Vol. 4, No. 11
~ Page 2 ~
By the time of Christ, Judaism had become a badly divided, bitterly disputed religion from within its own ranks. For instance, in about 94 B.C., the Pharisees and the Sadducees were locked in a brutal civil war with each other. The Sadducees prevailed and crucified 800 Pharisees in the presence of their families, who then were executed as those being crucified helplessly looked on from the crosses to which they had been fastened, and on which they themselves were dying in indescribable pain.
There were 24 Jewish sects within Judaism in the first century, most of which are not mentioned in the Bible; only the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23; Acts 23:6), the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3; 23:23ff; Luke 11:39), the Herodians (Mark 12:13) and the Zealots (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13) appear in Scripture. Beginning in 63 B.C., when the Jews were warring with each other again (Aristobulus vs. Hyrcanus, siblings), through the general Pompey, the Roman Empire took control of Palestine and restrained the Jews from civil war, by subordinating all the Palestinian Jews to Roman rule.
Rome lost control of Palestine for a while in 40 B.C. to the Parthians from the East. However, in 37 B.C., Rome regained control of Palestine, which control it maintained throughout the New Testament era and beyond. Hence, the Roman Empire with its iron-fisted control of Palestine in the first century kept the embittered Jewish sects in check. During the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent ministries of the apostles, the Jewish sects embraced an uneasy truce with each other, and viewed Rome as their common enemy. Jewish nationalism, though, was never far from the Jewish mind (John 6:15; Acts 1:6) and ultimately led to two terrible wars with Rome (A.D. 66; A.D. 132), in which both times Rome crushed Jewish rebellion.
The culmination of Christ's ministry and the fruition of Old Testament kingdom prophecies was the establishment of the church (Matthew 16:16-19; Luke 24:44-47; Acts 2) or the eternal kingdom (Isaiah 2:2-3; Daniel 2:31-45; Ephesians 3:1-12; Colossians 1:13, 18) in A.D. 33 in Jerusalem. The apostles of Christ were slow to fully grasp the true nature of the church as a distinctly separate entity from Judaism (Matthew 24:1-3; Acts 1:6; Galatians 2:14). For decades after the establishment of the church, Jewish Christians persisted in their misgivings respecting the distinctiveness of Christianity from Judaism (Acts 10:28; 11:1-3; 15:1, 5; 21:20); consequently, several New Testament epistles treat the problem of Judaizing teachers (Romans 3:29-30; 4:12-13; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 3:1-5; 5:1-4; 6:12; Colossians 2:16).
It is no wonder, then, that the Roman Empire also initially failed to discern the difference between Judaism and Christianity. After all, for the first decade after the establishment of the church, all its members were Jewish, proselytes to Judaism or Samaritans (whose ancestry was partially Jewish); Gentiles became beneficiaries of church membership with the conversion of Cornelius, his family and friends (Acts 10-11), only after the apostle Peter reluctantly preached the Gospel to them.
So, for all imperial Rome knew or cared, in the beginning, Christianity was merely the 25th sect of Judaism. Therefore, when Jews and Christians caused a disturbance in Rome, Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from Rome by which he meant Christians to leave also (Acts 18:2).
However, as long as Rome mistook Christianity for a sect of Judaism, Christianity was considered a legal religion, because Judaism was a legal religion in the Roman Empire. Judaism was essentially grandfathered in because it was the established religion of the Jewish people when they were subjugated to Roman rule.
Once, Rome, though, realized that Christianity was not a sect of Judaism, it persecuted Christians as outlaws. Compounding Christian woes was the ascription to Christians the ignoble label of atheists, because they refused to worship the gods of Greek and Roman polytheism. To worsen matters, after the Roman emperors considered themselves deified, the Christian refusal to worship the emperor was styled as treason.
With the vilification of Christians, coupled with their now necessarily secretive worship and burial of their dead in catacombs, every calamity was attributed to Christians (e.g., earthquake, plague, fire, etc.). The Roman government permitted, encouraged or carried out severe persecution against Christians. Mistreatment of Christians included confiscation of property, imprisonment, banishment, and torturous and humiliating execution. Foxe's Book of Martyrs is one source to which one can turn for a detailed description of persecution of Christians for which the Roman Empire was responsible.
Was or is Christianity the 25th sect of Judaism? Evidently, some contemporary theologians think so. They view Jesus as merely a prophet of Israel to Israel and that primarily through the energies of a Pharisee named Paul, a wedge was driven between Jewish sects that God never intended, resulting in what they perceive as the unfortunate development of Christianity apart from Judaism. They think the New Testament canon is a tragic mistake. Curiously, these theologians profess to be Christians and leaders in Christendom. Whom should we believe?
Old Testament prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:18-19; Jeremiah 31:33-34; Hebrews 8:6-13; Isaiah 2; Daniel 2), Jesus Christ (John 18:36) and apostolic (Holy Spirit inspired) teaching (2 Corinthians 3:6-11; Colossians 2:14) portray Christianity as neither a part of nor an extension of Judaism, but as the replacement of Patriarchy (Ephesians 2:11-22) and Judaism (Romans 7:1-7).
The Jewish leaders were soon to realize the distinctiveness of Christianity from Judaism. Therefore, the incongruent Jewish sects allied themselves against Jesus and Christianity (Mark 11:27-12:34). Jewish leaders disallowed Christianity to be the 25th sect of Judaism.
Imperial Rome, at first, through Pilate the whipping boy of Jewish leaders against Christianity, finally realized, too, that Christianity was not the 25th sect of Judaism. That understanding was the basis on which ongoing Roman persecution of Christianity continued.
Eventually, through tireless instruction, Jewish Christians largely came to appreciate the uniqueness of Christianity (Acts 15:1-35). As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile and after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 unseated Jewish influence, there is no way Christianity could be viewed as the 25th sect of Judaism.
Lamentably, by our time, Christendom has become a badly divided, bitterly disputed religion amongst its professors. Presently, there are hundreds of sects within Christendom with thousands of sub-sects within those. To our shame, even among those who have endeavored to restore primitive Christianity, we are badly divided and involved in bitter disputes. Christianity was not a sect of Judaism and neither is Christianity today either a sect or a collection of sects.
Nonsectarian Christianity is alive and well in the New Testament without human baggage. Pure Christianity can be alive within us and it can be practiced in any community where the Bible alone is recognized as the absolute, final, plenary authority in religion. Let's practice New Testament Christianity today, not sectarianism.