Bible Commentator

CHRISTIANITY: A JEWISH PERSPECTIVE

Rabbi Moshe Reiss

moshereiss@moshereiss.org


THE PARTING OF THE WAY AND THE ROAD NEVER TAKEN

A. INTRODUCTION


Many scholars have raised the question of the Parting of the Ways between Judaism and Christianity. The split between Judaism and Christianity was gradual and happened at different rates in different places.


Some conclude that since the Gospel of John tells them that the Jews rejected and excluded the believers of Jesus from synagogues and having found the Jewish prayer – the Birkhat Ha’minim - the answer to them seems clear. The Jews may have rejected, excluded and excommunicated not Jesus and his disciples but some members of John’s community. As we shall see even this is unclear.


The Gospel of John promulgated supercessionism or substitution theology - Church doctrine for almost two millennium. Is it realyy possible that God has only one blessing? After the millions of Jewish deaths in the Shoah supercessionism was rejected by the Pope John XXIII in 1969, Pope John Paul II and others in the Christian communities. These two Popes rejected the centuries old Christian doctrine of supercessionism and recognized that the Jews had and still have their covenant, not rejected, but in fact still blessed by God.


Since Jesus and his immediate disciples were Jews, what beliefs and/or actions could they have had or undertook that they were rejected as Jews? Were the believers in the Messiahship of Jesus not acceptable Jews? Jesus seemed to be anti-Temple, anti-priest (like Jeremiah in the days of old) and against the religious zealots and perhaps was a believer in the expectation of a soon to be eschaton like the Essenes and religiously like the Hillelites.

 

One group not mentioned in the four Gospels but included in the Letters of Paul and the Book of Acts was known as the Jerusalem Church. They were the direct disciples of Jesus led by James, the brother of Jesus. They may have died during the destruction of the Temple.  It is equally possible they escaped across the Jordan River and survived for as much as 1,000 years as the Ebionites. But if so they became marginal to the growing Christian communities. What is clear is they represented the ‘Road Never Taken’ by Christianity. There may have been other examples of the ‘Road Never Taken’.  Lloyd Gaston found a second century document that stated the following:

’For on this account Jesus is concealed from the Jews, who have taken Moses as their teacher, and Moses is hidden from those who have believed Jesus. For, their being one teaching by both, God accepts him who has believed either of these’.1


During the Great Revolt against the Romans (66-72 CE) the Temple was destroyed, and almost all the sects we have mentioned earlier were destroyed. Yohanan ben Zakai, and his students escaped, went to Yavne and created Rabbinic Judaism.


There were communities of Jews and Jewish-Christians and Gentile Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, from Northern Africa, through Alexandria where the largest community of Jews in the world lived, to Rome as far as Spain and north to Syria and Persia. We know a little about these from Roman historians, Jewish texts and Paul’s letters. We have already discussed how in Rome there may have been many groups of Orthodox Jews, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in various stripes. Some Orthodox Jews would eat with God-fearers, some would not.

   

 The Gospel of John created the idea of the Incarnation of God. He states that ‘ the Word was God’ (Jn. 1:1), ‘the Word was made flesh and the Word was God’ (Jn. 1:14) and Jesus ‘called God his own Father, making himself equal to God’ (Jn. 5:18) and ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn. 10:30). In this Gospel ‘ the deity and incarnation of Jesus are unequivocally proclaimed’.  2 John decades after Paul made Jesus god-like, made Jesus divine and incarnate. ‘For this reason the Jews sought to kill him, because he abrogated the Sabbath but also called God his own Father, making himself equal to God’ (Jn. 5:18). That idea was a rejection of the Jewish belief in oneness of God. From what we know of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels Jesus could never have said that. According to P.M. Casey, a Christian theologian that statement would have been rejected by ‘most New Testament writers’. 3 That belief was only possible when the great majority of those following Jesus were Gentiles, not among people having a Jewish identity. Paul himself had too much of a Jewish identity to belief what John stated in his Gospel. John was speaking from a Gentile identity (even if he was himself Jewish) and perception. Jesus of Nazareth had little interest in Gentiles. ‘Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not’ (Matt. 10:5). We discussed this in the chapter ‘To John the Incarnate God and Christian anti-Semitism’.


