The Fascinating History of the First Jewish Believers (Part 1)

Ron Cantor —  October 18, 2014 —  Comments

Birthed in Revival

We know from Scripture that the Messianic Community in Jerusalem was thriving in the first decades after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem. When Paul comes back to Jerusalem to greet the apostles, they report to him:

On hearing it, they praised God; but they also said to him, “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands of believers there are among the Judeans, and they are all zealous for the Torah.” (Acts 21:20 CJB)

There are two interesting points worth noting. First, they are Torah-honoring Jewish believers. This does not mean that they necessarily followed all the traditions of Pharisaical Judaism, but that they suddenly found deep meaning in the commands and feasts that they previously only kept out of religious guilt or soulish zeal. This is reported to Paul as a good thing. There is no hint that they are moving away from Torah or their Jewishness, but closer.

Secondly, many translations use the English thousands for the Greek myriads. However a myriad is 10,000, so myriads plural, as is used in this verse, is correctly tens of thousands! We can safely conclude that Jerusalem and the surrounding areas had upwards of 30,000 or 40,000 believers and that, from a population of about 220,000! Acts 2 records 3,000 Jews coming to faith, and shortly there after, they numbered 5,000. [ii]

But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. (Acts 4:4)

So 20 years later in Acts 21, 30,000 to 40,000 is not farfetched at all!

Revival in Tel Aviv!

In addition to Jerusalem, God was moving mightily in other areas of Israel. Certainly in the Galilee, where Yeshua was raised, the Messianic movement was growing, but also in what is now the greater Tel Aviv area. There are two miracles recorded in Acts 9 at the hands of Simon Peter. First in Lydda (Lod today, where Ben Gurion Airport sits) a crippled man is healed. From there he travels to Joppa and raises Tabitha from the dead. Those miracles resulted in a large number of Jews coming to faith.

All those [all Jews!] who lived in Lydda and Sharon (a large area covering the plains north of Tel Aviv) saw him and turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:35)

[The miracle of Tabitha being raised from the dead] became known all over Joppa, and many people [all Jews!] believed in the Lord. (Acts 9:42)

I added [all Jews!] because at the time the Gospel was only being offered to Jews. It was in the next chapter, some time later, that Peter had the revelation that Gentiles could also find salvation in the Jewish Messiah.

In addition many Cohenim (Temple Priests) came to faith.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7)

James the Just—Yakov Hazadik

The congregation continued to grow under the leadership of Jacob (There was no first century Jews named James) the brother of Yeshua. The historian Eusebius recounts Jacob’s martyrdom. At the time, he was held in high regard by virtually all sects of Judaism. So much so that he was called Jacob the Righteous. He prayed so much that he was nicknamed ‘camel-knees’ because of the callouses he developed.

However the incredible growth of the Nazarene Movement (as they were called) led to deep feelings of jealously. Josephus tells us that the governor of Judea had died. While the new one was on his way to Judea, the chief priest, Ananus, devised a plan to get rid of Jacob.

Josephus doesn’t reveal the plan in detail, but if we combine it with Eusebius, we get a clearer picture. The Pharisees requested that he come to the pinnacle of the Temple to address the Jews celebrating Passover. Interestingly enough, this is exactly where Satan took Yeshua to tempt Him (Matt. 4:5ff). Once there they challenged him to denounce Yeshua. He responded:

Why do you ask me about Yeshua, the Son of Man? He sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and he will soon come on the clouds of heaven!

The Pharisee were furious, but the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” The Pharisees then ascended to the pinnacle and threw him down. Jacob survived the fall and began to pray for them. “I beg of you, Lord God our Father, forgive them! They do not know what they are doing.” Like Stephen, they began to stone him and finally:

A fuller (i.e., launderer) took out one of the clubs that he used to beat clothes and smashed James on the head, killing him with one blow. (source)

Josephus puts the death of Jacob at 62 CE while Eusebius says 69 CE. If it was 62 CE, it make sense that Hebrews were written soon after, to encourage persecuted Jewish believers to not give up. Considering that Josephus was a contemporary of Jacob, I tend to agree with him.

Flee to the Mountains

Now this is where things start to change drastically for the Jewish believers in Israel. Yeshua had told his disciples less than 40 years prior, when they see the armies surrounding Jerusalem they should flee to the mountains.

