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(From Greek Ioudaizo, to adopt Jewish customs — Esther 8:17; Galatians 2:14).

A party of Jewish Christians in the Early Church, who either held that circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law were necessary for salvation and in consequence wished to impose them on the Gentile converts, or who at least considered them as still obligatory on the Jewish Christians. Although the Apostles had received the command to announce the Gospel to all the nations, they and their associates addressed themselves at first only to Jews, converts to Judaism, and Samaritans, that is to those who were circumcised and observed the law of Moses. The converts, and the Apostles with them, continued to conform to Jewish customs: they observed the distinction between legally clean and unclean food, refused to eat with Gentiles or to enter their houses, etc. (Acts 10:14, 28; 11:3). At Jerusalem they frequented the Temple and took part in Jewish religious life as of old (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 21:20-26), so that, judged from external appearances, they seemed to be merely a new Jewish sect distinguished by the union and charity existing among its members. The Mosaic ceremonial law was not to be permanent indeed, but the time had not yet come for abolishing its observance. The intense attachment which the Jews had for it, amounting to fanaticism in the case of the Pharisees, would have forbidden such a step, had the Apostles contemplated it, as it would have been tantamount to shutting the door of the Church to the Jews.

But sooner or later the Gospel was also to reach the Gentiles, and then the delicate question must immediately arise: What was their position with respect to the Law? Were they bound to observe it? And if not, what conduct should the Jews hold towards them? Should the Jews waive such points of the Law as were a barrier to free relations between Jew and Gentile? To the mind of most Palestinian Jews, and especially of the zealots, only two solutions would present themselves as possible. Either the Gentile converts must accept the Law, or its provisions must be enforced against them as against the other uncircumcised. But national sentiment, as well as love for the Law, would impel them to prefer the first. And yet neither solution was admissible, if the Church was to embrace all nations and not remain a national institution. The Gentiles would never have accepted circumcision with the heavy yoke of Mosaism, nor would they have consented to occupy an inferior position with regard to the Jews, as they necessarily must, if these regarded them as unclean and declined to eat with them or even to enter their houses. Under such conditions it was easy to foresee that the admission of the Gentiles must provoke a crisis, which would clear the situation. When the brethren at Jerusalem, among whom probably were already converts of the sect of the Pharisees, learned that Peter had admitted Cornelius and his household to baptism without subjecting them to circumcision, they loudly expostulated with him (Acts 11:1-3). The cause assigned for their complaints is that he "had gone in to men uncircumcised and had eaten with them", but the underlying reason was that he had dispensed with circumcision. However, as the case was an exceptional one, where the will of God was manifested be miraculous circumstances, Peter found little difficulty in quieting the dissatisfaction (Acts 11:4-18). But new conversions soon gave rise to far more serious trouble, which for a time threatened to produce a schism in the Church.

Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 50 or 51)

The persecution that broke out at the time of St. Stephen's martyrdom providentially hastened the hour when the Gospel was to be preached also to the Gentiles. Some natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, driven from Jerusalem by the persecution, went to Antioch, and there began to preach not only to the Jews, but also to the Greeks. Their action was probably prompted by the example set by Peter at Caesarea, which their more liberal views as Hellenists would naturally dispose them to follow. With the help of Barnabas, whom the Apostles sent on hearing that a great number of Gentiles were converted to the Lord at Antioch, and of the former persecutor Saul, a flourishing church, largely Gentile, was established there (Acts 11:20 sqq.). Soon after (between A.D. 45-49) Saul, now called Paul, and Barnabas founded the South Galatian churches of Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Derbe, and Perge, thus increasing the Gentile converts (Acts 13:13-14:24). Seeing the Gentile element growing so large and threatening the outnumber the Jewish, the zealots of the Law took alarm. Both their national pride and their religious sentiment were shocked. They welcomed the accession of the Gentiles, but the Jewish complexion of the Church must be maintained, the Law and the Gospel must go hand in hand, and the new converts must be Jews as well as Christians. Some went down to Antioch and preached to the Gentile Christians that unless they received circumcision, which as a matter of course would carry with it the observance of the other Mosaic prescriptions, they could not be saved (Acts 15:1). As these men appealed to the authority of the Apostles in support of their views, a delegation, including Paul, Barnabas, and Titus, was sent to Jerusalem to lay the matter before the Apostles, that their decision might set at rest the disquieted minds of the Christians at Antioch (Acts 15:2).

