Separation of the Early Assembly

There are a variety of people that I encounter in my fellowship or at the feasts of YHVH. As I listen to what people have to say, I’m often surprised by the variety in belief that evolves as people leave traditional Christianity in search of something less pagan and more Biblically based. In addition, I’m surprised by what many who have been in this walk for several years believe as well, which is based on what they have been absorbing from various on-line Torah teachers and their own studies. Just because people have an on-line platform does not mean they are qualified to teach. We must have extreme discernment and test everything. Even after that is said and done, we must accept that people who read all of the same material may come away with a different interpretation. I have seen this time and time again.

There were at least two polar-opposite people with different beliefs regarding what happened to the Jewish and Gentiles believers of the early church in my assembly that eventually caused me to pursue this topic. I had already occasionally been wondering what happened to the Jewish believers in the early assembly and why the Gentile believers strayed so far from the original Scriptures. I’m not the only person with these thoughts running through my brain; scholars and laypersons have sought to know these things too, and they don’t always agree even after looking at the same material. Again, this problem is nothing new.

In case you are wondering, some scholars refer to this eventual separation of believing Jews and Gentiles as the parting of the ways. I have followed their lead by spending a lot of time trying to track an actual separation of believing Jews and Gentiles by reading Scripture, writings of the Early Church Fathers and others from the early centuries, as well as papers and books written by various people in current times. Having gone this route, I suspect the absolute truth of exactly what happened to the early Jewish assembly will always elude us, but I do think we can get close to the truth.

Initially, there were a variety of sects in Judaism; this is simply a result in differences of belief. We are familiar with the Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and Essenes, but the sect of the Nazarenes, also called the Way, was also one of them. So, in the first century, there were obviously Jews who believed Yeshua was the Messiah and those who didn’t.

In that time, Jews were referred to either as Hebrews (Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jews) or Hellenists (Greek-speaking Jews). As Jews, both of these groups would be Torah observant people. There was likely some adherence to oral traditions as well. The degree of Torah observance of both groups is hard to know precisely. However, it is highly probable that both groups also had been influenced by the culture of the Greeks – perhaps one group more so than the other. Unfortunately, the degree and impact of that influence in each group is hard to determine.

There were non-Jewish people living among the Jews as well; they were Greeks or Romans. Some of these pagans worshiped a variety of gods. However, there were also some of these who attended synagogues and were known as God-fearers. They observed much of Torah, but they were not circumcised like full proselytes were.

In addition, people were heavily influenced by the teachings of various schools of philosophy. In fact, many Early Church Fathers were originally philosophers, and this greatly impacted their belief system and what they passed on to the early assembly of believers in Yeshua. Having said that, many of those who had accepted Yeshua as Messiah sought to correct false philosophical beliefs, but we all know that purging out incorrect beliefs can be extremely difficult.

As you can see, there was a variety of people with language, religious, philosophical, and cultural differences co-existing together at that time. Yeshua came to teach people the way of YHVH in the midst of the often-opposing teachings of the house of Shammai and the house of Hillel. It is likely for that reason that those who followed Yeshua were initially called the Way.

The separation of the non-believing Jews from the Jews who believed in Yeshua did not take place at a precise time, but there were factors that fostered that separation at various times and places.

  • We have to remember that there was already a Jewish diaspora outside of Jerusalem as represented by those who attended the first Shavuot/Pentecost after Yeshua’s death in Acts. Those who came to believe that Yeshua is the Messiah would have gone home and operated as another sect of Judaism in their home countries – one believing that Yeshua is the Messiah. In addition, we know from Acts that believing assemblies of Jews and Gentiles had been formed as a result of the missionary efforts of Peter, Paul, and their associates. Peter and Paul died around 62-64 CE.
  • The time period around the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE is suggested as a starting point for separation because believing Jews fled to Pella around 66-67 CE, and non-believing Jewish leaders went to Yavneh (Jamnia). At least part of the believing group that fled to Pella later returned. The group of Jewish leaders who went to Yavne gave rise to what is known as Rabbinic Judaism, which is present today.
  • The time of the Bar Kokhba revolt, 132-136 CE, as another point of separation between believing and non-believing Jews. Jewish believers in Yeshua, at that time, refused to accept a different messiah and join non-believing Jews in the fight against the Romans.
  • Another contributory factor to the separation of believing and non-believing Jews is the Birkat haMinim, which is the Jewish curse on the heretics – the twelfth of the Eighteen Benedictions or Amidah. It is said that this was created at the Council of Yavneh in the late first century. From what I have learned, there were a few versions of this at one time.

