The Rise of Christianity

The rise of Christianity occurred during the extremely tumultuous period we have been studying, the Herodian Era.

The rabbis, for their own reasons, largely ignored the phenomenon, even though early Christianity began as a Jewish religion and all of its founders were Jewish. The Talmud contains very little material about Christianity, and what it had was deleted by Christian censors over the ages. However, the Amsterdam edition of the Talmud, as well as the Diktukei Sofrim (which, for a long time, was a hidden manuscript containing records of the pre-censored Talmud), contains about three pages of material (out of 2,711 pages total in the Talmud).

In short, the method that the rabbis chose to deal with early Christianity was largely to ignore it.

The second contemporary source that it could have taught us something about the rise of Christianity was Josephus, who wrote a number of great, historical works: The Antiquities of the Jews, The Wars of the Jews, Contra Apion, etc. Nevertheless, the books of Josephus ultimately landed in the hands of the Catholic Church and most scholars agree that the Christological references in them were not in the original version of Josephus. In other words, the books have been tampered with. Therefore, it is hard to know what the books said.

What do know is that Christianity arose in a very tumultuous period when the Jewish world was caught under the heel of a brutal and immoral Roman culture, and was itself plagued by movements and groups which not only fractured it even further but often did so under the guise of saving the Jewish people. To better understand the rise Christianity, then, it is important to understand some of the cultural and ideological undercurrents washing about, to and fro, in the Jewish world at that time.

The Philo Component

The majority of the population followed the Pharisees, Josephus writes (Antiquities 13:10). The Pharisees were not just another sect, therefore; they were the people. They also represented normative Judaism. They believed in Torah and were even prepared to exchange Jewish national independence for the survival of the Jewish people and the Torah, if need be.

Along with the Pharisees existed three groups that warred with each other. One was the Sicarii, which is Latin for “dagger.” Today we would call them the Jewish mafia. They were gangsters who went around robbing and extorting everyone. They were a state within a state. Many of them outwardly observed aspects of Jewish life. However, it was only the thinnest veneer.

The second group was the Zealots, who were extreme nationalists that wanted to free the Jewish people from the oppression of Rome – and who were convinced, somehow, that they had the strength to do it and drive Rome out of Judea.

The third group collaborated with Rome in much the same way that the Hellenists had collaborated with the Greeks some two centuries earlier. They were convinced that the future of the Jewish people lay with Rome. Their spiritual mentor was Philo[1] (c. 20 BCE to 40 CE), known as one of the primary philosophers of the time. He came from the multi-national city of Alexandria, renowned internationally for its commerce and a library that housed every book known to humanity. His philosophy sought to bridge the gap between and synthesize the ideas of Judaism and Rome.

He wrote in Greek and authored a number of famous works, most of which are in existence today. In both Philo’s interpretation of the Bible and his books of philosophy he introduced the idea of allegory. Allegory suggests, in effect, that one need not take the story literally. It is meant to be an example of the idea that lies behind it.

Of course, many Torah books and commentaries by great Jewish scholars use allegory. Nevertheless, his use of allegory provided a base that the Christians were later able to capitalize on, a base for saying that the commandments were not meant literally. God does want you to wear a box on your arm and head, they said. What God wants is that you should remember Him. The box is not important; only the remembering is. If you can remember without the box you do not have to wear the box.

That has always been the danger of allegory. When you explain anything in the Torah in an allegorical fashion, many times you throw out the baby with the bathwater. History has proven that without the tangible commandment the idea also does not survive.

Philo’s philosophy influenced a sizable percentage of the Jewish people (particularly outside Judea), who consequently felt that the future of the Jewish people lay in the melding of the Jewish ideas with Roman ones. Therefore, when the early founders of Christianity would attempt to sell their ideas to the Roman world they found a ready audience, especially among those who favored the ideas of Philo.

Nevertheless, by itself, Philo’s philosophy would not have been enough to create Christianity. It would need to combine with the ideas of a different pre-Christian group to do so.

The Essenes

That group was the Essenes. They attempted to promote a lifestyle that they felt was extremely pious. In doing so, however, they engaged in practices that took them outside the scope of Judaism.

For instance, in their search for bodily and spiritual purification they took on the doctrine of celibacy. This was how the idea of celibacy entered Christianity. In essence, it equated the idea of a holy person with someone who does not marry. Marriage, by itself, is a defiled state. One of the consequences of the belief in celibacy – besides contradicting the first commandment in the Torah to “be fruitful and multiply” – was that they had to rely on recruiting new members to replenish their numbers. This predisposed them toward becoming a proselytizing religion, something which came to characterize Christianity and which Judaism is not.

The Essenes also believed in immersing in a mikvah (ritual bath) many times a day. That became the source for the idea of baptism in Christianity. In fact, John the Baptist was probably a member of the Essenes. The description in the Christian Gospels how he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River is a description of how the Essenes inducted a new member into their group.

The Essenes disavowed use of weapons in any way and believed that the use of arms, even in self-defense, was immoral. Unfortunately, their pacifism did not prevent many of them from getting killed by Herod.

The Messianic Element

During the time of Herod – and later during the times of Archelaus and Agrippas – there were numerous instances of individuals who presented themselves as the messiah. These were people who promised to deliver the Jewish people from the oppression of Rome and usher in the utopian world.

