The Earliest Divisions Within the Christian Church

We see how anti-Torah and anti-Semitic beliefs caused animosity between the emerging Christian Church and the Jewish Messianic believers and traditional Judaism. Now we’ve seen how anti-Torah and anti-Semitic beliefs were major issues resulting in the division between the Eastern and Western Churches. The central issue in all divisions was rooted in a misunderstanding and/or rejection of the Torah of Moses.


The rejection of the Torah of Moses led the Western Roman Church to reject the Jewish people and separate themselves from the Jewish believers in Messiah. Now we will see how issues related to Torah observance also caused separations within the Christian Church. But first, let us examine the book of Acts to determine the Scriptural pattern of how the non-Jewish believers related to the Jewish believers in the body of Messiah.

Before Paul's salvation experience on the road to Damascus, he persecuted the early Jewish believers, searching for them in the synagogues (Acts 22:19; 26:11). Thus, we know the early Messianic Jewish believers remained a sect within Judaism worshipping in the synagogue. The earliest believers were ethnically Jewish and culturally Hebraic. During Acts chapters 1 –10 (which comprise 7-10 years of history) we don’t see any efforts to evangelize Gentiles. In fact, ADONAI had to use supernatural means (including angelic visitation, visions, and a sovereign outpouring of the Ruach) to show the disciples that repentance had been granted unto the Gentiles also (Acts 10:1- 11:18). Only after the evangelization of Cornelius’s household was there a determined effort to evangelize non-Jewish people (Acts 11:19-21).

Let us examine Acts 15 with the understanding that Jewish believers remained a sect within Judaism. This chapter recounts the Jerusalem council, which was established to answer the question, "How are gentiles saved?" Furthermore, they determined the minimum requirements for Gentiles to meet in order to be accepted within Messianic Judaism. Although Paul is called the apostle to the Gentiles, we must be careful not to think that he established Gentile Churches that met separately from the Messianic Jewish believers of the synagogue. Throughout the book of Acts we see that Paul’s custom was to evangelize within the synagogue1. At that time there were many Gentiles, known as God-fearers or proselytes at the gate2, who met regularly within traditional Judaism throughout the world. They were the primary source of Gentile converts for Paul during his missionary journeys3. Evangelization apart from the synagogue was more the exception than the rule (Acts 17:18-34). Thus, Paul, uniquely equipped to evangelize Gentiles, ministered mainly to those who would be most open to the gospel--Gentiles already meeting in the synagogue. Paul did not have the Gentile believers leave the synagogue and form "Churches." They continued to meet in synagogues (except when persecution from non-Messianic Jews prevented them) as one body in Messiah. This view is in harmony with the Pauline epistles where Paul sometimes appealed to the Jewish believers (Romans 2:17-29; 7:1) while at other times he appealed to the non-Jewish believers (Romans 11:13). In the book of Acts we learn that Paul established congregations from Jewish and non-Jewish people who were already actively participating in the synagogue. Furthermore, they were believers who related to each other in Torah-based communities as one body in Messiah (Acts 15:13-21; Ephesians 2:1 – 3:21). 

Two significant historical events, the 1st (66–70 CE) and 2nd (133–135 CE) Jewish revolts against Rome, changed the balance between the number of Jewish and Gentile believers in the body of Messiah. Moreover, other factors converged to cause the Gentile believers to separate themselves from their Hebraic roots and the synagogue. These events included:

  1. The influx of more Gentile converts than Jewish converts
  2. The destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and traditional Judaism
  3. The expulsions of Jews from Rome and Judea
  4. The antagonism between traditional Judaism and the Messianic believers
  5. The growing battle between traditional Judaism and the increasingly numerous Gentile believers.

Having already seen how the rejection of Torah led the Gentile believers to reject the Messianic believers, we will now see how rejection of the Torah led to schisms within the early Christian Church as they tried to deal with the issues of Sabbath and festival observance.

