This chapter will present a suggestion as to how the theologically motivated social division between Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-believing Gentiles, combined with socio-political circumstances, brought about a separation between the communities. It will be argued that this process, which eventually resulted in the emanation of a new religion, was the result of a conscious strategy that can be compared to other expressions of collective action, such as tax rebellions, political uprisings, revolutions or, in short, social movements.
Chapter 5: “Politics and Persecution,” pg 178
The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity
This is the fourth but not quite the last installment in my investigation (see my ending comment below) of the schism between (Messianic) Judaism and Gentile Christianity based on the “Antioch Incident” (Galatians 2:11-21) and the general development of the “Synagogue of the Way,” which was characterized by a mixed Jewish/Gentile population of equal co-participants, in mid-first century CE Syrian Antioch.
See my three prior blog posts, Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch and Today’s Messianic Judaism, Zetterholm, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem of the Gentiles, and Nanos, Ancient Antioch, and the Problem with Peter for details.
The title of my (almost) final missive in this series seems whimsical and on one level, that’s intentional, but it also reflects the intensity of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Jesus-believers in the Antiochian synagogue, both in intimate fidelity and in the excruciating agony of separation. Anyone who has experienced a “difficult” divorce or who has seen another couple go through one realizes that as much as the couple loved each other in the beginning, that is the same level of anger and even hate they experience at the end of their marriage.
But why the “divorce?”
Evangelical Christianity (and most likely all forms of the Christian faith) assume that Christianity naturally, intentionally evolved from (Messianic) Judaism. Popular Evangelical Preachers such as John MacArthur believe that Judaism as a religious practice was intended by God to be temporary and to be replaced by the Christian Church. Any indication that Paul or the other Jewish apostles and disciples continued in any of the Jewish practices is considered to represent a “transitional period,” where the last generation of Jewish Jesus-believers in Judaism gave way to the following generation of Jewish and Gentile Christians, all liberated from “the Law” and basking in the free gift of salvation by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Zetterholm approaches the issue from a completely different direction, one that takes into account socio-political motivations, more like the Boston Tea Party objecting to “taxation without representation” than a Divinely planned shift in theology that “jumps the track” from Judaism to Christianity.
Can we treat the relationship between the early Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles as a human and social dynamic and conflict and still retain the involvement of God in human history? On the one hand, it seems almost “sacrilegious” to do so. On the other hand, none of the people in the Bible are mere pawns of God used in a game to illustrate grand principles and theologies so much as they are living human beings struggling to understand who they are in relation to each other and God. I think we can afford Paul, Peter, James and everyone else involved in Antioch the dignity of being treated as real people instead of “Bible characters.”
What we are considering is what sort of conflicts would have naturally led to such a Jewish/Gentile split in the Messianic community in Antioch and the other diaspora communities of the Way. One such conflict suggested by Zetterholm (pp 178-9) is legal. While Judaism was considered a legal religion in the Roman empire, did the empire consider Gentile involvement in Judaism, not as proselytes or even God-fearers, but as Gentile co-participants who were required to remain Gentile as a valid association?
Another issue to consider is that, as Judaism became less favorable in the eyes of the Empire and began to encounter persecution, what was the impact of Gentiles being swept along in the anti-Jewish fervor as were the Jews, or conversely, treated differently and maybe more positively than the Jews within the same Jewish space?
The war against Rome ended in catastrophe and with the fall of the temple in 70 CE it was essentially over.
The end of the war had, of course, drastic and immediate political consequences. The most important for the present analysis was the institution of the poll tax fiscus Judaicus, which was founded shortly after the end of the war by Vaspasian.
-Zetterholm, pg 185
In some ways, this tax very much identified one as a Jew since it was only imposed on Jewish populations. On the other hand, can we say the tax was also imposed on those who were Gentiles in the synagogue or those who “appeared” to be Jews due to their practices and affiliation with Jewish community, or were the Gentiles in the Jesus-believing synagogue (and Gentile God-fearers in all synagogues) spared because they were not ethnically Jewish?
Either way, and we can’t be certain which one was more likely to have occurred, we can see the potential for conflict. Should the former be true, the Gentiles might well resent it since after all, they not only aren’t Jewish but based on Paul’s letter the Galatians, they are at least highly discouraged if not absolutely forbidden to formally convert to Judaism via the proselyte rite. Why should they pay a tax if they weren’t ethnically Jewish?
On the other hand, if the Gentiles in Jewish community were not taxed because they were Gentiles (which only seems fair), would the Jews in the same synagogue resent them for their lack of solidarity with their teachers and mentors, the very people of which Jesus said “salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22)?
