From Jewish Movement to Gentile Church
Exploring the formative and definitive developments
By James McLaren
There is a rapid spread of the story about Jesus, with followers being located in many
parts of the Roman empire by the end of the first century CE: Syria, Jordan, Turkey,
Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia. At what point in time can we appropriately
speak of these followers as part of a religion that was Gentile as opposed to it being a
movement within the umbrella of Judaism?
I’d like to suggest we can safely put it into the middle part of the second century CE,
probably by the time of Hadrian’s reign as emperor (117-138). There are two main reasons
for this date:
- The imperial policy of Hadrian indicated a distinction was being drawn between Jews and Christians: his policy regarding the protection of Christians from prosecution; his decision to ban Jews from Jerusalem in the aftermath of the 132-135 revolt; the possible ban on circumcision and the plan to rebuild Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina.1
- Justin Martyr: a pagan convert to Christianity sought to engage in discussion between pagans and Jews regarding the truth of Christianity from a philosophical perspective. Hence, in his Dialogue with Trypho he spoke of “we” and “you” – the former being the Christians and the latter the Jews.2 Even allowing for the clear polemical nature of the text it is apparent that Justin did not consider himself to have become part of a group that regarded itself as Jewish. We are now in the era of the Gentile church.
The ‘lateness’ of this change may appear, at first, to be puzzling. Let me explain
the jarring element. Within the literature of early Christianity, and, therefore, within the
received tradition regarding the origins of the movement we have a picture in which the
Gentile dimension of the religion exists from the very beginning.
The canonical framework
In the New Testament missionary activity, centred on spreading the good news to Gentiles,
was controlled by a centralised leadership that was divinely directed – the work of the
Spirit. The key players were Peter, the Apostles and Paul.3
The picture can be misconstrued if viewed as an indication that after some initial
uncertainty in terms of Jew or Gentile the movement quickly became a Gentile religion. It is
not nearly as neat as implied in the canonical literature. Although we may identify themes
regarding the inclusion of Gentiles in the texts, it is likely that almost all the texts of
the New Testament were written by Jews, mainly of the Diaspora. The presence of Jewish
Christians is not a heresy that came later. They were present from the start and endured to
at least the fourth century.
The situation at the time of Paul and Justin, however, is substantially different. For
Paul and the various gospel writers the issue was whether, and how, Gentiles could be
included in the movement where all the key figures were Jewish. With Justin, however, it is
a matter of showing why the Gentile church was the true follower of God’s way and why
Judaism had been condemned to punishment by God. There was a fundamental shift in
Therefore, it is vital that we put the sanitised, canonical framework to one side. We
need to understand that it is part of an internal debate regarding the identity of the
movement, not in terms of Jew versus Gentile but Christian Jew versus Christian Jew.
We need to work within a framework that recognises Jesus was a Galilean Jew, that his
followers were also, first and foremost Galilean Jews, and that the focus of the ministry
was on working with fellow Judaean and Galilean Jews. Furthermore, we should not regard the
dramatic transformation into a distinct religion known as Christianity – whose adherents
were mainly Gentile and resided outside Judaea – as being part of an original co-ordinated
How and why the shift occurred
The formative and definitive moments to being a Gentile church were in terms of
perception/ self-definition and, most importantly, in terms of the ethnic origin of the
members whose desire, like Justin, was no longer to see themselves as Gentiles who joined a
Jewish movement but as a religion that is stridently non-Jewish.
What do I mean by formative and definitive?
“Formative”: are events and/or issues that are contributing factors to change, the
full impact of these factors is not always at first apparent. “Definitive”: are events
and/or issues for which boundaries are drawn, they are occasions where a clear choice exists
and decisions need to be made, they are often the result of actions initiated by
people/groups outside the movement. In a sense, events that are definitive are also
There are three broad categories to consider:
- The socio-political environment (all external factors)
- Roman imperial policy (all external factors)
- The community experience (internal and external factors)
A. The Socio-Political Environment
1. The existence of the Roman empire
Whenever I talk about the Romans and their influence on the situation in the Levant I can
not help but think of the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian. John Cleese and the
People’s Front of Judaea – or whatever they are called at that stage of the movie –
asks his followers what have the Romans done for us. There is no doubt that the Romans
asserted their claim to rule over people around the Mediterranean and did so by force when
it was necessary. It was an empire that relied heavily on the power of its army. The other
side to this military presence was the establishment of an empire that brought many
advantages for those wanting to move around or trade within its thriving urban centres,
aided by holding Roman citizenship.
First century CE common Greek was used throughout the empire. A century later we begin to
see a split, Latin in the West and Greek in the East.
Religion was part of the culture. There was an openness to new religions (eg mystery
cults, problems with the Isis cult in Rome but Mithras worship clearly expands). Although
later to prove a problem, especially in terms of the exclusive claims of Christianity, in
the first century Judaism was generally given the green light within the imperial
establishment. At the outset, people like Paul could present themselves as Jews with a
particular line of teaching and be classified under that general label by Roman officials.
