Why Did the Jews Persecute the First Christians?
The message that Jesus of Nazareth was the long awaited Christ – the “Hope of Israel” – was a great affront to the Jewish nation from the very beginning of his ministry. Doubtless when the coming messiah was discussed by first century Jews it conjured images of a conqueror king like the heroic Maccabees of the second century B.C. They longed to be free of foreign oppression and see their lands restored to the possession of Abraham’s descendants. The land known once as the nation of Israel was peopled with Samaritans, who, though they worshiped the same God, denied the centrality of the Great Temple of Jerusalem that so defined the nation of Judah. Judah itself, like much of the known world, was once again ruled by a foreign king, and the conquering nation was promoting virtually the same Hellenized culture the Jews had fought so hard to be rid of.
But Jesus did not promise to fight of the Romans like the Maccabees had fought the Seleucids, nor to enforce the traditions of the Jews. He preached that there was greater value in the godliness of a Samaritan than the bloodline of a Jew1. Worse, he even promised a Samaritan (and a Samaritan woman, no less!) that the time would come when worship would not be offered at the Temple, or any holy place, but in spirit only2. The greatest affront to the Jews offered by the burgeoning Christian church seems to have been tied heavily into a simmering, internal conflict between foreign influences and traditional Judaism taking place in the first century A.D.
Ultimately, Jesus was condemned by the Jews on the grounds of blasphemy*, however, when the Jewish leaders were dealing with his apostles and converts to the new faith, blasphemy laws seem to have taken a back seat. When the apostle were first arrested for preaching a resurrected Christ, the Jewish leaders resolved to content themselves with waiting and allowing this aberrant teaching to die out on its own accord. After soundly beating the men, they charged them to stop preaching their gospel. After this, the apostles seem to have been somewhat ignored for a time3a. But even as the apostles enjoyed this vague protection, the treatment toward their disciples betrays a different motive for persecution than those sighted by the Jews who tried Jesus.
Hebrews and Hellenists
To understand Jewish sentiment toward the first Christians it is important to recognize the background of first century Palestine. The Jewish nation had long been occupied by foreigners and ever since the days of Alexander the great, these powers had sought to Hellenize their Jewish subjects – that is, to replace their distinct national character for a thoroughly homogenized Greek culture. But to the Jews, their entire cultural, national, and religious identity was tied inseparably with their worship of God. The Hellenists’ pantheon was fluid; the Jewish God was fixed and exclusive. The Hellenists modeled their lives after the teachings of their philosophers; the Jews listened only to their prophets. It was resistance to Hellenization that had been the cause of the great Maccabean revolt, the high point of late Jewish autonomy4.
But in the wake of that revolt, time and cultural pressure had begun to achieve what force could not – some among the Jews began to concede. Desire for higher social standing among the foreign courts and pragmatic political concessions caused the ruling elites of Judea to yield to Hellenizing pressures and great divisions had formed among the Jews. In the first century A.D., a great tension seems to have formed between two broad groups of Jews, traditionalists and Hellenists. The traditionalists were still fighting against external corruption, some by means of arms – the zealots – some by seeking to codify how the Jewish law ought to be observed in every facet of life – the Pharisees. The Hellenists on the other hand had begun to embrace Greek culture and were viewed as compromisers (or even collaborators). This fracture can be seen even in the earliest days of the Christian church. The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6 gives an account of the Hellenists bringing forward a complaint to the apostles that the “Hebrews” were neglecting their widows in the daily distribution (presumably of alms). As this was a time before any non-Jewish people (gentiles) were admitted into the church, the distinction between Hebrew and Hellenist may be interpreted as one between traditional Jews and Hellenistic Jews** possibly from the diaspora (“dispersion” – Jewish communities outside of Judea)4.
The First Persecution of the Church
This anti-Hellenism seems to be reflected in the earliest accounts of persecution perpetrated by the Jews. The first martyr recorded in the Acts of the Apostles is none other than one of the most prominent Hellenists described in the episode of chapter 6 (described above) – Stephen. Stephen preached the gospel in the synagogue – as was the habit of many of the apostles – but was challenged on the basis that he claimed his Christ would “destroy this place and change the customs that Moses delivered to us3b.” At the instigation of the crowd, Stephen was seized and stoned to death despite mounting an admirable defense against the charges leveled against him.
