Evidence of the Jewish Background of the Early Church
Jewish Leadership in the Early Church
[Orginal article found at: http://www.haydid.org/yeshron1.htm]
by Dr. Ron Moseley
Contrary to what some believe, the first fifteen bishops of the original Church at Jerusalem were Jewish. In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius tells us that “the church at Jerusalem, at first formed of the circumcision, came later to be formed of Gentile Christians, and the whole church under them, consisted of faithful Hebrews who continued from the time of the apostles, until the siege of Jerusalem.”(1)
In his second-century historical work, Hegesippus describes the rivalry between a man named Thebouthis and others, seeking the position of bishop after the death of James, who was said to be the first pastor at Jerusalem.(2) According to Hegesippus, the Hebrew Christians finally chose Simeon, who was a cousin of the Lord, to succeed James. Epiphanius lists the remaining thirteen Jewish pastors of the Jerusalem Church as Justus, Zaccheus, Tobias, Benjamin, John, Mathias, Philip, Seneca, Justus, Levi, Ephrem, Joseph, and Jude, completing the historical record all the way up to the Bar Kochba Revolt (A.D. 132-135).(3) These Jewish relatives of Jesus who led the early Church were called Desposynoi, meaning “heirs,” and were often persecuted because of their Davidic lineage and their relationship to the Messiah.
During the reign of Hadrian (A.D. 117-138), the Jewish nation was crushed in what came to be called the Second Jewish War. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina by the Romans, and Jews were forbidden to enter the city for one hundred years. As these dramatic events were unfolding, many of the Hebrew Christians fled to the mountains of Pella, located in present-day Jordan, in obedience to Christ’s instruction found in Matthew 24:16. This left only Gentile believers in control of the Church for the first time, and they quickly appointed a man named Mark as Jerusalem’s first non-Jewish pastor.(4) (5) According to Baring Gould’s history, the community of believers in exile, led by James and Simeon, was still clinging tightly to the old traditions while crouched at Pella.(6)
The Influence of the Synagogue
On the Organizational Structure of the Church
Since the Hebrew Christians were not completely removed from Jerusalem until well into the second century, for its first one hundred years, the Church remained very much a part of first-century Judaism, and its leaders stayed involved in many Jewish affairs. There was no immediate split from the synagogue, as evidenced by Jesus’ warning that some synagogues would punish His followers for preaching a different brand of Judaism ( Matthew 10:17). We know that this scourging by synagogue leaders was not an abnormal part of normative Judaism since it is mentioned a number of times in early rabbinical literature.(7)
The structure of the local synagogues was carried over directly into the structure of the early Church. A president, deacons, a precentor (song leader), and teachers can all be found in both the synagogue and the early Church. We know from early sources that there were between 394 and 480 synagogues in Jerusalem during the first century, one being located within the precincts of the Temple itself.(8) This is undoubtedly why the early pattern of the Church had its origins in the Jewish synagogue. Note the following similarities between the ancient synagogue and the early Church.
The principle leader of a synagogue was the nasi or president. In the Christian congregation, the leaders were still called president rather than pastor, as late as A.D. 150, by such non-Jewish writers as Justin Martyr.(9) In the synagogue structure, three of these leaders would join together to form a tribunal for judging cases concerning money, theft, immorality, admission of proselytes, laying on of hands, and a host of other things mentioned in the Sanhedrin section of the Mishnah.
These men were known as the “rulers of the synagogue” because they took on the chief care of things, a title mentioned several times in the teachings of Jesus (Mark 5:22 and Luke 8:41). This practice was still in use among the Gentile congregations at Corinth under the apostleship of Paul, where he spoke of the court within the congregation (1 Corinthians 6:1-2).
The nasi was the administrator of the synagogue, and we know that James, the half-brother of Jesus, was the nasi of the early Church at Jerusalem. Early documents such as the Didache suggest that the churches in Asia Minor and Greece treated the Church at Jerusalem with much the same authority as the synagogues did the Sanhedrin.(10) (11)
There also was a public minister of the synagogue called a chazen who prayed, preached behind a wooden pulpit, and took care of the general oversight of the reading of the Law and other congregational duties. He did not read the Law, but stood by the one who did, to correct and oversee, ensuring that it was done properly. He selected seven readers each week who were well-educated in the Hebrew Scriptures. The group consisted of one priest, one Levite, and five regular Israelites (Luke 4:16). The terms overseer of the congregation, angel of the church, and minister of the synagogue all referred to this position.(12)
There were also three men known as almoners or parnasin who cared for the poor and distributed alms and were expected to be scholars of the Scriptures. Since they were also known as gabbay tzedikah, it may be from this function that we get the modern term deacon. Some scholars hold that it was from these seven, the president, the ruler, the overseer, the chazen, and the three parnas, that the idea of selecting “seven good men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” came about (Acts 6:3). These men were appointed over the business affairs of the Church so the apostles would not have to be distracted from their study of the Scriptures and prayer.