2. Presence of Jewish communities within the Diaspora
The followers of Jesus who decided to travel outside Judaea had a place to stay when they
set foot in a foreign town. Like many back packers today, they use contacts because they are
from the same home country/community. Whether it be in terms of letters of introduction,
accommodation, jobs or whatever, these Diaspora communities provided a natural point of
contact. Indeed, it is no surprise that the main centres of the movement were also important
Two very practical expressions of the importance to be associated with the Diaspora
communities are the existence of Greek versions of the sacred writings (the Septuagint)
and the interpretation of Scripture from a philosophical allegorical approach undertaken by
Philo of Alexandria. At the very least, it meant that Jesus’ followers were not having to
translate without any point of reference nor were they having to invent the wheel when it
came to expressing their ideas in order to dialogue with contemporary Graeco-Roman ways of
3. The existence of sympathisers to Judaism
Often coined by the term ‘God-fearers’; these sympathisers were Gentiles who were
learned in the teachings of Judaism, thanks largely to the activity of Diaspora Jews within
their synagogues. They had not necessarily converted to Judaism, it appears, in part because
of some of the social costs associated with actual conversion – eg. circumcision, loyalty
to one God. These sympathisers are known from various levels of Roman society, including
within the imperial household (eg Poppaea Sabina, wife of Nero Ant. 20.195). There
was, therefore, a ready made audience who may have been willing to hear what Jesus’
followers taught when they travelled around the empire. (Do not assume that they all, or
most, automatically found the different teaching attractive because they were referred to in
the beginning of the second century CE).
B. Roman Imperial Policy
Strange as it may seem the imperial policy, such as it was, indicated that it was better
not to be a Jew. We know of Nero’s famous scapegoat abuse of the Christians in Rome in 64
in relation to the fire. We also have Pliny the Younger writing to Trajan for clarification
of what to do regarding the Christians while he was governor in Bithynia. Yet these do not
reflect a policy of persecution of Christians; if anything, Trajan’s advice to Pliny is to
avoid searching out the Christians.
It is in relation to Jews that we find imperial initiatives to discourage anyone choosing
to become a Jew, or to be known as one. Under Vespasian the fiscus Iudaicus was used
to restore the Temple of Jupiter. Domitian, late in his reign, c.90, began exacting the tax
with much more vigour and then tried people for their association with Judaism. Seutonius (Dom.
12.2) states: “Domitian’s agents collected the tax on Jews with a peculiar lack of
mercy, and took proceedings not only against those who kept their Jewish origins a secret in
order to pay the tax but against those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism.4
The key phrase is “those who lived as Jews without professing Judaism”. The most
likely understanding is that Domitian wanted anyone associated with Judaism to pay this tax.
Clearly he ordered a more rigorous and harsh exaction of the tax from all Jews on the fiscus
Iudaicus register but now sought a further way of increasing revenue. Domitian’s
activities had a more sinister aspect. He used association with Judaism as a basis for trial
This was a political activity, concerned with power and money. To be wealthy and
associated with Judaism under Domitian was a risky business. The extent of the problem is
evident from the actions of Nerva almost immediately after the murder of Domitian. He banned
the charge of treason on the basis of “adopting the Jewish mode of Life”, he issued
coins announcing that the “wickedness of the Jewish tax ended”. He also defined those
who were required to pay as people practicing Judaism.
Hadrian, as mentioned earlier, extended protection to Christians from false accusation
and placed the responsibility on the accuser (the ban on circumcision, plans for Aelia
Capitolina, both involve ongoing debate, are they pre or post the revolt?). In effect, Roman
rule provided a context in which Jews and sympathisers had to make important decisions about
their association with ‘Judaism’.
C. Community Experience
Absence of Jesus
An eschatological dimension to the earliest stages of the movement incorporated an
expectation of Jesus’ return within the immediate future. When this return did not occur
within ten, then twenty and then thirty years, questions were beginning to be asked,
especially as many of the people associated with the start of the movement were dying.
Why was Jesus’ return delayed? The search for possible explanations included
speculation regarding the purpose of the community’s existence. It is here that much of
the canonical framework, outlined at the beginning of this paper, has its origins. The
concept of a mission to take the message of Jesus as Messiah beyond the Jewish community and
into the pagan world at large became a legitimation and justification for the continued
absence of Jesus.
Failure to persuade other Jews of Jesus as Messiah
Whatever the target figures or grand hopes of Jesus’ followers as to how their teaching
would be received by fellow Jews, they were not achieved. On performance basis they would
not have received a bonus! This led to self reflection and required a reassessment of what
to do – should they adopt a sectarian approach, remove themselves from mainstream activity
or do they need to make a complete u-turn in terms of their centre of activity?
The other side to this failure/rejection was how other Jews looked upon this movement.
Here much has been said regarding the benediction against the heretics – birkat
ha-minim – “And for apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be
uprooted quickly, in our days. And may the nosrim and the minim perish
quickly; and may they be erased from the Book of Life; and may they not be inscribed with
the righteous.” This probably dates from the time of Gamaliel II. Although important, it
was by no means definitive.
