The Final Break

Bar Kokhba Coin

Bar Kokhba Coin, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bar_Kokhba_Coin.jpg

For the Jewish community of Palestine, the years between 80 and 130 C.E. were simultaneously years of reconstruction of the country and preparation for the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Throughout this period Christianity continued to grow while its Jewish element was being reduced. In actual fact, the juridical basis for the Gentile domination of Christianity was laid in the time of Paul, when the legitimacy of Gentile Christianity was established. The effect of these actions was not actually felt by the tannaim until the early years of the second century.

By the time of the Bar Kokhba war (132-5 C.E.), Gentile Christianity had most probably still not taken over the Jerusalem Church nor become the dominant element in the Palestinian Christian community. Accordingly, the tannaim would still have seen the early Christians as Jews.

The Bar Kokhba Revolt did much, however, to highlight the emerging separation of the Christians from the Jewish community. It is certain that among the factors contributing to both the popular and Rabbinic support enjoyed by Bar Kokhba was the view of some who saw Bar Kokhba as a Messianic figure.  Indeed, some of the leaders of the earlier revolt against Rome (6673 C.E.) had also been seen in the same light.  For this reason, Jewish Christians did not support Bar Kokhba and refused to participate in the rebellion. Alter all, Jesus was their savior, so they could not fight on behalf of another Messiah. Furthermore, they probably took the view later expressed by the church fathers that the destruction of Jerusalem and Judea in the Great Revolt of 6673 C.E. was a just punishment for the Jewish rejection of the messiahship of Jesus. According to later accounts preserved in the church fathers, the refusal to support his revolt may even have led Bar Kokhba to attack Jewish Christians. Subsequently, the general dislocation brought about by the war and other factors–some of which are still not clear–led to a large decrease in the number of Jewish Christians in Palestine, and this at a time when the number of Gentile Christians in the Roman world, and even in Palestine itself, was increasing rapidly.

But the Romans themselves helped to bring about the final break. When the city of Jerusalem was turned into Aelia Capitolina in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba war, Jews, including Jewish Christians, were prohibited from entering the city. Therefore, the Jerusalem Church was henceforth to be an essentially Gentile one, led by a Gentile bishop. The Roman prohibition of circumcision,  promulgated and enforced immediately after the war, must have discouraged conversion to Jewish Christianity even further. The Jewish Christians, then, dissipated into small sectarian groups, most surviving in TransJordan and Syria, so that after the Bar Kokhba war, Christianity, even in the Land of Israel, was no longer Jewish but Gentile. The Rabbis ceased to deal with Jews who had gone astray but who still fulfilled the halakhic requirements of Jewish identity. They now confronted Gentiles who had converted to a religion which had rejected circumcision, the Jewish law of conversion, and the requirements of life under the halakhah. Only in this way had Christianity become a separate religion. It was now that the Rabbis dealt with Christians as members of a different and hostile religious community.

The reports of the church fathers relative to what are usually called Jewish Christian sects in the Bar Kokhba period indicate that these “Jewish Christians” had left or been expelled from the mainstream of Christianity. From our point of view, however, we must note the ambivalence of the sources on the actual Jewish status of these people. It would seem very likely that most of these sectarians were in reality Judaizing Christians who attempted to observe the Law as did the Jews without being of Jewish descent or Jews from the standpoint of the halakhah. The accusations by church fathers to the effect that these people were Jews must be contrasted with those stating that they were neither Jews nor Christians.  The church fathers, in their zeal to uproot circumcision and the Law which required it, unleashed the accusation of Jewishness against these Judaizers. Even if, as they claim, some of these sectarians were descended from some of the original members of the Jerusalem Jewish Christian church, those who joined them would not have done so in accord with the Rabbinic laws of proselytism, and their acceptance of the Torah would certainly not have qualified according to Rabbinic precepts.  These groups did persist in the amoraic period. Yet by the coming of Islam they were but a historical memory of what might have been the Christian Church had the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem carried the day against the Pauline urge for liberation from the Law.

In retrospect, the halakhot we have studied were what maintained the identity of the Jewish people. Had the rabbis relaxed these standards, accepting either the semiproselytes or the earliest Gentile Christians into the Jewish people, Christians would quickly have become the majority within the expanded community of “Israel.” Judaism as we know it would have ceased to exist even before reaching its codification in the Mishnah and the other great compilations of the tannaitic tradition. Christianity would have been the sole heir to the traditions of biblical antiquity, and observance of the commandments of the Torah would have disappeared within just a few centuries. In short, it was the halakhah and its definition of Jewish identity that saved the Jewish people and its heritage from extinction as a result of the newly emerging Christian ideology.

The ultimate parting of the ways for Judaism and Christianity took place when the adherents to Christianity no longer conformed to the halakhic definitions of a Jew. As these Gentile Christians, never converted to Judaism through the legal requirements we have discussed, became the dominant stream in the Christian communities which the Rabbis confronted, even in Palestine, the Rabbis ceased to regard the Christians as a group of Jews with heretical views and Christianity as a Jewish sect. Rather, the Rabbis began to regard the Christians as members of a separate religious community, and their teachings a perversion of the biblical tradition. From then on, Christians and Jews began a long history of interreligious strife which played so tragic a part in medieval and modern history.

3 Responses to The Final Break

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *