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The Jewish Bible in the Gentile Churches

I continue here with my thoughts about how Christians came to claim the Jewish Bible for themselves, and to argue that it no longer belonged to Jews.   I’ve already pointed out that the Jewish followers of Jesus (Many? Most? All?)  (I suspect the answer is “Most”), within a short time after his death (months?  a year?) began wonder why other Jews did not accept Jesus as the messiah.  After all, they themselves “knew” he had been raised from the dead.  It was a great miracle.  It proved Jesus was God’s “anointed” one.  Why wouldn’t others accept it?

That was particularly perplexing and frustrating and eventually irritating and aggravating as they started finding indications in the Bible itself that this is what was supposed to happen to the messiah.  It’s all there, in the prophecies of Scripture.  Why don’t our fellow Jews – family members, friends, neighbors, fellow worshipers in the synagogue – why don’t they *see* it?   Are they blind?  Heard headed?  Rebellious against God?

Eventually it came to be thought among many of these followers of Jesus that the non-believing Jews were just that.  They had actually chosen to reject the God who had called them.

As time went on, Christians increasingly …

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Why Christians Needed an Old Testament: Pagan Attacks on the Faith
How “Jews” Became “Children of the Devil” in the New Testament



  1. Avatar
    Ryweiland  June 21, 2019

    I heard from Dr Henry Abramson, that the Greek word for law and the Hebrew Torah are a different “ meaning “, of “law” , same as different mindsets of Greek and Jewish thinking of God , and that Jews only expect non Jews to keep the noahide laws of morality, from Micheal Skobac

  2. Avatar
    mkahn1977  June 21, 2019

    So this, in effect, was one big case of cultural appropriation?

  3. Avatar
    barackobush  June 21, 2019

    What prophecies in the Old and New Testament Christians always claim fulfillment in 1948 when modern Israel was established? I’m wondering if they really connect if reading in context.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      I’m not sure what you’re asking. Which prophecies do you have in mind?

      • Avatar
        barackobush  June 23, 2019

        Prophecies about the scattering and the promise to return to their homeland. I know people such as Hal Lindsay saw the 1948 creation of Israel as fulfillment of the promised return of Israel.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2019

          No, there are no prophecies in the Bible that *really* refer to what would happen after 1948.

  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 21, 2019

    You don’t mention Jerusalem, which was still an important church – one could argue the most important church – until the destruction of city. There’s also Samaria, where, Acts reports major successes among people who, while not exactly Jews, were also not exactly Gentiles. Perhaps this is better dealt with in another thread, but I would like to you know what you think about the numbers of Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem, and also Samaritan Christians. I wonder if Samaritan Christians kept the Law like Jewish Christians did [I suppose yes although less strictly than the Pharisees]. Especially, what do you think of Acts’ claim of “many thousands” of Jewish Christians in the capital, including “a great many priests.” I often wonder what the character of late-first century Christianity would have been if the Jewish Rebellion had not occurred.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 21, 2019

    I’ve never understood Paul’s view on the Law. Surely he’s not saying that since the Law is no longer valid, it’s okay to fornicate, steal and lie? So what parts of the Law should we still keep?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      There are few things more hotly debated in Pauline studies: what was Paul’s view of the Law? What seems certain is that he did *not* think it was OK (even for Gentile Christians) to fornicate, steal, and lie. But he almost as certainly maintained that Gentile Christian were *not* to keep other aspects of the Law, such as circumcision. So how can he have it both ways. Lots of theories about that. My sense (much debated!) is that Paul thought that parts of the Law were given to make Jews a distinctive people (circumcision, sabbath, kosher food); gentile followers of Jesus did not need to do these, because they did not have to become Jewish. Other parts of the law involve social relations among the people of God (adultery, murder, stealing, etc.). Those do apply to followrs of Jesus, either Jew or Gentile.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  June 24, 2019

        Suddenly I feel much more erudite, upon learning that my confusion is shared by the most educated people on this topic. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    mpmull2u  June 21, 2019

    Didn’t keeping the OT give proto christians an antiquity claim that the Romans valued/respected, and had extended to the Jews?

