THE JEWISH ROOTS OF CHRISTIANITY
Copyright © 2018, 2020 by Jeffrey J. Harrison. All rights reserved.
Cover art, photos, diagrams, and artwork are by the author or are in the public domain. Bible verses translated by the author
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Table of ContentsPreface xi
Part I. The Fertile Root:
Jews and Gentiles in the Body of Messiah 1
Jewish Christianity 1
Why Should We Care? 2
Pentecost: Something Completely New? 5
Zealots for the Law 6
The Prophet Like Moses 8
Paul and the Jewish Law 8
Gentiles and the Jewish Law 11
The Council of Jerusalem 14
The Three Exceptions 16
Judaizing and Gentilizing 17
Circumcision and Uncircumcision 19
War with Rome 21
Jesus’ Prophecy of Destruction 23
Judaism after the War 25
Jewish Believers after the War 26
Interactions with the Rabbis 27
The Bar Kochba Revolt 28
Debates with the Rabbis 29
Rejection of the Nazarenes 31
The Gospel of the Hebrews 35
Nazarene Art and Symbols 36
The Cross Symbol 37
The Angel of the Lord 42
The Book of Revelation 45
Part II. Wild Branches:
The Gentilization of Christianity 51
Rome’s Attitude toward the Jews 57
Roman Attitudes toward Christians 60
The Persecution by Nero 62
Winds of War 64
The Epistle of Barnabbas 68
Hadrian versus Jews and Christians 69
The Apologists 71
The Sibylline Oracles 76
Anti-Judaism in Prophecy 78
The Sabbath 80
Passover (Pascha) 86
Gnosticism and Middle Platonism 92
The Beatific Vision 97
Priestly Celibacy 99
The Saints 102
Worship Services 104
Angels and Idols 106
Church Leadership 107
Part III. Uprooting the Tree:
Constantine, the Crusades, and Other Anti-Judaisms 109
The Conversion of Constantine 113
The Emperor as Head of the Christian Church 114
Changed Attitudes toward the Emperor 116
The Intolerance of the Imperial Church 119
The Imperial Church in Prophecy 122
Doctrinal Debates and Church Splits 124
Greek Philosophy and the Jewish God 128
The Rise of the Papacy 133
Continuing Persecution of the Jews 137
The Persian Invasion 138
Early Muslim History and Growth 144
Jews and Christians under Muslim Rule 145
The Impact of Islam on the West 146
The Approach of the Year 1000 152
The Millennium Reinterpreted 153
A Perfect Christian Society 155
The Crusades 157
The Crusading Spirit in Europe 161
The Ritual Murder Charge 163
Host Desecration 164
The Black Death 165
The Inquisition 166
The Ghetto 168
Book Burning 168
Papal Troubles 169
Lollards and Hussites 170
Luther and the Jews 173
The Counter-Reformation 175
The Puritans 175
Separation of Church and State 177
Russia and Poland 177
Germany’s Racial Anti-Semitism 179
The Holocaust 182
Part IV. Beauty Like the Olive:
Christianity and the Modern State of Israel 185
The United Nations Vote 193
The War of Independence 194
The Six-Day War 195
The Yom Kippur War 197
The Return of the Jewish People in Prophecy 198
Christians Helping Jews Return 200
The Restoration of the Land in Prophecy 201
The Rebirth of Jewish Christianity 203
Attitudes in Israel toward Messianic Jews and Christianity 204
Replacement Theology 211
Old Law and New 212
The Remnant of Israel 216
Invalid Attempts at Restoration 217
Valid Attempts at Restoration 220
Overcoming Christian Imperialism 221
Appendix I. Nazarene Influence outside the Roman Empire 227
The Church of the East 227
First Christians in Asia 228
Parthia (Iraq/Iran) 230
Evidence of Nazarene Influence 231
The Church in India 236
The Church in Arabia 237
Ethiopian Christianity 239
Appendix II. Gentiles in the Law of Moses 242
Appendix III. Abbreviations 248
That Christianity has Jewish roots is still an uncomfortable thought for many people. To accept it requires a major change in thinking. But though Christianity’s Jewish origins are now widely recognized, the impact of this change has only just begun.
Perhaps you’ve encountered Christianity’s Jewish roots through a Christian Passover meal or a Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Or maybe you have Messianic Jewish friends. You might have gone on a tour to Israel. Or maybe you like Messianic Jewish-style music or dance. You may have noticed the Messianic Jewish synagogues popping up in many places, or the new Jewish studies classes being offered at Bible colleges and seminaries. All these are only the beginning of what is quickly becoming the most important move of God in the Church for many generations: the restoration of the Jewish roots of Christianity.
But the fact that Christianity has Jewish roots raises many questions. What are these roots exactly? And why were they forgotten for so long? What effect is the rediscovery of these roots having on Christians today? And how should we respond to the many different opinions people have about this topic, strong opinions that often contradict one another? You may have heard people claiming that Gentile Christians should obey the Law of Moses: that they shouldn’t eat pork or shellfish, for example, or that they should worship on Saturday. But others, including most Messianic Jewish leaders in Israel, say that this is not necessary for Gentiles. How do we respond to these claims and counter-claims?
To find the answer, we need to dig back into Christian history, especially early Christian history, to find out what the Church’s original teaching on this subject was. That’s what this book is about: discovering the original Christian attitude toward the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and then finding out what happened over the years when so many of those roots were cut off and left behind. Then, with this background, we’ll be ready to correctly understand what God is doing today in restoring the Jewish roots of the Christian Church.
This teaching on the Jewish roots of Christianity began as a Landmarks of Faith Bible seminar presented to thousands of students and in scores of churches and Bible colleges in the U.S., Taiwan, and the Philippines. It grew out of Pastor Harrison’s experience living in Israel, his classes with some of the top Israeli archeologists and other leading scholars in Jerusalem, and his experience as a study tour teacher in Israel, introducing groups of Christians to the depth and breadth of the history of Israel. He also has a traditional seminary training and has taught the Bible and the history of the Church for more than twenty-five years.
For more information about Pastor Harrison and his ministry, visit his To the Ends of the Earth Ministries website at www.totheends.com.
For more great teaching visit our website at www.totheends.com
Christianity is Jewish? Until recently, this idea was shocking and upsetting to many people. Why was this a problem? Because for most of its history, Christianity defined itself in opposition to the Jews and Judaism. Christians led the way in persecuting Jews, over and over again through the centuries, including the most recent and most horrible persecution of all, the Holocaust that took place during World War II.
The horrors of the Holocaust finally opened the eyes of Christians, for the first time in centuries, to the injustice of this ancient hatred of the Jews and Judaism. Many began to realize how wrong the Church had been in its teaching and in its actions towards the Jews. But this was not just a problem in the Church’s relationship to the Jewish people. It was also a problem in how the Church understood its own identity and some of its most basic ideas: ideas that originated in Jewish culture and Jewish religion.
The rediscovery of the Church’s Jewish roots raises many questions. Why do Christians know so little about their Jewish origins? How did Christianity, which started out as a Jewish religion, become a mostly Gentile religion with great hostility toward the Jewish people? How did this Gentile influence change Christians’ understanding of their own faith? And what is the right way, the correct Biblical way, to get back in touch with our Jewish roots today?
This book is intended to answer those questions. We’re going to examine how Christianity rejected the Jewish people, how this rejection led it far from God’s plan and purpose, and how God is now pointing the way home. But this will not be the kind of Church history most of us are familiar with. There is a dark side to Christian history that most Christians know almost nothing about: a history of hatred, persecution, and rejection not only of the Jewish people in general, but also of Jewish believers in Jesus and others that tried to preserve Christianity’s Jewish roots. This is a difficult history that every Christian needs to know. And God has chosen our generation to hear this message and to act on it.
Some parts of this teaching will be challenging. But each part is important to get the whole picture. So I encourage you to hang in there through the whole teaching: it will be worth it in the end. This information has changed my life, and I believe it will change yours, too, and bring you into a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. Are you ready?
This book is divided into four parts:
1) Early Jewish and Gentile Christianity: What did the church look like when it was still in touch with its Jewish roots? What was God’s original plan for the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in the body of Messiah? There’s a lot of confusion on this topic that we’re going to clear up with the help of some long-forgotten truths.
2) The Gentilization of the Christian Faith: What happened when Christianity came to Rome and to other Gentile cities and towns? How did Gentile Christians understand and how did they misunderstand the gospel? How did a series of horrible wars make bitter enemies of Jews and Gentiles, and bring anti-Jewish attitudes into the Church—along with many misunderstandings of our Jewish and Biblical heritage. Some of these misunderstandings continue today. What are they and how can we correct them?
3) Imperial Christianity: In the 4th century, Christianity went from being the faith of a persecuted minority to the official religion of the Roman Empire. This was the origin of the state church, an official, government sponsored church. State churches can still be found in a few places in Europe today. In a state church, pastors are government employees whose salaries are paid by the government. But this also means they can be controlled by the government. This state church officially cut itself off from its Jewish roots, becoming a Gentile-only religion. The empire also introduced anti-Jewish laws and persecuted Bible-believing Christians that disagreed with its teachings.
Some of the worst atrocities came in the time of the Crusades, church-sponsored invasions in which thousands of Jews, Muslims, and Christians were killed in attacks and battles. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Inquisition: church-sponsored examination and torture of those who disagreed with official church teachings. Many of those tortured were Jewish. There were also other attacks against Jews, including pogroms and expulsions in Western as well as Eastern Europe. These are the pages of history that, as one scholar put it, the Church has torn out of its history books, but which the Jewish people and others have never forgotten—and which we, too, should never forget.
The peak of persecution came not in the Middle Ages, but in the 20th century. The Holocaust was one of the most horrible events in human history, in which six million Jews were killed, along with an equal number of Christian civilians, including many Polish people, Ukrainians, and others. This took place in historically Christian areas: Germany, Russia, and Poland. Many of those who committed these murders were baptized, church-going Christians. How could this happen? The Holocaust was not just a horrible “accident” along the road of history. It was the direct result of a long heritage of hatred and persecution of Jews and others by Christians, a sickness that gripped Christianity for more than a thousand years—and still does today in some places.
4) Christianity and the Modern State of Israel: We’ll also look at the dramatic rebirth of the State of Israel, the most important fulfillment of prophecy since the time of Jesus. More prophecies are being fulfilled in Israel today than at any other time since the life of Jesus. An important part of these prophecies is the rebirth of Jewish Christianity, or as it’s known today, Messianic Judaism. These events came as a shock to many Christians and Christian denominations. What do these amazing prophetic events mean? How does God want us to respond to them? How is God using Israel to restore the Church to its Jewish roots? And what will this mean for the Church in the years to come?
So that’s the plan. If you’d like, please feel free to join me in a word of prayer as we start our studies: Father God, open our hearts and our eyes as we study some of the difficult history of your Church. Help us hear the voice of the Spirit as we consider both the sins and the victories of the past, so that we can grow in wisdom and knowledge, and lead our generation into the truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Fertile Root
Jews and Gentiles
in the Body of Messiah
IN THE BOOK OF ACTS
To many Christians and to many Jewish people, Jewish Christianity, or if you prefer, Christian Judaism or Messianic Judaism, sounds like a contradiction in terms. How can you be Christian and Jewish at the same time? This contradiction can be seen in Christian artwork—even in Israel. The church at the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem has three huge wall mosaics at the front of the church.1 Jesus (Yeshua2) and the disciples appear with light skin, high foreheads, and light-colored hair: they’re shown as Gentile Europeans. But the high priest, Judas, and the others, the bad guys of the story, are shown as Jewish with exaggerated features: dark skin, large noses, and claw-like hands. This is, of course, absurd. Jesus and the disciples were just as Jewish as the others. So why are such inaccurate and insulting pictures allowed in a church, and not only in Israel, but in hundreds of other churches around the world? Why has there been this seeming revulsion to accept Jesus and his disciples as Jewish, and a tendency to paint other Jews as less than human? Why have so many Christians been ignorant of the most obvious truth about our religion: that we worship a Jewish savior, whose Jewish disciples founded a Jewish religion in Israel?
1 The Church of All Nations on the Mt. of Olives (1924).
2 Yeshua is the original Hebrew name of Jesus.
Originally, there was only one kind of Christianity: Jewish Christianity. This was the Christianity of Peter, Paul, James, and John. They didn’t stop being Jewish when they accepted Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, you could say they became more Jewish than ever when they accepted Yeshua (Jesus). In their writings, they claim that their belief in Jesus is the fulfillment of what Israel and the Jewish people are all about. It’s why God separated out Abraham from among the peoples. It’s why God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It’s why God spoke through the prophets: to prepare a people for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. That people was the Jewish people. And the early Jewish believers in Jesus were the first to fulfill this calling when they received him as the Messiah.3
3 These Jewish believers are the
we, the first to hope in the Messiah of Eph. 1:12.
We always tend to focus on the Jewish people that rejected Jesus. But as Paul says in Romans 11,
I, too, am an Israelite (Rom. 11:1). God didn’t reject Paul. Nor did he reject the thousands of other Jews that accepted Yeshua in the book of Acts and in later years. Sure, they were a minority of the population. But God has always worked with a remnant. As Paul put it:
Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved (Rom. 9:27).
Yet this original Jewish Christianity of Jesus, Peter, Paul, James, and John disappeared so completely from history that for centuries it was forgotten. Christians carried on as if there had never been such a thing. Christianity became a completely Gentile religion, cut off from its Jewish roots. Today we must piece together the evidence for the early Jewish Christians like a detective story, sorting out tiny bits and pieces of evidence to find out what happened.
Why Should We Care?
But why should we bother? Why should we care about the early Jewish Christians? As one fellow put it, “Why should I care about such a small group of people that lived so long ago?” What difference does it make to Christianity today, in countries thousands of miles away? Here are five good reasons to start with:
1) Because God himself cares about the Jewish people. The greatest fulfillment of prophecy taking place right now, in our lifetimes, is the restoration of Israel to the Jewish people: the rebirth of the State of Israel. This came as a shock to many Christians and Christian denominations. Why? Because for hundreds of years, Christians had been teaching that God has rejected the Jews and replaced Israel with the Church.4 And yet, miraculously, spectacularly, God has responded to that false teaching with a resounding “No! I have not rejected my people.” In the last generation alone, he has fulfilled dozens of his ancient promises to the Jewish people.5 This is a message from God that we need to listen to.
4 This teaching is known as Replacement Theology. It claims that the church inherited all of Israel’s blessings, leaving the Jewish people with all the curses of the Law.
5 For more on the restoration of Israel, see Part IV, Chapter 1.
2) Because Jesus (Yeshua) is Jewish. The gospels of Matthew and Luke list Jesus’ ancestry generation by generation all the way back to King David—back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s as Jewish as you can get! Not only did he look like a Jew: he spoke as a Jew, he taught as a Jew, most of his ministry was to his Jewish countrymen. If you remove Jesus’ ministry from this Jewish context, you will misunderstand much of his message and his meaning.6
6 This is the subject of our Jesus of Nazareth Seminar.
3) Because the New Testament is a Jewish book. Nearly all of the New Testament was written by Jewish believers in Jesus, and some of it was written to Jewish believers. One of the first things they teach you when you study Bible interpretation is to find out who is writing, and who they are writing to. Why? It makes a difference. Many churches want to be New Testament churches, but let’s face it, if we really want to have New Testament churches, we have to find out more about our Jewish roots. Otherwise, we will misunderstand what the Bible is talking about.