In Jewish literature the question is asked, “Who is a scholar worthy of being appointed Parnas?” The answer is “He who is asked about a law from any source, and is able to give an answer.”(13) In modern times the Jews use this term to refer to a lay person, who is also called an elder.
Another function in the ancient synagogue was the shaliach, or announcer. From this position we get the term apostle, meaning one who is sent forth to announce the gospel, a role equivalent to that of our modern missionaries. There was also the maggid, a migratory evangelist of the first century who spoke to various congregations, and the batlanim, a scholarly teacher who was either independently wealthy or on some type of support so he would be available to provide the congregation with accurate academics and answers. There had to be at least ten batlanim in every congregation of one hundred and twenty members. There was even a tradition that a synagogue service could not commence without ten men present.(14) Jesus may have been referring to this tradition when He said, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Next, there was the zakin, a word meaning “old,” more in the sense of maturity than age. This person provided counsel to the people and was similar to a modern-day pastor or elder. In Judaism, those who had reached the age of forty were considered to have attained understanding, and those who were over fifty were considered worthy to counsel the younger people.(15) The rabbi was a prophet after the manner of the post-exilic prophets of Judaism. He carried the responsibility of reading and preaching the Word and exhorting and edifying the people (1 Corinthians 14:3). There was also the interpreter, known as the meturganim. This was a person skilled in languages who stood by the one reading the Law or teaching in a Bet Midrash (a house of study) to interpret into the lingua franca of that day the Hebrew that was being spoken. The use of an interpreter goes back to the time of Ezra, when the interpreter was said to have added the meaning. The Talmud gives many details of the interpreter’s duties in the synagogue.(16) It is from this concept that we understand Jesus’ words, “What you hear in the ear, preach upon the housetops” (Matthew 10:27). This phrase was easily understood by those who were familiar with the system of study in the Bet Midrash, where the teacher would literally speak the message in the interpreter’s ear, who would then shout it out to others, both inside the classroom and out.
Jewish Customs In the Early Church
Besides the organizational structure of the early Church having its roots in the synagogue, many of its customs were also Jewish. All of the initial Christians were either Jews by birth or by conversion, and apparently there were no Gentile members for at least the first ten years. This conclusion is implied by several texts, including Acts 10, where, approximately ten years after His ascension, the Lord had to instruct Peter three times to go into the house of a Gentile. This strongly suggests that the Jewish Church had been meeting house to house and breaking bread only in Jewish homes up to the time (Acts 2:42-46). Furthermore, when Peter entered the house of Cornelius, he explained to his household that he still understood it to be unlawful for a Jew to enter the house of a non-Jew (Acts 10:28).
Further evidence of the Jewishness of the early believers can be found in an incident recorded in Acts 21:20, an incident which occurred some twenty-five years after the Lord’s ascension. When Paul returned to Jerusalem with some charitable contributions for the believers, he was told that during his absence many thousands of Jews had become believers, yet they continued to be staunch upholders of the Law.
Hebraic Names For the Early Church
Not only were the first fifteen elders of the Jerusalem Church Jewish, but so were the initial names applied to the early congregations. The term Minim, meaning “heretics” in Hebrew, was used by some in the Jewish community to describe the new believers. The Way, used in Acts 22:4 and 24:14, was a Messianic term taken from texts such as Isaiah 40:3, which refers to preparing “the way of the Lord.” The Nazoraioi is Greek for Nazarenes (Acts 24:5) and is obviously derived from Jesus’ Jewish hometown. The term Messianists is derived directly from the Hebrew word Messiah. Epiphanius’ history says that before the believers were called Christians, they were for a short time known by the title Iessaioi, probably derived from the name Jesus, (17) a name saturated with the idea of salvation. Each of these names has a Hebraic background and is closely related to an Old Testament text.
