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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Revital Bat Lea

A Jewish Look at Christian Beginnings

Paul advances the idea of preferring an organization, a sect, a particular ideology to the natural framework of family, land, nation, and language. Henceforth, he who joins this movement will be redeemed; non-members are doomed to eternal perdition.


Rabbi Ze'ev Sultanowitz

2 min read
1. The Crisis
2. A New Covenant
3. The Christian Ethic
4. The Son of God
5. The Spread of Christianity

The Crisis
In our previous study we discussed a period of crisis and change that affected Hellenist and Jewish cultures alike. We witnessed the burgeoning of the new sect, Jewish at its inception and bearing patently Jewish features, a sect that was in all respects the product of an inner crisis, of that rifting and fragmentation, that consternation and weakness which had befallen Judah in its confrontation with foreign culture.

This sect was denied entrance into Israel. Some of its elements, however, became a spiritual-ethical alternative to the difficult, profound, and important questions that grew ever pressing in the large Roman Empire. The fundamental question was one of ethics and human dignity.

As was the case in the entire ancient word, the Roman Empire's main workforce comprised of slaves. The slave in Roman law was defined as a "speech-endowed object." That is, not so unlike a plow, which is a "non-talking object," the slave too is an object - but a talking one. True, this situation caused problems, but it made things easier when it came to communicating with this "object" and mobilizing it for various tasks.

This definition in Roman law created a well-nigh unbearable state for the masses: From an economic standpoint they were slaves, yet they never even had a chance to be human beings. These were not the sort of people sold into slavery because of dereliction, debts, or theft. Many of them, and perhaps the great majority of them, were war booty. They were members of those nations which the Roman army had vanquished and subdued by virtue of its experience and its superior strategic and tactical methods.

Nations and tribes who sought no more than independence fell prey to Roman expansionist policy. The best of the young fighters were taken into captivity and made into slaves of the type we have been discussing, with no spark of hope for the future.

This situation bred, of course, large-scale slave insurrections in Rome, revolts which at their height even threated the existence of the empire. The insurrection led by Spartacus is well known. As a slave, he was sold for amusement purposes, and he eventually became a gladiator because of his outstanding ability as a warrior. Some slaves were like this leader. They learned and honed their ability to handle weapons and then became leaders of the revolting slaves. Their physical prowess and their dexterity as warriors benefited them.

All of these insurrections failed in the end; the Roman army succeeded in prevailing over them and restoring order. However, dissatisfaction with the general culture even in the upper strata of Roman society continued to ferment. In Rome, horrible and indiscriminate suppression of slave-people prevailed. Not only did these subjects have the poor fortune of having fallen into captivity, but even their very existence were unbearable.

Parents were separated from children, brothers from brothers, husbands from wives. A Roman who wished to buy a maidservant did not care if she was married or not, if she had children or not. He was interested in the woman alone without her children and husband. Human tragedies by the thousands and tens of thousands were everyday events in the slave markets of Rome. An intricate system supported by law and run according to rules the of trade continued for hundreds of years. All of this created a sturdy infrastructure of indignation.

Sometimes, when analyzing historical events and periods it is possible to point to a particular incident played out on a certain date at a certain hour by a certain individual. The relative ease in identifying such events leads us to explain entire periods based upon them. Here, however, we are witness to a phenomenon which cannot be explained according to a particular historical incident. Here, we are talking about accrued anger, bitterness, and dissatisfaction harbored by very broad stratum of society. The large majority of these people were born as slaves and died in suffering as slaves.

This state of affairs brought a crucial turning point, a turning point which led to the creation of startling conditions - a desire on the part of large communities to follow a different and completely new religion, new in its values and in its underpinnings. Idolatry was jettisoned in favor of something new.

The Christian message arrived at precisely the right time and in exactly the right place. It announced the moral principal that every person is created in God's image; it said that there is only one God. According to Christianity one could not claim that the slave was created in the image of an inferior God while the master was created in the image of a higher, more prestigious God. There is only one God and every person has been created in His image, slave and master, rich and poor, young and old, fighter and fainthearted, all are equal in this respect.

