When Jesus began his public ministry in the Roman province of Judea c. 28 CE, the “Jesus movement” became one of several competing Jewish religious/political movements of the time, including the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and followers of John the Baptist. The Sadducees were an aristocratic, priestly group who collaborated with the Roman authorities to maintain the status quo; the Pharisees were devoted to the traditions of Mosaic law and sought religious purity among God’s chosen people; the Essenes withdrew from society into quasi-monastic conclaves in the Qumran region of Judea (followers of St. John the Baptists were probably Essenes); and the Zealots agitated for political freedom for Judea from Roman rule.
Jesus defined his mission not against Judaism, but against the imperium of Rome, specifically against its substitution of Caesar for God, teaching his followers, “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt. 22:21)
Most scripture scholars agree that Jesus and his followers considered themselves a reform movement within Judaism, not the vanguard of a new religion. According to Bart D. Ehrman, author of “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium,” professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a former pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church but now an avowed agnostic, Jesus was an “apocalypticist,” who expected the world to end within the lifetime of his followers. This premise, therefore, contradicts the scriptural claim that Jesus established a church on “the rock of Peter” to continue his mission of earth after his death. (“…And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” (Mt.16:16–19))
Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew. His apostles and original followers were all Jews who, according to Bishop John Shelby Strong, author of “The Sins of Scripture,” did not separate from the synagogue until the year 58. “The division between Christianity and Judaism,” says Spong, “is a very late division… The Christian inability to place its story into a Jewish context is the primary source… of the way the Christian story has been distorted with literalism.”
Consistent with Jewish rabbinic tradition, Jesus, a rabbi himself, taught — love of God and neighbor (Mt. 22:35–40), torah observance (Mt. 5:17–20), the need for repentance (Mk. 1:14–15), liberation of the oppressed (Lk. 2:16–21), and, most importantly, the pursuit of justice, especially for social outcasts (Mt. 25:40). He championed the oppressed, not the oppressor. The gospels show him practicing concern for everyone without exception, reaching out to “sinners,” enemies, prostitutes, lepers, epileptics, even those denounced as traitors for collecting Roman taxes. He urged his followers to love their enemies and not to judge others. Admittance into God’s kingdom was open to all — rich, poor, men, women, Jew, gentile, slave, Greek. The only requirement was to practice deeds of loving kindness toward others like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.
Although a pacifist who rejected violence, Jesus suffered a violent death, nailed to a cross like a common criminal. It was Roman, not Jewish, power that crucified him in order to prevent public disorder and political upheaval in Judea. The Roman occupiers of Judea, in short, feared that a segment of Jesus’ followers (the Zealots), who viewed him as a political messiah, would try to overthrow Roman rule, restore the Davidic dynasty and make Jesus “king” of the Jews. Some scripture scholars contend that the assertion, as related in the passion narratives of the four gospels, that during Jesus’ trial, Pontius Pilate, whose political career depended on maintaining public order in Judea, freed Barabbas, an insurrectionist Zealot, at the insistence of the Jewish crowd, instead of freeing Jesus, a pacifist, strains credulity. Concern for public disorder and upheaval also explains why the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the (second) Temple forty years later.
The tendency to exonerate the Romans and fix blame on the Jews for Jesus’ death intensified as early Christian missionary activity expanded into the ancient Mediterranean world. To make converting non-Jews (i.e., gentiles) easier and less threatening to the ruling authority, Roman involvement in the crucifixion was diminished as Jewish culpability increased. This is illustrated in the Gospel of Peter, widely read by some second century Christians, although not included in the New Testament canon. The author of the Gospel of Peter wrote: “The Jews, the elders, and the priests realized (after the crucifixion) how much evil they had done to themselves and began beating their breasts, saying, ‘Woe to us because of our sins; the judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near.’”
This last phrase — “the judgment and the end of Jerusalem are near”— echoes the charge made by early Christian theologians that the destruction of Jerusalem and (second) Temple signified God’s judgment on the Jewish people for their rejecting Jesus as messiah and killing him. Scripture scholars point out, however, that the deicide charge can be considered antithetical to the doctrine that Jesus died for the sins of humanity to bring about humanity’s redemption/salvation — in which case his crucifixion served a salvific purpose.
Conflict erupted soon after Jesus’ death, not only within and between early Christian groups, but also between Christian groups and various Jewish groups, some of which is recorded in the New Testament. References to persecution of Jewish Christians and Pauline Christians (followers of the apostle Paul) by Jewish groups are also included. Reverend Dr. Theodore J. Weeden Sr., a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, characterizes the “squabbling” that occurred among disparate religious groups during this contentious period of early church history as intra-familial, or a “family feud.” The feud, however, would eventually turn deadly.