A few years ago, before I had been baptized, I visited a Messianic Jewish congregation. My main question upon leaving the service was: where, exactly, are the Jews? The two rabbis leading worship seemed to be Jewish, as did a few other individuals; most worshippers exhibited the usual ethnic and racial mix to be found at an urban church.
Thomas Robinson’s book, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways: Early Jewish-Christian Relations, has led me to think in more depth about the reasons for this phenomenon.
Professor Robinson disputes the commonly held theory that the early Christian communities in Antioch, up to and including the time of Ignatius, drew many of their converts from among Gentiles attracted to Judaism – “proselytes,” who had converted to Judaism, and “God-fearers,” who associated with the Jewish community but had not converted.
Among several arguments advanced to discredit this opinion (all self-admittedly speculative, since there is very little written material from Antioch of this period), Robinson points out that, given the rejection of the Christians by the synagogue as early as the Book of Acts, the two religious communities by the time of Ignatius (around 70 AD) must have socialized too little to present a real opportunity for Gentiles attracted to Judaism to discover and consider Christianity. There may have been such opportunity for the first generation of “pious Gentiles” after Christ, Robinson argues. After that, the Jewish and Christian communities likely became so polarized that Gentiles would have been more likely to choose between them, rather than flowing from one to the other.
If Robinson is right about the mutual alienation of the Jewish and Christian communities in the Jewish diaspora (which grew rapidly after the destruction of the Temple) so early in Christian history, it must have been a significant obstacle to the recruitment of new Christian converts from Jewish communities. As Robinson subsequently argues, that would have left the Church and the Jews (who, he contends, were far more active proselytes than modern scholars, and many modern Jews, like to believe) to compete for Gentile converts.
It’s also worth noting that, today as in Antioch, non-Christian Gentiles are likely to practice a form of either paganism or atheism (unless they are Muslim), while many Jews practice Judaism, even if in a diluted form. The spiritual hunger of the former may therefore be greater. Indeed, Robinson argues that some Gentiles in Antioch may have discovered Judaism upon becoming Christians, and subsequently became Jewish proselytes; this, he believes, may have been an important motivation for Ignatius strong anti-Jewish rhetoric.
The result, of course, is that early churches must soon have come to look much like the Messianic congregation I had visited: a vanishing number of Jews at the helm, and a mostly Gentile population. This naturally set the stage, eventually, for “neither Jew nor Greek” coming to mean “actually, just Greek,” as I’ve noted in an earlier post.