will say that he eventually realized his error, removed his blessing from Bar Kochba, and that’s when the Romans eventually were able to destroy Judea.
Be that as it may, this caused a serious rift between the Jews and the Christians. Both because the Jews had put their faith in a false Messiah, causing many Christians to wish to distance themselves from anything Jewish, and possibly also because many of the Jesus-believing Jews were no longer alive after the persecutions under Bar Kochba.
Notice something fascinating – the final watershed moment when the Jews and Christians go separate ways occur at the Bar Kochba revolt, when the Jewish people also part from their land. It is also when the Jewish people return to the land of Israel in modern time that we once again see a movement of Messianic Jews arise. When the people of Israel returns to its ancient homeland, fulfilling the ancient prophecies, God is also preparing for the next stage of those prophecies – the salvation of Israel.
This article originally appeared on Tuvia’s blog, August 22, 2020, and reposted with permission.