Regarding a different separation – that of Jews and Gentiles in the early assembly – there is no clear-cut timeline of events, although there were some critical events that took place. It seems that Jewish and Gentile believers were often meeting together in Acts. Separation, at times, was possibly gradual and of varying degrees in different locations until it was more-or-less complete.

There were likely various factors that impacted what was constantly going on in and outside the believing assembly:

  • Paul was misunderstood, and many people were anti-Paul. This requires us to re-examine Paul’s writings very carefully. Those who do so come to realize that he was indeed pro-Torah. However, it seems that some of Paul’s reasoning over the issue of circumcision was inappropriately applied to other subjects as well by the Early Church Fathers.
  • The idea of the Noahide laws being for all Gentiles likely arose in these early years instead of being as old as it is claimed; this belief in Noahide laws is held by both Rabbinic Jews and various Torah observant believers in Yeshua today. However, the Torah repeatedly says that there is one law for both citizens and gerim (strangers) in their midst; a list of Noahide laws being strictly for Gentiles is just not Scriptural.
  • Persecution under various Roman emperors from 64-313 CE resulted in the martyrdom of both Jewish and Gentile believers, so it’s hard to say how much and in what way this may have been a factor for separation. Aside from differences in belief and practice, it’s probable this would have had more of a unifying force for faithfulness to God in the face of death.
  • Early bishops like Ignatius of Antioch strongly encouraged loyalty to a single bishop in each city; these bishops were assisted by both elders and deacons. Leaders such as Ignatius of Antioch (35-108/140), Justin Martyr (~100-165), Origen of Alexandria (184-253 CE), John Chrystosom (347-407 CE), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) were antisemitic and/or anti-Torah in their writings. It’s extremely hard to imagine Jewish believers listened to and submitted to that kind of rhetoric for very long. It’s likely the Jewish believers separated themselves from the Gentile believers; whether they did so quietly or vocally is anyone’s guess.
  • A transition from Jewish bishops to Gentile bishops occurred in Jerusalem when it became Aelia Capitolina in 135 CE. It is likely that this greatly impacted the belief and practice of the early assembly. During that time period, the Jews were generally forbidden to enter the city, and a foreign population was brought in to live there. The Jews who had been assembling in Jerusalem had to meet elsewhere and leave the Gentile believers behind.
  • Various heresies and philosophies cropped up in the early assemblies of believers. Not all who held to these beliefs were Torah observant. There was an ongoing struggle with a variety of Gnostic beliefs propagated by different people. There was also a wide variety in Christologies among various groups over the centuries. What is clear is that, at some point, heresies and schisms took place among Jewish and Gentile believers. It is evident that several “Torah observant groups” that persisted into later centuries, such as the Nasoreans (Notzrim), Ebionites, Nasaraeans, Elkasites, Symmachians, etc., had a variety of differences in belief and practice, and were eventually labeled as heresies. By the way, at some point, the Nasoreans (Notzrim) were lumped in with the Ebionites, but they were truly distinct in belief and practice. If I had to choose sides for who to worship and fellowship with, I’d go with the Notzrim instead of the Ebionites.
  • In 325 CE, the First Council of Nicea declared that Easter would be held on a Sunday, but it would not coincide with a particular lunar phase, so that it would not be related to the Pesach (Passover) of the Jews. This was met with resistance by the Syriac believers who always observed their festival on the Sunday after the Jews kept their Pesach; this is likely a reference to Nisan 14, and not the whole week of Unleavened Bread. Those in Alexandria and the rest of the Roman empire were ignoring the practice of the Jews. Jewish believers would have been keeping the Day of Firstfruits on its proper day and not separating from the original Jewish practice. It’s very hard to imagine that Jewish believers would have tolerated a connection between the Day of Firstfruits and the goddess Ishtar (Easter).
  • In 329 CE, Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus) ordained the death penalty for those who embraced the Jewish faith and those Jews versed in the Law who aided them. Jews who became Christians were “protected from fanaticism of their former coreligionists.” Marriages were forbidden between Christians and Jews; and the death penalty was imposed on those who did.[i]
  • In 364 CE, the Council of Laodicea was still trying to stamp out Torah observance and keep Gentiles from associating with the Jews.

