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Origins of Christianity

A depiction of Jesus appearing to his apostles after his resurrection.

Early Christianity and Early Rabbinical Judaism were significantly influenced by Hellenistic religion and Hellenistic philosophy. Christianity in particular inherited many features of Greco-Roman paganism in its structure, its terminology, its cult and its theology. Titles such as Pontifex Maximus and Sol Invictus were taken directly from Roman religion. The influence of Neoplatonism on Christian theology is significant, visible for example in Augustine of Hippo's identification of God as summum bonum and of evil as privatio boni. Striking parallels between the New Testament account of Jesus and classical gods or demigods such as Bacchus, Bellerophon or Perseus were recognized by the Church Fathers and termed "demonic imitation" by Justin Martyr in the 2nd century.


  • Jewish roots 1
    • Hellenistic Judaism 1.1
    • Jewish messianism 1.2
  • Pagan roots 2
    • Influence on early Christian theology 2.1
  • Jesus 3
    • Jesus as Messiah 3.1
  • Pauline Christianity 4
  • Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity 5
    • Apostle to the Gentiles 5.1
    • First Jewish–Roman War 5.2
    • Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism 5.3
    • Emergence of Christianity 5.4
    • Bar Kokhba revolt 5.5
  • See also 6
  • References 7

Jewish roots

Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. The inroads into Judaism gave rise to Hellenistic Judaism in the Jewish diaspora which sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism.

Hellenistic Judaism spread to Ptolemaic Egypt from the 3rd century BCE, and became a notable religio licita after the Roman conquest of Greece, Anatolia, Syria, Judea, and Egypt, until its decline in the 3rd century parallel to the rise of Gnosticism and Early Christianity.

The main issue separating the Hellenistic and orthodox Jews was the application of biblical laws in a Hellenistic (melting pot) culture.[2]

The decline of Hellenistic Judaism started in the 2nd century CE, and its causes are still not fully understood. It may be that it was eventually marginalized by, partially absorbed into or became progressively the Koiné-speaking core of Early Christianity centered on Antioch and its universalist tradition. (see the Gospel according to the Hebrews).

Jewish messianism

Alan F. Segal has written that "one can speak of a 'twin birth'" of two new Judaisms, both markedly different from the religious systems that preceded them. Not only were Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity religious twins, but, like Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca, they fought in the womb, setting the stage for life after the womb."[3]

For Martin Buber, Judaism and Christianity were variations on the same theme of messianism. Buber made this theme the basis of a famous definition of the tension between Judaism and Christianity:

"Pre-messianically, our destinies are divided. Now to the Christian, the Jew is the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened; and to the Jew, the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished. This is a gulf which no human power can bridge."[4]

Jewish messianism has its root in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BCE to 1st century BCE, promising a future "anointed" leader or messiah to resurrect the Israelite "Kingdom of God", in place of the foreign rulers of the time. This corresponded with the Maccabean Revolt directed against the Seleucids. Following the fall of the Hasmonean kingdom, it was directed against the Roman administration of Iudaea Province, which, according to Josephus, began with the formation of the Zealots during the Census of Quirinius of 6 CE, although full scale open revolt did not occur till the First Jewish–Roman War in 66 CE.

Historian H. H. Ben-Sasson has proposed that the "Crisis under Caligula" (37-41) was the "first open break" between Rome and the Jews.[5]

Judaism at this time was divided into antagonistic factions. The main camps were the Pharisees, Saducees, and Zealots, but also included other less influential sects. The 1st century BCE and 1st century CE saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of Rabbinic Judaism, including Yochanan ben Zakai and Hanina Ben Dosa. The ministry of Jesus, according to the account of the Gospels, falls into this pattern of sectarian preachers or teachers with devoted disciples (students).

Pagan roots

Mosaic of Jesus as Christo Sole (Christ the Sun) in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis under St Peter's Basilica in Rome.[6]

Early Christianity developed in an era of the Roman Empire during which many religions were practiced. These included the Greco-Roman religions of the Roman Empire period, the Roman imperial cult and various mystery religions as well as philosophic monotheistic religions such as Neoplatonism and Gnosticism and to a lesser extent the "barbarian" tribal religions practiced on the fringes of the Empire.