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is at hand.Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let those who are in the midst of her depart. Let those who are in the country not enter therein. (Luke 21:20-21)

“The Great Revolt” took place in 66 CE when the Jews rebelled against Roman rule. The Romans responded by leveling the city and destroying the Temple in 70 CE. As many as one million Jews died all over Israel.

However, the Messianic Jews, heeding the warning of Yeshua, fled. This is most likely a dual prophecy that will have a greater fulfillment before the coming of Yeshua. The believers in Jerusalem assumed, as many of us today, that they would see the return of Yeshua. Seeing that the prophetic warnings (Matt. 24 and Luke 21) came from Yeshua as he was teaching on the end times, they were sure that His return was near. The historian Eusebius records that they were warned by angel to flee.

For when the city was about to be captured and sacked by the Romans, all the disciples were warned beforehand by an angel to remove from the city, doomed as it was to utter destruction. On migrating from it they settled at Pella, the town already indicated, across the Jordan. (Weights and Measures, 15)

In Pella, they waited for the coming of Yeshua. When the war ended and Yeshua had not yet returned, the Messianic Jews returned to Jerusalem where they suffered persecution from the Jews who had fought the Romans—they were labeled as traitors. Josephus estimates that over one million Jews died in the war, nearly half of Israel population. They were many other Jews who opposed the fighting, including Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who we will learn about in part 2. We can only guess that they fled in 68 CE, after the revolt, but before Jerusalem’s demise, and that they returned around 73 CE after the Zealots were defeated at Masada.


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 [ii] A study was done based on Josephus’ numbers and that of other historians and scholars to conclude that the best guess for the population of Jerusalem and her surrounding cities was 220,000. (Josephus and Population Numbers in First Century Palestine, Anthony Byatt


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  1. jadedjewels says:

    I am eagerly awaiting part 2 as I desire strongly to know more about my Jewish Messiah the Word made Flesh! Thanks Brother Ron and be highly blessed and favored by YHWH in all you do for His Kingdom!!

    1. Ron Cantor says:

      thanks for the encouragement!

      1. jadedjewels says:

        you my dear brother are a manifestation in literal flesh form of answered prayers, I simply cannot pray enough for you, learn enough through you being led by Adonai, and couldn’t stand stronger with Israel and His People, the first-chosen in the Holy Land where I have deep longing to experience with every aspect of my being, or be of greater encouragement unto our El Shaddais gifting given to me…love you man and go Team Yeshua!!

  2. David Bowen says:

    Coming from a fairly uninformed Church background I have an observation and a question: as you say because some of the disciples are given ‘good old’ English names in Bible translations it just doesn’t occur to people that the disciples were Jewish. Secondly there is a phrase in translation in the Gospels – ‘THE Jews’, which so often seems to be associated with opponents to the Gospel. I wonder, is that “THE’ actually explicitly in the Greek? Could it just be translated as ‘Jews’ or ‘some’ Jews? As a Gentile Christian I learn so much from your ministry.

    1. Susan says:

      Yes, I would like to know this too!

      1. David Bowen says:

        I will try and find out and come back to you. Regards, db

    2. Ron Cantor says:

      David, this is a great question. I devoted several pages to this in my book identity theft. You can get it online on this page near the top. In a nutshell, when John uses the phrase “the Jews” he is referring to the Jewish religious leaders. In the greek it actually says, “the Judeans” but it is clear that in John 18 it is referring to the rel. leaders. I will try and devote a blog to this very soon.

      1. David Bowen says:

        Thanks Ron! I checked with my expert and they said there is a definite article in the Greek – so it’s ‘THE Jewish Leaders’ in
        effect. Shira is speaking a couple of miles from where I live in November. I will try to get people from my church to come.

  3. Veritas Magnum says:

    Just goes to show you what Holy Spirit power can do! People from all over the middle east heard the Good News in many languages as the Holy Spirit added to the gatherings daily.

  4. Gidon Ariel says:

    Ron, interesting study. Just on Shabbat I read from a new book by Ahron Horowitz and Gershon Bar Kochba about this period. I had never heard of Pella, looking forward to part 2

    1. Ron Cantor says:

      Thanks Gidon! Nice seeing you a few weeks ago.

  5. Ben Williams says:

    When do you think the 3rd Temple will be built, and then will the sacrifices come back? The only place to sacrifice is in the temple Right?

