History

Early Christianity is commonly defined as the Christianity of, roughly, the three centuries (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and into the early 4th century) between accounts of Jesus’ resurrection (circa 30 AD) and the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD).

To begin with, the Christian church was centred in Jerusalem and led by James, Peter and John.

Jesus was Jewish, had preached to the Jewish people and called his first disciples from the Jewish people. Jewish Christians were faithful religious Jews, and “Christianity” was originally regarded as an affirmation of every aspect of contemporary Judaism, with the addition of one additional belief — that Jesus [Yeshua] was Messiah.

The first Christians were all Jews or Jewish proselytes, either by birth or conversion, and ‘God-fearers’ such as Cornelius who respected the Jewish God and His ways, referred to by historians as the Jewish Christians.

It is increasingly accepted among scholars that “at the end of the 1st century CE there were not yet two separate religions called ‘Judaism’ and ‘Christianity’”.

Additionally, the 1st century Jewish Christians were “totally faithful religious Jews”. They differed from other contemporary Jews only in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.

According to Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem in c.50, customarily believed to have been led by James the Just, determined that Religious male circumcision to signify conversion to Judaism should not be required of Gentile followers of Jesus in order for them to receive the hope of eternal life, only the basic abstentions to avoid: “pollution of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood.”

The basis for these prohibitions is not detailed in Acts 15:21, which states only: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day.“, stressing that new gentile believers would learn the rest of the Law weekly in the synagogue.*

Even after the split, Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries.

According to the Church History of Eusebius, the line of Jewish Christian bishops of Jerusalem continued until the Bar Kokhba revolt (c 130).

Within the Empire and later elsewhere Christianity was dominated by the Gentile based anti-Jewish perspective, which became the official religion of the Roman Empire and which took control of sites in the Holy Land such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cenacle and appointed subsequent Bishops of Jerusalem after the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Early Christianity had gradually grown apart from Judaism during the first two centuries and by the time of the Council of Nicea, Christianity had established itself as a predominantly gentile religion of the Roman Empire.

The separation of Christianity from Judaism was a gradual process rather than a single event. The essential part of this process was that in terms of simple demographics, the church became more and more gentile and less and less Jewish.

Most historians agree that Jesus and his followers established a new Jewish sect, rather than a separate religion, albeit a sect that attracted both Jewish and Gentile converts. Historians continue to debate the precise moment when Christianity established itself as a new religion, distinct from Judaism.

Some scholars view Christians as being competing movements within Judaism (in the same way as Pharisees and Saducees) and a decisive separation occurred only after the Bar Kokhba revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, forcing Christianity to emerge as a new religion.

Jewish Christianity was initially strengthened despite persecution by Jerusalem Temple officials; however as Christianity became more and more Gentile, the Gentile Christians diverged from their Jewish, Jerusalem roots and Jewish Christianity fell into decline during the Jewish-Roman wars (66-135) and growing anti-Judaism perhaps best personified by Marcion (c. 150).

The Council of Nicea specifically outlawed Jewish Christian belief and practice. It is unclear whether Jewish bishops were actually excluded but this seems highly likely, as Jewish Christians were conflated with the Ebionites and the Arians who were declared heretics.

With persecution by the Christians from the time of the Council of Nicea and the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Jewish Christians dispersed, some seeking refuge in the Alps, but probably mostly outside the boundaries of the Empire, in Arabia and elsewhere.

References:

Robert Goldenberg. Review of “Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism” by Daniel Boyarin in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 2002), pp. 586-588.

McGrath, Alister E., Christianity: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing (2006). ISBN 1-4051-0899-1. Page 174:

Shaye J. D. Cohen

*Regarding the Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem; many, beginning with Augustine of Hippo consider the consensus reached emphasized the four stipulations based on the Noahide Laws stated in Genesis, and applicable to all people (Noah’s descendants after the Flood). On the other hand some modern scholars reject the connection to Noahide Law (Genesis 9) and instead see Leviticus 17-18 as the basis, which is consistent with the idea the the Council expected Gentile believers to learn the Law of Moses.

Drawn from various sources. See recommended reading for further information.

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