During the first century CE, the Land of Israel fell under Roman rule. Some Jews dreamed of a time when Jewish rule of the land would return, but others had an even bigger dream – the beginning of the Messianic Era. This dream would have consequences that no one could foresee.
While the Jews wouldn’t stage an outright revolt against their Roman overlords until 66 CE, tense undercurrents rippled through Eretz Yisrael during most of the century. But politics wasn’t the only topic vigorously discussed. The religious world was splintered into factions, with Pharisees, Sadducees, and Messianic groups such as the Essenes competing for the hearts and minds of the people.
Individual Jews with Messianic hopes and visions also appeared on the scene. The Roman-appointed rulers, always ready to brutally squash any disturbance that looked like it might lead to a full-scale rebellion, killed most of these leaders and muzzled their followers. Yet, there was one sect the Romans didn’t succeed in silencing: the followers of a Galilean Jew named Jesus.
It’s difficult to sort out the historical person from the figure who was later deified in the Christian bible. There is no contemporaneous account of his life in the Talmud; references to a Yeshua HaNotzri, Jesus of Nazareth, refer in one instance to someone who lived a few hundred years before the Jesus of the Christian faith, while the second instance concerns someone who lived a century after him. The few lines that appear in the book Antiquities of the Jews, written by the Jewish historian Josephus, are thought to have been added later by Christian theologians.
The first account written by one of Jesus’s followers, the Gospel of Mark, appears several decades after his death. The other three Gospels were written even later. Each retelling reflects the growing chasm between traditional Jews and followers of the new sect – and left its mark on the future relations between Christians and Jews.
From “Jews” to “The Jews”
All four accounts agree that Jesus was a Jew who preached to Jews. They differ, though, in many ways, including who was responsible for the events that led up to his death. According to liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan, as the story progresses through the Gospel accounts, the identity of the culprit “grows exponentially before our eyes.”
In the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, only a few influential priests, leaders from the Sanhedrin, and a “crowd” ask Pontius Pilate, the Roman-appointed governor of Judea, to try Jesus and find him guilty. The Gospel of Matthew, thought to be written between 80 and 90 CE, speaks first of “the crowd,” which becomes “the crowds” and then morphs into the all-encompassing “the people”; this Gospel also contains the infamous line where the Jewish people say, “His blood be upon us and our children,” which was later interpreted to mean that all Jews were guilty of deicide for all time. The Gospel of Luke, written around the same time, omits this line but does place the blame on “the priests, the leaders, and the people.”
Matters get even worse in the Gospel of John, thought to have been completed around the year 100 CE. Here there is no distinction between Sadducees and Pharisees, leaders or common people. There is only one culprit, “the Jews,” who act collectively throughout the narrative and are vilified whenever they are mentioned.
Also strange is the treatment of Pontius Pilate. Jewish writers Josephus and Philo describe the Roman governor as a brutal and violent tyrant. He was eventually replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans because his bosses back in Rome, who expected their appointed governors to maintain peace and quiet, were worried about all the uprisings in reaction to Pilate’s harsh rule. Why, then, do the authors of the Gospels portray Pilate as a reluctant and blameless participant in the drama, a weak ruler who is terrified of opposing “the Jews”? What’s behind this whitewashing of Rome and demonization of the Jewish people?
Disappointment in Defeat
The Gospels were written during one of the most tumultuous times in Jewish history, the period of the Great Revolt – which ended with the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash and the fall of Jerusalem – and the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt some 60 years later. Yet despite the loss of the Temple, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and the exile of much of the Jewish population, Judaism wasn’t destroyed. Under the leadership of the rabbanim, the Jews would not only survive the danger and pain of this still-present exile, we would thrive.
The Jews who clung to the cult that began to be constructed around Jesus after his death weren’t pleased. Not only were they unable to convince their brethren that they held the truth, they were branded as heretics and barred from the synagogues that had become the center of Jewish life after the churban. However, the Roman rulers still considered them a Jewish sect, and so the Christians saw themselves as having the worst of both worlds: Even while they were being shunned by their fellow Jews, they were being taxed and harassed like the rest of the Jewish community.
As the chasm between brother and brother widened, the arguments and accusations grew bitterer. Thus, in Mark when there was still a hope that the Jewish people would join the new faith, the harsh words were reserved for only a small portion of the people. By the time of John, it was clear that the vast majority of Jews had chosen to remain true to the Torah, and so the Gospel’s author condemned them all because of their obstinacy.
The sect might have disappeared along with the Essenes and other groups that ceased to exist after the disastrous Bar Kochba revolt if not for the activities of two men who would become some of the most important figures in Church history, a Jew from Tarsus named Shaul/Paul and a Jew from the Galilee named Shimon/Peter. And it is because of them that we discover one reason for the portrayal of Pontius Pilate as a sympathetic figure.