    1. chrismoyler says:

      I believe it is necessary for a world leader to emerge, before this can happen. When it does happen, then the final 7 years of this age, i.e the age of the Gentiles, will have begun. The 7 year period ends with the return of Messiah. This is my understanding.

      In addition to this, many believe that before this time, there will be a regional war, as depicted in Ps 83. It is extremely interesting to note that Ez 38:8, referring to the Gog Magog war, the final world war at the end of the seven years, refers to the land being at peace after the regathering of Israel.

      Since Israel is never at peace, this is a fascinating scripture, which I would love some folk :to comment on:

      Ez 38:8 After many days you will be summoned; in the latter years you will come into the land that is restored from the sword, whose inhabitants have been gathered from many nations to the mountains of Israel which had been a continual waste; but its people were brought out from the nations, and they are living securely, all of them.

      Shalom. C.

    2. Ron Cantor says:

      Ben, I also agree it will be only after the antichrist is revealed. However he will desecrate this Temple and declare Himself to be God (1 Thes. 2:4).

  6. Lonnie Lane says:

    Hi Ron, A college student came to me this week asking if I could give her any books with info on the right of the Jews to the Land for a paper she’s writing. This led to a bigger discussion on who the Jews really are. I gave her Identity Theft and told her this was the reader friendly version of many history books all in one story. Now I’ll send her this blog on 1st century history. Keep it coming.

    1. Ron Cantor says:

      Great Lonnie! Of course Dr. Michael Brown’s Our Hands are Stained with Blood is a great resource too.

  7. Abigail says:

    Ron, are these excerpts from Identity Theft? I have not been able to get it, yet, but am looking for an easy to read concise, well-laid out history of the early church.

    1. Ron Cantor says:

      Abigail, this is from research from Identity Theft 2, which I am writing. 🙂

      1. Abigail says:

        Awesome! So, I take it the second book is dealing with the theft of the identity of the “church”? Just as the first book deals with the theft of the identity of Messiah?

  8. Donald N Norris says:

    Ron, another excellent article. I’m looking forward to the further editions in the series.

  9. “Prayer and repentance are enough to atone for sin”? What does atonement mean?

    1. Ron Cantor says:

      To atone to make reparations. Atonement would be paying the penalty for a crime. i.e. He atoned for his crimes (paid the price). Yeshua’s blood atoned for our sins.

      1. Thank you, sir! 🙂 I definitely see that “atone” in modern English means “paying the penalty” but what does it mean in the Bible?

        Lev 8:15 has Moses making atonement for the altar. What sin did the altar commit?

        Lev 12:7 describes “atonement” for a woman who gives birth. What penalty is she paying for? Giving birth?

        I thought it was impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to pay for sin (Hebrews 10:4) which is why Messiah had to come as the suffering servant? If that is true then what was the purpose of the animals sacrifices for “atonement”?

        One last question: I searched the NT for “atone”, “atonement”, “atoning”, etc and couldn’t find any of them in the NASB, NKJVS, Darby, and several other translations. Where does it say that Yeshua’s blood “atoned” for our sins?

        Thank you for your time and help!

  10. Brenda Beck Stevanato says:

    I love these articles – planning to teach your book Identity Theft at my church. I have been teaching about Israel and Judaism to our connections groups and it has been very successful. American churches need to learn as much as they can about their roots in Judaism. I am still hoping and believing although it may be last minute (if there is still room) to go to Israel on your tour. We met several years ago and you taught the group at King of Kings.( I was with Tommie Zito then).

  11. Laura says:

    Thanks for this article.

    I’ve found this website to have some interesting studies and background information as well:
    (See the links at the end of the letter).

  12. Abigail says:

    Ron, the link to Part 2 just takes us to Part 1. 🙂

  13. chrismoyler says:

    It is a joy and a delight to see Messianic Jerry coming into its own. It is an especial joy to witness the emergence of the five-fold ministry to give the rebirth it’s substance, strength and unity.

    Articles like this are so very important to take Messianic Jews out of a Rome- based faith and very firmly back into a Jerusalem -based faith. This will speed the unity, and make it significantly easier for other Jews to join with the Messianic community.

    Truly, life from the dead as we see the fulfillment of biblical prophecy IN OUR OWN LIFETIME!! Joy! C. ( with much love and blessing from the UK to Jerusalem)