4) Because Christianity was originally a Jewish religion. As Jesus himself said,
Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22). Not only were Jesus and his original disciples Jewish, all those thousands saved on the day of Pentecost were, too (Acts 2:41).7 The hundreds saved in the Temple at the preaching of Peter and John were all Jewish (Acts 4:4). In fact, the entire Jesus movement was almost completely Jewish for more than ten years after the resurrection of Jesus.8 That’s how many years it took before they realized the gospel was also for Gentiles!
7 They had come up to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate the Jewish feast of Shavuot (also known as Weeks or Pentecost; Acts 2:5).
8 The Samaritans saved in Acts 8 were partly Jewish by ancestry. The Ethiopian Eunuch, who had
come to Jerusalem to worship was likely a convert (a proselyte) to Judaism (Acts 8:27). Only when Peter preached at the house of Cornelius did the gospel start to go out to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Even then, many of the Jewish believers had misgivings about preaching to Gentiles, a problem not finally resolved until the Council of Acts 15 in AD 49 (Acts 11:2-3).
In the early years, Jesus’ Jewish believers only preached the gospel to Jews,
...telling the word to no one except to Jews alone (Acts 11:19). This is the way the gospel was first spread, as a purely Jewish message, to Damascus (in Syria), Phoenicia (today’s Lebanon), Antioch (in Turkey), Cyprus, Alexandria (in Egypt),9 and Cyrene (in Libya), all as recorded in the book of Acts (Acts 9:2; 11:19,20; 18:24,25); but also, as we know from history, to Rome,10 and as far as India in the East11—all before the gospel was preached to the Gentiles! All of the most important ideas of this message—ideas like resurrection, Messiah, and a covenant relationship with God—these were all Jewish ideas, and unfamiliar to Gentiles.12
9 Assuming that Apollos of Alexandria, the Jewish preacher mentioned in Acts 18:24, heard the gospel in his home town. Eusebius says, speaking of the time before AD 49, that “the apostolic men [in Alexandria] were, it appears, of Hebrew origin, and thus still preserved most of the ancient customs in a strictly Jewish manner” (Church History 2.17.2).
10 The expulsion of the Jews from Rome because of a certain “Chrestus” (Christ) is evidence of the spread of the gospel in the Jewish community there before AD 49. This same expulsion is mentioned in Acts 18:2. The book of Romans, too, indicates that Paul was writing to a community that had not yet fully accepted the equality of Jews and Gentiles in Messiah (AD 57). Ambrosiaster, writing in the 4th century, said the Romans “had embraced the faith of Christ [before Paul’s visit], according to the Jewish rite, although they saw no sign of mighty works nor any of the apostles.” In the preface of his Commentary on Romans; in F. F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame (London: Paternoster Press, 1958; reprinted, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 136.
11 Archeological evidence supports the penetration of the gospel into India by AD 45. Evidence of the originally Jewish nature of Christianity in India includes eyewitness testimony of a Hebrew copy of Matthew in the 2nd cent. AD. Jewish traditions can still be found in the Indian Christian community today. See Appendix I.
12 Acts 17:32. The once popular theory that many New Testament ideas are foreign to Judaism has been effectively silenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls and other recent discoveries.
The disciples never said when they accepted Jesus (Yeshua) as Messiah that they left one religion and joined another. They never taught that Christianity was a new religion. Instead, they claimed that belief in Jesus is what we might call the “true Judaism,” the correct understanding of what Judaism is all about, and a fulfillment of that same Jewish religion.13
13 Origen in the 2nd cent. AD used the term “perfect Hebrews” to describe Jewish believers in Jesus (On Pascha 2).
5) Because even Gentile Christians are part of what God is doing with Israel. As Paul wrote to Gentile believers in Ephesus:
Remember that you were at that time without Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise (Eph. 2:12). But now, he says,
...you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but you are fellow-citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). The relationship of Gentile Christians to Israel is illustrated in the olive tree of Romans 11. That tree is Israel. Some branches have been broken off, other branches have been grafted in—but it’s still the same tree (Rom. 11:17-24). Israel is the root; Gentile believers are among the branches.14
14 Eusebius calls some faithful Gentile Egyptian Christians who suffered martyrdom in Palestine “inwardly true Jews, and the genuine Israel of God” (Martyrs of Palestine 11.8; early 4th cent.; cf. Rom. 2:29, Gal. 6:16).
Israel, in fact, is the focus and the heartbeat of God’s interaction with mankind—even if nearly the whole nation should turn away from God, as happened in the time of Elijah (1 Kings 19:14,18). Why? Because the true Israel is the spiritual remnant of the nation. As Paul said in Romans 9, quoting Isaiah:
Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, the remnant will be saved (Rom. 9:27, Isa. 10:22). And because of that holy remnant, Israel was and still is the apple of God’s eye (Deut. 32:10). The good news is that we as Gentiles have been invited to join that remnant: that God is willing to accept us, too, into his chosen people.
The coming together into unity of the remnant of Israel and a believing remnant of the Gentiles is one of the reasons Jesus died on the cross. As Paul said in Ephesians:
But now, in Messiah Jesus, you who once were far away [believing Gentiles] were made near by the blood of Messiah. For he himself is our peace, who made both [Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus] one and destroyed the dividing wall…, the hostility between the two, in his flesh…that in himself he may create out of the two one new man…by means of the cross (Eph. 2:13-16).
Satan has done everything he can over the years to destroy that unity and tear it apart. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is still God’s plan for Gentile believers in Jesus to be incorporated into the spiritual reality of Israel. We, too, have become citizens of the Jewish kingdom of a Jewish king: King Jesus (King Yeshua), who rules and reigns over his Messianic kingdom.
Pentecost: Something Completely New?
This is not the traditional Christian view. Many Christians see the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 as the start of something completely new, the new religion of Christianity. It’s often called the “birthday” of the Church, as if it was totally disconnected from all the preceding history of Israel. But that’s not how the disciples themselves understood it. Peter quoted the prophet Joel that day to explain what was happening, saying:
And it will be in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17 quoting Joel 2:28). The Messiah was to come at the end of time, at the completion of the age.
As the apostle Paul put it,
When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son (Gal. 4:4). This
fullness of time is imagery from the water clocks used in Roman times. When the container filled with water, it was the end of the time marked on the container. The Messiah, in other words, came at the end of the age, in the fullness of time. For the disciples, this was not the beginning of the story, but the last chapter in a story that was already ages old, tracing all the way back to Moses and Abraham, even back to Adam himself.
The festival this happened at, the festival of Pentecost, is one of the Biblical feasts the Jewish people celebrate every year, also known as the Feast of Weeks, or in Hebrew, Shavuot (Lev. 23:15-21). In Judaism, Pentecost is the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. On this day, they remember their incredible experience in the desert, when a thick cloud descended on Mt. Sinai with thunder and flashes of lightning and the loud blast of a trumpet (Exo. 19:18,19). No wonder God chose this day to send the Holy Spirit on the apostles, with the noise of a strong, rushing wind, and with tongues of fire resting on each one of them (Acts 2:2,3). God was descending again in the fire of the Holy Spirit!
As at Sinai, this was a revelation from heaven to change something in their relationship with God. As Jesus said just a few days before,
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses (Acts 1:8). The Jewish people had long recognized obedience to God’s Word—to his Law—to be a witness to the nations. Even the tablets of the Ten Commandments are called the
tablets of witness (Exo. 31:18). They were a witness to the reality of God’s covenant with his people. But now that testimony would no longer be engraved on tablets of stone, but on the hearts of men.
As Jeremiah prophesied:
I will put my Law in their inward parts, and on their heart I will write it (Jer. 31:33). This is what in the New Testament is called the Law of the Messiah (1 Cor. 9:21, Gal. 6:2), the law of faith (Rom. 3:27), the law of liberty (James 1:25, 2:12), the Royal Law (James 2:8), the commandment of the Lord (2 Pet. 3:2), the holy commandment (2 Pet. 2:21), the commandment (1 Tim. 6:14), his commandments (1 John 2:34, 2 John 1:6), or as Jesus said, my commandments (John 14:15,21; 15:10): an inner law of holiness that is in us because of the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
To the Jewish disciples of Jesus, this new Law was not a contradiction of the Law of Moses, but its confirmation. As Paul says in Romans 3,
Do we make the Law of no use, then, through faith? May it never be! Rather, we confirm the Law (Rom. 3:31). In Romans 8, Paul says that the new law of the Spirit was given
in order that the requirement of the Law [of Moses] may be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4). The Spirit of God in us gives us the power to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses!
Zealots for the Law
The book of Acts tells us that the thousands of new Jewish believers in Jesus in Jerusalem were
all zealots for the Law (Acts 21:20). Instead of abandoning the Law of Moses because of their faith in Yeshua, they became more devoted to the Law than they had ever been before! The same thing often happens today. Jewish people who become believers in Jesus often “rediscover” their Jewishness, and suddenly become very interested in Jewish history, Israel, and the Jewish Law.
The obedience of Jewish believers to the Law of Moses has been a big stumbling block for Gentile Christians over the years. When I first heard about it, I couldn’t accept it, because it contradicted traditions I had been taught in church and in seminary. But the facts of the Bible are indisputable, as most scholars recognize today.
For example, the early Jewish believers in Jesus continued to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus:
And they were constantly in the Temple, blessing God.
Every day…spending a lot of time with one mind in the Temple
Peter and John were ascending into the Temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer
All the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s [located in the outer courts of the Temple]
They were all with one mind in the Portico of Solomon
They entered about dawn into the Temple and were teaching
Every day…in the Temple...they didn’t stop teaching and telling the good news of Jesus the Messiah
They also continued to participate in synagogue worship:
He asked for letters to Damascus to the synagogues, so that if he found some who were of the Way [followers of Jesus]
From synagogue to synagogue I was imprisoning and beating those who believe in you
For if a man in shining clothes with gold rings on his fingers enters into your synagogue15
15 This is often translated differently, but the original Greek here is clearly
synagogue. The same root appears in verbal form in Hebrews 10:25: “...not giving up our meeting (episynagogeen) together.”
In fact, the first name used for the Christian movement by believers themselves was not Christianity.16 It was called
the Way (ha-Derekh in Hebrew):17
So that if he found some who were of the Way
But as some were becoming hardened...speaking evil of the Way
A commotion took place, and not a little one, concerning the Way
Who persecuted this Way to the death
According to the Way that they call a sect
Felix, since he understood the facts concerning the Way more accurately
2 Peter 2:2:
The Way of the truth will be slandered
16 The name “Christian,” which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew term “Messianic” (Meshichi), was first used of the church in Antioch more than ten years after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 11:26). In Israel, outsiders called the believers Nazarenes, the name still used in Israel for Christians today (Notzrim).
17 This same Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament to describe a life of obedience to the revealed commands of God:
the way of the Lord,
the way of peace,
the right way (Gen. 18:19, 24:48; Jud. 2:22; Psa. 27:11, 77:13, 86:11, 139:24; Pro. 10:29; Is. 40:3, 59:8; and many others).
Belief in Jesus was seen as the “way” to go, the way to live, or we could say, rules for living.18 It was not so much a creed of correct beliefs, although beliefs were certainly important. But the emphasis was on how you lived. This is still the focus of Judaism today. Rabbis teach their students the correct way to live, the correct way to obey the Law of Moses (the halakha19). In the same way, Jewish believers understood that their rabbi, Yeshua (Jesus), had given them the correct Way to live, the correct interpretation of the Law of Moses.
18 This self-understanding can be seen in the Didache, an early writing of the “Way” thought to have been composed in Syria in the first or second centuries AD. It presents the Christian faith as a choice between two ways: one was the Way of life taught by Jesus, the other was the way of death.
19 This means literally “the walk” or “the way to walk (or live)” in obedience to the Jewish Law.
The Prophet Like Moses
This was one of the Jewish expectations of the Messiah: that the Messiah would resolve all the difficulties of the Law of Moses. Where did they get this idea from? From Deut. 18:18,19, one of the most well-known prophecies about the Messiah:
I will raise up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you [Moses], and I will put my words in his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.... The man that will not listen to my words that he will speak in my name, I will require it from him. This was a prophecy that God would send a prophet “like Moses,” that is, not an ordinary prophet, but one with the law-making authority of Moses himself to explain God’s Law. And how would they recognize this prophet? God said he would “raise him up” (Deut. 18:18). In Hebrew, this is the same word used for resurrection (Hos. 6:2, Jer. 30:9).
That’s why when Jesus asked the disciples,
Who do men say that I am? (Matt. 16:13), they answered, John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets: all people that were already dead. Because of Deut. 18:18, they were looking for a prophet who had been raised from the dead. But it wasn’t until after the resurrection of Jesus that they understood its true meaning: It was a prophecy of Jesus’ own resurrection, and the proof that he is the Prophet like Moses, who interprets God’s Law for us, and whose words must be obeyed.
For the early Jewish followers of the Way, it would be impossible to imagine any contradiction between the Law of Moses and the Law of Messiah. Christianity was not a replacement of Judaism, but its fulfillment. As Jesus himself said,
Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fill them (Matt. 5:17).20 So of course his Jewish followers continued to live as Jesus himself did, obeying the Law of God as Jesus had interpreted it for them.
20 ‘The Law and the Prophets’ is the Jewish name of the Old Testament. The word
fill (plerosai) here means not only to fulfill as in fulfilling a prophecy, but also to fill with their proper meaning, to interpret correctly, as Jesus did both in his life and his teaching ministry. Unfortunately, many Christians have taken this verse to mean that Jesus fulfilled and therefore did away with the Law and the Prophets, even though this directly contradicts the first part of the verse, as well as the verse following:
For...until the heaven and the earth pass away, a single iota [the smallest letter] or a single stroke will certainly not pass away from the Law until all comes to pass (Matt. 5:18). See the analysis of New Testament verses in Part IV, Chapter 2.
Paul and the Jewish Law
Many are willing to admit that Jesus himself observed the Jewish Law, along with many of his disciples: those that were
zealots for the Law (Acts 21:20). But what about Paul? Did he obey the Law? There is a popular view that Paul was against the Law of Moses. Some go so far as to claim there was a split between the followers of James in Jerusalem, who kept the Law, and the followers of Paul, who did not. Is this true? Was Paul really against the Jewish Law, as so many believe?
According to the book of Acts, many years after accepting Jesus, Paul took a vow:
...he had shaved his head in Cenchrea, because he had made a vow (Acts 18:18). What kind of vow was this? A Jewish Nazirite vow, taught in the Law of Moses (Num. 6:1-21).21 Why would Paul do this as a believer in Jesus, if he was against the Law?
21 Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist were life-long Nazirites, but this was quite unusual. The Nazirite vow was usually of much shorter duration, often for thirty days.
He continued to observe the Jewish feasts, as it says in Acts 20:6:
We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread... Why after the feast? Because the Law forbid travel on holy days. Or as it says in Acts 20:16:
...for he [Paul] was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if it was possible, on the day of Pentecost. Why? To celebrate the feast. And again in 1 Cor. 16:8:
But I will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost... Paul continued to follow the Jewish festival calendar.
On another trip to Jerusalem, Paul found out that the rumor had gone out, just as it has gone out today, that he was teaching Jews to stop observing the Law and to stop circumcising their children:
They have been informed about you that you are teaching apostasy from Moses to all the Jews among the Gentiles, saying not to circumcise their children or walk according to the customs [of the Jews] (Acts 21:21). What did he do about it? He went up to the Temple, not only to prove that these charges were false, but also to prove that he himself was faithfully keeping the Law (Acts 21:23-26). As he said later in Acts 25:8:
Neither against the Law of the Jews, nor against the Temple...have I committed any sin.
