Early Christianity’s Uneasy Relationship with the Torah, Jews, and Judaism

Most people understand that Christianity grew out of Judaism. Jesus was Jewish. So were Peter, James, John, and Paul. So were the many other named and unnamed initial believers who hailed from Palestine and from the Greek-speaking world. But as followers of Jesus began to invite non-Jews to join their movement, questions immediately arose about how this might be done.

What were the issues? For one thing, Jews believed themselves members of God’s special covenant. Within that covenant they obeyed God’s law, or Torah, now the first five books of the Bible. In other words, they made the singular attempt to live the life that God had intended for all humankind. Non-Jews did not (fully) obey Torah though some tried to live according to a few of its instructions. These latter folks were Gentiles who were attending local synagogues – they did not convert to Judaism and they did not refrain from continuing to worship their other gods but they recognized the value of the ethical teachings proffered in the synagogue services. Some also understood that salvation came from such behavior.

Full conversion to Judaism, however, was a non-starter for most Gentile men who had an interest in its teachings. Women faced no such barrier and converted in larger numbers than men. But that is not to say that there were wholesale conversions to Judaism by Gentiles. Yet their interest was piqued when Christ-following Jews began to teach of a Jewish messiah who was heralding the end of the age. This would be a time, according to certain prophecies, when Gentiles would join their Jewish brothers and sisters in the saving worship of the God of Israel.

Jews were not in agreement as to what kind of Gentile God would accept at the End of Days. Some insisted that these Gentiles (men, that is) must be circumcised; others taught that attempts to live righteously were sufficient for salvation. At the conclusion of what was likely the first group meeting to hear out these arguments, the Jerusalem apostles ruled that Gentile men did not have to be circumcised in order to follow Jesus and worship the God of Israel and to be considered for salvation when the end came.

But this did not solve all the issues involved. Dietary regulations could become an obstacle. So too were rules for Sabbath observance. Idolatry could hardly be tolerated. These additional issues were not addressed in any ecumenical council in the way that circumcision was. The New Testament Acts of the Apostles indicates however that James the brother of Jesus wrote to the Gentiles in Syria and Cilicia advising them to abide by certain kosher food rules such as not eating meat with blood in it or consuming meat from animals that had been strangled (Acts 15:23-29).

As groups of Christ-followers began to proliferate around the Roman empire, they came to be known as Christians, probably late in the first or early in the second century. Gentile members found much about Jesus’s teachings attractive and much about Judaism compelling. But many things about Judaism seemed out of reach or even inapplicable to them. For example, Gentiles were not allowed in the Jerusalem temple (destroyed in 70 CE) to offer sacrifices; therefore, Torah’s temple rules held no meaning for them. And though Gentiles were familiar with the idea of ritual purity, many of the Jewish rules for purity seemed foreign to them. Even Sabbath observance presented an often insurmountable problem for people who wanted to keep their jobs in a culture that demanded work seven days a week.

So how were these “not-quite-Jews but no-longer-pagans” supposed to understand and comply with the traditions laid down within a Judaism that they were now also heirs to? This problem refused to go away and many approaches were tried in the early Christian centuries in order to come to terms with the Jewish origin of the Christ-faith.

Some examples from the pages of Christian literature produced in the second-century help to bring forward the issues and show how various Christian writers (the elite 5% or 10% of the population) coped with the Torah, with Jews, and with Judaism. One of the earliest such writers was Theophilus, a pagan convert to Christianity who seemed to take its Jewish origins seriously. In a letter to a Christian detractor known as Autolycus, Theophilus defended his Christian faith using the Mosaic law or Torah to do so. He wrote that God “gave a law and sent holy prophets to declare and teach the race of men…that there is one God” (2.34). He shows that he understood this law as including not only the ten commandments but Torah’s teachings against “fornication…avarice, false swearing, wrath, and every incontinence and uncleanness.” By obeying the Torah, he wrote, a person “who acts righteously shall escape the eternal punishments, and be thought worthy of the eternal life from God.” Note that while Theophilus does not address issues like circumcision, kashrut, or Sabbath observance, neither does he think of the law as a list of rules for Jews only. He equates obedience to Torah with salvation. In fact, for Theophilus, “concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God” (3.12).

By contrast, an utterly intolerant view was held by the author of the second-century apocryphal Letter of Barnabas. Presented as being written by Paul’s one-time Jewish companion, the letter is anything but friendly toward Jews or Judaism. Early in the letter, the author admonishes Gentile Christians to “watch yourselves now and do not become like some people [i.e., Jews] by piling up your sins, saying that the covenant is both theirs and ours. For it is ours…they permanently lost it…when they turned back to idols” (4.6-8) at the foot of Mt. Sinai while Moses was receiving the Torah from God. Since Moses smashed the tablets after seeing the golden calf being worshiped by some of the former Hebrew slaves of Egypt, Barnabas claimed that Jews were never God’s people and they had wasted centuries literally observing Torah when the commandments were meant allegorically.

