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Why were Christians expelled from synagogues?

Deacon Owen Cummings

Q — If the first Christians were saying that Jesus was both Messiah and God, why did the strictly monotheistic Jews allow them to remain a sect in the Jewish Temple? Why were the Christians then expelled from the synagogues as apostates in about 85 A.D.?

A — One of the things that is most frustrating to historians of early Christianity is that we do not possess a total and detailed historical narrative of the church from its earliest beginnings, and especially so in the 1st century A.D. A few remarks may help to provide something of an answer to this very fine question. First of all, it is important to point out that Judaism in the 1st century of the Christian era was not entirely homogeneous. There was a variety of groups or parties: most obviously the Pharisees, the theological teachers; the Sadducees, the ruling and priestly class in Jerusalem; the Zealots who sought political liberation from Roman domination; the Essenes, in all probability the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran; and then the Christians or the Nazarenes, as they were sometimes called. Each of these parties had its own particular emphases and teachings. In the beginning, it is extremely likely that mainstream Judaism did not see in the Christian movement any great threat.

However, as the divinity of Christ came to more articulate and explicit expression, first in the letters of St. Paul, the realization gradually emerged that they were expanding the traditional Jewish monotheism so as to encompass the person of Jesus. The Jewish Synod of Jamnia, probably in the mid-80s of the 1st century, was responsible for excommunicating the Christians/Nazarenes from mainstream Judaism for two reasons: first, this expansion of monotheism, and second, the repudiation of Torah dietary laws and circumcision that came with the embrace of the Gentiles. Many Jewish Christians in the late 1st century found themselves aposunagogos, literally, “cast out from the synagogue.” We see hints of this both in the gospel of St. Matthew and in the gospel of St. John. It is better to see the separation of the ways between Christianity and Judaism as a process over time rather than something that took place exclusively at one point in time.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, December 30, 2016
Article comment by: Lev Raphael

Recent scholarship by Boyarin and others demonstrates that Christians were not excommunicated at Javneh and in fact Jews and Christians attended each other's worship services for a few hundred years after the destruction of the Temple. That is information Christians and Jews need to know.

Posted: Friday, October 9, 2015
Article comment by: Scott Windsor

As Deacon Cummings pointed out, "we do not possess a total and detailed historical narrative of the church from its earliest beginnings, and especially so in the 1st century A.D." To make definitive claims that John's Gospel was written after 95 AD or that the Acts of the Apostles was written about 80 AD, it is not disputed that these are dates argued for - but others argue, just as validly, for earlier dates.

Yes, the original Christian community was in Jerusalem, but it branched out quickly from there, as witnessed by St. Paul's letters (Epistles) to several other churches in the region, including Rome.

Jerusalem was definitely the spiritual seat, but Alexandria could be argued for as being the intellectual seat.

The divinity of Jesus is also expressed outside the Gospel of John in Philippians 2:5-8: "Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." This was written about 62 AD, approximately 10 years after St. Paul's first visit there and 30 years prior to Les' accounting.

See also 2 Peter 1:1 where Jesus is referred to as "our God and Savior."
Titus 2:13, also has Jesus referred to as "our God and Savior."
Hebrews 1:8 "But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.

Clearly, while the Gospel of John does more frequently refer to the divinity of Jesus Christ, that book alone is not the sole reference.

Now, dismissing the diversions to the point of the actual article by Deacon Cummings, Christians were still a sub-culture of Judaism in the first century - no doubt - and still attended synagogue and the Temple until the Temple was destroyed by the Romans during the Jewish revolt of 70 AD. The alleged expulsion from the Temple, therefore, would have to have happened while there was still a Temple standing. As Deacon Cummings points out, the final expulsion from the synagogues likely came around 80 AD while Judaism was struggling for a non-Temple, non-sacrifice based identity.

It should also be added that Christians were also gathering on "The Lord's Day" to celebrate Agape, the Eucharist in the same liturgical form which Jesus Christ started on Holy Thursday before His crucifixion - as witnessed by St. Paul's use of the exact same language in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25.

Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Article comment by: Lester Alberque

Deacon Cummings' answer here raises some additional questions.

First of all, the original Christian community was located in Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish authority and intellectualism. Didn't anyone detect the deviation from strict monotheism?

Secondly, strictly speaking, isn't it in John's gospel written after 95 AD that we first find a claim that Jesus was divine (ie. the seven "I am" sayings, and Thomas' confession of faith).

And in chapter 2 of Acts of the Apostles written about 80 AD, isn't Peter still saying that Jesus was a man through whom God's (not Jesus') power worked signs, and that Jesus "was raised" (not rose) from the dead.

Thus, Jesus is being described as the messiah, not God, isn't he?

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