The Pharisees, Hasidim, and the Early Jewish Church
During the time of Christ, there were two divisions among the
Pharisees, called the
and dominated religious
were religious leaders admired by the common people. What was
the difference between these Jewish groups and Jesus? What did
Jesus think of them? What does the record of early church history
tell us about their relationship to the early Jewish Church of God?
William F. Dankenbring
What was Jesus' view of the world of Pharisaism of His time? Many modern religionists seem to think that Christ had nothing but scorn and withering denunciation of all things pertaining to the Pharisees. But is this conclusion true? Many today say they will have nothing whatever to do with the "Pharisees." They seemingly conveniently overlook the fact that the apostle Paul was himself a Pharisee, and boasted of this fact, and even said he was a Pharisee some 25 years after his conversion (Acts 23:6), and again mentioned this fact in his letter to the Philippians some 30 years after his conversion (see Phil.3:4-6).
However, in a recent article in Jerusalem Perspective, author Shmuel Safrai states categorically:
"Jesus was closer to the world of the Pharisees than to that of the Sadducees or Essenes.
He certainly did not share beliefs, religious outlook or social views with the Sadducees,
and he would have had little in common with the isolationist views of the Essenes and
their overt hostility toward anyone who did not accept their stringent views on ritual
purity . . . .
"Jesus' education and understanding of Torah was in agreement with the Pharisees' norms,
based on both the Written and Oral Torah (Lk.2:41-47). He even taught his disciples and
followers: 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit in the seat of Moses, so be careful to observe
everything they tell you' (Matt.23:2-3). The expression 'seat of Moses' is also found in mid-
rashic literature and such seats have actually been found in ancient synagogues. Jesus,
however, warned the people not to behave like the Pharisees, because 'they say, but do not
do' (Matt.23:3)" (Jerusalem Perspective, January/June 1994).
How close were Jesus' views to the basic, underlying
teachings of the Pharisees? Shmuel
Safrai points out that "Jesus contributed the required annual half-shekel
Furthermore, we know that Jesus went into the synagogues frequently, to worship, "as his custom was" (Luke ). It is not known whether the Sadducees took part in synagogue services, but considering their antipathy toward the Pharisees it is unlikely, since the synagogues were another innovation of the Pharisees, and all known synagogues were Pharisaic in origin and practice. Says Shmuel Safrai regarding Jesus' custom in this respect:
"Jesus, however, customarily went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, to read from
the Torah and the Prophets and afterwards to teach from them. All of this is in
keeping with halachah and the practice described in tannaic literature.
"Jesus' method of public instruction was also in keeping with Pharasaic practice. He
employed educational techniques such as the parable that were common only in Phar-
isaic teaching, and some of the basic themes in his teaching such as 'kingdom of
heaven' and 'repentance,' are found only in the teachings of the sages. The prayers of
Jesus and the motifs they contain are likewise similar to those of the sages" (ibid.).
However, as Shmuel Safrai points out, the world of Pharisaism was not a monolithic world. It was not a huge united rock-like structure, but was rent by cracks and splits. "The many differences between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai pertained not only to specific details in halachah, but also to the basic underlying principles of halachah and religious and social thought." Shmuel adds, "There is much that needs to be clarified regarding the place of Jesus and his teachings in relation to this Pharisaic world."
Hasidism and the
Also preaching and teaching during
the time of Christ, and also coming from the region of
Although Jerusalem Pharisees tended
to look down their long noses at Galileans, and others away from Jerusalem, in
the period before (compare John 7:52) and immediately after the destruction of
the Second Temple in 70 A.D., the Galilee was noted as a place where Torah was
taught in public, and in many respects the moral and religious behavior of the
Galileans was on a higher level than that of the Judeans. Rabbinic literature refers to Galilean sages
teaching in their academies and in the open air of the
"Jesus, who was quite closer to the Hasidim and perhaps even involved with some
of them, does not therefore reflect Galilean boorishness or ignorance, but rather the
and ongoing creativity of Jewish life in
The Hasidim, like Jesus Christ and the apostles, referred to God in a very intimate way as "father," or "abba." The intimate term "my father in heaven" is found only once in a rabbinical text, and that is actually a text belonging to Hasidic literature. In Hasidic works however the phrase is found often -- no fewer than seventeen times in "Seder Eliyahu." This literature is unique in that it reflects what remains of Hasidic thought and practice embedded in the greater corpus of rabbinic literature. Says Shmuel Safrai:
"It appears . . . that the Hasidim and those associated with them, including Jesus, considered
their relationship with God to be one of extreme familiarity . . . However, in Hasidic circles
the relationship of a Hasid to God was not just one of 'child of God,' but of a son who can
brazenly make requests of his father that someone else cannot make. The Hasid addressed God
as 'abba,' 'my father,' or 'my father in heaven,' and the LORD responded the way he responded
to 'Hanina, my son.'"
Generally, it was the Hasidic element within the
Pharisaical movement to which the people looked when they desired prayer for
healing, or exorcism of evil spirits.
They had more faith in the prayers of a Galilean Hasid, than in a
The Hasidim, also like Jesus,
stressed the qualities and advantages spiritually of poverty. In Hasidic thought, poverty is the ideal
state that leads to all other positive and praiseworthy qualities of
character. Rabbinic sources, or the
Pharisees, on the other hand, seemed to value wealth and at least moderate
income, and as a consequence many during the time of Christ had become
corrupted by the accouterments of power and authority, and the
"pleasures" of life that wealth could bring. The tomb of Caiaphas, for example, which was
recently found in
What was the view of Christ concerning poverty? In the sermon on the mount, He declared: "Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh" (Luke ). "But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (verses 24-25). When the young rich man came asking Him what to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus told him he should keep the commandments (Matt.19:17-19). When the man said he kept them, and asked what he still lacked, Jesus replied: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me" (v.21). On hearing that saying, the young man departed sorrowful -- for he had great wealth, and was not willing to part with it (v.22).
Considering the deceitfulness of
riches, Jesus then told His disciples:
"Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the
kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto
you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a
rich man to enter into the
The Pharisees of the school of Hillel
the Elder already differed from the Hasidim in this respect, during the time of
Christ. According to Hasidic thought,
In another example, Hillel taught that "The ignorant man cannot be a fearer of sin, and the am ha-eretz [poor man or "farmer", literally, "man of the earth"] cannot be a Hasid." He was reacting to the teaching of the Hasid who emphasized that DEEDS are more important than "study." Hillel disagreed, obviously, and emphasized the importance of study of Torah. The story is told about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah who had to admonish a priestly Hasid who was seemingly ignorant of a number of laws of ritual purity. Says Shmuel Safrai,
"Unlike the sages, however, the Hasidim did not seek a balance between 'study' and
'deed,' but maintained that the deed is to be preferred even at the expense of Torah
study. When they mentioned the saying in the Mishnah that refers to the fruits of
certain deeds that are enjoyed in the world to come, they delete the saying's conclusion
which states that 'the study of Torah is equal to them all.'"
There are a number of anti-Hasidic stories found in rabbinic literature. Even as the Pharisees looked down on Christ, and rejected Him, they also tended to denigrate and hold in contempt the lowly Hasidim. However, the Hasidim in their views were much closer to Christ than the Jerusalem Pharisees, or either the schools of Hillel or Shammai.
Another contrast between the Pharisees and the Hasidim was their view of "faith" and "trust" in God. The Pharisees took a more worldly, "practical" view of this matter. If a city were surrounded by an enemy king, who demanded the life of a righteous man in the city, or else he would destroy the city, the Pharisees reasoned that it is better for one man to die than an entire city -- and would give him up. Most rabbis today would probably say the same thing. It seems practical -- common sense.
However, the Hasidim believe God answers prayer, and they would refuse the evil king's request, and pray to God and trust in Him to defend and protect the city! "According to the teaching of the Hasidim, the residents of the city would not have been harmed had they refused to hand Ulla over to the authorities. Elijah blamed Rabbi Yehoshua for not trusting in God's intervention."
Concludes Shmuel Safrai: "Basically, we have only veiled references to Hasidic teachings in a literature that is close in spirit but not identical to theirs. This is enough, however, to show us how similar Jesus was to this first-century Galilean group. For the most part, his deeds were in keeping with the tenets of that group."
However, Jesus also had much more in
common with some of the Pharisees than with others. A careful investigation of the teachings of
the schools of Shammai and Hillel shows that in many respects, the
The Teachings of Hillel
A new book, The Life and Teachings of Hillel, by Yitzhak Buxbaum (1994, Jason Aronson, Inc.), provides a fascinating insight and glimpse into the Judaism of the first century, during the time Jesus Christ/Yeshua Ha Moshiach walked the highways and bi-ways of ancient Judaea. Many people, out of ignorance, have had a completely distorted and incorrect view of the ancient Pharisees of Jesus' time. This new book helps set the record straight.
Looking at the New Testament
Scriptures alone, one might assume -- and many people have -- that the
Pharisees were a contemptible lot, a bunch of religious low-lifes who in their
pride, corruption, and vanity, rejected the Messiah, and sought His
crucifixion. But this idea is far from
the truth -- it is shallow, distorted, and very one-sided. What many have not understood is that the New
Testament accounts were never intended to portray a comprehensive picture of
the Pharisaical movement in ancient
In this regard, the New Testament does not always bitterly attack or condemn the Pharisees. Paul himself, even after his conversion, boasted (in a godly way, for instructional purposes) of his background in religious training as a Pharisee. When brought before the council of the Sanhedrin, Paul addressed the group saying, "Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question" (Acts 23:6). At this point, interestingly, the religious leaders -- who were a mixture of Pharisees and Sadducees -- became divided in their opinion of Paul, and a strong dissension arose among them (verse 7). "And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees' part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God" (Acts 23:9).
