By Sarah L.
The second weekend in April, both Christians and Jews around the world celebrated holidays of incredible significance. Although today Passover and Resurrection Sunday (commonly known in many circles as Easter), don’t always fall at the same time, for early believers, that wasn’t the case. The two observances remained partially linked until the first Council of Nicaea in 365 AD severed the ties between them. After the Council, Constantine himself wrote in an open letter to the churches, “It appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin… Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd…”1
The divorce of believers in Yeshua from Judaism, in effect the creation of the “Church” as a hierarchical religious construct, was intended to replace the idea that belief in Yeshua was an essentially Jewish structure, in which Gentiles could be included. However, while Constantine may have “legalized” the divorce, there are proofs that Gentile Christian leaders promoted the complete disavowal of Jewish tradition as early as the 1st century CE (before the year 100CE)!2 So by the time that Constantine cut ties with the Jewish community, the decision was not so much surprising as inevitable.
Why anti-Semitism among believers began so early is somewhat puzzling, since most of the first believers in Yeshua were Jewish; additionally, there is little evidence for institutionalized pagan anti-Semitism (which could have influenced Gentile Christians) before Yeshua.3 There appears to have been a certain pagan derision of Jewish practices such as circumcision and not eating pork, while anti-Jewish pogroms, notably in Alexandria in 38 and 66 CE, occurred against the backdrop of wider unrest; far and away Jews enjoyed influence and privilege under pagan Roman rule. However, the fact remains that anti-Semitism and replacement theology very quickly became an entrenched part of Church doctrine.
The apostle Shaul (Paul) appears to have observed, and been concerned about, the beginning of this trend in his letter to the Romans. Romans 11:17-26 says,
If some of the branches [referring to Israel] have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to these other branches. If you do, consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant but tremble…. I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.
Shaul was clearly concerned that Gentile believers already saw themselves as superior to national Israel because of their salvation, and by this we see that the seeds of replacement theology had already taken root.
It is possible that he was responding to those Church leaders such as Ignatius (d. 108 AD), a native of Antioch, and a probable contemporary of Shaul’s, who had already begun to attribute Yeshua’s crucifixion collectively to rabbinically-observant Jews4* in his letters; this trope was to become entrenched during the Middle Ages. It is notable both that the rift between the traditional Jewish community and Gentile believers was visible this early on, to the point that Shaul felt the necessity of exhorting his brothers in faith to beware a feeling of superiority.
Further evidence of this early conflict is documented by Shaul in Galatians 2:11-14. Antioch was, early on, a center for the controversy surrounding Gentile observance of the Jewish way of life, including circumcision and kosher dietary laws. It is in Antioch that Shaul confronts Kefa (Peter) for his hypocrisy in refusing to eat with Gentile believers. Shaul later refers to this conflict in support of his point that observance of Jewish law does not bring salvation. However, this fissure of disagreement clearly continued to fester long after the Council of Jerusalem had ruled on the matter (Acts 15:6-21). Arguably, the ruling also became license for Gentile believers to later seek complete separation from Israel.
Another issue may have been the treatment of Christians under Roman law. Christians were initially seen by the Roman authorities as belonging to a sect of Judaism. This inferred that Christians were also subject to laws against Jews,5 for example the levying of the Jewish Tax, imposed by Rome after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. For Gentile Christians, this could have become a source of resentment. When Roman Emperor Nerva redefined Judaism as a religion in 96 AD, he opened the door for Christians to claim the tax inapplicable, which further separated the two communities.
A final source of contention, from the Jewish point of view, was the refusal of the believers to fight against Rome in the Bar Kochva revolt in 132-136 AD. Until this point, Jewish believers likely continued to participate in Jewish community life, but when Bar Kochva declared himself to be the Messiah, Jewish believers could no longer support his war against Rome. This was a serious breach between Jewish believers in Yeshua and rabbinical Jews, and it is likely that the relationship never recovered.
In summary, there was early on contention between both Jewish and Gentile believers, and between the believing community as a whole and the rabbinical Jewish community. In that general understanding, let’s return specifically to the connection between Passover and Resurrection Sunday and the buildup to the first Council of Nicaea.