Even before the Council of Jerusalem in 50 AD the Christian apostles accepted both Jewish and pagan converts (Cornelius the Centurion is traditionally considered the first gentile convert) and there was a precarious balance between the Judaizers, insisting on the obedience to the Torah Laws by all Christians, and Pauline Christianity.

With the spread of Christianity in the Early Middle Ages, it has been argued that Christianity was influenced by the rituals of Germanic paganism, Celtic paganism, Slavic paganism and Folk religion in a number of ways.

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts

Influence on early Christian theology

There was a complex interaction between Hellenistic philosophy and Christianity during the early years of the church, particularly the first four centuries AD. Christianity originated in Roman occupied Jerusalem, a predominantly but not entirely Jewish society, with traditional philosophies distinct from the Classical Greek thought which was dominant in the greater Roman Empire at the time.

The conflict between the two modes of thought is recorded in the Christian scriptures, in Paul's encounters with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers mentioned in Acts,[7] his comments against Greek philosophy in 1st Corinthians,[8] and his warning against philosophy in Colossians 2:8.[9]

As Christianity spread throughout the Hellenic world, and with a number of church leaders having been educated in Greek philosophy there was a fusion of the two modes of thought. One early Christian writer of the 2nd and early 3rd century, Clement of Alexandria, demonstrated the assimilation of Greek thought in writing: "Philosophy has been given to the Greeks as their own kind of Covenant, their foundation for the philosophy of Christ... the philosophy of the Greeks... contains the basic elements of that genuine and perfect knowledge which is higher than human... even upon those spiritual objects."[10]

Influences on Christian dogma in Late Antiquity, including the doctrines of the Christian Church Fathers in the 4th and 5th century, the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds, including the questions of the Trinity and Christology. Strong influences here were the Roman imperial cult and Hellenistic philosophy, notably in the forms of Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism. Christological disputes continued to dominate Christian theology well into the Early Middle Ages, down to the Third Council of Constantinople of 680 AD.

St. Augustine was originally a Manichaean.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who ultimately systematized Christian philosophy, wrote in the late 4th and early 5th century, "But when I read those books of the Platonists I was taught by them to seek incorporeal truth, so I saw your 'invisible things, understood by the things that are made'.[11]

Augustine converted to Christianity from Manichaeism, a gnostic influenced religion. According to his Confessions, after eight or nine years of adhering to the Manichaean faith (as a member of the Manichaean group of Hearers), he became a Christian and a potent adversary of Manichaeism. It is speculated by some modern scholars (Alfred Adam, for example) that Manichaean ways of thinking had an influence on the development of some of Augustine's Christian ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of Hell, the separation of groups into Elect, Hearers, and Sinners, the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity, and so on.

It has been suggested that the religious cosmology. Priscillian and his followers apparently tried to absorb what they thought was the valuable part of Manichaeaism into Christianity.


According to the Gospels, Jesus preached for a period of one to three years in the early 1st century. His ministry of teaching, healing the sick and disabled and performing various miracles culminated in his crucifixion at the hands of the Roman authorities in Jerusalem.

Jesus as Messiah

Scholars often draw a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.[12] Paula Fredriksen, in From Jesus to Christ, has suggested that Jesus' followers could not accept the failure implicit in his death. According to the New Testament, some Christians reported that they encountered Jesus after his crucifixion. They argued that he had been resurrected (belief in the resurrection of the dead in the messianic age was a core Pharisaic doctrine), and would soon return to usher in the Kingdom of God and fulfill the rest of Messianic prophecy such as the resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Most of Jesus' teachings were intelligible and acceptable in terms of Second Temple Judaism; what set Christians apart from Jews was their faith in Christ as the resurrected messiah.[13] Belief in a resurrected messiah is unacceptable to Rabbinic Judaism, and Jewish authorities have long used this to explain the break between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus' failure to establish the Kingdom of God and his death at the hands of the Romans invalidated his messianic claims for Hellenistic Jews (see for comparison: prophet and false prophet).[14]

