Here was a paper I wrote last year about the early Jewish Christian movement (Ebionites and Nazarenes) and their relationship with traditional gentile Christianity and Judaism.
The Jewish-Christian Anomaly: A History of Condemnation
A large portion of defining orthodoxies involves the responding to heresies. The second century was a vibrant period for early Christian scholarship, as many scholars therein codified the doctrines that later Christians would hold as the foundation of Christianity. Many of the most prominent Church Fathers, who were prevalent theologians and eminent teachers, were writing in the second century. These scholars were working to establish the fundamentals of Christian faith and proselytize them to a growing community of believers. Meanwhile, traditional Jews were also going through important religious and political struggles in this period. After the destruction of the Temple in circa 70 CE, a major epitome in traditional Judaism, authority in Judea fell “into the hands of the rabbis, the successor to the Pharisees”1. These rabbinical figures would later set the parameters of accepted Judaism and curse those whose beliefs are outside of the acknowledged fold. Although Gentile Christianity and traditional Judaism had parted into two distinct faiths by the early second century, the two opposed a common rivalling competitor: Jewish Christianity. This analysis will demonstrate that the Jewish Christians, particularly, the groups that adhered to both Jesus and the Mosaic Law, were simultaneously rejected both by their Gentile Christian and traditional Jewish counterparts as early as in the second century. This paper will first define Jewish Christianity as an umbrella group, and discuss its major sects and traits. It will then focus on the Church Fathers’ rejection of and disassociation from the Judaizing groups. Finally, the analysis will explore the traditional Jewish reaction to Jewish Christianity, and conclude that Jewish Christian groups and ideas were discarded and attacked by the two communities it was associated with.
The Jewish Christians, an enigmatic and often marginalized community, originated in the first or second century CE. Unravelling the history and identity of Jewish Christianity has been a popular pursuit for academics since the nineteenth century2. Many disputed the literal “Jewish Christian” label’s accuracy or lack thereof – Hort prefers the name “Judaistic Christianity”3 while others favour the term “Christian Jews”4. Furthermore, some, like Boyarin, have argued that “religion” itself is a fourth century innovation5, and that the “Jewish” label was simply a way to differentiate the opposing Jewish belief system from the Christian one, setting issues of ethnicity and culture aside6. It is correct to say that the Gentile Christian and Jewish Christian division was not an ethnic one, despite what one may perceive from these simplistic appellations. After all, the letters of Paul of Tarsus, who claimed to have been an Israelite and even a Pharisee7, laid the foundations of the Gentile Church. Rather, the two movements differed on the status of gentile converts to Christianity – were non-Jewish converts expected to adopt the Mosaic Law, and if so, were they to adhere fully or partially to the Law? While Paul believed the Law had been “swept aside” via Jesus’ sacrifice8, James the Just, the brother of Jesus9, maintained a “Christian Torah” and “has only positive things to say” about the Law 10. Paul derived his authority from his revelations of Jesus, while James was a “pillar” of the Jerusalem Church11.
This dispute set the stage for second century schisms between Gentile Christianity, which drew on Pauline works and much of what would later become the New Testament canon12, and the Torah-observant Christians. Some of the major ancient Jewish Christian sects in this era included the Ebionites (evyonim, “the poor ones”13, Eisenman even dates this group to the first century!14) and the Nazarenes (notzrim, from nazara, “to keep apart from” 15). Although the debate had centred on the status of the Mosaic Laws after Christ, by the second century, this division began to encompass theological and doctrinal differences as well. For example, according to Eusebius, the Ebionites denied the pre-existence of Jesus, and some had even rejected the miracle birth, alongside their Torah-observance and Sabbath-upholding traits16. Eusebius equated their name to the “poverty (sic) of their understanding”17. However, the early Nazarenes’ Christology was perhaps more similar to the Pauline doctrines than their Ebionite counterparts18. Still, these Jewish Christian groups also had their own texts: the Ebionites used the Gospel of the Ebionites19, while the Nazarenes used the Gospel of the Hebrews, which Irenaeus describes as a text written in Hebrew by Matthew20. But, besides a few fragments preserved in Gentile Christian works, these books have been lost. Other records of interest include the accessible Pseudo-Clementines and the absent Book of Elchasai, but these texts were probably written after the second century. Therefore, reliance on the Jewish Christians’ opponents may now be the only way to find reliable information on their beliefs and practices.
