One day while reading a book on the history of Christianity I ran across the following quote:
The martyrdom of Stephen marked a turning point in two respects: (1) It began the persecution that drove witnessing Christians from Jerusalem into all Judea and Samaria and (2) It moved Saul the persecutor towards personal conversion to Christ.
The authors of this particular book are reputable scholars yet I was alarmed by this quote on a number of levels. I choose to address only one issue, here, which is what I regard to be the most important one.
In the Book of Acts in the Bible there is an account of a man named Stephen who, while speaking to a multitude of Jewish people, recounts Jewish history as it was recorded in the Tanakch (Old Testament), and uses it to show our (the Jewish people’s) need for an atonement that could only be satisfied through the then recent death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus. In essence those Jews listening to Stephen’s message did not like what they heard and stoned him to death. Another repercussion of this particular event was that massive persecution broke out against those who believed in Jesus throughout Judea.
As I write this essay, I’ve always thought of Stephen, the Apostles, those believers in Jesus who met daily at the Beis HaMikdosh (Temple), and in people’s homes, the 3,000 who’d come to believe in Y’shua on Shavuoth (Pentacost) and those who were “daily added to their number” as Jews. In fact there is absolutely no specific mention of a Gentile coming to believe in Y’shua until late in chapter 10, three chapters later*.
And so I was shocked at reading this books description of the recipients of the post-Stephen persecution as “Christians”. This description carries with it unique connotations both to the Jewish mind as well as the Gentile mind: The Jewish mind has been trained to think of the term “Christian” as being decidedly not Jewish. The Gentile mind, likewise, sees those persecuted as one of them… namely Christians and not Jews (or even Jewish Christians).
The Gentile perception is unfortunate. For one thing, it denies the reality that those first “Christians” were Jews and for another thing it creates in the minds eye, a “them vs. us” scenario in which the Gentile sees his people, the Christians, as being persecuted by THOSE Jews. This perpetuates the notion that Jews are evil and "not one of us". The resulting perspective is one of dispassionate indifference at best towards the persecutors. The Jewish Christian, on the other hand, sees those who were doing the persecuting as “My Father, brother, my cousins… my family.” His heart throbs with that of the Apostle Paul who said…
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
Hence, the Jewish Christian innately loves the people who are persecuting him.**
The repercussions of this “them vs. us” exegesis on the part of the Gentile are far reaching! It feeds the virus of white supremacy which fallaciously assumes that the early Christians were white Gentiles. Hence, the Jews who literally gave them their Bible become the bad guys and objects of derision. These resulting anti-Semitic behaviors and attitudes cause the “unsaved” Jew to believe the false notion that the New Testament is an anti-Semitic book written by Gentiles. Furthermore, the Christian who takes on this interpretation of the text only causes angst on the part of the Jewish Christian who is allegedly the Gentile Christians "brother or sister in the Lord". This is because the Gentile has only served to distance the Jewish-Christians loved ones from the Gospel by throwing another roadblock in the path of the Jews identification with the Good News of Jesus.
This “them vs. us” exegesis on the part of the Gentile has to stop! The Gentile must come to grips with and be willing to proclaim the reality that those early persecuted individuals were Jews and thought of themselves as Jews and he must come to the realization that his exegesis of scripture is false and incomplete without input from what is at least the heart of the Jew who is able to help the Gentile “rightly divide the Word of Truth”.
* The Ethiopian Eunuch of chapter 8 was, in all likelihood, a convert to Judaism.
** Admittedly there seem to be exceptions to this rule but I would hold that that’s all that they are… exceptions.