Who Was Josephus? Fall 2013 Lecture Series in Jewish History Resumes This Week


Photo: Aryeh Abramson looks out over Iroquois Falls, Ontario, Canada, where he spent the Sukkot vacation visiting his grandparents.

Captured by the Roman General (and later Emperor) Vespasian while defending the Galilee, Josephus ultimately turned against his coreligionists and served as an advisor to the forces besieging Jerusalem during the first Roman-Jewish War. His first-hand observations of the destruction of the Temple and the collapse of Jewish sovereignty are an exceptionally important source for Jewish history–but are they reliable? Taking the name of his Roman patrons, he went on to a brilliant literary career as a prolific apologist for Judaism, but do his later works compensate for his affiliation with the Romans?

The Fall 2013 lecture series in Jewish History is scheduled to resume this Wednesday evening at 8:30 pm, Young Israel of Bal Harbour, 9592 Harding Avenue. The lectures are free and open to the community.

Free Download of Maimonides on Teshuvah by Dr. Henry Abramson

rambam front cover

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was one of the greatest minds the Jewish people ever produced: philosopher, jurist, physician, and an extremely prolific writer who left us classics like The Guide for the Perplexed and the Mishneh Torah.  For several years I have been in the habit of reviewing his Laws of Repentance in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days, and last year I published a translation and brief commentary on this phenomenal and moving work of Jewish spirituality.  I’ve just released an updated second edition of that translation and commentary, and I am happy to offer it to the larger public as a free download during the annual season of repentance and renewal.  Please feel free to visit this SITE and enter in coupon code PE59F.  You may download it for free in a file optimized for your e-reader (Kindle, iPad, Nook, etc.) or in a PDF file suitable for printing.  If you really prefer a hard copy, you may purchase one here, enter code ABM36FKK for 20% off.  It’s not a big deal, no seriously original scholarship or anything, just my private Rosh Hashanah exercise that I am happy to share with others. Enjoy it in good health!

Pope Gregory I and the Jews (This Week in Jewish History) Dr. Henry Abramson

15th century bust of Gregorius I Maximus by Hans Bilger. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
15th century bust of Gregorius I Maximus by Hans Bilger. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Gregory I (“the Great”) was one of the most influential Church leaders of the medieval period. His policy on the treatment of Jews in Christian Europe, known by the Latin phrase “Sicut Judaeis,” instituted an official if ambivalent position that lasted from the sixth century to the beginnings of the modern era.


Jewish Children Forced Into the Tsar’s Army (This Week in Jewish History)

Isidor Kaufman (1853-1921), Portrait of a Yeshiva Boy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Isidor Kaufman (1853-1921), Portrait of a Yeshiva Boy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Reeling from the humiliating defeat of the Crimean War, the Russian Empire decides its policy of forcibly conscripting Jewish boys into military service is counterproductive, and finally abandons the cruel decades-old policy of taking underage children into thirty-one years of military training and service.


The Fox in the Ruins: The Roman-Jewish Wars (HIS 155 Lecture 1.3)

Coin from the Bar-Kokhba movement. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. on Wikimedia Commons.
Coin from the Bar-Kokhba movement. Source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. on Wikimedia Commons.


To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.

Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

3. The Roman-Jewish Wars

Our sources for the Roman-Jewish wars of the first and second centuries are more substantial than those of earlier periods, primarily because the importance of developments in this tiny region of the middle east extended far beyond its borders into the heart of the Empire itself.  From the Jewish perspective, the cataclysmic destruction of the Temple represented a collapse of Jewish nationhood that represented a dramatic interruption in the very cosmos. Rabbi Eleazar (no relation to the Eleazar of the 1st century) teaches, “from the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron separates the Jewish people from their Father in Heaven” (Talmud: Berakhot 32b). From the Roman perspective, this tiny country on the Mediterranean coast represented a perennial irritant, rebelling with the slightest provocation and draining military and administrative resources for centuries. Thus the Roman-Jewish wars received more historical attention, however biased, than any other period in Jewish history.