Chief among those present and giving their approval to Stephen’s death was a man named Saul – who would become one of the most notable and influential figures in the Christian church. At this time, Saul was passionately opposed to the teachings of the church and sought permission to go to Damascus and hunt down Christians wherever he could find them3c. What is notable about this is that, even as Saul sought to root out Christians from among the Jews, he left Jerusalem where the Apostles continued to preach and teach. Persecution in Jerusalem by no means ended with Stephen’s death, as Acts makes it clear many in the church there were scattered far and wide, but still the Hebrew Apostles remained untroubled. All this has led some to draw the conclusion that the earliest persecution of Christians by the Jews was directed not at Christians in general, but at Hellenistic Christians4.
Saul of Tarsus
This conclusion can perhaps find further support in the manner in which persecution was first extended to non-Hellenist among the Jews.
After Saul’s famous conversion (upon which he took the name “Paul”), he began to preach the very gospel that he had once found so intolerable; the Law had been fulfilled in the long awaited Christ, and now salvation was to those who had faith in Jesus apart from works of the law given to them by Moses.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,5”
Much later, having faced much persecution from the Jews, Paul would ask (in response to those who claimed Christians were bound to uphold the Jewish Law) “If I still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case, the offense of the cross has been removed.6b” Paul seems to believe he was persecuted not for blasphemy, but rather for preaching that the cross has fulfilled the law and that the ritual law has been set aside.
Paul’s conversion was a bitter pill to the Jews of Damascus where he first began to preach this gospel3d. Doubtless this was in large part not only because he became a zealous teacher of the nascent Christian faith but because he had been such a notable figure among the Jews. To make matters worse, Paul claimed his ministry was one, not to the Jews, but to the Gentiles! It was not long before Paul was forced to flee Damascus for fear of his own life3e. For a time it seems he fled to Arabia where he could contemplate the faith to which he had so suddenly converted and find some safety6a, only afterward returning to Damascus, and then to Jerusalem where still the Apostles remained, albeit at this time, they seemed far more cautious. It is unclear whether this extra uncertainty was due to a worsening general persecution or Paul’s former reputation. It should be noted however, that even the Hellenist Jews threatened Paul’s life in Jerusalem3f.
The Further Spread of Persecution
The spread of persecution to explicitly include Hebrew Jews was preceded by the first recorded council of church leaders in which it was agreed that the gospel of the cross was meant for the whole world, not the Jews alone. As this gospel began to spread among the gentiles, brought in particular by those Hellenist Jews who were driven from Jerusalem3g,4, its adherents were dubbed “Christians.” This term, apparently first used in Antioch3h seems to have been given by Non-Jewish Greek speakers as a derogatory term for the followers of Christos (Greek translation for “the Anointed One” or “Messiah”), who primarily knew themselves as followers of “The Way”)+.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, Herod Agrippa I, king over Judea, accelerated the persecution of this new sect by ordering the arrest of a number of Christians, including the James the Apostle, brother of John, who he subsequently put to death. Shortly thereafter, Herod ordered the Apostle Peter’s arrest as well3i. If the Hebrew Christians had indeed enjoyed any relative protection from Jewish persecution, Herod Agrippa’s campaign changed all of that. As Agrippa I died suddenly in Caesarea c. 44 A.D., we can see that this progression took place rather quickly in the span of only about ten years.
Final Stage: The Death of James the Righteous
Perhaps the most striking demonstration of the evolution of Jewish persecution is found in the treatment James, the brother of Jesus, especially in contrast to the treatment of Paul.
Paul, after his conversion, was subject to almost immediate threat to life and limb, while James continued to not only be accepted, but esteemed among the Jewish community for many years7. Paul, like James, was a Jew of high standing in his time, but somehow his standing afforded him no protection when he began to preach Christ crucified. The greatest distinction between the two seems to have been their approach to the ritual law.
Paul’s ministry was marked by a vehement opposition to “Judaising” – that is, attempting to force the new believer to adhered to Jewish law6b. It is clear James could not have objected or particularly differed to Paul in any significant way in this regard, as it was James who was established as head of the early church7 and who headed the council which declared the ritual law as unnecessary for gentile believers3g. However, James continued to maintain his customary life as a Jew even after becoming a believer, likely as a way to continue reaching out to his Jewish brethren++. Indeed, he was so devout in his observance of the law that he was given the title “The Righteous,” which, from a Jewish perspective, can only be justified by adherence to the whole law.