On a practical level, the inability to win over many Jews to the movement meant that
their own structures needed to be put in place, eg house churches – ekklesia. Some
of this may be because of active rejection of the synagogue, active rejection by the
synagogue or simply as a matter of convenience.
Responses to the revolts
This is generally overstated as being a factor.
The Jewish revolt of CE 66-70 – is a Judaean affair of Christian attitude, the Pella
story should not be given credence. I argue that Christians behaved more like what the
remainder of the Jewish community did: they were against the revolt, in favour of it,
uncertain, and/or carried on with life. The aftermath was something for them to work
through, as with the remainder of the Jewish community. It was not a ground breaking moment.
The revolt of CE 115-117 – The fate of Alexandrian Jews, their mass slaughter, would
have been reason for reflection about identity.
The Bar Kochba revolt of CE 132-135 – There is a possible reference to Christians in a
letter, being subject to attack by the rebels. This was a very localised revolt, where the
consequences made being Jewish very unfavourable, as indicated in the literature of Justin.
Christian awareness of the revolt and its consequences, in fact, may have provided
‘a’ Christianity that could claim to be Gentile rather than Jewish; an opportunity to
assert legitimacy and even claim control of Judaea, especially Jerusalem. This revolt
probably helped confirm that the future of the movement lay in its Gentile associations and
may have given them a sense of vindication from the policy of the imperial power.
The expectations placed on pagan converts
Acts 15 and Gal 2 provide a glimpse of what appears to have been a very significant issue
for the movement, not from the very outset but after several years of activity that
witnessed an increasing number of pagans displaying a desire to participate in the movement.
It is sometimes referred to as the Apostolic council – a rather grand title to present the
spread of Christianity in a co-ordinated, controlled manner. I am very suspicious of the
I do think it is clear from Paul’s writings that a debate was taking place in the
movement. If a pagan wishes to convert, what are they required to do? (Not unique to the
movement, as evident in discussion of Josephus. This is the story of King Izates of Adiabene
(Mesopotamia), Ant. 20.34-46, views of Ananias (no need for circumcision) and Eleazar
(yes you do!)), it is also part of a broader dialogue about ethical circumcision and ritual
circumcision or just the former. Paul spoke of ethical, turning from pagan ways (Gal 2.3,
6.12) but others argued that the ethical is intimately associated with the physical
circumcision (eg. Philo, Mig. of Abraham 92, IQS 5.5-6)
I am not so sure that Paul won a concession or achieved a general ruling, especially
given the account in Gal. 2 where people travel to Galatia to impose/encourage circumcision.
It may be more a case of there being no clearly defined central leadership and policy that
gave a definitive ‘ruling’ and that a practice developed in some areas, especially among
Paul’s communities, that pagans were not required to adopt all the ritual and physical
practices of being a Jew.
All of the above are formative factors. There are many pieces and it is a result of the
mixing together of some independent circumstances that the shift toward a Gentile church
occurred. The socio-political environment provides the conduit by which a Galilean based
movement could spread across the empire. The absence of the Roman empire or Diaspora
communities or the sympathisers; would have altered and delayed the way the movement
Out of all of these factors two warrant the label “definitive”:
One is an external factor, the imperial policy of Domitian, Nerva and to a lesser extent
Hadrian. It is not so much that these emperors were interested in Jewish-Christian debates
or that they were concerned to defend or attack the very existence of Jews or Christians.
Rather, as a by-product of their decisions they put Jews, Christian Jews and sympathisers
into the position where they found it necessary to make a choice about their identity. The
political climate made the choice of being Christian as distinct from Jewish an expedient
The other is an internal factor, the decision, or more likely the lack of a decision,
regarding what was required of a pagan who wished to convert to the movement. There was no
inevitability regarding this move – far from it, in fact. The full implications of the
indecision of the early community about the expectations placed on pagan converts which
allowed Paul and his associates to exclude the physical ritual aspects of conversion to
Judaism were not to be encountered until the actions initiated by Domitian, Nerva and
Hadrian. In a real sense, therefore, two quite independent factors lie at the heart of the
transition from Jewish movement to a Gentile church.
- Historia Augusta, Had. 14.2 re circumcision; Dio Cassius, Roman History 69.12-15 re Aelia Capitolina.
- Dialogue 19.3-5, 46.6-7, 69.4,110.3,116.1, 122.5, 130.4).
- Other egs. include
Mk – two feeding stories (Mk 6 for Jews, Mk 8 for Gentiles) with the crucial story in Mk 7 re the Syro-Phoenician woman, outsiders being open to the message.
Lk/Acts – infancy narrative, speech of Simeon (Lk. 2.32) Acts 1:8 “witnesses for me in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth”, commission of Paul. Lk 9, 22, 26 (Gal 2)
Mt. – infancy narrative, Magi, foreign acceptance. 28.19 “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples”;
eg of Paul’s activity (self-claimed title, apostle of the Gentiles)
- “As a boy I remember once attending a crowded court where the Procurator had a ninety-year old man stripped to establish whether or not he had been circumcised.”
- Dio Cassius, Roman History, 67.14.1-2 “And in the same year [95 CE] Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned.” Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property!