Over the course of human civilization, religion has been practically ever-present. Cultures spanning the globe and the ages have almost all had some form of religious or spiritual beliefs. Of all the world’s religions, perhaps two of the most closely connected are Judaism and Christianity. In this article, we will take a look at Jewish faith vs. Christian faith and examine their origins, beliefs, and inter-relationships very closely, in the hope that we can better understand the dynamic between these two religious giants.
The Origins of Judaism
First, let’s spend some time talking about where Judaism came from, and how it came to be. According to Scripture, the 4,000-year-old religion first came to be through Abraham, God revealing himself onto him. Abraham had the son Isaac, who begat Jacob, a man who would come to take the name Israel. Thus, his descendants were to be called Israelites, and were God’s chosen people.
[You can achieve a better understanding of the Old Testament, the so-called Jewish Bible, by studying biblical Hebrew. You can learn how to do this by reading this article.]
More specifically, from each of Jacob’s 12 sons came one of the tribes of the 12 Tribes of Israel. From there, we get to the story of Moses, who led the Israelites from slavery under Egypt in an event known as The Exodus. For 40 years, Moses and the Israelites are said to have wandered the Sinai Desert, during which God revealed himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai and bestowed upon him the 10 Commandments, the guiding principles of ethical Jewish living. The Israelites would then return to Canaan and reconquer it in what is around 1,400 BCE.
This was all according to Scripture; however, archaeology has some conflicting information. For one, it is true that the Israelites originated from Canaan; there is enough archaeological evidence to make this clear.
However, there is no distinct evidence of an exodus from Egypt or any form of large-scale migration. Instead, what seems to have happened is that religions within Canaanite cultures slowly began to morph into the Jewish religion that we see early enough as the Iron Age. The inclusion of the 12 Tribes of Israel, however, does seem to be grounded in historical evidence, including their rule by 12 judges.
Around 1000 BCE, we get Saul establishing the Israelite Monarchy. His grandson, King Solomon, would construct the historic First Temple in Jerusalem, which was at that time becoming the spiritual and cultural center of Judaism.
The civil war eventually struck between several of the tribes of Israel, and ultimately the area split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. There could be a lot more said about the history of the Jewish faith, but with this I think we have a good understanding of its origins, both according to religious doctrine and historical evidence.
The Origins of Christianity
Let’s now talk about Christianity, and where it originated from, according to both doctrine and history. Following the former, Christianity first came to be when Jesus Christ began to walk the Earth. Jesus was a Jewish emissary of God who traveled across the Roman province of Judea teaching and spreading holy word.
He is said to have been crucified under Pontius Pilate, a Roman prefect, in around 30-33 CE. It is then believed that he was raised from the dead three days later and ascended into heaven. This, to Christians, marks the dawn of their religion.
[If you want to know more about the language of Jesus, and how to speak this language, read here my review on this topic.]
Historically, there does seem to be evidence of a figure named Jesus of Nazareth. What’s murkier, however, is what role exactly he played in the spread of Christianity as a singular person. You see, anthropologically, we can trace the earliest forms of Christianity to variations of Judaism in Judea, around the first century CE.
In fact, the first Christians were Jewish Christians who held apocalyptic beliefs. At this time, the Apostles were enacting missionary work throughout the region. Eventually, Paul the Apostle began to rise to prominence, preaching a doctrine that saw faith in Christ as the only requirement for salvation. This applied to gentile (non-Jewish) worshippers as well, a fact that caused Christianity to slowly drift away from Judaism.
[The New Testament was written in Greek. You can read here my review on how to learn biblical Greek.]
In the centuries to come, Christians would be persecuted under the jurisdiction of the Roman Empire, and in other places as well. Legalization of Christianity only came in 313 with the Edict of Milan, decreed by Emperor Constantine I of the Western Roman Empire. His perceived military success by brandishing the Christian Chi Rho (a proto-crucifix religious symbol) in 312 caused this change of heart. Once again, there is a lot more that can be said, but for now, we can move on and examine some specific aspects of these religions, starting with Judaism.
