We are now in the years 37–44 CE, after Stephen’s death and up to the beheading of Jacob (James), the Elder, the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee. In a few years, the new movement was becoming known not only in Jerusalem, but more and more, far afield. We have a problem of sources developing, in that it is hard to find much information on this period outside of the New Testament, but there is enough to corroborate and extend what we know from that account. Also, as we read the New Testament account, we are not looking at it as a history of early Christianity – Luke might have been aghast at what developed out of these early days. Rather, we are watching a movement develop that is fully expected to be under the guidance and teaching of the community in Jerusalem, in conjunction with Jewish teaching in general.
E010 Torah from Zion: Passionate Proclamation.
Welcome to the On Messianic Judaism Podcast. Hi, this is Daniel Nessim and today we’ll continue our series on the History of the Messianic Jewish movement by telling how initial harassment of Jews who believed in Yeshua’s messiahship resulted in their dispersion not only to regions close, but far afield as well. It is a story of a rapidly maturing and growing movement that some would later call the sect of the Nazarenes, but which Luke and insiders would call the Way, or Haderekh.
This is episode 10 in our series, called Torah from Zion: Passionate Proclamation.
We are now in the years 37–44 CE, after Stephen’s death and before the beheading of Jacob (James), the Elder, the brother of John, one of the sons of Zebedee. In a few years, the new movement was becoming known not only in Jerusalem, but more and more, far afield. We have a problem of sources developing, in that it is hard to find much information on this period outside of the New Testament, but there is enough to corroborate and extend what we know from that account. Also, as we read the New Testament account, we are not looking at it as a history of early Christianity – Luke might have been aghast at what developed out of these early days. Rather, we are watching a movement develop that is fully expected to be under the guidance and teaching of the community in Jerusalem, in conjunction with Jewish teaching in general.
• What was happening in the Jewish world at this time?
• What was happening to the nascent Messianic Jewish Movement beyond Jerusalem?
• What were the developing issues between the Messianic Jewish Movement and its Jewish world?
A. Jews in the Empire
Jews were to be found throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, towards China and India; south towards Ethiopia. A summary list of those who made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Shelosh Regalim, the three pilgrim festivals, lists people from Parthia (north-eastern Iran) and Medes (people who quite possibly came from beyond modern-day Iran), Elamites from the north-east of the Persian Gulf, and those living in Mesopotamia. The list of Jews from this region should not surprise us, as the Jewish community of Babylon was still numerous and influential even so many centuries after the Exile had come to an end. In fact, the golden days of the Academy in Babylon were still ahead of it as the most developed edition of the Talmud would eventually be compiled there.
Visitors to Jerusalem were also from Judea close by, and Cappadocia (which is now north-eastern Turkey), Pontus (just north of that on the south shore of the Black Sea), Asia (which is the bulk of Turkey today), Phrygia (which is in the middle of that region) and Pamphylia (on Turkey’s southern coast), and Egypt (which is south of Israel and part of North Africa and would have included Alexandria, a city with a major Jewish population founded by Alexander the Great). In Alexandria at the time, the best estimate is that there were about 180,000 Jews out of a total population of 500–600,000. Jews were also found in parts of Libya toward Cyrene (an important city which is the Libya’s north coast), Rome (of whom a number were gentile proselytes), Crete (a major island south of Greece), and Arabs (which may be a reference to Yemen which had an ancient Jewish community). These were all Jews, and were called, for example, “Elamites” in the same way that Jews today are known as British, Canadian, Brazilian or American.
We must take for granted that many of those who were immersed on the first Shavuot since Yeshua’s resurrection returned to their homes following the holiday. As much as they may have wanted to, many of them simply could not remain there with their families, livelihoods and homes far away. Luke, of course, was concerned to tell the story of those who remained in areas he could know about, close to Jerusalem and north towards Asia and Rome.
The record of Acts tells us of two scatterings of these early believers, presumably mostly those who lived within hailing distance of Jerusalem. First, following the stoning of Stephen, “they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the shlichim.” Later, we are told that these same people who were scattered “traveled as far as Phoenicia [modern day Lebanon], Cyprus, and Antioch.” This tells us that a significant number of them traveled back up what is often called the “fertile crescent”, the non-desert route that went north from Israel before veering East towards Mesopotamia where many of them were from. On their way, they interacted with the Jewish communities they passed through, some of them no doubt staying for some time here and there. As they did so, there is little doubt that they would have related the auspicious events that had just occurred surrounding Yeshua in Jerusalem, and their personal experiences at Shavuot.
