At first, during the first century, the distinction between Jews and Christians was not as clear-cut as it is today. Christianity initially emerged as a Jewish movement from within Judaism, with many of its early followers, including Jesus and his disciples, being Jews. During this time, Jewish followers of Jesus, or “Jewish-Christians,” continued to observe Jewish laws and traditions while also embracing Jesus as the Messiah. In fact, there was a debate over whether Gentiles should be allowed to join and follow the Jewish Messiah. Over time, thousands of Gentiles did join, causing theological frictions that are documented in the New Testament.
In the first century, Jewish-Christians and other Jews worshipped together in synagogues, as the split between Judaism and Christianity had not yet fully developed. Jewish-Christians attended synagogues for prayers, readings from the Hebrew Bible, and participated in discussions on religious matters. However, as the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and the Christian movement gained traction, tensions between Jewish-Christians and other Jews began to grow.
Gradually, the differences in beliefs and practices between Jewish-Christians and mainstream Jews led to a separation of the two groups. This division was solidified by events like the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD and especially the failed Bar-Kokhba Revolt in 132-135 CE.
Simon bar-Kokhba led the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 132 AD. At the onset of the rebellion, Jewish followers of Jesus initially supported the conflict, viewing it as a defense of the Land of Israel. However, a turning point occurred when Rabbi Akiva proclaimed Simon bar-Kokhba, a warrior known for his extreme cruelty, as the Messiah. This declaration compelled Jewish believers in Jesus to withdraw from the rebellion, as they could not accept Bar-Kokhba as the Messiah.
In response to this withdrawal, Rabbi Akiva, in collaboration with the Sanhedrin, devised a comprehensive list of regulations aimed at excommunicating Jesus’ disciples from Rabbinic Judaism and prohibiting contact between them and the general Jewish population. The situation escalated when the Sanhedrin resolved to expel all Jewish followers of Jesus from the synagogues as well. To achieve this, they introduced the “Blessing of the Species” into the Amidah, an eighteen-blessing prayer recited by Jews three times a day in the synagogue.
Jewish historian Prof. Katsia Aviali-Tabibian explains:
The “Blessing of the Species,” which is in fact a curse, targets all Christians or, according to some interpretations, specifically Jewish-Christians. These Jewish-Christians were Jews who believed in Jesus as the Messiah but continued to worship alongside other Jews in the synagogues. The purpose of this particular blessing was to alienate and repel them, preventing their influence on the broader Jewish community.[i]
This article was an excerpt from my new book: “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.“