For almost two hundred years after the impalement of Christ, Roman cities are entirely devoid of any trace of early Christians; to date, no one has ever found any object that’s been plausibly connected to them. Some archaeologist and historians think that many of Jesus’ followers — men and women who lived in the first, second and even third century Roman Mediterranean — simply didn’t want to be found. However it was more because they preferred as brethren and sisters to meet in each others houses and did not see any reason to have special buildings for their meetings.
Some are also surprised there where for almost four hundred years, no manger scenes anywhere in the Roman world, as well as no crucifixes displayed in homes or schools. This simply was because there was no attention to the birth of Christ and the pagan feast of a “Christmas celebration” had not entered yet the Christian community. The people at that time knew also that Jesus died by the Roman penalty of impalement or death on a vertical piece of wood.
These people who wanted to follow the Jewish rabbi Jeshua did not have any need of a place with statues and pictures, because they knew very well that such a thing would be against the will of God. Though it is by the growing amount of false teachers, wherefore the apostles warned, that more and more people where lured into the teachings of people who mixed the Roman-Greek philosophy and traditions in their schooling.
Jewish individuals and groups during the late Second Temple period may have been waging fierce debates amongst themselves about the role of Hellenistic customs in the formation of their Jewish identity — debates we pick up in our textual sources, like 2 Maccabees — but the archaeological evidence is clear: The Second Commandment given to Moses did not prevent Jews from making images, neither did it prevent so called christians to do. It prevented them from making idols.
At the beginning there was no reason to hide are to be afraid that others would know that they became part of the group which was called “The Way“. After the impalement of Jeshua and his resurrection, the apostles began to champion a new faith in their master teacher Jeshua (Jesus) and the ranks of the Jesus movement (known as “the Way” at the time) swelled to 3,000 Jewish converts. At first, these followers were distinctly Jewish, following Mosaic law, Temple traditions and dietary customs.
Having more and more goyim or non-Jews entering the group of followers of Jesus, the Jews took distance of those members of the Way. When many started following the preachers which the apostles called “false teachers” and did not mind to take part of several heathen traditions those Christians became unacceptable in a Jewish prayer house and as such where not welcome in the synagogue.
The influence of the different groups in the new movement, mixing different ideas from all sorts of philosophic movements made that the focus on Jewish law decreased and that we could find a growing deviation away from Judaism into what we today may call the origin of Christianity as a distinct religion. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem participated in separate Jewish services from the gentile Christian population, and while the two groups agreed on Jesus’ message and importance, the separate rites and communities led to increasing division between the groups.
Geza Vermes [ed.note: described the mission of the 11 apostles to preach to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) as a “‘post-Resurrection’ idea.”] presents the late first century C.E. Jewish Christian Didache as an important text for understanding the Jewish Jesus movement. The Christian document focuses on Mosaic Law and the love of God and the neighbor, and describes the observance of Jewish traditions alongside baptism and the recitation of “Our Father.” The Didache treats Jesus as a charismatic prophet, referring to Jesus with the term pais, a word for servant or child that is also used for King David, rather than the “Son of God.”
By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.
In later years the Roman rulers did not like those followers either and found some grounds to persecute them. Even as Christian populations grew, distrust and persecution by their Roman rulers forced the early church to stay out of the public eye.
The situation changed in 313 when the emperor Constantine could come to an agreement with several church leaders and made Christianity a licit religion of the Roman Empire. With this acceptance came the construction of large public buildings, or churches, to serve the worship needs of those Christians who came to terms with the Roman requirements. Remains of these churches are now turning up in Biblical archaeology findings around the world, helping to answer the questions: How old is Christianity in places like Turkey and Egypt? And when did Christianity begin to spread beyond Israel throughout the Roman Empire?
For more on the origin of Christianity,
read Geza Vermes’s “From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity” as it appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2012.
Check out the BAS book Partings—How Judaism and Christianity Became Two. Never before has this multi-faceted process been documented so engagingly and so authoritatively by so many eminent scholars.