The Great Divide between Church and Synagogue

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In his introductory remarks to his scholarly work “The Jewish people and Jesus Christ” Jacob Jocz writes:

“Both Judaism and Christianity are the result of a major controversy which took place during the first century and the first half of the second century. This controversy was of a theological nature and centred round the significance of Jesus of Nazareth. Our study has led us to the conviction that the general view, which holds that Judaism remained unaffected by the Christian episode, is untenable. Judaism had been deeply affected by the rise of Christianity and was pushed in the opposite direction. The opposition between the two creeds is thus an integral part of their separate existence. Only in opposition to each other do they learn the truth about themselves.”(1)

The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines “anti-Semitism” as: “hostility to or prejudice against Jews.” Much has been written about Christian anti-Semitism and in the two thousand years since the rise of Christianity there have no doubt been grave injustices perpetrated in the name of Christ, just as the intense persecutions in the early church were instigated by the Synagogue. But the real argument is a theological one. The question of who is Jesus stands at the centre of the great divide between Church and Synagogue. In recent times there have been efforts to bridge the divide from both sides, but the only way to bridge the gap between the Risen Christ whom Christians worship and the Jesus whom Rabbinic Judaism could accept is by reducing him to the stature of another Jewish Rabbi. Referring to one such attempt Jocz comments:

“It is obvious that the Jesus whom Cournos has stripped of all theological and dogmatic significance, in order to make him acceptable to the Jewish taste, has simultaneously lost all his peculiar uniqueness, which both attracts and repels the Jew. Jesus, secularized and divested of all his religious meaning, ceases to be important.”

He goes on to state:

“The real controversy regarding Jesus takes place, not on the plane of secularized idealism but on the plane of religious truth. It is essentially a theological controversy which can only be carried on in its full significance between the Synagogue and the Church.(2)

The first members of the Christian Church were all Jews. They continued to worship in the Synagogue until they were forced to separate themselves from the unbelieving Jews by the introduction into the regular Synagogue liturgy of the Birkat-ha-minim which pronounced a curse against heretics.(3) Although it has undergone revisions, the fact that the Church Fathers complained that “the Jews curse the Christians in their Synagogues three times daily” supports the conclusion that it was designed to force the Jewish Christians out of the Synagogue. Eventually the synagogue came to exclusively represent those Jews who rejected the Messiah, especially after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. The Bar-Cochba rebellion cemented the divide between the two groups as the Jewish Christians could not give their allegiance to another claiming to be the Messiah, while their failure to support the Jewish rebellion against Rome was interpreted as a national betrayal.

The persecution against the church in the first two centuries emanated primarily from the Synagogue and was specifically directed against Jewish-Christians. The apostle Paul, before his conversion, was himself a zealous persecutor of the followers of Christ, even approving of the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1). He was totally hostile to the church, which was at that time predominantly composed of Jews and completely prejudiced against the claims of Jesus Christ. In other words, there were Jews who were violently opposed to fellow-Jews because they had become followers of Jesus Christ. Did this make them anti-Semites? When Paul subsequently came to believe in the claims of Jesus and taught that the Jews who rejected Jesus were cut off from Israel did this make him an anti-Semite?

The fact that Gentiles accepted the gospel in large numbers and soon outnumbered the Jewish followers of Jesus complicated things further. The issue of how the Law applied under the New Covenant occupies a central place in the religious debates within the Church of the first century. The central place that the temple and Jerusalem occupied in the religious life was largely resolved (a) by the destruction of the temple in AD70 and (b) by the teachings of the apostle Paul which brought clarity to the relationship of the old covenant and the new. The Jewish Christians who identified with the catholic (universal) church were no longer primarily identified as Jews because they were included with Gentile believers into the new covenant church of Jesus Christ of which the apostle Paul taught that there is neither Jew nor Greek for they were all one in Christ (Romans 10:12; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). The concept of the “Christian race” in the early Church included all who were joined together in the bond of a common faith. There were some Jewish groups who believed that Jesus was the Messiah (though some denied his divinity), but who refused communion with Gentile Christians who did not keep the Law.(4)They were not regarded as members of the Church and they gradually disappeared over the first few centuries.

The book of Revelation was written to encourage the believers who were enduring intense suffering through the persecutions instigated by the Synagogue. It was in this context that Jesus spoke of those who “say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9) meaning that they no longer belonged to the assembly of true worshippers but to the assembly of the accuser of the brethren. Paul refers to them in his letter to the Thessalonians as being hostile to all men in trying to prevent him from preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (1 Thessalonians 2:14-15). Ishmael and Isaac were both Semites and children of Abraham, but Ishmael persecuted Isaac. Ironically, Paul figuratively compared the persecution of Isaac by Ishmael with the persecution of Christians by those who were Jews by natural descent but who were not acting in faithfulness to the LORD of the covenant.

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman (Galatians 4:28-31).

