The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared as a chapter in “Judaism in transition, 175 BCE-150 CE: Christian and Jewish perspectives”, published by the Council of Christians and Jews Victoria, 2008.
The first century CE was so tense and eventful that even apparently simple terms like “Jew” and “gentile” need considerable attention, explanation and elucidation. Who was a Jew in those days? Who was a gentile?
WHO WAS A JEW?
Jewish identity in Biblical times had been through two main stages, ethnic and ideological. First, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became the tribe, then the people, defined by three factors – genealogical (who am I descended from?), geographical (where do I live?) and historical (what events have moulded my history?). The second stage was the ideological. The ethos of the family/tribe/people was now delineated – there was a God, one, invisible and indivisible, who created the world and continued to protect it; He chose the family of Abraham as the ones to carry His torch throughout history; He made known His will in ritual (“Know Him in all your ways”: Prov. 3:6) and ethical terms (“Walk in His ways”: Deut. 13:5 – “as He is merciful, so you be merciful”: b. Sotah 14a).
The term Jew did not emerge until late in Biblical history. Originally it denoted one of the inhabitants of Judea: to be a Jew was to be a Judean. In later rabbinic literature the names “Jew” and “Jewish” are certainly found, but more often it is simply “Israel”. In most cases one was a Jew by birth, defined by tradition as born to a Jewish mother regardless of who the father was, but with the genetic element came the claim of characteristic traits, such as, “A Jew is one who rejects idolatry” (Talmud Megillah 13a), “Jews are modest, compassionate and benevolent” (Midrash Deut. R. 3:4, Talmud Yevamot 79a).
Outsiders could and did enter the Jewish fold. Some were resident aliens (gerei toshav) who resided in a Jewish milieu, sometimes marrying a Jew, sometimes living as slaves in a Jewish household and becoming part of the family in the narrower and the wider sense, and adopting Jewish practices. Outsiders regularly attached themselves to the Jewish people in this way. Some (like Ruth with her “Your people will be my people, your God will be my God”: Ruth 1:16-17) made a more deliberate choice of Judaism and were full converts (gerei tzedek, literally “righteous proselytes”). In the time of the Second Jewish Commonwealth conversion ceremonies were not yet formulated and the essential requirement was for the applicant to renounce idolatry and accept the God of Israel. A procedural development is found in the story of Hillel telling an applicant, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man: the rest is commentary – go and learn” (b. Shabbat 31a). By the time of Josephus it seems that a person had to “change their way of life, accepting the Judean customs and laws” (Against Apion II:10). What followed was a set procedure of commitment spelled out in rabbinic codes. Between the gerei toshav and the gerei tzedek was a third group, semi-proselytes or “God-fearers” who though still gentiles were regarded as friends of the Jews.
What made conversion possible was the broadening of the concept of God from the tribal God of the Israelite nation to the universal God of all humanity as described by the Biblical prophets. When it was clear that Judaism was a universalistic faith, formal proselytism could develop; Judaism became eager for converts and so successful that ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire became Jewish; Jewish teachings and ways exerted a fascination both amongst the aristocracy and the common people. 
At least up till the middle of the first century CE proselytes were welcomed and accepted readily and in the Roman war of 66-70 CE many showed courage for the Jewish cause. With the destruction of the Temple and the loss of Jewish independence, applicants were warned that it was hard to be a Jew. Subsequently the policy became more guarded and the fear grew that proselytes would falter in their commitment to Judaism and return to their former ways: it is known that some males tried to obliterate the evidence of their circumcision and a number spread slanders about Judaism and the Jewish people. 
Eventually the numbers of converts to Judaism dwindled whilst conversion to Christianity grew. The new faith did not require the strict ritual observances of Judaism and the Christianisation of the Roman Empire endowed Christianity with greater status.
WHO WAS A GENTILE?
