Differentiation of Christians and Jews in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries

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Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ Both Christians and Jews viewed themselves as the portrayers of truth; The Romans viewed both as conveyers of false religion.  But how and why did the Christians differentiate themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries and how did the Romans distinguish the Christians and the Jews from each other? This essay will explore the how these groups were differentiated and distinguished in this period and what implications the Roman perspective has for the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews.

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate p...
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting Jesus to the people.

In order to assess how and why Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries it is necessary to explore texts by Christian writers in this period. Unfortunately there is a limited corpus of texts available from the second and third centuries. Despite this, the words of writers such as Aristides, Tertullian, Ignatius and Justin give us some understanding of the differentiation made and why they were distinguished by the Christians.  Regardless of which group is being referred to, the overriding theme is prescription of correct practices.

In examining the Christian texts, one of the main points of differentiation relates to the concept of truth.  The Christians saw themselves as the conveyors and students of truth and the Jews as a people who had erred from true knowledge.  Aristides, a second century writer, asserts that the Christians have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations and the Jews have strayed from truth and instead make observances to angels and not to God.[1]  Tertullian, writing from the end of the first century and into the second, in his Apology also makes this differentiation, explaining that with truth comes hatred of truth, Jews are strangers to the truth and hence Christians are the enemies.[2]

The Christians also differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of origins.  Tertullian explains that the Christians traced the origins of their religion to the reign of Tiberius, from Jesus the ‘son of God.’[3]  Aristides also expresses this in his Apology, saying that the Christians trace their religion to the Messiah.  Aristides explains that this is a significant difference between the Jews and the Christians as the Jews trace their origins of their religion from Abraham, ‘who begat Isaac, of whom was born Jacob. And he begat twelve sons who migrated from Syria to Egypt; and there they were called the nation of the Hebrews, by him who made their laws; and at length they were named Jews…’[4]  The Christians appear to be very determined, moving through the second and third centuries to express that there was little place in the Christian religion for Jewish laws and customs, this may be a significant reason why the Christians differentiated themselves in relation to origins.  But Christian writers in most cases do not attempt to completely divorce themselves from origins from Abraham.  Justin, for instance, asserts that Christians are the true spiritual descendants from Abraham; this terminology though still gives a distinct sense of differentiation between the Christians and the Jews.[5]

Christian texts from the second and third centuries illustrate that customs and laws were also used as a basis for differentiation. Frend assesses that Christians saw themselves as the ‘true Jews’, ‘the true vine’, but rejected Jewish ceremonial law.[6]  It was the rejection of this claim by Jews and Romans alike that led to the Christian’s often precarious situation.[7] One of the most evident of these differences is that of food laws.  Barnabas lays out the food-laws of the Jews; “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish…”[8]  Jews were also distinguished often by their clothes and dwellings in a separate quarter of the urban community, distinctions that the Christians rejected explicitly.[9]  Aristides also outlines some of these distinctions; he explains that unlike the Christians, the Jews celebrate the beginning of months, feasts of unleavened bread and a great fast, and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats.[10]  Tertullian again illustrates how the Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in this way, stating that ‘we neither accord with Jews in their peculiarities in regard to food…sacred days…bodily signs, nor in the possession of a common name;’ which he suggests surely the Christians would if their God and religion were the same.[11]  The Didache even lays out the situation in reference to fasting and how Christians should make a point of fasting on days which are not fasting days of Judaism, of ‘hypocrites.’[12]

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr wrote that the Jews ‘did not recognise Christ even when He came…He was crucified by them.’[13] In examining how the Christians distinguished themselves we see that many saw the Jews’ unrecognition of Jesus as Son of God as a key point. The Jews were seen as having rejected Christ and so were rejected by Christ.  The rejection of Christ by the Jews is an important point when assessing why the Christians took the liberty to differentiate themselves from the Jews so explicitly.  Aristides expressed that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus; pierced and crucified by them.[14]  Not only did the Jews reject the basis for the Christians origins but expressed it as blasphemy as Justin notes with Barchochebas, the leader of the Jewish revolt, who gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.[15]

Melito in relation to the Jews and their rejection of Christ appears to even accuse them of deicide.[16]  The Jews are said not to have understood that which their own prophets predicted and therefore did not recognise Christ when he did come and so in seeing Jesus treated him with contempt.[17] In comparison, the Christians embraced him despite their lack of knowledge and prophecy.  In the minds of the Christians the Jews had killed Christ which is probably why this accusation of deicide appears in the likes of Melito. It seems a fair assessment that this ideology of the Jews would have been a key factor in why the Christians wished to be defined apart from the Jews as they had rejected the saviour, especially since the Christians saw themselves as the chosen people, despite lacking the wealth and the antiquity of the Jews.  Whether this rejection was out of ignorance or divine will is a subject which was debated and questioned even in the period under examination.