Zetterholm states (pp 188-9) that this period (and lots of subsequent historical periods) saw a general rise in anti-Semitism which likely spilled over onto the Gentiles who, by virtue of their association in the synagogue community, looked like Jews. This would have included Gentile God-fearers in the various diaspora synagogues and God-fearers, as previously stated, were thought to be polytheistic and continued to participate in the various pagan cults in Greek society for social and business (and perhaps personal) purposes. What of the recent “converts” of Gentiles from paganism to Jesus-faith? Could a surge in anti-Jewish sentiments result in them falling away or “cheating” by continuing to or reverting to pagan practices to “take the heat off” them?
M. Goodman, however, has argued that, in the period before the fiscus Judaicus was imposed, there existed a certain confusion about who was Jewish and who was Gentile, and that the fiscus Judacus promoted the development of a more stringent Jewish identity.
-ibid, pg 192
…there was every reason to assume that the Jewish community knew exactly who was Jewish and who was not.
So from an outsider’s point of view (Roman/Greek), it might be hard to tell sometimes who was Jewish and who wasn’t within the Jewish community, but of course, inside the community itself, everyone knew. The community of Messiah knew that they had a responsibility to separate itself from pagan society for the sake of God, but within that community, barriers were growing. In my previous missive on this topic, I presented the point of view of Nanos that Paul considered the Gentile Jesus-believers as equal co-participants in synagogue life, even to the level of community meals, as well as those who also received the covenant blessings of atonement and redemption in the same matter as the Jews.
And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.
–Acts 15:8-9 (NASB)
However, thanks to outside pressure being brought to bear against all diaspora Jewish communities, that seems to have changed, at least potentially.
As a member of the Pauline Jewish community in Antioch, a Gentile was part of the soteriological system of Judaism to a degree never experienced before. Through Christ, Gentiles were incorporated into a covenantal system that provided salvation without prior conversion to Judaism. Non-conversion to Judaism was a necessary condition.
-ibid, pg 194
While that seems like terrifically good news, it comes with a cost. According to Zetterholm, the halachah regarding Gentile involvement in the Jesus-believing synagogue was likely more strict upon the Gentiles than it was on Gentile God-fearers in other synagogues. While strict Torah observance in the manner of the Jews was not imposed, the Acts 15 legal edict applied to the Jesus-believing Gentiles went above and beyond the Noahide requirements observed by God-fearing Gentiles, so Gentiles in Messiah would be forbidden to participate in any other societal religious obligation by worshiping in the pagan temples.
Gentile Jesus-believers weren’t an island. Although the requirements of the Messianic community were to separate from the pagan nations (mirroring the “chosenness” of all Jewish communities vis a vis the nations of the world), they still would have had pagan family members, friends, business partners and associates, and so forth, who would or could be making life difficult for them.
There is also the issue of Gentile status within the Jesus-believing Jewish religious stream. As previously pointed out, there may have been a strong disagreement between Paul and James regarding the equality or inequality of Gentiles in the Way, with James representing the extreme opposite position of Paul by advocating for separate religious/social communities for Jews and Gentiles. Also, Zetterholm believes it was possible that, subsequent to the Antioch incident and Peter’s pulling away from the Gentiles, the non-Jews may have been “demoted” in terms of social status (but not necessarily ultimate soteriological destiny) to that of God-fearers.
Citing Nanos (The Mystery of Romans, 289-336)…
…that Romans 13:1-7 refers to the subordination of the Jesus-believing Gentiles to the synagogue authorities and not, as usually assumed, to the civic Roman authorities. If he is correct, this was certainly motivated by theological considerations, but at the same time, Paul shows here awareness of the religious/political implications of theology that prevents Gentiles from participation in the official cult.
-ibid, pg 195
The Jesus-believing Gentiles were certainly considered to be embraced by the final salvation, through Christ, as Gentiles, but outside the covenant. This led not only to a theological distinction, but also to a social separation between Jesus-believing Jews and Jesus-believing Gentiles. The Jesus-believing Gentiles became reduced to the status of Jesus-believing God-fearers.
The actual comprehension of the status of Jesus-believing Gentiles in Jewish community and in terms of “final salvation” is contingent upon a correct understanding of how Gentiles were (and are) involved and included in the blessings of the New Covenant, and coming to a correct understanding isn’t easy to do. Those details are beyond the scope of the current discussion, (See D.T. Lancaster’s What About the New Covenant lecture series, produced by First Fruits of Zion [FFOZ]).