The term “gentile” (from “gens”, a race or ethnic group) was not used as such at this period. Much later it became common among Jews to call an outsider a goy, a nation or people, but this term originally meant any nation or people including Israel itself, called in Exodus 19:6 “a kingdom or priests and a holy nation, goy kadosh“. Yet even without a generic term for them, outsiders were certainly acknowledged. The major cleavage of identity was between Israelites and idolaters. Israelites worshipped God; idolaters paid obeisance to idols. Biblical texts poured scorn on those who worshipped gods of wood and stone which they themselves had made. When the Decalogue (Ex. 20:3) commanded, “Have no other gods but Me”, the Jewish sages explained that though other deities were called gods, they were really elilim, regarded as deriving from al, “not” – and were mere nonentities: no-gods, as it were.
The Hebrew Bible was adamant about uprooting evidence of idolatry. The Mishnah tractate of Avodah Zarah (“Strange Worship”) had much to say about idolatrous gods and their adherents, though its main thrust was not directed at attacking the idolaters themselves and persuading them to abandon their errors, but at the Jews, warning them not to become influenced, even inadvertently, by idolatrous ways and beliefs. Thus a Jew was not to have business dealings with outsiders at the time of idolatrous festivals. A successful business deal with a Jew would at once send the idolater to his deity to give thanks, and no Jew should seem to be supporting idol-worship in this way. The problem with the idolaters, however, was not merely their false theology, but their false ethics, advocating, for instance, the morally repugnant act of child-sacrifice in the name of their idol; it was unthinkable for a Jew to follow in such paths.
But whilst not reneging on its opposition to idolatry, Judaism came to argue that no sensible person would consciously decide to believe in idols when they could believe in God. It preferred to aver that idolatry was not a matter of choice but of habit: “the custom of their fathers is in their hands”. Not just habit but expediency, patriotism and prudence influenced the maintenance of idolatrous practices. Thus the idolatrous festivals which were observed in the non-Jewish environment are identified mostly as celebrations of Imperial events – the emperor’s birthday and even the day he had a haircut (m. Avodah Zarah 1).
The gentiles of that period are seen in Avodah Zarah not as primitive tribes but as otherwise thinking Greeks and Romans, amongst whom not only Aphrodite and Mercury but the incumbent emperor were deities. Does this mean that first century CE Jews applied the term “gentile” largely to contemporary cultures and powers? To a large extent the answer is yes. They were antagonistic towards the overlords, despite significant instances of social, commercial, intellectual and diplomatic co-operation. The overlords were generally incompetent and oppressive, and Jews could not accord official legitimacy to gentiles who demanded divine honours for themselves. Placing an emperor’s statue in the Temple was a major scandal and a deliberate insult for the Jews. The Jewish prayer service averred, “Our Father, our King, we have no King but You”. Rome was called “the wicked kingdom” and was often referred to in a form of code in rabbinic writings, e.g. by using the name Edom with the meaning of Rome (Midrash Ex. R. 15:6). Rome returned the compliment. “Jews were generally considered in the ancient world,” writes Martin Goodman (The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Aghainst Rome AD 66-70, Cambridge: CUP, 1987, p. 97), “to be hostile, prickly people, quick to take offence and unfriendly to aliens” (see also Menahem Stern, ed., Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (vol. 1: Jerusalem, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities), 1974.
Would it ever have been possible for Judaism and the Roman power to live together? It would have required both parties to steer a difficult course through stormy seas. Amongst the Jews there were some who advocated a policy of moderation and appeasement, though theological and cultural differences would have remained. But the Jewish cause was taken over by more fanatical elements, many of whom believed that a messianic cataclysm would overtake the Romans, and God’s rule, however defined, would prove triumphant. There was indeed a cataclysm, but it lasted four years and the outcome was no messianic Utopia. Harsh Roman retaliation prevailed, as it was bound to do, though in the following century Rome acquiesced in a recasting of Jewish religious leadership in Yavneh of a kind that posed no further political or military threat to Imperial dominance.
