Why Can’t The Church Stay Jewish?

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.

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About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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6 Responses to Why Can’t The Church Stay Jewish?

  1. Brock says:

    Hi, I’ve been reading your blog with great interest all along, and I thought I’d comment on this one. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Robinson is right; from what I’ve read, it seems likely that while there may have been a lot early Jewish Christians early on, the “not Christian” part of Jewish identity solidified fairly quickly. If Gentile converts outnumber Jews, and there is no barrier to intermarriage and no continuous influx of Jewish converts, then it is difficult to see how the Church could stay heavily Jewish in the sense of having lots of Jewish-identified members.

    Secondly, I wonder if there are unconscious assumptions at work, as well. We (and I’m including myself) that the Church seems Gentile rather than Jewish because we’re comparing it with our experience of current and recent historical Judaism. But that Judaism has been influenced by defining itself against Christianity for nearly 2000 years. It seems to me that it is entirely possible that the Jews have been at least as interested in differentiating themselves from the Christians as the Christians to the Jews. “You shall not follow the customs of the nations.” (Lev 20:23). Similarly, we are so accustomed to thinking of the Church as Gentile that we don’t see how Jewish it already is, and also we probably give too much weight to the natural divergences inherent in having Christianity and rabbinic Judaism develop separately. It’s a pity we can’t go back in time to pre-Christian Europe, pick up some cultured European pagans and have them compare and contrast the Church and the Jews!

    • Hi Brock,

      Thanks for writing!

      I find your point interesting, and particularly your illustration using names. I was half-wondering that myself as I was writing the post – do we only think the Church looks Gentile today because we’re not comparing it to paganism? I am sure that is true to some extent; I’m thinking of Jewish people (whether converts or not) who immediately recognize the order of the Catholic Mass or Orthodox liturgics as being highly similar to synagogue services.

      On the other hand, some clearly non-Jewish elements seem to have entrenched themselves deeply. The example of Latin being the only language of the Catholic Church until recently strikes me as an important one: the elevation of a pagan language, which Jesus did not even speak (at least not regularly), to the status of the holy language of the Church seems like a clear move away from the Church’s Jewish origins.

      In the earliest days of the Church, Judaism was the enemy – Jews both persecuted and proselytized the new Christians, and thus presented a constant threat. It is therefore little surprise that the Church actively sought to separate its identity from Judaism, and Judaism of course was already doing the same. The Church’s ensuing anti-Jewish rhetoric and increasingly Gentile self-concept made sense in that context. But it has carried through to times in which it no longer made any real sense – periods when the tables were turned and Gentile Christians were persecutors of Jews, and our times, in which modern forms of Gentiles paganism are the real threat to the Church and Judaism is looking more like an ally.

  2. Brock says:

    Sorry – as a quick example of what I mean by that last, here’s the example of names. Translation of proper names in the Scriptures into European languages has been influenced by the fact that European Christians started using these names themselves, and the names then naturally underwent linguistic changes as the European languages themselves changed. If you talk to Messianic Jews (or MJ-influenced Gentiles), you will hear them complain about the ‘Gentilisation’ of Jewish Scriptural names…but they usually pick a very few examples, such as ‘Jesus’, ‘Mary’ and sometimes ‘James’. They don’t mention how many names are still relatively close to the Hebrew original. They don’t complain about the Gentilisation of ‘Moses’ even though that has the same Hellenised pattern as ‘Jesus’. It apparently doesn’t occur to them that when it came to the central figures in the Christian narrative, most Jews probably were perfectly happy to use versions of ‘Yeshua’ and ‘Miriam’ that were not the same as the Christian versions in local use. (‘James’ is a special case, because that one has obviously drifted far in English – but in Western Europe, the continuing use of Latin in church and on coinage and so forth, not to mention the place of Latin in formal education until recently, would have ensured that most people would have indeed been aware that James = Jacobus – maybe even to the extent that people might not have thought that Jacobus ‘sounds Jewish’!)

  3. anon says:

    While this makes sense in theory, given the success of Judaizers going into the 5th century that presumably involved reversion (possibly ancestral rather than convert driven) and the details we know about Syriac Christianity, I am not sure it is actually accurate. It’s especially dangerous to use an anachronism like messianic Judaism – clearly a modern and very protestant movement set in a very modern culture context. I’d suggest some caution here (as well as additional scholarly reading).

  4. Philip Jude says:

    I recommend “In the Shadow of the Temple” by Oskar Skarsaune. He rejects the idea that the church was Hellenized early on. Christianity, he claims, drawing on the earliest Creeds and polemics, is thoroughly Jewish.

    A decent, if brief, review: http://neffreview.blogspot.com/2003/10/in-shadow-of-temple-by-oskar-skarsaune.html

    +Philip Jude

  5. Pingback: Neither Jew nor Greek: a failure? | Between Jerusalem and Constantinople

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