The accusations against Paul were similar to those against Stephen in Acts 6:13-14:
And they set up false witnesses saying, Notice that it was the false witnesses that said Jesus would change the Law!
This man does not stop saying things against the Holy Place [the Temple] and the Law; for we have heard him saying that this Jesus, the Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses delivered to us [the Law].
But perhaps the most powerful argument about Paul is this: If Paul was really against the Law, why did he circumcise Timothy?
Paul wanted this man [Timothy] to go with him; and having taken him, he circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places (Acts 16:3). But isn’t Paul the one who said to the Galatians:
If you become circumcised, Messiah will not benefit you at all (Gal. 5:2)? What’s going on? Is Paul for or against circumcision? Is he for or against the Law of Moses?
Let’s let him answer this puzzle in his own words:
Was anyone called who is circumcised [in other words, who is Jewish22]? Let him not become uncircumcised.23 Was anyone called in uncircumcision [in other words, a Gentile]? Let him not be circumcised.... (1 Cor. 7:18,20).24 According to Paul, being a Jew (circumcised) or being a Gentile (uncircumcised) is a calling of God that cannot and should not be changed when you become a believer in Jesus.
Each in the calling in which he was called, let him remain in this calling
22 Circumcision in the New Testament does not refer simply to the physical act of circumcision, but rather to the entire ritual of circumcision by which one enters into the covenant of Abraham and becomes responsible to the Law of Moses. This does not include Gentiles circumcised for health reasons.
23 An operation called epispasm could be done to remove the signs of circumcision.
24 Paul uses the saying
each in the calling in which he was called as if it were already familiar to his readers.
Timothy was Jewish because his mother was Jewish. This is what makes someone Jewish even today (Acts 16:1).25 Therefore he should be circumcised. But the Gentile Christians in Galatia should not be, since they are Gentiles. A Gentile should continue as a Gentile; and a Jew should continue as a Jew, which includes obeying the Law of Moses.
25 Although “who is a Jew?” is a hotly debated topic, one definition to which all have agreed since the time of the New Testament is that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish.
This doesn’t mean that the Law can contribute anything to salvation. It can’t. Nothing is more obvious to a Jewish believer in Jesus that obeyed the Law all his or her life, but was never saved by it (Gal. 2:16). Salvation is only through faith for both Jew and Gentile. This is just as true now as it was in the time of the Old Testament, for salvation was only ever by faith (Gal. 3:11).26 As Paul puts it in Gal. 3:6,
Abraham believed God, and it was counted for him as righteousness.
26 This is the whole point of Paul’s argument in Gal. 3: that salvation was never available through the Law (Gal. 3:11). The popular idea that salvation was once available through obedience to the Law is contrary to this clear Biblical teaching.
But for many Gentile Christians, for Jewish Christians to obey the Law doesn’t make sense. If observing the Law is not essential to salvation, and in fact never provided salvation, why should Jewish believers in Jesus obey it? The answer: because God told them to. He made a covenant with them, which the Bible says will endure as long as the heavens and the earth endure (Matt. 5:18). Have the heavens and the earth passed away? No. Then it’s still in force! As Jesus said,
Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). Obedience to the Law is not and never was a means of salvation (Gal. 2:21).27 But it continues to play an important role: to point to the Messiah, and to confirm that Jesus is who he says he is!
27 As it says in Gal. 3:21:
For if a law was given that was able to give life, righteousness would surely have been by law. Does faith then invalidate the Law?
May it never be! Rather [through faith] we confirm the Law (Rom. 3:31).
As Paul says in Romans 11, speaking about this same point:
For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). Jews are Jewish, and as Jews, they should continue to keep the Law of Moses, even after coming to faith in Messiah: it’s their calling.28 Remember, too, that at the time, the Law of Moses was the law of the land.29 It would make no more sense for a Jewish believer in Jesus to break the Law of Moses than for a Gentile Christian to break the laws of his own country. The Bible says that we should obey the authorities over us (Rom. 13:1-7, 1 Pet. 2:12-15). How much more when you know that those laws were given by God himself!
28 Augustine of Hippo (5th cent.) argued that a sudden cancellation of the Law with the coming of Messiah would have given the false impression that the Law, which Paul called “holy and good” was instead “worthy of abhorrence and condemnation.” Letters of Augustine 82.2.15; in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series (NPNF1), ed. Philip Schaff, (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1886; repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 1.354. In order to avoid this charge, God ordained the Law to continue among Jewish believers in Jesus. But it was not commanded for Gentiles, in order to show that the Law was not necessary for salvation. Augustine’s words were prophetic: those who believed that the Law had been abruptly cancelled came to exactly this conclusion—that it was “worthy of abhorrence and condemnation”—and abhorred the Jewish people along with it.
29 Both in Israel and elsewhere in the Roman world, Jewish population centers were allowed to regulate themselves according to the Law of Moses, which was officially recognized by the Roman Empire.
Now that is a different point of view than we’re usually taught! And it just might make us downright uncomfortable. When I first heard this idea from modern Messianic Jews, I couldn’t accept it. It went against ancient prejudices I’d been taught in seminary. But as I studied the evidence, verse by verse, in Greek and in Hebrew, I was shocked to find: they’re right! It’s what the Bible has always taught. And it’s what the early Jewish Christians did without debate or disagreement for hundreds of years. We Gentile Christians just forgot how to understand these verses correctly.
Gentiles and the Jewish Law
So if Israel is the focus of God’s work in the world, and we Gentile Christians have been grafted into Israel, what about us? Are we supposed to keep the Law, too? If we are fellow citizens with the holy ones, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:19, shouldn’t we obey the same laws that they do? This was the big question troubling the early Church. They never questioned whether Jews should obey the Law, but what about us, the Gentile Christians? Do we need to observe the Sabbath, as some teach? Do we need to avoid pork, as others teach? What about blood? What about Jewish festivals? Today there are many groups teaching that Gentile Christians must obey the Law of Moses. Are they right?
The place of Gentiles with regard to Jewish religion was not a new problem in the time of the book of Acts: the Jews had already spent hundreds of years debating whether Gentiles should obey the Law of Moses or not. Some rabbis, we’ll call them Group A, taught that Gentiles who wanted to serve God should convert to Judaism: they should become proselytes.30 This meant they had to obey all the Jewish laws, just like those born Jewish.
30 There were three steps to becoming a proselyte: (1) circumcision (for males), (2) ritual immersion, and (3) offering a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. Nicolas, one of the seven deacons of Acts 6 was a proselyte from Antioch (Acts 6:5).
But other rabbis, we’ll call them Group B, taught that it was not necessary for Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses.31 The Law was a covenant between God and the Jewish people alone.32 Instead, they said, it’s enough for Gentiles to observe a much smaller group of laws that later came to be known as the Laws of Noah.33 Where did they get these laws? Most likely from the sections of the Law of Moses that concern Gentiles living in Israel.34 The Laws of Noah were eventually standardized as seven: “The descendants of Noah were commanded seven precepts:  to establish courts of justice,  to refrain from blasphemy,  idolatry,  sexual immorality,  murder,  robbery, and  eating flesh cut from a living animal [that is, with its blood still in it].”35
31 See, for example, the story of Izates, the king of Adiabene in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (20.2.3-4). After he became convinced of the truth of the Jewish religion, one Jewish teacher discouraged him from becoming circumcised while another pressed him to do so.
32 bSanh. 59a. This was also the understanding of the earliest Christians: “For the law promulgated on Horeb…belongs to yourselves [the Jewish people] alone.” Justin Martyr, 2nd cent., Dialogue with Trypho 11, Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 1.200.
33 The Laws of Noah were formalized after the time of the New Testament. But the idea of seven Noachide laws can already be seen in the book of Jubilees, which dates to the pre-Christian era and was influential in early Christianity (7:20,28,29). The Laws of Noah are mentioned in many places in rabbinic literature, including Gen. Rab. 16:6, 24:5, 34:8; bSanh. 56a-59b; bHul. 92a; and bBK 38a. This body of law was later associated with the “Natural Law” of Gentile Christian theology, as already in Tertullian, 3rd cent., An Answer to the Jews 2.
34 These are the laws concerning the gerim, Gentile strangers who lived among the Israelites (see Appendix II). This body of law closely matches the rabbis’ seven laws: the prohibition of sexual immorality (Lev. 18:26), the prohibition of eating blood (Lev. 17:10,13,15), the prohibition of idolatry (Lev. 20:2), the prohibition of blasphemy (Lev. 24:16), and the prohibition of murder (Lev. 24:22). They also match many of the Ten Commandments. The rabbinic and Christian attempts to derive these laws from the early chapters of Genesis were clearly secondary to the formulation of the laws themselves (Gen. Rab. 16:6, 24:5; Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews 2).
35 bSanh. 56a. Only two of these laws are clearly stated in the Biblical account of the Covenant of Noah: the prohibition of murder (Gen. 9:5,6) and the prohibition of blood (
Flesh with its life, its blood, you will not eat; Gen. 9:4). A third, the establishment of courts, is said to be implied by Gen. 9:6:
The one shedding the blood of man, by man his blood will be shed. Note that the rabbinical list leaves out the command to observe the Sabbath (more on this in Part II).
The rabbis of Group B accepted any Gentile who was willing to obey the Laws of Noah. They called them Godfearers or Fearers of Heaven.36 Modern Judaism uses the terms Righteous Gentiles or Sons of Noah (B’nei Noach). These are the same Godfearers that appear in the book of Acts, where we see them worshiping in synagogues with the Jewish people. Such a Gentile, they taught, will have a share in the world to come. So for the rabbis of Group B, the Gentiles have their own law, the Laws of Noah, and their own accountability before God, which is different than that of the Jewish people. Or to express it another way, Gentiles who want to be perfectly obedient to the Law of Moses need only keep the Laws of Noah, since this is the section of the Law of Moses that applies to Gentiles.37 In later years, this second point of view, the view of Group B, was accepted as the normative view in Judaism, and is still taught today.
36 “Fearer of heaven” (yirei shamayim) was the Hebrew term; “Godfearer” was its Greek equivalent (phoboumenoi ton theon in Acts 10:2,22,35; 13:16,26) as well as “worshipper (of God)” (sebomenoi in Acts 13:50; 16:14; 17:4,17; 18:7).
37 The Laws of Noah are held by the rabbis to be validly observed only if they are accepted as part of the Law of Moses.
This idea of different religious laws for different groups of people is difficult for many modern Gentiles to accept. Our legal and religious systems have, at least in modern times, developed a strong moral tendency toward treating all people alike.38 But in the Law of Moses, there are different laws for men and women, for priests and Levites, for kings, for children, for married, for single—and for Jews and Gentiles. Each has a special calling, and there are different laws that apply to each calling.
38 Though many legal differences remain: children have a different position before the law than adults, as do citizens and non-citizens, landlords and tenants, manufacturers and consumers, employers and employees, spouses and non-spouses, etc.
Take, for example, the case of pork: the Jewish people are forbidden to eat it, while Gentiles are not. This difference in law is disturbing to some people. How can both eating pork and not eating it be acceptable to God? Well, as the rabbis explain it, the prohibition of pork is not intended to imply anything about the pork itself. Pork is a perfectly good food. So why did God prohibit pork for the Jewish people? To set them apart from others—period.39 It’s part of their special calling. This is not because pork is bad for you, or has something about it physically or spiritually that makes it unclean. It’s simply because God, for reasons unknown to man, selected pork to be forbidden to the Jewish people. As Lev. 11:7 says,
It is unclean for you—the Jewish people.40 It doesn’t say anything about it being unclean in itself or to others.
39 This is already the point of view taken in the Letter of Aristeas (2nd cent. BC) 143-144. Many have tried to find physical reasons for the food prohibitions of the Law of Moses, and have come up with many fascinating insights. But the bottom line remains God’s decision to separate the Jewish people.
40 Leviticus 11 is clearly addressed
to the sons of Israel (Lev. 11:2), and not to the Gentiles living among them. Jesus did not reverse this teaching of the Law, despite the common mistranslation of Mark 7:19 as ‘thus he declared all foods clean.’ Here Jesus was disputing the tradition of the Pharisees about eating food with unwashed hands. Nor did Jesus teach against any other precept of the written Law. As he himself said,
Do not suppose that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets... (Matt. 5:17). For more on this controversy, see our teaching “Did Jesus Abolish the Jewish Food Laws?” at https://www.totheends.com/hands.html
This is exactly the point of view of the apostle Paul in Romans 14:14:
I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing [he’s talking about food] is unclean in itself. Paul agreed with the rabbis of Group B that observing the Law of Moses is not required for all mankind. If you are a Gentile believer and you stop eating pork, it won’t make you any more holy. Why not? Because the pork itself is not the issue. The issue is whether or not you are being obedient to the calling that God has given you.
Circumcision [that is, being a Jew] is nothing, and uncircumcision [being a Gentile] is nothing, but rather keeping the commandments of God (1 Cor. 7:19). A Jew who obeys God will not eat, because it’s forbidden to him, and a Gentile who obeys God is free to eat. Why? Because each has his own calling from God:
Each in the calling in which he was called (1 Cor. 7:20);
for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).
But what about Galatians 3:28?:
There is no Jew or Greek, there is no slave or free, there is no male and female, for you all are one in Messiah Jesus. Doesn’t that prove we are all the same, with no differences between us? Does it? It certainly proves that we are all one body in Messiah. All of us are accepted by faith, no matter what kind of person we are. But does this mean that men stop being men and women stop being women? Of course not. Nor does it mean that Jews stop being Jews or Gentiles stop being Gentiles. We all have our individual callings. But, Paul says, in spite of this diversity of callings, in spite of these differences in personal identity, we are all one in Messiah. Diversity in unity, unity in diversity: this is one of the great truths and the great revelations of the New Testament.
God doesn’t want a gray uniformity, an army of robots with everyone doing exactly the same thing. What he wants is unity, like a symphony orchestra, all working together toward a shared goal. But each plays a different instrument with different notes. This is the same God who made thousands of different flowers, thousands of different trees, yet all blend harmoniously into beautiful landscapes. This is Paul’s vision for the body of Messiah:
one body and one Spirit…. But grace was given to each of us individually, according to the measure of Messiah’s gift to each of us…. from whom the whole body…is, as a result of the action corresponding to the measure of the gift given to each individual part, causing the body to grow by building itself up in love (Eph. 4:4,7,15,16). Paul’s language is a little difficult, but the point is crystal clear: the body of Messiah best matures in love when each of us is operating in harmony with the others, according to our own individual gifts and callings.
The Council of Jerusalem
The Jewish followers of Jesus were at first split on the issue of Gentiles and the Law. Some, influenced by the rabbis of Group A, felt that to be a true follower of the Way, Gentiles must convert to Judaism. Others, influenced by the rabbis of Group B, felt that Gentile believers were not required to convert and keep the Law of Moses. The issue finally came to a head in Antioch when Paul and Barnabas got into a fierce debate with a group of Jewish believers from Judea (Acts 15:1,2; Gal. 2:12-14).
Because of this, the leaders of the Messianic community held a meeting in Jerusalem to decide what to do about the Gentiles.41 The believers who were Pharisees said that Gentile believers must be circumcised, that they must become proselytes (converts) to Judaism (Acts 15:5). Peter, speaking for the other side, told of his experience at Caesarea, when God sent the Holy Spirit on uncircumcised Gentiles, a sign that they should be accepted without circumcision (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas told of the signs and wonders God had done for uncircumcised Gentiles during their missions outreach in Turkey and Cyprus (Acts 15:12). Then a decision had to be reached.