In a private interview which Paul had with Peter, James (the brother of the Lord), and John, the Apostles then present at Jerusalem, they approved his teaching and recognized his special mission to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-9). But to still the clamours of the converts from Pharisaism who demanded that the Gentile converts "must be circumcised and be commanded to observe the Law of Moses", the matter was discussed in a public meeting. Peter arose and after recalling how Cornelius and his household, though uncircumcised, had received the Holy Ghost as well as they themselves, declared that as salvation is by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the yoke of the Law, which even the Jews found exceedingly heavy, should not be imposed on the Gentile converts. James after him voiced the same sentiment, but asked that the Gentiles should observe these four points, namely "that they refrain themselves from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood". His suggestion was adopted and, with slight change in the wording, incorporated in the decree which "the apostles and ancients, with the whole church" sent to the churches of Syria and Cilicia through two delegates, Judas and Silas, who were to accompany Paul and Barnabas on their return. "Forasmuch as we have heard," so ran the decree, "that some going out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls: to whom we gave no commandment;. . .it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication [by which marriages within certain degrees of kindred are probably meant]; from which things keeping yourselves you shall do well" (Acts 15:5-29). These four prohibitions were imposed for the sake of charity and union. As they forbade practices which were held in special abhorrence by all the Jews, their observance was necessary to avoid shocking the Jewish brethren and to make free intercourse between the two classes of Christians possible. This is the drift of the somewhat obscure reason which St. James adduced in favour of his proposition: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him in the synagogues, where he is read every sabbath." The four things forbidden are severely prohibited in Lev., xvii, xviii, not only to the Israelites, but also to the Gentiles living among them. Hence the Jewish Christians, who heard these injunctions read in the synagogues, would be scandalized if they were not observed by their Gentile brethren. By the decree of the Apostles the cause of Christian liberty was won against the narrow Judaizers, and the way smoothed for the conversion of the nations. The victory was emphasized by St. Paul's refusal to allow Titus to be circumcised even as a pure concession to the extremists (Galatians 2:2-5).

The incident at Antioch

The decision of Jerusalem regarded the Gentiles alone, since the only question before the council was whether circumcision and the observance of the Mosaic Law were to be imposed on the Gentiles. Nothing was decided with regard to the observance of the Law by the Jews. Still even they were implicitly and in principle freed from its obligations. For, if the legal observances were not necessary for salvation, the Jew was no more bound by them than the Gentile. Nor was anything explicitly decided as to the relations which were to subsist between the Jews and the Gentiles. Such a decision was not demanded by the circumstances, since at Antioch the two classes lived together in harmony before the arrival of the mischief-makers. The Jews of the Dispersion were less particular than those of Palestine, and very likely some arrangement had been reached by which the Jewish Christians could without scruple eat with their Gentile brethren at the agape. However, the promulgation of the four prohibitions, which were intended to facilitate relations, implied that Jew and Gentile could freely meet. Hence when Peter came to Antioch shortly after the council, he, no less than Paul and Barnabas and the others, "did eat with the Gentiles" (Galatians 2:12). But the absence of any explicit declaration gave the Judaizers an opportunity to begin a new agitation, which, if successful, would have rendered the decree of Jerusalem nugatory. Foiled in their first attempt, they now insisted that the law of not eating with the Gentiles be strictly observed by all Jews. They very likely expected to reach by indirect methods, what they could not obtain directly. Some zealots came from Jerusalem to Antioch. Nothing warrants the assertion that they were sent by St. James to oppose St. Paul, or to enforce the separation of the Jewish from the Gentile Christians, much less to promulgate a modification of the decree of Jerusalem. If they were sent by St. James — pro tou elthein tinas apo Iakobou — probably means simply that they were of James's entourage — they came on some other commission.

