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Yeshua and the Lives of First Century Jewish Believers

Yeshua Teaches in the Synagogue, James Tissot

Yeshua Teaches in the Synagogue, James Tissot

“I have chosen and consecrated this temple so that My Name may be there forever.  My eyes and My heart will always be there.”  (2 Chronicles 7:16)

While the lives of countless millions have been radically changed by Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah) for the better, how many have known Him as a Jew?

Throughout His lifetime, Yeshua worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem, honoring God’s commitment to the Temple Mount which God chose and consecrated, placing there His Name, eyes and heart forever.  (2 Chronicles 7:16)

He also consistently attended the synagogues of the first century.  He participated, as well, in the Torah readings, giving His own teachings on Scripture.

Like Him, the first-century Jewish Believers in Yeshua also maintained their faith in an authentic Jewish context.

As the message of salvation was brought to the nations, the Gentile Believers faced the task of changing, adapting and/or repenting of their own cultural traditions and entering into a lifestyle that reflected Yeshua’s message—a message consistent with the Torah given through Moses to Israel.


An ultra-Orthodox synagogue in Israel

Today, however, many Believers have limited understanding of the Jewish roots of their faith, let alone its roots in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants.

“His message has touched nearly every nation … and that is a good thing.  However, in the process, the nature and identity of the Messiah has been tampered with, even altered, by those without the authority to do so,” says an angelic character named Ariel in Ron Cantor’s novel Identity Theft.

Of course, Cantor is referring to the true-to-life and troubling divorce of Yeshua from His Jewish identity in the eyes of the world at large and in the understanding of both Gentile and Jewish Believers.

Such a divorce makes it difficult to bring the Good News to God’s Chosen People since the message is steeped in Gentile culture, making it look foreign to the Jewish People.

The Jewish People are waiting for the Good News of the Jewish Messiah through David’s line, so when they are presented with a Gentile Messiah, it is too easy to dismiss the message altogether.

Family-Prayer-Western Wall-Kotel

A father and son recite prayers from a siddur (Jewish prayer book) at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Rediscovering the Jewish Context of Faith

“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it.  But each one should build with care.”  (1 Corinthians 3:10)

The Judaism of Yeshua’a time was different than today.

First-century Judaism revolved around Temple worship.

Of course, about 40 years after Yeshua’s death and resurrection, the Temple was completely destroyed by the Romans.

With the Temple gone, Pharisaic Judaism developed into Rabbinic Judaism and the traditions connected with modern-day worship at the synagogue.

Model-Second Temple-Israel-Museum

A model of the Second Temple and the Temple Mount

After the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the synagogue became central to worship and prayer.  Prayer was conducted three times a day to correspond with Temple services of offerings and prayer.

That was perhaps a logical outcome since the synagogue had already emerged in Jerusalem and elsewhere as a communal meeting place for the Jewish People before the Second Temple was destroyed.

That is why it was Yeshua’s practice to visit the local synagogue, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness.”  (Matthew 9:35)

His pattern of visiting the synagogue and preaching in it was entirely consistent with the pattern of sectarian preachers or teachers common in His day.  Like Yeshua, those preachers also had talmidim (disciples).


A rabbinical school in Jerusalem.

The local synagogue was part and parcel of the Jewish lifestyle even before the Temple was destroyed.

“Virtually all scholars recognize that the synagogue was a well-developed institution at least a century before the Romans destroyed the Temple,” writes cultural historian Steven Fine.  (Center for Online Judaic Studies: “Did the Synagogue Replace the Temple?”)

The synagogue was created for reading the Torah and the Prophets, studying the commandments, teaching, and hosting visitors from abroad.

“It was a place where they could experience religion in a way very different from, yet complimentary to, what was available to them in the Temple,” Fine said.

The synagogue did not in any way detract from the large-scale sacrificial worship that took place at the Temple, in which Yeshua and His talmidim (disciples) faithfully participated.


Rejoicing over the law in Israel

Although Fine says that “the role of prayer in synagogue life was dwarfed by the study of Scripture,” it played enough of a role that Yeshua admonished ostentatious shows of charity and prayer in Matthew:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”  (Matthew 6:5)

As small hubs of communal Jewish life, the synagogues were important to Yeshua, His talmidim and the larger community who believed He was the Promised One, including many leaders.

However, it seems that not all Believers in Yeshua’s day, and perhaps after His death and resurrection, were vocal about their faith, due to the danger of being forced to leave the synagogue:

“Many even among the leaders believed in Him.  But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human praise more than praise from God.”  (John 12:42–43)

Yeshua Unrolls the Scroll in the Synagogue, by James Tissot

Yeshua Unrolls the Scroll in the Synagogue, by James Tissot

The Leadership of Peter, James, and Paul

“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”  (John 4:22–23)

The Pharisees, a prominent Jewish sect, were influential in the development of the traditions of Believers.

Paul of Tarsus was a proud member of this sect, as were many other Jewish Believers.

“I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees.”  (Acts 23:6)

As the numbers of Gentile Believers in the first century grew, some Jewish Believers concluded they must be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1).

The question, in essence, was whether the Gentiles should go through conversion ceremonies to become Jewish.  This required taking an oath to keep the Mosaic Law, along with all the traditions and rules that had developed around keeping them.

This dispute prompted Paul and Barnabas, “along with some other Believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.”  (Acts 15:2)

The fact that the apostles and elders were based in Jerusalem is an indication that life was still revolving around Temple worship for the early Believers.

