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Judaizers are Christians who teach it is necessary to adopt Jewish customs and practices, especially those found in the Law of Moses, to be saved. The term is derived from the Koine Greek word Ἰουδαΐζειν (Ioudaizein), used once in the Greek New Testament (Galatians 2:14), when Paul publicly challenges Peter for compelling Gentile converts to Early Christianity to "judaize". This episode is known as the incident at Antioch.
This term includes groups who claim the necessity of continued obedience to the Law of Moses found in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) for Gentiles. Members of such groups dispute the label because "Judaizers" is typically used as a pejorative.
Most Christians believe that much of the Old Covenant has been superseded, while according to some modern Protestants it has been completely abrogated and replaced by the Law of Christ. The Christian debate over Judaizing began in the lifetime of the apostles, notably at the Council of Jerusalem and the incident at Antioch. It has been carried on parallel to continuing debates about Paul the Apostle and Judaism, Protestant views of the Ten Commandments, and Christian ethics.
The meaning of the verb Judaize, from which the noun Judaizer is derived, can only be derived from its various historical uses. Its biblical meaning must also be inferred and is not clearly defined beyond its obvious relationship to the word "Jew." The Anchor Bible Dictionary, for example, says: “The clear implication is that gentiles are being compelled to live according to Jewish customs."
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The Judaizing teachers were a group of Jewish Christians who taught that converts to Christianity must first be circumcised (i.e. become Jewish through the ritual of a proselyte). Although such requirements may have made Christianity a much less appealing religious choice for some Gentiles, the evidence afforded in Paul's letter to the Galatians exhibits that a significant number of the Galatian Gentile converts appear readily disposed to adopt these nomistic requirements; indeed, Paul strenuously labors throughout the letter (cf. Gal 5:4; 4:21; 5:2,3) to dissuade them from doing so.
Paul saw these teachers as being both dangerous to the spread of Christianity and propagators of grievous doctrinal error. Many of his letters included in the New Testament (the Pauline epistles) contain considerable material disputing the view of this group and condemning its practitioners. Paul publicly condemned Peter for his seemingly ambivalent reaction to the Judaizers, embracing them publicly in places where their concepts were popular while holding the private opinion that the teachings were erroneous, for example 1 Cor 9:20–23.
That Gentile Christians should obey the Law of Moses was the assumption of some in the Early Church, as represented by Pharisees who had become believers in Acts 15 (Acts 15:5). Paul opposed this position, concluding that Gentiles did not need to convert and obey the entire Law of Moses.
The conflict between Paul and his opponents over this issue came to a head with the Council of Jerusalem. According to the account given in Acts 15, it was determined that Gentile converts to Christianity did not have to go through circumcision; but in addressing the second question as to whether or not they should obey the Torah, they encouraged the Gentiles to "abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication".
Paul also addressed this question in his Epistle to the Galatians in which he condemned those who insisted that circumcision had to be followed for justification as "false believers" (Galatians 2:4):
But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us – we did not submit to them even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might always remain with you. And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) – those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. ... We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Galatians 2:3–10, 15-16 NRSV)
Also Paul warned the early Galatian church that Gentile Christians who submit to circumcision will be alienated from Christ: "2 Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. 4 You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." (Galatians 5:2–4).
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes: "Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1 Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (21:26 sqq.)."
According to Daniel Botkin,
Probably the best description of Judaizers is in Acts 15:1: "And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, and said, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'… Circumcision performed for the purpose of being "saved" meant a full, formal conversion to Judaism, complete with a baptism into Judaism and an embracing of the rabbis' entire Oral Law (probably the law that Peter had in mind when he referred to "a yoke ... which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear) ... The Judaizers believed that this conversion process would turn the Gentile believer into a full-fledged Jew, and that without this the Gentile could not be saved. Without a complete, formal conversion to Judaism, the Gentile believer could not become a full-fledged member of the saved Messianic Community, the Judaizers said ... No Scripture-loving Jew could describe the written Torah as an unbearable yoke. See Psalm 19 and Psalm 119.— Daniel Botkin, "Who Were the Judaizers?"
It is absurd to profess Christ Jesus, and to Judaize. For Christianity did not embrace Judaism, but Judaism Christianity, that so every tongue which believeth might be gathered together to God. (Roberts-Donaldson Translation).
There are several direct interpolations by a later forger regarding anti-Judaizing in Ignatius's epistles that are considered authentic, it can be assumed the redactor was either trying to build upon Ignatius' positions or responsible for what is perceived as Ignatius' anti-Judaizing altogether.
Judaizing teachers are strongly condemned in the Epistle of Barnabas. (Although it did not become part of the Christian Biblical canon, it was widely circulated among Christians in the first two centuries and is part of the Apostolic Fathers.) Whereas Paul acknowledged that the Law of Moses and its observance were good when used correctly ("the law is good, if one uses it lawfully", 1 Tim 1:8), the Epistle of Barnabas condemns most Jewish practices, claiming that Jews had grossly misunderstood and misapplied the Law of Moses.
