The “Judaizers” seem to be a group of Jewish Christians in the first century CE who preached to the recently founded churches of the Gentiles the need to conform to the Law of Moses, even after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This group originated in Jerusalem; we know little about them, only that at least some are likely Pharisees (Acts 15:5). We do not know how organized they were or any names of any individuals within the movement. They are called the “Judaizers” for lack of a more official term; they attempted to make Jews out of Gentile Christians.
The importance of this group comes not from what they teach but by the reaction given to their teachings. The letters of Paul to the churches affected show that Christ has instituted a new covenant, and therefore the activities performed under the Law of Moses are made null and void. Let us now examine the history of this movement and the reaction to it.
Sections on this Page
- Jewish Christians in Jerusalem
- The Beginning: Antioch and the Conference in Jerusalem
- The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Galatia
- The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Corinth
- The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Colossae
Jewish Christians in Jerusalem
Before we begin to examine the impact of the “Judaizers” in the churches of Asia Minor and Greece, let us look at the church in Jerusalem.
The church in Jerusalem seems to consist of a large number of converts from Judaism, hereafter “Jewish Christians.” These Christians seemed to have been very zealous for the traditions of their forefathers, as is evidenced by Acts 21:20:
And they, when they heard it, glorified God; and they said unto him, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of them that have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law.”
The significant thing about these former Jews is that they do not seem to be condemned for still holding to the Law of Moses. Luke tells the story in Acts 21:18-26:
And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles through his ministry. And they, when they heard it, glorified God; and they said unto him, “Thou seest, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of them that have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law: and they have been informed concerning thee, that thou teachest all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children neither to walk after the customs. What is it therefore? They will certainly hear that thou art come. Do therefore this that we say to thee: We have four men that have a vow on them; these take, and purify thyself with them, and be at charges for them, that they may shave their heads: and all shall know that there is no truth in the things whereof they have been informed concerning thee; but that thou thyself also walkest orderly, keeping the Law. But as touching the Gentiles that have believed, we wrote, giving judgment that they should keep themselves from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication.”
Then Paul took the men, and the next day purifying himself with them went into the temple, declaring the fulfilment of the days of purification, until the offering was offered for every one of them.
We see here that Paul performs the actions according to the Law, even though he has preached vehemently against binding the Law of Moses. How can this be?
We must see that the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were not yet condemned for holding to the Law of Moses because of the hardness of their hearts. For a period of time, God overlooked their ignorance, for the Jewish people were proud of their heritage, very zealous for their traditions (Romans 10:2), and bore great resentment towards the Gentiles. It was very difficult for these Jews, having heard the good news of Christ, to forsake the traditions handed down from their forefathers. There is further evidence of this period in the letter to the Hebrews, Hebrews 8:13:
In that he saith, “A new covenant,” he hath made the first old. But that which is becoming old and waxeth aged is nigh unto vanishing away.
The first covenant had not yet fully disappeared, but was passing away.
Jesus had predicted these things and the end of this period in Matthew 24:3-41, the great destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. With the destruction of the Temple, the service of God as prescribed in the Law of Moses was rendered impossible, and by this it was understood that the last vestiges of the old covenant had finally faded away.
Therefore, when Paul went to Jerusalem in Acts 21, he understood the difference in covenants, although his Jewish brethren did not. He heeded his own words in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9 and performed the actions of service in the Temple to avoid causing strife in the church there.
What, then, is to be said about Paul’s conformity to the Law in Acts 21 but his insistence on the removal of the Law from the Galatians, Corinthians, Thessalonians, and Colossians? The answer lies in the audience. For those who were Jews and had converted to Christ, their conformity to the Law was for a time overlooked. For those who were Gentiles, however, who had neither heard the Law nor were ever under any compulsion to follow the Law, it had seemed good to the Holy Spirit and the Apostles not to burden them with the Law in Acts 15.
Therefore, the “Judaizers” seem to be those Christians from Jerusalem who wish to compel the Gentile converts to Christianity to follow the Law of Moses as they do.
The Beginning: Antioch and the Conference in Jerusalem
The first time the activities of the “Judaizers” are mentioned is in Acts 15:1:
And certain men came down from Judaea and taught the brethren, saying, “Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved.”
Paul and Barnabas then debated these men concerning these things, and the brethren of Antioch determined that the best course of action was to have Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem to inquire of the apostles and elders there concerning this issue. Paul and Barnabas went, and the meeting between them and the apostles and elders began.
It is at this time that we are informed that these “Judaizers” seem to be Pharisees, for Luke says that it is they who stood and declared that the Gentiles who had heard the message of Christ from Paul needed to be circumcised and to hold to the Law of Moses (Acts 15:5). There is then much discussion, but the end comes with the words of James, quoting the Old Testament prophets concerning the Gentiles, showing clearly that they are not to be bound according to the Law. The proclamation of the apostles and elders is seen in Acts 15:23-29:
and they wrote thus by them, “The apostles and the elders, brethren, unto the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting: Forasmuch as we have heard that certain who went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls; to whom we gave no commandment; it seemed good unto us, having come to one accord, to choose out men and send them unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who themselves also shall tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, it shall be well with you. Fare ye well.”
We also learn in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that during his stay in Jerusalem, Paul discussed privately with James, Peter, and John, the nature of the Gospel which was being spread; Paul said they “contributed nothing” to the message which he preached, and that they saw that he was “entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised” (Galatians 2:1-8). The three extended to Paul “the right hand of fellowship,” demonstrating clearly that the gospel preached by Paul was valid and in accordance with the will of God (Galatians 2:9-10).
