Most people are not aware that Judaism, at the time of Jesus, had become a missionary, conversion-oriented religion. People all over the Roman Empire were finding their way into synagogues and many of them were deciding to convert. This movement was large enough that the Jewish authorities had to develop a program for the incorporation of new converts into Judaism. They did it in a particularly Jewish way.
First, a series of decisions were made that designated the season of Passover as the appropriate time to take in new converts. Next, they determined that a period of instruction in the Torah would not only be appropriate, but necessary. Finally they affirmed that the content of that instruction should be provided by the book of Deuteronomy.
Making Deuteronomy the course material for training converts was an easy choice, since the word Deuteronomy itself literally means the “second (deutero) giving of the law (nomas).” This book was thus viewed as a composite or even a condensation of the entire Torah. More than one rabbi has said, “If you want to understand Judaism, you must study the book of Deuteronomy.” Those seeking to become Jews must surely needed to invest themselves in this book of the Torah. It spelled out the heart of Judaism.
The book of Deuteronomy, a brief analysis will reveal, was made up primarily of material that purported to be the teaching of Moses given to his people on a variety of subjects that would affect their national life shortly before Moses died. It was thus a kind of last will and testament. We need to recall that the death of Moses was recorded in the final chapter (34) of Deuteronomy. Thus it was thought to be the last word of Moses on a variety of issues with which the Hebrew people would have to deal after their founder was no longer with them. Surely they thought these things would be the very things that new converts also needed to know. So the incorporation process of Gentiles converting to Judaism began with instruction based on the book of Deuteronomy.
This instruction would end just before the incorporation at Passover, when the last month of the Jewish calendar (Adar I or some years Adar II) came to an end. Since the entire Torah was read at Sabbath public worship during the course of a year the last twelve or so Sabbaths of the calendar year would be spent reading the last book of the Torah, which, not coincidentally, was the book of Deuteronomy. It all seemed to fall into a pattern. Since Passover came on the 14th day of the Nisan, the first month of the New Year, about two weeks would remain after the instruction was complete before the act of incorporation took place. That time would be used to accomplish two other steps in the incorporation process.
First, at least for the male Gentile converts, the ceremonial rite of circumcision would be administered. This would place upon their bodies the physical sign of their new Jewish identity. If one did not agree to circumcision or other cultic practices, such as kosher dietary rules and Sabbath day observance, they remained only “Gentile Proselytes,” that is, worshipers drawn to the Jewish God, but unwilling to become full members of Judaism. These additional days between the end of the year and Passover also allowed sufficient time for healing to be complete.
The next step in the incorporation process was for the convert to undergo something called “the ceremonial bath.” This bath was designed to wash away symbolically all uncleanliness, both spiritual and physical, and thus to leave the convert ready to begin his or her new life as a Jew. When the ceremonial bath was complete, the convert donned a white robe and was welcomed to the Passover meal, a liturgical act that dramatized the call of the Jewish people out of slavery and into that sense of being “the chosen of God.” Eating the meal of the Jews was the final act of solidifying the new status of the convert. The history of the Jews was now the convert’s history. He or she was now, by adoption and grace, a part of the “Chosen People.”
By the time the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) were written (ca.72-93) the followers of Jesus, who were still primarily Jews, were seeing their welcome in the synagogues gradually disappear. Paul’s missionary activities had been successful mostly among the Gentile proselytes and so they began to form groups separate from the synagogue. Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile converts alike would attend Sabbath services in the synagogue, but then they would also meet in homes for “the breaking of the bread” on the first day of the week.
With the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the authority of the Jewish hierarchy was much diminished and those Jews, seeking to maintain the faith of their fathers and mothers in its historical wholeness, were more and more threatened by the Jesus movement. Traditional Jews regarded the followers of Jesus as “Jewish revisionists.” A split in the synagogue between the two groups was inevitable and it came about when the Orthodox party excommunicated the followers of Jesus from the synagogue. This occurred near the end of the 9th decade.
Now the Christian movement, separated from the synagogue, needed to devise a means of incorporating their own converts, who were beginning to appear in astonishing numbers, Not surprisingly, they took over the Jewish process of incorporation and “Christianized” it.
If Passover was the proper time to take in new converts for the Jews, then surely Easter Eve, or “the first Eucharist of Easter,” the Christian equivalent of Passover would be the appropriate time to take in new converts for the Christians. The followers of Jesus also believed that there was a need to provide instruction in what it means to be a Christian prior to their entering Christianity. That instruction must, therefore, occur in the time period before Easter. So a time of preparation was created. That was, in fact, the origin of the season of Lent. They were the weeks of the catechumenate, or the time for confirmation classes.
The next question the early Christians raised was: “What should be the content of that instruction?” It could hardly be for the followers of Jesus, the book of Deuteronomy. So the Christians set out to create a body of instruction for Christian converts, but they patterned it on the format of the book of Deuteronomy. That was when they created a body of teaching material attributed to Jesus that now forms what the synoptic gospel writers call “the journey section” of each of the first three gospels, which carried the people reading that gospel text Sabbath by Sabbath from the end of the festival of Dedication/Hanukkah up to the festival of Passover. Like Deuteronomy, it purported to be the final instructions of Jesus to his disciples prior to his departing from them on Good Friday. So it too had the quality of the last will and testament of the founder of this religion.
The journey section of the synoptic gospels was, thus, not the literal teachings of Jesus, but a series of teaching episodes in which the followers of Jesus sought to lay out before the next Christian generation the mind of Christ regarding the issues of their own day. That is why the content of this teaching section includes some issues about which the Jesus of history could not have been concerned, such as the relationship of the Christian community to the emperor, the proper use of money, the way children and the elderly are to be cared for and treated. This teaching also dealt with divorce, forgiveness, and other matters that needed to be addressed in the life of the community.
So what we are reading in the Journey section of Matthew’s gospel is the first set of confirmation or membership classes in Christian history. Here is outlined the “word of the Lord.” on a variety of subjects that affected Christian life as those lives began their journey into history. Converts were thus instructed in what Christians believe and how Christians are to act. In this manner, they were prepared for baptism and/or confirmation.
The Christians dropped circumcision as a rite. It was simply too Jewish and too unpopular as the tensions between the Jewish followers of Jesus and the leaders of what might be called “Jewish Orthodoxy” continued to rise. Dropping circumcision along with kosher laws and Sabbath regulations also opened the door wider for Gentile converts to come in, which they did in droves, making Christianity almost a completely Gentile movement by the year 150 CE.
The ceremonial bath of the Jews, however, became Christian baptism in which the new Christian was ceremoniously cleansed. The later developing idea of original sin had not yet appeared so at this time there was no sense that baptism washed away the stain of Adam’s fall. Then dressed in white, the newly-baptized and or confirmed were welcomed to the Eucharistic table as full and equal participants in the body of Christ.
So the journey section of Matthew and the other synoptics were also shaped by the traditions of the synagogue. The New Testament is a far more Jewish book than we Christians, in our anti-Semitic bias, have ever imagined.