“OTHERS” AMONG THE JEWS
The conclusion of this part of the story is that Jew and gentile saw each other as outsiders to be put in their place, to be treated with suspicion and kept at arm’s length. What about groups within Judaism? Many philosophies and sects proliferated in the Jewish fold at this time. Each group could argue that the others were “not one of us”, but did they go so far as to write them out of Judaism when they still said “Hear, O Israel” and upheld the Torah? For instance, could either of the Pharisees or Sadducees honestly claim that the other had placed itself outside Judaism? There was ferment and tension, but Pharisees and Sadducees were Jews and their differences were within Judaism. The Pharisees might say to the Sadducees, “As Jews, can you not see that the resurrection of the dead is a principle of the Torah? Can you not see that the Oral Torah has authority, not just the Written Torah?” The Sadducees might say, “As Jews, how can you expand the Torah as you do when we are warned against adding to or subtracting from the text?” The debate changed its form as the result of historical events, assuming new forms in the Rabbanite-Karaite conflicts, for example, but remained a debate “within the club”, as it were.
Were the Essenes considered Jews? Their distinctive practices were sharply contrasted with both Pharisee and Sadducee teachings, but there was little call for them to be excluded from Judaism and regarded as gentiles. Many scholars regard the Qumran community as Essenes; Geza Vermes sees them as sternly orthodox as against the “progressive and flexible” Pharisees, but they are still not gentiles. Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes had their conflicts, but they all fitted within the basic framework of Jewish doctrine and commitment and regarded each other as Jewish. Nonetheless only the Pharisees survived the Roman War and the destruction of the Temple in any meaningful fashion; neither Sadducees nor Essenes could gain the confidence of the nation or provide creative answers, whether activist or pacifist, to the changing requirements of the times.
The Samaritans were more controversial because of their origins and the sometimes unusual nature of their cultic observance. Their offers of assistance towards Jewish national projects were not accepted and their building of a temple on Mount Gerizim was viewed askance. A combination of religious and political factors led them to be regarded as a separate people but the breach had occurred already whilst the Second Temple stood, and by the first century CE it was sufficient of a fact of life for Jews to be surprised that Jesus could praise a “good Samaritan”.
The major problem in terms of Jewish/gentile cleavage came with the Christians, but not in the early period. That Jesus himself was a Jew and never thought of himself as outside the fold of Judaism is beyond doubt and debate. He probably had no thought of creating a new religion. He was at home in synagogue and Temple: he “went into the synagogue as his custom was”. He learnt the Jewish tradition, though it is anachronistic to apply the technical term “rabbi” to him. He observed the Sabbath and dietary laws, though he echoed the Pharisees in urging the wider philosophy of Jewish observance to be understood. He used midrashic method and was an effective parabolist. It is not certain to which extent he intended anything more than an arresting homiletical turn of phrase when he claimed that whatever earlier authorities had said, people should heed his own interpretations (“It has been told to you…, but I say…”). Whether he really thought of himself as messianic is uncertain, though there were others such as the Qumran sect who had their private Messiahs. His immediate followers were Jewish and were accepted as such within the Jewish community; he told them to address “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 10:6), though a broader outreach was subsequently followed, not without internal conflict. He and they did not always follow what, for want of a better term, might be called “normative” practices, though the range of competing Jewish interpretations and usages at the time was far from monolithic, ranging from conservative to progressive, and in some cases the Jesus party took up positions that rabbinic Judaism later rejected. The rabbinic view is that he “spoiled the dish”, that is, he espoused errant views, but this may be judgment on the christologies of a subsequent generation.
