The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
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The Jewishness of the Jerusalem Church

We have seen earlier that both Jesus and his brother James were devout Jews who were zealous for the law. Here we will present the evidence that the general make-up of the Jerusalem Church was that of practicing and dedicated Jews. Indeed we have seen that the opposition to Paul in his law-free mission most likely came from Jerusalem Jewish Christians.

A careful evaluation of the evidence from the primary documents tells us that:

Participation in the Temple Cultus

We find in Luke-Acts [a] that the apostles continued to participate in the temple activities after the ascension of Jesus:

Luke 24:50
And they [the apostles]...returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Acts 2:46
Everyday they [Jesus' disciples] continued to meet together in the temple courts.

Acts 3:1
One day Peter and John were going up the temple at the time of prayer...

As S.G. F. Brandon pointed out this participation in the temple cultus is one evidence of the orthodoxy in Jewish faith and practice of the Jerusalem followers of Jesus. [1]

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Adherence to Dietary Restrictions

In Paul's account of the incident at Antioch, Peter was confronted by "certain men from James" when he "ate with the Gentiles":

Galatians 2:11-12
But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.

These men were obviously Jewish Christians from Jerusalem. Peter too was a member of the Jerusalem congregation. That Peter quickly admitted his mistake and complied with their wishes is another sign that Jewish dietary restrictions were the norm in Jerusalem. [2]

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Participation in the Nazirite Vows

We are told that in Paul's final visit to Jerusalem, James told him there were four men from the Jerusalem Church that were undertaking the Nazirite vow:

Acts 21:23-24
We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads.

The command for this vow can be found in the Torah:

Numbers 6:1-3,5,13,18
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: When either men or women make a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves to the Lord, they shall separate themselves from wine and strong drink...All the days of their Nazirite vow no razor shall come upon the head until the time of is completed...when the time of their consecration has been completed they shall be brought to the entrance of the tent of meeting...Then the Nazirites shall shave the consecrated head at the entrance at the tent of the meeting...

We have evidence from early tradition that James too undertook the Nazirite vow. The early church father, Hegesippus (c110-180), quoted by Eusebius (c260-340) in History of the Church:

History of the Church 2:23:4-5
James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother's womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.

The participation of the Nazirite vows by the members of the Jerusalem Church showed that their Torah observance went beyond that of ordinary Jews. [3] [b]

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General Composition of the Jerusalem Church

There are quite a few passages in Acts where Luke lets slip the general composition of the Jerusalem Church. We found that some of the congregation were priests and Pharisees-people well known for their strict adherence to the Torah. Some of the early believers were priests:

Acts 6:7
Then the word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

During the Jerusalem council, we are told some of those who stood up and argued for circumcision of Gentiles were Christian Pharisees!

Acts 15:4-5
When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses."

According to Acts this is what James told Paul during his final visit to Jerusalem about the members of the Jerusalem Church:

Acts 21:17-21
When we had Come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. On the following day Paul went in with us to James; and all the elders were present. After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it, they glorified God. And they said to him, "You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.

The passage above makes it likely that the tradition available to Luke told him that the majority ("see how many thousands") of the believers in Jerusalem were Pharisees and priests ("all zealous for the law").

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Stephen and the Hellenists: A Contrarian Example?

The story of the Hellenists and Stephen's matyrdom is given in Acts 6:1-8:1. We will give a summary of the account here.

We are told that some Hellenists [c] complained that their widows were not receiving the daily food distribution. To solve this problem Peter appointed seven men from among that group to this task. We are then given their names; Stephen being among them. (Acts 6:1-7) Stephen then "full of grace and power" started performing "great wonders and signs" among the people. Some from the "synagogue of libertines" (freed slaves) accused of Stephen of blasphemy and of speaking against Moses and God. They added that he predicted the destruction of the Temple and the abrogation of the Mosaic laws. He was brought to the temple and interrogated by the Sanhedrin. (Acts 6:8-15) Stephen then launched what is the longest speech in Acts. Stephen spoke about the general history of the Jews and then launched into a diatribe against the Jews, accusing them of killing the foretold "Righteous one". This infuriated the Sanhedrin and they had Stephen stoned. (Acts 7:1-53) Upon narrating Stephen's death, Acts added the fact that Paul was present there "approving of the killing" (Acts 7:58; 8:1). After Stephen's death, the church in Jerusalem was persecuted and "all except the apostles" were driven out of Jerusalem. (Acts 8:1b)

This account has been used by some scholars in the past to indicate the presence of a law-free, anti-temple, Hellenistic Jewish Christianity in the primitive Jerusalem Church. However the account in Acts is fraught with difficulties.

  • The seven were supposed to be deacons entrusted with food distribution. (Acts 6:3) Yet the account of Stephen was of him preaching and doing works of wonders. (Acts 6: 8) [5]

  • Stephen's speech, as we have shown elsewhere, cannot be historical and is a free composition of Luke.

