By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
The book of Acts provides us with the oldest account of the history of earliest Christianity, including its missionary activities, growth, and opposition from those who rejected its message. For anyone who knows anything about the early Christian movement, it comes as no surprise that in Acts, the original opposition to the followers of Jesus comes from their fellow Jews.
Denial of Jesus As Messiah
The book of Acts is quite explicit that Jesus’s immediate followers continued to practice Judaism after his death. Differing from other Jews in only one major and incredibly significant way—by declaring Jesus was the messiah predicted by scripture.
Though there is a paucity of evidence, the earliest record of Jewish opposition in Acts seems completely plausible.
In the account, when the followers of Jesus publicly proclaimed that Jesus is the messiah, Jewish leaders in Jerusalem attacked the view as outrageous and they tried to silence the Christian preachers. The Jewish Sanhedrin calls in the Apostles and orders them to silence.
This is almost certainly something that happened in a broad sense; most Jews found the Christian message unacceptable and opposed those who proclaimed it. But the scale of the persecution in Acts is almost certainly exaggerated since the approximate number of Christians in the entire world refuted the claims of the book of acts.
Stoning of Stephen
The most common reason given for the Christian opposition by the Jewish leaders is that they were jealous of the enormous success the Apostles had in attracting followers. That seems unlikely from a historical perspective.
But violent Jewish opposition to the Christian message is a central motif of the book. In many ways, the account climaxes in Acts Chapter 7 with the stoning of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr.
Stephen is not one of the Twelve and he is appointed as a deacon, and he is empowered by the Spirit to do many miraculous deeds. On being confronted by the high priest of the Jewish council in Jerusalem, in Chapter 7, Stephen delivers a long sermon, declaring that the Jewish religion is of no importance to God.
He accuses the Jewish people of murdering God’s own messenger to earth, Jesus. The Jewish mob attacks Stephen and stones him to death.
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Jews Portrayed As Enemies
Apart from the Book of Acts, there is no other evidence to support the incident. But his death does play an important role in the narrative of Acts, as well as in its companion volume Luke, the Gospel. Because both books want to emphasize that the Jews are the enemy.
In the first volume, the Gospel narrative of Jesus, it is the Jews rather than the Romans who are responsible for the death of Jesus. Jesus is put on trial before Pilate and the Jewish leaders call out for his crucifixion.
Pilate, or the governor, in Luke’s Gospel declares Jesus innocent on three occasions. But his hand is forced by the Jewish leaders, and so he crucifies Jesus.
This became standard polemic among Christians already in the period of the New Testament. Jews rejected the claims of Christians about Jesus, and as a result, Christians rejected Jews. As a kind of backlash, Christians began claiming that the Jews murdered their own messiah. Eventually, Jews would be labeled “Christ-killers”, a label that is stuck over all these centuries.
Christian Charges against the Jews
By the end of the 2nd century, we have Christian texts claiming that since Christ was God, and since Jews were responsible for his death, the Jews murdered God. This is the first time we have a charge of deicide against the Jews, the murder of God.
With the passing of time, as Christians repeatedly found their message about Jesus being rejected by fellow Jews, they began to turn on them, accusing them of being opposed both to their own messiah and to the God who sent him.
An Increasing Animosity
This led to two results on the ground. In actual history, tensions arose between Jews and Christians and since Jews at the time were by far the larger and more powerful group, it led to Jewish opposition to the followers of Jesus.
Within the Christian writings, the charges against Jews affected how stories were being told by Christians about their own past, including affecting how the accounts of Jesus were told in the Gospels, where Jewish culpability is heightened over time, as are the accounts of the persecution of his followers.
The fact that Christians became so upset with Jews and lashed out at them for opposing their claims almost certainly shows that Jews did oppose those claims. More important are Paul’s revelations in his own letters.
Paul explicitly states in his letter to the Galatians, with some shame, that he converted after he was bent on destroying the church. Although his writings are obscure, it can be deduced that the terms he uses suggest physical violence.
Moreover, we know that once Paul became a Christian preacher, he himself suffered severe corporal punishment from Jewish leaders. In the book of Second Corinthians, Paul indicates that on five occasions during his missionary activities, he received 40 lashes minus one.
This punishment by flogging was inflicted in synagogues, apparently against troublemaking Jews. And so, Paul, as a Jew was being punished by other Jews when he was on his Christian missionary activities. And so it is quite evident that there does appear to have been Jewish opposition to the earliest Christians, and sometimes it turned violent.
Common Questions about Jewish Opposition to Early Christianity
When the followers of Jesus publicly proclaimed that Jesus is the messiah, Jewish leaders in Jerusalem attacked the view as outrageous and they tried to silence the Christian preachers. Most Jews found the Christian message unacceptable and opposed those who proclaimed it.
The Christian texts claim that since Christ was God, and since Jews were responsible for his death, the Jews murdered God. Besides labeling the Jews as “Christ-killer” there is another charge of deicide against the Jews, the murder of God.
Paul explicitly states in his letter to the Galatians that he converted after he was bent on destroying the church. Although his writings are obscure, it can be deduced that the terms he uses suggest physical violence. Moreover, Paul himself suffered severe corporal punishment from Jewish leaders after converting to Christianity.