The principal Jewish source for the era is the Talmud, a massive and sprawling document that took centuries to compose, editing the oral teachings of Rabbis who lived well before the beginning of the Common Era and codified in its present form in the third century (the Jerusalem, or Palestinian Talmud) and the fifth century (the Babylonian Talmud). The scope and content of the Talmud will be discussed later in this work, but for our purposes at this point it is sufficient to note that the Talmud’s concern with history is principally religious in nature. Extracting historical data from the Talmud requires careful reading, often at odds with the intent of the authors of a given passage, who were more occupied with the transmission of ethical and spiritual truth than accurate historical data. Consider, for example, the Talmudic locus classicus on the causes of the  destruction of the Temple (Gittin 55b-56a):

Rabbi Yohanan said…the destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa in this way. A certain man had a friend named Kamtsa and an enemy named Bar Kamtsa. He once threw a party and said to his servant, “go summon Kamtsa.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtsa [by mistake]. When the host found him at the party he said, “…what are you doing here? Get out!”  Bar Kamtsa replied, “since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” The host refused. Bar Kamtsa said, “then let me pay for half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Let me pay for the whole party.” The host refused, and threw him out. 
 Bar Kamtsa said, “since the Rabbis were sitting there and did nothing, this shows that they agreed with the host. I will go to the state and malign them.” He went and said to the Emperor, “the Jews are rebelling against you!”  The Emperor asked, “how can this be proved?” Bar Kamtsa said, “send them an offering and see whether they will accept it as a sacrifice.” The Emperor sent Bar Kamtsa with a fine calf. 
 While on the way, Bar Kamtsa inflicted a wound on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place that constitutes a blemish for a sacrifice for Jews but not for others. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order to avoid offending the state, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas objected, saying “people will say that blemished animals are accepted as sacrifices.”  The Rabbis then proposed that Bar Kamtsa be killed to remove the threat he represented, but Rabbi Zekharyah ben Avkulas said, “is it a capital crime to inflict a wound on a consecrated animal?” 
 Rabbi Yohanan then noted, “Rabbi Zekahyah ben Avkulas’ attention to detail facilitated the destruction of our House, the burning of our Temple, and our exile from our land.

This passage continues with more geopolitical and regional political information, but for the composers of the Talmud, the underlying cause of the first Roman-Jewish war had nothing to do with taxation or national oppression. The real cause of the destruction of the second Temple was in fact “baseless hatred” (sinat hinam), exemplified by the cruel treatment of Bar Kamtsa and his outsized demand for revenge. Also implicated are the Rabbis (the Talmud, like the Hebrew Scriptures in general, rarely fails to miss an opportunity for scathing self-criticism), first for ignoring the insult to Bar Kamtsa, and then later for their inability to see past the immediate ritual detail to the larger national implications of Bar Kamtsa’s plot.  For the Rabbis (Rabbi Yohanan in particular), this historical analysis is ultimately the most important takeaway message from the first Roman-Jewish war, and in fact Rabbi Yohanan’s interpretation conforms closely to the general nature of internal Jewish sectarian politics as well as the general tenor of Roman-Jewish relations. It remains relevant even if, for example, the entire story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa is entirely fictional.

From the Roman side, our principal source is the prolific and complex figure of Flavius Josephus, a Jew who initially participated in fighting against the Romans.  Among his extensive literary achievements is an autobiography, a longish history of the Jews entitled Jewish Antiquities, and a major work on the first Roman-Jewish war, easily the most important contemporary source on the topic. Unfortunately, Josephus’ historical work presents many problems of interpretation, especially because only his Greek-language version has survived. Josephus also composed a version in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jews of that era (more on this language later). The Greek version was certainly written for his Roman patrons and the wider population of the Empire, and it is difficult to imagine how he might have phrased things for a more parochial  Jewish readership in the land of Israel. His relationship with the Jewish population was certainly compromised by his defection to the Romans, especially given the particulars of his capture: surrounded by hostile forces, Josephus proposed a Masada-style mass suicide, but so engineered it that he would survive and then surrender. His decision has been characterized as treasonous, or at the very least a type of Pharisaic accommodation to overwhelming force, but at the very least it colors his depiction of the conflict as a whole.