Under the old covenant provision was made for Gentiles to convert to the faith of Israel. Jacob Katz notes in his book, that Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe (1530-1612) prefaced the section on proselytes in his halakhic compendium with the words:

“Our scholars have said that it may be assumed that in the case of the proselyte who, on becoming a Jew, has accepted the yoke of the Torah and the commandments and the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, there is planted in him a holy spirit and a new soul from high, and he becomes another man; and that it was as if he was created and born anew on that day, as if his entire former life had never been.”(5)

The Scriptures, however, teach that all people, regardless of whether they are born Jew or Gentile, have sinned and are dead in their sins and transgressions and need to be born anew. This is a fundamental difference between Church and Synagogue. Judaism differs radically in its conception of man. While the Church emphasises man’s fall Judaism emphasises the essential goodness of man. Jocz comments:

“Before the cross not only the heathen stranger but also the pious Jew stood condemned and in need of pardon. It is for this reason that the Cross was to the Jew an offense. The complete levelling down of Jew and Gentile was an outrageous act of insolence in the eyes of the Synagogue. There can be no equality between the Chosen People and the pagans.”(6)

The height of insolence is in fact to rebel against the Lord’s anointed King yet still claim the privileges of being the Lord’s covenant people. In the kingdoms of this world it would be tantamount to treason. The New Testament teaches that all men, Jew and Gentile alike, have to be reconciled to God in exactly the same way – through faith in Jesus Christ. Only by a supernatural act of God in which He reaches down to them to put his Holy Spirit in them can they be born again and thus become a new creation according to the new covenant. Paul taught,

“A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).

In recent years the term replacement theology (7) has become a critical appellation applied to the teaching that the Church is the continuation of the faithful Israel of God and it is only in Christ that the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. This is the view that has been held by most of the Church from the first century onwards. Only in the last two centuries has this been challenged by the teaching of Dispensationalism. Some have gone so far as to ascribe to so-called replacement theology the seeds of anti-Semitism that eventually found expression in the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The emotive charge of anti-Semitism is used to silence practically any criticism of Judaism, Zionism or the present State of Israel whether valid or not. In fact the charge of anti-Semitism is used to silence the preaching of the gospel among the Jews – those who engage in such activities are often accused of being worse than Nazis since they supposedly imperil the souls of Jews while the Nazis only killed the body. While this may seem expedient it is counter-productive. When a word is overused it loses its effectiveness and cheapens the suffering of those who have been real victims of anti-Semitism.

At the 23rd Congress in Jerusalem in 1951 Zionism was defined as follows: “The task of Zionism is the consolidation of the State of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles in Eretz Yisrael and the fostering of the unity of the Jewish people.” However, Jesus did not come to unite the Jewish people on the basis of their natural descent. On the contrary, he said,

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).

Jesus was destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel (Luke 2:34). The division which Jesus brought is between those who believe in him (the rising of Israel) and those who reject him (the falling of Israel).

If, in contending for the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are accused of being anti-Semites, it should be considered that those who lead people astray by distorting the Scriptures are guilty of a far worse form of anti-Semitism. Many people assume that hatred, persecution and murder perpetrated by ungodly people towards Jews is surely the worst form of anti-Semitism, but Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Denying or distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ by offering false hope to Jews is a far worse form of anti-Semitism as the consequence is eternal condemnation if they do not repent of their unbelief. This is why the apostle Paul pronounces such a curse on anyone who proclaims a different gospel.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ(Galatians 1:6-10).

The real rebellion of mankind and the fullest expression of wickedness is to set oneself against the King whom God has anointed and enthroned. The Holy Spirit will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement; in regard to sin because they do not believe in Jesus Christ (John 16:8-11). We have been commissioned to preach the good news of the kingdom of God and to confront people with their sin and call them to repentance.

“There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.” “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 57:21 – 58:1).

One cannot call oneself a friend of the Jews if one propagates a lie or withholds the true gospel of Jesus Christ. One is not a true friend who says only what pleases their hearers. Isaiah was confronted with the same problem:

They say to the seers, “See no more visions!” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isaiah 30:10-11).

Unfortunately there are many Christian teachers who are willing to oblige.

Jesus remains a rock of offense to Judaism. The line that divides Jews and Christians is not a racial divide but a divide that exists in our attitude to Jesus Christ. This divide is only bridged by a change in our attitude to Him. Jocz sums this up as follows:

“The divergence between the Church and Synagogue is fundamental and covers the whole sphere of human-Divine relationship. At no point do these two divergent circles intersect. It is only a vague and diluted Christian theology which imagines it possible to come to terms with Judaism. In reality there is no understanding between the two faiths: they possess no common denominator which could form the basis for a “bridge theology.” They can only compromise by surrender: either the Church becomes the Synagogue or the Synagogue the Church. But in their separateness their only legitimate relationship is that of continuous interrogation. They can, nay they must question each other until the end of time. Their existence side by side puts both simultaneously under a question mark. The theme of their conversation is thus as to the why and wherefore of their separate life. The answer to this question leads to the person of Jesus Christ. Between Church and Synagogue stands the Crucified. Church and Synagogue derive their existence from their attitude to Him. The Synagogue perpetuates her existence in her continued negation, and the Church in her continued affirmation of the claims which Jesus made.” (8)


1. The Jewish people and Jesus Christ – a study in the relationship between the Jewish people and Jesus Christ by Jacob Jocz, Ph.D. p.10
2. ibid. p. 263
3.An old text in a Cairo Genizah reads: “For the renegades let there be no hope, and may the arrogant kingdom (=Rome?) soon be rooted out in our days, and the Nazarenes (we-ha-noẓrim) and the minim perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life and with the righteous may they not be inscribed. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.” Cited in The Jewish people and Jesus Christ by Jacob Jocz Ph.D. p. 53 which is followed by a lengthy discussion about the age and composition of the Birkat-ha-minim and whether the reference to noẓrim was in the original text.
4. See discussion of Justin’s dialogue with Trypho in “The Jewish people and Jesus Christ” p.170
5. Exclusiveness and Tolerance – Jewish-Gentile relations in Medieval and modern times, Jacob Katz p. 147
6. The Jewish people and Jesus Christ p. 313
7. See our article: The Israel of God? – a consideration of so-called “Replacement theology” by Peter Cohen published in Messianic Good News 1st Quarter 2008.
8. The Jewish people and Jesus Christ p. 263