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Judaizing Christians

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

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Concerning the divine origin of the religion of Moses, there was among the Jews no diversity of sentiment, and they not unnaturally drew the conclusion, that, as it had proceeded from God, it must be of perpetual obligation. They were indeed fully aware, that another communication from heaven was to be made to mankind, and that this was to be announced by a messenger more distinguished than even the lawgiver whom they revered; but they had satisfied themselves, that the great design of the Messiah's mission would be to rescue them from the oppression of a foreign yoke, and to lay in Jerusalem the foundation of universal empire.

For accomplishing these purposes, it was requisite that their Messiah should be invested with temporal power; and in this idea, which so many circumstances in their history tended to endear to them, they were confirmed by those passages in the books of their prophets which described him as destined to sit on the throne of David, to sway a righteous sceptre, and to establish an everlasting kingdom. When, accordingly, Christ appeared in the humblest condition of life, and when, after the commencement of his ministry, he declared, that the hopes of empire which his countrymen had long cherished were fallacious, the predictions on which they had been rested suggesting, when combined with other predictions, a very different view of the designs of the Almighty, they were filled with indignation, and the greater part of them, although they saw the miracles which Jesus wrought, and heard those appeals to their own Scriptures which, however eager to do so, they found themselves unable to confute, rejected his pretensions on account of the meanness of his situation, and reprobated him as a deceiver of the people.

There was, however, a considerable number who could not adopt this conclusion, and who, satisfied that the mighty works which he performed fully established the reality of the divine commission to which he laid claim, relinquished their prejudices respecting a temporal sovereignty, and embraced his doctrine as the revealed will of God. But, notwithstanding this, they do not seem to have formed the most distant conception that there was any thing in that doctrine to set aside the system which had been transmitted to them by their fathers. They regarded the two dispensations as forming one whole; and believed that the rites which had distinguished from the rest of mankind those who belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, would in the same manner mark the disciples of the Messiah's kingdom. Agreeably to this, as they conceived, they saw that Jesus conformed to their ceremonial institutions, he frequented the temple, he purified it from abuses by which it had been profaned, and they interpreted, in the sense most in harmony with their favourite notions, the declaration which he had publicly made, that he came not to destroy the law but to fulfil it. Even the apostles who had constantly attended him, who had listened not merely to his public discourses, but to the interpretation of them, which, in tender condescension to their weakness, he often in private gave, were so thoroughly established in this opinion that it required a peculiar revelation to be made to him before Peter would open the kingdom of God to a Gentile. It cannot, therefore, be matter of surprise that the sentiment prevailed among the whole of the Jews who had been converted to Christianity; or that even after it was opposed by the declaration of the Apostles as individuals, and by their solemn determination, when assembled to decide with respect to it, that the law was not binding upon Gentile converts, they should still have adhered to it, when from not having a written record of faith they might have imagined, either that the representation of the apostolic decision was erroneous, or that the sanction which it gave to their own adherence to their ceremonies virtually confirmed the doctrine which they felt such aversion to relinquish.

They accordingly displayed much zeal in support of the Mosaical economy, represented the strict observance of what it required as essential for justification, and looked with a kind of abhorrence upon that large proportion of believers who paid to this no respect, and who even did not hesitate to condemn it as subversive of the fundamental principle of the Gospel dispensation. A great part of the epistles of St. Paul is directed against the Judaizing teachers who inculcated the original tenet of their brethren. The Apostle earnestly presses upon the churches, that by the works of the law we cannot be justified, that circumcision is of no avail, that by grace we are saved, and that Christ hath redeemed us by his blood. He, indeed, uniformly represents the idea which he opposed as inconsistent with Christianity, as an idea which could not be held without detracting from what our Saviour has done to accomplish our redemption. What effect his writings produced upon the Jewish believers, cannot be accurately ascertained; but it is quite certain that a very large proportion of them adhered to their ritual observances either as national, or as instrumental in obtaining the divine favour; and this survived the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem,—events which might have been expected to convince every one of the temporary nature of the Mosaical economy.

But after Adrian, by again directing the Roman arms against the Jews, blasted the hopes which had been fondly cherished, that their city would be rebuilt, and their temple opened with greater splendour than before, a vast number of them, either from being convinced by what they had seen, or from their eagerness to gain admission into the city which the emperor had erected, but from which he had ordered that all who persisted in Judaism should be excluded, for the first time embraced the religion of Christ; and many, who had previously done so, abandoning the Jewish ritual, acquiesced fully in the representation of the faith given by St. Paul, choosing as their bishop a Gentile convert. There were, however, not a few who remained steadfast in their principles, who were now consequently separated from the great body of their believing countrymen, and who retained the appellation of Nazarenes, which had probably been given to the whole of the Jewish Christians. This remnant soon split into two parties. The one party, although they held that the law of Moses was obligatory upon the descendants of the house of Israel, did not extend it to those who had never been of the family of Abraham; they revered Jesus as being more than man, and in fact approached so near to the prevailing sentiments of the church, that, notwithstanding their peculiar sentiments in relation to the Mosaical law, they were not ranked by the earliest writers among heretics. The other party, who were called Ebionites, either from Ebion, the name, it is alleged, of their leader, from their poverty, or from the low notions which they entertained of Christ, for all these reasons have been specified, showing sufficiently that the matter is really uncertain,— maintained the original tenet that their law was binding upon all men, and that without observing what it required it was impossible to be justified. As this was in direct opposition to the declarations of St. Paul, instead of submitting to apostolic authority they set it at defiance, rejecting his epistles, and branding him as an enemy to the truth. They disregarded even the Gospels which were received by the generality of Christians, and used a gospel of their own which they had so modelled as to support the tenets to which they were attached. One of these tenets, one which, indeed, naturally followed from their conceptions Of the Gospel dispensation, was, that its author was merely a man raised solely by the commission with which he had been honoured above the rest of his fellow creatures.

Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Judaizing Christians'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​j/judaizing-christians.html. 1831-2.