Christianity started as a Jewish splinter group and marginal sect during that period of history when Judaism was experiencing the just- mentioned transition from the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible to what became known as Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism. Hence the transition to that form of Judaism serves as backdrop for an understanding of the rise of Christianity.

Early Christians laid claim not only to shared Hebrew history, but also to the Hebrew scriptures and to the distinctive identity that had developed on the basis of the sacred writings. In that respect they strongly felt that they had more in common with the Jews than with the pagans, although their belief that they were the authentic successors of the biblical Hebrews obviously was challenged by the Jews and created tensions with emergent Rabbinic Judaism.

The Hebrew Bible, in the form given it by the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (Latin for seventy, referring to the supposed seventy translators who produced it, abbreviated as LXX), produced in Alexandria about 270 B.C.E., was the holy book of the first Christians, serving as the basis of their teaching and thinking. The canon of the Hebrew Bible had been fixed over the centuries: the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) around 500 B.C.E., the Prophets (possibly) about 400-332, the Writings about 150 (some say ca. 90 c.e.). “Torah” came to designate the Pentateuch and also, according to the rabbis, the “oral law,” presumably given to Moses along with the written law (the Oral Torah is referred to as the “tradition of the elders” in the gospels, e.g., in Mk 7:3).

Commonly known to and used by Jews and Christians alike were the so-called apocrypha (works found in the LXX but not in the Hebrew Bible) and the pseudepigrapha (works attributed to biblical figures and not found in the LXX), many of which included apocalyp­tic writings. After 70, Judaism and Christianity each added something different to their shared (Hebrew) scriptures: Rabbinic literature and the New Testament (twenty-seven writings along with the Christian additions and expansion of Old Testament pseudepigrapha, and their own apocryphal literature) . Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha saw the light between 200 B.C.E.and 200 C.E.

The scrolls found at Qumran near the Dead Sea since 1947 give us an idea of the kind of Judaism out of which Christianity sprung. Whether or not it can be identified with the Essenes, the Qumran com­munity represented an alternative community to official Judaism, suspi­cious about the authenticity of the high priest of Jerusalem. Its members withdrew from the political scene and entertained messianic/apocalyp- tic hopes that found expression in many of their writings.

Jewish authors of the Hellenistic age, whose works were pre­served mainly by Christian writers, reflect the situation in which the rise of Christianity took place. Among them Philo (20/15 b.c.e.-50 C.E.), a leading figure of the Jewish community in Alexandria, repre­sents the Greek Diaspora; he recast the biblical narrative in the idiom of Plato and the Stoics, making wide use of the allegorical interpretation that the Alexandrian fathers and Ambrose were to develop with such gusto. The historian Josephus (ca. 37-100 c.e.), for his part, at home in Palestine, produced writings that are crucial for the understanding of the Herodian period and of the first revolt.

The body of Jewish literature produced after the first century is no longer shared by Christians, although the latter occasionally refer to it. This is the Rabbinic literature, a huge output of Jewish sages made up of the following: the Mishnah (“instruction”), a legal collection due to the work of the Tannaim (“teachers”) from 25 B.C.E.on, incorporating the core of the Oral Torah and finally compiled in 200/220 C.E.thanks mainly to the work of Rabbi Judah the Prince; the Tosephta, a supple­ment to and elaboration on the Mishnah by Tannaim, put together from about 400 on; the Palestinian Talmud (edited ca. 400) and the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 500), made up of the text of the Mishnah and commentaries on it (Gemara) by Amoraim (“explainers”) between the third and the sixth centuries; Midrashim or interpretive rewritings of scripture by rab­bis, collected mainly in the fifth century and, among other things, trying to show the unity of the dual Torah. All those collections of traditions are characterized by a vivid sense of their continuity with the early stages of Judaism while they serve as the permanent basis for Jewish life, thought, and scholarship. When they are taken as a whole, their emergence signals the transition from Torah to Talmud.

When Christianity wishes to identify the Jewish element in its own makeup, such extensive literature has to be considered along with the New Testament writings themselves and also the few allusions to Jewish affairs in Greek and Roman sources (e.g., Tacitus, Pliny, Juve­nal, Polybius). The Jewish literary production provides the evidence that Judaism was following its own path, while Christianity increas­ingly detached itself from its original milieu. After over a century of common history, cold war, rapprochements, and open conflict, whatemerged around the year 200 were the classical Judaism of the rabbis and the Christianity of the fathers.
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