War ScrollExcerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

The earliest years of Christianity unfolded during this period of decline and unrest. In these years what would later be called the “church” was in reality a Jewish sect, and that is how it is treated here. The difficult economic and political situation in Judea during the career of Jesus and in the period of the emerging church tended to encourage the rise of religious movements. In addition, the multiplicity of sects and movements in Second Temple Judaism provided a rich legacy which could serve as the basis for the Christian apocalyptic movement. These two factors together constituted the major influences on the rise of the new religious group and the schism that eventually followed. Further, scholars have long noticed the propensity for religious ferment in the area where Christianity began, the region of Galilee in the northern part of the Land of Israel.

Christianity was firmly anchored in the heritage of Second Temple sectarianism. Various documents from the corpus of materials discovered in the Qumran caves tell us of the extreme apocalypticism of some groups of Jews in this period. These groups hoped for the immediate revelation of a messiah who would redeem them from their misfortunes and tribulations. As time went on, and political and economic conditions worsened, they became more and more convinced that the messianic deliverance would be accompanied by a cataclysm. The forces of evil, usually identified both with Israelite transgressors and with the non-Jewish powers that dominated the Jewish people, would then be totally destroyed. This view took its cue from the prophetic idea of the Day of the Lord. The destruction of evil would be accompanied by a utopian messianism wherein an ideal society would come into existence with the restoration of the Davidic monarchy. When Christianity came to the fore in the first century C.E., its adherents saw themselves as living in the period of the fulfillment of these visions. They identified Jesus as the Davidic messiah who would usher in the eventual destruction of all evil.

Any study of the career of Jesus and the rise of the Christian church must acknowledge that Palestine in this period gave rise to occasional messianic and prophetic figures. Among these was John the Baptist, who, according to the New Testament, was the teacher and inspiration of Jesus. John preached repentance as well as the need for baptism (immersion) in the Jordan River as a one-time experience designed to bring about true repentance. (John was put to death around 29 C.E. by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Peraea in Transjordan from 4 B.C.E. to 39 C.E.) Statements about Jesus by certain modern writers to the effect that he studied among the Essenes or the Dead Sea sectarians must be rejected as purely speculative. Rather, Jesus was affected, as was early Christianity, by a variety of ideas in the air among the various sectarian groups, of which by chance only certain texts survive. The Qumran materials, if properly understood, provide the background for Christianity, showing that it was on the foundation of this type of Judaism, and not that of the Pharisees, that the church was erected. Yet at the same time, some Pharisaic tendencies had a great impact on the church, as did Second Temple sectarian trends on Rabbinic Judaism.

It is difficult to date with precision the exact point, sometime around the turn of the era, when Jesus was born. Christian traditions placing his birth in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David, must be seen as an attempt to identify Jesus as the messiah son of David whom the Jewish people expected to redeem them from Roman domination. Jesus grew up in Galilee, where he became a preacher. Many of his ideas were similar to those of his
brethren in the various sects, including the Pharisees and the Dead Sea and apocalyptic sects. Yet already in his early career, as portrayed in the Gospels, he disagreed with the Pharisees on matters of Jewish law. The New Testament accounts presage the later Jewish-Christian schism and may even be a reflection of it. In any case, Jesus’s teachings apparently raised the ire of some of the Hellenized Jews in the leadership of the high priesthood, as well as of the Romans, who decreed his crucifixion. It is impossible from the incomplete accounts we have to determine exactly what led to the execution of Jesus, yet we know the tragic results of the widespread Christian assumption that the Jews were responsible for it. The challenge posed by Jesus to the Jewish authorities cannot have been of such significance as to warrant a demand for his execution. The Romans, however, had both a vested political interest in his death and the authority to execute him. To a large extent, however, it was the fact that his followers came to believe that he had been resurrected from his grave that gave impetus to the emerging faith.

The followers of Jesus in the early days of his career and soon afterwards gathered together in Jerusalem and formed (according to the Acts of the Apostles) a small group which sought both to live as Jews and to accept the messiahship of Jesus. It was only later that the notion of the divinity of Jesus appeared, toward the end of the New Testament redactional process in the second half of the first century C.E. Thus the early Christian sect began as a coterie of Jews seeking to propagate the belief in Jesus as messiah and evolved into an apostolic group seeking to convert the world. Following the lead of Peter, Paul convinced the fledgling church to formally open itself to gentile converts and brought to it the notion of a mission to the gentiles, transforming Christianity in the process. He also encouraged the notion of abandoning the law. His literary legacy greatly intensified the anti-Jewish notions in the New Testament.