Roman bust believed to be a likeness of Flavius Josephus. Looks Jewish to me.
Roman bust believed to be a likeness of Flavius Josephus. Looks Jewish to me.

* * * * *

With the decline of the Hasmonean kingdom in the first century BCE, the land of Israel came under the sway of the powerful Roman Empire. By 37 BCE the Romans ruled Israel directly through Herod, a descendant of the Idumean people whose conversion to Judaism was considered highly suspect by the Pharisees. Herod attempted to legitimize his rule by marrying a Hasmonean princess named Mariamne (Miriam), but later had her executed as part of a highly dysfunctional family dynamic that would satisfy the most jaded 21st century reality TV fan.  A controversial and powerful ruler, among his more lasting contribution to Jewish history are major renovations to the Temple and construction of impressive palaces.

Herod’s building campaign required extensive taxation, a burden on the Jewish population whose impact was felt decades after his death in 4 CE. Israel was divided among Herod’s sons, and then further downgraded to the status of a mere province of the Roman Empire. Tensions increased under the rule of Emperor Caligula (reigned 37-41 CE), particularly in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt, as Jews bristled under the imposition of civic requirements that directly assaulted their religious sensibilities.  Roman officials could not seem to understand that the Jews, with their intense monotheism and high aversion to physical representations of worship, would refuse to bow down to statues of the Emperor and the like. Such acts of overt obeisance and fealty were anathema to the Jews, even though Romans considered them simply markers of good citizenship, like standing for the national anthem at a sporting event today. Classical literature, both Greek and Latin, is rife with references to the supposed misanthropy of the Jews, invariably the result of basic misunderstandings of Jewish culture. Circumcision and the dietary laws were seen as exclusionary and clannish, the Sabbath laws were interpreted as inherent laziness and sloth, and so on. The Weltanschauung of the Jews was diametrically opposed to that of the Romans, and there seemed to be no way to mediate this conflict.

Judea erupted in open revolt in the year 66. According to Josephus, the flashpoint occurred in the coastal city of Caesaria, where Roman officials tolerated an open display of idol worship in front of a Jewish synagogue.  In Jerusalem, a Temple official named Eleazar formally ceased prayers on behalf of the Roman Empire, prompting a swift and brutal reaction from the Romans, which in turn ignited a larger outbreak led by the zealots, who overran the Roman garrison in Jerusalem.  Many of the leaders of this early revolt came from a group known as the sicarii (“knife-men,” from the latin term for dagger), a splinter group of Zealots.

The rebels enjoyed early successes, including a remarkable victory over the Romans at Bet Holon, but the endgame was inevitably in favor of the Romans. The Emperor Nero appointed his general Vespasian to manage the conflict, whose strategy apparently included a profound understanding of Jewish rebel behavior.  Vespasian intentionally ignored Jerusalem for the initial period of the war, allowing the Jewish rebels to engage in brutal and violent internecine struggles that eroded their strength without Roman interference. Vespasian and his son Titus conquered the Galilee region in the north, and then slowly made their way down the Mediterranean coast, leaving Jerusalem for last. Vespasian did not complete the task, as Rome was thrown in turmoil by the suicide of Nero and a succession of brief-lived emperors. In 69 Vespasian was proclaimed ruler of the Roman Empire, and he left Titus to crush the remnants of the Jewish rebellion.