Paul himself was brought up and taught as a Pharisee. He told the Jewish people on another occasion, "I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, yet brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law [the oral and written torah, no doubt, which the Pharisees taught] of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day" (Acts 22:3).
Gamaliel, Paul's teacher, was the grandson of Hillel, and was one of the few Pharisee teachers accorded the title "Raboni." He was undoubtedly of the School of Hillel. We read in Acts that when the Sadducees and Pharisee leaders in Jerusalem brought the apostles before the council to punish them, seeking the death penalty on them for spreading "heresy," it was Gamaliel who stood up in the counsel and intervened on the behalf of the apostles. "Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; and said unto them, Ye men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what ye intend to do as touching these men."
After reciting several instances of false messianic movements which arose, and then self-destructed, Gamaliel cautioned the council, "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God" (Acts 5:34-39).
Now, since Gamaliel was the leader of the faction of the Pharisees known as the school of Hillel, being the leading sage of his time and one of only seven to be given the title of "Raboni" ("our teacher"), as opposed to the usual "Rabbi" ("my teacher"), it is obvious that all the members of the school of Hillel would have backed him up in his counsel and advice. And since he was a man of great reputation, he even persuaded the members of the school of Shammai, or many of them, to support his position concerning the apostles. Obviously, the school of Hillel was relatively tolerant toward religious Jews who differed in certain respects and was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, or at least to co-exist with them, believing that God in due time would show who was right and who was wrong.
The council agreed to the sage advice of Gamaliel, and after warning the apostles not to teach in Jesus' name, and whipping them, they let them go (vs.40-41). Their lives were spared, largely on account of the moderation and wise counsel of Gamaliel -- a leader of the School of Hillel. Obviously, it was the Sadducees and school of Shammai, which were by far the most intolerant toward the apostles and the early church (Acts 4:1-2, 6, 15-21). Why were the Jewish religious leaders so strict and hostile toward the apostles? The truth is that they felt threatened -- they were worried that the whole nation of the Jews might "convert," and leave them without a power base, and they would be relegated to the slag heap of religious unimportance. They would lose their respect in the eyes of the people, their authority, their control over the tithes and offerings of the people. When they heard of the miracles being performed by the apostles, "they doubted of themselves hereunto this would grow" (Acts 5:24).
Gamaliel, the Doctor of the Law
Says Unger's Bible Dictionary about Gamaliel:
"The grandson of the great Hillel, and himself a Pharisee and celebrated doctor of the law.
His learning was so eminent and his character so revered that he is one of the seven who,
among Jewish doctors only, have been honored with the title of 'Rabban.' He was called
the 'Beauty of the Law,' and it is a saying of the Talmud that 'since Rabban Gamaliel died
the glory of the law has ceased'" ("Gamaliel," p.388).
Gamaliel's character was not trammeled by the narrow bigotry that characterized the Pharisees who were of the School of Shammai, who were in authority during the time of Christ and the apostles. He rose above such narrow prejudices and was a man of candor and wisdom, and broad-mindedness. Ecclesiastical traditions of the early church fathers states that he himself later became a Christian and was baptised by Peter and Paul, together with his son Gamaliel, and Nicodemus. Gamaliel died about A.D. 50, twenty years before the destruction of the Temple.
Says The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible of Gamaliel:
"Son of Simon and grandson of Hillel, Gamaliel was a doctor of the law and a member
of the Sanhedrin. Representing the liberal wing of the Pharisees, the school of Hillel,
as opposed to the school of Shammai, he intervened with a reasoned and persuasive speech
at the trial of the apostles (Acts 5:33-40). Paul acknowledged him as his teacher (Acts 22:
3), and he was held in such high honor that he was designated 'Rabban' ('our teacher'), a
higher title than 'Rabbi' ('my teacher')" (p.451).
Clearly, even the Biblical evidence from the New Testament tells us that not all the Pharisees were narrow-minded bigots and wickedly corrupt teachers as many people have assumed. Some of them, primarily of the school of Hillel, were much more free-thinking, liberal, and peaceable in their interactions with the apostles and the early Church.
Many of the Pharisees, particularly those of the school of Hillel, had a "live and let live" attitude toward the early Church. They did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, but they considered the early Nazarenes -- followers of Jesus of Nazareth -- as fellow Jews, and perhaps even as a new "school" or "sect" within the Pharisaical movement!
The School of Hillel
The school of Hillel, to which Gamaliel -- and the apostle Paul -- belonged, believed in teaching the "spirit of the Law" or Torah. Hillel believed that God should be understood as being perfect from the viewpoint of His mitigating the written Torah or law with the qualities of forgiveness, mercy, compassion and love. These were among the teachings of the Oral Torah which came down from Ezra the scribe. Hillel's position was that the Torah should serve mankind as a wife serves her husband -- it should help a person to obtain eternal life in the world to come.
Hillel lived in the Jewish colony in Babylon, where he was born and educated, before he moved to Judaea and became famous there. In Babylon, the Jews were of Chassidic and Kabbalistic belief and position. Hillel is generally regarded as the greatest of all Chassidic (Hasidic) teachers.
In reading the book The Life and Teachings of Hillel, it becomes apparent that Jesus and the original apostles taught either within or very similar to the beliefs and practices of the Hasidic position and doctrine of the school of Hillel. The inflammatory rhetoric Jesus used to castigate the Pharisees in Matthew 23 was directed at the disciples and leaders of the dominant school of Shammai, who had corrupted and perverted the Oral Law and the written Torah, by their many additions, restrictions, and traditions which they had incorporated in their legalistic interpretation and teachings.
On many occasions, and statements Jesus made in Matthew 23, He demolished the positions held by the opponents of the school of Hillel -- the adherents of Shammai. Most modern Christians believe the worst about the Pharisees because the gospels are written from the standpoint of Jesus being virtually in the shoes of Hillel and having to rebuke the strict and demanding Pharisees who followed the onerous and burdensome teachings of Shammai.
Hillel himself was a Hasid. A single line preserved from the eulogy at his funeral contains three vital characterizations of the man:
"O hasid! O humble man! -- disciple of Ezra" (Sanhedrin 11a).
While Hillel was a "hasid" in the full sense of the meaning of the word -- his contemporary adversary/opponent Shammai was a parush. The "hasid" is distinguished by his love for people; the "parush" was distinguishedby his separation from those he considers sinful or irreligious, according to his strict standards.
Jesus encountered many such Shammai "parush" in His travels -- Pharisees who rebuked Him for eating with those whom they looked down upon, "tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners." Jesus said to them, "But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented. For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil (demon). The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children" (Matt.11:16-19).
The School of Shammai
The school of Shammai, however, believed in teaching and enjoining the "letter of the law" or Torah upon the people. Shammai taught that God could be best understood as being perfect from the viewpoint of His strictness, judgment, and uncompromising righteousness -- doing everything to letter perfection. This attitude was derived from the absolute strictness involved in performing the Temple rituals by the Levites, and such strictness was carried over into the everyday life of the Jewish people. To Shammai and his disciples, God's justice and judgment were more important than His mercy, love or forgiveness.
The superstrict school of Shammai appears dominant in the time of Christ, judging from the rebukes Jesus gave to the Pharisees of His time, calling them a "generation of vipers" (Matt.23:33). These Pharisees noticed that Jesus "sat at meat in the house," and "behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples" (Matt.9:10. They objected to Jesus eating with such people, and asked His disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" Jesus heard them, and replied, "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have MERCY, and not sacrifice; for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Matt.9:11-13).
These same Pharisees condemned the healing of the sick on the Sabbath day, and the disciples of Christ plucking a few ears of wheat in the field on the Sabbath and eating them. Jesus rebuked their strict interpretation of the law, saying, "But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt.12:7).
These self-righteous Pharisees did not appreciate His rebuke or correction. They repudiated it, and His message, "and held a council against him, how they might destroy him" (Matt.12:14).
These members of the school of Shammai, when Jesus performed miracles of healing, denied it was by the power of God, and ascribed the healings to the power of Satan (Matt.12:24). When Jesus healed a man born blind from birth, on the Sabbath day, some of the Pharisees who were present -- undoubtedly mostly those of the school of Shammai -- said, "This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day" (John 9:16). Other Pharisees, probably of the school of Hillel, argued, saying, "How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? And there was a division among them," says the Gospel of John (John 9:16).
The school of Hillel in many instances taught very similar to the teachings of Christ. But Shammai was not a beloved figure among the people. His life did not serve as an example followed or honored by the people. Many popular stories about Hillel arose and were recorded in the Talmud; but those about Shammai were but a shadow by comparison. This does not mean that Jesus endorsed the "school of Hillel," however. It merely points out that of the two major schools among the Pharisees, that the school of Hillel was closer in many respects to the truth than the school of Shammai!
"An Unworthy Generation"
According to the Talmud, Shammai's temporary success in forcing his views through on a number of issues, and thus humiliating Hillel, was a day of sorrow and lamentation in Israel -- "that day was as grievous for Israel as the day on which they made the Golden Calf."
According to modern Rabbinic scholars, that generation of Pharisees -- because of the power of the school of Shammai, undoubtedly -- was "an unworthy generation."
Interestingly, Jesus Christ Himself said much the same thing. Jesus declared: "An evil and an adulterous generation seeketh after a sign" (Matt.12:39). Speaking of cities where He had done mighty miracles, Jesus said, "It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for thee" (Matt.11:21-24). Of course, the wickedness of the Sadducees, and Herod the king and his coterie of sycophants and boot-lickers also made that generation a truly unworthy and wicked one.
A certain gentile once came to Hillel and said, "I'm ready to become a Jew, but only if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Hillel replied, "What is hateful to you, don't do to your fellow man; that is the whole Torah, and the rest . . . is just commentary. Go then and learn it" (Shabbat 31a; p.95 of The Life and Teachings of Hillel).
