by Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
I will never forget a visit I made several years ago with a group of home church leaders in Whenchou, a city of ten million people in China. These pastors represented some one million local believers, I was told. What a privilege this was, especially when they said I was the first person to come to them from Israel. I started explaining why Israel is important to us and quickly found out this was nothing new to them. After the service I asked the leader: “Who taught you about Israel?” I still remember the puzzled look on his face. “It’s all in the Bible”, he replied.
This begs the question: What happened in the Church for it to move so far away from this simple truth to becoming the primary force for antisemitism over the past 1500 years. Hateful preaching of contempt against the Jews, pogroms, forced conversions, Inquisitions and finally the Holocaust – all made Christianity the archenemy of the Jews, even more so than Islam.
Paul’s Doctrine on Israel
This is even more startling when the Apostle Paul could not have been more clear in his teaching about Israel, to whom “pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God.” (Romans 9:4-5)
Paul recognised that while most Jews had failed to accept Yeshua as their Messiah, they nevertheless remain “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28). Paul saw their rejection of Jesus as a temporary state which the Hebrew prophets foretold (for example, Isaiah 6); yet he also believed eventually the time would come when “… all Israel will be saved, ….” (Romans 11:26). He thus admonished Gentile believers not to be arrogant against the Jews (Romans 11:18) and to consider their own origins: “… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Yet now by grace they have been brought near and share in God’s promises.
The answer of why and where the Church parted ways with Israel is complex and cannot be fully covered just in this short article. In part we can blame Roman policy for it, but far more importantly we should hold the Church itself responsible for the decisions its leaders took in councils and synods in the early centuries after Christ.
Even before the first ecumenical councils, the Church already started drifting away from Israel and its Hebraic, biblical roots. After the very first Church council recorded in the Book of Acts, chapter 15, things started changing. First, the demographics of the Church steadily changed. While it started out in Jerusalem as a 100% Jewish church, within a century or so Gentiles became the majority. Jerusalem remained the spiritual center of the faith, but the Roman wars dramatically changed the Church’s connection to Jerusalem and Israel. In 70 AD, Titus destroyed the Temple, and a few decades later Hadrian expelled virtually all Jews from Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. The early Church’s unique spiritual connection to the Land and the Jewish people was significantly weakened. A further blow came in 136 AD when Marcus became the first non-Jewish bishop of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the spiritual center of gravity began gradually moving towards Rome and Constantinople.
Nicea and the Jews
The final blow, however, took place in 325 AD in Nicea, a city whose ruins can still be found in Iznik, in northwest Turkey. This became the place of arguably the most impactful council in Church history.
The Nicean Council was significant for many reasons. It was the first council to take place when the Christians were no longer a persecuted minority. Rather, Constantine had embraced Christianity as the official religion for the entire empire. And it was the emperor, and not the clergy, who convened this council to consolidate the Church as a unified force within his realm.
The main focus of the Nicean Council dealt with the nature of Jesus as both human and divine. On this point the early Church was riven with controversy. After lengthy and heated discussions, they finally reached a consensus on the ‘Jesus question’. For most participants, questions related to ‘Jewish’ matters were of secondary importance.
Yet beginning at Nicea and continuing at the councils and synods that followed, the largely gentile Church began separating from its Jewish origins. This shift occurred in three main areas: First, a change in calendar and religious holidays; second, a change in Church attitude towards the Jews; and third, strict rules against Christians engaging with Jews.
A Change in Holy Days
Until the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the churches were divided on how to celebrate Easter (Passover), and Sunday was never considered a holy day. The church in Rome and other Western regions decided to tie the observance of Easter to the biblical accounts of Christ being resurrected on the first day of the week, while going by the Julian calendar rather than the Hebrew. Any link to the biblical feast of Passover was ignored. The churches of the East, however, maintained the tradition of affixing the Passion week to Passover, which kept them more in line to the Old Testament and the traditions of Jesus and his disciples.
But at Nicea, Constantine demanded a unified Christian calendar for his empire. In a synodal letter to all churches, the Council wrote: “We declare good news to you! … As of now we do not anymore celebrate Easter according to the tradition of the Jews!”
And the emperor himself wrote to the churches in the East: “It was declared to be particularly unworthy for, the holiest of all festivals (Easter), to follow the custom of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded.”
Known for his hostility towards the Jews, Constantine continued: “We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, … [but] to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast.”
“At the same time” he added ”it is our duty not to have anything in common with the murderers of our Lord.”
His reasoning was twofold: first, since the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, they must also be wrong in their traditions; and second, most Christians at the time simply did not follow the Jewish calendar. Thus, it was a decision based on a democratic consensus which lacked any theological basis.
Constantine’s radical approach totally ignored the multiple parallels of the last days of Jesus Christ to the biblical Passover feast. Jesus instructed his disciples to prepare a Passover meal (Luke 22:7-8) and declared “with fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…” (Luke 22:15). He kept it in many ways like Jews do until today: Jesus took the cup after the meal and blessed it. (1 Corinthians 11:25). To this day, Jews consider this third cup to be the ‘cup of messianic redemption’. Then after the ‘Hallel’, the traditional reading of Psalms 115-118, he went to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30). Paul also declares that Jesus is our Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). But all this was ignored.
