What Explains the Massive Changes in Jewish Social Structures Among Early Christians?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Lest anyone forget, Christianity was born out of Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and his disciples were Jews. Immediately after Jesus died, and his teachings were carried forward by his disciples, they continued to attract mostly Jewish followers. The Book of Acts even reports Jewish priests and Pharisees joining the movement in the early years (see Acts 6:7; 15:5). The Christian movement would eventually become dominated by Gentiles, but only years later.

Something that is usually forgotten is that these early Jewish believers left behind several foundational social structures of Judaism. Philosopher J. P. Moreland explains how important these key structures were in his book Scaling the Secular City:

In New Testament times and earlier, at least five religious and social beliefs formed the very core of Jewish corporate and individual identity. Centuries of dispersion and captivity by Gentile nations reinforced the social importance of these beliefs which were already valued for their religious content. These structures defined the Jews as a people and kept them from falling apart as a nation.

They were major elements in education of the young, and the early converts to Christianity, including the disciples (most of the early church was composed of Jews for the first few years of its existence), would have been taught to cherish these structures from their youth.

What are these social structures?

First, there was the importance of the sacrifices. While obedience to the law was slowly eroding the centrality of the sacrificial system, nevertheless the importance of sacrificing animals for various sins was a major value in first-century Judaism.

Second, emphasis was placed on keeping the law. Regardless of whether one was a Sadducee or a Pharisee, respect for the law of Moses and its role in keeping people in right standing with God was a major value.

Third, keeping the Sabbath was important; several laws were formulated to help define Sabbath-keeping and to maintain its prominence.

Fourth, clear-cut non-Trinitarian monotheism was a defining trait of the Jew. The Shema asserts that God is one, and this doctrine was nonnegotiable. Specifically, there was no belief that God could ever become a man.

Fifth, the Messiah was pictured as a human figure (perhaps super-human, but not God himself), a political king who would liberate the Jews from Gentile oppression and establish the Davidic kingdom.  No conception of a crucified messiah who established a church by raising from the dead was known.

Moreland reminds us that “the early church was a community of Jews who had significantly altered or given up these five major structures” and he asks, “What could possibly cause this to happen in so short a time?”

Keep in mind that

society did not change rapidly in those days. Jews would risk becoming social outcasts if they tampered with these five major beliefs, not to mention that they would risk the damnation of their own souls to hell. Why was such a change made in so short a time after the death of a carpenter from Nazareth – of all places – who had suffered the death of a criminal on the cross, a death expressly detested among the Jews in their belief that “cursed is he who dies on a tree”?  How could such a thing ever take place? The resurrection offers the only rational explanation. (emphasis added)

What could cause these Jews to abandon their beliefs, their social institutions that had survived for centuries? Something dramatic, something never before seen, something amazing – Jesus rising from the dead. That is what the New Testament historical documents report, and there has never been a better explanation offered.