Although he put it negatively, this is nothing less than a form of the Golden Rule that Jesus Christ taught. Jesus declared, to the crowds who came to hear Him: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31).
Matthew records His words: "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets" (Matt.7:12).
It is very apparent that there is a direct connection, historically, between the Hebrew prophets, Ezra and his teachings, and Hillel, and later Gamaliel, Jesus Christ, the apostles, and the apostle Paul, and the early Church of God.
The Seven Kinds of Pharisees
According to Jewish tradition and history, there were theologically seven kinds of "Pharisees." Says Angus in his Bible Dictionary:
"The Pharisees, according to the Talmud, were of seven kinds: (1) The Shechemite
Pharisee, who simply keeps the law for what he can profit thereby, as Shechem
submitted to circumcision to obtain Dinah (Gen.34:19). (2) The Tumbling Pharisee,
who to appear humble always hangs down his head. (3) The Bleeding Pharisee, who
in order not to see a woman walks with his eyes closed, and thus often meets with
wounds. (4) The Mortar Pharisee, who wears a mortar-shaped cap to cover his eyes that
he may not see any impurities or indecencies. (5) The What-am-I-yet-to-do Pharisee, who,
not knowing much about the law, as soon as he has done one thing, asks, 'What is my
duty now? and I will do it?' (comp. Mark 10:17-22). (6) The Pharisee from fear, who
keeps the law because he is afraid of future judgment. (7) The Pharisee from love, who
obeys the Lord because he loves him with all his heart" (p.855).
Over the period of time when Pharisaism began, about 134 B.C., till around 135 A.D., the quality of its adherents diminished. As is true of all human-involved endeavors, as time went on, various types of individuals entered the group, each with his own aims and ambitions. Says The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible:
"At first, when one incurred great danger in joining the party, the Pharisees were men of
strong religious character; they were the best people in the nation. Subsequently Pharisaism
became an inherited belief, the profession of it was popular, and men of character very inferior
to that of the original members joined its ranks. With the lapse of time also the essentially
vicious element in the system developed and laid the Pharisees, as commonly represented by
the members of the party, open to scathing rebuke. John the Baptist called them and the
Sadducees a generation of vipers; and it is well known how severely our Lord denounced them
for their self-righteousness, their hypocrisy, their inattention to the weightier matters of the
law, while being very particular as to minute points, with other faults (Matt.5:20; 16:6, 11-12;
23:1-39). They became a cunning body of men (Jos. Antiq. xvii. 2, 4). They took a prominent
part in plotting the death of Christ (Mark 3:6; John 11:47-57). Yet they always numbered in
their ranks MEN OF PERFECT SINCERITY AND THE HIGHEST CHARACTER" (p.742,
Who Killed Christ?
It was a Sadducean high priest, Caiaphas, who abused his authority to condemn Jesus as a "heretic" and who delivered Him to Pilate for execution (Matt.26:57-68). But it was "the chief priests (most of whom were Sadducees), and elders (many of them Pharisees, primarily of the school of Shammai), and all the council" of the Sanhedrin who "sought false witness against Jesus to put him to death" (Matt.26:59).
It would appear at this time that the members of the school of Hillel, at least to some degree, were influenced by these proceedings and went along with them. There is no hint in the gospels of any division among the Pharisees as to the proceedings against Christ. Of course, it is probable that any suspected "sympathizers" of Christ would have been excluded and did not know about the plot to apprehend Christ and have Him killed. This would have included such Pharisees as Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathaea (John 3:1-3; 7:48-53; 19:19:38-42), who were secretly disciples of Christ but did not let it be known "for fear of the Jews" (John 19:38). .
History of the Early Jewish Church
The New Testament Church of God, which began on Pentecost, 30 A.D., with the Holy Spirit being poured out upon the believers in Jesus Christ/Yeshua Notzri (Yeshua the Nazarene"), grew greatly during its seminal year. That Pentecost alone some 3000 souls were added to the Church (Acts 3:41-42). The number of believers shortly grew to five thousand (Acts 4:4).
After the healing of the man lame from birth at the Temple, the religious leaders of the Jews were worried where they new "sect" was headed and found its staggering growth troubling. But other than threaten and intimidate, there was little they could do, since the people were favorable toward them. "And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord within Solomon's porch. And of the rest durst no man join himself to them: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women)" (Acts 5:12-14).
Daily, in the Temple, and in every house, the apostles "ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ" (Acts 5:42).
However, shortly after this beginning, Stephen, a newly appointed deacon in the church and a man "full of faith and of power" (Acts 6:8), had a run in with a more "liberal" synagogue of the Jews -- what today we might call a "reformed" Jewish synagogue. This was a synagogue called "the synagogue of the Libertines [implying they were more "liberated" from the hard and fast rules and traditions of the elders -- more like a "reformed" or "progressive" synagogue today], and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians [of Egypt], and of them of Cilicia and of Asia" (Acts 7:9-10). They began disputing with Stephen, but could not answer his wisdom, and so hired false testimony against him, accusing him of seeking to destroy the Temple and changing the customs or rites given by Moses (verses 11-14).
Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, who inquired if these things were so. His testimony cut them to the quick, and showing their rebelliousness, "they gnashed upon him with their teeth" (v.54), and when he looked into heaven and said he saw the glory of God and Jesus as His right hand, they had had enough, and in a violent rage, they "cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him" (Acts 7:57-58).
After this, there was "a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1). "Devout men" buried Stephen, making great lamentation over him (Acts 8:2). This may well have included many members of the school of Hillel who abhorred the murderous frenzy of the mob action which had led to his needless death and bloody murder. "Devout men" would mean the Hasidim -- those who were Hasids, like Hillel, and Gamaliel -- as well as the leaders of the Church. Stephen himself must have been a highly respected and well known doer of good deeds and righteousness (Acts 6:3-5, 8).
This particular persecution seems to have ended when Paul himself, then known as Saul of Tarsus, who was the chief "inquisitor" and who "breathed out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Acts 9:1), was himself converted and became a chief exponent of the fledgling faith (Acts 9:1-18). Now, however, much of the Jewish anger of the high priests and orthodox rabbis, the Pharisees, was focused on Saul himself, and they plotted to slay him (Acts 9:23-24, 28-30). After this, "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, were multiplied" (Acts 9:31). This was about 35 A.D. -- five years after the death of the Messiah.
During the ensuing years, although persecution flared up from time to time and from place to place, there seems to have been achieved a sort of "live and let live" accommodation between the Pharisees and Christian leaders.
Although there was no meeting of minds doctrinally, concerning the Messiahship of Jesus, between the remaining Pharisees of either the school of Hillel or Shammai, and the early Nazarenes, the church was free to preach the gospel and did so. However, as the apostle Paul, sought to preach Christ in the synagogues throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Europe, he encountered sporadic persecution and opposition. Nevertheless, he was allowed, as a Jewish Rabbi who had been taught at the feet of Gamaliel, and as a Pharisee coming from Jerusalem, to preach in the Jewish synagogues (Acts 13:14-15, 42; 17:1-5). Many believed and were converted, but many others did not.
Even many of the sect of the Pharisees believed, and became members of the church (Acts 15;1-6). This brought about the need to address the question of whether a Gentile convert would have to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses to be saved -- that is, whether Gentiles had to become Jews, as well as followers of Christ. The council in Acts 15 addressed this volatile issue, and decided that this was not necessary at all (Acts 15:19-21). It was enough that the Gentiles would hear the laws of Moses being read in the synagogues every sabbath day (v.21), but they were not bound to be circumcised in the flesh or to become a "Jew" literally, to be saved. This vital church council took place in A.D. 51, according to Usher's chronology.
About ten years later, in A.D. 60, Paul returned to Jerusalem. He found a growing, thriving church, under the leadership of James. After they met, and heard the wonderful things God had been doing through Paul's ministry, James and the elders with him "glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou seest, brother, how many thousands [Greek "myriads," or ten thousands] of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law" (Acts 21:20). The church had obviously grown and prospered, spiritually, since the last time Paul had been in Jerusalem in 35 A.D. -- about twenty five years previously.
This certainly implies that a sort of accomodation has been reached between the Pharisees, and Sadducees, and the leadership of the Church of God. Violent persecution had ceased, and the church was free to preach, teach, and each Jew was free to decide for himself what to believe. The church of God, then known as the "Nazarenes" by the Jews, was simply regarded as another "sect" or sub-group within the Jewish religious experience -- possibly as a new branch of the Pharisees, very similar in belief and approach to the Scriptures as the school of Hillel!
The Testimony of Josephus and Eusebius
The Jewish historian Josephus himself seems to allude to this fact, when he tells us about the apostle James, the brother of Christ, who later became the head of the Jerusalem headquarters church. Josephus tells us James was highly respected by all the Jews, because of his righteousness and holiness -- he was a very highly respected leader -- so much so that the new high priest Ananus, who was insolent and bold in temper, and of the sect of the Sadducees, a sect which was very rigid in judging offenders, sought to use him as an example to exercise his priestly authority. Josephus tells us what happened:
". . . so he [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of the judges, and brought before them the
brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or some
of his companions;] and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the
law, he delivered them to be stoned; but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the
citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was
done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa] desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act
so no more for that what he had already done was not to be justified: nay, some of them went
so far as to meet Albinus [the procurator], as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and
informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent:
-- whereupon Albinus complied with what they had said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and
threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king
Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled three months . . ." (Ant.,
xx, ix, 1).