  • The presentation of Stephen's death as a mob lynching contradicts what we know of the Sanhedrin-as a body with strict rules of procedure. (Acts 6: 54-59) [6]

  • The presence of Paul during the execution of Stephen (Acts 7:58; 8:1) cannot be historical for we have Paul's own testimony that he was "still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea" three years after his conversion. ( Galatians 1:22 ) If Paul did take part in Stephen's murder/execution, than at least some of the early Christians would have already seen Paul in Jerusalem before his conversion. Since we are told in Acts 8:3 that Paul dragged Christian men and women out of their houses and jailed them. Such a person would certainly have been "known by sight" to the Jerusalem Church! Thus the presence of Paul in Jerusalem at that time is definitely unhistorical . [7]

  • Furthermore why would a persecution of all in the Jerusalem Church leave the apostles unmolested (Acts 8:1b)? The natural implication would be that if the authorities wanted to suppress the Jerusalem Church they would have gone after its leaders-James, Peter and the rest of the apostles, not leave them alone! [8]

  • That the whole church was driven out is flatly contradicted by later accounts in Acts itself. Acts 9:31, for instance, stated that the "churches in Judea" "was built up" and "increased in numbers". [9]

Thus we see that every major detail in the account is unhistorical. Which suggests that they were the free literary invention of Luke.

It has also been pointed out that the whole account of the trial of Stephen strongly parallels the one of the trial of Jesus as given in Mark: [10]

  • The charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:11, Mark 14:64)

  • There were "false witnesses" (Acts 6:13, Mark 14:56-57)

  • The prediction of destruction of the Temple (Acts 6:14, Mark: 14:58)

  • The question of the high priest (Acts 7:1; Mark 14:61)

  • Reference to the Temple "made with hands" (Acts 7:48, Mark 14:58)

These parallels show clearly that Luke used the framework of the Markan trial as the model for his fictional writing of the trial of Stephen.

Our analysis above shows that the details of the account of Stephen's activity, ideas, trial and death are totally without any historical basis and that he constructed the whole trial using the Markan account of Jesus' trial as a model.[11] In discussing the details of Jewish persecution of Christians given in Acts, with special emphasis on the episode of Stephen, Jack Sanders, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oregon concluded, that "[T]his narrative cannot be made the base of our historical knowledge." [12]

At most all we can conclude is that Luke had access to a tradition which stated that one early Christian named Stephen was executed by the Sanhedrin. Everything that was said about Stephen and his ideas was the literary invention of Luke. We therefore cannot use this account in Acts to contradict what we have found about the essential Torah adhering Jewishness of the original Church in Jerusalem.

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Conclusions on the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem

From these observations, and those we have made elsewhere, we can draw a few conclusions about the Jerusalem Church headed by James: [13]

  • The fact that there were "professional representatives of the cultic and legal aspects of Judaism" in the Jerusalem church (i.e. priests and Pharisees) means that they found no contradiction between being a faithful Jew and a follower of Jesus.

  • James, Peter, the original disciples of Jesus and the "priests" and "Pharisees" continued in their practice of Judaism. Indeed, we find that James and the rest were extremely zealous for the Mosaic law. This can only mean that Jesus never repudiated the necessity of the Torah.
These have some extremely interesting implications. As S.G. F. Brandon remarked:

It means that the Jewish Christians, by their participation in the Temple cultus, continued to believe in the efficacy of the Deuteronomic sacrificial system, according to which atonement was made for the sins of Israel by the offering of a life animal. [14]

This is of fundamental importance, for if they still need to atone for their sins by sacrifice at the temple then the whole Pauline idea of sins being atoned once and for all by Jesus' vicarious death did not come from the original Jewish Christian Church in Jerusalem! This is also in agreement with what we have found from the authentic teaching of Jesus, that the Galilean never taught about the atonement.

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a.We know that Luke had his own theological agenda, which included portraying an unhistorical amiable relationship between Paul and the apostles. To prop up this fiction Luke had to tone down the Jewishness of the Jerusalem Church. However here and there, when the historical details do not interrupt his agenda, he lets slip some important facts about the early Church.

b.There have been attempts to prove that Paul too participated in this vow by referring to the passage below:

Acts 18:18
Then he [Paul] departed from the brethren and sailed away for Syria - and with him Priscilla and Aquilla - after having his hair cut in Cenchreae; for he had a vow.

The reference to shaving his head had lead some commentators to argue that Paul was himself a Jewish Christian participating in the Nazirite vows. Apart from being contrary to all that Paul stood for (as far as we can tell from his epistles), this passage is probably another Lukan attempt to show the orthodoxy of Paul. That the passage was meant by Luke to suggest that Paul took the Nazirite vow is likely. But Luke had bungled in his presentation of the vow that it is more likely that he had no historical source for this and merely concocted the story from what he tough he knew of the vow. Firstly since the Nazirite vow can only be discharged at the Temple in Jerusalem (Numbers 6:13-21), this means that Luke could only had been talking about the beginning of the vow here. But the shaving of the head is to be done only at the end of the vow and only in Jerusalem (Numbers 6:18). Indeed as we have seen in the quote from Numbers above, the hair was not to be cut before the end of the vow. Some strict regulations actually suggest forty lashes as the punishment for cutting the hair before the presentation at the Temple! [4]

c.Luke probably meant the phrase to mean Greek speaking Jews.

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1.Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: p155-156
2.ibid: p156
3.ibid: p156
4.Haenchen, Acts of the Apostles: p542-546
5.Guignebert, The Christ: p71
6.Maccoby, The Mythmaker: p74
7.Haenchen, op. cit.: p297-298
8.Sanders, Schismatics, Sectarians, Dissidents, Deviants: p2-3
19.Haenchen, op. cit.: p297
10.Perkins, Peter: p48-49n30
11.Bernheim, James Brother and Jesus: p207
12.Sanders, op. cit.: p2
13.Brandon, op. cit.: p157
14.ibid: p157

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