Office Hours: The Parting of the Ways of Christianity from Judaism

From Dr. Ari Finkelstein, Associate Professor of Judaic Studies

It is commonly understood that Christianity grew out of its parent Judaism. Jesus himself was a Jew, and the gospels record his arguments with Pharisees and other leading Jews over matters of Jewish law. But soon after, his disciple, Paul, formerly Saul the Pharisee, converted Gentiles to Christianity without requiring that they follow the Law of Moses. 

For much of the twentieth century, the regnant understanding of the separation of Christianity from Judaism, a model which became known as the “Parting of the Ways” was said to have begun with Paul and completed sometime between the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and no later than the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE). But recent scholarship has called the Parting of the Ways paradigm into question. Some have disputed the very idea of Christianity growing out of Judaism. 

Scholars now believe that Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity grew as parallel traditions out of Second Temple Judaism, which itself was a variegated phenomenon. Moreover, scholars now understand that rabbinic claims to Jewish leadership did not take root in Yavne following the destruction of the temple but rather took centuries to develop. Instead, there were many ways of being Jewish in the post-destruction era and we are better off investigating Jewish life in specific regions and in specific periods. 

A second parallel and important observation is that there were many Christianities that existed in the centuries before the Roman Empire became Christian. Christian groups like the Ebionites and Elkasties as well as followers of Cerinthus followed various parts of “Jewish” law. Other Christians had close relationships with Jews, attending synagogues on the Sabbath and festivals, studying the Old Testament, even while they believed in Jesus and attended church services. So pervasive were these tendencies in the city of Syrian Antioch in the 380s CE that then priest and future bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, devoted several homilies castigating Christians for attending synagogue services, dancing in the streets with Jews during Jewish festivals, and requiring their business partners to swear oaths in the synagogue because they believed that the Old Testament written in scrolls in their original Hebrew were holier than their Christian New Testaments written in Greek books. In these Christian eyes this made the synagogue holier that the church. 

Other documents written and/or circulating in Antioch in the same decade show that some churches adopted Jewish prayers, making their congregants who attended the synagogue more comfortable, while castigating Christian leaders for keeping the Jewish sabbath and accepting unleavened bread from the Jews on Passover. Another Christian document circulating in Antioch in this period argued that there were two pathways to salvation: belief in Jesus and keeping the law of Moses so long as those that did so did not castigate Christ. Apparently, there was room for both in their church. Antioch was not the only place where Christians and Jews shared close relations. Fourth century Christian synods met and legislated against those who kept Easter according to the Jewish calendar, or, kept dietary or ritual purity laws. Such examples include the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century and the Council of Laodicea in 361. It seems Christians and Jews lived and got along well side by side, without fully parting ways. 

What finally broke the amity between the two communities was the drive towards Christian orthodoxy supported by Emperor Theodosius I, who issued his Cunctos Populos in 380, declaring Nicene Christianity orthodox Christianity. This led to the persecution of all other Christianities now deemed heretical by the Roman-Byzantine state. One result was that Christian authorities like John Chrysostom attempted to pull Christians away from Judaism and what he deemed Judaizing practices. To do so he cast Jews as devils and their synagogues as satanic, hoping to change Christian perceptions of Jews and their holy places. Anti-Jewish laws began to be passed. Later in his life Chrysostom admitted to failure. Apparently, it was not so easy to change Christian perceptions of Jews. Nevertheless, over time Christian perceptions of Jews did change and one can then talk about a true parting of the ways, at least in Antioch and in most places in the empire. If nothing else, clarifying our understanding of the parting of Christianity from Judaism sheds light on the origins of antisemitism and offers us models of better intercommunal relations.