Many in the Church assume that practices such as Sunday worship and Easter celebration, CHRISTMAS  etc., have existed since the book of Acts. Furthermore, many think the Biblical Holy Days were never a valid form of Christian worship. However, when we examine Church history we find a totally different picture. As we go back in time, approaching the era when the early Christian believers separated themselves from the Messianic believers, we discover that the earliest Christian assemblies worshipped on the Sabbath and kept the Biblical Holy Days. Numerous Christian and non-Christian historians of the ante and post-Nicene period have left us with a plethora of information concerning the practices and beliefs of the early Christian assemblies. 

It is a fact that the early Christian Churches continued to meet on the Sabbath. Commenting on variations regarding religious assemblies within the Christian Church, Socrates Scholasticus writes, "For although almostall Churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries [the eucharist] on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this."4 This "ancient tradition" spoken of by Socrates was initiated in the early second century in Rome and Alexandria, the first Christian assemblies to break the tradition of meeting on the Sabbath. To understand their reasoning we must examine the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and the letter of Barnabas, all writings of the first half of the second century. Ignatius (approximately 98-117 CE) warned about, "the Judaizing tendencies of his territory, which…had suffered the influences of the synagogue and of the Judaeo-Christians [Messianic Jewish believers]."5 Furthermore, Ignatius writes, "For if we are still practicing Judaism, we admit that we have not received God’s favor."6 Ignatius goes on to upbraid Christians specifically for partaking in the Sabbath, "after the Jewish manner," exhorting them to, "keep the Sabbath in a spiritual manner . . . not in the relaxation of the body . . . and not eating things prepared the day before . . . "7 The fact that Ignatius felt the necessity to write these admonitions demonstrates that the early Christians were predisposed to the Jewish Sabbath practice. Furthermore, it is one of the first extra-Biblical instances of an emerging conflict concerning issues of Torah obedience among Gentiles. Lastly, it shows a developing antagonism to things considered "Jewish."8
The Epistle of Barnabas (130-138 CE, probably in Alexandria) is valuable because it contains the first explicit mention of Sunday observance by the Christians. Barnabas is more acute in his attacks on "Jewish" practices. The purpose of his epistle was to provide a basis for the total rejection of Judaism as a religious practice and to provide a theological basis for Christians to forsake "Jewish" practices and take on their new role as the true Israel. In order to do this he states that the Sabbath is not a present reality but an eschatological rest at the Second Coming of Messiah. He condemned Christians who continued certain Torah observances by stating, "take heed to yourselves and be not like some, piling up your sins and saying that the covenant is theirs as well as ours. It is ours, but they lost it completely just after Moses received it . . ."9 Furthermore, he allegorized the entire Tanakh stating that it only prefigured Messiah and His Church. By using the midrash that one day is as a thousand years, he states, "This is why we also observe the eighth day [Sunday] with rejoicing, on which Jesus also arose from the dead . . ."10 Thus he equates the eighth day with the resurrection of Yeshua on the first day of the week and the beginning of the eternal state on the eighth day (8000th year) after the 7000th year millennium. By allegorizing the Sabbath and equating Yeshua’s resurrection with the eighth day he provided a basis for Sunday worship (the eighth day) to supercede the Sabbath. In the minds of the early Christian Church, the Epistle of Barnabas clearly redefined Torah commands as only allegorical. Furthermore, we see increasing intolerance to those Christians who desired to practice Scriptural commands.

Justin Martyr, who wrote Dialogue with Trypho (138-161 CE) lived in Rome. In his writings he endeavors to show that the Torah was only given to the Jews because of their "sins and hardness of heart,"11 until the Messiah would come. Furthermore, Justin states that, "God imposed upon you the observance of the Sabbathas a mark."12 Obviously, this trivializing of the Sabbath was acceptable since the western Roman Church already had a different day of worship. In an attempt to define Christians as distinct from the Jews (to Emperor Antoninus Pius), Justin states, "Sunday, indeed is the day on which we all hold our common assembly . . ."13 In fact, Justin provided three major reasons why the Christians of the Western Roman Church met on Sundays; 1) to commemorate the first day of creation when ADONAI transformed darkness into light, 2) because Yeshua was resurrected on Sunday, and 3) because the eighth day was more mysterious than the seventh day. Thus in Justin’s writings we see more devaluation of the Torah and its applicability to the Christians of Rome. Most scholars agree that Sunday observance probably originated in Rome and Alexandria. The Christian Churches of the East however, did not relinquish their faithfulness to Torah commands so readily.

