Paul’s efforts accelerated separation from Judaism

in the beginning
Father Mike Stubbs is the pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park and has a degree in Scripture from Harvard University.

by Father Mike Stubbs

Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. Its members were those Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah.

Eventually, that changed. More and more Gentiles started to believe in Jesus, until the majority of Jesus’ followers were Gentile, rather than Jewish.

This happened over a period of years, not in one single moment. However, Sunday’s first reading — Acts 13:14, 43-52 — directs our attention to a significant turning point.

Paul and Barnabas encounter opposition to their preaching to potential converts. Notice that this takes place in a synagogue on a Sabbath day. After all, Paul and Barnabas are Jews and are speaking to fellow Jews. But because of the opposition that they receive, they decide to focus upon the Gentiles instead:

“The Gentiles were delighted when they heard this and glorified the word of the Lord.”

Because of his openness to the Gentiles, Paul became known as “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He proved to be very effective in his ministry and established many Christian communities in Asia Minor. Many of the letters he wrote to them entered into the New Testament canon.  

The inroads that Paul made among the Gentiles accelerated the transformation of the new Christian faith into a religion separate from Judaism. But that was not the sole factor.

After the fall of Jerusalem and the defeat of the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in the year 70, the two Jewish groups that survived were the followers of Jesus and the successors of the Pharisees.

Groups such as the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Herodians and the followers of John the Baptist disappeared. The successors of the Pharisees held leadership in the synagogues and looked upon the followers of Jesus as their rivals.

There is evidence that suggests that the synagogue leadership directed that the followers of Jesus be expelled from the synagogues.

This would explain several passages in the New Testament: “The Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue” (Jn 9:22); “They will expel you from the synagogues” (Jn 16:2a). These actions solidified the rift between the two groups. 

To further mark the difference between the adherents of rabbinical Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the two groups adopted distinctive habits and customs that continue to this day.

For example, Christian men remove their hats for worship, while Jewish men cover their heads. Christians observe Sunday as the day of worship, while the Jews worship on Saturday.

Despite these differences, though, the Christian faith has its roots in Judaism.

After all, Jesus was a Jew. 

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