In the same manner, a new weekly holiday was established – Sunday. Until then, Sunday was not kept at all, save for some Christians who held a time of prayers and scripture readings on Sunday mornings before going to work, remembering that the Lord was risen on the first day of the week. But Constantine’s aim was to separate the Church completely from any Jewish customs. So to keep Christians from observing Shabbat, he invented the new holy day of Sunday. A number of Christians struggled to agree. But the follow-up Synod of Laodicea settled the matter. Christians who still kept the Jewish Sabbath were to be basically excommunicated.
A Change in Attitude
Paul’s love for his people was immense. He offered, if possible, to be accursed from Christ to save some of his Jewish brethren (Romans 9:3). But these later Church councils were totally devoid of the Apostles’ passionate love for the Jewish people. Anything Jewish was unwelcome, including Jews themselves. Instead of Paul’s gospel being “to the Jews first”, the new attitude was to make it as difficult as possible for Jews to join the Church. Only if they “pronounced faith according to Nicean doctrine”, could they become members. Jews who kept Shabbat were refused baptism.
At Nicea, the bishops also asked Jewish converts to give up their Jewish names and adopt Christian ones. This completely ignored the fact that the Apostles all had Jewish names and that Mary called Jesus by the name Yeshua, Hebrew for “saviour”, rather than the Greek parallel of Isesos. And his mother was not really ‘Mary’ but the Jewish name Miriyam.
For the New Testament apostles, the world consisted of ‘the household of Israel’ and of Gentiles. Only by the grace of God could Gentiles be grafted into the natural olive tree of God’s covenant people Israel. Paul considered his Jewish ancestry as a privilege (Romans 3:1; Galatians 2:15) – though not a privilege that would save him. But for the Nicean church this biblical worldview was reversed. Paul’s question, “what advantage has the Jew” was no longer answered “much in every way”, but the opposite, only with vicious hatred. Instead of Jews being “beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Romans 11:28), they were now the “murderers of Christ”. In various council records, the list of the damned included “heretics, heathens and Jews”. In the eyes of the gentile Church, they were all the same. In Paul’s world, it was Gentiles who were without God and without hope (Ephesians 2:12), but now this applied to the Jewish people – a doctrine that ran contrary to all the New Testament taught.
Rules of Engagement
All this led to strict laws which forbade any positive engagement with Jews. Nicea and subsequent Church councils taught that Christians should have nothing to do with Jews. Leaders who visited and prayed in synagogues were to be removed from office, and ordinary Christians who did so should be “put off”. The synod of Laodicea forbade any participation in their feasts, nor were Christians to take their unleavened bread during Passover. You could not even allow a Jewish physician to treat your illness, one synod ruled. Celebrating Jewish feasts and keeping Shabbat, according to the bishops, was like “mocking Christ”.
Nicea’s Impact on Church History
All these new approaches not only created a rift between the Church and the Jews, but it also set the Church on a path which eventually led to the atrocities of the Crusades, where the killing of Jews was considered pleasing to God. It later paved the way to the Inquisition and eventually the Holocaust, when Hitler could quote the German reformer Luther to justify his hatred of the Jews.
What was even more tragic about Nicea is that it was only the second universal council of the Church. Whereas in Acts 15, the Jewish church went beyond their traditions and feelings to welcome and embrace Gentile believers, the Gentile church at Nicea shamelessly rejected the Jews from all church life and generated hatred towards them for generations to come. Only a few Christian movements – such as the Waldense revivalists in Italy and the Puritans in England – ever dared to challenge this hostile attitude towards the Jews.
A Modern-Day Miracle
With the rebirth of the nation of Israel and the emergence of a new stream of Christianity known as Evangelicalism, we have finally started to witness a sea-change in Church-Israel relations since the second half of the past century. While the historic churches are still struggling with their antisemitic attitudes, much has changed due to the ever-expanding Evangelical movement.
The rift between Jews and Christians seems to be healing perhaps faster than many expected. After such a horrible history between us, it is nothing short of a miracle to hear Israel’s prime minister refer to evangelical Christians as “Israel’s best friends”. Many Jewish organisations today have a “Christian friends” department, including the previously unthinkable Christian Friends of Yad Vashem, a revered institution which commemorates the darkest chapter of Jewish-Christian relations – the Holocaust. This required moving beyond many historic obstacles and deep emotional wounds, but even Yad Vashem has opened its doors to Christians.
On the Christian side, much has changed as well. Many Christians today take it for granted to participate in a Passover Seder meal, to visit their local synagogue or even to help rebuild historic synagogues. Christians from around the world support countless projects not only in Israel but also in many Jewish communities in their own countries. Most amazing to me is the fact that Chinese Christians today adopt biblical, Jewish names. Remember that Nicea called for converted Jews to adopt Christian names, yet now the opposite is happening. And every year thousands of Christians visit Messianic fellowships in Israel to experience and learn from their ancient biblical traditions.
It is indeed a new prophetic season for both Israel and the Church. At the ICEJ, we are privileged and blessed to be part of healing the historic rift between us and paving the way for reconciliation in these last days. We live in truly exciting times.
This year’s Feast of Tabernacles theme is “Beginnings”. Many speakers will give a fresh perspective on how God is taking the Church back to its beginnings – in a Jewish Jerusalem. Join us in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem and find out how together we can play a role in the divine restoration of Israel even as the Church reconnected with its roots in Israel.
Finally, please prayerfully consider what you can contribute towards our efforts to heal the rift between Israel and Christianity, which has been such a stain on the Church for so long. This is your opportunity to make a difference in Church history!
Source materials on the Nicea Council available upon request at email@example.com