Some Christians believed instead that Christ, rather than being the Jewish messiah, was God made flesh, who died for the sins of humanity, and that faith in Jesus Christ offered eternal life (see Christology).[15]

Pauline Christianity

Artist depiction of Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century (Blaffer Foundation Collection, Houston, Texas)

Pauline Christianity refers to the form of Christianity associated with the beliefs and doctrines espoused by the Apostle Paul in the Pauline epistles. Most of orthodox Christianity relies heavily on these teachings and considers them to be amplifications and explanations of the teachings of Jesus. Marcion of Sinope, a 2nd century theologian excommunicated as a heretic in 144, asserted that Paul was the only apostle who had rightly understood the new message of salvation as delivered by Christ.

Others perceive in Paul's writings teachings that are radically different from the original teachings of Jesus documented in the canonical gospels, early Acts and the rest of the New Testament, such as the Epistle of James. Opponents include the Ebionites and Nazarenes, Jewish Christians who rejected Paul for straying from normative Judaism.

The term is generally considered a pejorative by mainstream Christianity, as it carries the implication that Christianity is a corruption of the original teachings of Jesus, as for example in the belief of a Great Apostasy as found in Restorationism.

Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity

Jesus vertreibt die Händler aus dem Tempel, a depiction of Jesus' Cleansing of the Jewish Temple, by Giovanni Paolo Pannini

The split between Rabbinic Judaism (the period of the Tannaim) and Early Christianity is commonly attributed to the rejection of Jesus in his hometown c.30, the Council of Jerusalem c.50, the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70, the postulated Council of Jamnia c.90 and/or the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132–135. However, rather than a sudden split, there was a slowly growing chasm between Christians and Jews in the 1st centuries. Even though it is commonly thought that Paul established a Gentile church, it took centuries for a complete break to manifest. However, certain events are perceived as pivotal in the growing rift between Christianity and Judaism.

Robert Goldenberg asserts that it is increasingly accepted among scholars that "at the end of the 1st century CE there were not yet two separate religions called "Judaism" and "Christianity".[16]

Historians continue to debate the precise moment when Christianity established itself as a new religion, apart and distinct from Judaism. Some scholars view Christians and Pharisees as being competing movements within Judaism that decisively broke only after the Bar Kokhba revolt, when the successors of the Pharisees claimed hegemony over all Judaism, and Christianity emerged as a new religion.

According to historian Shaye Cohen the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in different ways in each local community where Jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other, the Christians left of their own accord.[17] According to Cohen, this process ended in 70 CE, after the great revolt, when various Jewish sects disappeared and Pharisaic Judaism evolved into Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged as a distinct religion.[18]

Apostle to the Gentiles

Some Early Christian groups, such as the Ebionites and the early church in Jerusalem led by James the Just, were strictly Jewish. According to the New Testament, Saul of Tarsus first persecuted the early Jewish Christians, then converted, adopted the name Paul and the title "Apostle to the Gentiles" and started proselytizing among the Gentiles. He persuaded the leaders of the Jerusalem Church to allow Gentile converts exemption from most Jewish commandments at the Council of Jerusalem.

First Jewish–Roman War

As a result of the First Jewish-Roman War the city of Jerusalem was sacked and Herod's Temple was destroyed. The destruction of the Second Temple was a profoundly traumatic experience for the Jews, who were now confronted with difficult and far-reaching questions:[19]

  • How to achieve atonement without the Temple?
  • How to explain the disastrous outcome of the rebellion?
  • How to live in the post-Temple, Romanized world?
  • How to connect present and past traditions?

Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Jews, Jewish worship stopped being centrally organized around the Temple, prayer took the place of sacrifice, and worship was rebuilt around rabbis who acted as teachers and leaders of individual communities in the Jewish diaspora.