41 Acts 15, in AD 49.
That’s when James, the brother of Jesus, began to speak. He quoted a passage from the book of Amos in favor of the position of Peter and Paul:
After these things, I will return and rebuild the tent of David that has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins and restore it, so that the rest of mankind will seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles over whom my name has been named (Acts 15:16-17, quoting Amos 9:11-12).42 On the basis of this verse, the issue was settled. Why? What does it mean? What is the tent of David?
42 James’ quote of Amos is strongly influenced by the Old Greek translation of the Bible (the Septuagint), which understands the
Edom of Amos 9:12 to be
Adam (mankind). The two are quite similar in Hebrew, not to mention that the rabbis often interpreted Edom as a prophetic reference to the Roman Empire. Few modern translations bring out the full force of the original, literally:
for whom my name has been named over them (though compare the King James:
upon whom my name is called).
The tent of David is an allusion to the kingly line of David.43 This ruling house fell into ruins at the time of the Babylonian exile (6th cent. BC). But it is now restored in Jesus, a restoration that has opened the door to Gentiles as well as to Jews to seek the Lord. Amos’s words imply that Gentiles as Gentiles, all those
over whom my name has been named (a prophetic allusion to baptism), are fully acceptable to God without conversion to Judaism.44
43 This is how the rabbis also understood it (bSanh. 97a).
44 Some claim that the words
from the Gentiles used in Acts 15 are evidence that Gentile believers should no longer be considered Gentiles, but are now Israelites under the Law (Acts 15:14,19,23). But neither the Greek used here nor the chapter itself supports this interpretation. The decision of the council was to exempt Gentile believers from obligation to the Law of Moses. Gentile believers are
called out not into Judaism but into the kingdom of the Messiah, a kingdom that includes both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus as co-equal citizens (1 Pet. 2:9, Eph. 2:19).
It’s important to remember that in David’s historical kingdom there were not only Israelites, but Gentiles of many different varieties: Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and others. But of all these many groups of people, the Law of Moses applied only to the Israelite portion of his kingdom. This is the pattern presented in Acts for the believing community. All who accept Jesus as Messiah come under his royal authority. But only the Jewish believers among them are also called to be obedient to the Law of Moses.
The tent of David also brings to mind the tent that David built for the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:17). Here God was worshipped not according to the Law of Moses, which required the Tabernacle of Moses, but according to the instructions of David. The tent of David was an acceptable way to worship God outside the Law of Moses. This is exactly what James and the other Messianic leaders envisioned for Gentile Christians: that they would participate in the worship of the Messiah without coming under the Law of Moses.
James and those with him accepted the prophecy of Amos as proof that it is not necessary for Gentiles to convert to Judaism in order follow Jesus. God has made another way for them through the tent of David, a picture and a type of the ministry of Messiah. And because of that decision, Gentile Christians are not under the Law of Moses today.
The Three Exceptions
But there were three exceptions to this general ruling, three laws of Moses that they decided should be required of Gentile believers:
Write to them to keep away from  the impurities of the idols,46 and  sexual immorality, and  what is strangled and blood (Acts 15:20).47 This may strike you as strange. They had just decided on the basis of prophecy that Gentile followers of the Way are not under the Law of Moses. But then they turn right around and impose three of the laws of Moses on them. What’s going on here? If you look carefully, you’ll see that these are three of the Laws of Noah.48 By requiring these
necessary things (Acts 15:28), the leadership showed its essential agreement with the rabbis of Group B, who did not require Gentiles to convert to Judaism, but did require that they obey the Laws of Noah.49
46 This prohibition appears in Acts 15:29 and elsewhere as
things [meat] sacrificed to idols.
47 The prohibition of the meat of strangled animals is closely related to the prohibition of blood: Strangled animals are prohibited because their blood remains in them. Some see the prohibition of blood mentioned here as a fourth exception referring to the prohibition of murder. But its mention together with strangled animals makes this more likely an allusion to Gen. 9:4. Murder itself is prohibited elsewhere in the New Testament (Matt. 19:18).
48 A direct connection between Acts 15 and the Laws of Noah is made in the Apostolic Constitutions 6.3.12 (4th cent.), where both are considered to be part of the Natural Law revealed to all mankind. “Which laws [the three exceptions of Acts 15] were given to the ancients who lived before the law, under a law of nature: Enosh, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, and if there be any other of the same sort” (ANF 7.455).
49 In the West, under the influence of Augustine, the three exceptions have been treated as a temporary concession to the Jews rather than as theological necessities. But in the Eastern Church (the Orthodox churches), they are still in force today, having been reaffirmed in the Seventh Ecumenical Council (8th cent.). The Western attitude is often justified by interpreting Acts 15:21 (
for Moses...is read in the synagogues every Sabbath) as the reason why the three exceptions were instituted, in other words, as a concession. But Acts 15:21 is instead explaining why a letter from the council was necessary: to give Gentile Christians an authoritative defense against those
in every city trying to bring them under the yoke of the Law.
But why only these three laws, and not all seven? Many have suggested they were the requirements that most directly affected table fellowship, which was the original source of the conflict (Acts 15:1, Gal. 2:11-21). Uncleanness in any of these areas would make it impossible for Jewish and Gentile believers to sit down and eat together.
But a more likely reason is that the other Laws of Noah were already accepted by the Gentile world. Murder and robbery were also crimes under Roman law, for which courts were established. The prohibition of blasphemy was unnecessary, as blasphemy only took place when the actual name of God was pronounced (YHWH).50 But this pronunciation had become a closely guarded secret, known only to the priests. That left just three of the Laws of Noah to be mentioned: the prohibition of (1) idolatry, (2) sexual immorality, and (3) eating blood, including flesh with blood in it, the same three things commanded by the Council. If Gentile believers stay away from these things, the Council ruled,
you will do well (Acts 15:29). There was no need for them to obey the rest of the Law of Moses,
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to put a great burden on you (Acts 15:28).
Does this mean, then, that these three things are all that are required of Gentile followers of Jesus? Of course not. Gentile believers also share with Jewish believers in Jesus in their obligation to the Law of Messiah, the New Testament, which applies to the entire kingdom of Messiah. Acts 15 only exempts Gentiles from regulations unique to the Law of Moses.51
51 These unique sections include the ritual and ceremonial law. In the area of moral law, there is complete agreement between the Law of Moses and the Law of Messiah. The Ten Commandments, for example, are all repeated in the New Testament (with the exception of the law of the Sabbath, which will be dealt with separately in Part II below). From a technical point of view, though, Gentile Christians are only bound to the Ten Commandments, as to the rest of the moral law, because they are repeated in the Law of Messiah (the New Testament).
Judaizing and Gentilizing
In the decision of Acts 15 and in the writings of Paul, keeping the Law of Moses is considered part of the special calling of being Jewish. Of course a Jewish believer in Jesus will obey the Law, because he is Jewish. And because he believes in Jesus, he will also obey the Law of Messiah. No other alternative is even mentioned in the New Testament for Jewish believers in Jesus.
But for a Gentile Christian to submit to circumcision (in other words, to convert to Judaism and come under the Law of Moses) is a step away from God, rather than toward God (Gal. 5:2,3).52 Why? Because becoming a Jew will not bring a Gentile believer any closer to God than he or she already is in Messiah. Rather, it will take him farther away from God if he thinks that by this he can increase his righteousness. Paul says that such a person has been
released [divorced] from Messiah (Gal. 5:4). He has misunderstood what salvation is all about. Instead, Gentile believers should concern themselves with moving forward in Messiah and the Law of Messiah rather than with coming under the Law of Moses.53
I, Paul, say to you that if you are circumcised, Messiah will not benefit you at all (Gal. 5:2).
53 Several groups today, while affirming the Jewish roots of Christianity, have misunderstood the message of Acts 15, and incorrectly teach that Gentile believers must come under the Law of Moses. This includes the so-called “Messianic Israel” (or Two House Teaching), which claims that Gentile believers are in reality descendants of the Ten Tribes, and must therefore come under the Law of Moses. This ignores the fact that the rabbis themselves ruled the Ten Tribes are Gentiles with regard to the Law (bYeb. 16b, 17a). For more on this topic, see the section on Invalid Attempts at Restoration in Part IV below.
This much historical Christianity has always agreed on. The Christian Church has always condemned Judaizing, which originally meant telling Gentile Christians they must convert to Judaism, or must observe some or all of the Jewish Law in order to be right with God.54
54 Later, Judaizing was incorrectly extended to include observance of the Jewish Law by Jewish believers in Jesus.
But what about the other side, the side of Jewish believers in Jesus? If observing the Law of Moses doesn’t help a Gentile believer draw closer to God, how can not observing the Law help a Jewish believer? It can’t. For a Jewish believer to reject the Law is also a step away from God and from his or her special calling as a Jew. It follows then that if Jewish believers are not allowed to Judaize Gentiles, Gentile believers should also not be allowed to “Gentilize” Jewish believers. Unfortunately, for more than a thousand years that’s exactly what the Christian Church has tried to do to Jewish believers in Jesus: it has tried to force them to become “Gentilized,” sometimes under threat of death for heresy! It wasn’t that long ago that Gentile Christians would give a Jewish believer a ham sandwich to see if he “really” had become a follower of Jesus.
But what if a Jewish believer wasn’t raised observing the Law of Moses? Should he be required to be obedient to the Law? That’s a good question, usually raised by Gentiles. In practice, most Jewish believers want to observe the Law after they accept Jesus as Messiah. The calling of God is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29). Paul circumcised Timothy, even though he was not circumcised before. Why? Because he was Jewish. For a Jewish believer to reject or ignore the Jewish Law is to renounce the covenant of God with his people, to turn his back on his calling. Instead, what does Paul say? Stay in the calling in which you were called (1 Cor. 7:20). If you are circumcised (Jewish), don’t become uncircumcised (a Gentile). If you are uncircumcised (a Gentile), don’t be circumcised (become Jewish; 1 Cor. 7:17-20). Instead, obey the commandments that apply to you (1 Cor. 7:19). For Jewish believers in Jesus, this means the Law of Moses as interpreted and expanded in the Law of Messiah. For Gentile believers, this means the Laws of Noah55 as interpreted and expanded in the Law of Messiah. The Law of Messiah doesn’t replace God’s previous work with mankind, but brings it to perfection.
55 Or if you prefer, the Three Exceptions of Acts 15 or the Natural Law of the Church fathers.
Circumcision and Uncircumcision
This understanding of two distinct groups within the Body of Messiah—Jewish and Gentile—was common in early Christianity. The historical evidence is backed up by archeological evidence: an engraving from the catacombs in Rome shows two fish caught on a cross-shaped hook that looks like an anchor (see diagram above).56 One fish, with scales and fins, is kosher (permitted by the Law of Moses), the other, without scales, is not.57 This image isn’t about fish, of course. It’s about people: two different kinds of people “caught” by the gospel message. The kosher fish represents Jewish believers in Jesus, who continue to obey the Law of Moses; the non-kosher fish represents Gentile believers, who are not under obligation to the Law of Moses. In the New Testament, these two groups are called believers
from the circumcision and believers from the
uncircumcision (Rom. 3:30, 4:9-12, 15:8,9; Gal. 2:7,12; Eph. 2:11; Col. 4:11): two distinct groups within the body of Messiah, each with a different calling, yet united in a common witness to Jesus as Messiah and Lord.58
56 On a marble plaque found in the Catacomb of Domitilla, a burial area identified with early Christians. The two fish and an anchor theme was common in 3rd cent. Christianity, though the two fish are not usually as clearly distinguished as they are here. This drawing is from a photo that appears in Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, revised ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 1992), 379.
57 Lev. 11:10,12.
58 Another early artistic representation was of the Jewish and Gentile churches as two women. At the Church of Santa Sabina in Rome, for example, there is a prominent mosaic inscription flanked by two women (5th cent., see illustration below). One is labeled the “Church from the Circumcision” (Eclesia ex Circumcisione) and the other the “Church from the Gentiles” (Eclesia ex Gentibus). This is evidence that the original two-fold nature of the Church was still remembered in the 5th cent. (Finegan, Archeology, xli.). These same two women can be seen in a 4th cent. mosaic at the Church of Saint Pudentiana in Rome. Here they are crowning Paul for his mission to the Gentiles and Peter for his mission to the Jewish people. Elsewhere, the depiction of Peter and Paul itself served to represent the two-fold division of the Church, as in the triumphal arch of Sta. Maria Maggiore in Rome (5th cent.). Here the two apostles are associated with two cities, Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which came conventionally to represent the Jewish and Gentile churches. Bethlehem was associated with the Gentiles because of the visit of the Gentile magi (the “wise men”) at the time of Jesus’ birth. This convention of the two cities representing the two branches of the Church can also be seen above the apse of the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna (6th cent.).
This unity transcends the differences between Jew and Gentile: both have access in the same Spirit to God the Father (Rom. 1:16, 2:10). And because of this, the barriers between Jew and Gentile have been broken down. Even though we are different, we have peace between us because of our unity through the death of Jesus. There are different callings, but one body of Messiah. And just as different spiritual gifts are necessary for the proper functioning of the body, both Jews and Gentiles are necessary for proper balance in the body of Messiah. This is the
one new man vision of Paul in Ephesians:
For he himself is our peace, who made both [Jews and Gentiles who believe in him] one, and destroyed the dividing wall…that in himself he may create out of the two one new man (Eph. 2:14-15).59 Gentile believers need Jewish believers to connect them with their Jewish and Biblical roots. Jewish believers need Gentile believers to interpret those roots and teach them to the peoples of the world. Working together, we can extend the spiritual impact of Israel—and Israel’s Messiah—to the ends of the earth.
59 Or as taught by the earliest church: “Through the extension of the hands of a divine person [Jesus on the cross] gathering together the two peoples to one God” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.17.4, 2nd cent., ANF 1.545). This saying is attributed to “a certain man among our predecessors,” which takes it back to the generation after the disciples.
AFTER THE BOOK OF ACTS
War with Rome
one new man vision was never fully realized in the body of Messiah, except perhaps in the first generation or two. Because soon after the time of Paul, while the New Testament was still being written, history began to make bitter enemies of Jews and Gentiles. This took place through a series of wars and revolts that drove a deep wedge between the two.60
60 Paul died, according to tradition, in the persecution of Nero in AD 64, two years after the end of the events recorded in the Book of Acts. The First Jewish Revolt began in AD 66. The New Testament was completed in about AD 95.
The first of these wars broke out in AD 66, only four years after the end of the events recorded in the book of Acts: the First Revolt of the Jews against Rome.61 It started with street fighting between Jews and Gentiles in Caesarea, the same city where God first poured out his Holy Spirit on the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-46, 15:8,9). The resulting strife quickly spread to Jerusalem where Gessius Florus, the Roman governor, plundered the Temple treasury and committed acts of aggression against the people.62 In response, the sacrifice offered in the Temple on behalf of the emperor was cancelled.63 This was the first act of open rebellion. Before long, the entire city was in revolt. Several Romans soldiers were killed.
61 The spark that ignited the conflict was the intentional desecration of a synagogue in Caesarea on the Sabbath by sacrificing birds at the entrance to the building. Josephus, Wars, 2.14.5 (289).
62 Florus was the 9th Roman governor after Pontius Pilate (AD 26-36), the 2nd after Felix (52-60) and Festus (60-62), both mentioned in the book of Acts (Acts 23:24, 24:27).
63 Wars 2.17.2 (409).
In response, the Gentiles in Caesarea rose up against the city’s Jewish inhabitants. Twenty thousand Jews were killed—almost all the Jews in the city.64 This roused the whole country to rebellion, and ignited conflicts between Jews and Gentiles throughout the region. Tens of thousands were killed.65 Most of the Jewish dead, 50,000, were in Alexandria, the second largest city in the Empire. Here Roman soldiers attacked a Jewish residential area.66
64 Wars 2.18.1 (457).
65 In Syria, this included many “Judaizers.” Among these were likely Gentile Christians, who were suspected by both sides (Wars 2.18.2 (463).