These were difficult years for Jews in the Roman Empire. Caligula, the Roman Emperor, wanted to be worshipped as a god. Troubles occurred in Alexandria, then Yavne, and just before Caligula’s death threatened to spread to Jerusalem itself. Warfare in Jerusalem was only prevented by the Roman governor of Syria’s wise delay in implementing Caligula’s command, and Herod Agrippa’s personal appeal, meaning he traveled all the way to Rome to make it, to Caligula.
While the news about Messiah was being spread around parts of the Jewish world, then, there is no doubt that there were those in the Jewish world who were hoping for Messiah’s appearance, the sooner the better.
B. Jews in Jerusalem
The Diaspora (and in its proper, historical use, this is specifically the dispersion of the Jewish people), while significant and outnumbering the Jews in Judea, Galilee and Samaria, still had its center there, and above all in Jerusalem. Then as always, Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish world. At the center of the city was the Temple, and in the center of the Temple was the holiest place in the universe. It was important to Jews as a whole, and no less important and central to Yeshua’s followers who had his own example – his fiery assertion that the Temple should be a House of Prayer for all nations – to encourage them. The fact that three of the four Gospels – all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke – record this event underscores how important this declaration was. The narrative of Acts develops the theme of the Temple’s centrality yet further.
In the midst of the religious cauldron that was Jerusalem, as Paula Fredriksen states, “The novel messianic idea was that the messiah had to come not once, but twice. The novel social idea was that the community, even absent Jesus, should continue his proclamation” (italics by Fredriksen). From the years 37–41 Gaius Caligula was Emperor, and at the same time as Yeshua was being taught, Philo, the famous Alexandrian Jewish writer “became known as one of the greatest scholars, not only among our own people but also among those brought up as pagans.”
The Jerusalem believers by virtue of their location, their history with Yeshua in that place, and the crystalizing events of Shavuot and the following years were indisputably leading the entire nascent Messianic Jewish movement.
Various names were given to the new community in these early days. Not all of them would stick, but they show how people viewed them and how they viewed themselves. One term in Acts is The Way. The very term signifies that they were known for a way of life and a way of keeping the Torah. It is not so much a theological term but a halakhic one. Put another way, the early community was following not so much Torah sheba’al peh, the Oral Law, but Torah sheba’al peh Yeshua, the Oral Law according to the teachings of Yeshua. Within this, we can expect that there were differences in people’s customs according to their communal origins and their leanings towards other streams, such as the Essenes, Pharisees or Mizrahi, eastern traditions from the significant Jewish community there.
On the other hand they were called the Holy Ones, the Disciples, the Assembly of G-d, the Brothers, and the Nazarenes. In particular, the Nazarenes may well be a double-entendre and pun based on Yeshua being the Nazarene, and an allusion to the purified Nazarenes of the Torah. Epiphanius also tells us that before the term “Christian” came into use in Antioch the disciples were called Jessaeans, after Jesse the father of King David.
Within the community there are both Greek speaking Jews, and Aramaic speakers, from more local and Syrian communities. The Greek speakers could be from anywhere in the Roman Empire. Those from Jerusalem, Judea and other Jewish regions into Syria would have mostly spoken Aramaic. Language and culture are closely related, and so it is not surprising that there was friction between the groups, which threatened to become factions.
An ancient Syriac document, meaning that it came from Syria, north of Judea, comes The Teaching of the Apostles, which claims “Nicodemus also, and Gamaliel, chiefs of the synagogue of the Jews, used to come to the apostles in secret, agreeing with their teaching. Judas, moreover, and Levi, and Peri, and Joseph, and Alexander the priests – they too used to come to the apostles by night, confessing Christ that He is the Son of God; but they were afraid of the people of their own nation, so that they did not disclose their mind toward the disciples.”
C. Jews Beyond Jerusalem
From the Jerusalem community, as disciples left due in part or in whole because of persecution against them, a series of events are presented in Acts that demonstrate the widening geographic impact of the message they carried with them. The persecution was, of course, on two accounts. It was because of these disciples’ faith in Yeshua and his resurrection, and secondly because of the offense to the Sadducees, of whom were many of the priesthood, to the whole idea of the resurrection of the dead.