B. JEWISH SOURCES


The Mishna (the basic Jewish text that is elaborated on in the Talmud) states that ‘the following are those who do not have a portion in the world to come - the one who says there is no resurrection of the dead, those who say the Torah is not from Heaven and the Apikoros [from the Greek philosopher Epicures]’. (M. San 10:1) A baraita (an early ancient commentary) states that one who does not believe in the resurrection of the dead will not be resurrected and therefore is not available for the world to come. 4 Those who deny that the Torah is not from heaven deny the divine origin of the Torah. The term ‘Apikoros’ meant in ancient Judaism one who did not believe in God’s involvement in the world. The first and third were beliefs of the Sadducees, the group that included the priests, even the High Priest.

 

No one claimed that the Sadducees were not Jewish; no one claimed that those losing their portion in the world to come were not Jewish; they were not banned from the synagogue. No one claimed that even the atheist Elisha ben Abuya, called ‘Akhor’ in the Talmud – meaning the ‘other’ - nor the excommunicated Eliezer ben Hyranus were no longer Jewish. The ban of Eliezer ben Hyracus excluded him from the community, yet when we was dying Rabbi Akiva, his former colleague went to visit him.  Rabbi Meir, the premier disciple of Rabbi Akiva, the most mentioned name in the Talmud, not only went to study Torah with his atheistic friend Elisha, but brought him to his students for them to learn from him.  

 

The Talmud specifically states that Righteous Gentiles have a portion in the world to come. On the other hand they do not thus become Jews. One was not required to be a Jew to achieve salvation. Who is a Jew is a current issue in the state of Israel; some of the specifics can be compared to the ancient problem. 5


The Talmud then tells us that ‘Heretics (minim) apostates (meshummadim) and apikorsim go to gehennim‘ (Hell - PT San. 12:5). But in Jewish lore hell is only for eleven months, then all are forgiven. Minim were those earlier referred to as those who say the Torah is not from Heaven. Apostates were who rejected Judaism, probably meaning not believing in the resurrection of the dead, such as Elisha and the Priestly Sadducees.

 

What is the issue of believing ‘the Torah is not from Heaven? Heaven means that God himself wrote the Torah – the Five Books of Moses. Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew – a believer in Jesus - claims that an angel gave the Torah, not God (Acts, Chapter 6&7). The author of the Epistle to the Hebrew states that since Jesus was greater than the angels his teaching must surpass the Jewish Law (Heb. 2:1-2). These were almost certainly Greek Christians as noted by Geza Vermes.

 

We have seen the variety of beliefs held by Judeo-Christians. Once the Gospels were written we can see the various theologies coming out of these beliefs – The theology of Paul, the theology of the Jerusalem Church, the theology of Matthew and the theology of John; all different.

 

The apostates those who broke the Halakha and the Apikorsim were clearly still Jewish, it therefore reasonable that the ‘minim’ were at this time still considered Jewish. It appears therefore that a Jew is a Jew regardless of his beliefs or actions. Certainly a Jew believing Jesus is the Messiah would not be excluded from the Judaism. As we have seen greater heresies (such as Atheism) did not exclude a Jews from the fold.

 

With the destruction of the Temple all the other sects were destroyed. By this time most of the ‘Christians’ in Palestine were Jews and most elsewhere were Gentiles, not required to circumcise or obey Halakha specific to the Jews. The Rabbis had little contact with Gentile Christians who eventually became the majority of Christians.

 

 

The Text of the Gospel of John states the ‘ban’ as follows:

‘No man spoke openly of him for fear of the Jews’ (7:13).

‘T]he Jews . . . had already agreed to ban from the synagogue anyone who should acknowledge Jesus as the Christ’ (Jn. 9:22).

‘And yet there were many who believe in him, even among the leading men, but they did not admit it, because of the Pharisees and for fear of being banned from the synagogue’ (Jn. 12:42).

‘They will expel you from the synagogue’ (Jn. 16:2).

 

 

C. BIRKAT HA’MINIM


A prayer called ‘birkat ha’minim’ was written under the auspices of Gamaliel II who presided over the Sanhedrin between 85-115, by Samuel Ha’katan (the little). We do not why it was written or exactly what it said. Was it written because the leadership of Rabbinic Judaism believed that some believers-in-Jesus were telling Jews that did not have to observe Moses’ laws? Perhaps, after all that is what James believed Paul was doing. How much did the newly founded Rabbinic Jews know about the diverse groups of people calling themselves believers-in-the-Messiahship-of Jesus; some of whom followed the theology of Paul, some the theology of law in Matthew and some the Christological theology of John?

 

The Talmud then tells us that one year later Samuel was leading the prayers and forgot the prayer and kept trying to remember it. Nothing is said about why he forgot. Remember that prayers were not written down at the time, everything was oral. The question remains why did he forget or why does the Talmud tell us he forgot. Did he think the prayer was unimportant? Was he himself a believer-in-Jesus? Samuel was one of two people called by a ‘bat kol’ – a heavenly voice - as worthy of being a prophet (the other was Hillel the elder). 6

Was he old and senile? Why did not someone else remind him of what he had composed a year earlier. We are not told.


The ‘birkat ha’minim’ was written at the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism took perhaps several centuries to take hold throughout the Jewish world. How long did it take until this ban applied in Antioch or Rome or Alexandria or Babylon? Did the Rabbi’s in Rome write a ban of their own?   

 

Let me state the current version of that text which is still read today by Jews in their daily prayers.

 

‘May the slanderers have no hope; and may all wickedness perish in an instant; and may all of our enemies be cut down speedily. May you speedily uproot, smash, cast down and humble the arrogant sinners – speedily in our days. Blessed are You, O Lord, who breaks enemies and humbles arrogant sinners.’


The word ‘slanderers’ – ‘mamshalim’ in Hebrew is not mentioned in early texts.

 

The earliest version of the prayer found in the Cairo Geniza states ‘As for the ‘noz’rim’ and ‘minim’ may they be cut down speedily’. That text comes from approximately the tenth century. Do we know what ‘noz'rim’ meant in the tenth century; Yes Christians, those from Nazareth. (It is still the Hebrew word for Christians.) Did the prayer say that in the second century? We do not have the original text of the ‘Birkhat Ha’minim’. Can we assume that ‘noz'rim’ was in the original text? There is no reason to make such an assumption. Many Jewish scholars belief it did not include ‘noz’rim – Jewish Christians, but only ‘minim’ - Jews who converted fully to Christianity – whatever that meant. 7

 

The ‘Birkat ha’mimin’, obliquely prevented someone who may have belonged to the group of ‘minim’ from the role of public reader of the prayers. The remainder of Jews said the prayer silently. But they were not excluded from the synagogue as being non-Jews. Even non-Jews than as now are allowed to sit in a synagogue. Since no one is likely to pray for his own destruction it meant to exclude them from being public readers. Public readers were the most important, hopefully the holiest people, in the congregation. They were not likely to be Judeo-Christians. The idea sometimes promulgated that Jewish leadership would attempt to have Judeo-Christians as Public Readers to expose them as Judeo-Christians (especially about Samuel) is too ingenious to be believed. Since the public read the prayer silently a regular reader they could simply not read it if they choose not to.

 

If in the geographical area where it was promulgated or used there were Churches as well as Synagogues why would Judeo-Christians go to a Synagogue rather than a Church? If in the geographic area there were no Churches and therefore no community of believers-in-Jesus would a person going to the Synagogue who was in such a minority position advertise his position as a believer-in-Jesus?


We cannot be certain the ‘ban’ noted in the Gospel of John is related to Birkat Ha’minin.

If the community of John was in Ephesus, Antioch or Alexandria as suggested by Culpepper they are unlikely to be realted. The distance from northern Israel where the Sanhedrin met was too great. 8 However if as suggested by Klaus Wengst the community was located in what is today the Golan Heights that would be possible. His view is not generally accepted.


In an important article written by Reuven Kimelman argues against the Birkat Ha’Minim being related to the ban in the Gospel of John. 9 This has been accepted by many scholars. He notes that the Hebrew words can mean ‘heretics’ 10 (a heretic is one whose beliefs differ from the religion), ‘apostates’ 11 (an apostate is one whose actions differ from the accepted actions), ‘sectarians’ 12, even ‘separatists’13. He concludes that the word found in the ‘Genizah’ ‘nosrim’ was used as early as the fourth century and meant ‘Jewish Christians’ 14 and was even understood by Christian Church Fathers and the Talmud to have that meaning. In this very scholarly article Kimelman concludes that ‘Birkat ha’minim was not directed against Gentile Christians, but against Jewish sectarians’. 15 But were not the members of the Johannine community who attended Synagogues possibly or even probably ‘Jewish sectarians’? Who else but Jews who followed Jesus would attend a Synagogue? Yes there were Gentile Christian Judaizer’s, but could they be banned as public readers? They would certainly not be public readers, the persons who the curse was intended to forbid from leading the liturgy. As Larry Schiffman noted the Sages of the Talmud in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction had little contact with ‘Gentile Christians’. He suggests that in Palestine Jewish Christianity prevailed until after the end of the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE). 16 As a result in Talmudic eyes Christianity changed from being a Jewish heretical movement to a separate religion. Since Bar Kokhba killed many Jewish Christians who not fight for his Messiahship the overwhelming majority of these were Gentile Christians who were not born Jewish and who did not follow Jewish law especially circumcision of males. The followers of that religion were not born Jews nor had they converted by accepting the Torah and circumcising its male members.