On their arrival Peter, who up to this had eaten with the Gentiles, "withdrew and separated himself, fearing them who were of the circumcision", and by his example drew with him not only the other Jews, but even Barnabas, Paul's fellow-labourer. Foreseeing the consequences of such conduct, Paul publicly rebuked him, because he "walked not uprightly according to the truth of the Gospel". "If thou being a Jew," he said to him, "livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews?" This incident has been made much of by Baur and his school as showing the existence of two primitive forms of Christianity, Petrinism and Paulinism, at war with each other. But anyone, who will look at the facts without preconceived theory, must see that between Peter and Paul there was no difference in principles, but merely a difference as to the practical conduct to be followed under the circumstances. "Conversationis fuit vitium non praedicationis", as Tertullian happily expresses it. That Peter's principles were the same as those of Paul, is shown by his conduct at the time of Cornelius's conversion, by the position he took at the council of Jerusalem, and by his manner of living prior to the arrival of the Judaizers. 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 (Acts 21:26 sqq.). The difference between them was that Peter, recently come from Jerusalem, thought only of not wounding the susceptibility of the zealots there, and was thus betrayed into a course of action apparently at variance with his own teaching and calculated to promote the designs the Judaizers; whereas Paul, not preoccupied with such a consideration and with more experience among the Gentiles, took a broader and truer view of the matter. He saw that Peter's example would promote the movement to avoid close relations with the Gentiles, which was only an indirect way of forcing Jewish customs upon them. He saw, too, that if such a policy were pursued, the hope of converting the Gentiles must be abandoned. Hence his bold and energetic action. St. Paul's account of the incident leaves no doubt that St. Peter saw the justice of the rebuke. (In the above account Galatians 2:1-10, is with the large majority of commentators taken to refer to the Council of Jerusalem, and the incident at Antioch is consequently placed after the council. Some few interpreters, however, refer Galatians 2:1-10, to the time of St. Paul's journey mentioned in Acts 11:28-30 [A.D. 44], and place the dispute at Antioch before the council.)

The Judaizers in other churches

After the foregoing events the Judaizers could do little mischief in Syria. But they could carry their agitation to the distant churches founded by St. Paul, where the facts were less well known; and this they attempted to do. The two Epistles to the Corinthians give good reason to believe that they were at work at Corinth. The party or rather faction of Cephas (1 Corinthians 1:12) very probably consisted of Judaizers. They do not seem, however, to have gone beyond belittling St. Paul's authority and person, and sowing distrust towards him (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1-5; 2 Corinthians 11:5-12; 12:11-12; 1:17-20; 10:10-13). For while he has much to say in his own defence, he does not attack the views of the Judaizers, as he would certainly have done had they been openly preached. His two letters and his subsequent visit to Corinth put an end to the party's machinations. In the meantime (supposing Galatians to have been written soon after 1 and 2 Corinthians as it very probably was) Judaizing emissaries had penetrated into the Galatian churches, whether North or South Galatian matters little here (see EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS), and by their skillful maneuvers had almost succeeded in persuading the Galatians, or at any rate many of them, into accepting circumcision. As at Corinth they attacked St. Paul's authority and person. He was only a secondary Apostle, subordinate to the Twelve, from whom he had received his instruction in the Faith and from whom he held his mission. To his teaching they opposed the practice and teaching of the pillars of the Church, of those who had conversed with the Lord (Galatians 2:2 sqq.). He was a time-server, changing his teaching and conduct according to circumstances with the view of ingratiating himself with men (Galatians 1:10; 5:11). They argued that circumcision had been instituted as a sign of an eternal alliance between God and Israel: if the Galatians then wished to have a share in this alliance, with its blessings, if they wished to be in the full sense of the term Christians, they must accept circumcision (Galatians 3:3 sq.; 5:2). They did not however insist, it would seem, in the observance of the whole Law (v, 3).

