Jews and Christians commonly think of their faiths as two separate religions, but in the beginning it was not so, nor need it be so today.
At the time when Christianity arose, Judaism was like a coat of many colors, consisting of many denominations. Readers of the New Testament or of the Jewish historian Josephus have encountered Jewish groups called the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and many other less well known groups.
The majority of Jewish people then were not adherents of any such society, and neither were they very strict in their observance of the Torah. The Pharisees contemptuously called them am-ha-aretz, “the people of the land.” Then there were the Samaritans, regarded by mainline Jews as schismatics and heretics, for they had built their own temple on Mount Gerazim, in opposition to the one on Mount Zion (cf. John 4:19- 22).
Most of these groups—it was certainly so in the case of the Essenes—thought of themselves as the only true and faithful Jews, the rest of the nation being apostate and impure. The Essenes even divorced themselves from the temple because they regarded the priesthood that controlled it as hopelessly wicked and false—an opinion that had some justification!
As everyone should know, the earliest Christians—all of the disciples of Yeshua—were Jewish. They would have been regarded as another Jewish denomination (cf. Acts 24:5). They proclaimed the Kingdom of God and called upon the people to undergo immersion in water, the tebilah of repentance for the remission of sin. Tebilah was the chief method used in Judaism to purify from defilement. It may have been John the Baptist who introduced the insight that all sin defiles, and so even Jews needed to be immersed, thus publicly declaring their repentance before God. Christians made this concept one of their central doctrines, now called baptism.
Yeshua and his disciples had particularly targeted their ministry to the am-ha-aretz, the people whom Yeshua had called “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; 15:24).
The small but growing band of Christians called their society the Church, in Greek ekklesia. They used the word for a local congregation, for a region comprising several congregations, or globally for all believing members everywhere. The word had deep roots in Jewish traditions.
In the Tenakh the usual words used to designate a gathering of God’s people were edah and qahal. While edah could refer to the people even when they were not assembled (as in Numbers 31:16), qahal usually designated an assembly (as in Deuteronomy 5:22). It meant a people raised up by God and called together from time to time for worship or other special occasions.
When the Tenakh was translated into Greek, edah was everywhere translated by synagôgê, but qahal was sometimes translated by synagôgê and sometimes by ekklesia. Both words meant “assembly.” Sometimes the early Christians referred to their gatherings as synagôgai (“synagogues,” cf. James 2:2), but more and more they came to favor the self-designation of ekklesia, perhaps to differentiate themselves from the gatherings of Jews that were beginning to oppose them. Besides, the word “synagogue” never took on a global meaning; even today we would not speak of a “worldwide synagogue.
So Christians, wherever they were, saw themselves as part of one worldwide qahal raised up by God to call Israel and—as it turned out—even the Gentiles to repentance and faith in Yeshua the Messiah. From the Greek word ekklesia come the words iglesia (Spanish), église (French), and chiesa (Italian). The English word church, like the German Kirche, comes from another Greek word, kyriake, “that which pertains to the Lord,” but in English Bibles it is used to translate ekklesia.
So we see that the idea of Church, when traced back to its roots, is very Jewish. That is true also of all its associated ideas and its rites and institutions. Even the corporate worship service was patterned after that of the synagogues. Christians took the concepts of the qahal and the tebilah, which was the ceremony of entry into the qahal, and enlarged upon them, heightening their significance.
Nearly all the Jewish denominations perished from history except two: Pharisaism, from which most modern Judaism is descended, and Christianity. They come from a common parent and share much in common, like two sisters. But because Christianity took the bold step of becoming a universal faith open also to Gentiles who repent and believe, its Jewishness is commonly forgotten. But neither Jews nor Gentiles should forget it. The great early Christian missionary, Paul (otherwise known as Saul of Tarsus), though he has often been accused of severing Christianity from its Jewish roots, did not want Gentiles to forget them. Referring to Israel by the metaphor of an olive tree, Paul warned them: But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the richness of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember it is not you that supports the root, but the root that supports you. . . . For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree (Romans 11:17, 18, 24, RSV).
Israel, then, is the root into which all Christians are grafted, whether Jew or Gentile. Spiritually they are all Jews and by faith children of Abraham. Whenever the Church denies this New Testament teaching, it tramples underfoot its very own nature.