In New Testament Gospels, Jesus is always at variance with groups that epitomize contrasting Jewish practices whatever their Scriptural origin: “Jewish Scribes,” “Jewish Pharisees,” “Jewish Sanhedrin.” Almost every statement attributed to Jesus is contrasted with an opposing statement or attitude attributed to “Scribes” and “Pharisees” (or “Jews” in St. John), whether or not such “disputes” had any religious substance, or reflected anything more than existing differences among Jews themselves.

St. Mark’s Gospel, which served as a major source for St. Matthew and St. Luke, initiated such confrontations. “The evangelist portrays Jesus as condoning the breaking of the Sabbath (2.23ff; 3.1–6). Jewish lustration practice [hand-washing] is disparaged as are other Jewish practices (7.1–23)” (Telford, pp. 125–126). According to many modern scholars, such disputes derive from Early Gentile Christianity’s need to denigrate Jewish (and Jewish-Christian) authority and attribute denial of Jewish Scriptural commandments to the historical Jesus.

E. P. Sanders (1985, p. 265) points out, “there was no substantial conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees with regard to Sabbath, food, and purity laws.” St. Matthew, in spite of many unsupported fulminations against Pharisees, has Jesus make remarkable statements: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (5.17–18). “The Scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it” (Ibid. 23.2–3).

In an extensive analysis of New Testament claims that Jesus was condemned by the Pharisees for flouting Jewish laws by curing the sick on the Sabbath, Collins points out (her emphasis), “no Pharisees or any other Jewish official was ever present at any of these cures.…No Jewish official would therefore have criticized the historical Jesus for performing a cure at the time of each event. There is moreover, also no reliable evidence that Jesus was ever criticized by any Jewish official after these events” (p. 202). “These facts completely exonerate the Pharisees from the long-held accusation that they watched, opposed and criticized Jesus, and even planned for his death because of his performance of Sabbath cures … neither the Pharisees nor any other Jewish official ever opposed any of the acts of healing and/or saving life that Jesus performed on the Sabbath day” (Ibid. pp. 435–436). “[F]rom the time of the edict of Mattathias the Maccabean and his colleagues in 167 B.C.E., the Jewish sages were always prepared to allow acts of healing and/or saving life which violate Jewish law” (Ibid. p. 439). Jewish sages followed the practice that “it is more important to heal and/or save life than it is to adhere to Jewish law itself” (Ibid. p. 446).

Rather than disputing Pharisees, Jesus’ attitude may well have echoed certain Pharisaic views that faith in God prevents illness. Nevertheless, neither Jesus’ “limited hand-washing” nor “healing on the Sabbath” extended into violating basic Scriptural principles, such as circumcision and eating pork — commands shared by Jesus’ disciples, as can be seen in St. Paul’s castigating Jewish Christian “Judaizers” (Note #17) and St. Peter (Galatians 2.14) for proposing that St. Paul’s “Gentiles live like Jews.” Interestingly, despite Gospel attacks on the Pharisees, it was Pharisees who protested the stoning of Jesus’ brother “James the Just,” leader of the Jerusalem’s Jesus believers, “and some of his companions,” resulting in replacement of the High Priest Ananus (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX:IX).

In all noteworthy respects, “analysis of the Synoptic tradition [the three New Testament Gospels other than St. John] shows Jesus was an observant Jew who did not directly oppose any significant aspect of the Torah. He was circumcised, he observed the Sabbath, he attended the synagogue, he taught from the Torah, he went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and celebrated the Jewish festivals, and he accepted the sacrifice at the temple” (Harlow, p. 259). “The simple but stern historical truth [is] that Jesus never once betrays the Judaism in which he was reared and never once implies that his friends and compatriots require a new religion” (Eckardt 1992, p. 40). “[N]o act of Jesus is against the Law, nor can any teaching be described as against the Law. … Opposition strictly on issues of the Law and its interpretation would have been no more serious than other debates of the time” (Efroymson 1993, p. 91). “[I]n all cases there is no serious evidence that Jesus’ view went beyond the boundaries of disputes known in early Judaism” (Crossley 2008, p. 9). In the words of J. Wellhausen, an acclaimed Biblical scholar: “Jesus was a Jew and not a Christian” (Vermes 2010, p. 21).

First century Jews, as today, argued over many religious rules and rituals, and Judaism accommodated many such differences. “Indeed, the existence of all kinds of sects and religious leaders was the norm of the day in the Second Temple period as we know from many sources” (Shiffman, p. 442). “Within Judaism, especially within Second Temple Judaism, most Jews were impressively tolerant of concepts that deviated from so-called Pharisaism” (Charlesworth 2013, p. 292). For example, we know that historic differences between Pharisaic and Sadducean interpretations of Jewish law extended from Hasmonean rule (150 B.C.E., Chilton et al., p. 20) to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (70 C.E.). The Essenes were another religiously partisan faction known for practicing a life style in which all property was held in common; and in requiring their members, not slaves, to perform the labor and menial tasks necessary for communal health and function. In general, Jews retained their Jewish identity as long as they followed Jewish Scriptural rules and principles. Burns (2016, p. 85) points out that despite professing unique ideologies and practices, the Pharisees did not “deny the Jewish identities of those who declined to join their groups. The same seems to have been the case for Sadducees, the Essenes, and, at least initially, those Christians who chose to live as Jews.”

