Father Bernstein Finds the Jews

I have been re-reading the memoir by the Orthodox priest Father James Bernstein (whom many of you have mentioned in recent comments), Surprised by Christ. Father Bernstein’s book is an intellectual autobiography, focused primarily on the considerations and arguments that led him to his conversions – first from Judaism to Protestant Christianity, then to Orthodoxy under the Antiochian jurisdiction.

Though his career has been primarily that of a Christian activist (indeed, a co-founder of the Jews for Jesus movement in his Protestant days!) and now a parish priest, rather than a scholar, Father Bernstein’s Biblical exegesis and command of patristic and historical sources is impressive and illuminating. I find particularly helpful his detailed analysis of Old Testament prophecy regarding Jesus Christ, from the Torah to the Prophets. For those who prefer the spoken word to the written, Father Bernstein’s podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio and elsewhere offer much of the same content (and he is funnier when he speaks!).

Father Bernstein’s most valuable contribution in the book, to my mind, is an account of his quest to trace the history of the original Jewish Church in Jerusalem, headed by St. James. Studying sources from the New Testament to Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew to the 3rd and 4th century historians Eusebius and Epiphanius, to St. Jerome in the 5th century, he offers the following narrative.

Jewish Christians, known as the Nazarenes, left Jerusalem for Pella (in Galilee, in present-day Jordan) just before the Jewish war and the destruction of the Temple. From Pella, they moved to the area of modern-day Aleppo in Syria, where St. Jerome encountered them in the fifth century. Syrian Christians from the Aleppo area – descendants of Nazarenes, who likely intermarried with the local Christian population – fled Arab persecution in the seventh century to the mountains in the west. This area today is called in Arabic Jabel al-Nusayriya (Valley of the Nazarenes), and Aramaic is used in worship there by the Syrian Orthodox Church.

There is evidence that the Jewish Christians diverged into two sects – the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Christ, and the Nazarenes, who used both the Old and the New Testament and did believe Christ to be the Son of God. According to Epiphanius and Origen, both sects were considered heretical because they followed the Mosaic law.

Were the Nazarenes heretical? Father James points out that, as recorded in Acts 15, the Gentiles were permitted to enter the Church without observing Jewish law; but Jews were not called upon to stop observing it. St. Justin Martyr (2nd century), in his debates with Trypho in Antioch, states clearly that a Jewish person who believes in Christ but observes the Mosaic law can be saved as long as he does not seek to induce non-Jews to follow the Jewish law – that is, by implication, as long as the law is not regarded as essential for salvation. St. Jerome (331-419), who interacted with Nazarenes in Aleppo and obtained several copies of Hebrew Scriptures from them, wrote to St. Augustine that the Nazarenes “believe in Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary the Virgin” and “accept Christ in such a way that they do not cease to observe the old Law.” Finally, it’s worth noting that the Nazarenes were certainly Christian enough for the Jews. An additional “blessing,” used three times a day, was introduced into the Jewish liturgy soon after the fall of the Temple that was really a curse upon the Christian Jews – the Nazarenes.

However, St. Augustine (354-430) condemned the Nazarenes in his writings for continuing the practice of “carnal” circumcision. It was the Jewish Church that had made the decisions regarding who’s in and who’s out; there is a bitter irony in the fact that, later on, Gentiles such as St. Augustine declared the Christian Jews to be “out” based on their observance of Mosaic law.

To summarize: Jewish Christianity within the original Church was likely an Orthodox Christianity combined with observance of Mosaic law. Whether or not such observance constituted a heretical practice remains unresolved and controversial. In keeping with the acceptance of the Gentile Christians into the Church on equal terms in Acts 15, the Jewish Christian Law-observing community intermarried with Gentile Christians. Following a series of migrations, it became absorbed into the Gentile majority in modern-day Syria. Thus Father James traces the descendants of the original Church of Jerusalem to today’s Orthodox (and Melkite) population of western Syria – finding in this an important connection between the Jews and the Orthodox Church.


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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4 Responses to Father Bernstein Finds the Jews

  1. Yahnatan says:

    Thanks for continuing to share these great resources from Jews in the ancient/liturgical churches…please keep it up!

    I still owe you an email–I haven’t forgotten, it’s just been a busy season! Hope to write you soon…

    P.S. This would make a useful book review on Amazon.com if you haven’t entered it there already!

  2. seasonsoflight says:

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. John says:

    Did his family accept Christ at the end?

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