On hearing the news of the threatened defection of the churches which he had founded at such cost to himself, St. Paul hastily indited the vigorous Epistle to the Galatians, in which he meets the accusations and arguments of his opponents step by step, and uses all his powers of persuasion to induce his neophytes to stand fast and not to be held again under the yoke of bondage. The letter, as far as we know, produced the desired effect. In spite of its resemblance to the Epistle to the Galatians, the Epistle to the Romans is not, as has been asserted, a polemical writing directed against the Judaizing party at Rome. The whole tone of the Epistle shows this (cf. in particular i, 5-8, 11-12; xv, 14; xvi, 19). If he refers to the Jewish Christians of Rome, it is only to exhort the Gentiles to bear with these weak brethren and to avoid whatever might scandalize them (xiv, 1-23). He would not have shown such forbearance towards the Judaizers, nor spoken of them in such gentle tones. His purpose in treating of the uselessness of circumcision and legal observances was to forewarn and forearm the Romans against the Judaizing disturbers, should they reach the capital, as he had reason to fear (Romans 16:17-18). After their attempt in Galatia, St. Paul's opponents seem to have relaxed their activity, for in his later letters he rarely alludes to them. In the Epistle to the Philippians he warns against them in very severe terms: "Beware of dogs, beware of evil-workers, beware of the concision" (Philippians 3:2). They do not seem, however, to have been active in that church at the time. Beyond this only two allusions are found — one in 1 Timothy 1:6-7: "From which things some going astray, are turned aside unto vain babbling: desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither the things they say, nor whereof they affirm"; the other in Titus 3:9: "Avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law. For they are unprofitable things and vain."

Final history

With the disappearance of the Jewish-Christian community of Jerusalem at the time of the rebellion (A.D. 67-70), the question about circumcision and the observance of the Law ceased to be of any importance in the Church, and soon became a dead issue. At the beginning of the second century St. Ignatius of Antioch, it is true, still warns against Judaizers (Magnes., x, 3; viii, 1; Philad., vi, 1), but the danger was probably more a memory than a reality. During the rebellion the mass of the Jewish Christians of Palestine retired beyond the Jordan, where they gradually lost touch with the Gentiles and in the course of time split up into several sects. St. Justin (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, though in this all his contemporaries did not agree with him — and those who believe the Mosaic Law to be obligatory on all, whom he considers heretics (Dialogue with Trypho 47). If Justin is describing the Jewish Christians of his day, as he appears to do, they had changed little since Apostolic times. The accounts of later Fathers show them divided into three main sects: (a) the Nazarenes, who, while observing the Mosaic Law, seem to have been orthodox. They admitted the Divinity of Christ and the virginal birth; (b) the Ebionites, who denied the Divinity of Christ and virginal birth, and considered St. Paul as an apostate. It should be noted, however, that though the Fathers restrict the name Ebionite to the heretical Jewish Christians, the name was common to all; (c) an offshoot of the last infected with Gnosticism (cf. art. EBIONITES). After the middle of the fifth century the Jewish Christians disappear from history.


LIGHTFOOT, Ep. to the Gal. (London, 1905), 292 sq.; THOMAS in Rev. des Questions Histor., XLVI (1889), 400 sq.; XLVII (1890), 353 sq.; PRAT. in Vig., Dict. de la Bible, 1778 sq.; IDEM, Theologie de Saint Paul (Paris, 1908), 69-80; COPPIETERS in Revue Bibl., IV (1907), 34-58; 218-239; STEINMANN in Bibl. Zeitschr., VI (1908), 30-48; IDEM, Abfassungszeit des Galaterbriefs (Muester, 1906), 55 sq.; PESCH in Zeitschr. fuer Kath. Theol., VII (1883), 476 sq.; HOENNICKE, Das Judenchristentum im 1. u. 2. Jahr. (Berlin, 1908).

About this page

APA citation. Bechtel, F. (1910). Judaizers. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Bechtel, Florentine. "Judaizers." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Don Ross.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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