The Parting of the Ways

Our hearts break as we understand that those chosen people who received the loving revelation of God, His character and ways, do not share our belief in the Messiah, Yeshua. But how has this fact impacted the church body and our faith today? 

It is helpful for us to consider this question, to form an understanding of the development of the church body. This development took place in context of its Jewish identity, through Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah. As Christians, reflecting upon ecclesiastic issues empowers us to understand our faith and purpose. This allows us to form views and opinions which inform our active choices as believers. It is vital in our witness to Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus. 

Let us review the facts from the beginning; Jesus was crucified by the Romans as King of the Jews. At the point of our Lord’s death, He was known as a Jewish Rabbi, itinerant preacher and leader of a group of subversive Jewish people. Under Jesus’ direction, this group of Jewish people were proclaiming a distinct view of their faith, and living a daily lifestyle that reflected these strong beliefs. 

From here is difficult to comprehend how by the beginning of the second century AD, Christians were no longer connected with Judaism, Jewish people and society. We know from historical records that a divide had appeared because we find that in 96 AD, the emperor Nerva had clarified by law, that Christians were not be taxed with the extra tax that Jewish people were forced to pay to Rome, because he determined that neither gentile nor Jewish believers in Christ were Jewish. What this reveals is the extent of the division, but also some of the causes of the church’s separation from its Jewish roots, often referred to as “the parting of the ways”. 

A great change took place in the early church, as evidenced by the book of Acts. Following the Pentecost of Acts 2 (1-13), God caused many people to hear and believe the gospel, with incredible power and therefore incredible numbers. To the Jew first indeed, as we see that God added 3,000 Jewish believers from many nations and cultures in just one day (Following Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:13-39). The disciples had developed their own understanding and the Holy Spirit brought to life the revelation of the ages; the salvation of humankind through the Messiah’s sacrifice.  

But then a new revelation came; that God had called gentiles into the inheritance of His own people. By Acts 10:47, Peter has come to the same undeniable conclusion that drove the apostle Paul to preach the gospel relentlessly to gentiles, that the true revelation of salvation is the mystery that was ungrasped by the chosen people up until this point; “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 3:6)  

This is where we grapple with the divine and the human, the holy and the profane; this wonderful grace and mercy that showed the heart of God; His desire that all should be saved through His only begotten son, Jesus, caused a difficulty to His own people. The consequence of the disciples sharing the gospel with gentiles caused many gentiles to receive faith in Jesus. In this, the Jewish people had to follow the example of God in laying down their lives for  others to be drafted into the Kingdom.

As the gentile believers began to outnumber the Jewish believers, and the Jewish believers themselves continued to be rejected from their own community due to their faith in Yeshua as Messiah of the Jewish people, a separation and void appeared between the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and the practice of the faith as a church body. This is because those who were able to share Judaic revelation, were pushed out by new schools of thought and practice informed by the new majority group; gentile Christians. 

The roots of this are clear in the New Testament, the letters of Paul addressing the balance between observing the divine revelation of Judaism but understanding that this revelation is only understood, and indeed complete, in light of the Messiah, make clear to us that a navigation of scripture in light of the mystery of Christ’s atonement, was birthed. But sharing this revelation was complicated by the challenges of ideology, society, culture and geography.   

As human beings, we are loaded with ideas and thoughts about ourselves and the world around us, which we have absorbed from childhood, from our parents, our community, our culture, our faith, our government. They are our “normal” but they are peculiar and unique when compared with other cultures, societies and even families! As the church began to navigate Christianity without the Jewish disciples who had passed away, and relied on their own interpretation of scripture, their own Greek lens coloured their view. Just as today, our Western worldview colours how we interpret the Old Testament Scriptures in a way that differs from Orthodox Jewish people, and from believers in Christ who live in the Far East for example, and are influenced by the culture and understanding of the ancient ways of life of the Far East. 

We are not neutral readers of the text, we are postmodern interpreters and the early gentile church was interpreting the scripture according to the dominant, prevailing schools of thought influenced by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Much of Paul’s writing to the gentile church was navigating the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings in light of Judaic scriptures and the Greek philosophical thought of the time, and showing that Christ’s way was a “third way”; superseding all by the superiority of the Christ Himself. 

The “parting of the ways” between the church and its Judaic roots, to the point of persecuting Jewish people through the centuries, is not about theological differences but ideological difference. The separation of the body of Christ from the very scriptures of the New Testament, is about people, societies, and institutions, not abstract truth claims. Human weaknesses and limitations have caused this divide.  

As in the example above, of Jewish people paying a tax to Rome, which Jewish Christians did not, would have led to some upset and animosity by the oppressed Jewish People. Likewise, there is incredible misinterpretation amongst the European church of the centuries, evidenced by arguments and beliefs revealed by historical theological writing. One example is the myth that arose amongst some gentile believers in the early church, that Pauls’ personal trip to Damascus, was evidence of anti-emissaries being sent all over the diaspora regions of the Jewish community, by the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is unsubstantiated and unrealistic.   

The misinterpretation of the disciples and their writings has led to beliefs and behaviours that are bigoted; yes, the disciples were bold in condemning the attitudes and behaviour amongst their people that had led them to be blind to their Saviour and to conspire to His death. We all condemn what is wrong in our own society. These scriptures written by the disciples can never be an excuse for anti-Semitism because they were written by Jewish people, with the clear and repeated caveat that rejection of the Messiah is like all things, under the control of God who uses His divine wisdom to work all things for the good of those called to His salvation. (Romans 8:28)  

Paul spends three chapters of the book of Romans (9-11) clarifying the reality that the temporary blindness of the Jewish people is for a reason and a season! To allow gentiles to enter the Kingdom, to cause a mutual understanding, and then unity between Jew and gentile, so that as we have received and benefited from the Jewish revelation of God, we may likewise share of our own unique experience as gentiles, of the incredible grace of God. This is the one new man!  

John says that Jesus was full of truth and grace (John 1:14). It makes sense that as the Jewish people bring their revelation of truth (received through scripture, and experience as descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), that we gentiles bring our experience of grace (as those who did not know salvation but were chosen and called by God), together and become complete, reflecting the fullness and wholeness of Christ. Let us take this understanding to our fellow believers so that united, we can offer a great witness to the Jewish people of the glory of Christ, and thereby move them to the jealousy which Paul says will cause them to revere and desire Jesus. (Romans 10:19; 11:11 and 11:14)