Christianity was linked to Judaism by an umbilical cord, so to speak, and after the early decades of essential dependence on Judaism it never evolved in total isolation from it. Nascent Christianity took shape within the matrix of Jewish sectarian and apocalyptic groups that had been flourishing during the previous two centuries. Those groups in turn were rooted in ancient Israelite soil. This shared history and shared culture was a fact that belonged to the substance of Christianity in its relation to Judaism, but also a fact that had to be publicly emphasized for its strategic potential, for it was vitally important to Christianity to affirm and to hold to its Jewish roots because in doing so it scored a winning argument in favor of its own venerable antiquity. An examination of its Jewish roots is therefore necessary to an understanding of early Christianity.
By including the creation narratives in its pre-history, Israel attested to an acute awareness of a divine design on her. But the truly founding events were to belong to the historical period. The call of Abraham (ca. 1850 B.C.E.), the activity of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt (ca. 1250) followed by Yahweh's manifestation at the Sinai, the migration through the desert and the occupation of the land that was to become home—those were the events that created Israel as a nation and were kept alive in the collective memory.Lending reality to a wish his father, King David, had entertained, Solomon built a dwelling for his God, thus inaugurating the period that is now called First Temple Judaism (ca. 950-586). Although distinct, the two kingdoms of the post-Solomonic period—Judah in the south and Israel in the north—generally considered Jerusalem and its Temple their religious and national center. Before long, political turmoil and foreign interventions hit the nation. The kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria in 722 and many of its inhabitants were deported. Then the fall of Judah in 597/587, culminating in the destruction of the Temple in 586, shocked the nation (and the approximately 150,000 inhabitants of the land) at its roots and sent more deportees to Babylonia or fugitives to Egypt, inaugurating what came to be known as the Diaspora(dispersion).
The period known as the Exile lasted from 597 to 538/537. The edict of Cyrus in 538 allowed Jews to return to their land. Few returned (around 520 the population of Judea approximated 20,000, rising to some 50,000 by 440), the rest remaining in Babylonia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Those who returned began rebuilding the Temple, which was rededicated in 515. Henceforth vast sums of money from the Diaspora made their way every year to the Temple, which acted as a bank for projects, employment, and improvements of the capital. Ezra restored the Mosaic law and is credited with laying the foundations (ca. 450) for the Judaism of the future centered on Torah. The name Second Temple Judaism is given to the religious and national entity that lasted from 520/515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., successively going through a Persian period (520-332), a Hellenistic period (332-363), and a Roman rule (63 b.c.e.-395 c.e.). Second Temple Judaism is the soil out of which both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity grew in the first century C.E.The Second Temple (or Second Commonwealth) era saw the domination of the Jewish people by a succession of foreign powers, except for eighty years of relative independence (141-63) at the time of the Has- monean dynasty (152-37). With the restoration of the sacrificial ritual after the return from Exile, the Temple began again to function as a religious center with its own court (the Sanhedrin); high priests were discharging temporal and religious functions in a kind of power sharing with foreign rulers that constituted a fragile equilibrium and, in the eyes of some, a risky compromise. That equilibrium was in fact shaken in 167 when the Syrian/Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IVEpiphanes, launched a campaign of all-out Hellenization and made the Temple the seat of Zeus Olympios or, according to some, the seat of the Syrian Baal Shamen. This was too much. Against the deadly threat of assimilation with Hellenism a revolt broke out under the leadership of Judah the Maccabee, who was able to rededicate the Temple in 164 and inaugurated the century of Hasmonean rule. More groups emerged then (e.g., the Qumran community), questioning the legitimacy of the high priests.
Jewish resistance was steadily fanned among the people by messianic and apocalyptic yearnings: It was hoped that a leader would soon come to bring redemption to all and free the Jewish people from foreign domination. After the Roman takeover in 63 and the seizure of Jerusalem by Pompey, in the course of which many Jews were taken to Rome as slaves, things somehow seemed to quiet down and a kind of regime of self-rule was established under procuratorial supervision. Jews enjoyed rights based on treaties with Rome and were eventually exempted from the duties of the imperial cult; patriarch (from ca. 20), high priests, and Sanhedrin found accommodation with the occupants. Unrest persisted among the population, though, and was exasperated by the excesses of King Herod (37 b.c.e.-4 c.e.), whose rebuilding of the Temple, of which only the west wall remains today, could hardly provide an excuse for his follies. Those circumstances favored the activity of charismatic teachers and created the background against which his followers could see in Jesus the expected messiah.
Unrest culminated in the first Jewish revolt (66-70 c.e.), in Alexandria and, above all, throughout Palestine. The Roman reaction was both harsh and restrained: Qumran was wiped out (68), Jerusalem burned (70), and the Temple destroyed; repression, deportations, and executions followed. The resistance ended at Masada in 74. The end of the sacrificial cult seemed to sound the knell of Judaism. But the Romans allowed Judaism to reconstitute itself around the Academy (a group of rabbis and sages dedicated to the study of Torah) at Yavneh/Jamnia about 75. Thus it can be said that Roman permissivity provided the occasion for the rise of the formally organized Rabbinic Judaism, successor to both Pharisees and the Sanhedrin. Those years saw the increased activity of the Tannaim (sages) in adapting religious practices to post-temple times and in fixing the threatened traditions of the nation, activity that led to the codification of the Mishnah. With the destruction of the Temple, Sadducees lost their power base. Other sects were decimated, deprived of their centers or no longer viable.
Most revolutionaries slipped out but resistance to the Roman rule persisted among nationalist Jews in the Diaspora (115-117) and in Palestine. When Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild Jerusalem, now to be called Aelia Capitolina, and the Temple, now dedicated to Jupiter (130), passions rose again at the similarities with the Maccabean predicament. Bar Kokhba, acclaimed in messianic terms by the venerable Rabbi Akiba, led what was to become the second Jewish rebellion (132-135). Christians were harassed for refusing to join in and thus the revolt had a significant impact on the way Jews and Christians henceforth viewed each other. The rebellion ended with Judea reduced to the status of a Roman colony forbidden to Jews, the Temple transformed into a sanctuary of Zeus and Hadrian, and many rabbis martyred. The harsh decrees of repression were rescinded a few years later and the patriarchate reconstituted in Galilee in 140 as a self-governing body to head the communal rabbis and represent the Jews before the imperial authorities. It flourished especially between 150 and 210 and was to last until 425/429. Henceforth religious freedom, not national independence, was sought. The center of Jewish life in Palestine moved from Jerusalem and Judea to Galilee until 870/900, at which time it became mainly concentrated in Babylonia.
Rabbinic Judaism arose out of those historical circumstances. Without the Temple as a powerful sign of God's presence and rule, and without the possibility of sacrificial ritual, religious life and leadership patterns had to be readjusted. Thanks to the activity of the Tannaim, the process of recasting was completed about the year 200. The center of cult is relocated in the home and local assembly, and focused on communal and private prayer. Study and practice of the Torah define the essence of the new cult, with the major festivals transferred to the synagogue (the synagogue was already in existence in the mid-first century; see Mk 1:21; Lk 4:31-37; Mt 7:28f.) or to meals and prayers at home. The transition from Temple to synagogue, all at once house of study, house of prayer, meeting house, and guest house, and from priest to rabbi was completed early in the second century. This momentous development included a reinterpretation of certain elements of the covenantal relationship with God in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple and the demise of the priestly cult, at the same time that it forced a new assessment of both the meaning of national suffering and the theology of redemption/atonement. Those revisions found lasting expression in the Mishnah.