Sadly, Justin Martyr was actually pretty tolerant by the standards of Gentile Christianity. At least he would associate with Jewish, Torah-observant believers, even if he was disdainful of them. But even disdainful, condescending tolerance would not last in the Church. Others actively attacked those who kept “Jewish” practices, such as celebrating the Pascha (Passover) on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan as required by Scripture (Lev. 23:5). Irenaeus, a 2nd Century Christian apologist, answered one such attack by bishop Victor of Rome:
We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus.
And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.
Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?
All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’”i1
Eusebius, a very early Church historian, records Bishop Victor’s response: “Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.”2 Many of the bishops objected, and an eventual peaceful accord was reached. However, official church decrees continued to emerge which effectively banned Christians from being or remaining Jewish. For example, in 306 CE the church in Elvira, Spain, issued the following canons (“standards”):
Canon 49: It was pleasing that owners be warned that they may not enjoy their fruits which they recognize coming from God which have been blessed by the Jews lest they make for our blessing to be voice and without power. If any one should take it upon themselves to do this after this interdict, let them be hurled far from the Church.
Canon 50: If indeed any cleric or member of the faithful will share a feast (food-meat) with the Jews, it was pleasing that he abstain form communion because he ought to be corrected.
We find a similar canon being issued by Antioch in 345 CE. In fact, the very first canon issued reads, in part,
If anyone of these men who is the head of a church, whether it be a bishop, a presbyter or a deacon will dare after this decree to act separately for the subversion of the peoples and the disturbance of the Churches and celebrate Pasca with the Jews, the holy synod judges him to be apart from the Church in order that they might be not only a cause of sin for themselves, but also a cause of destruction and subversion of many others. And this synod not only disposes them from ministry, but those who dare to communicate with them after disposition. Those who are deposed are to be deprived of even external honor, those who were partakers of holy order and the priesthood of God.
And again from Laodocia in 360 CE:
Canon 37: That it is not permitted to receive festivals which are by Jews or heretics nor hold a festival together with them.
Canon 38: That it is not permitted to receive unleavened bread from the Jews nor to share in their impieties.
The subversion of this once-Jewish movement into a religion utterly hostile to the Jews continued with Constantine’s “Edict of Toleration” (312 CE), which made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. Constantine himself was not baptized as a Christian until his death-bed, and it is evident that his chief concern was removing division from his empire, not true worship of the Holy One. Shortly after, Constantine convened the First Council of Nicea (325 CE). The Council was primarily concerned with creating a unified Christian doctrine of Yeshua’s nature—whether He was Divine or merely human—and developed the Nicene Creed. The Council also formalized the canon of the New Testament. The canon was mostly set already, but there were still some books in dispute, such as Hebrews and 2 Peter. But in addition to settling these necessary issues within the Church, the Council issued the following letters:
We further proclaim to you the good news of the agreement concerning the holy Pascha, that this particular also has through your prayers been rightly settled; so that all our brethren in the East who formerly followed the custom of the Jews are henceforth to celebrate the said most sacred feast of Pascha at the same time with the Romans and yourselves and all those who have observed Pascha from the beginning.3
The second letter was issued from Constantine himself:
We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course(the order of the days of the week); and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, 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.4
The rhetoric only becomes more hateful as time goes on. John Crysostom, whose name means “golden-mouthed” and who is widely considered to be one of the great doctors of Christianity, sometime in the late-4th or early-5th Century wrote eight “Homilies Against the Jews.” They are some of the most vicious, anti-semitic rhetoric ever to emerge out of Christianity, in which John claims that the synagogue is “not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews, as I shall try to prove at the end of my homily.”5 What “disease” so incited this Christian “doctor”?
The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.6
The persecution of Jewish believers continued through the centuries. In 506 CE, Canon 34 issued in Agde, France states: “If the Jews wish to become Catholics as it is well known that they return easily to their vomit, they must remain a catechumenate for 8 months before being baptized. Only in danger of death will they anticipate the time of their baptism.” Canon 40 adds, “Clerics must not take part in Jewish festivals.” In Toledo IV in 633 CE a decree was issued under King Sinentus banning Jewish Christians from public office. And in the second Council of Nicea, held in 787 CE, the following was decided as universal Church doctrine:
Canon VIII: Because those from the Hebrew religion have been deceived they seem to mock Christ as God, pretending to become Christians, but they deny him as they openly and secretly keep the Sabbath and follow other practices in the manner of the Jews. We determine That they are not to be received into communion, nor into prayer, nor into the Church; but the Hebrews are manifestly according to their own religion: their children are not to be baptized; nor is a slave to be purchased or acquired. But if anyone of them will convert out of a sincere faith and heart and will make a profession of faith with all his heart, disclosing their customs and practices so that others might be exposed and corrected, he is to be received and baptized, and also his children, but indeed we decree that they are to be observed so that they depart from Hebrew practices, otherwise they are not to be admitted at all.
These pronouncements and canons not only demonstrate the increasing hostility of the official Church to the Jewish disciples of the Messiah, they also demonstrate that such hostility was not universal! Indeed, many Christians retained close ties to the synagogue. After all, one only bans things people are actually doing. If the church in Elvira found it necessary to ban Christians bringing their firstfruits to Levites and celebrating the Biblical Feastdays with the Jews, then there must have been significant numbers of Christians doing both. If Nicea II found it necessary to forbid Jewish believers from continuing in Jewish practices in the 8th Century, then there must have been many of what we would today term Messianic Jews at that time.
There were also vile oaths forced upon Jewish believers to be accepted into the Christian fold blasphemed the name of Yeshua to his own people, such as this profession of faith from Constantinople:
I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all the other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations, and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom, and above all I renounce Antichrist, whom all the Jews await in the figure and form of Christ; and I join myself to the true Christ and God.
With the Church not only persecuting the mainline Jewish community but also waging war on its own Jewish members, how is it any surprise at all that the false gospel being preached continued to be rejected by the Jews? The far more amazing thing is that the continued publications of canons forbidding any hint of Jewishness in Christianity bears testimony that so many Jews did try to keep their ethnic identity after putting their faith in Jesus Christ.
1 Irenaeus’s letter was recorded by Eusebius, Church History, chapter XXIV
3 “The Synodal Letter” from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. XIV
4 From the “Letter of the Emperor to all those not present at the Council,” found in Eusebius, Vita Const., Lib. iii., 18-20.
6 ibid., ch. I.5