Vespasian’s invitation to Rome had important reverberations in Jewish history. The Talmud describes Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s foresight in the context of the rebellion, as well as shedding light on the nature of Pharisee-Zealot relations. Convinced that the rebellion was doomed, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai sought to negotiate with Vespasian and create a kind of intellectual Noah’s ark, ultimately preserving the spiritual heritage of Judaism. The Zealots, however, refused to allow him to leave the city, suspecting that he would betray their cause. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai faked his own death and had his students request permission from the rebels to remove his coffin for burial, but the rebels remained suspicious.  Permission was granted, but only after the rebel guards drove iron bars through the top of the coffin to prove that he was in fact deceased. Amazingly, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai survived, and emerged from his coffin outside the city walls to meet with Vespasian.  The Rabbi surprised Vespasian with the accurate prediction that he would become Emperor, and in gratitude Vespasian granted Rabbi Yohanan his three requests.

“Give me Yavneh and its Sages,” asked Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a fateful statement that would ensure nothing less than the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Vespasian agreed to allow the Rabbis to congregate unmolested in the coastal city of Yavneh.  Vespasian also spared the descendants of Rabban Gamilel and allowed a physician to treat Rabbi Tsadok. Unwittingly, Vespasian’s promise to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai would ultimately allow the Jews to outlive the Roman Empire itself. Jerusalem would fall, and Vespasian would have his victory, but Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai’s triumph was still greater.

Jerusalem succumbed to Titus’ forces shortly thereafter.  The Temple was destroyed, an event that has been commemorated by Jews ever since on the 9th day of the month of Av, a day of fasting and mourning.  There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, of the French Emperor Napoleon entering a synagogue on the 9th of Av, expecting a warm welcome from the Jews for destroying the ghetto walls and proclaiming their freedom. He asked why they fasted and sat on the floor, and the story relates that he was amazed to hear that the Jews were mourning the destruction of the Temple and the loss of their homeland. “Any people who can mourn their homeland and Temple after nineteen hundred years,” he is reputed to have said, “will one day regain their homeland and Temple.”

* * * * *

Even with the Temple in ruins, the Zealots continued to fight on against the Romans, making their last stand at Masada, a stark and imposing flat-topped mountain next to the Dead Sea. Isolated in the arid Judean Desert and scorched by the sun at the lowest point relative to sea level on the face of the planet, the Zealots held off the Romans until the year 73, when they massacred themselves in a huge suicide pact which only a few survived.  In the twentieth century, Masada took on huge symbolic importance for the fledgling Israeli state, and many officers in the Israeli Defense Force were sworn into duty atop the mountain to the slogan “Masada will not fall again.” Josephus’ account of hundreds of suicides does not seem to be supported by the archaeological evidence, however, and the issue of suicide remains problematic in Jewish law, not to mention political ideology. The last stand at Masada and the characterization of role of the Zealots in the first Roman-Jewish War continues to be a subject of debate among Israelis.

The Second Roman-Jewish War was fought in the following century.  A much more modest conflict, some historians prefer not to use the term “war” to describe the conflict at all, while others prefer to call it the Third Roman-Jewish War, considering a revolt in 115 the second.  At any rate, the Bar Kokhba movement was clearly the most influential in Jewish history after the First Roman-Jewish War, and we will follow that designation here.  A charismatic leader by the name Shimon bar Kosiba, known popularly as Bar Kokhba (“son of a star”) because the Aramaic translation of his name could be rendered “son of a lie,” rallied Jews for another challenge to Roman domination (after the failure of the insurrection, his detractors used this in a derogatory fashion). His movement had very strong religious and even messianic overtones, and the elderly Pharisaic scholar Rabbi Akiva openly endorsed it, proclaiming Bar Kokhba the long-awaited Messiah despite the opposition of many of his contemporaries.

The movement learned from many of the errors of the earlier conflicts, and in the year 132 struck a Roman garrison in Modi’in. The Romans were unprepared for the conflict, and Bar Kokhba’s forces were able to hold them off for three years of brutal guerilla warfare before they succumbed at a final battle at Betar.  Emperor Hadrian imposed horrific persecutions following the defeat of the rebels, including the grotesque execution of Rabbis who had supported Bar Kokhba, known in Jewish tradition as the “Ten Martyrs of the State.”  They included Rabbi Akiva himself, whose death by flaying with iron combs was immortalized by his students in the Talmud. “All my life,” he said as he endured the Roman tortures, “I wanted to fulfill the verse, ‘and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Now I finally have the opportunity to love God with all my soul, will I not take advantage of this?” He died with the verse, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” on his lips, the last phrase that a Jew must utter before dying.