The word Christian does not come from the Hebrew word for Anointed One but from a Greek word, and was not used by the Jerusalem Church at all. Christian was first used as a Gentile title for the believers at Antioch some forty to forty- five years into the first century (Acts 11:26). The term “were called” suggests that the name was coined by those outside the Church, perhaps to distinguish the disciples of Christ from unconverted Gentiles, as well as from other branches of Judaism. There is no evidence that the term was used extensively as a self-designation by the early Church, since it is only used three times in the New Testament and only once by a believer (Acts 11:26, 26:28, and 1 Peter 4:16).
The word Christian does not appear consistently as a self-designation until the Didache,(18) and was used later by Ignatius during the late first or early second century.(19) The reason this term was not used earlier may be explained by a letter from the Roman Governor Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan around the year A.D. 112. The letter indicates that those identifying with this name were killed.(20)
In examining the Jewish roots of the Church, it is important to differentiate between the Hebrew Christians, such as the Nazarenes and Messianists at the beginning, and the various groups of Ebionites with Judaizing traits, which were active around the turn of the first century. The early Hebrew Church was composed of those who believed in justification by faith as well as those who stressed traditions that involved legalism. Although most Jewish believers continued to keep the Sabbath and the various laws that differentiated them from non-Jews, strictly as an identification code, they did not require it for their non-Jewish converts. This identification as a Jew had nothing to do with salvation, but was kept by Jews as a reminder of the special eternal Covenant that God had made with them as a chosen people. The Covenant reminded God’s people that they were the guardians of the Holy Land and were obliged to maintain and preserve the Law (Genesis 15:18, 17:7-10, Deuteronomy 7:6, Psalms 105:45, Ezekiel 16:6, Isaiah 44:1 and Romans 3:1-2).
After an investigation of all Scripture relating to Israel, it appears that the chosen people status was not awarded as a special privilege, but because the people of Israel could be trusted to preserve the Law of God (Psalms 105:45). Although some 170 of the 613 Laws of the Torah apply to moral and ethical matters, few Christians recognize them as a part of modern theology and it has fallen to the Jewish people to preserve this aspect of God’s Law until the present.
[VIEW AN IMPORTANT VIDEO- after the bibliography below- ON THE TOPIC OF 'THE EARLY MESSIANIC CHURCH': It’s a most enlightening interview on the early history of the Messianic Church. Dr. Robert D. Heidler reveals some amazing information during his visit to the Sid Roth TV program- “It’s Supernatural”.]
***Also, the manuscript spoken of in the video interview (at the bottom) is now a published book entitled “The Messianic Church Arising!”
Chapter One 25 Teaching Questions Follow in the Text. In order to make this book a viable part of your studies, Ron included questions that may be used in discussion within a group, or for your own enrichment and review. 20 Endnotes for Chapter One: (1) Isaac Boyle, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, H.E. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, l974), pp. 4-6. (2) Ibid., H. E.: 3, 32,6. (3) Us, H.E.IV.5. (4) Eus, H.E.III 5,3; Epiph.paw.29:7,7;30:2,7. (5) Ibid., H.E. 4,6. (6) Baring, Gould, “Schonfield’s History,” Lost and Hostile History, (London: Duckworth Publications, 1936), p. 35. (7) Rabbi Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, Sanh. 9:6; Yev. 90 (London: Soncino Press, 1948). (8) Jerusalem Talmud, Meg. 3:1; Ket. 105a; Sot. 7:7,8; Yoma 7:1 (London: Soncino Press, 1948). (9) Alexander Roberts, ed., Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company), p.186. (10) Roswell Hitchcock, ed., Didache 8, (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox Publishers, 1989), chapters 11-15. (11) Issac Boyle, trans., Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.25.4 (Grand Rapids; Baker Book House, 1974). (12) John Lightfoot, “Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica,” Hebraica, Vol. II., Rev. 3:1,7,14 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publications, 1979), pp. 89-99. (13) Rabbi Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, Shab. 114a (London: Soncino Press, 1948). (14) Lightfoot, op.cit., p.89. (15) Philip Blackman, ed., Mishnah, I Pet. 5:5; I Tim. 5:1; Avot 5:21 (New York: Judaica Press, 1983). (16) Rabbi Isidore Epstein, ed., Soncino Talmud, Meg. 4; Maimon.Tephillah, 12; Massecheth Soph. 10 (London: Soncino Press, 1948). (17) Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1992), p. 13. (18) Roswell Hitchcock, ed., Didache, 12:4 (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox Publishers, 1989). (19) David Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 925-26. (20) David Freedman, ed., “Pliny Letters 10:96,” Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I (New York: Doubleday), p. 926
THE MESSIANIC CHURCH