This was an unprecedented moral tiding. It created a foundation for hope and change. The Christian message created a illusion of imminent change, of "Here, here, the Kingdom of Heaven is coming to replace the earthly kingdom!" - and the earthly kingdom, of course, was the Kingdom of Rome. It would now be easy for every poor, hapless, and downtrodden person to enter the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven; for the rich and the slave masters, however, it would be very difficult. The latter would have to crawl and squeeze their way in.

Here, then, was a thoroughgoing upheaval of values. Christianity began to spread to slave communities throughout the Roman Empire. It first took hold in those places where the slaves themselves were located, like Greece, Egypt, Armenia. There, the enslavement was two-fold - not only was the population enslaved, the land itself was occupied. Later, the message reached Rome as well.

It should be added that a portion of the Roman nobility was made up of enlightened and sensitive people who were likewise dissatisfied with their culture and religion. They too were unhappy about the treatment of slaves, despite the fact that they employed slaves like everybody else. These nobles too embraced the new tiding.

A New Covenant
In this manner a new movement sprang up which, though born of Judaism, was for the most part not accepted amongst the Jews. Of course, the question arises: Should those who join this movement be regarded as converts to Judaism? Do these hundreds of thousands of people who so willingly embraced the Christian idea become Jews?

This question did not trouble the Jewish sages, perhaps because in practice these Christians never took up the observance of Torah commandments, and they never intended to. (They only adopted certain individual precepts such as Sabbath, the day of rest which underscored the equality of all people, the need for occasional respite, and the importance of humane treatment.)

For Christian ideologues, however, this was a central question. We have mentioned the fact that Shaul (who would later to be known as Paul) became Christianity's head ideologue. In his various epistles, some of which have been preserved in the Christian tradition, he ruled that there was no need for a complete conversion (which would mean circumcision for men); immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath) was sufficient.

According to this new faith, there was no need for the observance of commandments; the spirit and general intention to attach oneself to Judaism would be enough. Here an important concept was born: the idea of a "new covenant." All are familiar with the covenant between God and Israel, yet what was the nature of this covenant with these people who on the one hand were not Jews, yet on the other were not idolaters? How should they be regarded? The term "new covenant" was created in order to signify the covenant between God and these new members. (Here we are referring to "new covenant" as a term, not the corpus today known as the "New Testament" which took form much later.)

The Christian house of prayer was given the name "knessia" in Hebrew. This is a Hebrew translation of a Greek term which itself was translated from Hebrew. The concept of "Knesset Yisrael" (lit. "the Assembly of Israel") is a Hebrew one. This new movement decided to call itself "Knesset" as well. They saw themselves as having gathered to forge a covenant with God just like the Jews. They claimed to have received their message from God, and therefore they called themselves "Ecclesia." The "Knesset Yisrael" of the first covenant was the Jewish people. They gathered together and accepted the covenant. From now on, said the Christians, a new people has entered into a new covenant with God, and they will be called "the Knessia" (in English, "the Church").

For the first time in the history of human culture, at least according to written sources, Paul announces the abolishment of nationalism. He says, "There is no Jew, and there is no Hellene." However, there are members of the Church, and there are those who not members of the Church. Something like this existed among the people of Kumran, yet they never considered turning to the non-Jews. For them, some of the Jews themselves were seen as "children of the darkness," so they must certainly have viewed the non-Jews as utterly impure.

Paul advances for the first time the idea of preferring an organization, a sect, a particular ideology, as opposed to the natural framework of family, land, nation, and language. Henceforth, he who joins to this movement will be redeemed; non-members will be sentenced to eternal perdition.

Since that time, many more Jews have arisen announcing the ideal of pan-nationalism, the belief that nationalism is worthless and that man's central role involves espousing a certain ideal or organization.

The Christian Ethic
As the Christian idea took shape, it adopted an extremist approach to human morality compared to the accepted Jewish ethic, one which was almost impossible to actualize. It is announced that a poor person takes preference over a rich person by virtue of his poverty alone.