Initially, following Stephen’s death, members of the community with the exception of the Apostles, were scattered. The picture is simplified in Luke’s account, save for the detail that there were devout sympathizers with Yeshua’s followers who may not have been members who mourned for him and undertook the cost and trouble to afford him a proper burial.
Following Stephen’s death, one particular disciple’s story is focused on, that of Philip, who by his name is either the one from Beit Tzidah (Bethsaida) who introduced Nathanael to Yeshua, or the Philip who had been appointed a servant along with Stephen. It is probably the latter, since he has been named by Luke.
The first step in this expansion of witness is Philip’s travel to the “main city of Samaria” to speak about Messiah. His preaching was accompanied by miraculous healings and exorcisms causing great joy in the city. With the initial success of Philip’s preaching, Peter and John came to help, ultimately preaching in many Samaritan villages before returning to Jerusalem.
The second phase was Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian treasurer to the Queen. It is not clear if he was a proselyte or not, but he had been in Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and was traveling southward back home, probably following the coastal road. This Ethiopian was trying to make sense of some verses in what we now know as Isaiah chapter 53. As Philip explained Isaiah’s prophecy regarding a sheep being led to the slaughter to him, showing that it predicted the manner of Yeshua’s death, he was convinced. This is the earliest record we have of Isaiah 53 being interpreted in reference to Yeshua.
At the end of this encounter, Philip, still on the coast, found himself in Azotus, which is near Ashdod, south of Yafo and modern-day Tel Aviv. Traveling up the coast, he continued to preach town by town until he came to Caesarea in the north.
The story of Caesarea is picked up with Peter as the main character as Peter received a vision while davening on his roof, assuring him not to consider things that G-d had declared clean to be unholy. Following the vision emissaries from a Caesarean centurion came to Peter’s home and Peter determined the vision was concerning them – unclean, uncircumcised gentiles. It is thus that Peter took the unusual step of going with them, preaching in Caesarea, and seeing the Ruach HaKodesh fall on these gentiles just as had happened to him and other religious Jews at Shavuot.
This step of Peter was a turning point that would have implications he may have guessed at but far greater than he might have imagined. At stake was the very nature of the proclamation of Messiah. Until now it was clear to all Jews that in order for anyone to approach G-d, it had to be done via the Jewish cult and the Jewish people. The “court of the gentiles” in the Temple was a testimony both to the separation of Jews from gentiles in worship and the related willing accommodation of gentiles who felt drawn to worship G-d. As Yeshua had said, “salvation is of the Jews” and until now no one had thought of it any other way.
This step of Peter’s, to be followed up by an extensive mission to the gentiles by the Jerusalem community and also by Saul of Tarsus, would be momentous and set the stage for the conflict that would eventually separate gentile followers of Yeshua from the Jewish people. No issue was more formative but at the same time divisive for the new movement and its position within Jewry as the gentile problem. The problem was not so much as to “whether Gentiles should be included but with the terms and conditions of their inclusion.”
From here, we are given a brief mention that those who were scattered from Jerusalem traveled even further north, as far as Phoenicia (modern day Lebanon), the island of Cyprus, to the west of Lebanon in the Mediterranean, and to Antioch, in the north of Syria and on the border of what is today Turkey. Antioch was one of the Roman Empires greatest cities. It was one where Jews and gentiles had lived together in relative harmony for centuries, and where Jews could easily assimilate into gentile society but also where a good number of gentiles were attracted to the G-d of the Jews, becoming proselytes and converts. Established by Seleucus I Nicator after the death of Alexander the Great in 300 BCE, it was a Hellenistic city. With a population of maybe 400,000 inhabitants, it was powerful and influential, but more than anything, a city through which large numbers of people regularly traveled to, through, and from.
At this time, the foundations began to be laid for the various communities and parties that would influence the development of the Messianic Jewish movement. Now a period in history marked by numerous itinerant preachers intent on proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven was beginning. It would be a hallmark of the movement until the end of the century and be witnessed to both by the New Testament record but also the Didache and other first century writings. This movement would both help propagate and spread the message, but also bring issues, such as how to evaluate the various itinerants and how to compensate and provide for their needs. Some of the tensions that first appear at this point in history later on became explosive and divisive, but also formative.
