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How did Jews accept or reject Jesus in the early years of the church? How did the Jewish people react to the tragic destruction of their temple in Jerusalem in AD 70? How did that event shape their identity in the decades that followed?

jewish belief in the early church

Overlooking or marginalizing Jewish belief in Jesus in the nascent church is a common but unfortunate tendency. Jesus Himself, a Jew from Nazareth, was a descendant of the tribe of Judah (Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38; Rom 1:3). The twelve disciples, too, were Jewish. Even Jesus’ movements during His career were remarkably focused on reaching the Jewish people. All four Gospels present Jesus as prioritizing His message to the Jews. Jesus even told His disciples as much: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6). The book of Acts even records the salvation of a remnant of Jews in Jerusalem and then the salvation of the gentiles. The Apostle Paul states that “salvation” is “to the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16). This doesn’t mean, however, that gentiles are second-class citizens, for both Jews and gentiles compose true Israel and fulfill the end-time restoration promises of the Old Testament (see, e.g., Eph. 3:1–13; 1 Peter 2:9–11).

jewish unbelief in the first and second centuries

From the start, though, the majority of the Jewish people remained hostile to Jesus. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). Their failure to believe Him occurred for multiple reasons: an incorrect reading of the Old Testament (Luke 24:25–27; John 5:38–47); idolatry, or the worship of human tradition over God (Mark 4:10–12; 7:13; John 12:37–42); and their persistent persecution of God’s righteous prophets (Mark 12:1–12). Because the nation of Israel nailed its Messiah, the divine Son of God, to the cross, God decisively poured out His wrath on them in the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in AD 70.

On Israel’s western coast in Yavneh, a new kind of Judaism would begin to flourish.
the destruction of the temple

The destruction of the temple, an event that Jesus foretold (Mark 13:24–31), occurred in AD 70. The razing of Jerusalem and the destruction of the centerpiece of Israel didn’t take place overnight. The first Jewish revolt spanned AD 66–70 and culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem. In the fall of AD 66, Rome’s procurator, Florus, seized gold from the temple, further igniting conflict with the Jews. Christians in Jerusalem likely fled north to Pella, a city twenty miles south of Galilee. For the next few years, Rome’s relationship with the Jewish people continued to deteriorate. In the summer of AD 69, Vespasian became emperor of Rome, and he appointed his son Titus to lead the Roman army in the sacking of Jerusalem. A year later, Titus breached one of the Jerusalem walls, and in August of AD 70, the city of Jerusalem fell. The Roman soldiers looted the city, desecrated the temple, slew thousands of Jews, and deported many to Rome.

the formation of rabbinic judaism

The fall of the temple profoundly shaped Jewish culture and leadership. The Sanhedrin, the powerful ruling body in Jerusalem that governed the nation, naturally came to an end. All but one of the various factions of Judaism—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Herodians—ceased to exist. The Pharisees were the only Jewish group left standing. Theologian David Instone-Brewer summarizes the situation well: “The Sadducees lost their locus of activity [the temple], the Essenes lost the reason for their rebellion, and the Pharisees’ attempt to replicate Temple activities in the home, synagogue, and schoolhouse became the only way to express Jewish rites.” The destruction of the temple was the catalyst for a return to reflect anew on Israel’s Scriptures. Unlike the Apostles, who viewed Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the centerpiece of Scripture, these Jewish interpreters viewed the nation of Israel as the center.

According to some streams of Jewish tradition, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, a leader of the Hillel school of Jewish law, was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin before Jerusalem’s destruction. He then visited Vespasian and predicted that he would soon become emperor of Rome. Vespasian, in turn, permitted him to establish a school at Yavneh or Jamnia on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Here, a new kind of Judaism would begin to flourish. The Hillelites gathered at Yavneh, and their rabbinic followers would produce a massive amount of literature.

Rabbinic literature largely consists of two genres: halakhic (legal) and aggadic (nonlegal). Within the halakhic material, the Mishnah and the Tosefta occupy pride of place. The Mishnah, eventually compiled around AD 200, is the earlier of the two and contains Jewish debates and rulings categorized under six topics. Each topic is then divided up into several tractates, totaling sixty-three. The oral tradition of the Mishnah may stretch back to the early first century AD, and some of the debates may even surface in the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 19:1–12). The two Talmuds, Babylonian and Jerusalem—both of which were compiled around AD 400–600—comment on and explain the six orders of the Mishnah. This explanation, called gemara, heavily appeals to Scripture and personal rabbinic stories. Other rabbinic materials include, to name a few, the midrashim and the targumim.

the second jewish revolt

While scholars are unsure what precisely caused the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132–35), it at the very least appears to have been instigated by Rome. Simon ben Kosiba (called Bar Kokhba or “son of the star” by his admirers; see Num. 24:17) used the Judean desert as the base of his operations, exploiting caves and tunnels channeled into the terrain. Because of the lack of detailed historical accounts, we know little about the revolt itself. Though the Roman army took heavy losses, they eventually annihilated the Jewish fighters. The Romans formally turned Jerusalem into a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina, after the emperor, leaving the Jews without a place to call home.


The people of God began in the garden of Eden and continue into the new heavens and earth. Ethnic Jewish and gentile believers in Christ compose this true Israel of God. The majority of ethnic Jews rejected Jesus as the divine Son of God, resulting in the birth of rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism that persists to this day. Yet in the true covenant community, God has always preserved a remnant of believing Jews, a remnant that continues even today (Rom. 9–11). Christians must be resolved to share the good news of Christ’s substitutionary life, death, and resurrection to unbelieving Jews because, in the words of Paul, the Jewish people “were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2).

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