In fact, the Torah itself rejects such a view when it tells us, "Nor shall you favor a poor man in his cause" (Exodus 23:3), i.e., do not be impressed by the fact that a person is poor; this does not necessarily prove his virtue. The Torah understands that there is a certain psychological tendency to view a poor person as hapless, in need of mercy and compassion, and to want to give him preference over a wealthy person. We are therefore commanded not to prefer him because of his poverty.

Christianity overruled this verse. The idea was nullified. The destitute would forever be given priority over the rich, the hapless over the happy, the slave over the master. The ethical idea in this particular development overrides law and justice. Justice means maintaining a state of basic equality between all people. Here, inequality is created.

Sociologists and psychologists would view this development as an attempt at corrective inequality, corrective discrimination. These hapless people suffered so severely that they really deserved to be pampered. Corrective discrimination can be a valuable social tool when it is limited and circumscribed to a fixed period of time. There must be an awareness of its purpose; if there is no awareness, it goes from being corrective discrimination to actual discrimination.

The foremost role of law and justice is to settle discrepancies and disagreements, yet if law and justice are discontinued, how will it be possible to settle disagreements between parties?

This is where the idea of sweeping forgiveness comes in. Somebody took something from you? So what. In fact, if anything remains, give it to him as well. After all, whatever you have is a gift from God. It was not yours to begin with. A person must be renounce all. If all humanity relinquishes its belongings, there will no longer be any disagreements; there will be no need for law, no need for justice. This idea comes in response to a certain problem. This ethic contains some logic. In practice it does not work, but as a rationale it stands.

The Son of God
Thereafter, we arrive at a kind of novelty of post-Paul Christianity. Initially, Christianity announced an imminent upheaval in which the oppressed and downtrodden are saved. Who will bring this about? A certain person crowned as the king, the Messiah. The non-Jews did not know exactly what was meant by Messiah, so they concluded that he would be a king who performs kindness. However, we are talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. Who is the king if not God himself! And if not God, then His son. The family matters will be worked out later . . .

This, then, is how the concept of the Kingdom of God was born. Yet a tragic thing happened. Not only did these tidings not materialize, but the same person destined to be king was caught by the Roman government and killed. Now it had to be established if the tidings would soon be fulfilled or if everything was just a lie.

Following this event, two fundamental and central ideas were born which continue to constitute the foundation of the Christian church until today. The first was the idea of the resurrection, that this man was not killed at all. True, there were people who saw him crucified and buried, but afterwards the corpse disappeared, so that there was no proof that he died. It follows that everything he said can materialize at any time. It is not clear where he is, but this is not important. The important thing is that he is alive. This is the first concept, that there will be a second coming - and the Christian world still awaits this second coming of their savior.

The second idea is much more spiritual and moving. Therefore, the first myth, despite its existence, is superseded by the second. The second myth is that the death of the savior was a kind of atonement for the basic sin of man, in order to bring him to his redemption. This death was not fortuitous.

This is a very profound idea, important and moving. It is the idea of expiation, and the acceptance of suffering on behalf of something. Thus it relates also to the idea of sweeping forgiveness. A person must forgo his property and possibly even his life for the sake of his fellow, as the first redeemer did in order to redeem humankind. God sacrificed his son in order to redeem lowly man and give him the possibility of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is a moving story, and therefore the Christians set up very touching pictures and images of the torment of the cross in all of their churches. A person who arrived at a church was met with the example of he who gave his life and his wealth for the sake of humanity, who suffered for the sake of humanity. Therefore, went the argument, we too must behave like him. This is a persuasive idea.

In practice, Christianity was unable to improve the plight of the poor, the hapless, the downtrodden, the enslaved. It was possible to give them hope, it was possible to encourage people to join a more pleasant community, but it was impossible to free them from slavery and make them happy.

Christianity gave meaning to suffering. A slave who was persecuted by his master, who was bereft of all and separated from his family, no doubt asked himself: What is this life worth? What sort of existence is this? Along comes the church and gives it all meaning. By suffering, one becomes like the redeemer himself.

