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Becoming a Christian Church

June 11, 2016

The story of Pentecost in Acts is of the Holy Spirit transforming a large number of Jews into Followers of The Way. They were still Jews, accepting Jesus into their lives within their Jewish heritage and worship. But their lives were changed. In those early years of the first century (from about 32 to 90 CE), there were numerous sects within the Jewish religious culture, of which the Followers of the Way was one. Three major things happened to finally separate that early movement from the Synagogues into a “Christian” church.

First, as the new sect grew, the orthodox Jewish elders became increasingly critical especially of the claim that God was in Jesus, seemingly contradicting the strict “there is only one God” basic belief of the Jews and in spite of the insistence of the Jesus group of only one God. In fact, it took another 300 years for the Christian Church to finally and definitively state its answer in its Doctrine of the Trinity – which is still confusing to many modern Christians in spite of all the words in books and liturgy over the years.

Second, in 69 CE, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the whole Jewish focus was changed. No longer was Jerusalem or the Temple the center of Jewish life. The synagogue with the Rabbis became their centers. The Jesus sects that were still a part of a synagogue found themselves increasingly alienated. By 100 CE when the Gospel of John was written, it was clear that this particular group of Jesus followers had been by then forced out of their synagogue – by this time thought to be in Antioch. Many comments in John reflect their anger at their synagogue leaders who had rejected them – remarks that were later (and still are) broadened to include all Jews and a source of the unfortunate strong anti-Semitism of the later Christian church. In addition, the increasing anti-Semitism from Rome encouraged the early Christians to begin to dissociate themselves from Jewish identification.

Third, as Paul’s letters show, the early growth of the movement included large numbers of non-Jews, the so-called Gentiles, who had little or no experience with Jewish traditions which included circumcision for example. As a result, many of these early Christian groups developed without the Jewish heritage of the first ones, a process certainly supported by Paul in the very early years. In the synagogue, the stories of Jesus had been told along with the reading of the Torah, with Jesus now being described as the new Moses or the new Elijah, including their miracle stories now being associated with Jesus. But the Jewish understanding of these stories as rich metaphors and symbols for their relationship with God was lost, and the later Gentile church began to accept these stories literally. The Church Council creeds of the third century reflect the struggle over specific words and phrases as those first century writings were being read so literally.

Bishop John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal Bishop and Bible scholar, has written a new book, Biblical Literalism, A Gentile Heresy (2016) in which he shows how the Gospel of Matthew was very possibly written linked to the Jewish liturgical year. For Matthew, Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and his stories of Jesus are related to the Jewish Scripture (the Old Testament) as it was read Sabbath by Sabbath through the year. In this way, readings from Matthew could have been a part of the very early church (synagogue) services which would have included Torah readings as well.

Loren Bullock
June 11, 2016

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