Jewish Men-Pray-Wester Wall-Jerusalem

Men praying at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

There in Jerusalem, we see that the leadership of the council included Peter and James.

Some of the Believers who were Pharisees presented arguments to them that Gentile Believers should undergo a ritual conversion process:

“Some of the Believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.'”  (Acts 15:5)

This was no easy decision, apparently.  The apostles and the elders discussed this question in great depth before arriving at a resolution.

Then Peter addressed the assembly, telling them that God had accepted the Gentile Believers on the basis of their faith, in the same way that He had accepted the Jewish Believers on the basis of their faith:

God, who knows the heart, showed that He accepted them [the Gentiles] by giving the Ruach HaKodesh [Holy Spirit] to them, just as He did to us.  He did not discriminate between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith.  (Acts 15:8–9)

Church of the Holy Sepulchre-Good Friday-Old City-Jerusalem

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Yeshua’s tomb, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Paul and Barnabas explained how God purified the Gentiles’ hearts by faith when he told the assembly how God was at work among the Gentiles even though they had not ritually converted.  At the conclusion of this meeting, James emphasized that Gentiles turning to faith in the Jewish Messiah fulfilled the prophets, quoting from Amos 9:11–12:

“In that day I will restore David’s fallen shelter—I will repair its broken walls and restore its ruins—and will rebuild it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear My name.”

James also said that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God,”  (Acts 15:19) and provided the following list of things from which Gentile Believers should abstain:

  • Food sacrificed to idols
  • Sexual immorality
  • The meat of strangled animals (non-kosher kill)
  • Blood (murder or the consumption of blood)
Upper Room, Christians pray, last supper

Christians pray at the Cenacle, the traditional site of the Upper Room, in Jerusalem.

Some scholars interpret this list to be a reference to the seven Noahide laws from the Noahic Covenant, which also includes a prohibition against blasphemy and theft, and establishes the need for courts of justice.

According to the rabbis, the Noahide laws are a universal moral code.

Although James concluded with the statement that Gentile Believers do not have to enter the Mosaic Covenant through conversion, he did not diminish the importance of the law of Moses nor its influence as a moral light to the world:

“For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”  (Acts 15:21)

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by James Tissot

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by James Tissot

Indeed, it is clear in Acts 21 that the law of Moses certainly had not grown less important to Jerusalem’s first-century Believers in Yeshua.

When Paul returns there, the Jewish Believers greet him, noting a continued commitment to Jewish tradition and practice:

“You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.”  (Acts 21:20)

But they also inform him that a dispute has risen about his ministry to the Jews.

He has been falsely accused of teaching the Jews who live among the Gentiles to not follow Moses, including teaching them not to circumcise their children or live according to Jewish customs.

“They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.”  (Acts 21:21)

Kids-Pray-Western Wall-Kotel

Jewish schoolboys visit the Western (Wailing) Wall to pray

To show that this was a false accusation and that he himself still lived in obedience to the law, Paul agreed to join the purification rites of four Jerusalemite men who would be taking a purification vow at the Temple.

As the rites involved a preliminary hair cutting, it is likely that he took a voluntary Nazarite Vow, which involved abstinence from eating grape products and from cutting hair for a determined season—in this case, seven days (Numbers 6:1–27; Acts 21:26–27).

“Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law.”  (Acts 21:24)


The Itzkowitz synagogue in Bnei Brak, Israel

Over the course of the next week, Paul and these men worshiped at the Holy Temple.

When the seven days of the vow were almost over, Jews from Asia noticed Paul in the Temple.

Sadly, these Jews subscribed to the misguided belief that Paul “teaches everyone everywhere against our people and our law and this place.”  (Acts 21:28)

They stirred up the crowd and a violent mob dragged Paul from the Temple Mount, believing that he had defiled the Temple by bringing Trophimus the Ephesian, a Gentile who had been seen in Jerusalem with Paul.

The accusation was totally false.  Paul was entirely observant and he would never defile the Temple.  He also was not teaching the Gentiles to dismiss the law of Moses.

He did uphold, however, that salvation was through faith in Yeshua and not through works or conversion to Judaism.

Yeshua Teaches People by the Sea, by James Tissot

Yeshua Teaches People by the Sea, by James Tissot

Early Jewish Believers continued to live an entirely Jewish lifestyle.

But as the number of Gentile Believers grew, they also increasingly rejected the Jewish roots of their faith and dismissed their debt to the Jewish People.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire around AD 325, the Jewish people endured centuries of prejudice and persecution, often being forced to give up their Jewish identities.

Despite that, God has had His hand on the Jewish People and He has kept them throughout the centuries, miraculously reestablishing the Jewish State in 1948 in fulfillment of countless Bible prophecies.

Throughout the centuries, as well, God has continued to call the Jewish People to faith in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah).

women's section_Kotel_prayer_siddur_Jerusalem

A Jewish woman recites prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

However, the Jewish People have developed strong feelings about Yeshua, in whose name they have been persecuted, beaten, accused, and annihilated for nearly 2,000 years.

These centuries of anti-Judaism within Christianity have helped create the false impression that Yeshua and the first-century Hebraic faith were not Jewish.

Nevertheless, it was in fact authentically Jewish, and the Messianic movement today is helping Jews and Gentiles rediscover the richness and depth of understanding that the first century Believers in Yeshua HaMashiach knew so well.

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