Even after persecution had spread to include all Christians, both Hellenist and Hebrew, James continued to be regarded as a leader and religious authority among the Jews. This apparently changed when anti-Christian sentiments among the Jews grew too strong and James’ testimony too public. According to tradition, James was hurled off the Temple parapet for proclaiming Jesus and Christ. He was then beaten to death on the ground with a fuller’s club7. Josephus’ account of James’ death put the date c. 62/63A.D., Eusebius places it closer to Vespasian’s siege of Jerusalem which began in 67A.D. 4a,7. Regardless of exactly when James the Righteous was killed, it was in the early 60’s A.D. that the church began to relocate to Pella, seeking safety from Jewish wrath4.
The Results of Jewish Persecution: The Changing Face of the Church
The relocation of the church leadership coupled with a continuing spread of Christian converts among the gentiles began to change the face of Christianity. The Jews had persecuted the Christians in the hopes that they could protect their captive nation even when Christians by in large considered themselves to be nothing if not Jewish, but the end result was that they forced the church to become a gentile church, one which had increasingly fewer ties with its nation of origin even as it expanded, eventually overpowering the very Empire that had held Israel captive.
The final catalyst to sever ties between the Church and the Temple was the first Jewish revolt and the Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70A.D.. The city was devastated and the great Temple destroyed, shattering the most central national and religious icon of the Jewish nation. From this point on, although a Christian community did once again form in Jerusalem, the church was largely cut off from its Jewish roots4. The destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing dispersion devastated the Jewish nation. Although it would somewhat recover before its ultimate destruction after the second Jewish revolt, persecution from the Jews no longer presented the threat it once had.
But as the Church became increasingly less-Jewish, it came under the scrutiny of the Roman authorities who mistrusted this “New Religion” with its strange and possibly even seditious ways. As the Jewish nation was scattered to the four winds, the church would be faced with a still harsher trial.
Struggling to preserve their national identity in the face of Hellenizing powers, Jews detested the Hellenists. Doubtless Jesus represented a concession in the Jewish view to outsiders with his sympathies toward Samaritans and prophecies of a time when men would worship in spirit and truth, not in the temple. The burgeoning Christian church embraced these teachings, even going so far as to set aside the ritual law – a concession not only to Hellenists, but to gentiles!
By persecuting Christians, the Jews were mounting the same defense against foreign – in particular Hellenistic – influences they had mounted under the leadership of the Maccabees; struggling to preserve their nation and culture against an existential threat.
At first this manifested in attacks against the Hellenists, then the likes of Paul, then the Hebrew apostles such as Peter and James the brother of John, and finally, James the Righteous – the very pinnacle of Jewish community tainted by his Christian conversion.
Shortly after James the Righteous was killed, the leadership of the church moved outside of Judea – to Pella. Shortly thereafter, the a violent revolt broke out in Palestine. Jerusalem was besieged and sacked. In 70A.D. the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed. From this point on, although a Christian community did once again form in Jerusalem, the church was largely cut off from its Jewish roots, and persecution from the Jews no longer presented the threat it once had. Instead, a new threat had emerged, the threat of persecution from a much more formidable opponent – the Roman Empire.
* In John 19:7, the Jews attributed their desire to put Jesus to death to the blasphemy law (Lev 24:16) for calling himself the “son of God” , he is also charged with blasphemy for assuming the title “son of man” and “Christ” – the messiah. (Matt 26:63, Mrk 14:61-65, Luke 22:66-71)
** Natural born Jews who have become Hellenized and/or converts from outside the Jewish nation. It is notable that the Apostles’ solution was to have the Hellenists appoint seven men to serve and so attend to the needs of their community. All of these men had Greek names, though only one was identified explicitly as a proselyte (convert) from Antioch (Acts 6:5)
+ Likely an allusion to Christ’ words “I am the way, the truth, and the life, none come to the Father except through me” John 14:6
++ Not a hypocritical practice, but an act of humility in voluntarily giving up liberties enjoyed by Christians in order to reach the lost. What Paul would call being all things to all people (Rom 9:19-23).
1. The Gospel According to Luke, 10:25-37
2. The Gospel According to John 4:21-26
3. The Acts of the Apostles
4. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1
5. Romans 3:21-24
7. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23, Williamson Translation
Questions & Answers
Why did Agrippa I persecute Christians?
Agrippa I was extremely zealous in his defense of Jewish interests. Aside from a simple religious opposition to Christianity, and the fact that such persecution won him some popularity among his subjects (c.f. Acts 12:3) it is also likely he saw the growth of Christianity in Judea as a threat to the region. Unrest was growing as the Jews became more violent in their persecutions, and if this turned into open conflict it would draw the intervention of Roman authorities. This kind of political interest can be seen in his predecessors and contemporaries, such as when the Jewish elders decided to execute Jesus (John 11:48).