First and foremost, in any discussion of Jewish practices is the concept of God. Jewish people are strictly monotheist, believing in one God as an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being. In Judaism, God is eternal, having always existed and will continue to exist endlessly.
There is a distinct lack of angels or other such intermediate godly figures. God bestows information and performs any other actions to the Earth directly. It is this God that is the creator of all things in the universe, including the universe itself. Some Jews don’t ascribe to the Book of Genesis as a literal text, but instead, take it as wholly metaphorical.
Important in Judaism is the concept of Torah, which can have many interpretations, but most broadly can be used to signify all of the Jewish teachings. To follow Torah and Jewish religious law is to show your devotion or Emunah (faith) to God. In addition, studying the Torah is considered a significant part of this devotion. More narrowly, Torah can refer to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and the first of its three subdivisions (the other two being Nevi’im and Ketuvim).
Jews generally believe in free will and humanity’s capability to do both good and evil. Within each of us, they believe, is a tendency to go either way and that it is our choice whether to act on evil impulses or not. In terms of “evil,” or more correctly sin, Judaism presents two types: against others and against God. The latter highlights the Jewish focus on following religious doctrine in life as the primary way one demonstrates their faith.
The Fundamentals of the Christian Faith
The Christian Faith shares a lot of similarities with the Jewish Faith, the largest difference being a devotion to and focus on Jesus Christ. Jesus is, crucially to Christianity, the Son of God, and simultaneously God incarnate. He came down to Earth to die for our sins and after ascending to heaven sits at the right hand of The Father. According to Scripture, Jesus was born from the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. His death is seen as the basis of Christian salvation and what allows Christians to be redeemed of their sin.
Christianity places a strong emphasis on the afterlife and the way that the sin of one’s mortal life influences it. The death of Christ allows a human to be saved and to ascend to eternal life in heaven after they die. The alternative is eternal damnation in hell if one doesn’t repent for their sins.
A lot of Christian doctrines can be summarized through various creeds. Creeds are essentially statements of faith or belief, and each one has one or many distinct focuses. The most commonly upheld one is the Apostles’ Creed, which declares belief in the Holy Trinity, among other things. The Trinity is the idea that God is composed of three figures, The Father, The Son (Jesus) and The Holy Spirit. Each one is not the other, but each is God, and together, they make up one godly entity.
Other aspects of the Apostles’ Creed include the Resurrection of Christ and The Second Coming. The latter is the idea that Christ will return to Earth one day and in doing so will usher in Judgment Day. During this time, saved souls will ascend to heaven, whereas those that are not will suffer eternal torment.
Other important creeds include the Creed of Chalcedon and the Athanasian Creed. The former is about seeing Jesus as both human and divine, whereas the latter emphasizes God as The Trinity in unity. Creeds such as these, alongside other forms of doctrine, make up the core beliefs of the majority of Christians.
As was stated before, there is a decent amount of overlap with Judaism. However, there are still some very key differences that demonstrate a lot of very interesting distinctions in the philosophies of either religion.
Jewish Faith vs. Christian Faith: A Comparison
The biggest point of contention between the Jewish and Christian faiths is their opposing views on the figure of Jesus. To many Jews, who hold some belief in a messianic figure to come, Jesus is seen as something of a false prophet. Others might see him as nothing but a Jewish teacher, but still respect him in that light.
To Jews, the big problem with the story of Jesus as Christians teach it is that they believe no one should be sacrificed to, or in the name of, God. The tale of the Binding of Isaac emphasizes this. In that story, the sacrifice of Isaac was a test of faith, but God did not intend, and prevented, anyone from actually being sacrificed.
Similarly, the afterlife is seen very differently from a Jewish and Christian perspective. To Jews, a concept of heaven and hell exists, but it isn’t at the forefront. Much more emphasis is put on the abiding by Jewish Law in life and showing your devotion to God in that way. To Christians, on the other hand, one of the primary practices is the seeking of salvation in order to be blessed with eternal life in the afterlife.
