To say that the state of the early Christian church was different from our modern day Christianity is, at best, a gross understatement. Individuals who want to understand why I do not like to call myself a Christian, attend any church outside of a small Bible study or still believe the Church to be mired in heresy- you need look no further than this blog. As Christians, we often neglect to fully understand our own heritage- one that is often rife with racism, hatred, genocide and worse. Too many modern day Christians are not fully aware of the extent of anti-semitism in their own religion or the history behind topics like Replacement Theology (the idea that Christians have taken the place of Israel in God's plan).
In the first century A.D., Christianity was far better associated with it's Jewish heritage than, perhaps, any time since then. Christianity was, by outside opinion of the time, little more than a sect of Judaism much like the Pharisees and Sadducees were.
To begin studying how Christianity became separate from Judaism and recognized as its own religion, one doesn't need to look any farther than the New Testament letters by Paul. On numerous occasions Paul alludes to divides that were becoming all the more common between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul spends quite a lot of time affirming that Christians are not expected to keep "the law" of the Jews since Jesus came to fulfill it- and thus all us Christians eat pigs and work on Saturdays (savor the laugh- there are precious few).
In the early years of the church, positions of leadership were held by individuals who were Jewish in heritage. Certainly Paul fits into this category just as surely as the other Twelve Apostles do- but over time, and due in part to the many missionary journeys of Paul, more and more Gentiles were converted over to Christianity. As such, it would be obvious to assume that Gentile influence in the church would grow stronger over time.
Indeed, by the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Roman invasion, many Christians began to interpret such events to be God's wrath against the Jews and surely constituted God's abandonment of Judaism. It was also around this time, in the second century A.D, that Church leadership saw a massive shift in power from Jewish Christians over to Gentile Christian leaders- individuals who have become referred to as the "Early Church Fathers". The disconnect of Christianity from its Jewish roots, however, was only the beginning.
Under the Roman Empire, Christianity saw a massive influx of non-Jewish converts which, as is common, coincided with persecution under the Roman order who increasingly saw Christianity less as a extension of Judaism- which was legal under Roman law- and more as a rising threat. As such, it is not difficult to understand why Christianity experienced such a divide with Judaism- Christians were were being hunted down and killed while Jews were left to themselves. The average Christian began to relate himself less and less with his Jewish peers and even held a certain envy and resentment toward them. When these circumstances between Christianity and Judaism were later reversed, frustrations would come to the forefront.
While nearing the topic, however, it is important to shed light on what the marvelous (sarcasm) Church Fathers were writing about in regards to the Jews- Tertullian's "Against the Jews" as well as Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, for example, began to sow the seeds of Replacement Theology in declaring that God had abandoned the Jews for Christianity. The concept that all the promises in the Bible written for the Jews were now meant for Christians and the curses were now intended for Jews (scripture in point: Genesis 12:3-4) was also floating around at this time. How they managed to rectify these beliefs with the concept of an unchanging God is anyone's guess....
By the early fourth century, persecution of Christians came to a halt and the tables were suddenly turned when Constantine, a Christian, became Emperor of Rome. Within only a couple of decades, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Christianity's persecution of the Jews had begun. Roman law now made synagogues illegal and punished breaking such laws with death. Whereas previously, Christians could be found used as torches by the Roman order, now the tables were turned and the Jews were now being burned to death.
Already Christian leaders were fervently teaching Christians to separate themselves from Jews, forbidding intermarriage and observance of Jewish laws or ceremonies and eventually Rome declared Sunday as the official Christian "Sabbath". Although there are likely many reasons behind this, it would be impractical to assume that anti-semiticism was completely devoid from the decision. This practice, of course, still holds to this day- so it is important for Christians to understand the history behind this tradition so they might fully understand what they are practicing.
Of course, language used by the Church fathers during this time also became more violent and blatantly hateful with examples such as Hilary of Poitiers, who wrote "Jews are a perverse people accursed by God forever." and Gregory of Nyssa who wrote "Jews are the slayers of the Lord... advocates of the devil, a brood of vipers, slanderers, scoffers... a congregation of demons, sinners, wicked men, haters of goodness."
John Chrysostom, however, surpasses them all in his series of eight sermons against the Jews when he wrote: "But the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts.... [Jews] live for their bellies, they gape for the things of this world, their condition is not better than that of pigs... They know but one thing: to fill their bellies and be drunk...." Chrysostom also had his hand in the concept of holding the entire Jewish race accountable for the murder of Jesus- a concept that is far from dead and, in fact, resurfaced in an Air Force base in Colorado (more on that here
). The popular Christian group, Focus on the Family actually defended the blatant antisemitism in this incident and the individuals practicing it.
Although Jews were heavily persecuted, the Roman Empire and the Christian order nevertheless found a useful purpose for them: money-lending. Since loaning money was considered sinful for Christians yet was nonetheless necessary for economic reasons, Jews were encouraged by the Christian church to fill this void and take positions in commerce. As you might expect, this is where the stereotype of the greedy and devious, "money-grubbing" Jew originated from- Christians literally created it.
Now- while I could undoubtedly continue on from this point in history and trace the impact of Christian anti-semitism on to more familiar events such as the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the displacement of the Jews and even the seeds of the holocaust- all of these things are already quite notable and hardly need my mentioning. But, as you can see from this blog (which is already longer than intended), the history of anti-semitism in the church is a long and often surprising study. It is tragically ironic that the Christian church should be one of the greatest persecutors of God's chosen people- a people with an already long and arduous history of persecution by many other groups as well and- if the Bible is too be believed- a future for them that is to be just as tumultuous as either past or present.
I can't help but think back to the illustration of the olive tree in Romans chapter 11:17-24 and stare in awe. To my current knowledge, the olive tree in this illustration represents God's chosen people- an interpretation that is echoed and supported by Old Testament passages like Jeremiah 11:16. The branch that is grafted in, therefore, represents the Christian church. The relationship between Israel and the church is a complicated one; though we should stand side-by-side, we are divided. This should not be- for if Romans is correct, we were only grafted into God's plan and, without God's chosen people, we would not even being standing at all....
In conclusion, the Bible is not anti-semitic- it is people who are anti-semitic. In fact, all my problems with Christianity boil down to people and the institutions created by them, not the Bible and not God. It is people who create heresy and dare to call it scripture. It is people who use God and scripture to justify their own sin- or rather, it is some people
. Do yourselves a favor: don't be one of those "some people"- follow God... not religion