Book review: Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church

by Kenneth W. Howard


This is a scholarly look at the evidence, both archaeological and from the written record of the Church Fathers, of early Jewish Christianity. Howard focuses on two sects, the Ebionites and the Nazarenes. He notes that early Christians all went by the name of Nazarene, and that the Jewish Christians probably fled Jerusalem just prior to the war of 70 AD, landing in Pella (the famous Christian exodus noted in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 21). These displaced Christians were surely the Jerusalem church, once headed by James, the brother of Jesus. They favored versions of the Gospel of Matthew. There in Pella, they splintered, dividing into two or more sects sometime in the second century, with the point of division probably being over the matter of Christology.

Howard considers the Ebionites to be clearly heretical, denying the divinity of Christ and not believing in the virgin birth. The Nazarenes, on the other hand, were orthodox in all respects except that they adhered to Jewish ceremonial law. This respect for the Law was to be expected: when the apostle Paul met with the Jerusalem Christians, they reached a compromise. Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Law, while Gentile Christians would not. This worked well, apparently, and Jewish Christianity remained the dominant expression of the Christian Church in Palestine up until perhaps the time of Constantine.

This compromise was broken, however, over the course of several centuries. Antisemitism reared its ugly head, and Jews in all forms grew despised. Jewish Christians all began to be classed with the heretical Ebionites, whether they fit the mold or not. They were not invited to the Council of Nicaea; of the 318 fathers at the Council, only 18 were from Palestine and these were Gentile bishops representing only the coastal cities. No Jewish Christians were in attendance, and by the end of the fourth century, it was no longer acceptable for Jewish Christians to practice any aspects of the ceremonial law, even if they were in all other ways orthodox in belief. Epiphanius declared the Nazarenes heretical in 376 CE, Augustine endorsed the claim in 400 CE, and Jewish Christians simply ceased to exist.

Excellent booklet, very well documented.

Kenneth W. Howard, © 2013

ISBN: none

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