66 Wars 2.18.8 (497). This Egyptian city with its large Jewish population is likely where Jesus and his parents had stayed after they escaped Herod’s attack on the infants of Bethlehem (4 BC, Matt. 2:13-15).
The Roman governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, marched to Jerusalem to restore order, but retreated with heavy losses. Now there was no turning back. The Jews set up a revolutionary government and built up their defenses as quickly as they could. But there was little hope against the huge Roman army.
Ironically, the Jewish will to fight was encouraged by some of the same Messianic prophecies that point to Jesus as the Messiah.67 But while Jesus placed the realization of an earthly Messianic kingdom far in the future (
the end will not take place immediately, Luke 21:9), others used these prophecies to stir up the resistance to Rome.68
67 Another factor that encouraged them was their hope for assistance from the Parthian Empire in Persia, the eastern enemy of Rome. But this hope never materialized. Philo, Embassy to Gaius 31 (216).
68 Jesus taught,
But when you hear of wars and revolts, don’t be alarmed; for it is necessary for these things to happen first, but the end will not take place immediately…. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Not only will there be great earthquakes and in different places famines and plagues, but there will also be fearful events and great signs from heaven… (Luke 21:9-11). This implies the passage of a great deal of time before the end.
Nero, the emperor, sent his best general, Vespasian, with three Roman legions to Ptolemais.69 Vespasian quickly moved into Galilee and destroyed the Zealot command center at Jotapata, near Nazareth.70 He then took Tiberius, followed by Magdala, the home town of Mary Magdalene. The battle for Magdala extended out onto the Sea of Galilee, turning the sea red with blood.71 Gamla, the home of the Zealot movement, was also destroyed.72
69 Modern Akko, known in Crusader times as Acre; a coastal city just north of modern Haifa. Wars 3.1 (1-8).
70 Here Josephus, the Zealot regional commander, was taken captive. His writings provide eyewitness descriptions of Galilee and Judea at a time when many of the disciples of Jesus were still alive.
71 Tiberius and Magdala lie along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Josephus, Wars 3.10.9 (529, 530).
72 Home of Judas the Galilean mentioned in Acts 5:37. Gamla was located in the Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee from the northeast, not far from Bethsaida, home to several of Jesus’ disciples.
Jesus’ Prophecy of Destruction
Then the Romans marched south to Jerusalem. Jerusalem, unlike these other cities, was strongly fortified. The Jewish Zealots believed God would never let the city fall.73 But the Jewish followers of Jesus knew better. Forty years earlier Jesus had predicted the destruction of the city and told them when to leave:
But when you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, then know that her desolation is near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains and let those inside the city depart, and let not those in the countryside enter into her; for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written (Luke 21:20-22).74
73 Josephus, Wars 6.5.2 (285-287).
All that is written refers to Dan. 9:26 and the prophesied desolation of Jerusalem and the Temple. The destruction of Jerusalem as
vengeance was against the sins of this
evil generation, including its rejection of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah (Matt. 12:41-42; 23:36). Prophetic condemnations of this kind are common in the Bible, in response to the specific sins of a particular generation and for the nation’s eventual blessing and good. The later Christian interpretation of this as a blanket rejection of the Jewish people violates the meaning of the passage as well as other specific statements of Scripture (Rom. 11:28,29). More on this in Part IV below.
There was only one problem with this prophetic instruction: if the city is surrounded by enemy armies, how do you get out of it? Miraculously, just before Vespasian began his siege, the Romans abruptly withdrew to Caesarea. The Jewish believers saw this as a sign from God and fled the city, just as Jesus had told them to do.75
75 Eusebius, Church History 3.5. They fled to Pella, one of the Decapolis cities, located on the eastern side of the Jordan River not far from Galilee. A Christian sarcophagus discovered in Pella from the late 1st/early 2nd century is evidence of this early Christian presence.
The Romans withdrew because they had received news of the death of the Emperor Nero in Rome, and were awaiting new orders. But since there was no clear successor to Nero, the troops proclaimed General Vespasian himself emperor. Vespasian soon entered Rome in triumph.76 One of his first acts as emperor was to send his son Titus to finish the war in Judea. This time, the Romans didn’t leave until Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed (AD 70).
76 In AD 69.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed, hundreds of thousands were taken into slavery.77 Jerusalem was leveled to the ground, except for three strong towers left to show how great the city once had been (see photo below).78 All this happened in exact fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus:
For days will come on you when your enemies will put up a siege wall around you and surround you and press in on you from every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children in you, and they will not leave in you one stone on another.... For there will be great distress in the land and wrath to this people, and they will fall by the edge of a sword and be led captive into all the nations (Luke 19:43,44; 21:23,24).
77 Josephus places the total number of Jews killed in the war at over a million.
78 Josephus, Wars 7.1.1 (1,2). The bottom half of one of these towers can still be seen today, incorporated into the Citadel just inside Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.
Prophetically speaking, this is the start of the
distress of Jacob prophesied by Jeremiah, a horrible time of tribulation that was to come on the Jewish people, including the Jewish believers in Jesus (Jer. 30:7). Jesus called it a
great tribulation, a time when Jerusalem would be trampled underfoot by Gentile nations and the Jewish people scattered throughout the world (compare Matt. 24:21 with Luke 21:23-24).79
79 Dispensationalists place some or all of these prophetic events in the future. As a result, they ignore the centuries of persecution and misery suffered by the Jews, including Jewish believers in Jesus, from the destruction of Jerusalem until modern times. But Jesus’ prophecies were addressed to his Jewish disciples and interpreted Old Testament prophecies directed to the Jewish people (such as Dan. 12:1 and Isa. 10:20-23). The early believing community understood these prophecies to refer to the time they were living in, and not a future period. Justin Martyr (2nd cent. AD) understood that Jesus’ prophesies about false prophets, false messiahs, and persecution were being fulfilled all around him (Dialogue with Trypho 51, 82). Irenaeus similarly considered that the prophesied time of tribulation and apostasy had already begun and would continue until Jesus’ return (Against Heresies 5.28.2,4). The
abomination of desolation (Matt. 24:15) was understood to refer to the desolation of the Temple. Compare Luke 21:20; Josephus, Antiquities 10.11.7 (276); Eusebius, Church History 3.5. These views changed later with the coming of the Imperial Church. For more on this topic, see our book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John or visit www.totheends.com/page9.html
Judaism after the War
The consequences of the war were dramatic, especially for the Jewish religion. The Sadducees, who controlled the Temple and the priesthood in the time of Jesus, disappeared from history.80 Most of the Zealots were killed. The Essenes, who also joined in the fighting, never returned for their precious Dead Sea Scrolls. Of the branches of Judaism that existed before the war, only two survived: the followers of Jesus, or as they had come to be known, the Nazarenes, and the Pharisees.81
80 The Sadducees were a political-religious party that was influential among the priests and wealthy ruling class in Jerusalem and Judea. They were a special object of prophetic wrath on the part of Jesus and John the Baptist (Matt. 3:7, Mark 12:1-12). In return, they were the primary instigators among the Jews of persecution against Jesus and his early followers (Matt. 26:3,4; Acts 4:4,5; 5:17; 6:12; 9:1,2; 24:1).
81 Nazarenes in Hebrew is notzrim, the name still used for Christians today in modern Israel (Acts 24:5).
While the Nazarenes escaped from Jerusalem to the east, the Pharisees escaped to the west. The famous rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai snuck out of the city by pretending to be dead. This was the only way to get out of the city after the Roman soldiers returned. In an audience with Vespasian, he convinced him to spare Jamnia (Yavne), a center of rabbinical learning.82 Here the rabbis began to decide what Judaism would be like without a Temple, now that the Temple had been destroyed.83 This is the beginning of modern Rabbinical Judaism, the kind of Judaism practiced by traditional religious Jews around the world today.84
82 bGit. 56b.
83 The sages at Jamnia constituted a rabbinical Sanhedrin that took over many of the duties of the former supreme Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Yavne is located near the Mediterranean seacoast just south of modern Tel Aviv.
84 Modern Rabbinical Judaism, sometimes also called Talmudic Judaism, is the direct spiritual descendant of the ancient Pharisees.
The destruction of the Temple created a major problem for the Jewish religion. It was the only place sacrifices could be offered to atone for sins. What would they do now that the Temple was gone? The answer, proposed by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, was that the sacrifices would be replaced by acts of mercy, that is, by good deeds (mitzvoth, obeying the commandments).85
85 Avot de Rabbi Natan, chap. 4. Rabbi Johanan supported his decision with an appeal to Hos. 6:6:
I delight in kindness and not sacrifice.
This is a nice idea. But is it Biblical? The Biblical penalty for sin is death, which is why Jesus had to die as a sacrifice for sin. But most of the rabbis were unwilling to accept the sacrificial atonement of Jesus. Without it, and without the sacrifices of the Temple, there no longer remained any assurance of forgiveness in Judaism. As a result, traditional religious Jews today express the hope, rather than the certainty, that their sins have been atoned for.
Jewish Believers after the War
The war also had consequences for the Jewish believers in Jesus, the Nazarenes. They had abandoned their fellow Jews by fleeing from Jerusalem. But far worse, according to the rabbis, was that they didn’t mourn for the city after its destruction.86 Why didn’t they mourn for Jerusalem? Because Jesus had told them the city would be destroyed, and that it was a righteous judgment from God. As a result, faith in Jesus began to fall from favor in the eyes of many.87
86 Said of the Nazarenes of Kefar Sechaniah (Sakhnin, bGit. 57a).
87 The earlier respect that had been shown at the preaching of the gospel (Acts 5:13-16) had continued into the years immediately preceding the war with Rome. This can be seen in the esteem in which James, the brother of Jesus, was held. He was martyred at the instigation of the Sadducees in AD 62, an act that was opposed by many of the people. Antiquities 20.9.1 (200-203); Eusebius, Church History 2.23. But these positive feelings began to decline after the war.
But the Nazarenes survived and continued to spread their teaching for centuries.88 These years were, in effect, a tug of war between the rabbis and the believers in Jesus for the hearts of the Jewish people.89 History has favored the rabbis, because they eventually won the contest—at least until now. But their hold on the nation was far from complete. Archeology has found that rabbinic law was not always followed—even in the hometown synagogues of famous rabbis.90 But because of the later dominance of the rabbis, much of the history of the Nazarenes has been lost and must be reconstructed from bits and pieces of evidence.
88 The discovery of a Nazarene synagogue in Jerusalem (late 1st cent. AD) provides physical evidence of the return of Jewish believers in Jesus from Pella after the war (Eusebius, Church History 3.11). Unlike most Jewish synagogues, which were oriented toward the Temple, this one is oriented toward Golgotha, the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. The surviving walls of this synagogue, which have a complex subsequent history, are now incorporated into the Tomb of David, located beneath the Cenacle on Mt. Zion. Other physical evidence of the Nazarenes includes a Nazarene synagogue found in Nazareth, with a Jewish ritual immersion bath used for Christian baptism, and a Nazarene house-synagogue at Capernaum, the traditional house of Peter’s mother-in-law.
89 Along with the temptations of the Greco-Roman world and other religious groups. The rabbis had an upper hand from the beginning, since much of the nation was sympathetic to their views. But the estimated number of Pharisees before the fall of the Temple was only about 5,000. The Nazarenes reached this same number within the lifetime of the apostles, after which they continued to spread and grow (Acts 4:4). The rabbis weren’t able to consolidate their power until the 3rd century, in the time of Judah the Prince (ha-Nasi).
90 This includes the surprising discovery of images—of animals, people, even Greek and Roman gods—on synagogue floors in famous rabbinic centers, including Tiberias (the Hamat Tiberias synagogue floor, 3rd-4th cent.). This represents not only the power of Greco-Roman thought but also the weakness of rabbinic authority. The specific images found integrate the astrological beliefs of the pagan world with Judaism. This is similar to the astrological speculations of the Sadducees mentioned by Josephus in describing the symbolism of the Temple (Antiquities 3.6.7 (144-146), 3.7.7 (181-186). Astrological beliefs were later widely held in Judaism, though there have also been rabbis who rejected them.
Some of this evidence comes from the writings of the rabbis themselves. The first piece of evidence after the war is the Birkhat ha-Minim, the so-called “Blessing of the Heretics.” This was added to the daily prayers in about AD 90.91 In spite of its name, it was not much of a blessing: “May the heretics (minim) perish.” In reality, this was a curse against believers in Jesus and others the rabbis considered heretics. At some point, or in some places, the target of the “blessing” was made even more clear: “May the heretics (minim) and the Nazarenes perish.”92 The purpose of the blessing was to discourage Nazarenes from attending synagogue, where they must still have been making many converts. Belief in Jesus was still strong twenty years after the destruction of Jerusalem.
91 By the rabbis at Jamnia (Yavne). It was added as one of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh or Amidah) recited on weekdays (bBer. 28b).
92 As shown by the discoveries in the Cairo Geniza in Egypt. But the intention was clear from the beginning, as Justin Martyr observes to Trypho: “…cursing in your synagogues those that believe in Christ” (Dialogue 16; early 2nd cent. AD).
Interactions with the Rabbis
One story that comes from this time is about Hanina, a nephew of the famous Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah (AD 80-120).93 On a visit to Capernaum, Hanina was influenced by the Nazarenes in that city of the truth of the gospel.94 Afterwards, Hanina went to his uncle, Rabbi Joshua, who anointed him with oil and he “recovered.” After this, his uncle forbid him to live any longer in the land of Israel, but instead sent him to Babylon, where he spent the rest of his life.95 Rabbi Joshua’s decision to send Hanina to Babylon implies that Nazarenes could be found all over Israel: The only way his nephew could be kept free of their influence was to send him completely out of the country! The gospel was affecting even the families of the most famous rabbis.
93 Eccl. Rab. 1:25. Rabbi Joshua was one of the best-known disciples of Johanan ben Zakkai, and a teacher of the famous Rabbi Akiva. In his teaching, he reflected a disturbing trend among the rabbis to place their authority above that of God himself. In a debate with Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, when Eliezer’s position was confirmed by a bat-kol (the “echo” of the voice of God, see Matt. 3:17, 17:5; John 12:28), Joshua replied, “The Torah [Law] is not in heaven.” The Law, in other words, is under man’s, not God’s, authority (bBK 59b). This trend had been noted earlier by Jesus (Mark 7:7-8). For more on the rabbinical stories in this section and on the debates with the rabbis mentioned below, see Ray Pritz, Nazarene Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995) and R. Travers Herford, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (London: Williams & Norgate, 1903).
94 The rabbis claimed that the Nazarenes cast a “spell” on him, an accusation of witchcraft similar to that brought against Jesus himself by the Pharisees (Matt. 12:24).
95 Babylon was the name used by the rabbis for the large Jewish population in the area of ancient Babylonia (modern central Iraq).
In the early years, rabbis and Nazarenes met freely.96 But beginning with the early 2nd century, this was discouraged, and the rabbis instructed their disciples to avoid the Nazarenes completely.97 Why? The gospel must have continued to convince many.
96 As Rabbi Eliezer (AD 80-120) with Jacob of Kephar Sechaniah (Eccl. Rab. 1.24). Rabbi Eliezer was himself falsely accused of being a Nazarene by the Romans in the persecution of Trajan.