Eusebius tells us in his The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, that James, the brother of Christ, was known among the early Christians as "James the Righteous." He was chosen by James, Peter and John to be the "bishop of Jerusalem" (p.72). Eusebius tells us more about his untimely death at the hand of persecutors:
"When Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews were disappointed
of the hope in which they had devised their plot against him and turned their attention to
James the Lord's brother, who had been elected by the apostles to the episcopal throne at
Jerusalem. This is the crime they committed against him. They brought him into their
midst and in the presence of the whole populace demanded a denial of his belief in Christ.
But when, contrary to all expectation, he spoke as he liked and showed undreamt of fearless-
ness in the face of the enormous throng, declaring that our Saviour and Lord, Jesus, was the
Son of God, they could not endure his testimony any longer, since he was universally
regarded as the most righteous of men because of the heights of philosophy and religion
which he scaled in his life. So they killed him, seizing the opportunity for getting their
own way provided by the absence of a government, for at that very time Festus had died in
Judaea, leaving the province without governor or procurator" (p.99).
The early church leader Clement tells us that James was thrown from a parapet of the Temple, and clubbed to death. Hegesippus, who belonged to the first generation after the apostles, in his fifth book wrote of James:
"Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord's brother James, whom
everyone from the Lord's time till our own has called the Righteous . . . he drank no wine
or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head [he was under a
Nazarite vow] . . . He used to enter the sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees
beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's from his
continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people.
Because of his unsurpassable righteousness he was called the Righteous and Oblias -- in our
language 'Bulwark of the People, and Righteousness' . . . . those who came to believe did so
because of James. Since therefore many even of the ruling class believed, there was an
uproar among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said there was a danger that the
entire people would expect Jesus as the Christ. So they collected and said to James: 'Be
good enough to restrain the people, for they have gone astray after Jesus in the belief that
he is the Christ. Be good enough to make the facts about Jesus clear to all who come for
the Passover Day. We all accept what you say: we can vouch for it, and so can all the
people, that you are a righteous man, and take no one at his face value. So make it clear
to the crowd that they must not go astray as regards Jesus: the whole people and all of us
accept what you say. So take your stand on the temple parapet, so that from that height
you may be easily seen, and your words audible to the whole people. For because of the
Passover all the tribes have forgathered, and the Gentiles too.'
"So the Scribes and Pharisees made James stand on the Sanctuary parapet and shouted to him: 'Righteous one, whose word we are all obliged to accept, the people are going astray
after Jesus who was crucified; so tell us what is meant by the "door of Jesus."' He replied
as loudly as he could: 'Why do you question me about the Son of Man? I tell you, He is
sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and He will come on the clouds of
heaven.' Many were convinced, and gloried in James' testimony, crying: 'Hosanna to the
Son of David!' Then again the Scribes and Pharisees said to each other: 'We made a bad
mistake in affording such testimony to Jesus. We had better go up and throw him down,
so that they will be frightened to believe him.' 'Ho, ho!' they called out, 'even the Righteous
one has gone astray!' . . .
"So they went up and threw down the Righteous one. Then they said to each other 'Let us
stone James the Righteous,' and began to stone him, as in spite of his fall he was still
alive. But he turned and knelt, uttering the words: 'I beseech Thee, Lord God and Father,
forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.' While they pelted him with stones,
one of the descendants of Rechab the son of Rachabim -- the priestly family to which
Jeremiah the Prophet bore witness, called out: 'Stop! what are you doing? the Righteous
one is praying for you.' Then one of them, a fuller, took the club which he used to beat out
the clothes, and brought it down on the head of the Righteous one. Such was his martyrdom.
He was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary, and his headstone is still there by the Sanctuary.
He has proved a true witness to Jews and Gentiles alike that Jesus is the Christ.
"Immediately after this Vespasian began to besiege them" (quoted in Eusebius, p.99-102).
It seems ironic that in 30 A.D. the Jewish religious leadership wickedly put to death the innocent Lamb of God, Christ our Passover Lamb (John 1:36; I Cor.5:7-8), and then 40 years later the successors to that religious leadership wickedly murdered James, the chief apostle in Jerusalem and the brother of Christ -- and that after this period of 40 years, during which God patiently gave them ample opportunity and witness, so they could repent, when they finally showed their attitude in maliciously killing James, God "immediately" sent the Roman army to besiege them and to destroy their city and Temple.
God is very patient; but when His judgment comes, it comes like a hammer and is irresistible and complete.
Eusebius quotes a manuscript of Josephus which we don't have, today, and Origen quotes it also. It makes plain the testimony of even this fair-handed historian of the Jews, who wrote as to the cause of the Jewish-Roman war:
"These things happened to the Jews in requital for James the Righteous, who was a
brother of Jesus known as Christ, for though he was the most righteous of men, the
Jews put him to death" (Eusebius, p.102).
"The Great Hatred"
The Jewish people have never fully understood the sins of their ancestors, those who condemned the innocent Jesus Christ to death in 30 A.D., at which time an earthquake shook the
Temple, and rent the curtain in two, and caused the offices of the Sanhedrin to have to be removed from the Temple precincts. Nor have they understood the evil committed by those Jews in high office during the time of James, the righteous brother of Christ, who was condemned to death in a plot of evil-minded Pharisees forty years later.
The Temple was destroyed by Titus in 70 A.D. Forty years before that date would be 30 A.D. -- the year of the crucifixion! Says Josephus, in his Wars of the Jews:
"Thus also, before the Jews' rebellion, and before those commotions which preceded
the war, when the people were come in great crowds to the feast of unleavened bread,
on the eighth day of the month Xanthicus [Nisan,] and at the ninth hour of the night,
so great a light shone round the altar and the holy house, that it appeared to be bright
day-time; which light lasted for half and hour. This light seemed to be a good sign to
the unskillful, but was so interpreted by the sacred scribes as to portend those events that
followed immediately upon it. At the same festival also, a heifer, as she was being led
by the high priest to be sacrificed, brought forth a lamb in the midst of the temple.
Moreover, the eastern gate of the inner, [court of the temple,] which was of brass, and
vastly heavy, and had been with difficulty shut by twenty men, and rested upon a basis
armed with iron, and had bolts fastened very deep into the firm floor, which was there
made of one entire stone, was seen to be opened of its own accord about the sixth hour
of the night. Now, those that kept watch in the temple came thereupon running to the
captain of the temple, and told him of it; who then came up thither, and not without great
difficulty was able to shut the gate again. This also appeared to the vulgar to be a very
happy prodigy, as if God did thereby open them the gate of happiness. But the men of
learning understood it, that the security of their holy house was dissolved of its own accord,
and that the gate was opened for the advantage of their enemies. So these publicly declared,
that this signal foreshewed the DESOLATION that was coming upon them " (IV,5,3).
In early writings of the church fathers, Jerome in a letter to Hedibia relates that the huge lintel of the Temple was broken and splintered and fell. He connects this with the rending of the Veil. Says Alfred Edersheim, in The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, "it would seem an obvious inference to connect again this breaking of the lintel with an earthquake" (p.610). The lintel was an enormous stone, being at least 30 feet long and weighing some 30 tons!
The Temple Veils were 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and the thickness of the palm of a man's hand, wrought in 72 squares. They were so heavy that we are told 300 priests were needed to manipulate each one. The Veil being rent from top to bottom was such a terrible portent because it indicated that God's Own Hand had torn it in two, His Presence thus deserting and leaving that Holy Place.
Jewish sources themselves bear witness to these amazing events. Says the Jewish Talmud in Yoma 39b of the events which occurred in 30 A.D.:
"Forty years before the Temple was destroyed [i.e., 40 years before 70 A.D.,
or in 30 A.D.] . . . the gates of the Hekel [Holy Place] opened by themselves,
until Rabbi Yohanan B. Zakkai rebuked them [the gates] saying, Hekel, Hekel,
why alarmist thou us? We know that thou art destined to be destroyed . . ."
For the huge doors of the Temple behind the Veil to open, of their own accord, or in association with the great earthquake, would cause them to pull powerfully against the Veil, and with the lintel falling, at the same time, could have torn it in two from top to bottom.
This same year, 30 A.D., the Sanhedrin had to abandon the Chamber of Hewn Stones, near the Holy Place in the Temple, which was its official seat or location. This was about 40 yards southeast of the entrance to the Holy Place. In 30 A.D. the Sanhedrin had to move to another location, called "The Trading Place," farther to the east and a much less significant spot. To be forced to move from a beautiful, gorgeous, awesome location in the Temple to a spot much less beautiful, esteemed, and reverential, must have seemed a terrible "put down." Says the Talmud:
"Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin was
BANISHED (from the Chamber of Hewn Stone) and sat in the trading-
station (on the Temple Mount)" (Shabbat 15a).
Forty years before the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. is 30 A.D. -- the very year of the crucifixion of the Messiah! Why was the Sanhedrin moved in the very year Jesus was crucified? Could it also have been forced to do so because of damage due to the earthquake associated with the crucifixion of Jesus -- and be direct punishment for their complicity in handing Jesus over to the Romans? Was this evidence of God's official displeasure with their actions?
But this is not all. The events of the year 30 A.D. are amazing, when viewed from the perspective of almost 2,000 years later. Why did so many anomalous events occur during that one single year? Why did so many "curses" begin that very year? Why was the Sanhedrin so obviously rebuked by God that year, by being forced to "relocate" to a much lesser station than that which they previously held?
Writes Rabbi Leibel Reznick in The Holy Temple Revisited:
"Although this was the largest structure on top of the entire Temple Mount,
the purpose and function of the Basilica is not recorded anywhere. The
TALMUD tells us that when the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) CEASED TO
JUDGE CAPITAL OFFENSES, they MOVED from the Supreme Court
chambers to the 'shopping mall' (Rosh HaShana 31a). This shopping mall
was located on the Temple Mount (Rashi) . . . Perhaps this shopping mall
was located within the Royal Basilica. Because this area was built on
Herod's extension, it did not have the sanctity of the Temple itself, and
commerce would have been permitted" (Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale,
New Jersey, 1993, p.69).
