Two tendencies

Both Jews and Christians had an uneasy relationship with Rome. The Jews were especially vexed. What could the Church do?

temple destruction521 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
temple destruction521
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Let us imagine two brothers that are picked on by a big bully.
Both are beaten soundly and left licking their wounds. Then the younger brother notices the older is more bullied, bloody and hurt, lying on the floor half dead. What choices are open to the younger brother?
1. He could help his brother and fight the bully with him. They would live or die together.
2. He could hide and ignore his elder brother hoping the bully would not notice him and concentrate on the brother.
3. He could kick his brother in the face and show the bully that he agrees with him, that his elder brother is evil and deserves to be punished.
Let’s explain the allegory.
The Church had gone through the persecution of the cruel emperor Nero in around 66 CE. Judea had been invaded and Jerusalem and the Temple utterly destroyed in 70 CE. Both Jews and Christians had an uneasy relationship with Rome. The Jews were especially vexed. What could the Church do? Option two was the main one chosen during the Holocaust nearly 2,000 years later. But in the 1st century the other two options were chosen.
There were some in the Church who favored the first option – joining the Jews in resisting Rome. After all, they shared the same Hebrew Bible, as the New Testament had not been compiled yet.
They followed the same God and same moral principles. Christians worshipped a Jewish Messiah. Many were themselves Jews who had come from the synagogue.
It would have been very difficult for these believers not to look at the wider Jewish community with sympathy. That this was quite common is shown by the venom eventually used by gentile Church Fathers in insisting that Christians abandon the synagogues completely.
This tendency is also shown in a third century document called the didascalia apostolorum, an obscure work by an unknown author, probably a bishop, purporting to be a message from the apostles.
In this work, translated by R. Hugh Connolly, the Jews are called “brothers” and Christians are instructed on how to behave towards them: “... yet ought we to call them [the Jews] brethren; for we have it written in Isaiah thus: Call them brethren that hate and reject you, that the name of the Lord may be glorified [Isaiah 66.5]. For their sake, therefore, and for the judgment and destruction of the [holy] place, we ought to fast and to mourn, that we may be glad and take our pleasure in the world to come; as it is written in Isaiah: Rejoice, all ye that mourn over Zion [cf. Isaiah 66.10]; and again He sayeth: To comfort all them that mourn over Zion: instead of ashes, the oil of gladness; and instead of a spirit afflicted with pain, a vesture of glory [Isaiah 61.2-3]. [v. 15] We ought then to take pity on them, and to have faith and to fast and to pray for them...”
To be sure, the work contains other concepts critical of Jews. Yet here the author said that God commands Christians to have compassion for Jews, pray for them and mourn over Israel’s tragic scattering. It remains a very lonely and hidden voice that feels the pain of its brother, but nonetheless it shows there was a segment in early Christianity which sympathized with Jews well into the 2nd century and that considered praying for them part of the Church’s divine duty. They mourned and fasted for the destruction of the Temple because the Bible commanded it.
This group was clearly at a grassroots level. They were ordinary church members who saw no motive for excluding Jews from their experiences of life, and would soon receive the venomous verbal lashings of early Church leaders like Chrysostom.
Unfortunately, these other leaders had contrary opinions. Starting with the letter of Barnabas and up to Augustine and Ambrose, we see another picture similar to option three. Next time we will look at this attitude. •
Rev. Anthony Rozinni is a pastor and Bible school teacher in Italy. This is the latest in his series on the rise of anti-Semitism in the early Church.