  7. Robert
    Robert  June 21, 2019

    Bart: “And so the Christian church at large – with major exceptions, such as the Jewish-Christian Ebionites at one extreme and the anti-Jewish Marcion at the other – felt constrained to retain the Jewish Scriptures since these were what demonstrated the truth of their claims about Jesus.”

    The Jewish-Christian Ebionites did not feel constrained to retain the Jewish Scriptures?

    Do you think some of the Ebionites could trace their origins back to the earliest Jerusalem community of believers?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      Yeah, that was a clear mis-speak, since it’s literally wrong. Tracing origins: I’m sure they certainly *did*, whether their genealogies were accurate or not.

      • Robert
        Robert  June 26, 2019

        Bart: “I’m sure they [the Ebionites] certainly *did* [trace their origins back to the earliest Jerusalem community of believers], whether their genealogies were accurate or not.”

        But that’s precisely what I’m asking you. Do you tend to think some of the Ebionites were in fact a genuinely continuous evolution of the original Jerusalem community of believers? Surely we cannot know this with any certainty, but do you have an opinion on this?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 26, 2019

          I doubt it, since, so far as I know, they were not located in in Jerusalem. But it’s certainly possible that, say, Cephas went off and started a community of Jewish followers of Jesus elsewhere.

  8. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 21, 2019

    It’s also my understanding (correct me if I’m wrong) that by claiming the Jewish scriptures as their own, the Christians were thereby also gaining (usurping, really) a ready-made ancient tradition and history that ostensibly made their new faith more respectable (or at least less of a threat) in the Roman mind(?)

  9. Avatar
    Adam0685  June 21, 2019

    Do we have any indications that any early gentile churches considered itself to be Israel or the new Israel?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      Unfortunately we don’t have any writings (that we know of) from early gentile churches! I don’t believe the earliest known gentile authors (e.g., Ignatius) speak of themselves in these terms. But Barnabas comes close!

  10. Lev
    Lev  June 22, 2019

    Perhaps one explanation over why there were so few Jews in the Roman Church in c56 when Paul wrote, was that Claudius had expelled them (the Jewish population) and the ban was only lifted after Nero had ascended to the throne in October 54.

    Actually, that brings me to a question I’ve been meaning to ask. Do you know how such bans being lifted would have worked in ancient Rome? Did new emperors have to make a decision to lift bans, or was it an automatic process? How long do you think it would have taken Nero to lift the ban?

    Even if was straight away in late 54, that doesn’t leave a great deal of time until c56 for word to get out Rome is open for Jews again, for them to return and for Paul to become aware they had returned.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      Interesting point. No, I don’t know how such bans were lifted — or how well they were enforced inthe first place!

      • Lev
        Lev  June 23, 2019

        I suppose the ban would mostly apply to faithful Jews – those that thought it their duty to attend weekly synagogue meetings. As Synagogues would have been closed (destroyed?) during the ban, then I think it’s safe to say during the 49-54 period no faithful Jew could remain in Rome.

        Secular Jews who didn’t give a toss about attending synagogue could have easily remained, however.

  11. Avatar
    RVBlake  June 22, 2019

    Fascinating stuff. Jesus has stated his purpose in saving the “lost sheep of Israel” and instructing his apostles not to deal with Gentiles. Is this something that preachers and priests choose not to notice?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      I don’t know! If they deal with it they almost certainly say that it was an injunction to be followed during his lifetime but not after (given, e.g., Matthew 28:19-20)

  12. Telling
    Telling  June 22, 2019


    Do you have an idea of where you think Romans may have been written? Jerusalem before his arrest possibly?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      He appears to be in the city where Gaius was one of the Christian leaders (16:23), and that is normally taken as an indication he is writing from Corinth (1 Cor. 1:14;). He almost certainly is not in Jerusalem, since he is evangelizing in Gentile climes (15:23).