The destruction of the Temple by the Romans not only put an end to the revolt, it marked the end of an era. Revolutionaries like the Zealots had been crushed by the Romans, and had little credibility. The Sadducees, whose teachings were so closely connected to the Temple cult, disappeared. The Essenes also vanished, perhaps because their teachings so diverged from the issues of the times.

Two organized groups remained, the Early Christians and the Pharisees. Some scholars, such as Daniel Boyarin and Paula Fredricksen, suggest that it was at this time, when Christians and Pharisees were competing for leadership of the Jewish people, that accounts of debates between Jesus and the apostles, debates with Pharisees and anti-Pharisaic passages were written and incorporated into the New Testament.

Emergence of Rabbinic Judaism

Following the destruction of the Temple, Rome governed Judea through a procurator at Caesarea and a Jewish Patriarch. A former leading Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zakkai, was appointed the first Patriarch (the Hebrew word, Nasi, also means prince), and reestablished the Sanhedrin at Javneh under Pharisee control. Instead of giving tithes to the priests and Temple sacrifices, the rabbis instructed Jews to give money to charities and study in local synagogues, as well as to pay the Fiscus Judaicus.

During the 1st century CE there had been several Jewish sects, the Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes and Christians. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, these sects vanished. Christianity survived, but by breaking with Judaism and becoming a separate religion. The Pharisees survived, but in the form of Rabbinic Judaism, also known simply as Judaism.

Emergence of Christianity

Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin has argued that Paul's theology of the spirit is more deeply rooted in Hellenistic Judaism than generally believed. In A Radical Jew, Boyarin argues that the Apostle Paul combined the life of Jesus with Greek philosophy to reinterpret the Hebrew Bible in terms of the Platonic opposition between the ideal (which is real) and the material (which is false). Judaism is a material religion, in which membership is based not on belief but rather descent from Abraham, physically marked by circumcision, and focusing on how to live this life properly. Paul saw in the symbol of a resurrected Jesus the possibility of a spiritual rather than corporeal messiah. He used this notion of messiah to argue for a religion through which all people — not just descendants of Abraham — could worship the God of Abraham. Unlike Judaism, which holds that it is the proper religion only of the Jews, Pauline Christianity claimed to be the proper religion for all people.

By appealing to the Platonic distinction between the material and the ideal, Paul showed how the spirit of Christ could provide all people a way to worship the God who had previously been worshipped only by Jews and Jewish proselytes, although Jews claimed that he was the one and only God of all. Boyarin roots Paul's work in Hellenistic Judaism and insists that Paul was thoroughly Jewish, but argues that Pauline theology made his version of Christianity appealing to Gentiles. Boyarin also sees this Platonic reworking of both Jesus's teachings and Pharisaic Judaism as essential to the emergence of Christianity as a distinct religion, because it justified a Judaism without Jewish law. The above events and trends lead to a gradual separation between Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.[20][21]

According to historian Shaye Cohen, "Early Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect when it ceased to observe Jewish practices.[14] Among the Jewish practices abandoned by Proto-orthodox Christianity, circumcision was rejected as a requirement at the Council of Jerusalem, c. 50. Sabbath observance was modified, perhaps as early as Ignatius' Epistle to the Magnesians 9.1.[22] Quartodecimanism (observation of the Paschal feast on Nisan 14, the day of preparation for Passover, linked to Polycarp and thus to John the Apostle) was formally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea. According to Eusebius' Life of Constantine, Constantine's speech at the council included: "Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Saviour a different way."[23]

Bar Kokhba revolt

The Bar Kokhba revolt[24] was the third major rebellion by the Jews against the Romans and the last of the Jewish-Roman Wars. Simon bar Kokhba, the commander of the revolt, was acclaimed as a messiah, a heroic figure who could restore Israel, by some of the leading sages of the Sanhedrin such as Rabbi Akiba.

Up until this time a number of Christians were still part of the Jewish community. Although Jewish Christians hailed Jesus as the Messiah and did not support Bar Kokhba,[25] they were barred from Jerusalem along with the rest of the Jews. Traditionally it is believed the Jerusalem Christians waited out the Jewish–Roman wars in Pella in the Decapolis. After the suppression of the revolt the vast majority of Jews were sent into exile; shortly thereafter (around 200), Judah haNasi edited together judgements and traditions into an authoritative code, the Mishna. This marks the transformation of Pharisaic Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism.