Judaism and the Origins of Christianity HIS 155 Lecture 1.4

Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Synagoga, Notre Dame de Paris (19th c.). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Born in turbulent times, Christianity emerged from its intensely Jewish roots to become the official religion of the Roman Empire within a remarkably brief period of time.  As a daughter religion to Judaism, however, dissent between the two faiths slowly dominated the discourse as Christianity became less of a Jewish movement, and more of a choice favored by gentiles throughout the Empire.

To view the Prezi associated with this lecture, please click here.


Excerpt from “The Jewish Diaspora: A Brief History”

Henry Abramson

4. Judaism and the Origins of Christianity

From a Jewish perspective, the pivotal figure in the birth of Christianity was Saint Paul rather than Jesus.  A self-described persecutor of the early followers of Jesus, he never met Jesus in life, but recounts a dramatic conversionary experience while on the road to Damascus sometime around the year 35 CE.  Jesus appeared to him and addressed him by less well-known Jewish name Saul, asking why he insisted on attacking the nascent movement.  Struck blind for three days, Paul emerged from the encounter as Jesus’ most devoted disciple, ultimately traveling throughout the eastern Mediterranean and initiating the landslide of support for Jesus that would culminate in the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in the early 4th century CE. Without Paul’s activity (and precluding any Divine status, of course), the ultimate trajectory of Jesus’ teachings Jesus would probably have been lost to Jewish history.

Who was Jesus, Jewishly speaking? Despite the phenomenal impact he had on world history, the sources we have to understand his life are precious few and deeply flawed. Specifically, we must rely on the testimonies of his followers, recorded often decades after Jesus’ death sometime in the 30s, and later redacted into the Christian Bible. Four of these texts, known as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, describe the life of Jesus and his relationship with the larger Jewish community. The nuanced changes between these texts reflect not only the relationship of the authors to Jesus himself, but the image of Jews as they were perceived in the decades following Jesus’ death when the Gospels were set to writing. Other books in the Christian Bible, notably the many works of Paul, are also valuable as insights into the way Jesus was perceived by the Jews of his day.

Working with the four basic religio-political orientations of the early first century, it seems clear that Jesus be understood as a “rebellious Pharisee.” The predominant thrust of his teachings are certainly well in line with the Rabbis, in particular Hillel, whom Jesus borrows from liberally. Jesus’ emphasis on humility, pacifism, and the importance of basic ethical conduct place him squarely within the parameters of traditional Pharisaic, or Rabbinic, Judaism. Indeed, many of his most eloquent pronouncements are actually paraphrases or even direct quotations of biblical passages or rabbinic teachings, including Matthew 22:36-40, in which Jesus refers explicitly to the Hear, O Israel prayer (the shema, Deuteronomy 6:5) as the greatest commandment, followed by “love your neighbor as yourself” (quoting Leviticus 19:18).

At the same time, Jesus was known for his unconventional and often assertive challenges to authority, even Rabbinic authority. Consider for example one of his childhood exploits, the “overturning of the tables of the moneychangers,” described in Matthew 21:12-13. The Temple rituals required a large number of sacrificial animals, including doves that were purchased by pilgrims in Jerusalem. Furthermore, certain mandatory offerings required the use of specific coinage such as the half-shekel contribution. As a result, the Temple courtyard was a place of considerable business transactions, a  market where buyers and sellers would trade for religious purposes. Jesus evidently found this crass commercialism unbecoming to the dignity of the Temple, and created something of a ruckus, overturning the tables of the moneychangers and exclaiming “it is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer”…and you have turned it into a den of robbers!” The sentiment would sit well with the Rabbinic aversion to duplicity in business, but Jesus’ actions would clearly put him on the extreme end of the spectrum of Pharisaic response to corruption, hardly the  “strategic retreat” described in a previous chapter.

Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Christ Expels the Moneychangers from the Temple, Cecco del Caravaggio, 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another example of Jesus’ difference from conventional Pharisees would be his pronounced populism, a tendency that often put him in circles that the Rabbis would generally avoid, including prostitutes, thieves, and even tax collectors. Invariably, these individuals were admirably transformed by their contact with Jesus, but the very fact that Jesus ministered to them stands in contrast to many Rabbinic teachings, such as Nitai of Arbel’s statement, i”distance yourself from an evil neighbor” (Avot 1:7). Jesus clearly defined his own path, although the general direction of his teachings were clearly in line with the views of the Pharisees.

Readers of the New Testament may therefore be puzzled by the fact that Jesus has some remarkably strong debates with Pharisees.  How could he be a Pharisee himself, and voice such harsh criticism? Consider for example Matthew 23, in which Jesus launches into a chapter-long condemnation of the Pharisees, describing them as two-faced, cold, arrogant figures who care only for their own honor and little for the people as a whole. Passages such as this have caused the word “Pharisee” to enter the English language as a synonym for “hypocrite” or “self-righteous.”

In reality, Jesus’ invective must be understood as a type of family dynamic: Jesus condemns the Pharisees so harshly precisely because he is closest to them. Just as a sibling will not hesitate to voice strong criticism to a brother or sister because their close relationship permits such communication, so too Jesus criticizes the Pharisees because he considers himself (and was probably so considered) a member of the family.  Jesus and his teachings are best understood as the expressions of a strong statement of Pharisaic Judaism, perhaps couched in a stronger form than was considered appropriate for the Rabbis of his day, but nevertheless squarely within the family dynamic.

* * *

From the perspective of Jewish history, however, Jesus’ death was far more significant than his life. Jews have suffered centuries of persecution for their perceived role in his crucifixion, a charge which not only has no basis in historical reality, it also has no relationship to the Gospel text itself. Nevertheless, Jesus’ cruel fate, known as the Deicide or “killing of god,” was often the pretext for violence against Jewish communities well into the twentieth century.

The basics of Jesus’ end are well known to readers of the Christian New Testament. Jesus is betrayed by one of his own followers (the unfortunately named Judas) to the Roman authorities. This betrayal was likely viewed with sympathy by the Sadducees, represented by the High Priest Caiaphas, who convened a trial in the Jewish court of the Sanhedrin to condemn Jesus (described in Matthew 26). The Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate jailed Jesus and, as per a custom undocumented in any other source, he offered the Jews the opportunity to free him as an act of Roman clemency. The Jewish mob assembled before Pilate, however, insisted that he free Barabbas, a common thief, instead. When Pilate asked the Jews to confirm this choice, they responded “his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25). Pilate then famously “washed his hands” of the affair, sealing Jesus’ fate. He was scourged and crucified, the typically Roman form of capital punishment. The Jews’ response, recorded by the author of the Gospel According to Matthew several decades after Jesus’ death, would be understood by contemporary readers as a prefigurement of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Unfortunately, readers in later centuries have interpreted this passage as a biblical sanction for Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, with dire results.

Blaming Jews for the death of Jesus is also a direct violation of the very basic Christian theological principal that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity, and not because of historical accident of any particular group’s behavior at the time, neither Jew nor Roman nor Greek (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8). As we will discuss in later chapter, however,  even a fundamental and inspiring Christian theological concept of the collective human guilt for Jesus’ death is no match for the elemental force that is human hatred. As Jean-Paul Sartre once famously put it, “if the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.”