I don’t necessarily believe that the Gentiles were reduced to a lesser status in the Messianic synagogue in Antioch or the diaspora based on the Galatians 2 encounter. Paul vehemently opposed Peter’s action and the other Jews who sided with his hypocrisy, and since the vast majority of diaspora Jesus-believing communities were established by and (presumably) answerable to Paul, it would seem like Paul’s authority and perspective would be “calling the shots.”
That said, if Nanos is indeed correct, then Paul’s perspective supported Gentile subordination to Jewish synagogue authority. Of course any member of a synagogue, Jewish or Gentile, would be expected to submit to the authority of the synagogue leaders, but the implication is that Gentiles may have had a “one down” role in terms of their Jesus-believing Jewish counterparts. Also, Nanos believes that the Roman synagogue(s) hosting Jesus-believing Gentiles contained Jews who were Jesus-believers and those who were not, adding additional pressure and a feeling of dissonance. It’s one thing to submit to Jesus-believing Jewish authorities, but why defer to authorities who denied the Lordship of Messiah Yeshua?
Thus, while Paul supported the Gentiles as equal co-participants in synagogue social interactions as well as the final salvation based on receiving New Covenant blessings, with Gentiles not having full membership in the Old or New Covenants as made by God with “the house of Isarel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:27), he likely considered it part of their “normal” legal status (see Acts 15) to subordinate in some sense, to Jewish authority in the Jewish community and religious setting, or as George Orwell famously wrote in his novel Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Jesus-believing Jews never imagined questioning their own relationship with God through the covenants and their participation socially, religiously, and in every other way in community and final salvation was assumed. Jesus-faith was simply the logical, natural extension of everything that had come before. Of course with the death and resurrection of Messiah, the New Covenant promises were inaugurated and though not yet fully realized, this was the good news the Jewish people and the nation of Israel was waiting for.
Gentiles, on the other hand, while also assumed to be included, both due to the revelations given Paul by Messiah and by the testimony of the Prophets of old, the mechanism by which this was to be accomplished wasn’t entirely clear (see all of the incidents of Jewish opposition to Paul’s message in the New Testament) and the exact role and status of Jesus-believing Gentiles in Jewish community always seems somewhat “up in the air.”
So on the one hand, Gentile involvement in Jewish community made Gentiles vulnerable to Greek and Roman anti-Semitism which could include financial burdens as well as physical violence because they were either mistaken for Jews or were seen as “collaborators” with the Jewish “enemy.” On the other hand, Gentiles in Jewish community, if they felt at all devalued or of a lesser social or even covenant status than the Jesus-believing Jews, could have felt resentment against their Jewish mentors and even against Jews in general. Either way (or both), the Gentiles may have increasingly felt as if they were stuck in the middle with no way out, unless they apostasized and left Jesus-faith. The opposite act of fully converting to Judaism was, as I said above, strongly discouraged if not forbidden, at least by Paul.
…if one embraced a theology that made Gentile identity a necessary condition for salvation, but at the same time required a Jewish definition in order for it to be maintained…
-ibid, pg 201
Zetterholm puts all this together and draws the conclusion that the Jesus-believing Gentiles, seeking a “rational” resolution to this increasing tension, decided they would…
…have to disassociate themselves from Jesus-believing Jewish community in order to acknowledge their true Gentile identity…
-ibid, pg 202
And from this follows…
that the parting of the ways in Antioch was primarily a separation — not between “Judaism” and “Christianity” — but between Jewish and Gentile adherents to the Jesus movement.
This gives rise to the thought that in the late first century to the early second century, there were wholly separate communities of Gentiles and Jews who were both Jesus-believing, but each community possessed a very different theology and dogma relative to their belief and practice, positions that would be opposed to one another, setting each community ultimately against each other. That’s about as “bilateral” as you can get.
Ignatius of Antioch is one of the first authors within the Jesus movement who writes from a perspective clearly outside Judaism. In Ignatius’ world, the separation between Judaism and Christianity had to some extent already taken place. This is not to say that the separation process was completed, but, in the symbolic world of the bishop in Antioch, Christianity was, or at least should be, a non-Jewish movement.
-ibid, pg 202
It’s generally believed that Ignatius lived from 35 CE to 107 CE (See “Ignatius” in The Westminster Dictionary of Church History, ed. Jerald Brauer [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971]) and that he was a disciple of the Apostle John (See “The Martyrdom of Ignatius” and “Synaxarium: The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch”), which is a shocking revelation. How could a disciple of Christ’s beloved John turn his back on everything he had been taught, virtually spitting in his Master’s face? It would be like Titus or Timothy betraying Paul or Peter betraying Jesus (oh, wait). How sharper than a serpent’s tooth (see Shakespeare’s “King Lear”).