  13. Avatar
    dannawid  June 22, 2019

    If we were to take the version of Jesus according to Mathew: He was a Jewish reformer with no intention of founding a new religion, but to adhere to the teaching of the Torah and the application of the laws of Moses, why would his later followers not accept his practice and stick to the Torah as did the Ebionites his early followers. But of course that is too simplistic an argument. as there are many versions of Jesus. What do I know I am just a dumb retired electrical engineer.
    I am taking the liberty of adding to Dr. Ehrman; Jesus misquoted. “Jesus misquoted and re-engineered”

  14. Avatar
    nichael  June 22, 2019

    I think this explanation is very intriguing (i.e. that the early Christians incorporated the Hebrew Scriptures into their Bible to provide support for the Christian point of view by radically reinterpreting what they said).

    But a question:
    Should we be a bit surprised that there doesn’t appear to be more evidence that there were attempts to “Christianize” some the texts of the Hebrew Scripture (something like an “Orthodox [Christian] Corruption of [the Hebrew] Scriptures”)?

    We know that such attempts at “alterations” aiming to support a sectarian view weren’t uncommon (to pick an example from the discussion above, The Gospel of the Ebionites). Moreover such changes would likely be relatively easy to pass of on the (majority) gentile converts given that they were much less likely to be familiar with the originals.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      No, not necessarily. Texts can be *interpreted* in certain directions more easily than *changed*, and early on most Christians scribes were probably not copying texts of the Septuagint.

  15. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 22, 2019

    It’s strange that Christians attempting to co-opt the Jewish scriptures got by Josephus without notice. If Matthew started out Jewish, then we would expect that he was writing to a Jewish-Christian community. Since Peter, James, and John were most likely illiterate and not corresponding with their churches through written communication, how could we know the size of the Jewish-Christian population?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      I doubt if Josephus knew much about the inner workings of the Christian movement. And I’m afraid we simply can’t know the size of Jewish Christian populations apart from some guesses, some of them more wild than others. (I would rank Acts as among the wild guesses.)

  16. Avatar
    gddodd  June 22, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In “The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600),” Jaroslav Pelikan argues that Christian apologists of the second and third centuries leveraged the Hebrew Scriptures to “prove” the superiority of Christianity (vs. paganism) on the basis of its antiquity.

    He wrote, “This effort to demonstrate that the truth of revelation, which was also being affirmed by the pagan philosophers, had occurred first in the Old Testament was not merely a way of finding biblical support for one or another doctrine. It was also part of the campaign to prove the superiority of Christian doctrine on the grounds of its antiquity. Antiquity was widely regarded in pagan thought as lending authority to a system of thought or belief. . . Because the Christian message was based not simply on some timeless truth, but on the historical events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus under Pontius Pilate, it appeared to be discredited as an innovation. . . But the proclamation of these events was not the whole of the Christian message; or, rather, the apologists, together with the whole church, believed that those events were announced beforehand in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament.”

    (Sorry for the lengthy quote.)

    Do you agree that the desire to make Christianity more appealing to pagan Gentiles contributed to the development of Christian doctrine regarding the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures?

    Thank you.