Notice! The year the Sanhedrin was moved was 30 A.D., the year Christ was crucified. This was also the year they CEASED to judge capital offenses! This "authority" was thenceforth removed from their purview, denied to them -- another withering rebuke to the sages of the Court which so injudiciously and intemperately MISJUDGED the Messiah Himself!
Writes Craig Blomberg of this event:
". . . the claim that the Romans retained the sole right of capital punishment
(John 18:31) has often been termed a Johanine error, especially in view of the
counter-example in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). But this right is
strikingly confirmed by a passage in the Talmud, which says that capital
punishment had been taken from the Jews FORTY YEARS before the destruc-
tion of the temple in A.D. 70 (pSanh.1:1, 7:2). Stephen's stoning reads more
like mob action which defied technical legalities" (The Historical Reliability
of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg, Inter-Varsity Press, 1987, p.179).
It was the very year of the crucifixion that the Jews were denied the right to perform capital punishment by the Romans. When the members of the Jewish Supreme Court brought Jesus to Pilate, he told them, "Take him and judge him according to your law." But they replied, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death" (John 18:31). Yet they connived and pressured Pilate and stirred up the crowd to demand the crucifixion of Christ the Messiah, the Anointed One of God (John 18:32-40; 19:1-16).
Great trouble and trial has come upon the Jewish nation ever since this moment frozen in time in 30 A.D. As He was led away to be crucified, Jesus warned the women of Jerusalem, "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" (Luke 23:28-31). Truly, that was a memorable year of infamy!
Did They Learn Their Lesson?
But did that generation of the Jewish nation, the Pharisees and religious leaders, learn their lesson?
Forty years later, in 70 A.D., they once again conspired to slay the very brother of Jesus of Nazareth -- "James the Righteous," apostle and leader of the Nazarene Jewish Church!
And "immediately," we are told, judgment fell upon them by the hand of Almighty God! As Eusebius, early church historian reports, Titus fell upon the city of Jerusalem "immediately," and besieged it, and over a million Jews lost their lives in the senseless war.
But strangely, Jewish authorities themselves seem to have an understanding -- a "hint" -- of why this great and devastating destruction took place. In the book Judaism, edited by Arthur Hertzberg, we read this remarkable statement:
"The First Temple was destroyed because of the sin of idolatry, sexual licentiousness and
murder. . . . But during the time of the Second Temple, the people were engaged in the
study of Torah, and the performance of commandments and deeds of lovingkindness. Why,
then, was the Second Temple destroyed? Because the people were guilty of GROUNDLESS
HATRED. This teaches that the sin of groundless hatred is considered to be as grave as the
sins of idolatry, sexual licentiousness and murder" (p.253; quoted from Yoma 9b).
The death of Jesus of Nazareth, a righteous and godly person, who committed no sin to deserve the death penalty, was an act of "groundless hatred." Likewise, the murder of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, was totally inexcusable and unjustified. Finally, the martyrdom of James, the brother of the Lord, in 70 A.D., was the final act of "groundless hatred," which culminated in and brought upon the Jewish nation the loss of the Second Temple, the destruction of the nation, and the punishment of the Jewish exile and Diaspora.
The only way for these sins to be forgiven, is for the descendants of the Jews, or modern Jewry, to admit the "sin of groundless hatred" of their ancestors, and to repent in dust and ashes, and to then study the lives, claims, and examples of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, with an open and unprejudiced mind. As the apostle Peter wrote:
"Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same
Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard these
things, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the
apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? And Peter said unto them, REPENT,
and be baptized [mikvahed, or immersed in the ritual bath of baptism] every one of
you for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the
promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as
the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort,
saying, SAVE YOURSELVES from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:36-40).
Paul wrote, in a similar vein, "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth ALL men everywhere to REPENT: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained: whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
In our generation, we will live to see the second Advent of Jesus Christ, Yeshua, as His Name is in Hebrew, return from Heaven, to inaugurate the Messianic Age and the Millennial Rule of righteousness throughout the earth. All the glorious Messianic prophecies will be fulfilled. The wolf will lie down with the lamb; and the leopard with the kid; and the calf with the young lion (Isaiah 11:6). The Law or Torah of God will once again go forth from Jerusalem (Isa.2:1-4). And all the world will learn, for the first time, the true ways of Peace (Isa.9:6-7).
For the first time in history, many millions of people, including the Jews who have not recognized or known Him, will come to know and love Him as their true Messiah, the Son of David, and their King.
"Thus saith the LORD of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men
shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt
of him that is a Jew, saying, We will come with you: for we have heard that God is
with you" (Zech.8:23).
The Mysterious Relationship between . . .
The Early Nazarenes
During early New Testament times, the relationship between
the Pharisees, Sadducees and Christians was often turbulent
and deeply troubled. Matters grew even worse after the fall
of the Temple in 70 A.D. Rabbinic Judaism, which rejected
Jesus as the Messiah, became increasingly hostile toward the
Nazarene Christians. Rabbi Akiva even endorsed the renegade
Bar Kochba as the "Messiah." Eventually, the rabbis even
put a "curse" into the daily synagogue prayers, the amida,
which directly cursed the nozri or Nazarenes and other similar
minim or "heretics"! Here is the intriguing saga.
William F. Dankenbring
What were the earliest Christians called? Scripture tells us that early believers in Christ were first called "Christians" -- or "Messianics," as the Greek would imply -- at the Gentile city of Antioch -- and that appellation was a derogatory term given to them by the local unbelievers, not a name they chose for themselves (see Acts 11:26). The term was also used by king Agrippa when he listened to Paul's defense, and finally blurted out, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian" (Acts 26:28).
Regardless of the origin of the term, however, the apostle Peter later used it himself to describe the followers of Christ. He wrote, "Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God on this behalf" (I Pet.4:16). The Greek word is Christianos, from the word Christos, meaning "Messiah," or "Anointed one."
However, in extant literature from that early time, including the Talmud, and early writings of the Church Fathers, such as Eusebius, and Origen, we find that the earliest Christians were commonly known among their Jewish neighbors and counterparts as "Nazarenes."
The Early "Nazarenes"
Actually, the name "Nazarene(s)" only occurs about a dozen times in Talmudic literature. In all but two of these instances it refers to "Jesus the Nazarene." Half of these passages were censored in the Middle Ages, either by Christian censors or Jewish editors for fear of them. The censored passages were restored to the Talmud by R.N.N. Rabbinovicz from older MSS. From references to the early Nazarenes from various sources we have learned a number of vitally important things about them. For example, we have discovered that they:
1. Used both Old and New Testaments.
2. Believed in the resurrection of the dead.
3. Had a good knowledge of Hebrew and read the Old Testament and at least one
gospel in that language.
4. Believed God is the creator of all things.
5. Believed in one God and his son Jesus Christ.
6. Observed the Law of Moses.
7. Had a high respect for the writings of the apostle Paul.
Jerome, about 404 A.D., in a letter to Augustine, said, "They believe in Christ, the Son of God, born of Mary the Virgin, and they say about him that he suffered under Pontius Pilate and rose again." In the Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 29:17-21, they wrote against the Scribes and Pharisees that they "made men sin against the Word of God in order that they should deny that Christ was the Son of God" (see Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the end of the New Testament Period until its disappearance in the Fourth Century, The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, c.1992, p.35, 43, 53-54). In their commentary on Isaiah 31:6-9, they understand the passage as saying: "O sons of Israel, who deny the Son of God with such hurtful resolution."
Jerome also tells us that the Jewish Nazarenes, or followers of Jesus of Nazareth -- Yeshu-Notzri -- were cursed in the synagogues "by the Pharisees," and that they mixed faith in Christ with the keeping of the Law (p.55). In other words, they were true Christians! For Jesus Himself said He did not come to destroy or to do away with the Law (Matt.5:17-19), and that one must keep the commandments if they hope to enter into eternal life (Matt.19:17-19). Paul himself said that faith does not make "void" the Law, but rather "establishes it" (Romans 3:31).
Jerome also tells us that the Nazarenes must have been on generally good terms with the Jews during early times, because in the same letter to Augustine he indicates that they were to be found "in all the synagogues of the East among the Jews" (ibid.).
However, this peaceful, placid, halcyon period of time did not last, in all places. Writes Ray Pritz, in Nazarene Jewish Christianity,
"On the Jewish side, the exclusion of the Nazarenes was not nearly so gradual. At
the end of the first century, the birkat ha-minim was formulated with the sect speci-
fically named. This is recorded in both patristic and Jewish sources. Nonetheless,
we have found it possible that there was some limited synagogue attendance by
Nazarenes into the early decades of the second century. In addition to this, we find
continued contact between the two communities in the form of a polemic or dialogue.
Such contact should not surprise us, since the Nazarenes lived in the same geographical
areas with predominantly Jewish communities. However, as the polemic and distrust
grew, the separation and isolation from the Jewish community were increased. Different
steps along the way effected this separation: the flight to Pella, the birkat ha-minim,
the refusal of the Nazarenes to recognize and support Bar Kochba. By the middle of the
second century, the rift was probably complete" (p.109).
The Nazarenes, being primarily Jewish, kept up their knowledge of Hebrew, and maintained an internal system of education. They could read the Old Testament, or Tanakh, as it is now often called by Jews, in the original Hebrew, and probably at least one of the gospels, the gospel of Matthew.