Barnabas gives examples of his allegorical approach to Torah tackling the major barriers it presented to Gentiles. Focusing on circumcision, Barnabas says that God intended not the physical trimming of male foreskins but circumcision of hearing and of the heart. After all, he wrote, “every Syrian and Arab and all the priests of the idols are circumcised as well. So then, do those belong to their [i.e., the Jews’] covenant? Even the people of Egypt are circumcised!” (9.6). Moving on to dietary rules, Barnabas claims that these were not meant to restrain people from what they might eat but what people they could associate with. For example, when “Moses said, ‘Do not eat the pig’” he meant “’Do not cling to such people, who are pigs.’ That is to say they live in luxury” (10.1-3). In Barnabas’s understanding, “Moses received the covenant, but they [i.e., the Jews] were not worthy. Now learn how we [i.e., Christians] have received it…the Lord himself gave it to us” (14.4).

Around the middle of the second century, the pagan/Samaritan-turned-Christian Justin wrote some very important texts defending his belief in Christianity. He also wrote a dialog capturing a conversation he had, or claims to have had, with a Jewish teacher named Trypho. Justin is just as dismissive as Barnabas when it came to the value of male circumcision. He argued with Trypho that “the custom of circumcising the flesh, handed down from Abraham, was given to you [i.e., Jews] as a distinguishing mark, to set you off from other nations and from us Christians. The purpose of this was that you and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolate, and your cities ruined by fire” (16, emphasis added). Justin was referring to the results of the second Jewish revolt against Rome launched around 132 CE which, like the earlier revolt begun in 64 CE, ended in disaster and defeat for the Jewish people.

Justin’s argument against circumcision is not unlike that of Barnabas. He wrote that if “circumcision had been necessary for salvation, God would not have created Adam uncircumcised” (19). He became even more antagonistic when he wrote that “you Jews are a ruthless stupid, blind, and lame people, children in whom there is not faith” (27). Despite the hostility, Justin did allow that a person “professing Jesus to be the Christ…yet desires also to observe the commandments of the Mosaic Law…will be saved.” That is, “unless he exerts every effort to influence other people [i.e., Gentile Christians]…to practice the same [Jewish] rites as himself, informing them that they cannot be saved unless they do so” (47). Other “Gentiles who have been induced to follow the practices of the Jewish Law, and at the same time profess their faith in the Christ of God, will probably be saved” according to Justin’s privileged view.

Even less tolerant than Barnabas or Justin, and blatantly anti-Semitic as well, is the second-century bishop Melito from the city of Sardis. In his Passover homily to the church he blamed every Jew past and present for Jesus’s death on the cross. He asked, “Why, O Israel, did you do this strange injustice…You killed the one who made you to live” (73). In strident tones he wrote that “the one who hung the earth in space [i.e., God], is himself hanged; the one who fixed the heavens in place, is himself impaled; the one who firmly fixed all things, is himself firmly fixed to the tree. The Lord is insulted, God has been murdered, the King of Israel has been destroyed by the right hand of Israel” (96).

But all hope of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Jews was not yet lost. Sometime in the second century a Jewish Christian wrote a narrative about the teachings of the apostle Peter as he traveled up the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. The story is preserved for us in a fourth-century rendition now known as the Homilies attributed to Clement, supposedly the first or second Roman bishop. In this document we find a rare accommodation between Christians and Jews. “Peter” proclaims that “Jesus is concealed from the Hebrews who have received Moses as their teacher, and Moses hidden from those who believe Jesus. For since through both one and the same teaching becomes known, God accepts those who believe in one of them…Thus the Hebrews are not condemned because they did not know Jesus…and the offspring of the Gentiles are not judged, who…have not known Moses” (6.1-2; 7.2).

This refreshingly rare moment of toleration and respect was not to win the day, however. Once Christianity found imperial support with the emperor Constantine, the fortunes of Jews began to suffer even more. Constantine himself issued laws prohibiting Jews from marrying Christians and ordered the death penalty for any Christian who converted to Judaism. In establishing the timing of Easter as a national holiday, Constantine wrote, “it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews [i.e., Christian Jews who commemorated Easter in association with Passover], who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul…Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Savior a different way…Let us with one consent adopt this course, and withdraw ourselves from all participation in their baseness…For how should they be capable of forming a sound judgment, who, since their parricidal guilt in slaying their Lord, have been subject to the direction, not of reason, but of ungoverned passion, and are swayed by every impulse of the mad spirit that is in them?” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine 18). And so these feelings continued in one way or another for the next nearly two thousand years.


Theophilus to Autolycus by Marcus Dods in the Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 2.

The Epistle of Barnabas by Bart D. Ehrman in The Apostolic Fathers (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2003).

Justin: Dialogue with Trypho by Thomas Falls in Saint Justin Martyr (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press of America, 1977).

Melito of Sardis: “On the Passover” by Gerald F. Hawthorne in “A New English Translation of Melito’s Paschal Homily” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975).

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