1
ST. PAUL'S LETTERS
AND JEWISH CHRISTIANS

However one looks at St. Paul as a renegade Jew or a Jew at heart the message that Gentile readers obtained from his letters was not to be identified as a Jew in any sense that the Roman world recognized. That is, no circumcision, no dietary laws, no Sabbath, Jewish holidays, and Temple observances. "You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted" (Galatians 4.10). Theological rationales St. Paul and other Christians used to justify these attitudes became significant in Gentile Christian doctrine, and some are briefly discussed in Notes #7, #10.5, #14, #17, #18, #19. The existential motive for St. Paul's message was clearly to attract Gentiles to belief in Jesus, as divine savior, without enduring those obstacles of Jewish Biblical practices followed by Jesus and his immediate disciples. St. Paul stigmatized Jewish practices as "rubbish" (Philippians 3.8; note that Greek usage of the term skybalon is not "rubbish" but includes "excrement," Kent, p. 145), making it quite easy for two millennia of readers to similarly stigmatize Jews and Judaism.

Nevertheless, we know that belief in Jesus was not unique to Gentile Christianity, since, at least for a time, one could be both a Jew and believer in Jesus as a Messiah (Note #15). On Jesus' death (ca. 30 C.E.), his Jewish followers founded an early "Jewish Christian" movement in Jerusalem led by a historical figure known as James the Just. "As has been asserted more than once, the leaders of the Jesus movement thought as Jews, lived as Jews, and shared the aspirations of their fellow Jews. They remained subconsciously attached to the Law of Moses and when in Jerusalem, they went on participating in Temple ceremonies, and also used the forecourt of the sanctuary for preaching. They considered themselves, a small chosen unit within the large body of the Jewish people, the biblical 'remnant' entrusted with the correct understanding of Judaism, thanks to the instruction received from God's special envoy, Jesus. Baptism, a rite of repentance and purification, and the regular participation in a communal meal assured their group identity. They were also recognizable, at least during the first phase of the movement in Jerusalem, by a freely undertaken practice of religious communism" (Vermes 2012, p. 81).

According to Tabor (pp. 39ff) and other scholars, the New Testament Letter of James bears concepts held by Jesus' Jewish disciples imploring Jesus followers not to abandon laws and commandments of the Jewish "Torah."

1.22: "Be doers of the [Torah's] word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves."

2.14: "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?"

2.17: "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead I by my works will show you my faith."

These sayings help show how distinct the separation between Jesus' Jewish followers who settled in Jerusalem, and St. Paul, who promulgated concepts completely opposite. It indicates that the supposed "Jerusalem Conference" between the two groups, signifying St. James' agreement of St. Paul's mission to abandon Jewish practices, is probably fictional, created by St. Paul and St. Luke (ascribed author of Acts of the Apostles) to forge an unbroken link between Jesus' Jewish disciples and St. Paul's Gentile Christians. (Note #10.2). Other remaining documents that may have been influenced by Jewish Jesus-believers are in an early record, The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Vermes 2012, pp. 136148; Milavec) and in a "Pseudo-Clementine" literature known from fifth century Latin translations (Burns 2016, pp. 149―156).

The letters of St. Paul show that within a generation after Jesus' death, differences in adherence to Jewish practices led to serious disputes between Jewish Christians and their Gentile Christian colleagues. In Rome's early Christian church, for example, members obeying Biblical laws were actively derided, and were characterized by St. Paul as Christians "weak/sickly in faith" (Note #10.4); and Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile church members also adhere to Jewish practices were denounced as "Judaizers" (Note #17).

In Jerusalem and other cities, Jewish Christians, who organized assemblies of their own, such as that of James the Just, remained isolated from "orthodox" Gentile Christian churches, disappearing from view by the fourth or fifth centuries. Names given to these extinct Jewish-Christian groups included "Nazoreans," "Ebionites," "Elchasaites," and so forth. Each group, depending on its description by a Christian historian, professed distinctive Jewish-Christian beliefs and practices (Luomanen, see also Horrell 2000). Nonetheless, whatever their denomination, Jewish Christians were, in due course, officially labeled "heretics" by Gentile Christian Fathers (Eusebius, ca. 330, Ecclesiastical History 3.27).

It would seem that the Gentile Christian church did not oppose Jewish Christian belief that Jesus was a Messiah but objected to Jewish Christian religious practices in which a "Christian" can also be a "Jew." Acts of the Apostles (21.21) may have obliquely credited St. Paul with beginning this process by being accused in a visit to Jerusalem: "They [Jews] have been told that you teach all the [Jesus-believing?] Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs." In St. Jerome's words (ca. 400, Epistles 112.13): "Since they want to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians." Or, as stated by St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 100), "It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize" (Letter to the Magnesians X, ANF vol. 1, p.62). "If anyone preach the Jewish law unto you, listen not to him" (Ibid. Letter to the Philadelphians VI, p. 82). In St. John's Gospel (8.3159), believers in Jesus who hold on to Jewish themes and practices are lumped together with non-believers as responsible for Jesus' persecution and death. One can ask why Gentile Jesus-believers who chose not to follow Jewish practices must be unconditionally opposed to Jewish practices of Jews by Gentiles who also believed in Jesus an unremitting antagonism that extended to Jewishness of any sort. To the Gentile Christian Fathers, Gentile Christians were not only to be non-Jewish but anti-Jewish.

Even earlier than Eusebius, Christians who followed Jewish practices were declared "heretics" by St. Irenaeus (ca. 180), who was among the first to establish Christian "orthodoxy" from prevailing varieties of Christian belief. To St. Irenaeus, Jews and their practices had no more standing than the Biblical Esau in the book of Genesis, from whom God's favor and his father's (Isaac's) blessing was usurped by his brother Jacob (now identified as Christian!) (ANF vol. 1, p. 493; Freeman, p. 157; see also Note #19).

Thus, although the Jewish followers of Jesus are commonly placed under the modern rubric "Jewish Christians," the name would really be an oxymoron for that time, since Gentile Christianity excluded being a simultaneous practicing Jew and Christian, and it was the Gentile Church that defined "Christianity." Moreover, Christianity's differences from Jews of any kind, Jesus followers or not, proceeded on many levels: not only in discarding Jewish practices, but in its adoption of distinctively different customs and precepts. These include the communal ceremony of symbolically eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood (Note #11.f), and the elaborate theology ("Christology") of proclaiming Jesus' membership in a "Holy Trinity" in which he shares creation of the universe with God (Note #11.b).

As indicated above, practicing Jews who believed in Jesus as a "Jewish" Messiah were identified by Christian historians as other than "Christian."