Finally, the Christian concept of The Trinity is one that is wholly rejected by Jewish doctrine. According to it, The Trinity is merely a form of polytheism. God must be seen as a singular, eternal being. There are countless other minutiae that I could go over, but I think these are the biggest separators between Jewish and Christian Faith. Despite these differences, Judaism and Christianity still have a very rich inter-relationship, not all of which has been entirely positive.
Relationships Between Judaism and Christianity
Early on in Christian history, basically the only thing uniting all Proto-Christians was a rejection of Jewish values and the tenets of Jewish belief. In the centuries that followed, there was a lot of tension and conflict between the two religions. Christians would commonly engage in the practice of trying to evangelize Jews or convert them to Christianity.
Eventually, in the Middle Ages, the Christian Church issued the Constitution proJudæis, which essentially stated that no Christians were to use force to baptize Jews. Despite this, there was a good amount of informal prosecution of Jewish people. Of course, this all leads to the horrific actions of the Holocaust in the 1940s.
Now, this was not a purely religiously motivated situation. In fact, many Christian churches tried to shield Jews and ended up being persecuted by Nazi Germany. Still, the Anti-Semitic attitudes that had pervaded Europe at the time can be seen to have originated from the Christian-Jewish conflict of antiquity.
Thankfully, in our modern world, reconciliation is underway. In 2015, for instance, The Vatican released a document that stated that Catholics should work with the Jewish people to fight antisemitism. Similarly, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) has been making historic strides in recent years.
The Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity was an unprecedented declaration of partnership between the Jewish and Christian faiths. Beginning with 25 signatories and now up to 60 from prominent Orthodox Rabbis, the document is a true symbol of the new relationship between these two faiths.
Subdivision Within Each Religion
Virtually no religion is entirely homogeneous, and Judaism and Christianity are no exceptions. Each has multiple subdivisions within it, divided by their different interpretations and practices. Firstly, Judaism contains 4 major sects, the first to discuss being Orthodox Judaism.
Orthodox Jews are very traditional and preach a strict following of Torah and other Jewish Law, known as Halakha. From then on, we get increasingly less strict, starting with Conservative Jews, who see Jewish Law as coming from the evolution of Jewish culture, rather than strictly from divine intervention.
Reconstructionist Judaism sees Halakha as not binding, but worthwhile to keep around; they see Judaism as in a constant state of evolution. Finally, Reform Judaism goes a step further and distinctly prioritizes Jewish ethical thinking over following tradition. These aren’t the only Jewish subdivisions, but they are some of the most significant ones.
Christianity can be roughly divided into three major divisions, those being Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The first two, being older than the latter, are rather similar. They are both based in the Nicene Creed, but with one minor, albeit important, distinction. Catholicism maintains that the Holy Spirit was derived from both The Father and The Son, whereas Orthodoxy believes that the Holy Spirit was only descended from The Son.
This tiny difference was the cause of a split, known as The Great Schism, and it led to the two sects having significantly different practices and customs.
Protestantism, on the other hand, was a rejection of Catholicism and the supremacy of the Pope, born in 16th Century Europe. It is very theologically diverse, with a very high number of denominations within it. Each of the subdivisions discussed here elucidates how diverse a religion can be. All the discussion done so far has been in pretty general terms, but it’s important to remember that not everything we say is applicable to every follower or sect of either Judaism or Christianity.
Judaism and Christianity: In Review
The Jewish and Christian faiths are two religions with a rich and storied history with each other. Born of the same region and existing in parallel to one another, their relationship has been fraught with both conflict and reconciliation.
They share concepts and ideas but at the same time are wholly unique belief systems. By examining one, we can learn a lot about the other. I hope that through this discussion of Jewish Faith vs. Christian Faith, the reader’s knowledge has been expanded and their horizon’s widened.