97 bAZ 17a. Using Prov. 5:8:
Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the entrance of her house. In answer to the question, “How far?” the answer was given: 4 cubits (6 feet). This ruling is also mentioned in Justin Martyr, Dialogue 38, 112.
A few years later, the position of the rabbis had hardened even further. This can be seen in a story about Eleazer ben Dama, the nephew of another famous rabbi, Rabbi Ishmael (AD 120-140), who was influenced by the Nazarenes.98 When Eleazer was bitten by a snake, Jacob, a Nazarene with a healing ministry, came to heal him. But Rabbi Ishmael wouldn’t allow it.99 As a result, Eleazar died. What was Rabbi Ishmael’s reaction? He “rejoiced” that his nephew died “in a state of purity.”100 The message of the story is clear: It is better to die than accept even healing from Jews who believe in Yeshua (Jesus).
98 bAZ 27b, Eccl. Rab. 1.24, and elsewhere. Rabbi Ishmael was of priestly descent. As a child, he was sent captive to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem. Here he was ransomed by R. Joshua (see previous story), who became his teacher. He was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva.
99 This is the same Jacob of Kefar Sechaniah mentioned in note 96.
100 This negative attitude toward the Nazarenes is confirmed in his wholly negative attitude toward Nazarene writings. While others thought that at least the name of God should be preserved in them, he argued that they should be completely destroyed, quoting Psa. 139:22 in support:
I have hated them with complete hatred (bShab. 116a).
The Bar Kochba Revolt
The increasing hostility of the rabbis toward the Nazarenes is reflected in the Bar Kochba Revolt (AD 132-135). This was a second Jewish revolt against Rome.101 The leader of the revolt, Simeon son of Kosiba, popularly known as Bar Kochba, was a descendant of David to whom Messianic hopes were attached. He enjoyed crucial rabbinical support from the famous Rabbi Akiva, who pronounced him to be the Messiah.102
101 The second revolt affected mostly Judea, in which more than 500,000 were killed.
102 Akiva gave him the nickname Bar Kochba (“Son of the Star”) after the Messianic prophecy of Num. 24:17,
A star will march out of Jacob. His opponents called him Bar Koziba (“Son of the Lie”; Lam. Rab. 2.4).
But while the Nazarenes might have agreed with the reasons for the revolt—the oppressive policies of Rome, the high taxes, the many injustices—they could not follow a false Messiah. This made them a disloyal and therefore potentially dangerous obstacle to Bar Kochba’s revolutionary plans. Because of this, hostility flared up. Bar Kochba tortured Nazarenes when they refused to deny their faith: “For in the present Jewish war it was only Christians [Nazarenes] whom Bar Kochba, the leader of the rebellion of the Jews, commanded to be punished severely, if they did not deny Jesus as the Messiah and blaspheme him.”103 Since the revolt had strong popular support, the population must no longer have been as tolerant of belief in Jesus as it once had been.
103 Hegesippus as recorded in Eusebius, Church History 4.8 (NPNF2 1.181). Also in Justin Martyr, First Apology 31.
Debates with the Rabbis
After the revolt failed, the Nazarenes continued to spread the gospel to their friends and neighbors. They must have been successful: the rabbis were forced to debate with them regularly in public. These debates continued through the 4th century, an indication of the continuing appeal of the Nazarenes’ message.104
104 The gospel penetrated even to the highest level of Jewish society: that of the Patriarch (Nasi) himself, the highest Jewish official in Israel in the 2nd-5th centuries. Joseph of Tiberius (late 3rd-early 4th cent.), once a patriarchal emissary, said that he saw one of the Jewish patriarchs secretly baptized (probably Gamaliel IV, 270-290). Joseph himself came to faith through reading Hebrew translations of the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles as well as a copy of the original Hebrew Matthew, all of which were hidden in a repository in the patriarchal residence. This information comes to us through Epiphanius, who claims to have heard it directly from Joseph himself (Panarion, 30.4-12).
In these debates, the Nazarenes relied on the Hebrew Bible to support their beliefs. This put pressure on the rabbis to come up with a Biblical response. When a Nazarene asked Rabbi Abbahu (early 4th cent.) why he knew the Bible better than another rabbi from Babylon, he said, “We [the rabbis of Israel] live among you, therefore we take it upon ourselves to learn.”105
105 bAZ 4a.
The record of these debates tells us something about Nazarene beliefs. Rabbi Johanan (c. 180-279) debated with Nazarenes about the divinity of Jesus.106 To support their side in the debate, the Nazarenes referred to Gen. 1:26,
Let us make man in our image, a verse still used by Christians today. This, taken together with many similar Nazarene arguments, proves conclusively that the divinity of Jesus was a belief of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, and not a later Gentile invention.107
106 bSanh. 38b. Or as the rabbis put it, about whether or not there was a “second ruling power” in heaven.
107 Other plurals used in these debates to support the divinity of Jesus include Gen. 11:7,
Come, let us go down and there confuse their language; Gen. 35:7,
For there God revealed [the verb is plural in Hebrew] himself to him [Jacob]; Deut. 4:7,
For what great nation has a God as near [the adjective is plural] to it as the LORD our God when we call on him?; 2 Sam. 7:23,
And who is as your people, as Israel, the one nation on the earth to which God went [the verb is plural] to redeem it for himself as a people; and Dan. 7:9,
Until thrones [plural] were set up, and the Ancient of Days sat down (bSanh. 38b).
The debates were seen by some rabbis as a waste of time.108 Their language became highly insulting of Jesus. Even Celsus, a pagan writer (2nd cent.), knew of the slanderous rabbinical teaching that Jesus was the product of adultery between Mary and a Roman soldier, and that he performed cures by means of magic he had learned in Egypt.109 This view was later included in the collection of rabbinical writings known as the Talmud.110
108 Rabbi Judah ben Nakosa (165-200) complained that they turned the “precious stones and pearls” of his mind to “ashes” (Eccl. Rab. 1.25). Soncino Midrash Rabbah (Brooklyn, NY: Judaica Press, 1983); in David Kantrowitz, Judaic Classics Library, vers. 2.2 (March 1991), Eccl. 30.
109 In his True Discourse, preserved in Origen’s Against Celsus 1.32,38. The name the rabbis gave to this Roman soldier was Panthera.
110 bSanh. 67a in the uncensored editions. There are two versions of the Talmud, one compiled in Israel (4th cent.), the other in Babylonia (modern Iraq; 5th cent.). The Babylonian version became the standard reference.
The increasingly bitter opposition of the rabbis led the Nazarenes to see their opponents in an equally negative light. They interpreted, for example, the
mediums and spiritists spoken against in Isa. 8:19 as a prophetic reference to the rabbis, as was the consultation of the dead mentioned in that same verse.111 Theirs was the
gloom of Isa. 9:1, as well as the
yoke that God promised to break in Isa. 9:4.112 The rabbis were those who
empty arguments in Isa. 29:20-21.113
111 The Nazarene interpretation of these verses was recorded by Jerome in his Commentary on Isaiah (4th cent.), Corpus Christianorum 73, 121 (J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina [PL] 24,123f); in Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity, 62-3.
112 Corpus 73, 123f (PL 24,125); in Pritz, 64-5.
113 Corpus 73, 379f (PL 24,336); in Pritz, 65-8.
This association of the rabbis with spiritism was not without some justification. The secret Jewish mystical tradition known as Merkabah mysticism is associated with the most famous rabbis of the post-war period, including Johanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiva, and was well established by the 4th century.114 This dangerous pursuit of mystical experience involved specific techniques used to induce a trance.115 At some point, it became the practice to record the words spoken by those who achieved the trance, and to seek knowledge in this way from angelic authorities.116 Needless to say, this developing mystical and spiritistic tradition caused concern among the Nazarenes, and was seen as a further turning away by the rabbis from the God of Israel and his Messiah.117
114 bHag. 14b. Mystical speculation had existed in Israel prior to this time. Apocalyptic writings dating as early as the 2nd cent. BC record mystical journeys in which the mysteries in the heavens were revealed to the seer (as also in 2 Cor. 12:1-7). Mystical leanings and rites could also be found in the Dead Sea Scroll community. But now, for the first time, they appear in the heart of Palestinian rabbinism.
115 They called it “descending” to the Chariot (the Merkabah; associated with Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot of God in Eze. 1). These techniques included fasting, special hymns or prayers recited with their heads between their knees, and the invocation of God or the angels with special names. Of the companions of Rabbi Akiva who engaged in such practices with him, one is said to have died as a result, another to have gone insane, and a third to have left Judaism (bHag. 14b).
116 Mentioned in Hekalot Rabbati 18.4 according to P. Alexander’s introduction to 3 Enoch in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 1.234. Other magical practices on the part of the rabbis are mentioned in the Talmud.
117 This mystical tradition achieved its full flowering in the Kabbalah of the late Middle Ages.
Rejection of the Nazarenes
But the most dangerous threat to the Nazarenes came from the Gentile world. In the mid-second century, Justin Martyr, a Gentile believer in Jesus from Samaria, recorded a discussion he had with a Jewish refugee from Judea named Trypho.118 In the course of their discussion, Justin mentions Jewish believers in Jesus that kept the Jewish Law. Justin himself had no objection to this, as long as they didn’t try to convince Gentile believers that they, too, must keep the Law: the same view held by the apostle Paul.119
118 Trypho had just escaped from the Bar Kochba revolt in Israel. They met in Ephesus. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 1.
119 This was also the opinion of Ignatius a generation earlier (AD 108). Ignatius still understood the body of Messiah to be made up of two major groups, the circumcised and the uncircumcised: “It is better to hear Christianity from a man who is circumcised than Judaism from someone who is uncircumcised.” To The Philadelphians 6.1; in The Apostolic Fathers, Loeb Classical Library, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. Press, 1985), 1.244. Ignatius speaks of Judaizing according to the original meaning of the term, which was imposing the Law of Moses on Gentiles (To the Magnesians 10.3). Only later did Judaizing come to refer to any practice associated with the Jewish Law. See Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome: Pontifical Gregorian U. Press, 1977), 213-218.
But he also mentions that other Gentile Christians thought that those keeping the Law could not be saved—in other words, that Jewish believers who kept the Law of Moses were doing something wrong!120 Here we have the earliest evidence of a break between Gentile Christianity and the Nazarenes. Justin himself represents the older view that had no problem with the two groups side by side, one of which kept the Law (the Nazarenes) and one that did not (Gentile Christians). But already the view was gaining ground that someone who kept the Law could not be saved.
120 “...and these [Gentile believers] do not venture to have any dealings with or extend hospitality to such persons [Jewish believers who keep the Law].” Justin Martyr, Dialogue 47, ANF 1.218.
Even Justin himself accuses those who keep the Law of “weak-mindedness,” a reference to Rom. 14:1, implying that Jewish believers who kept the Law lacked faith.121 Now this is remarkable given that the New Testament itself clearly records that Peter, Paul, James, and the other Jewish disciples continued to keep the Law.122
121 Dialogue 47. Though also implying that they were to be accepted in fellowship (
Accept the one who is weak in the faith, Rom 14:1). But already the context of Paul’s words had been misunderstood. The controversy in Romans over meats offered to idols was not between those who did (the
weak) and those who did not obey the Law of Moses, as this was later understood. The eating of meat offered to idols is not mentioned in the Law of Moses. Rather, it was a controversy over the implementation of a rabbinical ruling that was also followed by the Nazarenes (Acts 15:29, Matt. 23:2-3). Paul took the position that idols had no real power to defile the meat (1 Cor. 8:4,8; 10:19), therefore the prohibition was only to protect the consciences of those (the
weak) who still attribute power to idols (1 Cor. 8:7,9-12; 10:24). From this point of view, it’s perfectly all right to eat any meat without asking questions about it (1 Cor. 10:25-27). But if someone should tell you it’s been offered to idols, you should abstain out of concern for his conscience (1 Cor. 10:28-30). Over time, an increasing number of Gentile Christians took Paul’s opposition to Gentiles coming under the Law to apply to Jewish believers in Jesus as well (Gal. 5:2-4). This led them to reject the Nazarenes, who continued to obey the Law of Moses.
122 The strength of this Scriptural evidence was acknowledged by no less an authority than Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who defended the continued obedience of the apostles to the Law against the views of Jerome (Letters of Augustine 40, 75, 82). “How much more, then, may I shrink from pronouncing that to be bad [the Law] which I cannot deny to be of divine institution!” Augustine felt that the continued observance of the Law by the apostles was necessary so as not “to give the impression that [the Law] was worthy of abhorrence and condemnation.” Yet as Jerome points out in reply, Augustine could point to no other contemporary authority that shared his views. (Jerome claimed that the apostles only “pretended” obedience to the Law from fear of the Jews.) But even Augustine saw this observance as only temporary, and that it would “slowly, and by degrees...vanish away through the power of the sound preaching” of the gospel. He, like his contemporaries, felt it was no longer appropriate in his own day (Letters of Augustine 82.14-15, NPNF1 1.354).
By the next (3rd) century, most Gentile Christian writers considered the Nazarenes to be heretics.123 This didn’t affect the Nazarenes much, since most of them were living in Judea and surrounding regions, while most Gentile Christians were in distant countries. But by the 4th century, the negative attitudes of Gentile Christians began to directly threaten their existence. This is when Gentile Christianity was accepted by Rome and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This gave the views of Gentile Christians the force of law. Before this, the worst punishment the Church could give anyone was excommunication. But now, those who disagreed could be banished or even put to death. Offenses against the church became offenses against the state, and Nazarenes, since they were considered heretics, were at risk.
123 They were falsely equated with the heretical Ebionites, who rejected the divinity of Jesus.
Anti-Judaism was sealed into the law of the Gentile church at the Council of Nicea (325). The council decided that the church should separate from what it called “the detestable company of the Jews” and that “we should have nothing in common with the Jews.”124 Not all accepted this ruling.125 But the anti-Judaism of many Gentile Christians gained an official status that it kept right up until recent times.
124 This language appears in the letter of Constantine to those not attending the council (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 3.18 in NPNF2 1.524). He claims to represent the “united judgment of all present.” Anti-Jewish barbs appear throughout the letter, which concerns itself primarily with the controversy over when the Christian Passover (Pascha or Easter) should be celebrated, and the council’s decision to avoid celebrating it at the same time as the Jewish Passover. The Jews are charged (twice directly, once indirectly) with deicide, after which he says “…they have been subject to the direction, not of reason, but of ungoverned passion, and are swayed by every impulse of the mad spirit that is in them… On this point as well as others they have no perception of the truth…” He also calls them the “most wicked of men.”
125 The Quartodecimans, who celebrated the Christian Passover on the Jewish date for Passover, survived as a separate church down to the 5th century AD. Another group, the Audians, felt it was an apostolic ordinance to celebrate Passover with the Jews. They were banished by Constantine in 330 to Scythia, where they did missionary work among the Goths.
Christians were soon forbidden to participate in Jewish worship, attend Jewish synagogues, or celebrate Jewish feasts.126 If a Jew wanted to join the Christian Church, he had to completely renounce his people: that is, he had to be Gentilized. Here’s an example of the vows that came to be required of a Jew if he wanted to become a Christian:
I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all the other feasts of the Hebrews…and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom…and if afterwards I shall wish to deny and return to Jewish superstition, or shall be found eating with Jews, or feasting with them, or secretly conversing and condemning the Christian religion…then let the trembling of Cain and the leprosy of Gehazi cleave to me, as well as the legal punishments to which I acknowledge myself liable. And may I be anathema in the world to come, and may my soul be set down with Satan and the devils.127
126 That such rulings were necessary indicates that some were still participating in these activities.
127 Profession of Faith, from the Church of Constantinople, Assemani, Cod. Lit., I, 105; in James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (New York: Atheneum, 1979), 397-98. This is an elaboration of the instruction of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, 787, Canon 8) that a Jewish convert to Christianity must make “profession with his whole heart, setting at naught their [Jewish] customs and observances” (NPNF2 14.561).