In his lifetime Jesus was one of a number of itinerant preachers and healers. No statistics exist to allow us to form a judgment as to how many of his contemporaries had heard of or been influenced by him. The Gospel stories about “the Jews” (whatever the phrase means) opposing him are highly tendentious. Not only is it unlikely that “the Jews” would have clamoured for the execution of a fellow-Jew at the hands of the hated Roman power; it is unlikely that he would have been so vicious about the “scribes and Pharisees” (one wonders what view he took of the Sadducees, but they hardly figure in the New Testament writings so we cannot be sure). Though certain passages suggest that at an early stage “the Jews” persecuted “the Christians”, other passages report that 51 days after Jesus was crucified his followers gathered in Jerusalem, presumably without fear of the Jews (to be clear about it, the phrase should be “their fellow Jews”), and other sources paint a picture of harmony and good relations. There were occasional tensions, but the evidence is more fragmentary than is generally assumed. Neither Jesus nor the early Judeo-Christians caused serious alarm because of their faith. In the – admittedly not very extensive – records of the time there are few references to the Judeo-Christians at all.
“The Jews”, however defined, were not greatly alarmed at the emergence of the Jesus party, were not interested in attacking it, and thought the early Christians (though the name “Christian” had not yet actually evolved) could and would be contained within the range of the Judaism of the period. What, then, brought about the separation? Theology was not yet a major issue between the Jesus party and the rest of the Jewish community. The claim that Jesus was Messiah is, as we have seen, not certain, but messianic claims were not unique nor an offence against Judaism. Even though most Jews would have denied that Jesus had fulfilled the messianic prophecies, such claims were not enough of a scandal to write him or his followers out of Judaism. The claim that he had risen from the dead may have caused criticism and denigration but the claim was not in itself grossly offensive. His tendency to tell his audiences to heed his words regardless of what others had told them was difficult but it could have been, as we have remarked, a homiletical debating point adopted in an excess of enthusiasm. Issues such as vicarious atonement, incarnation, virgin birth, the sonship of God, and the trinity, were doctrines that were not yet fully developed. But between the death of Jesus and the conversion of Paul, the writing on the wall began to appear and serious problems began to surface.
What radically altered the situation was a series of events as a result of which the Christians became more like outsiders. No longer could there be a relatively polite “in club” debate about the nature of Judaism and whether the Jesus party could remain within it. The debate would have taken on a much more theological dimension had the Judeo-Christians already have developed a systematic Christology, but it was not so much theology as history that resulted in the Christian group leaving the debate and to some extent turning against it. Several factors led to the change. The Judeo-Christians did not appear to have supported the Jewish campaign against the Romans. Probably more significantly, the Christians scandalised the Jewish community by interpreting the destruction of the Temple not as chastisement for neglect of the Torah but as God’s punishment for the Jewish rejection of Jesus, leading to the claim that the ‘true’ Israel was now the Church. Subsequently, though after the end of the first century CE, the Christians also failed to participate in the Bar Kochba Revolt, partly because the assertions by Rabbi Akiva and others that Bar Kochba was a messianic figure conflicted with the claimed Messiah-ship of Jesus.
In the post-destruction Jewish community, re-grouping and greater solidarity moved the Judeo-Christian group to the fringes. The earlier latitude towards separatist and fringe groups had become a luxury, especially when the Jesus party increasingly distanced themselves from their fellow Jews. The Judeo-Christians suffered a diminution in numbers and now, though not without an internal struggle, rebuilt and repositioned themselves as an increasingly gentile group, with new adherents directly coming to the new group without having to go through the old one first. They were not a monolithic community; they included at least four sub-groups (Ebionites A, Ebionites B, Nazarenes, Gnostic Sycretists and Elkesaites) – but they, like the Jews, needed to find sufficient unity to plan a secure future.
After much internal debate it became possible for an outsider to become a Christian without ever being part of Judaism, either through genealogy or choice. Could you be a Jew without the Sabbath, festivals, circumcision (Jews were not the only ancient people to view uncircumcision as shameful) and dietary laws? The answer was no – but you could become a Christian. Could you be a Jew without saying Sh’ma Yisra’el – “Hear, O Israel” and proclaiming the absolute invisibility and indivisibility of God? – again no: but you could become a Christian if you accepted the re-worked status of Jesus (developed and taught by Paul and his supporters though not necessarily required by a reading of Jesus’ own words) as messianic and part of divinity.