Even while separating itself from Jewish life and practice, the Gentile community of believers was itself far from unified. Among other controversies was a discussion of when Yeshua’s crucifixion and resurrection should be celebrated. (There is no record that I could find of a debate on whether or not the correct way to celebrate was through furthering the celebration of the Lord’s Passover, although the aforementioned Ignatius did accuse those who celebrated it as personally participating in the crucifixion of the Messiah.6) The celebration was initially based on Jewish observance of the Passover, which commences the 14th of Nissan, and believers disagreed on whether celebrations should be held that day, regardless of which day of the week it fell, or uniformly on the first Sunday after the 14th of Nissan.7 The controversy became so intense that Pope Victor I excommunicated those communities who continued to observe the 14th of Nissan!8
In 306, prior to the Council of Nicaea, the Synod of Elvira laid legal restrictions on Jews. It forbade any kind of relations between Jews and Christians, including business dealings and marriage. By this time, it was well established that Jews were collectively and continually responsible for the death of Yeshua. Jewish observance among believers in Yeshua was nearly universally condemned, and anti-Semitic tropes comparing Jews to pigs or devils were becoming more prevalent. In 321, four years before the Council of Nicaea, Constantine declared Sunday to be the official day of rest.
Thus, it is not surprising that by the first Council of Nicaea, anti-Semitism was fairly well rooted in the Christian community and the dependency of Resurrection Sunday celebration on Passover observance had become a serious issue for the Christian community. Constantine was not alone in holding all Jews responsible for the death of Messiah nor in his tragic conclusion that it was incumbent on devout Christians to ostracize the Jewish community.
The Council of Nicaea determined that Resurrection Sunday should universally be celebrated on the second Sunday following the Spring equinox, thus eliminating dependency on the Jewish calendar and observation of the Passover. Cooperation between traditional Jewish and Christian communities was officially at an end. By the end of the 5thcentury the few remaining communities of Jewish believers in Yeshua who observed a Jewish way of life appear to have vanished, and Christianity had become a separate religion.
It is hard to make this history appetizing, but it is crucial that we, as believers, do understand and accept it, not because it is pleasant, but because we are called to seek truth. One of the saddest and most ironic things about this period in history is how quickly the Church forgot her roots, including the teachings of the apostles, who uniformly call for respect for Israel and for unity among believers. In universally condemning Jews, the Church broke away from the very doctrine of grace she claimed to espouse, forgetting that “none of us are righteous, not one.” In seeking the correct way to celebrate Yeshua’s triumph over sin, the Church made itself the arbiter of righteousness.
Learning this history is not meant to cause further division. It is just the opposite! Learning about the historical tensions between the Jewish and Gentile disciples of Yeshua can show us areas where we can seek healing and understanding; it is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship with our fellow brothers and sisters in the Lord. Yeshua came ultimately to bring unity between God and the individual, but also between Jew and Gentile in Him, as the apostles preached, “For He is our peace, the One who made the two into one and broke down the middle wall of separation.” (Ephesians 2:14)
As we move forward into the year, let us learn from our history and seek unity in the humility that Messiah Yeshua modeled for us, remembering that we are one in Him.
*Rabbinical observance of the Covenant of Mount Sinai began to develop during the Babylonian Exile and was codified during the centuries succeeding. In Yeshua’s day, rabbinical Judaism (or the sect of the Pharisees) was one of several major sects, although today it is the only major surviving form of Judaism. Rabbinical Judaism is distinct from strict observance of the written Torah of Moses because it places value on commentary on the Torah, known as Talmud, which is traditionally believed to have been passed down from Moses orally and recorded during the Babylonian Exile. The written law and oral tradition together form the basis for modern Jewish Law.
- Letters, Book 2 (in Chronological Order). www.constantinethegreatcoins.com/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
- The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians. earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-magnesians-longer.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023
- Gruen, Erich S. “Antisemitism in the Pagan World.” The Cambridge Companion to Antisemitism, edited by Steven Katz, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2022, pp. 25–41. Cambridge Companions to Religion.
- The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians. www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/ignatius-trallians-longer.html. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
- Elkins, Nathan T. Roman Emperor Nerva’s Reform of the Jewish Tax. 1 Jan. 2019, www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/roman-emperor-nervas-reform-of-the-jewish-tax/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
- Reagan, Dr. David R. Anti-Semitism: Its Roots and Perseverance. christinprophecy.org/articles/anti-semitism/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
- Easter Controversy. www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
- “Timeline of Christianity.” wikipedia.org, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_Christianity. Accessed 9 Apr. 2023.
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