A Brief Overview of a Critical Era in Messianic Jewish History
The Jewish people as a whole was thrown into considerable turmoil and disarray in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem circa 70 C.E. Numerous factions had arisen among the Jewish populace in first century Israel before the actual destruction debacle. These factions were of religious, political or nationalistic character, each of them vying for the heartfelt allegiance of the common Jewish person, the am ha aretz. Quite literally, even as the temple was under siege by the ever-advancing pagan Roman armies, the soul of the Jewish people was under siege. Religiously speaking, strong voices from the ranks of the Jewish religious sects of that era were beckoning the populace to observantly follow in the traditions of the elders. Note the strong words of Yeshua regarding the tradition of he elders.1
The two major religious sects of that era, the Parushim (Pharisees) and the Tzadukim (Sadducees) found themselves not only at continuous odds with each other but also in the throes of near humiliation. On one hand, the Sadducees were left bereft of the temple, which was their seat of obligatory power and control. With the dissolution of the Sanhedrin at the time of the fall of the temple, they inalterably lost their greatest arena of influence. The Pharisees were in a totally different position on the other hand. With the loss of influence and the seat of influence among the Sadducees, came an opportunity to exert pharisaic influence where once the Sadducees had wielded power. The fall of the temple together with the dissolution of the Sanhedrin created just the vacuum of authority that the Pharisees had been hoping to see come to pass. There is ample evidence within the Gospels and the Book of Acts in the New Covenant to substantiate the strong division and distrust between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.2
To compound these difficult situations further, the existence of a growing third religiously oriented sect within the ranks of latter first century Judaism, namely the Messianic Jewish movement3 as we refer to it today, made it even more critical for unity within the first century Jewish community. And when consideration is given to the barbarism and cruelties of the conquering Roman pagan idolaters, the true dire conditions that existed within the Jewish world at that time only begins to crystallize. Indeed, Pharisaism, with its ability to adapt the halacha to new situations, would serve well for unifying the people and bringing them through the period of crisis. Although nearly two millennia would pass before Jewish sovereignty would again be supreme over the ancient holy city of Jerusalem, pharisaism would continue to evolve and envelop Jews throughout the galut or dispersion. This would come to pass because of the dynamics of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish people of the first century after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai
As Judaism at that time was faced with the loss of its central point of focus, namely the temple of Jerusalem, a new center of rabbinic scholarship was established. This center was developed under the astute leadership of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai at a place near the Mediterranean coastline of Israel named Yavne. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, himself a Pharisee of considerable prestige, endeavored with his like-minded Pharisee cohorts, to confront the crisis situation that faced Judaism immediately after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. His religious thrusts were directed towards consolidating rabbinical power, more specifically pharisaic power, while earning the respect and thus the primary role of spiritual authority over the general Jewish population. The existence of Messianic Jews in ever increasing numbers, who maintained steadfast allegiance to the Risen Messiah, apparently caused some trouble to the emerging "ruling class" i.e. the Pharisees. Besides the fact that the Messianic Jews adhered to a strict unwavering belief that Yeshua was the Redeemer, a new approach and view in regards to the Gentiles also existed among the early Messianic believers. Whereas in the past those from the nations or goyim were viewed with considerable disdain, contempt and suspicion due to the rampant idolatry existent among them, Messianic Jews actually offered to repentant Gentiles equal spiritual standing in what was called the new "commonwealth of Israel."4 The first century Jewish community was known to be exclusive. and The idea of uniting with Gentiles in a bond of common fellowship which did not involve their becoming complete Jews in conforming practice was widely viewed with repugnance.
Issues Among the First Messianic Jewish Believers
One should not assume that there was complete unity among the first century Messianic Jewish community. That seems to be far from the facts. There were numerous doctrinal issues that had arisen and become points of controversy among the first Messianic believers. Rav Shaul (more familiar to most as Paul the apostle) addresses just such issues which were causing controversy, in the body of his writings, as they are available to us today in the Brit Hadashah (New Testament). For example, in the first epistle (letter) addressed to the believers at Corinth, Rav Shaul discusses such matters as impurity (5:1-13), bringing lawsuits against fellow believers (6:1-9), marriage and divorce (7:1-4), and even sacrificed meat to idols (8:1-11:1). Spiritual gifts and their proper place and function in the Messianic worship (12:1-14:40) and the critical doctrine of the resurrection of the Messiah from the dead and of resurrection of the dead in general (15:1-58) are also addressed in the Corinthian epistle. If we consider a further example, the doctrinal dilemma that the Messianic leadership encountered at Antioch in the year 69 CE, the salient issue of the relationship of the Messianic sect of Judaism to its deep Jewish roots becomes obvious. By the time Ignatius5 became bishop in Antioch in 69 C.E., a rightist theology involving a Messianic belief system still deeply impregnated with the old leaven of Judaism had already been deemed undesirable by some. It should be noted at this juncture that Ignatius had assumed the Antioch bishopric upon the death of Euodius his predecessor. In turn Euodius had been the first to hold such a venerated and influential spiritual office after Shimon bar-Yonah (the apostle Peter) himself.