Parting of the Ways
Although Paul was born in present-day Turkey, at a young age he was sent to Jerusalem to learn Torah. A committed and zealous Jew, he considered the early Christian disciples heretics and, according to his own account, was involved in persecuting them. But while on the way to Damascus, a journey that’s thought to have taken place around 35 CE, he had a vision that made him change his beliefs and join the sect he had previously despised.
Peter had joined the sect early on and was one of the original twelve apostles. He was one of the first to convert a gentile to the sect, a centurion named Cornelius, an event that took place around 40 CE. A decade later, at the Council of Jerusalem, Peter, Paul, and other Christian leaders decided to actively seek converts among the gentiles. It was also decided that these gentile converts wouldn’t have to observe the mitzvos, including brit milah and kashrus, which had separated Jews from the rest of the world. They maintained that belief in Jesus was enough to win an eternal reward in heaven after death.
Paul, who knew Greek and was a Roman citizen, embarked on a series of missionizing journeys, which took him to Syria, Asia Minor, the Aegean and other places in the Roman Empire. He was very successful. The desperately poor – and there were tens of thousands of them scattered throughout the empire – were particularly receptive to his message. Thus, early on the seeds were sown for what would become an irreconcilable rift, with Torah-observant Jews standing on one side and gentile Christians on the other. Some historians speculate that this is one reason why Pontius Pilate gets off so easily in the Gospels; once the Christian sect shifted its focus to the gentiles, they didn’t want to offend potential converts by accusing a gentile of deicide.
Ironically, the Jewish Christians, now caught in the middle, became an insignificant minority in the new religion they had helped to found. For a while they prayed in their own spaces, separate from the gentiles, and maintained their own rites. But by the end of the second century, they had either returned to Judaism or severed all links and become absorbed into the gentile Church.
When in Rome
By the end of the first century, the Romans also viewed Judaism and Christianity as two separate religions. For instance, under Emperor Nerva (96-98 CE), Christians no longer had to pay the fiscus judaicus, a punitive tax imposed on the Jews of Eretz Yisrael after the Great Revolt. But even though the Christians were recognized as belonging to a new religion, at first they weren’t welcomed. They were becoming too numerous too quickly. Rome, ever anxious to preserve the stability of its state, began to persecute them.
Then in the year 312 CE the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. While many scholars doubt the sincerity of his conversion, Christianity became legal under his reign. In fact, at the Edict of Milan, held in 313 CE, Constantine declared that all religions were legal and everyone could worship whichever deity he chose.
That spirit of tolerance was short-lived. As Christianity became the increasingly dominant religion in the empire, Christian mobs began to attack those who had remained pagans, destroying their idols and temples. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official state religion and paganism was largely a thing of the past. But there was still one group that refused to submit to the new world order: the Jews.
The early Christian leaders had embraced the concept of Supersessionism early on. They viewed the destruction of the Second Temple as a heavenly sign that the Jewish people were being punished for rejecting Jesus; the Christians were now the “new” and “true” Israel. Yet, when the second century bishop Marcion of Sinope suggested a complete break with Christianity’s Jewish past – claiming that the deity mentioned in Tanach had no relation to the deity mentioned by Jesus – he was excommunicated by Church leaders. He had gone too far.
But what should be the relationship between the Jews and the Church in a new age when Christianity ruled? Augustine, an influential Christian thinker who lived during this era of change, argued that the Jews must be allowed to live – but not because of feelings of compassion for fellow human beings. He believed that the Jews’ adherence to the Torah demonstrated both the antiquity and authenticity of the “Old Testament,” which in his opinion contained prophecies pertaining to Jesus. As long as the Jews remained true to the Torah, no one could say that the “New Testament” was a forgery. The Jews were part of God’s plan, and that plan included their survival.
Although Augustine’s views were generally accepted, the question of Jewish survival in a Christian world posed a problem for later Christian theologians, as explained by Episcopal minister William Nicholls in his book Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate:
“… the very presence of the Jewish people in the world, continuing to believe in the faithfulness of God to the original covenant… puts a great question mark against Christian belief in a new covenant… The presence of this question, often buried deep in the Christian mind, could not fail to cause profound and gnawing anxiety. Anxiety usually leads to hostility.”
In Part III, we’ll see how that anxiety and hostility took hold in the medieval world.
Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate, William Nicholls, Jason Aronson, 1995.
From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Ktav Publishing, 1991.
“Free Crash Course in Jewish History: The Spread of Christianity,” Rabbi Berl Wein, Jewishhistory.org.
“History Crash Course” (No. 40 and 41), Rabbi Ken Shapiro, Aish.com.
“Passion Misplay,” Steven Waldman, Slate.com, Sept. 2003.
“The Origin of Christianity: Geza Vermes on the Transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles,” Noah Wiener, Biblical Archeology Society, Jan. 2017.
Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus, John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 1996.