Throughout the majority of Christian texts addressing the Jewish religion a recurring theme of differentiation is the idea of old and new.  For instance, Tertullian asserts that the Jews had false trust in their ‘noble ancestors’; and Ignatius advises in his letter to the Magnesians not to be led astray by ‘old fables’ and that the Jewish converts walked in ‘ancient customs’ where as the Christians walked in a ‘new hope’.[18] The Christians did not have the antiquity that the Jews had and differentiated themselves through a sense of newness and regeneration.  Barnabas illustrates this stating that he made us new by the remission of sins he made us ‘another type’, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh.”[19] This idea of Christianity as new is also seen in the Roman texts but is seen in a different, more negative light.  Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians expresses that in the end Christianity was seen by the Christians as the superior group and their teachings and religion was to be preferred before all others.[20]  The Jews were seen as the lesser group and should only relate to the Christian teachings to show the superiority of the Christians.

The question remains of how the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries. The Romans distinguished the Jews as a special people in contrast to other groups due to their imageless worship (ἀθεότης), refusal to participate in the traditional and their exclusiveness (ἀμιξία). This exclusiveness and separation from the rest of society was a key point of differentiation that the Romans made between the Christians and the Jews.  The Jews kept to themselves whereas the Christians interacted with the rest of the community.  Caecilius illustrates this, describing the Jews as a people who ‘skulk and shun the light of day, silent in pubic…the lonely and wretched race of the Jews…but the Christians! What marvels, what monsters to they feign!’[21] This indicates that the Jews were distinguished from the Christians as not only a separate group but as a people who purposely isolated themselves from society.  Tacitus also expresses this idea of isolation, explaining that the Jews sit apart at meals, sleep apart and do not associate with strangers and foreigners.[22]  The exclusivity of the Jews seems to have been also a way that the groups were distinguished.  Jews were exclusive, Christians were not.

There are unfortunately few pagan references to Christianity in the second century but from the few sources available it appears that Romans also distinguished the Christians from the Jews in relation to the idea of a third race the ‘genus tertium’, though this idea is often debated by modern scholarship. The Treatise Scorpiace, for instance, indicates that the designation of Christians as a third race was common in Carthage in the third century.[23]  This designation was made on the grounds of faith and is implicit of a distinction between the Jews and the Christians; the Romans being the first race, the Jews the second, and the Christians the third. Tertullian also refers to this distinction made by the Romans, stating ‘Tertium genus [dicimur] de ritu.’[24] This distinction of Ἕλληνες, Ἰουδαῖοι, and Γαλιλαῖοι is seen throughout literary evidence, both Christian and Roman, and appears to be a key way that the groups were distinguished by the Romans.  This distinction is one that was made in relation to Roman society and is not to be confused with other ideas of race distinction based on locality which was also a common distinction in the period, as the Christians and the Jews were ‘genos’ based within the Roman populace.

The Christians differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of presenting themselves as a new hope, a new faith.  The Romans also made distinctions between Christians and Jews by distinguishing Christians as new.  Benko explains that Christianity was seen as a new superstition that could not claim the sanction of antiquity like Judaism could.[25]  Even Tacitus who describes the Jews as ‘perverse and disgusting’ admits that ‘Jewish worship is vindicated by its antiquity.’[26]  Christianity, like Judaism, was seen by the Romans as ‘perverse and disgusting’ but was distinguished by also being ‘foreign and new’ and therefore much worse than Judaism.[27]  Frend also asserts that in the second and third centuries the Jews needed not the introduction that the Christians did.  This further suggests that the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians as old and new.  The newness of Christianity and that Christians did not offer tangible substitute of loyalty to the Empire like the Jews did was regarded as proof of subversive intent.[28] Saying this, Christianity was seen as a new thing but not necessarily as a new religion in itself but an invading one, new to society, and Christians were seen as people who had turned their backs on the traditions of their forefathers.

Literary sources also indicate that the Romans distinguished Christians and Jews in relation to physical attributes, for instance, circumcision and imagery. The pagan writer Tacitus shows this distinction by asserting that the Jews adopted circumcision as a mark of difference from other men.[29]  A difference between the Jews and the Christians that the Romans also exhibited knowledge of was the idea of imagery and idolatry that was practiced by the Christians but not by the Jews.  Tacitus again alludes to this distinction, stating that the Jews ‘do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.’[30]  This indicates that the Romans, not unlike the Christians, made distinctions between the two groups on a basis of customs as well as beliefs.