One of these messianic hopefuls attracted a group of the Essenes. This group built their ideas upon their messiah, whom they called Jesus of Nazareth. It is important to understand that, first and foremost, they saw themselves as a Jewish religion; it was not targeted for non-Jews. It was not a religion in any way intending to change the laws of the Torah. However, its message was that the time had arrived for the redemption of humanity, which would come about in a non-violent fashion.

The Romans, almost by force of habit, executed anyone who said he was the messiah. Of course, the Roman method of execution was crucifixion. This group of Essenes was shocked when their messiah was caught and crucified. Normally, that would have signaled the end of their movement. However, they transformed their “messiah” from a man into a god. Since he was a god, he was not really killed. (Yet, those who killed him were murderers. That’s very tricky theologically, of course, albeit not enough to stop later Christians from calling Jews “Christ-killers.”)

They then came up with the idea that the redemption of humanity would take place upon the return of their messiah. To the early Christians, his return was imminent. It was not a matter of centuries or even decades. It was going to happen right away.

However, as the years, decades and centuries stretched on with no utopian world in sight the return took on less importance. The theology changed from an imminent return to an unspecified return.

Peter and Paul

The early Christians were lead by a man named Peter, whose ideas were much closer to Judaism than any of the other apostles, especially Paul. Peter espoused the idea that his was a Jewish religion only meant for the Jews and that none of the commandments would be changed. Paul is the one who took Christianity and made it a non-Jewish religion for non-Jews.

Paul (whose real name was Saul[2]) came from the city of Tarshish, which was located in northern Lebanon. In his youth, he identified himself with the Pharisees. According to the Christian Gospels, he was converted to Christianity when he saw a vision of Jesus while walking on the road one day.

He was an enormously talented and ambitious person. Without Paul, Christianity would not exist today. He is its founder; the one who built and popularized it. And he did it all in a 30 year period — approximately between the years 30 and 60 of the Common Era. By 100 CE, Christianity was already a very strong movement throughout the Roman world.

He was a marvelous publicist who understood the power of the word – both written and spoken. He was indefatigable and traveled throughout the Roman Empire spreading Christianity by adopting the ideas of Philo, particularly his use of allegory to explain things. Allegorization solved the problem of commandments for him.

It was impossible to promote a popular religion in the non-Jewish world while at the same time telling them that they had to be circumcised, they could not work on the Sabbath, they had to stick to a strict diet and so forth. The ideas of Judaism were easy to sell. Paul’s problem was that whenever he got to the commandments he would lose his audience.

Peter was not willing to take anyone into his group who did not keep the commandments. Paul saw that there was very little future in that. Therefore, he jumped on the idea of allegory that Philo had popularized.

His line of reasoning when speaking to potential non-Jewish converts went basically as follows: Certainly the Torah wanted you to eat kosher, he would say, but that is only so that you should have purity of heart. However, if you believe, then you will have purity of heart. Therefore, you do not have to actually eat kosher.

Paul also promoted the doctrine of Supersessionism, the belief that the “New” Testament canceled the “Old” Testament. (Even use of the terms “New” and “Old” Testament was a very subtle but powerful way of selling the idea.) Until the time of Christianity, he said, the Old Testament was valid. One had to observe all the commandments. However, it was only a preparatory stage in the development of humankind. When that stage ended and Christianity began there was no necessity any longer for the commandments, observances and rituals. One could proceed directly to the heart of the matter, which is faith and love, etc.

When Paul first propounded these ideas he got a lukewarm reception among the Collaborationist Jews. However, when the rabbis caught on to what he was doing he got a very, very cold reception. Eventually, he got a violent reception. He writes how he was physically thrown out of many a synagogue in his life. This, unfortunately, will later on end up in the ball of wax of Christian anti-Semitism; Paul turned out to be a great Jew hater.

Paul and his followers eventually had no choice but to shop Christianity outside the Jewish people, which they did. Although Paul retained certain trappings of Jewish ritual and a great deal of Jewish thought, he had to marry it to a great deal of paganism, as well as Roman and Greek thought, which was prevalent at that time. That is how early Christianity evolved. It came to see Judaism as its main rival rather that its father, so to speak. Consequently, from the outset, the relationship between the two religions was not a friendly one.

Of course, the Romans did not like Christianity either, because it threatened their empire and system of government. Therefore, they persecuted the Christians, a persecution which lasted for more than two centuries. Often, Jews were not above helping in the persecution. Because of that, when the tide turned and Christianity took over the Roman Empire, it greatly expanded its anti-Jewish platform — a platform that at times would promote the most virulent forms of hatred of everything Jewish and which has plagued the relationship between Jews and Christians for more than 1800 years.

[1] His Hebrew name was Chaim.

[2] Shaul in Hebrew.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

3 Responses to “The Rise of Christianity”

  1. Eulyne Bancroft says:

    I am interested in doing the free course

  2. Berel Wein says:

    Thank you for your interest. To access the Crash Course, click on the “Crash Course” tab on top and scroll down to the bottom for each article. If you have further questions, please ask here.

  3. Leonard J. Gee says:

    I like your style of writng and clarity in today’s environment. Heard you speak as a guest speaker at the Kollel in Oak Park,Mich.. When will you be back? Have several of your tapes & books & am interested in The Rashi & Rambam DVD’s autographed by you as my others.