Spending Time Together in the Temple
Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple… (Acts 2:46a NRSV).
This article is a continuation of a series of articles on Acts 2:41-47. The previous articles in this series can be found in the author’s archives.
I teach classes on the Bible, world religions, and humanities at several community colleges in my area. Each semester I notice that students seem genuinely surprised when they learn about the Jewish roots of Christianity. One semester in particular, this benign historical truth lead to open debate in the classroom. In lecture, I made casual reference to the Apostle Paul being ethnically Jewish, a point I assumed would be rather innocuous. Immediately, a student openly objected and adamantly insisted that Paul was not Jewish. In the moment, I was rather flabbergasted by the utter ridiculousness of my student’s argument. How do you engage intellectually with someone whose opinion is entirely baseless? Eventually, I resorted to opening the Bible, and I read a handful of selections from Paul’s epistles where he references his own ethnic identity. No doubt this particular student would be equally shocked to learn that the first Christians “spent much time together in the temple (Acts 2:46),” and that the first decades of Christian worship were greatly influenced by Judaism.
Jesus and Judaism
The opening genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel clearly establishes the Jewish ethnicity of Jesus, tracing his lineage to David and Abraham (Mt 1:1-17). Jesus’ adopted human father, Joseph, is described as “a righteous man (Mt 1:19),” and Luke reports that Jesus was circumcised and presented in the Temple according to Jewish custom (Lk 2:21-24). These details are significant because they establish that Jesus was not merely ethnically Jewish; he came from a family that was religiously observant and devout. This helps explain why it was Jesus’ “custom” to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath day (Lk 4:16). Jesus was fully and truly Jewish, and the messianic movement he began was firmly rooted in this Jewish identity.
Therefore, when Jesus began his ministry to proclaim the kingdom of God, he started by preaching in Jewish synagogues (Lk 4:16-21; 4:44). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus insists that his good news of the kingdom does not “abolish the law or the prophets (Mt 5:17).” Rather, Jesus sees his ministry as a fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures and traditions. When he comments on the laws of Moses, he does so in a way that gets to the heart of biblical law without undermining or eliminating the commandments themselves (Mt 5:21-48). However, his sharp critique of contemporary Jewish piety (Mt 6:1-18) and his disregard for certain Jewish traditions (Mt 12:1-14) led to conflict between Jesus and the other Jewish rabbis of his day. It would be wrong to interpret these conflicts in light of the subsequent split between Judaism and Christianity. At the time, the debates between Jesus and his fellow rabbis represented a struggle over the core essence of Judaism.
The First Christians and Judaism
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus ascends into heaven, Luke tells us that the disciples “were continually in the temple blessing God (Lk 24:53).” At this point, the followers of the Jesus movement were overwhelming ethnically and religiously Jewish. For them, Christianity was not yet a separate world religion; instead, it was a messianic sect of Judaism. It was not until the gospel spread to Antioch and the message was proclaimed to “the Hellenists” that “the disciples were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:19-26).” In this historical context, it makes sense that the first Christians continued to worship in the Jerusalem temple, following the pattern of worship they had inherited from their ancestors. For them, the worship of Jesus was a fulfillment of the laws of Moses and the oracles of the prophets. Where better to celebrate the Messiah than in the temple courts?
The close connection between Jewish and Christian worship seen in Jerusalem can also be observed in the missionary work of Paul. When Paul came to the city of Thessalonica, he went to the local synagogue on three straight Sabbath days “as was his custom (Acts 17:2).” This mirrors the pattern of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4. Naturally, Paul does not attend the local synagogue simply to hear the Torah read aloud. In the synagogue, Paul used the scriptures to prove “that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead (Acts 17:3).” Luke says that Paul received a mixed response to his gospel message–some Jews believed in Jesus as the Messiah while others stirred up a riotous mob (Acts 17:4-5). Paul’s custom of attending the synagogue on the Sabbath in order to spread the good news of Jesus was not limited to the city of Thessalonica. Wherever Paul traveled, he “proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews (Acts 13:5).”1
The Split Between Jewish and Christian Worship
Given the clear biblical connections between emergent Christianity and first-century Judaism, one might naturally wonder when the two religions split and went their separate ways. Although Acts 2:46 says that the first Christians “spent much time together in the temple,” the seeds of separation were already planted during the earthly ministry of Jesus. His conflict with the religious authorities carries over to his disciples. Shortly after Pentecost, Peter and John find themselves standing trial before the temple officials (Acts 4:1-7). The messianic proclamation of Peter creates a rift between the new sect and the old order. This rift opens up in the places where Paul preached the message of Jesus, a message embraced by some Jews but rejected by others.
In his farewell speech to his disciples, Jesus prophesies that a day will come when “they will put you out of the synagogues (Jn 16:2).” Jesus suggests that the Jewish officials will oppose the messianic message out of a sense of “offering worship to God (Jn 16:2).” For many first-century Jews, the Jesus movement was a heretical and false movement that needed to be opposed before the message spread far and wide. Although Christians were able to worship side-by-side with the Jews in the temple for a time, eventually their belief in Jesus as “both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36)” resulted in Christian worship becoming a separate phenomenon. The book of Acts offers no definitive date for this split, but it is safe to assume that it happened by the end of the first century, possibly even sooner.
For Christians today, it is important to remember that Christians and Jews share a rich and common history, even though they disagree on core tenets of theology related to the identity of Jesus. Although Christianity has grown into the world’s largest religion over time, the faith comes from humble roots and began as a small messianic sect of Judaism. The proclamation of both Jesus and the disciples shows that the Christian message is a fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish religion, not a negation of either. Furthermore, for modern Christians to fully understand and appreciate the origins of their own faith, they need to recover a picture of the first-century Jewish context in which the faith first emerged.
(1) For other examples, see also Acts 13:14; 13:42; 14:1; 17:10; 17:17; 18:4; 19:8.
Image from Flickr used under Creative Commons license. Original image by David King can be found here.