  17. Avatar
    AlanK  June 22, 2019

    Dear Dr Ehrman,
    thanks for another interesting blog post. I find your comment that early Christianity consisted mostly of gentiles worth responding to. I will base my argument on 1 Thess 1:9 since that was one of the texts you referred to. If you examine the greek texts of 1 Thess 1:9, Paul’s use of the word επιστρεπηο which means ‘to turn’, doesn’t necessarily point to religious conversion. That word is only used 2 more times in Paul’s epistles – once in Gal 4:9, and then finally in 2Cor3:6. What’s interesting is in both of these epistles Paul applies the the word επιστρεπηο to Jews and gentiles equally because he talks about turning from the Mosaic laws to Jesus the Christ. I agree that in 1 Thess 1:9, Paul is more explicit about ‘turning’ from idols to the true living god, but equally, what you’ll find throughout 1 Thess and other Pauline letters is that for Paul, anything other than his own Christology is equivalent of idol worshipping, regardless of whether it’s Judaism or pagan worship. Furthermore, επιστρεπηο is also used in the Matthew’s gospel in Jesus’ parable of the demon ‘returning’ to his home and finds it nice and clean. It’s clear from the context of the parable that Jesus was talking about the Jews of his time. Hence the word επιστρεπηο doesn’t necessarily translate to a conversion event for gentiles only. Just to wrap up my long winded argument, if your conclusion that vast majority of early Christians were gentiles was based partially on 1 Thess 1:9, then it’s probably not the most sound foundation. I have a huge respect your expertise as a historian, so I am not saying this to discredit (not at all) your view, but just wanted to point out a possible weakness in your argument.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      Yes, the word can mean a variety of things in various contexts — just as the word “turn” can in English. But the key is to see what is being turned *from* and what is being turned *to”. If someone turns *from* idols that means they were once worshiping idols and have turned away from doing so. So I think I’m missing the weakness in the argument. So am I missing something? (If he had just said that these converts had “turned” to the living God, then obviously it could be ambiguous whether they turned from, say, Judaism or from paganism. But since they turned “from” idols, how could it refer to someone who was turning from Judaism?)

  18. Avatar
    Stephen  June 22, 2019

    All of this would seem to imply a substantial Pre-Pauline (or at least non-Pauline) ministry to the Gentiles, right? Sure would have been interesting to attend the meeting of a non-Pauline gentile Christian church!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      Sorry — I lost the track of this thread of thought. What would imply Pre-Pauline ministry to gentiles?

      • Avatar
        Stephen  June 23, 2019

        Sorry…that we see a thriving Roman church which Paul did not found. And your statement about the majority of early converts being Gentile. Doesn’t this at least imply that there was a non-Pauline outreach to the Gentiles?


        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2019

          Ah. Yes indeed. Not pre-Pauline but certainly non-Pauline. The question (big one) would be whether the church in Rome was founded by a missionary figure like Paul or, instead, was the result of just person-to-person contact with people who were Christian who happeend to come to Rome (to resettle; on business; on holiday; etc.) or of Roman non-Xns going elsewhere, getting converted by personal contact, and brought hteir new religion back home with them.

  19. Avatar
    brenmcg  June 23, 2019

    off topic q – when Jesus sends out the 12 in Matthew in Luke he tells them to take nothing for the journey, no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt.
    An obvious theological point being made that Jesus and the holy spirit will take care of everything.

    Mark, almost comically, misinterprets this as Jesus giving practical advice. “Take a staff but no bread or money, wear sandals but don’t wear two tunics”.

    Don’t Matthew and Luke have the original version here and isn’t Mark demonstrating a misunderstanding of his source?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      I”m afraid I don’t see why the form in Matthew is more obviously the earlier one? Of course if Mark “misinterprets” it then it would be; but I don’t see why that’s the sensible way to see it get changed? It’s just as easy to think Mark has the original and Matthew intensifies it.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  June 23, 2019

        Mark’s version can only be seen as practical advice with no theological undertones.

        Firstly this kind of advice with no theological merit is out of place with the rest of the gospel and secondly as practical advice it makes no sense. Why would he tell them to wear sandals but not an extra shirt? Why say to bring a staff but no money or bread? Its not as if these things wont be needed.

        Matthew’s version is clear – just go out and start preaching, Jesus and the holy spirit will take care of everything you need.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2019

          It’s more complicated than that. In Matthew is instructing his disciples to take on the appearance and behave like ancient Cynics.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  June 24, 2019

            but even in that case isnt mark’s version more likely to be a subsequent edit? why say wear sandals but don’t wear two shirts?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 24, 2019

            Because you need one pair of shoes and one shirt.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  June 26, 2019

            Of all the things Mark could have told us the messiah said ‘wear sandals’ seems a little trivial. I think the better explanation is he read matthew, misunderstood the point being made, and thought that at the very least the apostles should be allowed to sandals.

  20. Avatar
    godspell  June 23, 2019

    Bart, there are many passages in the gospels where Jesus indicates that he’s not such a stickler for following the Jewish Law, leading him into conflict with the Pharisees and other authority figures.

