Christianity wasn’t just another Jewish sect; it was deeply related to Judaism but it was also distinct. Once the Gospel was preached to Gentiles, the Church began to be born from the womb of Judaism.
The early church
The birth of the Church is one of the most important and fascinating stories of the first century of the common era.
All the first Christians were Jewish, and for a long time Christianity would have seemed to most people just another one of the many messianic Jewish sects which flourished in that tumultuous time when the Chosen People thought things had got so bad that God must surely be about to intervene once and for all to vindicate his People and punish their enemies.
We’re told that it was only in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians – because it was only there and then that they became a group large and distinct enough to warrant a nick-name.
But it was also in Antioch that Jewish Christians first preached the Gospel to Gentiles, that is non-Jews. This was sensational at the time, because the separation of Jew and Gentile was fundamental to the Jewish religious cosmos of the time. To preach the Gospel to Gentiles and to welcome them into the community of faith was saying, effectively, that Christianity wasn’t just another Jewish sect; it was deeply related to Judaism but it was also distinct. Once the Gospel was preached to Gentiles, the Church began to be born from the womb of Judaism.
Then came the catastrophe of Jerusalem’s destruction in 70AD. It changed everything. Judaism was devastated, with most of its leadership swept away and only the Pharisees left as a group who could lead into a very uncertain future. For Christianity too it was a huge turning-point. The mother-Church in Jerusalem had always been the point of reference for early Christianity in times of crisis. But now the mother-Church disappeared into a black hole. And that’s when the centre of gravity of Christianity began to move across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome.
It was also after the destruction of 70AD that Christianity became increasingly a Gentile phenomenon, as Judaism closed ranks to save its skin. Until the destruction many Jewish Christians would have gone to the synagogue on Saturday and shared in the Eucharist on Sunday. They would have seen no contradiction in that. But after 70 it was clear that they had to make a choice: either the synagogue or the church, not both.
Traces of the antagonism between synagogue and church are found in the New Testament. But they are part of the larger story found there – the painful birth of the Church from the womb of Judaism, as Christianity came to realise that the Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews in order to be Christians. They could walk directly into the church – through the “door of faith”. The rest is history.