The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Galatia
Despite the decree of the apostles and elders of the church in Jerusalem, the “Judaizers” continued to preach the need of the Gentiles to conform to the Law of Moses. Within a few years of the conference in Jerusalem, the “Judaizers” are seen actively in the areas of Asia Minor and Greece. We see this concern manifest in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written to churches in south central Asia Minor around 55-57. In this letter, Paul first defends his apostleship and declares his authority (Galatians 1:11-2:10), demonstrating that the message he preaches comes from God. He then speaks of the hypocrisy of Peter in Antioch, who first associated with the Gentile Christians but then became aloof when some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came (Galatians 2:11-21). Paul then chides the Galatians, calling them “foolish” (Galatians 3:1), demonstrating very clearly that the original covenant made was made with Abraham looking toward Christ (Galatians 3:2-14). The Law of Moses was therefore designed to be a tutor, leading men to the knowledge of sin and death to be ready for the coming of the faith through Christ, in whom all men are now equal (Galatians 3:15-29). Finally, Paul makes a plain declaration to the Gentile Christians in Galatians 5:1-6:
For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receiveth circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Ye are severed from Christ, ye would be justified by the law; ye are fallen away from grace. For we through the Spirit by faith wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.
It is abundantly clear: salvation comes through Christ and Christ alone. The Law of Moses can do nothing for the Christians in Galatia.
The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Corinth
The “Judaizers” seem to enter Corinth in around 57, between the writing of the first and second Corinthian letters. They seem to have been accepted rather quickly, leveling charges against Paul: that he was not a true apostle, having no commendation from Jerusalem, as they did (2 Corinthians 3:1-2); that he was not a qualified speaker (2 Corinthians 10:10); and that since he did not take assistance from the Corinthian brethren, this was somehow a detriment to his validity as an Apostle (2 Corinthians 12:13).
Paul writes a very strong rebuttal to these charges. He establishes that his letters of commendation are the members of the church in Corinth, for whom Paul worked diligently (2 Corinthians 3:1-3). He then demonstrates how the Spirit is much more powerful than the Law written on tablets is (2 Corinthians 3:4-18). Later, he describes himself as meek when present, but bold through his letters (2 Corinthians 10:1-3), that he is the same person in present as in his letters (2 Corinthians 10:11-12), and is equal to many of the most eminent apostles in knowledge (2 Corinthians 11:5-6). He then says that he robbed from other churches to work with the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11:7-9), and says the following concerning a comparison of himself and these “Judaizers,” in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as one beside himself) I more; in labors more abundantly, in prisons more abundantly, in stripes above measure, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day have I been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of rivers, in perils of robbers, in perils from my countrymen, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in labor and travail, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Besides those things that are without, there is that which presseth upon me daily, anxiety for all the churches.
Paul speaks about the reaction of the Corinthians regarding his lack of receiving any assistance from the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 12:11-13:
I am become foolish: ye compelled me; for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing was I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works. For what is there wherein ye were made inferior to the rest of the churches, except it be that I myself was not a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong.
Finally, Paul asks the Corinthians if he or Titus had taken advantage of the Corinthians in any way or if their conduct was anything but befitting a servant of Christ (2 Corinthians 12:14-18). We have no information about any changes made in the church at Corinth because of Paul’s exhortation, but we do see that no more rebuke or defense was necessary from him.
The “Judaizers” vs. Paul: Colossae
We cannot be sure if it is the same group of “Judaizers” who impacted the church in Colossae in Asia Minor around 60-61. This group seemed to focus on the festivals and the food proscriptions of the Law of Moses. Let us hear the words of Paul in Colossians 2:16-23:
Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a feast day or a new moon or a sabbath day: which are a shadow of the things to come; but the body is Christ’s. Let no man rob you of your prize by a voluntary humility and worshipping of the angels, dwelling in the things which he hath seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, and not holding fast the Head, from whom all the body, being supplied and knit together through the joints and bands, increasing with the increase of God. If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances, “Handle not, nor taste, nor touch,”
(all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility, and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.
It appears that some had taught those in the church of Colossae to follow the commandments of Moses not to eat certain foods and to observe the Sabbath and other holy days. Paul says that no one has the right to judge on the basis of such things, for they are a shadow of what is to come and not the truth in Christ.
The last impact of the “Judaizers” can be seen in Ephesus, with those who “pay attention to…endless genealogies” in 1 Timothy 1:4, but we cannot know if this was due to an external force (such as the “Judaizers”) or some strange idea brought forth within the church in Ephesus itself. Regardless, the “Judaizers” seem to be in decline by the time of Paul’s death in 64, and after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, with the Temple and many of the other vestiges of the Law of Moses destroyed, the movement loses most of its impetus. There are later indications of “Ebionite”, or “Hebrew”, Christians, but these groups are small and few, and do not pose much of a concern.
We can learn much from the impact of the “Judaizers” on the churches of the Gentile world, specifically, the changes between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ. It is made evident by Paul in his letters that the Old Covenant is to be done away with, that it can do no good for us under the mediation of the man Christ Jesus. There is no better way to describe this change than to read the words of Paul concerning Christ in Colossians 2:13-14:
And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out that way, nailing it to the cross.
The Law has been nailed to the cross, and Christ now reigns. Let us endeavor to seek His will and His commandments, and forsake any commandment not in harmony with His teachings.
- Article: Understanding Covenant, I: What is a Covenant?
- Article: Understanding Covenant, II: Old Testament Covenants
- Article: Understanding Covenant, III: Covenant During the Life of Christ
- Article: Understanding Covenant, IV: The New Testament Covenant
- Article: Understanding Covenant, V: Misunderstandings of Covenant
- Lesson: Acts of the Assembly: Giving
- Lesson: The Importance of Understanding Covenant