Before the Gentile expansion: The Jewish churches in the Holy Land (Hebrews 12)

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Illustration: Jewish church in Kecskemet City

The majority of the earliest believers in Christ were Jews. Although the Jewish people as a whole did not accept the claims of Jesus, the earliest Christian documents do bear witness to a significant Jewish response to gospel preaching. Luke reported that 3,000 people responded  to Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:41) and that about 5,000 believed at a slightly later time (Acts 4:4). When the apostle Paul went up to Jerusalem around A.D. 58, the leaders of the Jerusalem church informed him of “how many thousands of Jews have believed” (Acts 21:20). Since the population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was only around 40,000 people, these figures testify to the growth and historical existence of Jewish Christianity.

The existence of Jewish churches finds explicit testimony in diverse sources (Acts 8:1, Galatians 1:22, 1 Thessalonians 2:14), and archaeological excavations have revealed synagogues with Christian symbolism at Nazareth and Capernaum. These church communities endured a series of persecutions in the midst of a tumultuous era in Jewish history. Early leaders were arrested (Acts 4:1-3, 12:3), people were ostracized from synagogues because of their faith in Christ (Luke 6:22, John 9:22, 16:2), and some suffered physically and endured the seizure of their property (Hebrews 10:32-34). One of the leading instigators of persecution appears to have been Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1, Philippians 3:6). In A.D. 62 the leader of the church in Jerusalem, James the (half) brother of Jesus, was publicly executed by the regning high priest Ananus (Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1 and Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.21-28). Despite such external pressures, the Jewish churches continued to expand and witness.

At the outbreak of the first Jewish revolt against Rome, the Jewish-Christian community refused to participate in the conflict. This refusal reflected a profound change in the Jewish-Christian understanding of its purpose and mission. According to Eusebius, the church of Jerusalem was warned through an oracle to flee the city and seek refuge across the Jordan in a city named Pella (Ecclesiastical History, 3.5.3, cf. Luke 21:20-21, Revelation 12:6). Some in the Jewish-Christian community returned after the war under the leadership of Simeon, the cousin of Jesus (Ecclesiastical History, 4.22.4).

In theology and practice Jewish Christianity possessed certain characteristics that set it apart from the emerging Gentile Christianity:

  • Jewish Christianity may have distinctive Christological emphasis, such as referring to Jesus prominently as the prophet like Moses (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15, 18).
  • It produced a significant body of Apocryphal literature. Unfortunately, most of this is known only in fragmentary form.
  • Most significant is the Judeo-Christian veneration of the Law of Moses. For Jewish Christians, faith in Christ was consistent with adherence to traditional practices such as circumcision, Sabbath keeping and dietary restrictions (Acts 15:1, 5). Church leaders in Jerusalem described Jewish believers as “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). For these reasons Paul’s preaching that Christ, not the law, was the centre of all things (Colossians 2:2-3) was often regarded with suspicion and even hostility (Acts 21:21), and Paul had to defend this message throughout his writings (Romans 3:31). As late as the second century A.D., the Christian apologist Justin Martyr still distinguished Christians of Jewish origin who demanded that Gentiles observe traditional commandments from those who were ready to accept those Gentiles who did not.

 

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