* * *

The rise of Paul, Jesus’ most prominent disciple, signified a dramatic change in the fledgling Christian movement. Born in Tarsus to a middle-class Jewish family of tent makers, Paul’s personal conversion to early Christianity marked the beginning of an increasing gentlization of the movement, as more and more non-Jews chose to become followers of the martyred Jesus. Paul, in contrast to many of the other apostles, encouraged this trend, arguing that Jesus’ message of salvation was too big for the tiny circle of Jewish followers he had attracted in Judea, and deserved to be heard by Greeks and Romans as well.

Paul’s position provoked a major debate among early Christians with regards the proper role of the Torah, or as Paul repeatedly put it in Greek, “the Law” (nomos). Two aspects of the debate are especially relevant for our purposes. First, what was the relationship of the practical commandments of the Law for Christians, Jew and Gentile?  Did Jesus’ ministry obviate the standard requirements of Jewish life, including the dietary laws, the Sabbath and so on, or did halakhah remain as authoritative as ever?  Furthermore, were Gentile converts to Christianity similarly obligated as Jewish Christians to submit to circumcision and other Jewish practices? It must be remembered that “Christianity” per se did not even exist at this time, merely a circle of Jews struggling to articulate the legacy of their late, charismatic leader. Paul’s record on the demands of the Law is somewhat ambivalent, but history decided the matter for him: as Gentile Christians steadily outnumbered the dwindling percentage of Jewish Christians through the second and third centuries, the observance of any form of halakhah withered.

The second debate concerning the role of the Law was perhaps still more significant. As mentioned earlier, the very antiquity of Judaism was highly valued in the ancient world, and the Torah was correctly viewed as the central proof for the validity and value of the faith. If Jesus’ teachings were viewed as a departure from that text, the movement would lose a considerable amount of prestige among would-be Gentile converts. A passage in Deuteronomy illustrates the disdain the ancients had for the faddish new religions that Jews seem prone to adopt “for they worship gods that no one heard of, and people say, ‘oh,  that’s just a new Jewish thing.”  Christianity’s organic connection to the Torah was obvious to the early Jewish followers, but how would Gentiles understand it? Furthermore, it was very clear that the Torah and later prophetic writings were an extended story of a particular people and their God–how did the new religion describe the relationship of Gentiles to this story? In particular, what was to be done with the numerous passages that affirmed the Jews as God’s “chosen people”?

The consensus that emerged from Paul’s ministry is known as the Concept of Election, an aspect of the Pauline Doctrine that transformed Christianity into a Gentile movement. Basically, the solution to the contradiction between the chosen status of the Jews in the Bible and the elevation of the Christians (including Gentile converts to Christianity) was that Jews had lost God’s favor through their refusal to recognize Jesus as the Messiah.  This act of betrayal irreparably severed the relationship between the Jews and God, argues the theory, and this connection can only be regained through acceptance of Jesus as Messiah. The true inheritors of the biblical promise are the Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, and the Hebrew scriptures must be read as an extended and sophisticated prefigurement of Jesus’ ministry and the future life of the  Church.

* * *

Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Representation of Church and Synagogue from the 14th century Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. Note the upright staff of the crowned Church, contrasted with the broken, bareheaded Synagogue. Church holds the Holy Grail whereas Synagogue is slowly releasing the tablets of the Law. Most significantly, Church’s eyes are open , while Synagogue’s eyes are blinded by an ominous snake wrapped around her head. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The separation between traditionalist Jews and Jewish Christians was mutually reinforced by the turn of the first century with the institution of a specific “blessing” in the daily Amidah prayer.  Composed by Samuel the Lesser, the text of this liturgical insertion specifically calls down condemnation on the “informers” (malshinim) understood in context as a reference to Jewish Christians who may have slandered the Jewish community to Roman authorities. This insertion—which remains in the traditional liturgy to this day—was used as public litmus test to eliminate Jews who harbored Christian sensibilities from the broader community. A person suspected of Christian leanings would be asked to lead the prayer services, and the audience would listen carefully for the inclusion or exclusion of this new passage: if the prayer leader uttered it, that was a demonstration of fidelity to the community and a rejection of Christian belief. Omitting the passage would reveal the individual’s sympathy for the Christian movement, and could lead to forcible eviction from the synagogue and widespread communal ostracism.  Some scholars believe the apostle John suffered such a fate, and in fact the Gospel of John contains some of the strongest anti-Jewish language of the all Christian scripture. 