Although the rabbis traced their origins to the Pharisees, Rabbinic Judaism nevertheless involved a radical repudiation of certain elements of Phariseeism - elements that were basic to Second Temple Judaism. Members of different sects argued with one another over the correctness of their respective interpretations, but after the destruction of the Second Temple these sectarian divisions ended. The term "Pharisee" was no longer used, perhaps because it was a term more often used by non-Pharisees, but also because the term was explicitly sectarian. The rabbis claimed leadership over all Jews, and added to the Amidah the birkat haMinim, a prayer which in part exclaims, "Praised are You O Lord, who breaks enemies and defeats the arrogant". This shift by no means resolved conflicts over the interpretation of the Torah, but relocated debates between sects to debates within Rabbinic Judaism.

See also


  1. ^ Daniel Boyarin. "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism" [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 15.
  2. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia: Hellenism: "Post-exilic Judaism was largely recruited from those returned exiles who regarded it as their chief task to preserve their religion uncontaminated, a task that required the strict separation of the congregation both from all foreign peoples (Ezra x. 11; Neh. ix. 2) and from the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine who did not strictly observe the Law (Ezra vi. 22; Neh. x. 29)."
  3. ^ Alan F. Segal, Rebecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.Page= ???
  4. ^ Martin Buber, "The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul," cited in The Writings of Martin Buber, Will Herberg (editor), New York: Meridian Books, 1956, p. 276.
  5. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, The Crisis Under Gaius Caligula, pages 254-256: "The reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41) witnessed the first open break between the Jews and the Julio-Claudian empire. Until then — if one accepts Sejanus' heyday and the trouble caused by the census after Archelaus' banishment — there was usually an atmosphere of understanding between the Jews and the empire ... These relations deteriorated seriously during Caligula's reign, and, though after his death the peace was outwardly re-established, considerable bitterness remained on both sides. ... Caligula ordered that a golden statue of himself be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. ... Only Caligula's death, at the hands of Roman conspirators (41), prevented the outbreak of a Jewish-Roman war that might well have spread to the entire East."
  6. ^ Kelly, Joseph F., The Origins of Christmas, Liturgical Press, 2004, p. 67-69.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies 6. 8
  11. ^ Augustine of Hippo. Confessions 7. 20
  12. ^ Graham Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus (2nd ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) p. xxiii
  13. ^ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 167-168
  14. ^ a b Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 168
  15. ^ Paula Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ Yale university Press. pp. 136-142
  16. ^ Robert Goldenberg. Review of "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism" by Daniel Boyarin in The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 92, No. 3/4 (Jan. - Apr., 2002), pp. 586-588
  17. ^ Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1988). From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3 p. 228
  18. ^ Cohen, Shaye J.D. (1988). From the Maccabees to the Mishnah ISBN 0-664-25017-3 pp. 224-225
  19. ^ Jacob Neusner 1984 Toah From our Sages Rossell Books. p. 175
  20. ^ Shaye J.D. Cohen 1987 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah Library of Early Christianity, Wayne Meeks, editor. The Westminster Press. 224-228
  21. ^ Paula Fredriksen, 1988 From Jesus to Christ, Yale University Press. 167-170
  22. ^ Ignatius to the Magnesians chapter 9 at
  23. ^ Eusebius, Life of Constantine Vol. III Ch. XVIII Life of Constantine (Book III), Chapter 18: He speaks of their Unanimity respecting the Feast of Easter, and against the Practice of the Jews.
  24. ^ for the year 136, see: W. Eck, The Bar Kokhba Revolt: The Roman Point of View, pp. 87–88.
  25. ^ Justin, "Apologia," ii.71, compare "Dial." cx; Eusebius "Hist. Eccl." iv.6,§2; Orosius "Hist." vii.13
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