The Nazarenes as a Major Party with first century Judaism
Over the past decade, there has become a progressive passion of many, Christian and Jews alike, to learn and understand the life and ministry of the first recognized congregation (ecclesia) of messianic followers of Jesus.
Were they like us, did they believe like we do? If not, then why not? It is recognized that the limited vision we have comes through the gospels of the canon, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Yohanan Gospel, and the Acts of the Apostles attributed to the Apostle Luke.
It is the book, Acts of the Apostles, in which we get our greatest insight, though limited, as it is told from the viewpoint of the Apostle Paul who spent very limited time in Jerusalem. This messianic congregation is known today by most Christians as ‘The Jerusalem Church’, but was in reality known in the language and culture of first century Judaism, the Kahal (Hebrew) Nazarene Ecclesia (Congregation) of Yisra’el (Israel). They followed the teachings, the literal and spiritual ministry of Jesus, known to them as Yahshua ben David (Jesus son of David). This ecclesia was recognized as being the direct spiritual and governmental heirs of succession to the ministry of Jesus. As a true Jewish rabbi, Yahshua discipled a small group of selected and chosen followers, twelve in number, a number that were very Hebrew in its origin. These disciples who were called the Talmid Hakham (disciples of the wise) dedicated their lives to understanding the Torah through the eyes of their master. They were not recognized as mere illiterate men but were expected to achieve the heights of scholarship of their master and to emulate the moral attributes of all the wise and learned of Israel. According to the Talmud:
B. Yoma 72b – “Any scholar, whose inside is not like his outside, is no scholar.” (B. Yoma 72b; English translation by I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud (London: Soncino, 1938, Seder Mo’ ed, 346-7, quoted by Jacques B. Doukhan, Israel and the Church, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass, 2002.)
Did not their master, Yahshua
(Jesus) achieve the reputation and respect, at the age of twelve, after the Feast of the Passover (Pesach) when his mother and father found him at the Temple sitting at the feet of the great Jewish teachers and scholars in Jerusalem?
The Temple Mount Enclosure – 19th Century Lithograph
According to the Mishnah, (m. Avot 5:21) a Jewish child started studying Torah from the feet of his parents, who in their own right were amateur Torah scholars who would put any modern Christian scholars to shame. By the age of ten, a young child started studying the Mishnah and by fifteen the Gemara. So here at the age of twelve, Mary and Joseph found the child Jesus (Yahshua);
Luke 2:46-47 – “Not so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.”
The concept of the talmidim (disciples) of the master rabbi was already an established fact in Jewish tradition. Many times the disciples were chosen to leave their families and professions to follow their master. We will later see the evidence in looking at the history of some of the disciples of some of the messianic Zealots and Hasmonean aspirants to the throne of the Maccabean dynastic family of Judas Maccabees and followed them in revolt to the wilderness or across the Jordan. We also see this evidence in the sages of Judaism. Did not the prophet Ezra who composed the canon of the Jewish people have five disciples? (2 Esdras 14:42) There was Rabbi Akiva who was attributed to having five disciples (b. Yevamot 62b) or by another source seven disciples (Tanhuma Hayyei Sarah 6). And then there was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the founder of rabbinic Judaism, who was attributed to having five disciples. (m. Abot 2:8-9. (Doukhan, Jacques, Israel and the Church, Two Voices for the same God, Hendrickson Publisher, Inc. POB 4373, Peabody, Massachusetts 01961-3473, p. 8)
The Jerusalem Church (Yerushalayim Ecclesia) was recognized as the Mother Church of what would later become Christianity. In fact, the whole concept of the Jerusalem Church is a misnomer, as in the culture of first-century Judaism there were no churches. The various groups of Sabbath worshippers met together in congregations called ecclesias, worshipped in the synagogues or the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem. The Jewish followers of Jesus were called for the next few centuries, the Notzri, and the congregation of Notzris was called the Nazarenes. As such the official name for the Jerusalem Church was the Hebrew (Kahal) Nazarene Congregation (Ecclesia) of Israel (Yisra’el).
Throughout this study, we will continue to appeal to the real name of the early apostolic followers of Jesus. They were truly the primitive Christians, but as we shall soon see, the primitive Christians were actually more educated and spiritually advanced than their descendants many centuries later. So is often the course of history, we, as historians and scholars in the modern world, found that we have an abundance of knowledge. Though our knowledge has truly increased, the depths of our understanding were more superficial. It does not have the multiple layers of spiritual and mystical meanings and understanding that was a part of the laminated mosaic of Jewish religious knowledge.
This study is complex and not the simple story that I grew up to believe. It was an era when actors moved on and off the Jewish religious and political stage. During this era, religious and political parties merged, separated, re-affirmed and then denounced each other. We find a large corpus of literature representing each parties on multiple sides of an issue. In order to understand the full picture, we find heroes and traitors represented by the same person, depending on who was doing the writing and the judging.
Any opinion a historian can make on this era will be denounced by some believers as evil, heretical, and fraudulent to the cause of Christ. The polarity of the Jewish people allowed no shades of gray and multiple shades of black. That polarity lives with us today as Christians and may even resurrect itself in this course of study. So we enter cautiously, prayerfully, yet with a hope that looking at the history of the era and recognizing that all human are affected by the political, spiritual and social events of their day, we can enhance and enlighten that era recognized as the birth of Christianity.
The Historical Evidence – did it really happen?
So much of scholarship today is in reference to defining the question, did it really happen? Was the life of Jesus a historical event? The first area to look at has to be the context of time. It has been suggested that the life of Jesus was not an important figure in the Roman world and times. We must come to this study with the understanding that the Jews in the diaspora, living outside the province of Judea were in constant touch with their homeland, and traveled frequently back to Jerusalem to attend the feasts of the tabernacle as required by every adult Jewish male living in the land. The province of Judea was so strategically located that any unrest or revolt would quickly spread and could destroy the political stability of the entire Eastern Roman Empire.
There was an intense hatred against the Romans occupiers of Judea, known as the Edomites or the Kittim, by the Zealots or the nationalistic Jews, who were also known as those that were ‘zealous for the law’ and Sicarii. Their passions based on their religious beliefs alone were always on the cutting edge of revolt. To them, Yahweh had forbidden the allegiance and worship to any other ruler and that included the Emperor of Rome. That the Roman citizens considered the emperor of Rome to be divine was only fuel for the fodder that recognized that this was blasphemy against the God of Abraham. Finally, Jesus came into earth’s history when the most intense fervor of messianic expectation occurred in Jewish life, including a long line of Davidian aspirants to the throne of David and the Hasmonean aspirants to the throne of the Maccabean rulers of Judea.