Israel and the Church – Part 1

The role of Israel in the plan of salvation and in last day events presents one of the hottest debating topics in Christianity. Throughout the two thousand year history of Christianity this debate has continued. The discussion of Israel and the Church is deeply rooted in the historical events that occurred during the period of the Jewish–Roman wars between the destruction of the Temple (70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba rebellion (136 AD).

This was a really challenging time for newly emerged Christianity. As we look at the political and social environment of this time, we observe a form of Christianity which by the middle the 2nd century essentially disengages itself from its Jewish roots.

Christianity Between 70 AD & 136 AD

Let us look at the historical environment that influenced the development of Christianity before the destruction of the Temple

  • Beginning from the 2nd century BC, Hellenism, the blend between Greek philosophical thinking and Near Eastern paganism, became the dominant mode of thinking in the vast expanse of the Roman Empire. This Hellenistic mentality was absolutely foreign and hostile to Hebraic thinking, which is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and its Early Rabbinic interpretation.
  • Presenting his story of the emergence of early Christianity, Luke, the author of the book of Acts, describes the majority of the first Christians as coming from either a Jewish background or being gentile converts to Judaism or being gentiles seeking conversion who attended Jewish synagogues. This means the majority of the first Christian congregations in the first century were ‘splinter groups’ from different synagogues. They were viewed in much the same way as we sometimes view ‘offshoots.’ We recognize they share common beliefs, yet they aren’t quite part of us. Historians call this emerging movement ‘Judeo-Christianity.’
  • While Christianity was clearly distinguished from the other Jewish parties/sects of the 1st century by its unequivocal stand on the divine and messianic role of Jesus, it adopted the Hebraic approach to the interpretation of Scripture that was taught by Jesus and followed by His disciples.
  • Nevertheless, in spite of its distinct beliefs in Jesus, Pagan Roman authority regarded newly emerged Christianity as a sect or an offshoot of Judaism.
  • On the other hand, the leadership of mainstream Judaism was hostile to the followers of Jesus, especially those who came from a Jewish background. Before the destruction of the Temple, rabbis and the priests persecuted those Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah.
  • The destruction of the Temple changed the dynamics of relations between Jews, Christians and the pagan Roman authorities. The following is the description of the historical situation that affected Judaism and Christianity in the period between 70 and 136 AD.
  • The Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 AD that led to the destruction of the Temple practically wiped out the Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots and other smaller Jewish sects, leaving the Pharisees with the role to form post-Temple Judaism. In this situation, the surviving Jewish leaders were no longer in the position to oppose and more over persecute any Christians.
  • On the other hand, Christianity experienced strong growth. Because of the war and deteriorating conditions in the Roman Empire, many people, Jews and non-Jews alike were seeking for the true God and were finding Him in the Gospel preached by Christians.
  • However, as stated above, while the first non-Jews in the Christian congregations were either converts to Judaism or just former attendees of the synagogues, the second wave of gentles did not have such a ‘synagogue’ experience. This brought serious challenges to Christianity. The Hellenistic and Gnostic approaches to the interpretation of Scriptures introduced by these ‘newly converted’ pagans strove with the core of the teachings of Jesus and His disciples.
  • On the other hand, the unsuccessful revolt lead by Bar Kokhba resulted in the increased persecution of Jews as well Christians across the Roman Empire. (Generally, Romans regarded anyone who believed in only One God as A Jew.)
  • Also, after the destruction of the Temple and the crush of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, anti-Semitism emerged in the Roman Empire. Jews are deprived of their rights; they were being mocked for their religion; the Sabbath and the Torah are publicly ridiculed in Greek literature and Roman theaters.
  • Under the pressure of this persecution, many Christian leaders began to look for ways to distinguish themselves from the Jewish community. Thus, the best to way separate from Judaism was to abandon worshiping God on the Biblical Sabbath and to abandon recognition of Biblical holy days.

As we compare these historical conditions, the situation that appeared after the Bar Kokhba rebellion completely changed the dynamic of Jewish-Christian interaction. While before 70 AD, it was Jewish leadership who pushed both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians away from the synagogues, after 136 AD it was Christian leadership, which decided to become proactive in pulling away from the Jewish community. The result made Christianity more and more Hellenistic.To justify such a move, the church fathers of the second century commenced an unprecedented anti-Jewish campaign. In their writings, Origen, Justin and the anonymous author of the epistle known today as Pseudo-Barnabas despised the laws of Torah and ridiculed Jews for their foolishness in keeping the Sabbath literally. They argued that the sole intent in all laws in the Torah was to show the allegorical symbolism of the plan of salvation. Therefore, from their perspective, the Temple should never have been built ever, and the Sabbath was not meant to be observed. Rather it only represented the second coming of Christ.

Such an ideology of disengagement from the Jewish community, followed by the rejection of the Hebraic approach to interpreting Scripture and substitution of Hellenistic methods of interpretation laid the foundation for Christian supersessionism, also known as replacement theology.

To Be Continued

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