Whew! Nothing like this has ever been required from converts from any other group. Why only the Jews?
Because of these pressures, the Nazarenes began to drift north and east of Israel, toward the edges of the Roman Empire.128 By the early 5th century, they were concentrated in synagogues outside the Roman Empire, where they had a strong influence on the development of Eastern Christianity.129 By the late 5th century, the Nazarenes had disappeared from Israel. There are a few traces of them outside the Roman Empire for a while. But then, even these can no longer be found. For all practical purposes, Jewish believers in Jesus as an organized group disappeared from history for 1,500 years.130
128 In the 4th cent., Epiphanius locates the Nazarenes in Pella of the Decapolis (modern Jordan), in Bashan (the modern Golan Heights), and in Beroea (modern Aleppo) in Syria (Panarion 29.7.7).
129 See Appendix I. Jerome, who knew the Nazarenes from personal contact during his time in the Middle East and his residency in Bethlehem, said that they could be found “among the Jews throughout all the synagogues of the East” (Letters of Augustine 75.4.13, NPNF1 1.338). Perhaps they found a readier reception for their beliefs there than in Israel. This eastward drift was not unique to the Nazarenes. Many other Jews also found refuge in the Jewish communities of Babylonia (modern Iraq) at this time.
130 Until their dramatic rebirth in the 20th century, a fulfillment of prophecy to be discussed in Part IV.
ASPECTS OF NAZARENE BELIEF
The Gospel of the Hebrews
The increasing hostility of Gentile Christians toward the Nazarenes caused many Nazarene doctrines and practices either to be rejected by the Gentile church or to be reformulated to reflect Gentile ways of thinking. The extent of this Gentilization was dramatic, affecting nearly every aspect of the life and faith of the church. As a result, Nazarene ideas often seem strange to us today. But many of these same Jewish ideas hold the key to an accurate understanding of the New Testament.
Recovering those ideas, though, is quite a challenging task. One of the greatest difficulties is distinguishing Nazarene writings from those of other Jewish Christian groups.131 Only one ancient text has an established historical connection with the Nazarenes: the Gospel of the Hebrews.132 Several ancient Christian writers thought this might be the original Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew.133 But the quotations they give from this document (the document itself has not survived) bear little resemblance to the current Gospel of Matthew.134 To add to the confusion, there may have been another, heretical gospel of the same name.135
131 These other, heretical groups include the Ebionites, the Elkasites, and various Gnostic groups. Many of these Jewish Christian writings survive from the early centuries.
132 Also known as the Gospel of the Nazarenes. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity, 85-86.
133 This Gospel of the Hebrews should not be confused with the much later Hebrew manuscripts of the gospel of Matthew found in Europe (the DuTillet, Münster, and Shem Tob manuscripts), with which it has “little or no relationship.” George Howard, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (Macon, GA: Mercer U. Press, 1995), 160. The current wave of enthusiasm for these manuscripts should be tempered by the fact that the Shem Tob version, which underlies the other two and is least conformed to the canonical gospel, contains teachings at odds with the canonical text. It avoids, for example, identifying Jesus as the Messiah and postpones the possibility of salvation for the Gentiles to the future Messianic era.
134 A section of the Gospel of the Hebrews might possibly be preserved in the Gospel of John. Papias (early 2nd cent.) attributed the story of the adulterous woman, probably the one found in the first part of John 8, to the Gospel of the Hebrews (Eusebius, Church History 3.39). John 7:53-8:11 is not found in most of the older manuscripts of the Gospel of John.
135 Or perhaps another, Ebionite version of the same document. Pritz, 85-86. The Ebionites (who denied the divinity of Jesus) and the Nazarenes were often confused by Gentile Christian writers. This seems to have begun intentionally as a means of denigrating the Nazarenes for their continued observance of the Law of Moses.
With few certain sources to draw on, scholars have had to reconstruct Nazarene beliefs by identifying themes common to all early Jewish Christian groups. This shared heritage implies that these beliefs trace back to the Nazarenes, from whom these other groups derived. This “textual archeology,” combined with the discoveries of archeological excavation, is providing fascinating insight into Nazarene beliefs.136
136 This type of textual analysis was pioneered by Jean Danielou, Theologie du Judeo-Christianisme (Paris: Desclee, 1958), from whom many of the insights below derive.
Nazarene Art and Symbols
While Gentile Christianity accepted images in worship from an early date, the Nazarenes rejected them. Archeological evidence from Capernaum, Nazareth, and elsewhere shows that the Nazarenes respected the prohibition of images found in the Law of Moses.137 This confirms the literary evidence that the Nazarenes observed the Law of Moses.
137 The Law prohibits images of people, birds, fish, and animals (Deut. 4:16-18, Ex. 20:4, Lev. 26:1).
The artwork they did permit was of geometric and floral designs. Images of flowers found in a Nazarene house-synagogue at Capernaum (see diagram above) appear to symbolize paradise as Judaism understood it: Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), the name still used today in Hebrew for the place of the righteous after death.138 In the book of Revelation, this paradise is found in the New Jerusalem, a city that will descend from heaven to earth at the end of time (Rev. 3:12, 21:2). This heavenly city is described with the imagery of the Garden of Eden, with its tree of life in a garden-like setting (Rev. 22:2).
138 “Paradise” is a Persian loan-word that means “a walled garden.” It was used in the Old Greek Bible (the Septuagint) to translate the word “garden,” as in the “paradise of Eden.” A belief in this garden-like paradise was also held by the early Gentile Christians until it was replaced with the more abstract Greco-Roman idea of heaven. Similar floral artwork was found at the Nazarene synagogue at Nazareth. Images of flowers were permitted by Jewish Law.
Other designs include the ladder as a symbol of ascending to and descending from heaven. This is the ladder of Jacob’s dream (Gen. 28:12), which was associated with the ministry of Jesus:
You will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending for the Son of Man”(John 1:51).139 The net is a symbol of the gospel task of fishing for the souls of men (Matt. 4:19). The wreath-shaped crown or diadem, as found in the Nazarene synagogue at Nazareth (see diagram below; the wreath surrounds a central cross shape140 flanked by two stars), is a symbol of the wreath-type victor’s crown that will be given to the saints in Paradise (the “crown of righteousness” of 2 Tim. 4:8, the “crown of life” of James 1:12, and the “crown of glory” of 1 Pet. 5:4). Literary evidence suggests that the Nazarenes placed a wreath (a “crown”) on the head of newly baptized believers to symbolize the goal of the Christian life.141
139 The “cosmic ladder” of Nazarene apocalyptic writings is the seven levels of heaven through which the Son of God descended in the incarnation and ascended at the ascension.
140 This central cross is a yod-tav cross, the Hebrew precursor of the Greek tau-rho (or chi-rho) cross.
141 See the section on Baptism below. The wreath found at Nazareth is part of a mosaic floor adjoining a Jewish ritual bath (a mikveh) used for Nazarene baptism. This use of the bath is indicated by the Christian symbols scratched into the plaster of its walls.
The Cross Symbol
But not all of the early Nazarene symbols can be deciphered. Many of these make use of the symbol of the cross, as in the panel with small crosses at the bottom of the Nazarene mosaic at Nazareth (see diagram). Elsewhere there are crosses appearing in squares or shields, floral crosses, an upright cross with a small cross beside it, and a ship with a cross-shaped mast. Though the specific meaning of these representations may escape us, the cross itself was clearly an important Nazarene symbol.
Today, we associate the cross with the death of Jesus. But the origins of this symbol among the Jewish people goes back to pre-Christian times. In the 6th century BC, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision a man dressed in linen marking the righteous with a cross-shaped mark (the Hebrew tav):
Mark a tav on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are being committed (Eze. 9:4).142 This tav was originally made either as an upright equal-armed cross (+) or tilted to the side, like a letter x.143 Those who were marked in the vision were saved from God’s destruction. As a result, the tav, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, came to be associated with Messianic salvation in the end-times.144
142 The Hebrew word tav can refer either to a “mark” in general or to the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
143 This is in the older Hebrew alphabet that was in use when Ezekiel was written (Paleo-Hebrew). The later, Babylonian-style alphabet used today gives the tav a different form. But the older shape was remembered and still used occasionally in the New Testament period, as can be seen in inscriptions and coins from the end of the Second Temple period (1st-2nd centuries AD).
144 In a similar way the omega, the last letter in the Greek alphabet, was associated by Gentile Christians with the end-times (Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13).
The Essene community at Qumran (2nd cent. BC-1st cent. AD) marked little crosses in their Bible scrolls next to verses that prophesied the coming of the Messiah (cross #1 in the diagram below).145 They may also have had a ritual in which the tav was marked on their foreheads, as a sign of deliverance from the coming judgment.
145 This same system of marking was later continued by Christian scribes (Finegan, 348).
The rabbis, too, had Messianic associations with this shape. They taught that it was used in the anointing of priests—also with oil on the forehead.146 So it was natural for Christians to adopt this end-times mark, already rich with Messianic meaning, and which also resembled the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
146 In Hebrew, Messiah (Mashiach) means “anointed one,” and is applied in the Hebrew Bible to both kings and priests. “Our rabbis taught: How were the kings anointed? In the shape of a wreath. And the priests? In the shape of a chi” (bHor. 12a, also bKer. 5b). The chi was a Greek letter in the form of the letter x. Soncino Talmud (Brooklyn, NY: Judaica Press, 1990) in David Kantrowitz, Judaic Classics Library, vers. 2.2 (March 1991).
Archeological evidence for the use of the tav comes from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and nearby Talpiot, where tombs from less than forty years after the resurrection of Jesus are marked with crosses (crosses #2, 3, and 4).147 The names of those buried in the tomb of cross #4, along the road to Bethany, are familiar from the New Testament: Lazarus (Eleazar), Jairus, John, Judas, Martha, Mary, Sapphira, and Zachariah. Are these Nazarene tombs—possibly even of individuals mentioned in the New Testament? Or are they ordinary Jewish tombs, marked for deliverance from the coming judgment?
147 All were found on ossuaries (“bone boxes” used for secondary burial). #2 is from Talpioth near the old Bethlehem road south of Jerusalem. #3 is from Dominus Flevit on the Mt. of Olives. The name, Shlomzion, to which it is attached, means “peace of Zion,” a female given name. #4 is from is from the southern section of the Mt. of Olives known as the Mt. of Offence (Silwan), near the road to Bethany. #1-4 are based on Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament, Revised Edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Press, 1992), 359-371.
One of the cross symbols we do understand is the representation of the cross as the tree of life (cross #5).148 This image is derived from the appearance of a date palm tree, commonly associated in the Middle East with the Tree of Life and with fertility (Song 7:7-8). The two bag-like objects hanging down from the arms of the cross resemble ripe clusters of dates hanging below the upper fronds of the tree. Although this particular image, found at Capernaum, dates to the Byzantine period, the theology relating the trees of the Garden of Eden to the “tree” of the cross dates back to the Nazarenes.149 One early Christian writer preserves the teaching: “As by means of a tree [the tree of knowledge] we were made debtors to God, so also by means of a tree [the cross/tree of life] we may obtain the remission of our debt.”150 Or as another puts it: “Death was in a tree [the tree of knowledge] and life also was concealed in a tree [the cross/tree of life].... The man who believes in Christ eats of the tree of life.”151 The
way of the tree of life of Gen. 3:24 is therefore also the way of the cross, the Way of Jesus, that leads to the paradise of God (Gan Eden).
148 The drawing based on a photograph in Stanislao Loffreda, Recovering Capharnaum (Jerusalem: Edizioni Custodia Terra Santa, 1985), 6,30.
149 The cross of Jesus is called a
tree in the original Greek of Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24.
150 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.17.3, ANF 1.545.
151 Commodian, Carmen Apologeticum 321-322,327,333; in Jean Danielou, The Origins of Latin Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 112. Though Irenaeus and Commodian were Gentiles, their writings reflect a Christian context in which Jewish influences were still strong.
Just as eating from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden was a breaking of God’s command, eating from the tree of life in Messiah represents obedience to God’s commands: “Eating of the fruit of the tree of life is being nourished by the commandments of Almighty God.”152 This reflects the Nazarene understanding of the teaching of Jesus as a new law, the Law (or Way) of the Messiah.
152 Carmen Apologeticum 330; in Danielou, Origins of Latin Christianity, 113.
The small curved line that looks something like a circle at the top of cross #5 represents the Hebrew letter yod, the first letter of the Hebrew name of Jesus (Yeshua), identifying this as the cross of Jesus. 153 A similar cross with a larger curved line at the top (that makes it look like a capital letter P) was later adopted in the Gentile church by assimilation to the Greek alphabet. This was the famous sign seen by Constantine.154 But in the transition between cultures, the cross shape, while retaining its association with the death of Jesus, gradually lost its identification with the tree of life and its apocalyptic association with deliverance from the coming judgment.
153 This is another example of a yod-tav cross.
154 See illustration on p. 113 in Part III below. This was the chi-rho (or tau-rho) cross.
Although baptism in the New Testament was little more than a profession of faith and immersion in water (Acts 8:36-38), the rite soon became more elaborate.155 An initial examination tested the motivation of the one seeking to convert, just as the rabbis did with prospective converts to Judaism.156 Then followed instruction in Christian doctrine: the teaching of the two ways. “There are two ways, one of life, and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.”157 This was a summary of the dos and don’ts of the Christian faith, which preserves the earliest understanding of Christianity as “the Way”: not just a system of belief, but a way of life, the Law of the Messiah. Baptism was in response to a willingness to obey this Messianic Law. “Those who believe in the truth of our teachings and our doctrine first promise to live according to this doctrine.”158
155 The reconstruction given here follows Danielou, Theologie du Judeo-Christianisme, 370-86; and Jean Briand, The Judeo-Christian Church of Nazareth (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1982), 54-58. bYeb. 47a; Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition 15.2 (following the numbering system of Botte). Didache 1.1, as in Matt. 7:13-14. The teaching of the two ways can be found in the Didache 1-6 and the Epistle of Barnabas 18-21. In the Gentile church in Rome (2nd-3rd cent.), this instruction was done by private individuals first, before bringing the baptismal candidate to church officials. This reflects the Jewish practice of instruction by rabbis, who taught independently of the synagogue. Only after instruction was a candidate brought before a beth din (a rabbinical court) for the conversion rites themselves. Gregory Dix, The Apostolic Tradition (London: SPCK, 1968), 81. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 61.2; in Danielou, Theologie du Judeo-Christianisme, 375. The Gentile church later changed the emphasis from basic moral instruction to baptismal creeds concerned with statements of belief. These Gentile Christian baptismal creeds were the source of many doctrinal conflicts in the Byzantine period (see Part III below).
After the completion of this teaching, there was a fast of a day or more.159 This was a time of repentance and purification from evil, in which demons were cast out of those preparing for baptism.160 Traces of this practice can still be found in some Eastern churches today: blowing or breathing on the one being baptized (insufflation) is performed to expel evil spirits.
159 Didache 7.4, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition 20.7.
160 Fasting was seen to be particularly effective against demons, as in Matt. 17:21:
this kind [of demon] comes out only by prayer and fasting. Apostolic Tradition 20.8.