The March Towards a Defacto Severance
Within a relatively short elapsed time period the essential Jewishness of the Messianic faith had become suspect even to those who believed its message. It would only be a matter of time and circumstance before the ascending power in Judaism, namely the religiously scrupulous Pharisees, would further assure a complete dichotomy between standard, Pharisee controlled Judaism and the Messianic Judaism of the post-temple era. With the burgeoning number of Gentile believers and the deaths and martyrdoms of the first century Jewish Messianic fathers who had regarded themselves as practicing Jews committed to belief in the Messiah, the separation between Judaism and Messianic believers was hastened. While the new Messianic faith was continuing to evolve and in a sense "find itself" in a very difficult and trying world situation after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem circa 70 CE, the consolidation of rabbinical power and authority proceeded. The special rabbinical council at Yavne convened under the influence and watchful eyes of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai and his pharisaic contemporaries, continued in the effort to unify Judaism and to purge the holy faith of father Abraham from unorthodox beliefs and Hellenistic (Greek) influences. Although Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai exerted leadership for only two to three years, his successors including Rabban Gamaliel II, continued an even more adamant strategy of purging Judaism in the post temple era of unorthodox beliefs. Religious tensions between the early Messianic Jewish believers and their countrymen had been mounting since the first moment of Messiah Yeshua’s ministry. This is strongly evidenced by the accounts of friction and controversy between them as detailed in the post resurrection narrative of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, found in the Brit Hadashah.
The Messianic Rabbi From the Pharisees
One of the main characters detailed in Acts was the man known as Paul the apostle, but who was known in the rabbinical circles of his upbringing as Shaul. We find strong evidence that the rabbis of Shaul’s day had great difficulty with his teachings. We should not be surprised at the confusion and dismay centered around the person of Shaul and his teachings. We need only to consider the impact of his impeccable Pharisaic Jewish background.6 Deep concerns and the eventual rejection of the Messianic Jewish interpretation of Scripture and its application to standard Jewish doctrinal understanding spurred the rabbinical authorities to take definitive actions against Messianic Jewish belief. The culminating policy of the Yavnaic rabbinical leadership was a malediction directed primarily, though not solely, against Messianic Jews. This malediction is known today as the Birkat ha-minim.
The Nineteenth ‘Benediction’
The Birkat ha-minim was a specially formulated prayer against heretics composed under the auspices of Rabban Gamaliel circa 80 C.E. This malediction was incorporated into the central prayer of Judaism known as the shmoneh esreh, also known as the amidah. Among Orthodox Jews today, it is generally perceived that the shmoneh esreh was composed by Ezra the great scribe, and his council, although there is scant proof of that assertion. The shmoneh esreh remains the central element of the three daily prayer services in the synagogue even to this day. Although the words shmoneh esreh are Hebrew for the number eighteen; with the addition to the shemoneh esreh prayer of the malediction previously mentioned, the prayer now contains nineteen elements. The wording of this addition to the ancient prayer, which incidentally was inserted in the twelfth section of the nineteen elements, states: Blessed art thou, O L-rd, King of Justice. May the slanderers have no hope; may all wickedness perish instantly; may all thy enemies be soon cut off. Do thou speedily uproot and crush the arrogant; cast them down and humble them speedily in our days. Blessed art thou our L-rd, who breakest the enemies and humblest the arrogant.
We can only now try to surmise the true purpose for this malediction directed against the "heretics" (Hebrew word ‘minim’). Considering the historical context and setting of the composition of this malediction, there is a strong suspicion that the Birkat ha minim was aimed at perpetuating the dichotomy that was then developing between observant Messianic Jews and the Judaism of the post temple period. The underlying intention of the Birkat ha minim may have been to let the general Jewish population know that the Messianic Jews among them were no longer to be recognized as part of the Jewish community. Through the insertion of this one malediction into the heart of the daily prayer services a type of defacto spiritual excommunication was effected.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
One can only ponder just how difficult it became for an observant Messianic Jew to go to community prayers and enunciate the Birkat ha minim knowing that the very words may have been purposely directed against him. If we can conclude anything from the insertion of the Birkat ha minim in the prayer liturgy, we can deduce that the Pharisaic leadership felt threatened by the presence of Messianic Jews, among others, in the synagogue prayer gatherings of that time period. Furthermore, we can assuredly conclude that many of the early Messianic Jewish believers remained observant Jews and considered themselves to be still Jews and an integral part of the Jewish community in the era immediately following the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem circa 70 C.E.
When we also consider the hostile stance taken by some first century Messianic believers towards Judaism and the dire need (after the destruction of the temple) for unity among the Jewish community under a struggling Pharisaic led leadership, it is understandable why the defensive action of inserting the Birkat ha minim was chosen. The affects of the dichotomy of faith perpetuated at that time are still being dealt with today by the descendants in the flesh and spirit of the early Messianic Jewish believers. We can only continue to pray and work among our people to cause a rethinking of this whole historical schism between the Jewish community and Messianic Jewish believers. The Messianic Jewish community has much in common with the observant Jews of today. Nevertheless, Yeshua the Messiah remains the central point of divergence between us. To those of us who are Messianic Jews, there can be no deviating from complete faith in Him, regardless of the community repercussions that might ensue from such a bold stance.
- Mark 7:5-9
- Acts 23:6-10 is a case in point of the dissension
- Acts 6:7 among other passages highlights the growth of the Way, as it was called
- Acts 10:34 –35, Acts 15, Ephesians 2:14-18 and 1 Peter 2:10 among many passages bear witness to this fact: Gentiles were included within the Messianic sect of the first century.
- Ignatius’ own writings verify the tension that existed. He said: "If we continue to live in accordance to Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace." He also stated: "It is utterly absurd to profess Jesus Christ and to practice Judaism." Ignatius died no later than the year 117 C.E.
- Philippians 3:6 informs us that Shaul was, "a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents, a Pharisee"!