It is apparent, however, that the Gentile Christians rejected these Torah-observant Jewish Christians throughout the second century. Ignatius of Antioch, a patriarch and purportedly a student of John the Evangelist21, was one of the few Apostolic Church Fathers writing in the second century. Although his letters were not included in the New Testament, they remained as one of the earliest references for organizational matters in the early Church. Whilst being a professed Pauline Christian, in his Epistle to the Magnesians, Ignatius dedicated a response to the Judaizing sects. He argued, “For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace22…It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity…”23 Here, Ignatius contends that practice of the Mosaic Law conflicts with the doctrine of divine grace – through this doctrine, the Pauline school claimed that the Law had been swept aside. Hence, Jewish practices, such as the observance of the Sabbath, were to be abandoned under the New Covenant24. Ignatius also claims that Judaism was to look to Christianity rather than vice versa.
Moreover, in his Epistle to the Philadelphians, Ignatius dismisses those ethnic gentiles who preached Judaism. This is possibly a reference to gentile converts to a Torah-observant Christian sect, as a gentile’s adherence of the Noachide commandments does not necessitate circumcision. Although Boyarin claims that Judaism was not seen as a “religion” by the Jews themselves, it is clear from this letter and others like it that the Christians, at least, viewed Judaism as a system of beliefs and trends rather than just an ethnic community. Thus, Ignatius went against Jewish Christianity and perceived Torah-observance as incompatible with Christianity.
Similarly, Irenaeus made a case against Jewish Christian groups. Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, was “a hearer” of Apostolic Father Polycarp25 and a bishop. His criticism of Jewish Christians is more specific than Ignatius’, as he condemns the Ebionites in his famous second century work, Against Heresies, which is the “earliest major heresiological treatise of its kind”26. Therein, Eusebius discusses the Ebionite rejection of Paul, their adherence to the Law, and their adoration of Jerusalem27. Irenaeus later attacks the Ebionites for their denial of the virgin birth, and accuses them of “destroying… such a marvellous dispensation of God28”. It is clear that Irenaeus has called heresy on this group because of their theological differences in Christology, their scriptural rejection of Paul’s work and at least three of the four canonical Gospels, as well as their (at least partial) denunciation of the virgin birth, as allegedly prophesied in Isaiah. Irenaeus’ refutation of the Ebionites was compiled alongside his condemnation of other “heretics”, such as the Gnostics, hence, distancing his tradition from the Jewish Christians’. Therefore, Irenaeus is calling heresy on the Ebionites for their differences with the Gentile Christian orthodoxy.
The dismissal of the “too Jewish side”29 of Christianity takes its most extreme form under Marcionism in the early second century. Marcion of Sinope, who was a bishop in the early Church according to Tertullian, set to cleanse Christianity of all Jewish influences. While believing in the Pauline teachings, Marcion took a step further and hinted that the three apostolic pillars of Jerusalem were “false Apostles”30. As the Catholic Encyclopedia outlines, “He wanted a Christianity untrammelled and undefiled by association with Judaism… the Old Testament was a scandal to the faithful and a stumbling-block to the refined and intellectual gentiles by its crudity and cruelty”31. Consequently, Marcion was not only against Torah-observance, but even the referential use of the Old Testament, as he believed it was incompatible with the teachings of Christ. He even disassociated Jewish messianism from the figure of Christ, and went so far as to say that the god of the Old Testament was different from that of Christianity32. Although Marcion himself was later declared a heretic by Irenaeus33, Knox argues that Marcion’s assembly of a partial Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline letters was the earliest Christian canonization of texts34. Knox also purports that the mid-second century development of the traditional New Testament was composed mainly as a response to the Marcionian canon35. Thus, although Marcion was seen as a heretic in the second century, his Pauline leanings, his prominent anti-Semitic teachings, and his development of the first Christian canon may indirectly influenced traditional Gentile Christianity.