The Romans also distinguished Christians from Jews as they regarded Judaism as a genuine faith and Christianity as a subversive counterfeit.[31]  This, along with the distinction of old and new, relates significantly to the large number of stories about the Christians which contributed to the distinctions made.  Tertullian shows this distinction through accusations that the Christians killed children as part of holy rites, practiced incest and impious lusts.[32]  He explains that this was the type of thing that Christians had long been accused of and that no pains had been taken on the part of the Romans to elicit the truth of the accusations.  Frend also alludes to Octavius 150-160 which distinguishes the Christians as users of black magic, initiators of scandal and Bacchanalianism.[33]  Suetonius also accuses Christians of using magic and introducing a new and dangerous superstition.[34]  This is indicative of one means of distinction used by the Romans.  The Jews do not seem to be subject to such explicit accusations in this period as they were regarded as a genuine faith; the Christians on the other hand were distinguished as a superstitio through rumours and ideas created through distinct lack of knowledge.

The majority of points of distinction made by the Romans are of a particularly negative nature during this period, especially in regards to the Christians, who they regarded as new and dangerous.  Examination of some texts though illustrates namely two things; firstly that little was known about the Christians and so many distinctions were made in relation to rumours or other groups such as the Jews, and secondly that in this period there appears to have been a sense of leniency towards the Christians that distinguished them from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. For instance, under Hadrian in the second century the Roman imperial powers appear to have made a distinction in favour of the Christians.[35] Granianus thought it unjust to kill Christians without accusation or trial, to appease popular clamour. Hadrian wrote back saying that petitions and popular accusations should not be recognised.[36]  In light of the suppression of Jews in Asia Minor at the time this presents a distinction lenient to the Christians, despite Hadrian leaving the general question of Christianity rather vague.  It also expresses that while popular view was that Christians were a threat, Roman imperial powers saw them more as just a nuisance.

This sense of distinction is also seen in Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence.  These letters display a lack of knowledge in regards to the Christians and a leniency by imperial powers.  Pliny shows this lack of knowledge, stating that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’ Whether it is the name itself, even without offenses or only the offenses associated with the name that are to be punished.’[37] Pliny and Trajan do not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the State, though popular belief was that Christians detracted from the unified empire.[38]  Trajan almost seems tolerant and tells Pliny that Christians aren’t to be hunted but if denounced put to trial.[39]  The Roman perspective in many cases appears to be that the Christians were not a religious problem but one of disloyalty where as the Jews still paid their due to the Empire.  This suggests that the rulers were mostly acting on the demands of the pagan majority and common opinion.  In a period where the Jews were revolting and causing extensive problems, these ideas indicate a differentiation between groups.

The list of ways that the Romans distinguished Jews and Christians is diverse and variable throughout time and localities, so what is discussed above is a collection of some of the most widely spread and explicit ideas.  The way that the Romans saw the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries cannot be fully recognised in the present day, even when one attempts to fully explore these ideas and the branches of information and ideologies that spring from them.  Like the modern scholar, the writings of the second and third centuries were greatly hampered by bias and influence, and this again makes it difficult to assess how and why differentiations were made.  In order to create a better picture of how and why, a more extensive study needs to be made than is possible here.

The Roman perspective that we can reproduce from texts does have a variety of implications on the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period.  At first thought one might think that the Jews and Christians were both groups separate from Roman society and so understood each other’s predicaments.  This is the kind of idea the Roman perspective often implies.  There is the distinction of races; Romans as the first, Jews as the second and Christians as the third; despite this being a somewhat clear distinction by the Romans, the idea remains of there being the Romans and then the others.  The implication here is that the relationship between the Jews and the Christians was not a bad one, as they both fell into the category of degraded foreign cults.[40]  Other distinctions though are implicit of bad relations between Jews and Christians.  The distinction of old and new which is often imposed by the Romans has the implication that we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period on those terms, as a contest between old Israel and the new.[41]

As you can see, there are several ways that the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period can be viewed.  This is particularly influenced by whether one is looking at the Roman perspective as seen through the eyes of the Romans or of the Christians and Jews.  For instance, when looking at the Roman perspective of Christians in relation to accusations of magic, from the Roman writings we see mainly ignorance and rumour; but from looking at the Roman perspective from Christian writings we see an accusation of spreading rumours and hatred, accusations spread by the Jews to downsize and hurt the Christians, displaying a very negative relationship.  When looking at Roman writings, the implication is that we look onto the relationship between Jews and Christians with a limited knowledge and habit of distinguishing groups only to a certain point. When looking at the Roman perspective from Christian and Jewish texts, the way we view the relationship is fairly different, more severe and distinct but is influenced by the perspective of the groups in question themselves.  The Roman perspective in general implies a sense of ignorance or subjective thought in the way we view the relationship between Jews and Christians.