By the second or third decade of the second century, the rift between Judaism and Christianity was complete. Belief in a corporeal son of god was simply incompatible with traditionalist beliefs, let alone a deceased Messiah. Unlike many other heterodox movements within Judaism, however, the increasing proportion of Gentiles participating in the early Church, particularly given their non-observance of Jewish law, made reabsorption of Jewish Christians into the traditionalist community impossible. Writing decades and even centuries later, the Rabbis of the Talmud look back on this separation with a variety of perspectives, often condemning Jesus in harsh terms. One passage found in Tractate Sotah (47a), however, presents a more wistful perspective.  The section is hardly historical, yet it says much about how the Rabbis retrospectively viewed the development of Christianity.

The passage is cited in the context of a discussion of proper pedagogic behavior: teachers are urged to “draw close with the right hand and push away with the left,” meaning, make students feel valued (draw close with the right, stronger hand) while maintaining appropriate professional distance (push away with the left). Teachers should not, the Talmud warns, “push away with both hands…like Yehoshua ben Perahyah, who pushed away his student with both hands.” His student is identified as none other than Jesus, and the Talmud records an incident that, at least metaphorically, marked the origins of Christianity.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah were traveling and stopped at an in, where they were treated with great honor and hospitality by a female inkeeper. The Rabbi remarked to Jesus, “How pleasant is this woman,” using a Hebrew word (na’ah) that could be misunderstood as “beautiful.” Jesus, the story goes, took the Rabbi’s comment the wrong way, and responded “well, her eyes are a little too round.” Incensed that Jesus thought he was speaking of her physical appearance, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah placed Jesus in excommunication with a blast of four hundred shofar horns (a typical Talmudic use of hyperbole). Chastened, Jesus begged forgiveness on several occasions, only to be repeatedly rejected. Finally, Jesus approached his teacher during the shema prayer, which may not be interrupted. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahyah had in mind to accept Jesus back into his good graces, and held up his hand to indicate that he should wait until the prayer was concluded. Once again Jesus misunderstood the gesture, thinking it was yet another rejection, and he left for good. The separation—the result of tragic miscommunication—was complete.

The fascinating aspect of this story, and its inclusion in  the Talmud, is that the point of the story for Jewish readers is not the origins of Christianity, but the criticism of Jesus’ teacher. His overly harsh treatment of Jesus, “pushing away with both hands,” contributed to the divorce between Judaism and early Christianity, with far-reaching ramifications.

Jews, Lepers and the Black Death (This Week in Jewish History)

Jews Burned to Death in Strasbourg, c. 1349. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Jews Burned to Death in Strasbourg, c. 1349. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The summer of 1321 was plagued with rumors that Jews had entered into a conspiracy with lepers (some versions also included Muslims) to poison the wells of Europe, resulting in mass hysteria and mob violence. King Philip V was eventually able to quell the movement, but it resurfaced twenty years later in a much more potent form as the Black Death swept through Europe.


Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (This Week in Jewish History)

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) Source: Wikimedia Commons

In August of 1778, the non-Jewish writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote to his brother of a new literary project designed to further tolerance of Jews in German society. The result was Nathan the Wise, a sensation that was initially banned by the Church and heavily criticized by antisemites of the day.


The Pale of Settlement (This Week in Jewish History)

Emil Flohri, "Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews" (1904).  Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Emil Flohri, “Stop Your Cruel Oppression of the Jews” (1904). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Officially banned in 1479, no Jews lived in the Russian Empire until Tsarina Catherine II conquered a major portion of Polish territory, instantly inheriting the largest single concentration of Jews in the world. Under her rule the Pale of Settlement was established, determining the region where Jews were allowed to reside, however tenuously, until the 20th century.