The Halakhic Response of the Rabbis to the Rise of Christianity

Early Christians Tabgha

Tabgha, courtesy of Grauesel, Wikimedia Commons

The Jewish-Christian schism in Late Antiquity has been studied from numerous points of view. This paper will approach these events by investigating the manner in which halakhic issues (questions of Jewish law) motivated the approach of the early Rabbis to the rise of the new faith, and the manner in which Rabbinic legal enactments expressed that approach as well. The eventual conclusion of the Rabbis and the Jewish community that Christianity was a separate religion and that Christians were not Jews, was intimately bound up with the Jewish laws and traditions governing personal status in the Jewish community, both for Jews by birth and proselytes. These laws, as known today, were already in full effect by the rise of Christianity. In the eyes of the Rabbis, the evolution of Christianity from a group of Jews holding heretical beliefs into a group whose members lacked the legal status of Jewish identity and, hence, constituted a separate religious community, brought about further legal rulings which were intended to separate the Christians from the Jewish community.

The Early Christians as a Jewish Sect

At the time of the Jewish-Christian schism, the tannaim (early Rabbis) were working with the halakhic definitions of a Jew already established in the pre-Christian era. These were: ancestry through the mother or conversion, including circumcision for males, immersion, acceptance of the Torah, and offering of a sacrifice. These procedures continued to be the only possible ways to enter the Jewish people in the period in which Christianity came to the fore. Further, the tannaim did not view heresy or apostasy in and of itself as negating the offender’s status as a Jew. Indeed, Jewish status could never be canceled, even for the most heinous offenses against Jewish law and doctrine. It is against this background that the tannaitic reaction to the rise of Christianity must be viewed.

While our sources point to general adherence to Jewish law and practice by the earliest Christians, we must also remember that some deviation from the norms of the tannaim must have occurred already at the earliest period. Indeed, the sayings attributed by the Gospels to Jesus would lead us to believe that he may have taken a view of the halakhah that was different from that of the Pharisees,. Nonetheless, from the point of view of the halakhic standards, the early Rabbis did not see the earliest Christians as constituting a separate religious community.

Even if we were to accept many of the polemical statements in our sources at face value and assume the violations of halakhah in the early Christian community to be more extensive, the early Christians would still be considered Jews. Nor should we assume that the claims that Jesus was a miracle worker or magician, a view encountered so often in the earliest Jewish anti-Christian polemics, would have in any way reflected on the Jewish status of his followers. Even the belief in the divinity or messiahship of Jesus would not, in the view of the tannaim, have read the early Christians out of the Jewish community. On the contrary, Judaism had long been accustomed to tolerating both differences of opinion and deviation from the norms of observance by its members.

Indeed, the existence of all kinds of sects and religious leaders was common in the Second Temple period as we know from so many sources. During this period, the biblical tradition was being adapted in many different ways in an unconscious effort to see which approach would best ensure the future of Judaism and of the Jewish people. For this reason, little opposition to the very concept of sectarian divergence existed. Each group argued for its own primacy and superiority, yet no voice called for the unity of the people as a virtue in and of itself. It was in such a context that Christianity arose. It was seen by the tannaim in its earliest stages as no greater a threat than any other sect, and the halakhic regulations discussed above determined the identity of the early Christians as Jews.

This situation changed with the destruction of the Temple. Divisions within the people, after all, had made the orderly prosecution of the war against the Romans and the defense of the Holy City impossible. The Temple had fallen as a result. Only in unity could the people and the land be rebuilt. It was only a question of which of the sects would unify the populace.

For all intents and purposes, the Pharisees were the only sect to survive the destruction. The smaller sects were either scattered or destroyed. The Sadducees, once in control of the Temple, had been deprived of their base of power and authority with its destruction, and of their status by the social and economic upheaval wrought by the war. This was clearly the time for the entire nation to unite behind the tannaim, the heirs to the Pharisaic approach to Judaism. For Pharisaism, with its ability to apply the halakhah to new circumstances, would be best fit to deal with the new realities after the unsuccessful revolt and the resulting destruction of the Temple.

But where would the Christians fit into this newly constituted Jewish community? The evidence indicates that the Christians, although still Jewish, had only moderate success in winning converts among the Jews of Palestine. At the same time, the nascent Church turned more and more to Gentiles as prospective converts. Undoubtedly, some of the new converts were Hellenistic Jews for whom the new religion seemed but a variety of Judaism. On the other hand, the vast majority of the new Christians consisted of Gentiles and the former semi-proselytes.

Of the vast numbers of Greco-Roman non-Jews who were attracted to Christianity, only a small number ever became proselytes to Judaism. The new Christianity was primarily Gentile, for it did not require its adherents to become circumcised and convert to Judaism or to observe the Law. Yet at the same time, Christianity in the Holy Land was still strongly Jewish.
As the destruction of the Temple was nearing, the differences between Judaism and Christianity were widening. By the time the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish Christians were a minority among the total number of Christians, and it was becoming clear that the future of the new religion would be dominated by Gentile Christians. Nevertheless, the tannaim still came into contact primarily with Jewish Christians and so continued to regard the Christians as Jews who had gone astray by following the teachings of Jesus.

3 Responses to The Halakhic Response of the Rabbis to the Rise of Christianity

  • Steven B. McClean says:

    It is difficult for me to express the appreciation I have for your article, books and research. You sharing it with us at large, whether through you lectures on the DSS *I obtained via CD from the library on a loan basis, or the Reclaiming he DSSs. Now having retired, I am able to take the time to delve into matters and dive for the pearls of interest that attention to vocation did n not allow in the past. Your works have played a significant part in my growth of knowledge and faith, both as a rational understanding of our faith and in experiential enjoyment of the more “mystical” aspects of a world where the two meet.

    אני מודה לך

  • Richard B. Jacobson says:

    This is not precisely a comment–although I would not miss the chance to tell you how much I admire your work and learn from it.

    Please add me to your mailing list. The place to enter my email address did not show up on my copy of Part 1 of ‘The Halakhic Response of the Rabbis….’

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