D. CONCLUSION


During the Bar Kokhba war most of the remaining Jewish Christians in Palestine (who would have refused to fight for a Messiah named Bar Kokhba) were killed. After this second Roman war Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem and Rabbinic Jews lived in the Galilee. Most Judeo Christians who remained probably left and joined Gentile Christians Churches in Syria and elsewhere. Gentile Christians who did not believe in circumcision and were not in fact Halakhic Jews had proclaimed, in essence, their own separate religion. 17 According to Geza Vermes Paul was ‘a brilliant gifted organizer without whose contribution Christianity would not exist or would be something totally different’. 18


Had the Parting of the Ways not occurred then Judaism would have disappeared under the majority of Gentile Christians members. Or Christianity would have become another Jewish sect. And then Abraham’s blessing would never have been transmitted to the world. The billion and a half Christians in the world would not exist. A religious divorce was necessary. 19 Divorces are often nasty!

 

The Parting of the Way did not happen instantly. The destruction of the second Temple was a major event for Jews and believers in the Messiahship of Jesus. The numerous sectarian forms of Judaism perished (although some individuals remained) only the Hillelite Pharisees and the Jewish believers in Jesus as heirs remained.  The Jews headed by Yohanan ben Zakai and then Gamaliel II emphasized the Torah as they defined it concluding with the Mishna (200 CE) and the Talmud. But even the Mishna did not end the relationship between Jews and Christians. In many place Judaizing continued. Judaizing implies that the separation was not complete. Daniel Boyarin documents ancient sources that Christian and Jewish religious practice may, in many places, have overlapped: the possibility that Christians in late–second–century Lyons normally ate kosher meat; the second–century practice of many Christian communities in Asia Minor to celebrate the death of Jesus on the precise day of Passover rather than on the nearest Friday; observance of the Sabbath as well as Sunday as a day of rest and prayer by fourth–century monks in Egypt; joint psalm–singing by fifth–century communities of Jews and Christians on Majorca. 20


The Birkhat Ha’minim was not the beginning of the ‘Parting of the Ways’ but the beginning of the end of a process. It began fifty years earlier between Paul and the Jerusalem Church – between the Jewish believers in Jesus and Gentile believers in Jesus that did not end until  the fourth or fifth century. .


The Jerusalem Church was the ‘ROAD NEVER TAKEN’ by Christians, partly because the Jerusalem Church was largely destroyed in the ashes of the Temple. But also, it was necessary given Paul’s definition of his mission to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.  This was essentially confirmed by the four Gospel writers who never refer to James, the Jerusalem church or the Jewish Christians. But by neglecting and effectively rejecting the ‘ROAD TAKEN’ by the Jerusalem Church, the Christian Church and certain texts of its four Gospel writers allowed Anti-Judaism to be a ROAD TAKEN for a millennium and a half by Christians.


One can conclude as Richard Rubenstein did that Auschwitz began with the political defeat of the Jews after the Temple’s destruction in 70, the loss of the Bar Kokhba’s War, by Constantine conversion in 332 CE 21 and finally by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which stated that Jesus was Son and Lord, born of a virgin mother and that ‘Jesus Christ himself instructed us’ to belief thus. J.M. Casey tells us that Jesus however said ‘nothing of the kind’ and in fact could not have said such a thing. 22

1 Wilson, Gaston pg. 166.

2 Casey, P.M., From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God, (Westminster press, Louisville, 1991)pg. 23.

