Dear Rabbi Gellman,
I'm a lay Catholic writing to you on the advice of my friend Chuck, who says you read and respond to "God Squad" email from readers.
Chuck forwarded your column of August 17 to me, because he thought your summary of Christian history in response to a question from a reader in Long Island, NY was informative and interesting.
I agree with Chuck, but think you veered off the rails in this paragraph of your otherwise-cogent response:
The split between Judaism and Christianity occurred after Jesus' death with the Apostle Paul in the first century," you wrote. "Paul found that Jewish laws concerning circumcision and not eating pork had severely limited his work in converting gentiles to Christianity, and he began to preach that keeping such ritual provisions of Jewish law [was] no longer necessary for new Christians. This violation of Jewish law plus of course the claim that Jesus was the Messiah caused a final split between Paul and the Jerusalem church led by James, and with it a final split between Judaism and Christianity."
Assertions in that paragraph are wrong for several reasons (please bear in mind that I am a not a professional theologian, but I do know my Catholic catechism):
First and most importantly, Jesus himself said that He came "not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it." (Matthew 5:17). One who fulfills the law has not violated it.
Second, you've tried to pin the Christian split with Judaism on Saint Paul. That's wrong-headed. It is true that Paul preached that converts to Christ did not need to adhere to ritual Mosaic restrictions, but Paul was not alone in saying that. In chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles, it's Peter (not Paul) who has a vision of all kinds of food from all kinds of animals, and a voice from heaven telling him (three times!) that "what God has made clean, you are not to call profane."
With that in mind, you are also wrong to claim that there was a split between Paul and "the Jerusalem church led by James." There was no split or schism. There was, instead, a council -- the Council of Jerusalem -- to resolve apostolic differences over how Jewish a gentile had to be before he or she could become a Christian. By the end of that council meeting, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James were all of one accord.
Christian scriptures note that meeting attendees in Jerusalem sent representatives to the church in Antioch with instructions to that effect, and clarification for the "brothers" (meaning other followers of Jesus) there. The next chapter of Acts even notes that followers of Jesus were first called "Christians" in Antioch. Ergo, Saint Paul was not leading his own faction. He famously rebuked Saint Peter when Peter was behaving like a hypocrite by being too scrupulous in whom he chose to eat with, but Peter accepted that fraternal correction, and the two of them resolved their differences.
I'm sure you are better informed than many other people on these matters, but may I gently suggest that your summary made the mistake that Saint Peter warned about in 2 Peter 3:15, when he said of the letters from "our beloved brother Paul" that "there are some things in them hard to understand, that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction."?
You seem to have fallen for the misguided idea that Christianity owes more to Paul than to anyone else. Although he was critical to the spread of the new faith, Paul himself would dispute that (see, for example 1 Corinthians 15:8). Saint Peter was the one on whom Jesus said he would build a church, as well as the one apostle for whom Jesus paid the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). And if it's anecdotal evidence of unity between Peter and Paul (indeed, all of the apostles) that you want (apart from scriptural texts like Galatians 2:9), please note that the Catholic liturgical calendar celebrates Peter and Paul together (annually on June 29).
I know I've been on this soap box too long.Thank you for letting me bend your ear about all this, and for treating theological questions with the respect they deserve in your "God Squad" columns.