D. Formative Messianic Judaism in Jerusalem
Against the background of the growing “gentile mission” where the community was actively spreading their news of the Kingdom, the traditions and structure early Nascent Messianic Judaism began to form. As a matter of course, teaching developed from proclamation to instruction. Over a period of time, recollections of Yeshua and things he had said and done began to be recorded, and a form of teaching began to develop. It is during these years that the earliest parts of the Didache began to crystallize. As a document meant to assist in the gentile mission, the first six chapters evidence three different cataloguings and expansions upon the second table of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. Modeled after and drawing upon the Manual of Discipline which was used by the Essene community for Jews, it instructed gentile converts in the behaviors expected of them as followers of Yeshua.
In the Didache there is no hint of conversion to Judaism, neither is there any suggestion that gentile disciples should keep those precepts that are peculiar to, and identity markers for, the children of Israel. No mention is made of the Sabbath, the Biblical festivals, kashrut, or circumcision. Rather, three times, in three listings in a row, the first chapters of the Didache calls to memory the table of the Decalogue that has to do with loving one’s neighbour. The commands of the Didache did not preface its commands with “I am ADONAI your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” These words as a reason for loving G-d and keeping His commands would not apply to those who were not descended from the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt. Rather, the Didache commands “First, love the God who made you.” This reason, that G-d is the creator of each person, applies to all humanity, not just the Jews.
Clearly the early community was forming against the background of its emerging mission to make Messiah known not only to Israel at home and abroad, but also to the nations of the world. During this period of time Saul of Tarsus had a vision of Yeshua on the road to Damascus, where he was on his way to further pursue and arrest Yeshua’s disciples, the Way. At this point the revelation he received had no role in the history of the movement. In fact, his appearance in Jerusalem after that was disruptive and problematic, to put it mildly, resulting in his being sent away by the community’s leadership.
At the same time, apostolic leaders such as Peter were using Jerusalem more or less as a base for their travels abroad, and the leadership of the community fell to Jacob (James), Yeshua’s brother. It might be confusing, but the other Jacob whom we mentioned in the introduction to this episode, the brother of John, is particularly mentioned in history with Luke’s statement that “Herod the king seized some from Messiah’s community to do them harm. He had Jacob, John’s brother, put to death with the sword.” A tradition is related concerning his execution says that “the man who brought him into court was so moved when he saw him testify that he confessed that he, too, was a [disciple of Yeshua]: So, they were both taken away together, and on the way he asked [Jacob] to forgive him. [Jacob] thought for a moment; then he said, ‘I wish you peace’ [shalom lecha], and kissed him. So both were beheaded at the same time.”
It is here that Josephus’ record carries on the story, because this Herod, Herod Agrippa I, died himself soon after, and in a horrible manner. This is how Josephus tells the story:
Now when Agrippa had reigned three years over all Judea, he came to the city Cesarea, which was formerly called Strato’s Tower; and there he exhibited shows in honor of Cæsar, upon his being informed that there was a certain festival celebrated to make vows for his safety. At which festival, a great multitude was gotten together of the principal persons and such as were of dignity through his province. On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner, and was so resplendent as to spread a horror over those that looked intently upon him; and presently his flatterers cried out, one from one place, and another from another (though not for his good), that he was a god; and they added, “Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.” Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterwards looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tiding so him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. . . . When he said this, his pain was become violent. Accordingly he was carried into the palace; and the rumor went abroad everywhere, that he would certainly die in a little time. . . . And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.
With the execution, some would say murder of Jacob, John’s brother in 44 CE, the first early phase of the Nascent Messianic Jewish movement was coming to an end. Already, Yeshua’s disciples from afar were beginning to send tzedakah (charity) to the leading community in Jerusalem, and leaders, also faithful Jews, were emerging among them, such as Saul (Paul) and the Cypriot Levi, Joseph, who was nicknamed Barnabas. At the same time, many were seeing Divine justice in the timing and manner of Jacob’s killer.
The movement is beginning to show early signs of maturity and development. Already the New Testament record cannot contain a narrative of it. As a revival movement within Judaism, extending, as Jews generally expected, Messiah’s Rule over the gentile nations, it had a firm place within the Jewish world of its day. Some were virulently opposed to it, but as we shall see again and again, many in the Jewish world had a high respect and admiration for it as well.
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