Just before the baptism itself, the entire body was anointed with oil.161 This was followed by a renunciation of Satan. Then followed the baptism in water: a total immersion following the pattern of the Jewish ritual bath (the mikveh).162 This immersion, repeated three times, was a purification of the flesh after the heart was made right through repentance.163 It was a symbol of leaving the old life behind, and of dying and rising with Christ (Rom. 6:2-8). Even this symbolism has roots in the Jewish mikveh, which is used in the process of becoming a proselyte (a convert) to Judaism: “One who became a proselyte is like a child newly born.”164
161 As the final step in casting out Satan, perhaps related to the anointing with oil for healing mentioned in Mark 6:13 and James 5:14. In the Syrian church, insufflation is performed following the anointing with oil.
162 Today Jewish ritual immersion is most often done in the nude, though immersion in loose-fitting garments is also sometimes permitted and may have been more common in the past. The order of deaconesses in the early Church assisted with the baptism of women, in order to avoid any impropriety. See Rom. 16:1 and 1 Tim. 3:11.
163 Josephus, Antiquities 18.117. In the Gentile church, the association of immersion with purification of the body was soon lost. But the practice of triple immersion continues today both in Judaism and in Eastern Orthodox churches.
164 bYeb. 62a.
The detailed requirements for Christian baptism mirrored those of the Jewish mikveh: Women were to loosen their hair; no foreign object of clothing or decoration could enter the water with them.165 The preferred location for immersion was in running (“living”) water, as with the baptisms of John the Baptist in the Jordan River.166 But rock-cut ritual baths were also used (see diagram above). These were incorporated into Nazarene synagogues and Gentile Christian churches for use in baptism.167
165 That might prevent contact of their body with the water. Shab. 6:1; Apostolic Tradition 21.5.
166 Mik. 1:8, 5:4,5; Didache 7.1; Apostolic Tradition 21.2.
167 As at the Judeo-Christian synagogue at Nazareth mentioned above.
When new believers came up out of the water, hands were laid on them for the communication of the Holy Spirit, as was done by Peter and John in Samaria (Acts 8:17).168 This was later supplemented, and in the Gentile church eventually replaced, with a second anointing with oil, this time in the form of a cross (the tav) on the forehead, as a symbol of the reception of the Holy Spirit.169
168 Jerome, Dialogue against the Luciferians 8; A Treatise on Re-Baptism 4.
169 This secondary anointing with oil gained in importance as the expectation of a real spiritual experience with the laying on of hands declined. With this increase in the importance of a secondary anointing, the practice of pre-baptismal anointing also declined. Today it has disappeared altogether except in Syrian rite churches, including the Church of the East.
The communication of the Holy Spirit was known as the
seal of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 1:21,22; Eph. 1:13).170 As with seals placed on letters and other documents, this seal, that is, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, is a mark of God’s ownership. This is the meaning of the
seal of the living God in Rev. 7:2: the 144,000 that receive the seal are baptized, Spirit-filled believers.
170 Because of this, the whole ceremony of baptism was sometimes referred to as receiving the seal of Messiah. This corresponds to the seal of circumcision in conversion to Judaism.
The newly baptized believers were then clothed in white robes. This was both the symbol of a holy life and a foreshadowing of life in the resurrection (Rev. 19:8).171 Next followed a taste of milk and honey, a symbol of the Promised Land (the “land of milk and honey,” Exo. 3:8,17) which would be restored in the Messianic Age.172 A palm wreath crown was also placed on their heads as a symbol of victory, which also pointed to the crowns to be given in the resurrection (Rev. 2:10; 3:11; 4:4,10).173 Taken as a whole, this ritual of baptism is a beautiful picture of the Christian life: first a turning from sin and the devil to God, then a cleansing of the spirit and the flesh, with an empowering of the Holy Spirit, and then a persevering on to glory!
171 Because of this change of clothing, baptism was sometimes referred to as the “re-dressing.” Traces of this practice have been retained in the wearing of special white baptismal garments in many churches.
172 The Roman church, which had a history of rejecting Millennial teaching (more on this below), allegorized the milk and honey of the Promised Land to refer to “his flesh, which Christ indeed gave” (Apostolic Tradition 21:28).
173 Baptismal crowns were retained in the Church of the East (made of silk). They were abandoned in the West because of the danger of confusion with pagan rites (Tertullian, On the Crown). Palm crowns were once worn by the Jewish people as part of the festivities of the Feast of Tabernacles, itself a symbol of the Messianic Age. The importance of these crowns can be seen by their inclusion with palm branches as symbols of the Feast. They were also worn at weddings, which ties in beautifully with the symbolism of the Feast, a prophecy of the Messianic wedding feast of the Lamb.
The Angel of the Lord
Perhaps the most important Nazarene contribution to our understanding of the Messiah is their identification of Jesus with the Angel of the Lord of the Hebrew Scriptures. This idea has not completely disappeared even today. One of the most well-known of these appearances is as one of the three men who appeared to Abraham, where he is identified not merely as an angel, but as the LORD God himself (
and the LORD said to Abraham, Gen. 18:13,17,20).174 Later, this same LORD rained fire and brimstone on Sodom
from the LORD out of heaven (Gen. 19:24).175 This is a clear reference to two distinct entities, the Father in heaven and the Son on earth, that share the divine name (LORD) and are together one God.176
174 LORD in capital letters is used here, as in many Bibles, to indicate the Hebrew YHWH (the Tetragrammaton), the personal name of God. Justin Martyr, Dialogue 126.
175 This is another verse used by the Nazarenes in controversy with the rabbis (bSanh. 38b). See also Justin Martyr, Dialogue 127, 129.
176 This divine name, YHWH, sometimes vocalized as Yahweh, is often referred to as “the Name” in Jewish tradition. This is the unspoken name shared by Father, Son, and Spirit in Jesus’ command:
baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18). An entire Nazarene theology was built up around this Name, based on verses such as Exo. 23:21, in which God says of this same Angel of the Lord,
my Name is in him. Another passage in which these two appear is Exo. 34:5,6, where one who is LORD, identified as the
hand of God (Exo. 33:22, the Son of God), descends from heaven and stands with Moses while another who is also LORD passes by overhead (compare Exo. 33:21-23).
This is the same Angel of the Lord, identified as God, who found Hagar in the desert (
the LORD who spoke to her, Gen. 16:7,10,13; 21:17,18), who spoke as God to Abraham (
you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me, Gen. 22:11,12,15-18), who wrestled with Jacob at Peniel (
I have seen God face to face, Gen. 32:24,28,30),177 who spoke with Moses at the burning bush (
God called to him from the middle of the bush, Exo. 3:2,4),178 who went before the children of Israel in the desert (
my Name is in him, Exo. 23:20-22),179 who spoke to Gideon (
and the LORD turned toward him, Jud. 6:11,14), and who appeared to the parents of Samson (
we have seen God, Jud. 13:3,6,8,22).180 Moses saw him at Mt. Sinai above a pavement of sapphire (Exo. 24:10). The prophet Isaiah called him the saving angel of God’s presence (Isa. 63:9). Ezekiel saw him as the man that glowed like metal (Eze. 1:26,27). Daniel, too, saw him as a radiant man (Dan. 10:5,6). These Old Testament appearances of the Angel of the Lord, identified as God, are the foundation of the New Testament teaching of a mysterious plurality in God: that while God (the Father) remains unseen in heaven, he can also appear on earth as a “self” (the Son) distinct from that “self” that is in heaven, though remaining one with him.
177 Justin Martyr, Dialogue 126.
178 Dialogue 127.
179 Evidence that this section was used in controversy with the rabbis appears in bSanh. 38b, where it was used by Nazarenes in a debate with Rabbi Idith. See also Dialogue 75, 126.
180 Also the angel that identified himself as God to Jacob at Bethel (Gen. 31:11,13), the angel that Jacob said
has redeemed me from all evil (Gen. 48:16), the man that identified himself to Joshua as the captain of the Lord’s army (Josh. 5:13-15, 6:2), and the angel that spoke as God at Bochim (Jud. 2:1-5).
The connection of this Angel of the Lord with the Messiah had already been made in the Old Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (3rd cent. BC). Here the child who will sit on the throne of David and rule over his kingdom—the Messiah—is called
the Angel of Great Counsel (Isa. 9:6,7 LXX). As a result, the Angel of the Lord is one of the most important early titles of Jesus.181
181 See Dialogue 34,56,58,59,76. The necessity of an explanation for these verses and the need to reply to Christian teaching led the rabbis to invent the angel Metatron—the “lesser YHWH”—who they say participated with God in the Creation and serves as high priest in the heavenly Temple. Yet in spite of the many parallels between Metatron and Christian teaching about Jesus, the whole purpose of the Metatron teaching is to deny the full divinity of the Angel of the Lord. See Rabbi Itzhak Shapira, The Return of the Kosher Pig (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2013), 239-50, for an attempt to reconcile the Metatron teaching with the New Testament.
But the Nazarenes also saw the Angel of the Lord in places we are not used to seeing him. Origen, a famous Gentile Christian writer (3rd cent.), says he was taught by a Nazarene that the “burning ones” (seraphim) of Isaiah 6—who cry out before the Lord
Holy, holy, holy (Isa. 6:3)—were the Son and the Holy Spirit.182 Gentile Christians have long seen the cry of the angels (
Holy, holy, holy) as a hint to the tri-unity of God.183 But the Nazarenes gave this passage an even stronger tri-unitarian interpretation.
182 On First Principles 1.3.4.
183 Known in Greek as the Trisagion (“the three holies”), it is included in many ancient orders of worship and is still recited in traditional services today.
It may seem odd to us today to think of the Holy Spirit and the Son of God as angels.184 But this is, in part, because the definition of the word “angel” has changed over time. In Hebrew, as well as in Greek, “angel” simply means “messenger.”185 This same word is often used of human beings who act as messengers, or even of God himself acting as a messenger.186>
184 Although see Psa. 104:3 (in Hebrew):
who goes about on the wings of the Spirit (also 2 Sam. 22:11, Psa. 18:10). The angel of the Holy Spirit appears in the apocryphal Nazarene writing The Ascension of Isaiah 9-10.
185 Malakh (in Hebrew), just as the word angelos in Greek, means “messenger.” Only later did the Greek version of this word come to be used exclusively for the spirit beings we call angels today. In the Bible, these spiritual messengers are distinguished from human messengers by an identifying description (such as
messenger of the Lord, or
messenger of God, or
messenger of heaven) or else by the context. See for example Acts 12:23; Gal. 4:14, 1:8.
186 Malakh is used for human messengers in 1 Sam. 23:27 and more than ninety times in the Hebrew Bible; angelos is used for human beings in Luke 7:24, 9:52, and James 2:25 in the Greek New Testament.
But Jesus’ incarnation—God becoming man—in light of his earlier appearances as the Angel of the Lord, suggested something more to the Nazarenes: that the Son of God had “disguised” himself in his descent from the highest heaven, taking the appearance of progressively lesser orders of angels until he finally became man in the womb of Mary.187 This “hidden descent” reflects the New Testament idea that Jesus’ divine identity, as well as the true purpose of his incarnation, was hidden from the angels (
...none of the rulers [archons] of this age has understood; 1 Cor. 2:8),188 but was revealed to the Church (
...that the many-sided wisdom of God may now be made known to the rulers [archons] and authorities in the heavenlies through the Church, Eph. 3:10,11).
187 As in The Ascension of Isaiah 9.13-16. Danielou, 228-237.
188 Archon in 1 Cor. 2:8 most likely includes both angelic and human rulers.
189 This idea of a hidden descent is an extension into heaven of the Messianic Secret: Jesus’ instructions not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah until after his resurrection (Matt. 16:20, 17:9).
The Book of Revelation
The Nazarene interest in Jesus as the Angel (or Messenger) of the Lord also affects our understanding of the angels in the Book of Revelation. The trend has long been to dismiss the idea that any of these represent the Son of God. But several are clearly identified with the Old Testament Angel of the Lord. In Revelation 10, for example, the angel
clothed with a cloud is remarkably similar to the Angel of the Lord that appeared to Ezekiel: both appear in a cloud with a rainbow (Rev. 10:1 and Eze. 1:28); both appear with a striking radiance, their legs (or feet) glowing like fire (Rev. 10:1 and Eze. 1:27); both appear with a scroll in their hand (Rev. 10:2 and Eze. 2:9); and in both accounts, the prophet is directed to eat the scroll, which was sweet as honey, but produced an inner bitterness (Rev. 10:8-10 and Eze. 2:8-10, 3:1-4,14). These remarkable similarities cannot be a coincidence. We know that the early Church saw these verses in Ezekiel to be an appearance of the Son of God. So the most obvious explanation of this same imagery in Revelation is that this, too, is an appearance of the Son of God.190 This is a connection that none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus would have missed: the one clothed in the cloud is Jesus.
190 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.20.10-11.
In the same way, the angel (or messenger) with the incense in Revelation 8:3-5, who acts as a priest in the heavenly tabernacle, fulfills the role of Jesus mentioned in the book of Hebrews (7:25, 9:11,15; also Rom. 8:34, 1 Tim. 2:5). As Hebrews explains it, this mediation cannot be performed by angelic beings, but requires one sharing our flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14,17). Even his unexpected action, when he throws fire on the earth (Rev. 8:5), is also a clear allusion to Messiah’s ministry. Jesus said,
I have come to throw fire on the earth, and how I wish it was already burning! (Luke 12:49)
similar to a son of man sitting on a cloud in Rev. 14, with a golden crown on his head, is an allusion to Jesus’ prophecy of the Son of Man:
And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). His
sending out the sickle
for the harvest of the earth has ripened (Rev. 14:15) is an allusion to the parable of Jesus:
The kingdom of God is like a man who throws seed on the land.... When the crop allows, immediately he sends out the sickle, for the harvest has come (Mark 4:26,29).191
191 Similar correspondences can be found for the angelic Son of Man in Rev. 1 and the angel with the seal of God in Rev. 7. For a systematic analysis of the Book of Revelation using the Bible to interpret the Bible, see our book The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John.
One of the reasons many have hesitated to accept that these angels (or messengers) are in fact Jesus was the later heretical misuse of the idea that Jesus is the Angel of the Lord. Some began to teach that Jesus was “just” an angel, a created spirit being, and therefore not God.192 This view became popular in the Arian heresy (4th-5th cent.), and lives on today in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults. As a result, the originally intense speculation about Jesus as the fully divine Angel (or Messenger) of the Lord was replaced with more abstract discussions about his divinity. This was a great loss for those attempting to understand the Bible correctly.
192 Epiphanius attributes this belief to the Ebionite heresy (a heretical offshoot of the Nazarenes; Panarion 30.16.4). Tertullian says that the Ebionites taught that Jesus was an ordinary man indwelt by an angel (On the Flesh of Christ 14).
As for the Nazarenes themselves, they were perfectly orthodox in their beliefs about Jesus.193 This is proven not only by historical notices, but also by archeological discoveries. The Nazarene finds at Capernaum and Nazareth include graffiti inscriptions that mention Jesus as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, the Most High, and God. But in spite of this orthodoxy, their continued observance of the Jewish Law had become a stumbling block to the Gentile church. The Nazarenes were soon considered heretics and rejected by their Gentile brethren. Why? What happened to make Gentile Christians reject their Jewish brethren? In Part II, we follow the gospel to Rome to discover why Gentile Christians abandoned God’s plan and rebuilt the wall of division that Jesus came to destroy (Eph. 2:14).
193 Epiphanius (4th cent.) says, “In this alone do they differ from...the Christians...in being bound still to the Law” (Panarion 29.7.5). The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis: Selected Passages, trans. Philip R. Amidon, S.J., (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1990), 93.
This is an excerpt from
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by Jeffrey J. Harrison
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