Epiphanius, an early "church father" and writer, wrote of these "Nazarenes," whom he viewed as Judaizing heretics. Nevertheless, he said about them:
"These heresies . . . passing over the name of Jesus, did not call themselves Iessaians
and did not keep the name Jews; they did not call themselves Christians, but Nazarenes,
taking this name from the place Nazareth. But actually they remained wholly Jewish
and nothing else. For they use not only the New Testament but also the Old, like the
Jews. For the Legislation and the Prophets and the Scriptures, which are called the
Bible by the Jews, are not rejected by them . . . They are not at all mindful of other
things but live according to the preaching of the Law as among the Jews: there is no
fault to find with them apart from the fact that they have come to believe in Christ.
"For they also accept the resurrection of the dead and that everything had its origin in
God. They proclaim one God and his Son Jesus Christ. They have a good mastery
of the Hebrew language. For the entire Law and the Prophets and what is called the
Scriptures, I mention the poetical books, Kings, Chronicles and Esther and all the
others, are read by them in Hebrew as is the case with the Jews, of course. Only
in this respect they differ from the Jews and Christians: with the Jews they do not
agree because of their belief in Christ, with the Christians [sic] because they are
trained in the Law, in circumcision, the Sabbath and other things" (see Pritz, Nazarene
Jewish Christianity, p.33-34).
Epiphanius considers the Nazarenes "under a curse," because of their adherence to the laws of God, including the Sabbath and Holy Days, Passover, and the like. To Epiphanius, they were nothing more than Jews, although professing Christ. He wrote, "for they are rather Jews and nothing else" (Panarion 29, 9:1, quoted in Pritz' book, ibid., p.34).
Mysteriously, these faithful followers of Jesus Christ were Jewish in every way -- just as much so as Jews of the Dispersion or Diaspora -- but for their singular acknowledgment of Yeshuah as the Messiah, as they knew from reading such Scriptures as Isaiah 53, for example.
But the Jewish leaders and rabbis who did not concur in this identification were distressed by them. Not wanting to accept Jesus or Yeshuah as the Messiah, they pounced on His followers. Epiphanius tells us:
"However, they are very much HATED by the Jews. For not only the Jewish children
cherish hate against them but the people also stand up in the morning, at noon, and in
the evening, three times a day and they pronounce curses and maledictions over them when
they say their prayers in the synagogues. Three times a day they say: 'May God curse
the Nazarenes.' For they are more hostile against them because they proclaim as Jews that
Jesus is the Christ, which runs counter to those who still are Jews who did not accept
Jesus" (ibid., p.35).
The controversy between the Nazarenes, and the Pharisaic-Rabbinic leaders of Judaism could only grow over the years, since neither group was willing to compromise or adopt the beliefs of the other. The Nazarenes were well aware of the fact
that Judaism of their time had been divided primarily into two beliefs-- the teachings of the House of Hillel, and the teachings of the House of Shammai. Both Houses had rejected the Messiahship of Christ. Those who were converted and accepted Christ, from either house, were banished from Judaism, looked upon as traitors (as was the apostle Paul!), and expelled often from the synagogue.
Prophecy of the Two Houses?
Interestingly, in the Nazarene commentary on Isaiah 8:14, they had a most insightful explanation of the "two houses" of Israel. In this Scripture we read: "And he [the Messiah] shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offense to BOTH THE HOUSES of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem."
How did the Nazarenes, or early true Christians, apply this verse? Jerome wrote:
"On Isaiah 8:14
"The Nazarenes, who accept Christ in such a way that they do not cease to observe the
old law, explain the two houses as the two families, viz. of Shammai and Hillel, from
whom originated the Scribes and Pharisees. Akiba, who took over their school, is called
the master of Aquila the proselyte, and after him came Meir who has been succeeded by
Joannes the son of Zakkai and after him Eliezer and further Telphon, and next Joseph
Galilaeus and Joshua up to the capture of Jerusalem. Shammai then and Hillel were born
not long before the Lord; they originated in Judaea. The name of the first means scatterer
and of the second unholy, because he scattered and defiled the precepts of the Law by his
traditions . . . And these are the two houses who did not accept the Saviour who has
become to them destruction and shame" (Pritz, p.58).
The mention of the "two houses" in Isaiah 8 would naturally have brought to their minds the two houses of the Pharisees, "Beit Shammai" and "Beit Hillel." Both houses or schools of the Pharisees ultimately rejected the messiahship of Christ.
Obviously this is prima facie evidence that the early Nazarene Church, which observed the Laws of Moses and found them not contrary to faith in Christ, maintained contact with Rabbinic Judaism, as it continued to develop after the destruction of the Temple.
Akiba, a leading Rabbi of the Bar Kochba period and a principal founder of modern Judaism, was well known to them.
Rabbi Akiva and Bar Kochba
Says Ray Pritz, "Of all the rabbis of the first two centuries the most significant for the Jewish Christians must have been Rabban Gamaliel the Elder and Akiva, the former, of course, because of his appearance in the New Testament (Acts 5:34; 22:3), and the latter because of his involvement with the messianic rise of Simon ben Cosiba [Bar Kochba] and the compilation of the earlier Mishnah" (p.59).
Concerning Rabbi Akiva, or Akiba, Pritz points out, "It was his endorsement of a false messiah (and for Jewish Christians a rival messiah) which was the last straw which broke the ties of the notzrim [Nazarenes] with rabbinic Judaism" (ibid.).
Prior to the Bar Kochba rebellion in 132 to 135, when the Romans broke the back of the Jews and killed over a million, and sent the remainder into exile and the Diaspora, banning Jews from Jerusalem from that time forward, the Jewish rabbinical community and the Nazarene Christians had dwelt in relative peace, if not in harmony and unity. As Pritz writes, "The Nazarenes must have remained on such intimate terms with rabbinic Judaism that they were familiar with the names of its leaders into the later second century. This necessitates a familiarity with the mishnaic tradition, which in turn indicates some continuing contact between communities" (p.62).
Jerome also quotes the Nazarene interpretation of another passage from Isaiah, in which they apply the principle to the errors of the houses of Shammai and Hillel, the two branches of Pharisaism and its successors, rabbinic Judaism. The passage reads as follows:
"On Isaiah 8:20-21
"For the rest the Nazarenes explain the passage this way: when the Scribes and Pharisees
tell you to listen to them, men who do everything for the love of the belly and who hiss
during their incantations in the way of magicians in order to deceive you, you must answer
them like this: 'It is not strange if you follow your traditions since every tribe consults
its own idols. We must not, therefore, consult your dead about the living ones. On the
contrary, God has given us the Law and the testimonies of the Scriptures. If you are not
willing to follow them you shall not have light, and the darkness will always oppress you.
It will cover your earth and your doctrine so that, when you see that they have been deceived
by you in error and they feel a longing for the truth, they will then be sad or angry. And
let them who believe themselves to be like their own gods and kings curse you. And let
them look at the heaven and the earth in vain since they are always in darkness and they
can not flee away from your ambushes" (Pritz, p.63).
Because the Jewish schools of both Shammai and Hillel rejected the messiahship of Christ, and maintained their own "traditions of the elders" which they refused to stand corrected and to part with (Matt.15:2), the nascent New Testament Jewish Nazarene Christianity had to do spiritual battle with them continually. Says Pritz,
"It is clear that the Nazarenes considered the final authority in any such debate to be the
Old Testament and not later rabbinic interpretation, i.e. they rejected the concept of
halakaha" (Nazarene Jewish Christianity, p.63).
Thus the Nazarenes, like Jesus and the apostles, appealed to the ultimate authority in any debate over religious practice and observance -- the Word of God itself! They, like Jesus before them, in effect said to the Pharisees of both houses of Hillel and Shammai: "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39). Jesus added: "Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father: there is one that accuseth you, even Moses, in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would also have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?" (John 5:45-47).
Jerome also gives us the Nazarene Jewish commentary on another passage in Isaiah which sheds light on the true relationship between nascent Jewish Christianity and the developing rabbinic Judaism of that time. He shows that the Nazarenes rejected the "very heavy yoke of Jewish traditions," even as Christ did -- the "errors of the Scribes and Pharisees." Jerome declares:
"On Isaiah 9:1-4
"The Nazarenes, whose opinion I have set forth above, try to explain this passage in the
following way: When Christ came and his preaching shone out, the land of Zebulon and
Naphtali [the region of Galilee] first of all were freed from the errors of the Scribes and
Pharisees and he shook off their shoulders the very heavy yoke of the JEWISH TRADI-
TIONS. Later, however, the preaching became more dominant, that means the preaching
was multiplied, through the gospel of the apostle Paul who was the last of all the apostles.
And the gospel of Christ shone to the most distant tribes and the way of the whole sea.
Finally the whole world, which earlier walked or sat in darkness and was imprisoned in the
bonds of idolatry and death, has seen the clear light of the gospel" (p.64).
In this passage, we find that the Nazarene Christians -- like Jesus Christ, the Messiah, Peter, James, John and especially Paul -- rejected Jewish traditionalism, invention, and additions to the Torah or Old Testament. They referred to them as the "very heavy yoke of the Jewish traditions." Even so, in similar language the apostle Peter rejected those who would compel new converts to embrace Judaism together with all its traditions and extra-Biblical rules and rituals, saying, "Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a YOKE upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?" (Acts 15:10).
These early Jewish Christians also endorsed the writings of "the apostle Paul," whom they called "the last of all the apostles." Paul, of course, also condemned those who sought to bring Christians into "bondage" (Gal.2:3-5), with a "yoke of bondage" (Gal.5:1), and ritualism. How interesting that the original Jewish Christians did not oppose Paul, and his teachings, in any way!
Ray Pritz says, "What we have here, then, is an endorsement of Paul's mission to the Gentiles. This spreading of the Gospel to the Gentiles was, according to the Nazarenes, a natural, even a glorious development. One is often led to expect a sort of bitterness on the part of the Jewish Christians that they were swamped, their position usurped by the Gentile Church. But here we find only a positive reaction to the flow of events" (p.65).