Sharper language than ever before began to be used in Judaism – it was a time of crisis when it was necessary to know where people stood – and heretics could no longer be treated with kid gloves. About the end of the century the Synagogue liturgy introduced a prayer which came to be known as Birkat HaMinim, the Blessing (Against) the Sectarians. There is scholarly debate about which sectarians are meant and though at some stage the word Notz’rim (Nazarenes) entered the prayer (which underwent considerable change over the years), originally the Minim and Notz’rim were not the same and the intention could well not have been anti-Nazarene at all. Later Christian writers alleged that the Jews cursed the Christians in their prayers but this could be a reading back into history of the mutual hostility of a later period. What other sectarians could Birkat HaMinim have had in mind? There are other possibilities in the late Second Temple period, including the Epicureans. We should however remember that the prayer service was not directing itself against outside unbelievers but against members of the Jewish fold who had come under the influence of ideologies that were considered dangerous to Judaism or who in becoming apostates helped to bring trouble to their people. One of the versions of the prayer speaks of slanderers (Malshinim) who shattered Jewish solidarity to curry favour with the regime.
Yet the Christians did not win success everywhere. The rabbis and the Christian community competed with each other, each offering an interpretation of the Scriptures and claiming to have the path to salvation, though each group defined the term “salvation” in its own way. Where Jewish communities existed and where there were rabbis, Christianity did not make radical inroads. The success of the Christians came more in the places where there was less Jewish intellectuality and Jewish leadership such as Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. In these areas the knowledge of Hebrew and traditional exegesis was minimal; gentile Christianity was thus not only theologically but culturally different from Judaism and the breach moved apace.
There was no authoritative decision to expel the Christians from Judaism but their exclusion came about gradually. The gentile Christians never were part of Judaism. The Jewish Christians still met halachic (Jewish legal) identity criteria but were excluded from officiating at Jewish worship because they regarded Birkat HaMinim as directed against them – whatever its motives at the time of its formulation – and their books were deemed to lack sanctity. In consequence they felt increasingly unwelcome. Christians were still found in the synagogues at least until the time of Jerome in the fifth century CE. In the second century CE Justin Martyr agreed that Jewish Christians who continued to follow Jewish usages were still to be considered “brethren” but as time went on, pressure was exerted to discourage the practice of Judaism by Christians.
The final break was due to the Romans when Jews (including Jewish Christians) were prohibited from entering Jerusalem; the re-established Jerusalem Church was thus an essentially gentile one. Later Jewish concern shifted from the Christians to Christianity, viewing the latter as a (gentile) religion of its own and in error. No longer were the Christians a part of an internal Jewish debate. Though it is outside the time frame of this paper, it should be noted that the two independent faiths now regularly engaged in literary polemics and by the time of the Middle Ages the Jews became the targets for staged polemical attacks sponsored by Christian rulers. If the rulers decided that the Christians had won the debates, the Jews suffered; even if the Jews turned out to be the better debaters, which Christian rulers found it almost impossible to concede, the Jews still suffered.
The Jewish communities could only respond spiritually by pleading with God to champion their cause. An example is the recital in the Passover Haggadah of the passage from Psalms, “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that know You not, upon the kingdoms that call not upon Your name: for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation” (Psalm 79:6-7). The adoption in the Haggadah of this imprecation, which originally had in mind the ancient idolaters, now addressed the problem of the Christian nations, as did the late medieval author of the controversial sixth verse of the Chanukah hymn, Ma’oz Tzur, with its veiled attack on the Church – probably the only place in the whole of the Jewish liturgy which makes specific mention of Christianity.