3 Casey, From Jewish Prophet,  pg. 166.

4 Lawrence Schffman, At the Crossroads: Tannaitic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism, in Sanders, E.P., eds. Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, Volume Two, (SCM, London, 1981) pg. 140.

5 Brother Daniel, a Carmelite monk was born of Jewish parents in Poland. During WWII he helped many Jews at the risk of his own life and then after himself being saved by Monks converted to Christianity.  He moved to Israel joining the Carmelite Monastery in Haifa. He applied to be an oleh, a citizen of Israel by virtue of being a Jew under the law of return. The government refused based on a Jew cannot  “profess any other religion'.  He appealed to the Israeli Courts saying he belonged to the Jewish people. The Rabbinical position surprisingly was he was not a Jew, despite the fact that we was born of a Jewish mother. Not all Rabbis agreed; Elisha ben Abuya, the Acher, the famous apostate in the Talmud who proclaimed atheism, by stating that ‘there is no Judge and no Judgment’ was still considered a Jew, a Jew can always repent. Brother Daniel brought the issue to the Supreme Court in 1963. The majority opinion ruled , (4-1) that he not a Jew.  But Justice Silberg in his opinion for the majority said that Halakhically he was a Jew. The law of return is a secular law, not based on Halakha, and as he had converted under common usage he could not be considered a Jew. The ‘Jew' mentioned in the Law of Return in unlike the `Jew' mentioned in the Rabbinical Courts Jurisdiction Law." 5 He was making the point that Israel is not a theocracy and the law overrides the Halakha. In fact had he ruled on Halakha he said he would have to define Brother Daniel as a Jew. He ruled Brother Daniel had no nationality, having rejected Polish citizenship upon embarking to Israel. In fact the only reason the Poles allowed him to emigrate was because he was Jewish. Justice Landau concurring said  for Jews "nationalism and religion are inseparably interwoven."  Justice Berenson who also joined the majority said that Brother Daniel's love for Israel was not to be doubted.  But being a Christian meant he voluntarily joined a religious group that had oppressed the Jews for centuries; thus he could not as a Christian be considered a Jew. Both of these Judges allowed a self definition; he was not a Jew because he converted. An atheist born of a Jewish mother was acceptable. The minority opinion by Justice Cohn said that since the Knesset had not defined the Law (and in fact continued perhaps, for good reasons, to evade the issue), Brother Daniel had the right to consider himself a Jew, given he had a Jewish mother. Despite the ruling being favorable to the Rabbinical position, the Israeli Supreme Court had overruled the Halakha.

6 The Book of Legends, eds. Bialik, H.N., and Ravnitsky, Y.,H., (Schocken. N.Y., 19992) pg.  210.

7 Falk, Harvey, Jesus The Pharisee, (Paulist Press, N.Y., 1985) pg. 48.

8 Culpepper, L., The Johannine School, (Missoula Press, 1975) pg. 258; quoted in Ashton, John,  Understanding the Fourth Gospel, (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991) pg. 196.

9 Sanders, E.P., ed. Jewish and Christian Self-Definition; Volume Two of Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Period, (SCM Pres, London, 1981) article by Reuven Kimelman, pgs. 226-244.

10 Kimelman, pg. 228.

11 Kimelman, pg. 227.

12 Kimelman,  pg. 228

13 Kimelman, pg. 227.

14 Kimelman, pg. 238.

15 Kimelman, pg. 244.

16 Schiffman, Tannaitic, pg. 149 and 155.

17Other evidence for this may be the problem in early Church writing regarding Judaizing Christians. It is unclear to me whether these were Judeo-Christians or Gentile-Christians. If the later that is Gentile-Christians, then we have Christians who wished to be Jews according to the Jerusalem Church’s definition, that is to follow the Noachide laws.  That seems unlikely to me since by the time this debate took place the Jerusalem Church had already been destroyed. If they were Judeo-Christians then the Church is declaring itself against Jewish Halakha even the Noachide laws, which does make sense. By then the religions were essentially apart. The Parting of the Ways had already occurred.  

18 Vermes, Geza, The Changing Faces of Jesus, (Penguin, London, 2000)  pg. 71.

19 Townsend, John, T., Midrash Tahuma, Ktav, Hoboken, N.J., 1989

20 Boyarin, Daniel , Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2002).

21 Rubenstein, R.L., The Religious Imagination, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1968) pg. xiii-xiv.

22 Casey, From Prophet to Gentile God,  pg. 163, 166.