Another Prophecy Applied to the Jewish Leaders
In another passage in Isaiah, the Nazarene Christians again showed how it clearly and prophetically pointed at the wickedness of the Pharisees, the schools of Shammai and Hillel, during the time of Christ, when they rejected the Word of God that they might keep their own
"traditions" (Matt.15:3-14; Mark 7:5-13). Isaiah wrote:
"For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that
watch for iniquity are cut off: That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare
for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought."
Says Jerome on this passage:
". . . the Nazarenes believe [this] to have been said against the Scribes and Pharisees,
because [they] passed away, who earlier deceived the people with very vicious traditions
(and they watch[ed] day and night to deceive the simple ones), who made men sin against
the Word of God in order that they should deny that Christ was the Son of God" (p.65,
Nazarene Jewish Christianity).
The Nazarenes existed well into the third century, and were actively engaged in a dialogue -- "heated, no doubt," says Ray Pritz -- with rabbinic Judaism. Pritz adds that the Nazarene Jewish Church was "familiar with the developments within Judaism and rejected the authority of the pharisaic scholars to interpret scripture definitively." Pritz goes on:
". . . Nor did they accept as binding on themselves (or on any Jews) the Oral Law as
embodied in the Mishnah. These Jewish Christians view Paul and his mission favorably
and evidently even accepted -- in theory at least -- the unity of the Church as composed of
both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. . . And finally, this group had not lost hope
that the Jewish people might yet turn to accept Jesus as the Messiah" (p.70).
Notice carefully. This passage does not say the Nazarenes rejected the "Oral Law," but rather did not accept it "as embodied in the Mishnah." In other words, God never intended the Oral Law to be written down, and when it was eventually put into writing many additions and interpretations were also written down which were ridiculous and senseless -- chaff amongst the wheat, as it were. "Traditions of the elders" were written down as law, along with original principles of Oral Law -- traditions which Christ condemned (Matt.15; Mark 2, 7). However, the Nazarenes never rejected the "Oral Law" in principle -- for obviously they observed the Sabbath and all Holy Days, which means they acknowledged the Jewish sacred calendar which itself was preserved in the "Oral Law," and not the written Scriptures!
Like Jesus Himself, they rejected the man-made additions and strict, stern, severe interpretations of the Law put into the Mishnah and Talmud by various Rabbis as part and parcel of Rabbinic Judaism.
This is a vitally important point. Understand! Jesus and Paul and the other apostles clearly rejected what they referred to as "the TRADITIONS of the elders" (Matt.15:1-20). However, they never rejected the "CUSTOMS of the fathers" (Acts 21:21-24). This claim on the part of Jewish leaders was a "bum rap"! (Acts 21:24). Paul himself confessed, "I have committed nothing against the people or customs of our fathers" (28:27).
Facing the Facts
Paul was being falsely accused by wicked men, who happened to be the leaders of the Jewish religion, at that time -- the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. They often tried to kill him, to get rid of the "pest." Is it any wonder, then, that Paul himself felt very negatively toward those men and the wicked, lying insinuations and false accusations they were leveling at him? Paul wrote from personal experience when he warned the brethren in Thessalonica of such men, saying:
"For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in
Judea are in Christ Jesus; for ye also have suffered like things of your
own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews, who both killed the
Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they
please not God, and are CONTRARY to all men, forbidding us to speak
to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always;
for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" (I Thess.2:14-16).
Rejecting the Messiah, they clung to the Torah -- but they even rejected those many simple Old Testament Scriptures which foretold of the Christ. When the Scriptures seemed to speak of Jesus, such as Isaiah 53, the Rabbis and Pharisees, their predecessors, simply re-interpreted the passage to make it apply to "Israel" instead. Paul saw this blindness -- this hostility -- the attempt at legalistic self-righteousness -- and he warned the Jews of its consequences. He wrote:
"For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not accord-
ing to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God's righteousness, and
going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted
themselves unto the righteousness of God" (Rom.10:2-3).
The Great Divide or Gulf
The Nazarene Christian Jewish community kept the laws of God, endorsed the entire Old Testament, observed the Sabbath and holy days of God, accepted the sacred calendar, and were the direct descendants of the first Jewish believers in Christ. They survived the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. because they fled successfully to Pella of the Decapolis, and in part because they had roots in the Galilee. They were to be found in the Galilee and probably Jerusalem until 135 A.D., when all Jews were expelled from the city. Some were found in the area of Berea of Coele Syria near the end of the fourth century. Writes Ray Pritz,
"The Nazarenes, as Jews, continued to observe certain aspects of Mosaic Law,
including circumcision and the Sabbath, and it was this which brought about
their [eventual] exclusion from the Church. This rejection and exclusion was,
however, gradual" (p.109).
"There emerges from our considerations an entity, a viable entity of Law-keeping
Christians of Jewish background. These were direct descendants of the first Jewish
believers in Jesus. . . . These Jewish Christians were called Nazarenes after Jesus,
and probably received the title on the basis of early Christian interpretation of
certain Old Testament passages (e.g. Isa.11:1) as referring to the Messiah and
specifically to Jesus himself" (p.108).
The continued existence of the Nazarenes can be traced with reasonable certainty down to the fourth century. Geographically, the Nazarenes were essentially limited to pockets of existence along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and in the region of Galilee and Jerusalem at least till the city fell to Emperor Hadrian and his soldiers in 135 A.D. when the Bar Kochba rebellion was squelched. Says Pritz:
"The Nazarenes were not included in the earlier heresy lists [of the Catholic Church]
because they were simply not considered heretical enough or a threat to 'orthodoxy.'
While there may have been very little intercommunal contact, individual Nazarenes
seem to have had sporadic visits with certain Church leaders."
The Jews, however, who lived side by side with the Nazarene community, were not so accommodating as the far-flung Church, which had problems of its own. The rabbis of Judaism, who followed in the footsteps of the earlier Pharisees, excluded the Nazarenes much more rapidly, from their fellowship.
Jesus Mentioned in the Talmud
There are only five places in the Babylonian Talmud where Jesus the Nazarene, the Nozri, is mentioned. The earliest place is in Avodah Zarah 16b-17a, where the name appears twice and apparently escaped the eyes of the censor. We read:
"Our Rabbis teach, When R. Eliezer was arrested for Minut [Heresy] they took him
up to the tribunal to be judged. The governor said to him, 'Will an old man such as
thou busy himself about these vain things?' He said 'Faithful is the judge concerning
me.' The governor supposed he said this in reference to him; but he only said in
reference to his Father in Heaven. He (the governor) said, 'Since I am trusted concerning
thee, Dimissus, thou art released.' When he came to his house his disciples came in to
comfort him, but he would not take comfort. R. Akiva said to him, 'Rabbi, suffer me
to say something of what thou hast taught me.' He said to him, 'Say on.' He said to
him, 'Rabbi, perhaps there has come Minut into thy hand and it has pleased thee, and
on account of that thou hast been arrested for Minut.' He said to him, 'Akiva, thou hast
reminded me. Once I was walking in the upper street of Sepphoris, and I found a man
of the disciples of JESHU THE NAZARENE, and Jacob of Kfar Sechania was his name.
He said to me, 'It is written in your Torah, "Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot," etc.
What may be done with it? Latrinae for the high priest.' And I answered him nothing.
He said to me, 'Thus hath JESHU THE NAZARENE taught me, "For the hire of a harlot
hath she gathered them, and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return." From the place
of filth they come, and unto the place of filth they shall go."' And the saying pleased me,
and because of this I was arrested for Minut; and I transgressed against what is written in
the Torah, 'Keep thy way far from her,' this is Minut; 'and come not nigh the door of
her house,' this is the Government" (Pritz, p.96).
The other mentions of the name "Nazarene" come from the latter part of the third century and add nothing to our knowledge of the early Nazarenes.
However, the famous enigma of the minim who are cursed in the twelfth Benediction of the amidah prayer has puzzled scholars. Many believe it refers to Christians, some say it means Jewish Christians, and others point out that the term was also used prior to the existence of Christians or the Church -- therefore, the term must also include other "heretics," as it were, in the eyes of the Jewish rabbis.
Observes Pritz, generally it is safe to say that the term "minim" are Jews who reckon themselves to be Jews "but who are excluded by the rabbis" (p.103). However, there is no doubt that the term refers to or includes Nazarene Christians in the famous synagogical prayer called the
The matter in question is the formulation (or revision) of the twelfth Benediction of the semoneh-esreh prayer of the daily amidah. In its present form in all Ashkenazi liturgies, there is no mention of minim, but the text is preserved in Sephardic rites where censorship did not interfere.
"Following an analysis primarily of the patristic evidence Krauss, in a remarkable
piece of scholarship, concluded in 1892 that the actual wording of the original
formula must have been something like . . . ('may all the NOZRIM perish in a
moment.') . . . In 1898 Schechter published the first of several fragments of the
semoheh-'esreh from the Geniza. The twelfth Benediction includes the word . . .
('may the nozrim and the minim perish in a moment.') In subsequent years further
manuscripts came to light from widely scattered provenances which would seem to
prove conclusively that a very early version of the birkat ha-minim . . . contained
the words nozrim and minim. . . In 1907 Marx published a text of the Siddur
of R. Amram Gaon. The manuscript dates from 1426 and reads . . . ('may the
nozrim and minim be destroyed in a moment.') . . . In the first Venice printing
of the Talmud we find this comment by Rashi (missing in later, censored editions)
at Brachot 30a (= 28b in today's pagination): 'They revised it at Yavneh after a
long time in the vicinity of the teaching of the nozri, who taught to overturn the
ways of the living God" (p.104).
