Judaism and Early Christianity

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This article will review, in brief, the relationship between Judaism and Christianity between the AD second century and fifth century and how it formed the Christian community with lasting effects in the Orthodox Church. In this period the Jewish and Christian communities changed in their attitude towards each other, certainly both external and internal pressures within Christianity moved Christians in a distinctive way not only spiritually but also sociologically. Literature from Christian, Jewish, and pagan sources will demonstrate what these pressures were and how they acted upon the early Christians.

Covering the following points would take a series of volumes to make good any thorough investigation. But the attempt here is to offer information in an evenhanded way to the layperson who is not conversant on the subject. In each topic the reader will discover how within the late Hellenistic and early Roman imperial periods the Jewish-Christian dialogue took on its own character and sometimes, unfortunately, in quite unpleasant ways for both groups.

Problems of Historical Investigation

Despite the issues involving this interaction, whether from the medieval or modern eras, a caution faces the reader who eagerly desires to smell the odor of controversy. The period under review is neither medieval nor modern and is not one under psychological scrutiny (though the latter would make for much interesting subjective ideas!). Instead, sticking to the time period is essential without trying to read back into it developments which never occurred but in the imagination of a modern writer.

Too much literature written on the subject tends to the sensational and one suspects that this is done more to sell books than to demonstrate sound ideas. Book-selling is a tough field wherein most books do not make a profit so the tactic is understandable. As bad as this situation may be in the capitalist climate in the non-academic world, there has been infiltration of this approach among academics as well. So while one may indeed charge an Orthodox Christian with an anachronistic reading of early Christian history surely the Orthodox Christian may return the charge against many other writers of various persuasions.

Most unfortunate is the lack of falsifiability; i.e., much of what we infer from sources is not a falsifiable scientific endeavor. Thus, perusing through sources for historical writing demands even more self-criticism and care on the part of the author. Let it be stated that this endeavor will not only be rigorous but also charitable to the sources at hand as this writer will strive to avoid besserwissen, that today one "knows better" than our predecessors. Unless it can be shown with reasonable abduction that it is otherwise the case he will give way to the ancient sources.

The Categories of Investigation

The following categories are not proposed to be an exhaustive list, but is a foundational one which will help any reader comprehend the results of the early Jewish-Christian dialogue within what is now the Orthodox Church. It is likely that this also would benefit an understanding of the Catholic Church. To the degree that Protestant and independent churches relate to this early Christian history would be the mark of whether such Christians would gain much comprehension of their current church practices by reading it. For instance, a Lutheran would gain most from it whereas less so for an independent Christian whose leadership eschews Christian development throughout the centuries and ultimately rejects it.

Interestingly, a Jewish reader may obtain more comprehension of their own synagogal history although on the surface it may seem that this would not be so. But since the Jewish community was the "other half" of this dialogue one can affirm from the outset that it must necessarily be the case; that significant information about Jewish ideas will be presented is just as serious an exploration as those of the Christians.

I. Art and Architecture

Although some laypersons have the notion that Christians could not have their own separate facilities for worship before the Edict of Milan (AD 313/314), occasionally governors would allow Christians to maintain both a church and a cemetery. Permission was intermittent, however, hence many Christians prudently found protection in a private house; i.e., security was preferable given the possiblity of persecution.

The "house church" of Dura-Europos (in what is now Syria), an AD third century structure pre-dating the Edict, offers a clue as to its art and structure since it is within walking distance of a Jewish synagogue of the same date. Of course, this "church" had its own particulars formed by specific Christian needs (e.g., a baptistry). Although in other churches the bishop's seat might just as well connect the practice of this seat to “Moses’ seat” or to the elders benches in the synagogues (with an apse, no less) of which there is hard evidence archaeologically.

Whether these Christians were deliberately copying the Jewish forms is likely not so much the question here as they had little to work with in terms of resources and capability. The Jewish community was lively and resourceful if one may infer this from both the architecture and the art of both buildings at Dura-Europos. Nonetheless, the desire to use artistic expression is not only an extension of the so-called "catacomb art" but also that of using Jewish examples for sacred stories. Both Jewish and Christian figures in these paintings have a debt to pagan styles as well; in terms of content and solemnity, one may see the unique presentation in the synagogue and in the church.

Little question remains on the rise of church-building after the Edict of Milan. Constantine himself engaged in this activity and promoted the building of churches throughout the empire, generally in the basilica form.

As to the basilica style of most Western churches Constantine built, one asks: what else? One discovers that many, if not most, Jewish synagogues of the day were a basilica. Varieties of synagogues either adapted the basilica or took another form too. The basilica was used for housing as well, a “hall,” as we might say today.

Constantine had other types built (octagonal in Antioch), and so it was in the East that the cruciform church was predominant. One remembers that cultures and religions influence each other. He had a pagan temple torn down so a Christian church could be built over the holy tomb. Thus, while the Christian use of the basilica or "great hall" was a popular one in the Western Empire for Jewish, Christian, pagan, and secular structures it was in the Eastern Empire where the Christian church took on its special form. At this point there appears to be no external vestiges of Jewish influence, though the internal working of the church was similar.

II. Ecclesiology

III. Ethics

IV. Liturgy

V. Scripture

VI. Theology



The reader will do well to look up the primary texts, many available online, of various Christian and Jewish writers. The following is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the ancient authors but only relevant to the subject at hand.

  • The New Testament
  • Clement of Rome
  • Ignatius of Antioch
  • The Didache
  • Polycarp
  • The Epistle of Barnabas
  • The Martyrdom of Polycarp
  • The Epistle to Diognetus
  • Justin Martyr
  • Melito of Sardis
  • Tertullian
  • Origen
  • Eusebius of Caesarea
  • Josephus
  • The Mishnah
  • Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs


  • William G. Braude, Jewish Proselytizing, 1940.
  • Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, 1967.
  • Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, 1940.
  • Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971.
  • Craig A. Evans and Donald A. Hagner, eds., Anti-Semitism and Early Christianity, 1993.
  • Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past, 1959.
  • Eugene Fisher, Interwoven Destinies: Jews and Christians through the Ages, 1993.
  • Edward Flannery, The Anguish of the Jews, 1985.
  • W. H. C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church, 1965.
  • E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 1969.
  • A. H. M. Jones, Constantine and the Conversion of Europe, 1948.
  • Michael Kaniel, Judaism: Art of World Religions, 1979.
  • A. T. Kraabel, “The Diaspora Synagogue,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt, v. II.19.1, 1979.
  • Lee I. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years, 2000.
  • Arnaldo Momigliano, The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, 1962.
  • Jacob Neusner and William Scott Green, eds., Origins of Judaism, 1990.
  • James Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, 1934.
  • Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. G. Vermes and F. Millar, 1973.
  • Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols., 1974.
  • Clemens Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism, 1980.
  • Arthur Voobus, The Didascalia Apostolorum in Syriac, 1979.
  • Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews, 1983.
  • _______, Judaism and the Early Christian Mind, 1971.