Written by: Christopher Bellitto
Christianity developed within what historians call a Jewish matrix: the context of Judaism in Palestine, a Roman province, in the 1st century C.E. Indeed, at first Christianity was so closely tied with Judaism that it is best to speak of a Jesus community comprised of Jews and Gentiles for several decades. Some scholars prefer to see Mary, Jesus' mother, and his first followers as Jewish-Christians, admittedly a bit of an awkward phrase, because they were Jews who believed Jesus to be the promised messiah, unlike other Jews. In Jerusalem, these Jewish followers of Jesus were called Nazarenes, denoting their faith in Jesus of Nazareth. These first Jewish-Christian followers of Jesus lived a kind of hybrid faith life: believing in Jesus as savior and messiah, though still meeting to pray in synagogues and continuing certain Jewish practices, such as keeping kosher and celebrating the Jewish calendar of feasts, even as they reached out to others.
Soon after Jesus' passion in 29 or 30 C.E., and during the first decade or two of Christian belief, it became clear that one could be a Christian without being a Jew. This was clearly decided at the so-called Council of Jerusalem in 49 or 50 (Acts of the Apostles 15; Galatians 2:1-10). There, the first leaders of Christianity, among them Peter, Paul, and James, decided that one did not have to be a Jew nor go through a Jewish stage to be a Christian. Almost immediately after his conversion, the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, who later became known as Saint Paul, turned his attention from persecuting the first Christians to converting Gentiles to the faith, as chronicled in Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles making up much of the New Testament.
In this outreach, Paul was assisted especially by Timothy and Barnabas. As the 1st century progressed, Christianity increasingly pulled away from its Jewish roots; by about 100, followers of Jesus adhering to Mosaic law had virtually disappeared. Some Christians stressed their differences from Judaism quite starkly in words that ring of what we call today anti-semitism, as in the anonymous Letter to Diognetus, where the author asserts that Christianity surpassed and fulfilled Judaism.
Even though Christianity was now a distinct faith, Roman officials often lumped Jews and Christians together, if only because both monotheistic faiths were alien to Greco-Roman polytheism. Judaism had been a permitted religion known as a religio licta in Roman legal terms, which offered some protection and freedom of worship as long as Jews paid taxes and did not revolt. Christianity did not enjoy that same permitted status, nor did Christianity have a structured life of its own, so it was only natural that it borrowed from its Jewish roots with rabbis and elders leading communities, adapting them even as it moved away from the Jewish matrix of its origins.