Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Jews, Jerusalem and the Early Church

Reading N° 3 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Our Lord, in His sermons and parables, repeatedly announced that the kingdom of God, rejected by the Jews, would be accepted by the Gentiles. But the Israelites, nonetheless, remained the chosen people, the nation "of the promise." It was at Jerusalem, in a group belonging to the Jewish race, that the Church had its cradle. The earliest disciples of Christ religiously followed most of the Jewish observances, and withdrew from them only gradually and with utmost respect. The Synagogue, after the defections of its children, was buried with honor.

How great had been the destinies of the children of Abraham and Jacob before God and man! The Lord, by His covenant with them, by the prophets He raised up in the midst of their nation, by the numerous wonders He performed for them during the ages, had done for them what He had done for no other people. On their part, scattered as they were throughout the nations, they had remained faithful to the two great doctrines which the Lord had entrusted to their safekeeping: belief in one God and the hope of a Messias. Athens might lay claim to the glory of unparalleled art; Rome, to that of incomparable political science; but Jerusalem was the center of the purest worship that had been offered to the Divinity.

Israel, a house divided against itself
The Roman domination, established in Judea in 63 B.C., did not result in depriving the Jewish people entirely of their independence. Under the rule of the Herods, the children of Israel had kept a partial autonomy, which enabled them to remain faithful to the religion revealed to their fathers, and to celebrate, in the Temple at Jerusalem, the great ceremonies handed down by their ancestors. Baleful domestic divisions, however, had imbroiled the nation. The party that was preponderant in numbers as well as in the prestige of its members, was always that of the Pharisees.[1] Of these meticulous observers of the Law, some were hypocrites, like those on whom Christ heaped maledictions; others were pure and upright, like those who braved all human respect to follow Him. There were, besides, the pleasure-loving Sadducees and the ambitious Herodians, fond of an easy life, who gladly accepted the customs and practices of Greece and Rome.[2] At the opposite extreme were the Essenes. These visionary fanatics haughtily looked down on the other sects and considered themselves as the sole heirs of the heavenly promises. They endeavored to realize a superhuman purity.[3] The strictest of the Essenes made a point of not going to the Temple, for they held it to be stained by their degenerate fellow-Jews; but in this they were not followed by the body of the nation. For the people of Israel, the Temple remained the sacred place where the Jewish nation offered its traditional sacrifices, aware of its great supernatural mission. They were proud of this noble edifice; its rebuilding, begun by Herod the Great, was not completed until the year 64, by Agrippa II. When a son of Israel, standing at the top of Mount Olivet, surveyed the gigantic wall which made the Temple look like an enormous fortress, the whole series of intercommunicating terraces, and at the summit the sanctuary itself, and its roof, covered with gold plates, reflecting the sun,[4] his national pride was exalted; a grim irritation stirred in his soul against the foreign usurper; the memory of the heroic Maccabees who, a century earlier, had won back the Temple and religious liberty in Palestine, enkindled in his breast both patriotism and religion.

The Temple complex at Jerusalem (model) prior to its destruction in A.D. 70

The faithful disciples who had been won from the ranks of the Jewish people by Christ's preaching and the prodigies of Pentecost, shared in these noble feelings. Following the example of their Divine Master,[5] they regularly went up to the Temple and mingled in the crowd of the worshippers. "For them, the new religion was not the foe of the old, but its fruit. They rightly judged that the holy souls of both Testaments - the Old and the New - really formed one and the same Church about one and the same Messias, misunderstood by some, acclaimed by others, but the sole object of Israel's hopes. [...] To God, the Author of the Old Covenant, it pertained to signify to all, by permitting the destruction of the Temple and the nationality of Israel, that the legal end of Mosaism had come."[6]


[1] Beurlier, Le Monde juif au temps de ]ésus-Christ, I, 44-47. Cf. Stapfer, Palestine in the Time of Christ, pp. 265-284; Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew, II, 304 ff.
[2] Beurlier, op. cit., p. 43.
[3] Idem, p. 48.
[4] On the Temple at Jerusalem, see art. "Temple" in the Dict. de la Bible. Cf. Vogué, Le Temple de ]érusalem; Perrot and Chipiez, Histoire de l'art dans l'antiquité, IV, 205-211; Stapfer, op. cit., pp. 403-453.
[5] St. Thomas, Summa theol., III, q. 37; q. 40, 4, 0; q.47, 2 ad 1. 
[6] Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 46.


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