It must be remembered, however, that from a moral standpoint there is a profound difference between redeemer and slave, and this receives expression in the history of Christianity and the Christian peoples: The slave did not choose his hardships; quite the contrary, he would have been more than happy to be freed of these sufferings. Therefore, when the first opportunity offered itself, the slave would flee himself from slavery and even become a crueler master than his own.

But, so long as it was impossible to free oneself from hardship, the Christian idea was able to provide comfort. Therefore, in practice, Christianity did not mend as much morally as its leaders and founders had intended.

The Spread of Christianity
Throughout the Roman Empire, Christian communities were formed, communities of salves for the most part. These communities were persecuted by the Roman authorities because their ideas challenged the Roman law, challenged the hallowed legitimacy of Roman authority and the authority of Caesar who was considered a God. (True, he was not always considered an actual God, but he had chances of entering such a category.)

This was not a mere faith in some idol; it was a revolutionary idea. Therefore, these early Christians were persecuted to the bitter end, and because they were slaves they were also sentenced to death. Despite this, the movement grew stronger throughout Europe. It separated itself from the Jewish national and conceptual infrastructure.

As said, according to Christianity there was no longer any value to the observance of commandments. There remained no more than a vestige of the Sabbath as a day of rest, and they later shifted it to Sunday in order to distinguish themselves from the Jews. (Islam thereafter had to distinguish itself from both Judaism and Christianity. They considered the Christians foolish for choosing Sunday - a day later than the Jews - and promptly took Friday for themselves. This was meant to demonstrate their superiority: While the Jews are yet preparing for their Sabbath, the Muslims are already in the midst of it. This approach characterizes a number of Islam's laws. For example, the Islamic obligation to pray five times a day stems from the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Jews pray five times in one day only once a year, but Muslims do this every day. Similarly, according to Judaism, only Nazirites are prohibited from drinking wine; in Islam, all are forbidden from drinking wine.)

Christianity became a distinct religion, unique and new, with its own mythology revolving around a central personality. The Christian theology focused upon its central figure, i.e., the personality of the son of flesh and blood, not the God - the father, as they referred to him.

Officially, more enlightened Christians were always aware that the central figure was really that of the father. It was difficult for them to manage the other characters: the son, the Holy Ghost, and then the mother, not quite divine but nonetheless important (later, uncles were added, and aunts, and other relatives . . . ). Yet, as said, the central figure in Christian theology was the figure of the redeemer, the suffering son who dies and is resurrected, the one who sacrifices himself for the sake of humanity.

This, then, was a new religion. It had not only disengaged itself from Judaism but had even become hostile to it. Initially, hostility came from those Jews who after joining this sect were not accepted by their Jewish brethren. However, the hostility grew, and eventually a position was established declaring the general guilt of the Jews for the killing of Christ.

The Jews betrayed him and did not accept him, said the Christians, and in this manner had sentenced him to death and suffering. Therefore, all of the Jews are guilty. This position took shape in actuality only after Christianity was the ruling religion in Rome, however its first sprouts appeared already prior to this. The disengagement from Judaism also spelled antagonism to Judaism. This antagonism was to have grave repercussions for the Jewish people in Christian lands.

How did Judaism relate to Christianity? When the danger grew, it responded with non-acceptance and reservation. Ideas of imminent redemption, ethics that went beyond the Torah, and exaggerated righteousness could have found their way into peoples hearts. Then, Shmuel HaKatan instituted the "Blessing of the Heretics," the nineteenth benediction in the daily Amida prayer. This "blessing" (actually a curse) was added in order to remove these Jewish converts to Christianity from the synagogues and communities. It would force them to decide whether they wished to remain part of the Jewish community or not.

It would seem that, from a Jewish standpoint, this was the decisive factor in removing Jews-cum-Christians from the Jewish communities. They at any rate were not very many, and this blessing put an end to the threat of their spreading amongst Jews. Only then did Christianity shift its focus entirely upon non-Jews, and with them there were no real theological obstacles. This was already a new and separate religion, acting in the world with no direct connection to Judaism. Judaism had ceased to be a real source of inspiration.

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