Justin Martyr (about 140) distinguishes two kinds of Jewish Christians: those who observe the Law of Moses, but do not require its observance of others — with these he would hold communion, and those who believe the Mosaic law to be obligatory on all, whom he considers heretics (Dialogue with Trypho 47).
The Council of Laodicea of around 365 decreed 59 laws, #29:
Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord's Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ. (Percival Translation).
According to Eusebius' History of the Church 4.5.3-4: the first 15 Bishops of Jerusalem were "of the circumcision", although this in all likelihood is simply stating that they were Jewish Christians (as opposed to Gentile Christians), and that they observed biblical circumcision and thus likely the rest of Torah as well.
The influence of the Judaizers in the church diminished significantly after the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Jewish-Christian community at Jerusalem was dispersed by the Romans during the Great Jewish Revolt. The Romans also dispersed the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem in 135 during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Traditionally it is believed the Jerusalem Christians waited out the Jewish–Roman wars in Pella in the Decapolis. These setbacks however didn't necessarily mean an end to Jewish Christianity, any more than Valerian's Massacre of 258, (when he killed all Christian bishops, presbyters, and deacons, including Pope Sixtus II and Antipope Novatian and Cyprian of Carthage), meant an end to Roman Christianity.
The Latin verb iudaizare is used once in the Vulgate where the Greek verb ioudaizein occurs at Galatians 2:14. Augustine in his Commentary on Galatians, describes Paul's opposition in Galatia as those qui gentes cogebant iudaizare - "who thought to make the Gentiles live in accordance with Jewish customs."
Skhariya or Zacharias the Jew from Caffa led a sect of Judaizers in Russia. In 1480, Grand Prince Ivan III invited some of his prominent adherents to visit Moscow. The Judaizers enjoyed the support of high-ranking officials, statesmen, merchants, Yelena Stefanovna (wife of Ivan the Young, heir to the throne) and Ivan's favorite deacon and diplomat Fyodor Kuritsyn. The latter even decided to establish his own club in the mid-1480s. However, in the end Ivan III renounced his ideas of secularization and allied with the Orthodox Christian clergy. The struggle against the adherents was led by hegumen Joseph Volotsky and his followers (иосифляне, iosiflyane or Josephinians) and Archbishop Gennady of Novgorod. After uncovering adherents in Novgorod around 1487, Gennady wrote a series of letters to other churchmen over several years calling on them to convene sobors ("church councils") with the aim "not to debate them, but to burn them." Such councils were held in 1488, 1490, 1494 and 1504. The councils outlawed religious and non-religious books and initiated their burning, sentenced a number of people to death, sent adherents into exile, and excommunicated them. In 1491, Zacharias the Jew was executed in Novgorod by the order of Ivan III.
At various times since then, the Russian Orthodox Church has described several related Spiritual Christian groups as having a Judaizing character; the accuracy of this label – which was influenced by the early Christian polemics against Judaizers – has been disputed. The most famous of the Russian Empire's Judaizing sects were the Karaimites or Karaimizing-Subbotniks like Alexander Zaïd who successfully settled in the Holy Land.
The Epistle to the Galatians strongly influenced Martin Luther at the time of the Protestant Reformation because of its exposition of justification by grace. Nevertheless, various sects of Messianic Jews such as Jews for Jesus have managed to stake out territory for themselves in the Protestant camp.
This behavior was particularly persecuted from 1300 to 1800 during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, using as a basis the many references in the Pauline epistles regarding the "Law as a curse" and the futility of relying on the Law for attaining salvation, known as legalism. Thus, in spite of Paul's agreement at the Council of Jerusalem, Gentile Christianity came to understand that any Torah Laws (with the exception of the Ten Commandments) were anathema, not only to Gentile Christians but also to Christians of Jewish extraction. Under the Spanish Inquisition, the penalty to a converted Jew for "Judaizing" was usually death by burning.
The Spanish word Judaizante was applied both to Jewish conversos to Catholicism who practiced Judaism secretly and sometimes to Jews who had not converted, in Spain and the New World at the time of the Spanish Inquisition.
The term "Judaizers" was used by the Spanish Inquisition and the inquisitions established in Mexico City, Lima, and Cartagena de Indias for Conversos (also termed Marranos) accused of continuing to observe the Jewish religion, as Crypto-Jews. Entry of Portuguese New Christians into Spain and the Spanish realms occurred during the Union of Crowns of Spain and Portugal, 1580-1640, when both kingdoms and their overseas empires were held by the same monarch. The Bnei Anusim are modern day Hispanic Judaizers.
Old Testament practices are still adhered to among Gentiles to this day, including circumcision (see also Biblical law in Christianity). The Coptic churches continue to practice circumcision, but critics charge this may reflect ancient Egyptian influence or be a response to the culture of the Islamic majority (see also Abrahamic religions and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity). In Torah-submissive Christian groups which include the Ethiopian Orthodox church, dietary laws and Saturday Sabbath are observed as well.
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