Here are some quotes from the Canons of Laodicea[ii]:

  • XXIX. Christians must not judaize and rest on the Sabbath day, but work upon that day, and honour the Lord’s day, and, if they can, rest upon it as Christians; but if they are discovered judaizing, let them be anathema from Christ.
  • XXXVII. It is not allowed to receive the portions of feasts which are sent by Jews or Heretics, or to feast with them.
  • XXXVIII. It is not allowed to receive unleavened bread from the Jews, or to partake of their impiety.

The Apostolical Canons, also called the Ecclesiastical Canons of the Same Holy Apostles, is a fourth century Syrian Christian text. It mentions the following declarations:

  • VII. If any Bishop, Presbyter, or Deacon, shall celebrate the holy day of Easter before the vernal equinox, with the Jews, let him be deposed.
  • LXIV. If any Clergyman shall enter into a synagogue of Jews or Heretics to pray, let him be deposed. If a Layman do so, let him be excommunicated.
  • LXVI. If any of the Clergy be found fasting on the Lord’s day, or any Saturday, excepting the one [i. e. Easter-eve], let him be deposed. If a Layman, let him be excommunicated.
  • LXX. If any Bishop, Presbyter, or Deacon, or any one of the list of the Clergy, keeps fast or festival with the Jews, or receives from them any of the gifts of their feasts, as unleavened bread, or any such things, let him be deposed. If he be a Layman, let him be excommunicated.
  • LXXI. If any Christian brings oil into a temple of the heathen or into a synagogue of the Jews at their feasts, or lights lamps, let him be excommunicated.

As you can see, by this point in history, there was a strict effort to separate Torah observant Jews from believers in Messiah and to forbid Torah observance.

So, where does this knowledge leave us?

Clearly, believers in Yeshua Messiah should be Torah observant. We should understand how Yeshua interpreted Torah. He did not reject it. He helped us to see that we are to worship and honor God, as well as care for others. As a whole, the Scriptures seem to refer to obligations to those who are in the same covenant with God as we are; discernment should be exercised regarding treatment of those outside of the covenant.

We should accept the Tanakh as foundational to our faith. The Apostolic Scriptures provide additional information for us in our walk of faith, and they should be interpreted in light of what is found in the Tanakh. We should use extreme caution if and when we read other material written by Church Fathers or other factions in the early assembly because they are often not in-line with Torah.

For now, we should accept that we can’t always precisely identify what and where — inside and outside our canon of Scripture – is an interpolation or not. We can only take the various writings that we have available and compare them with the Torah that we have. We have to use all study techniques available to us, as well as intensive prayer, to know the truth and properly interpret Scripture, and thereby decide how to walk out our faith with fear and trembling.

Endnotes:

[i] Constantine I. (Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus): By: Richard Gottheil, Hermann Vogelstein http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4620-constantine-i-flavius-valerius-aurelius-constantinus

[ii] The Definitions of Faith, and Canons of Discipline, of the Six Gecumenical Councils, with the Remaining Canons of the Code of the Universal Church. Translated with notes to which are added the Apostolical canons. Rev. William Andrew Hammond, M.A. of Christ Church, Oxford. Oxford, John Henry Parker; Rivingtons, London-1843.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.