1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (i...
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred by crusaders

The Christians differentiated themselves explicitly from the Jews in the second and third centuries as can be seen in numerous Christian texts from the period.  This was done in relation to differences in customs, ideologies and philosophies such as origins, physical differences like circumcision and the idea of truth.  This differentiation was made based on ideas of competition and rivalry of old and new as well as clashes in ideology.  The Romans also took time to distinguish them on the basis of antiquity, origins, customs and accusation and this Roman perspective, which is seen in Roman, Christian and Jewish texts, has implications on how we view the relationship between Christians and Jews as the Roman perspective presents a different picture of the relationship than the Christian and Jewish perspectives and is generally a more available perspective due to the limitations of sources.


 

Bibliography

Modern Sources:

Adler, M., The Emperor Julian and the Jews, in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol.5, No.4 (Jul.1893), pp.591-651

Barnes, E.W., Rise of Christianity (London, 1948)

Barnes, T.D., Legislation against the Christians, in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol.58, Parts 1 and 2 (1968), pp.32-50

Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984)

Bickerman, E.J., The Name of Christians, in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol.42, No.2 (Apr., 1949), pp.109-124

Cochrane, C.N., Christianity and Classical Culture (London, 1968)

Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), pp. 155-172, 461-466

Hazlett, I., Early Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600 (Nashville, 1991), pp.52-64

Janssen, L.F., ‘Superstitio’ and the Persecution of the Christians, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.33, No.2 (Jun., 1979), pp.131-159

Keresztes, P., The Imperial Roman Government and the Christian Church, I: From Nero to the Severi, in ANRW II 23.1, pp.247-315

Keresztes, P., The Jews, the Christians, and Emperor Domitian, in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol.27, No.1 (Mar., 1973), pp.1-28

Lane Fox, R., The Spread of Christianity: Pagans and Christians (Canada, 2006), pp.428

Macmullen, R., and Lane, E.N., Paganism and Christianity 100-425CE: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis, 1992), pp.74-78

Macmullen, R., Christianizing the Roman Empire (A.D. 100-400) (London, 1984), pp.25-42, 132-138

Momigliano, A., The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford, 1963), pp.17-37

Poteat, H.M., Rome and the Christians, in The Classical Journal, Vol.33, No.3 (Dec., 1937), pp.134-144

Sanders, J.T., Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire: A Conversation with Rodney Stark, in Sociological Analysis, Vol.53, No.4 (1992), pp.433-445

Sherwin White, A.N., The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966)

Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), pp.57-60

Wilken, R., Pliny: A Roman Gentleman, in idem., The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, 1984), pp.1-30

Wilken, R., The Christians as the Romans saw Them (Michigan, 1984)

 

Ancient Sources:

Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html]

Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912)

Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html]

Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. J. E. L. Oulton, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. 1932)

Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

Josephus, trans H. St. J. Thackeray et al., Loeb Classical Library, Vols 1-10 (Cambridge, Mass, 1926)

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html]

Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html]

Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])

Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp (Trans. Lightfoot, J.B.,) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lightfoot.html]

Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html]

Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian08.html]

Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html]

Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm]

The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Trans. Hoole, C.H., (1885))


[1] Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html] Chapter XV

[2] Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html] Chapter 7

[3] Ibid., Chapter 7

[4] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[5] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]

[6] Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.130

[7] Ibid., p.130

[8] Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912), Chapter 10 – the food-law of the Jews

[9] Frend, op.cit., p.146

[10] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[11] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21

[12] Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html] 8:1

[13] Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html] Chapter 36

[14] Aristides, op.cit., Apology

[15] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 31

[16] Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html] II 224-44

[17] Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter XLIX

[18] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21 and Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm] 8.1 and 9.1-2

[19] Barnabas, op.cit., 6.11

[20] Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]

[21] Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]

[22] Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html] Book 5

[23] Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm] x.: a word to heretics who shunned martyrdom

[24] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., I.xx

[25] Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984), p.21

[26] Ibid., p.22

[27] Ibid., p.22

[28] Frend, op.cit., p.192

[29] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[30] Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5

[31] Frend, op.cit., p.208

[32] Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 7

[33] Frend, op.cit., p.187

[34] Ibid., p.124

[35] Ibid., p.169

[36] Ibid., p.168

[37] Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]) Book X, 96

[38] Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), p.58

[39] Trajan in Pliny, op.cit., Book X, 97

[40] Benko, op.cit., p.21

[41] Frend, op.cit., p.133

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