With loss of the Temple, divergent concepts and beliefs persevered in century-long Rabbinical debates that replaced priestly authority. Varied views, arguments, and commentaries on “laws, rituals, and theology” (Chilton et al., p. 29) comprise the Rabbinical Talmud, which became a fundamental part of religious Judaism, reaching into the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. (S. J. D. Cohen 1992; Gafni).

At any given moment Jews practiced their religion in manifold different ways…The Judaism of the land of Israel was striated not only by numerous sects but also by numerous teachers and holy men, each with his band of supporters” (S. J. D. Cohen 1987, pp. 24–25). As indicated above, different and contentious as these sects were, all claimed to be “Jews,” and, in contrast to St. Paul’s Gentile Christianity, none denounced observance of Jewish Scriptural laws and rituals, and none believed that Gentiles replaced Jews in God’s favor. Nickelsburg and Stone observe (p. 12): “There was a great variety of groups, tendencies, and points of view, held together by certain common practices and allegiances, The Temple and the Sabbath, monotheism and the rejection of images, and reverence for the torah of Moses and circumcision.” Ancient Judaism “is a picture of variegated Judaism, a spectrum of many hues and blends” (Nickelsburg, p. 3) — none of which included Gentile Christianity.

Thus, although Jewish attitudes towards Jewish Christians may have hardened in the fifth century, accounting for Jewish Christian disappearance, the two Jewish groups seemed to have existed peacefully until then in the trans-Jordan Golan Heights (Daphine and Gibson, p.22; see also Joan Taylor). By contrast, “parting of the ways” between Gentile Christian churches and Jewish groups of any kind must have occurred much earlier, perhaps even before end of the first century — distinguished by St. Paul’s many fundamental innovations that far exceeded even the most liberal concepts of Jewish identity (Notes #2, #14).

S. J. D. Cohen (1987) points out: “Judaism, by contrast [to Christianity] has never had either a pope or church councils, and without these there is no objective criterion for the determination of ‘orthodoxy.’ The temple was the central authority against which sects defined themselves, but the high priests lacked sufficient power to be able to state which forms of Judaism were ‘orthodox’ or to exclude from the temple those Jews whose practices they condemned” (p. 136). “[N]o Jew of antiquity gave a creedal definition of Judaism” (Ibid. p. 103). In fact, the high priest, long ranked as a ceremonial functionary despite his authoritative religious title, had become no more than a political appointee, chosen with Roman collaboration to help maintain “public order.” Not surprisingly, after a rapid succession of failed appointees, the high priest involved in Jesus’ conviction and crucifixion, Caiaphas, was regarded sufficiently reliable by the Romans that he “remained in office for close to twenty years” (Baumgarten, p. 154).

Bound by common belief in the Torah (Note #7), Jewish accommodation to sectarians persisted under Rabbinical leadership even after the Temple’s 70 C.E. destruction. “Even as the sages of subsequent generations cultivated their halakhah [religious rules], the Jews on the whole possessed no formal regulatory agency whereby to measure one’s sense of Jewish identity against another’s. … Yet even … sectarians [who] disagreed with other Jews on points of practice and belief … generally agreed with one another on the imperative to maintain the religious and ethnic commitments of their ancestors” (Burns 2016, p. 91). The primary goal of criticizing other Jews, whether it occurred in the Jewish Scriptures or by Jewish Prophets, was to improve their countrymen’s behavior. Although some Christian Fathers belabor the issue (see, for example, Note #19), Jewish Biblical self-criticism was obviously not conceived by Jewish Scriptural writers to grant (non-existent!) Gentile Christianity superiority over Jews, but to achieve righteousness in Jewish countrymen.

However expressed in the Gospels, separating Jesus the Jew from his countrymen became essential for Gentile Christianity in separating itself from Jewish religion and Jewish ethnicity. St. John’s Gospel has his Jesus figure refer to the Torah as “your Law” (8.17, 10.34), or “their Law” (15.25), to the Jews who escaped from Egypt in the Exodus as “your ancestors” (6.49, 6.58, 8.56), and to others than Jesus’ disciples as “the Jews” (13.33, 18.36). Jesus’ welcoming countrymen who were following him into his new “Kingdom of God,” are presumptuously transformed into his mortal enemy — “the Jews” — who demand that Pontius Pilate put him to death. It is therefore quite possible for Gospel readers to believe that Jesus and his disciples, all bearing New Testament non-Jewish “Christian” names (e.g., James for Yaacov, Jesus for Yeshua, John for Yonah or Yonassan, Mary for Miriam, Matthew for Matisyahu, Peter for Shimon), and living as a sequestered group supposedly persecuted by “the Jews,” were not “Jews” or at most “temporary Jews.” To St. John’s readers, being “Christian” is not being “Jewish.”

Predictably, factors such as Jesus’ circumcision, a prime symbol of Jewishness to Romans, became an embarrassment to Christian theologians who tried to explain it away as “…one more indignity that Christ suffered in order to redeem humanity” (Jacobs, p. 301). There have even been proposals not to allow Jesus a Jewish name at all — “Jesus’ name was, in fact, Jesus’ —since “Jesus’ is the only name given to him in the Greek New Testament (Arnal 2005, p. 29).

Hardly longer than a generation after Jesus’ death, Yeshua the Mashiach son of Yusuff and Miriam, attempting to liberate Jews from oppressors, became Jesus Christ the Son of God, liberating Gentiles from sin.