A mere eighty or ninety years after the death and resurrection of Christ, we see Ignatius all but throwing stones at the empty tomb and mocking the Messiah’s devotion to Israel, the Temple, and his dear “lost sheep of Israel,” the Jews.
Zetterholm quotes Ignatius (pg 203) from Magn. 10:3 stating that:
“[i]t is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism.”
This created quite a problem among the Jesus-believing Gentiles (pg 205) according to Zetterholm, with some (many) defecting from Jewish to Gentile Jesus-believing communities while others remaining within Jewish community. For their own protection, both from the newly minted Gentile Christians and from participation in the official pagan cult, the Gentiles in Jewish community actively pretended to be Jewish and took on behavioral roles as Jews, donning a Jewish “disguise” as it were, with…
…no intention of leaving messianic Judaism for a Gentile religion stripped of almost every Jewish influence except the idea of Messiah and the Holy Scriptures of the Jews.
ibid, pp 205-6
Zetterholm identifies two major sources of conflict at this point in history (pg 207):
- One in connection with separation from Jesus-believing Jewish community.
- The other connected to the role of being a challenger and the efforts to get back into the polity, but on equal terms with the other members of the polity.
At the heart of the conflict was:
…the Gentile adherents’ frustration at being reduced to Gentile god-fearers and being trapped in the religious/political system without any possibility of expressing their true religious identity, that is, as covenantal partners, triggered the social movement of separation.
This is where the “Honey, I want a divorce” part comes to full bloom. The Jesus-believing Gentiles not only separated from Jesus-believing Jewish community to form their (our) own communities, but they actively turned on their former hosts and benefactors, “demonizing” the Jewish people and Judaism, giving birth to the ugly “twins” of Christian supersessionism and Christian anti-Semitism that we continue to see in some churches today.
We noted above that Ignatius in Phld. 6:2 connected Judaism with the activities of “the prince of this world,” and that he in Magn. 8:1 probably used popular prejudice against the Jews in describing Judaism as being based on myths and fables.
It is well known that, in the decades after the death of Ignatius, Christian literature abounds in developing anti-Semitic themes.
-ibid, pg 210
Zetterholm provides evidence (pp 211-224) that Ignatius either used a proto-Mattean document or the actual gospel of Matthew against the Jesus-believing Jews and Jews in general, citing Matthew’s clear in group/out group” perspective (pg 212) as we find in Matthew 7:21-23 and 13:47-52, also leveraging the (apparent) disdain Jesus had with the Pharisees to magnify Gentile Christian rejection of all Jews (Jesus-believing and non-believing Jews alike).
One theme that is specially developed in much Christian Adversus Iudaeos literature is that the Jews had misunderstood their own Holy Scriptures and as a result, had lost the right to them.
And if that isn’t enough to make your blood boil…
It is likely, as Schoedel states, that the identification of Christ as the word from silence refers to the supposed inability of the Jews to understand their own religious tradition: the appearance of Christ from silence brings the divine hidden purpose to light. The radical “Christianization” of the prophets is one indication of how profound this inability is, and how extensive the hostility is between Judaism and Christianity.
This is where we get the astounding departure in interpretation between normative Judaism and Christianity in our world today, based, as I’ve said, on a two-thousand year old mistake, except Zetterholm says it wasn’t a mistake and it wasn’t a misunderstanding. The schism was a calculated and deliberate set of acts designed to manufacture a new religion for the Jesus-believing Gentiles called “Christianity.” This new religion, by absolute necessity, was to be all but completely detached from its mother faith of Judaism and further, must establish itself as the “true Israel” of God, forcing an abandonment of the Jewish people, Judaism, and Israel by her own Creator in favor of the “Law-free” Gentiles.
As I said above, for a time, you would have had a world where separate Jesus-believing Christian Gentile and Jesus-believing Jewish communities would have operated in the same historical and geographical space. While Zetterholm feels some Hellenized Jews may have chosen to defect to Gentile Christianity, these would have been the Jews who, as were mentioned previously would have left ethnic and religious Judaism anyway.
There were likely Gentiles who hung on in the Jewish communities but as the decades passed, subsequent generations would have left Jewish community for either Gentile paganism or Gentile Christianity. Finally, the community of Jewish believers in Messiah would have dissolved as well if, for no other reason, than to avoid even the faintest association with the Gentile Christians who now actively disdained, despised, and “demonized” all Jews everywhere.
Since this blog post is exceptionally long, I’ll save the conclusion and implications of Zetterholm’s book on the modern Christian Church as well as the Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots movements for a later time.