    Obviously it’s convenient for an increasingly gentile cult that doesn’t want to follow these laws that Jesus said they’re not the most important thing. So that doesn’t pass the Doctrine of Dissimilarity. They are leaning very heavily on Jesus’ dissent from orthodoxy, to justify a path they were going to take anyhow (and the son of a Pharisee is one of the major figures telling them that’s okay).

    It seems unlikely Jesus wasn’t often at odds with the Jewish authorities. His emphasis does seem to be more on how you treat other people than what foods you eat or whether you wash your hands first, or whether you keep the Sabbath. But to what extent do you think his dissent was exaggerated? It does seem likely that many if not most Jews didn’t strictly follow the laws at all times, because they were inconvenient, and Jesus’ original followers would have been much like that (Galilleans were looked down upon by some other Jews for reasons, we can assume). That’s still true now. (And lots of Catholics eat meat on Fridays).

    When I read these passages, I have to say, I agree with Jesus. But I understand that for some people (of many traditions), seemingly trivial rules can be very important. This a pattern you can see everywhere, if you look for it. Some people live for the rules, and others look for the loopholes. But once Christianity became the majority religion, of course, the rules people got in there pretty quick.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2019

      I’m not aware of any passages in which Jesus actually violates the law. (The great scholar of both Judaism and the NT, E. P. Sanders, claims there aren’t any.) Jesus certainly violates the Pharisees’ *interpretation* of the law, but that’s not the same thing! (Esp., e.g., on Sabbath issues)

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 24, 2019

        With Jewish law, it’s mainly in the interpretation, which can differ a great deal from authority to authority, as is the case with most religious laws. Jesus was saying don’t worry so much about what this or that authority says is the correct interpretation. But it seems unlikely to me he was saying that you had to follow the Law of Moses to enter the Kingdom. Jews should honor it because it was handed down to them from God, but they shouldn’t assume following the Law, in and of itself, will win them a place in the Kingdom. Jesus was not much for legalisms.

        What I was thinking of is something like Mark referring to Jesus’ statement that it’s what comes out of a man that makes him unclean, not what goes into him. Mark goes out of his way to tell his readers that this means Jesus declared all foods clean. There is, of course, no record of Jesus ever eating foods forbidden to Jews. (There’s little specific information about his dietary habits, except at the Last Supper. We can assume some loaves and fishes. And we know he really liked figs.)

        That statement does sound very much like something Jesus would have said, and while Mark’s interpretation of it can be questioned, it’s not entirely out of line. Would Jesus have condemned a poor Jew who harvested shellfish because his family was starving? There’s no evidence at all he ever upbraided anyone for not following the Law. Because in a short time, there would be a new Law. And that did not come to pass, but it did provide a big gaping loophole for pagan converts.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2019

          Yes, that’s a good point. Declaring all foods clean is definitly Mark’s (gentile) view and certainly not the view Jesus himself had.

          • Avatar
            godspell  June 25, 2019

            He’s making a blanket statement–‘eat what you want, Jesus said it was okay.’ It would have been more true, but less effective from Mark’s POV to say “He therefore declared that you should try to follow the dietary laws, but don’t overstress about it’, which was probably something a lot of poor Jews like Jesus had done and nobody cared much until one of them started making religious edicts.

            It’s very hard to imagine Jesus eating pork. I don’t believe he would have said that those who did were going to Gehenna if they had followed what he considered higher laws.

            Still and all, one of my favorite novels is Bernard Malamud’s “The Assistant” in which a Jewish storekeeper who is meant to embody the true spirit of Judaism, tells his gentile assistant that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with putting some ham in his mouth, and nobody can tell him he’s not a Jew for that.

            There would always have been a great variety of opinion among Jews, of that era, or any other. The OT and NT give us the tiniest sliver of their diversity. Muslims are pretty diverse as well. Religion is inevitably impacted by local culture, and culture is a stubborn weed.

        • Lev
          Lev  June 24, 2019

          “And we know he really liked figs.” That comment really made me chuckle. 🙂

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