The ways had parted. There were Jews and there were gentiles. The gentiles may have had their origins in Judaism, but that was now history. The gentiles tended to give the Jews a hard time, but Jewish attitudes towards gentiles fluctuated according to events and experiences. Though many of the passages I now quote may have come from a later stage, they mirror the first century CE situation. When gentiles showed respect and friendship, Jews reciprocated. Even when they faced hostility, Jews still taught that whoever a person was, it was their deeds that determined their fate: all people were made in the Divine image. Being a gentile might prevent a person from enjoying the blessings of monotheism and morality, but gentiles were not automatically debarred from the World to Come: the righteous (other versions read ‘pious’) of the nations had a place in the afterlife. The commandments of Judaism did not obligate the gentile apart from the Seven Noahide Laws, basic ethics that derive from the post-diluvian age when civilisation had to be reconstructed. These seven laws prohibited murder, robbery, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy and cruelty to animals and required a system of justice (b. Sanhedrin 56b, Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4). Rabbinic enactments established that gentiles must be treated humanely: they must be greeted politely, their poor supported, their sick visited and their dead buried. Endeavours should be made to avoid enmity and to foster “the paths of peace” (Prov. 3:17, the basis of enactments in b. Gittin 4-5). The Torah commanded, “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), though there is discussion as to what is meant by “neighbour” (Hebrew: re’a).
Nonetheless Jews had a low opinion of gentile law courts (though the gentile law of the land was the law other than in spiritual matters) and many sources report the poor levels of morality and decency amongst gentiles. There is a passage (Jerusalem Talmud 66b etc.) that is often translated, “The best of the gentiles – harog, kill them!” but the rendering, “kill them” is ungrammatical. The grammatical form of harog denotes a profession or trait: cf. karoz, “herald”) and the meaning is that the best of the gentiles are killers. This material clearly reflects social situations that oscillated between Jews and gentiles living in amity and looking at one another with hostility and suspicion.
1. Some Greek and Roman writers held the contrary view and mocked at Jewish observance, scorning, for example, the fact that Sabbath-observing Jews wasted one seventh of their lives in rest. See S.W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York, Columbia University Press, 1952), I:118.
2. For example, see George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Common Era (Cambridge, Mass., 1927-30), I:341-47.
3. In Hebrew called edim with an aleph, meaning “calamities”, as against edim with an ayin, meaning “witnesses” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 2a).
4. For example, see Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism (6th ed.: Albany, New York: Wadsworth Publishing, 1997), who prefers the word “Judaisms”.
5. The Christian historian Eusebius relates a story of the Jerusalem Christians fleeing to Pella, a gentile city across the Jordan (Hist. eccl. 3,5.3). However, some scholars question whether the Pella episode is authentic and argue that Eusebius may have told the story in order to authenticate a later Christian community in that area.
6. The Mishnah, for example, though redacted in the second century CE, codified material that was accumulating long before, e.g. information on criminal law, eventually codified in the m. Sanhedrin.
7. Other versions have “Egyptians”, “Canaanites” instead of “gentiles”. Note that such hyperbole also allowed the rabbis to make uncomplimentary remarks (e.g. at the end of m. Kiddushin) about the best of the physicians and even the best of the women.
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Bamberger, Bernard J., Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (2nd ed.: New York, Ktav Publishing House, 1968)
Baron, Salo W., A Social and Religious History of the Jews (vol. 1: New York, Columbia University Press, 1952)
Braude, William G., Jewish Proselytising in the First Centuries of the Common Era (Providence: Brown University Press, 1940)
Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 7, s.v. “Gentile”
Epstein, Isidore, Judaism: A Historical Presentation (London: Penguin Books,1958)
Flusser, David, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1988)
Goodman, Martin, The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome AD 66-70 (Cambridge, CUP, 1987)
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Sandmel, Samuel H., Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)
Schoeps, Hans J., Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969)
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NB: In the source references, m. = Mishnah; b. = Babylonian Talmud.