This is very heavy matter. Jerome wrote to Augustine pointing out the truth that Jewish synagogues in his day still cursed the Nazarenes. He wrote, "Until now a heresy is to be found in all of the synagogues of the East among the Jews; it is called 'of the Minaeans' and is cursed by the Pharisees until now. Usually they are called Nazarenes." He also wrote, "until today they blaspheme the Christian people in their synagogues under the name of Nazarenes" (Amos 1:11-12). Further, "Three times each day they anathematize the Christian name in every synagogue under the name of Nazarenes."
As long as this curse remained in the synagogical prayers, it polarized and split Jewish Christians, called Nazarenes, from the rest of the Jews and their synagogue services. In fact, it has been suggested by some scholars that this curse was introduced into the synagogues to ferret out "Christian Jews" who were secretly attending the synagogues. The reasoning was that they surely would not pronounce a curse upon themselves! No doubt, this reasoning had its merits, and further separated true Jewish Nazarene Christians from the ongoing development of Rabbinic Judaism, isolated them, and contributed to the growing wall of separation.
On the other hand, however, this curse, since it was "causeless," and wicked in the extreme, would have reflected and richocheted back upon those who both invented it and continually pronounced it! In other words, the CURSE became literally a curse upon Judaism itself!
When Pontius Pilate brought Jesus the Nazarene before the Jewish crowd gathered in front of the Judgment Hall, he asked them if he should release Him, or the criminal Barabas. He knew that for envy and jealousy they had brought Him up on charges. They asked for the release of Barabas. When he asked, "What then shall I do with Jesus, who is called Christ?" They responded, "Let him be crucified!" (Matt.27:22). When he asked, "Why? What evil hath he done?" They shouted more vehemently, "Let him be crucified!" (v.23).
When Pilate saw that reason would not prevail, but that a tumult was brewing, and that the mob could get out of hand, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person. See you to it" (v.24). The Jews answered:
"His blood be on us and on our children" (v.25).
Thus they pronounced a divine curse upon themselves. Even so, when they cursed the Nazarenes, who were innocent of any heresy, and righteous and obedient to the Law and Torah, their curse reverberated upon their own heads!
Because of these false allegations, and accusations, which the majority of Jews have never understood, and for which they have never repented, or acknowledged or admitted as being committed by their ancestors -- these heinous deeds of the Pharisees and rabbis of previous generations -- Jesus Himself warned them:
"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest
them who are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy
children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings,
and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say,
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matt.23:37-39).
Rejected by both nominal "Catholic" Christians, who were moving more and more into rejecting all things Jewish, and adopting pagan customs to replace Biblical holy days, and pagan beliefs and practices, and repudiated by the successors of the Pharisees, the new rabbinical Judaism, because of their acceptance of Christ as the Messiah, and their rejection of "the traditions of the elders," and various halachic innovations in the Mishnah and Talmudic Judaism, the Nazarene Jewish Christians were increasingly isolated. Because of their adherence to the commandments of God and the Torah, Gentile Christianity rejected them. Because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the Jews excluded them. But they also rejected the innovations of Judaism which were contrary to Scripture. Says Ray A. Pritz:
"Of particular interest is the Nazarene commentary on Isaiah. This work shows clearly
that the rejection was not solely from the Jewish side. The Nazarenes refused to accept
the authority established by the Pharisaic camp after the destruction of Jerusalem, and in
so refusing they adjudicated their own isolation from the converging flow of what we
call Judaism. Just as they rejected the Church's setting aside the Law of Moses, so also
they refused the rabbis' expansive interpretations of it. In other words, they rejected
halackah as it was DEVELOPING IN RABBINIC JUDAISM" (p.110).
Did you catch what was happening? The Nazarenes refused to accept the authority established by the Pharisaic camp after the destruction of Jerusalem. Prior to that time, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were in contention with each other, and were forced to make allowances for differing opinions. Therefore, because the Jewish religion was relatively "democratic," and authoritarians and dictators were generally not tolerated, there was a relative "freedom" of religion amongst the Jews, and Jewish Christians for many decades could attend the synagogues without any problem.
However, after 70 A.D., when the Temple was destroyed, and supposedly a small voice (a bat kol) told the Jewish religious leaders that henceforth the House of Hillel would be supreme, the House of Shammai disappeared. The resultant remnant all were of the Hillel persuasion, supposedly, and the result was a new religious "tyranny" which expelled the Nazarenes, which no longer felt it had to tolerate them, and which even pronounced a CURSE upon them!
Rabbinic Judaism had strayed far from the original teachings of Hillel himself, who was noted as a great peacemaker, and reconciler -- a man of love, kindness, and patience. The heirs of Judaism had become impatient, unkind, dictatorial, and cruel. The Nazarenes, who had been a minority for over 40 years, and who had been tolerated if not accepted, were no longer to enjoy any grace or favor in the eyes of the new Rabbinical councils. A new Regime took over, after the destruction of the Temple, and perhaps fearing for its own security and very existence, after Roman oppression and persecution, they themselves became vicious persecutors of the Nazarenes and pushed them outside the confines and bounds of Judaism!
The Nazarenes themselves rejected the Church's setting aside of the Law of Moses, and thus rejected the growing Catholic Church and dogma which swept over the Gentile branches of the Church of God. They also rejected and refused the new rabbinical expansive interpretations and emendations of the Law or Torah. In so doing, of course, they brought about their own isolation from both the paganism of Rome, and the developing streams of Judaism.
Ray Pritz continues:
"There is another factor in this separation from Judaism, one of perhaps greater importance
than the rejection of halakah. It is the person of Jesus. With their acceptance and proclama-
tion of the deity of Jesus, the Nazarenes went beyond allowable limits for a Judaism of ever
stricter monotheism. Either one of these -- their non-acceptance of rabbinic halakah and even
more their belief in Jesus -- would have been sufficient to consign them to the category of
apostates. From talmudic sources we have seen that the Nazarenes may have conducted an
active program of evangelism among Jews. The Isaiah commentary confirms that they
never relinquished hope that the Jews would one day turn away from TRADITION and towards
Jesus: 'O Sons of Israel, who deny the Son of God with such hurtful resolution, RETURN
to him and to his apostles'" (p.110).
"The Causeless Hatred"
Why did the ancient Pharisees and their successors have such hatred and bitterness toward Christ, and the Jewish Nazarene Christians? Does it make any sense?
The answer is clearly no -- their hatred and animosity were completely uncalled for. As Pilate himself observed, it was completely unjustified. It was a reasonless, baseless hatred. Yet the Jewish Talmud states that the reason for the destruction
of the Second Temple in the time of Vespacian, in 70 A.D., was because of the "great hatred." As Arthur Hertzberg writes:
"The First Temple was destroyed because of the sin of idolatry, sexual licentiousness and
murder. . . . But during the time of the Second Temple, the people were engaged in the
study of Torah, and the performance of commandments and deeds of lovingkindness. Why,
then, was the Second Temple destroyed? Because the people were guilty of GROUNDLESS
HATRED. This teaches that the sin of groundless hatred is considered to be as grave as the
sins of idolatry, sexual licentiousness and murder" (Hertzberg, Judaism,p.253; passage quoted
from Yoma 9b).
The Jewish nation was shattered, and the people scattered into the four winds, around the world, and have been scattered for the past 1,900 years, for a very great reason. The Jewish leaders fell into a grave error -- and committed a great sin -- and brought not only the blood of Jesus the Messiah on their heads, but also that of many other martyrs who were faithful to the Messiah, including James, the brother of Christ.
They had plenty of warning. They had ample opportunity to repent, and change their ways. But they chose to scorn the Messiah and cling to their self-serving practices and beliefs. In so doing, they brought the WRATH of God upon themselves.
But the time has come for reconciliation -- for forgiveness of past sins, and extending of the hand in friendship, love, harmony, and peace. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they shall be called the sons of God" (Matt.5:9).
Says a modern Messianic Jewish writer:
"Why is it that the majority of our people do not believe in Yeshua as Messiah
today? It's certainly not because everyone has examined the evidence and prayed
and asked God for the truth. It is simply TRADITIONAL. Just as the majority
followed false teachers then, so today the same mistakes are perpetuated. In fact,
the rejection of Yeshua seems to be the one tradition that all Jews agree on, from
the orthodox to the non-traditional and even to the atheists.
"It is not true that the one thing all Jews have in common is one God. It is that
all say NO to Yeshua, that is, all except for a minority who have stepped outside
the tradition of negativism and found that Yeshua really is who he said he was.
He has given us a wonderful new life.
"What about you? Will you accept a challenge to make up your mind, based on
your genuine, prayerful consideration?" (Walter Lieber in The Messianic Outreach,
Autumn 1993, p.7).
In our day, today, more and more Jews are beginning to open their eyes to the TRUTH about the Messiah! Thousands of Jewish people have accepted the New Testament as the Word of God, along with the Old. Thousands now acknowledge that Jesus Christ, or Yeshuah, as His name is in Hebrew, is the God-sent Messiah.
Interestingly, a great many Israeli Jews secretly believe that Yeshua was indeed the Messiah. How many? No one knows, for like Nicodemus of old, they are keeping their beliefs to themselves, for the time being (see John 3:1-2; 7:12-13, 47-53). This trend will no doubt continue, as prophecy must be fulfilled, and there must be 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel brought to Christ, and converted, before the return of the Messiah (Rev.7:1-9) -- including 12,000 from the tribe of JUDAH, and 12,000 from the tribe of LEVI (see verses 5 and 7). Most of these two tribes, today, would likely be Jewish, whereas those from the other tribes could well be from the "lost ten tribes" which migrated into Northwestern Europe, Britain, Ireland, Australia and North America!
May God speed this day of reconciliation, unity and shalom! (Ezek.37:15-28).