Monday, January 5, 2015

The Fall Of Jerusalem And The Birth Of Christianity

To what extent did the Jewish War of A.D. 65-70 and the destruction of the Temple contribute to the birth of Christianity as a religion independent and distinct from Judaism? Why?

AP: This really is an important question. It greatly influenced the birth of Christianity, although the process of becoming independent does not really begin until the late second or early third century when the original Christian group goes from being a Jewish sect to an actual religion of its own. Still today, researchers believe that the process of final separation from Judaism and Christianity did not take place until the fifth century after the doctrine of the Trinity was worked out.

And why?

I think there are various reasons. First, because the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple validated one of Jesus’ prophecies that the sanctuary would be destroyed. The spirit of that prophecy meant for followers of Jesus that the unbelieving Jews began to get what was coming to them. Second, the idea that Jesus was much more than a mere man was finally formulated, which seemed blasphemous to many Jewish people who did not have an apocalyptic mindset. Third, because the letters of Paul and his ideas about the law of Moses (especially with its specific focus on circumcision, purity standards, and food laws) were interpreted as applying to the pagans who converted to faith in the Messiah, and applying only to them. With this the meaning of Paul’s theology began to be perverted, becoming as it were a universal dogma that the law of Moses no longer had salvific value even for the Jews. But that’s not what Paul thought: A part of the law of Moses was invalid for converted pagans, because they did not become Jews following conversion. But for Jewish believers in the Messiah, the law of Moses, according to Paul, was still quite valid (something that can be seen in Matthew 5:17-19).

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TWH: First things first. What is the church? Everyone who places their faith in Jesus Christ is immediately placed by the Holy Spirit into one united spiritual Body, the church (Matt. 16:18; 1 Cor. 12:12-13), also known as the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 19:7-8). Jesus Christ is the Head of the church (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; Col. 1:18). The formation of this spiritual Body began on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21, 38-47). Paul understood that even in his own day the construction of this Body was ongoing, having been built on the foundation of Jesus and the apostles and the prophets (Eph. 2:19-20). It will finally be completed when Jesus returns for His own at the rapture (1 Cor. 15:51-52; 1 Thess. 4:13-18). The church is a unique spiritual organism designed by Jesus Christ and built up by him. It is made up of all born-again believers in the present age (Eph. 2:11-3:6).

Jesus said that he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not overpower it (Matt. 16:18). The assembly of believers united by faith in God's Son is still future by the time Jesus speaks in Caesarea Philippi. What Jesus refers to is not to be confused with anything that had existed prior to that time. This unique assembly of Christian believers, seen in local manifestations throughout the world today but united in a way that is unseen by the human eye, is not to have its existence credited to a mere sequence of human events. I think there is great danger in doing so. That's why, first and foremost, I wanted to focus on our attention on Jesus' sovereignty and his architectural force in the birth, growth, and expansion of this spiritual organism we call the Body of Christ.

Now we can talk a little about how the fall of Jerusalem affected the Christian movement. There is no doubt that the war was a shocking moment in Israel's history. Kikuo Matsunaga has an interesting chapter entitled "Christian Self-Identification and the Twelfth Benediction" in the book Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1992) edited by Harold W. Attridge and Gohei Hata. Matsunaga talks about how rabbinic Judaism convened to work out the logistics of having Judaism extend into the future without the Temple. Sometime near the end of the first century (c. A.D. 80s), Jewish Christians were banished from Jewish society. He writes, "Prior to this decision, there seems to have been some uncertainty among both Jews and Christian Jews as to whether the Jesus-is-the-Messiah movement should be regarded as one of the new Jewish sects" (356). He then points to Acts 5:38-39 to show how Judaism was thinking about the new movement, at least from the perspective of one of Israel's rabbinic teachers. Gamaliel was more tolerant, viewing whatever was taking place as possibly from God, and, if not, destined to collapse on itself. The Sanhedrin represented another voice, and they sent to have the apostles flogged. Matsunaga says these perspectives in Acts "reveal the attitude of Jewish authorities toward this new movement between the 30s and the 80s" (356).

The apostles were trying to make sense out of what God was doing. They needed the same patience Jesus exhibited with them during his three-year ministry now in the years following his ascension to the Father. Just take Peter for example. He had to receive the same vision three times (or the command to eat and Peter's subsequent refusal occurred four times, depending on how you interpret the τοῦτο δὲ ἐγένετο in Acts 10:16) before he finally understood that God was showing him that the Jewish people are no different when it comes to the gospel. (The fact that Peter says he came with Cornelius "without raising any objection" [ἀναντιρρήτως] in Acts 10:29 ought to make us smile. Peter's quite the character, isn't he?) Even this apostle, who had witnessed Jesus' resolve to meet with Gentiles on numerous occasions (e.g., John 4) and share with them the truth, couldn't (or wouldn't) make the break that the gospel was clearly demanding. This was difficult for them. If it was difficult for them, it was difficult for everyone during that time period. Even the Gentiles were trying to figure out what to make of it, as we see in the case of Peter in Acts 10 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The Galatians are even being hoodwinked by a group who sought to make the two groups one.

But one thing is certain: Judaism at its core in the first century (i.e., the form of Judaism that believed that one's relationship with God was secured by having a particular lineage or by keeping the Law and abstaining from evil) was not compatible with what was being proclaimed in the teaching of the apostles. Before the doctrine of Christ's nature was worked out, the relationship of the Christian (whether Jew or Gentile) to the Law was the major theological issue of the first century. The importance of the fall of Jerusalem for the life of Christianity can at least be softened if we understand that this issue was already being worked out by the apostles well before the fall of the city and the loss of the Temple. In fact, what separated Christianity from Judaism of the first century was already set forth in the life and teachings of Christ. The fact that the apostles were fleshing out the relationship of the Law to their new lives and the mission of the church, really very soon after Jesus' ascension, shows that Christianity was already markedly its own "religion" (as much as I hate to use that word). And if we take Hebrews to be pre-A.D. 70, as it should be, and as written by an apostle, as I believe it was, then we can clearly see that the apostles were not urging Jewish believers to keep their lifestyle consistent with Judaism. No, they were urging Jewish Christians to make a break away from Temple practices, and even endure persecution for doing so!

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