While the Jewish Christians were therefore cast aside by prominent second century Christians like Ignatius, Irenaeus, Marcion, and others, traditional Jews also alienated Torah-observant Christians in an alternate way. Some may date the origin of Jewish belligerence against the Jewish Christian movement to the death of James in 62 CE, when he was stoned to death on the order of the High Priest, Ananus36. However, some Jews did oppose this move in support of James, leading to Ananus’ replacement by Roman authorities37. The real turning point to Jewish-Jewish Christian relations was during the Bar Kochba revolt, which resulted in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 135 CE. Bar Kochba, who was another messianic claimant, instigated a popular Jewish uprising against Rome in the second century. The Jewish Christians, however, did not take part in the uprisings, which led to their political persecution by Bar Kochba’s Jewish supporters38. Instead, sometime between the destruction of the Temple (circa 66-70 CE) and the revolt, the Jewish Christians escaped to Pella in Transjordan39, causing the “forced abandonment of Jerusalem… meant that the most important centre of their activity was no longer available to them”40. The organized Church of Jerusalem, which Eusebius describes with a list of 15 successive bishops starting with James, is never heard from again after 135 CE, and is instead replaced by a Gentile Christian authority in Aelia Capitolina, a new city where Jews were banned41. Therefore, Torah-observant Christians were subject to political turmoil by Bar Kochba’s followers, and were eventually forced to leave their foundation in Jerusalem.
The contention between the two groups was not limited to political friction. Jewish Christians were also at the butt-end of theological attacks and curses instigated in rabbinical sources. Eisenman describes the rabbis as a pro-Roman body whose authority flourishes after the Jewish enemies of Rome were defeated in the second century42. Pritz argues that the Jewish exclusion of the Jewish Christians was nearly immediate, despite their shared social fabric and, in some cases, attendance of the same synagogues43. He writes, “At the end of the first century, the birkat ha-minim was formulated with the sect specifically named…by the middle of the second century, the rift was probably complete"44 Here, Pritz explains that prior to and during the endorsement of Bar Kochba, the Jews had condemned the Nazarenes (notzrim) in their curses on heretics, and the endorsement of Bar Kochba (a rivalling messiah to Jesus) by Rabbi Akiva finally broke the ties of the Nazarenes and Rabbinic Judaism45. The original birkat ha-minim even included the phrase “may all the nozrim perish in an instant”46, emphasizing a deep hatred for Jewish Christianity among the traditional Jewish authority. Meanwhile, the Nazarenes rejected “man-made” rabbinic interpretation (halakha)47, a central theme that would dominate Rabbinical Judaism for centuries. Although Judaism retains an ethnic identity first and foremost (“an Israelite, even if he sins, remains an Israelite”48), it is clear that traditional Jews were both politically and theologically at odds with what they saw as an apostatized group.
Therefore, the movement of Torah-abiding Christians was separately, but simultaneously, rejected both by the Gentile Christians and traditional Jews. While sects like the Ebionites and Nazarenes attempted to retain a Christian and Jewish identity in the second century, they, in turn, were condemned as heretics by the likes of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Marcion, the rabbis, and the followers of Bar Kochba. Although this two-sided rejection remained nonviolent (despite some separated incidents49), it could very well have been the cause of the eventual demise and disappearance of Jewish Christianity. Indeed, facing accusations of heresy by both communities they were involved with could have eventually broken the Jewish Christian resolve to remain relevant, while the Gentile Christian religion and the Rabbinical Jewish community continued to flourish in later centuries. With this progression of history, the mainstream Christian and Jewish need to respond to the Jewish Christian heresy was no longer mandatory.
Daniel Boyarin, Rethinking Jewish Christianity: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Winter 2009)
Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1997)
Matt A. Jackson-McCabe, Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press)
Joel Marcus, “Jewish Christianity”, The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume 1: Origins to Constantine (Cambridge University Press: 2006)
Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period Until its Disappearance in the Fourth Century (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992)
Oskar Skarsaune, Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Hendrickson Publication: 2007)
Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts: a Defining Struggle (University of South Carolina Press: 2006)
Cambridge Histories of Judaism: Volume 3, Jewish Christianity (Cambridge University Press: 2008)
Eusebius on the Heresy of Ebionites, http://ancienthistor...ebius_iii27.htm
Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent...ers/0103301.htm
Coptic Orthodox Church Network, The Martyrdom of Saint Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch, http://www.copticchu...ium/4_24.html#1
The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, http://www.newadvent...athers/0105.htm ch. 8
Church History (Book 5), http://www.newadvent...hers/250105.htm ch. 5
Catholic Encyclopedia, Marcionites, http://www.newadvent...then/09645c.htm
Edited by Qa'im, 29 April 2012 - 03:03 AM.