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The early days of Christianity

The early days of Christianity
The debate regarding whether anti-Jewish expressions in the Greco-Roman world should be viewed as antisemitic is still ongoing. However, even those who identify antisemitic expressions in the Greco-Roman world would agree that the real turning point in the history of antisemitism came with the advent of Christianity 2,000 years ago. Jesus himself was a Jew who was born in the 1st century CE, into the Jewish world of the Roman ruled Galilee and Judea. The period was a turbulent one, and the Jewish community’s relationship with the Roman rulers of the region was greatly agitated. In the Jewish society of the time there were several factions.
The two leading ones were the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were separated mainly by their perceptions of Jewish oral law, and smaller sects who held apocalyptic beliefs and ascetic lives. Jesus was especially influenced by these latter groups. Soon after coming into contact with them, he experienced his revelations. He then swept a crowd of Jewish disciples who followed him, while Jewish authorities, from both the Pharisees and Sadducees camps rejected him as a false Messiah. According to the New Testament, after three years of fervent religious activity Jesus made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he defied Jewish priesthood and was subsequently extradited to the Roman rulers. The Romans soon executed him by crucifixion.
The ordeals that Jesus experienced during the final days became known as the “Passion”. Christianity at that time was still an inherent part of Judaism. It only crystallized as a separate doctrine and religion after Jesus’ death. His early followers, known as the Apostles, were also Jews who mainly focused on spreading Jesus’ words among the Jewish communities of the time, presenting his teachings as part of Judaism. However Paul, Jesus’ later disciple, started spreading his word to non-Jews around the Mediterranean region. This signaled the beginning of the split between Judaism and Christianity. This process of “the parting of the ways,” followed gradually over the course of several centuries.
Eventually, even as each religion continued to develop separately, it did so in close relationship with the other. How were Jewish society and Judaism perceived by early Christians both before and after the split between the two religions? Let us examine this crucial period. Paula Fredrickson mentioned the tendency of Greek and Roman ethnographers to write about the “other” as a way of teaching about other groups, but also as a way of defining one’s own identity and values. And I think that this notion can help us understand something that happens very early on in the history of Christianity, in the evolution and crystallization of Christian attitudes towards the Jews.
In a word the Jew becomes the quintessential “other” in Christian theological discourse from the middle of the 1st century, and continues to play this role for centuries, perhaps even until today. So we find that Christian theologians from a very early period tend to assert Christian beliefs and values by negating those of the Jews, in a tradition of discourse and teaching that eventually becomes known in the Western tradition as “Adversus Judaeos” - “Against the Jews.”
The earliest example of this Christian self-definition in terms of the negation of the beliefs of Jews and Judaism is in the writings of the Apostle Paul, perhaps the first Christian author whose writings have made their way down to us, and specifically in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Galatians, in which he argues against the missionary tactics of more Jewishly observant Christians, believers in Jesus, who argued that in order to become a member of the faithful in Christ one had to convert to Judaism.
Paul maintains that the new testament of Christ has completely replaced that of the old in the sense that one no longer need observe, one shouldn’t observe, the precepts of the Law if one is not Jewish. And this contrasting, this othering process, this contrast of Christianity with Judaism becomes a basis for a kind of binary opposition between Christianity and Judaism that is developed later in the New Testament and by subsequent Christian writers, where Judaism is old, Christianity is new; Judaism is earthly Christianity is heavenly; Judaism is bodily, Christianity is spiritual. And the list of contrasts goes on - darkness light, evil and good.
And this idea of negation as a way of self-assertion and self-definition becomes the bedrock of the “Adversus Judaeos” - “Against the Jews” tradition in Christian theology. This idea of asserting Christianity by contrasting it with Judaism, by defining the identity of the Christian against that of the Jewish “other”, is something that is inherited by by church fathers during the first Christian centuries in their preaching, in their writing “Against the Jews” - “Adversus Judaeos”, even if there are no Jews in the vicinity - as often there’re not - as a means of justifying, asserting, validating Christian beliefs by negating the teachings of and the practices of the Jews.

Prof. Jeremy Cohen

The debate regarding whether anti-Jewish expressions in the Greco-Roman world should be viewed as antisemitic is still ongoing. However, even those who do identify antisemitic expressions in the Greco-Roman world agree that the real turning point in the history of antisemitism came with the advent of Christianity, 2,000 years ago.

What role do the “Jews” play in the perceptions of early Christianity and why?

For the relevant quotations referred to by Prof. Cohen see “downloads” below.


  • Cohen, Jeremy, ed., Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict: From Late Antiquity to the Reformation (New York: New York University Press, 1991).

  • Fredriksen, Paula, Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).‏

  • Gager, John G., The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).‏

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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