Most believers are only familiar with the history of the Western Roman Church, which eventually gave rise to Roman Catholicism and then Protestantism. Few are aware that there was an official split between the Churches of the East and West14 giving rise to two separate developments of Christian expression. Although the official split occurred in 1054 CE, one of the most significant initial causes of animosity and eventual division between Churches of the East and West began in the mid second century of the common era. It involved the issue of Passover celebration. That the early Christian Churches celebrated Passover is readily demonstrated through early Christian writings. For example, Epiphanius (378 CE) informs us that confusion among Christians developed concerning Passover observance soon after the Messianic Jewish believers lost their authority in Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt (133-135 CE).

"For long ago, even from the earliest days, the Phasekh [Passover] was celebrated at different times in the Church . . .In the time of Polycarp [158 CE] and Victor [196 CE] the East was at odds with the West . . .This has been the situation ever since [the Church] was thrown into disorder after the time of the circumcised [Messianic Jewish] bishops."15
The controversy existed because, "all the bishops of Asia . . . were in the way of celebrating the Passover festival without question, every year, whenever the 14th day of the moon had come."16 They cited the teachings of the Torah and B’rit Chadasha as well as the examples of Messiah and Apostles as foundational to their practice. In opposition to them was the Western Roman Church (especially those of Rome and Alexandria) who decreed that the Passover had to be celebrated on the Sunday after the Spring equinox. The Western Roman Church called those of the Eastern Church Quartodecimens, which means 14th keepers, "because they observe this festival [of Passover] like the Jews, on the 14th day of the moon and hence their name."17 In fact the Churches of the East continued to celebrate the other Biblical feasts as well. We know this because John Chrysostom (a Church Father and vehement detractor of the Jews and Jewish practices) condemned the Quartodecimans because they celebrated Yom Kippur, Sukkoth and Yom Teruah.18 "The staunchest supporters of the Quartodeciman view were the eastern Assemblies listed in the book of Revelation.19
To the dismay of the Quartodecimens, the Western Roman Church made other changes to the original Passover Festival. For example, the Scriptural emphasis (and typology) of Passover as a picture of the deathof Yeshua was transformed into an emphasis on His resurrection. Epiphanius refers to, "the day ofresurrection and great festive day of the Passover."20 While Augustine says, "our yearly festival [of Passover] renews the memory of his resurrection."21 Later, leavened bread replaced unleavened bread since unleavened bread was a sign of Judaizing. Today’s celebration of Easter Sunday, has preserved these changes. 

At two separate times the Churches of the East and West hotly debated the issue. Victor, bishop of the Western Roman Churches wanted to excommunicate all Churches of the East concerning Passover ritual. In one instance Polycrates, who represented the Eastern Churches had this to say concerning Victor’s threats of excommunication:

"All these [bishops of Churches in Asia minor] kept the 14th day of the Passover according to the Good News (B’rit Chadasha), never swerving, but followed according to the rule of the trust. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all live according to the tradition of my kinsman . . .For seven of my family were bishops and I am the eighth, and my kinsmen always kept the day when the people put away the leaven. Therefore, brothers, I who have lived sixty-five years in the sovereign and conversed with brothers from every country and have studied all the sacred Scripture, am not afraid of threats, for they have said who were greater than I, ‘It is better to obey the deity rather than men.’"22
Even the historian Epiphanius (who opposed the Quartodecimens) admitted that the Quartodecimen viewwas the original view when the Messianic Jews were still in Jerusalem (until 132-135 CE) stating, "it was necessary at that time that the whole world follow them [the Messianic Jews] and celebrate with them so that there should be a single confession . . . celebrating one festival [of Passover]."23 In the final analysis the words of Constantine summarized why the Western Roman Church chose to change the Passover ritual, date and emphasis. Concerning the timing of the Passover celebration he stated, " . . . it becomes us to have nothing in common with the perfidious Jews." The Passover battle between the East and West raged on for centuries and is well documented elsewhere.

Robert Ariel Greener CCPE,NB.Phc.A.FLTC, Founder & International Director
505 - 453-1559  MESSAGE CENTER                407 - 431-2694 = office


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