Jewish Christians is a term which appears in historical texts contrasting Christians of Jewish origin with Gentile Christians, both in discussion of the New Testament church and the second and following centuries.
Alister McGrath, former Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, asserts that the 1st century "Jewish Christians" were totally faithful religious Jews. They differed from other contemporary Jews only in their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.
However as Christianity grew throughout the Gentile world, Christians diverged from their Jewish and Jerusalem roots. Jewish Christianity, initially strengthened despite persecution by Jerusalem Temple officials, fell into decline during the Jewish-Roman wars (66-135) and the growing anti-Judaism perhaps best personified by Marcion (c. 150). With persecution by the orthodox Christians from the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, Jewish Christians sought refuge outside the boundaries of the Empire, in Arabia and further afield. Within the Empire and later elsewhere it was dominated by the Gentile based Christianity which became the official religion of the Roman Empire and which took control of sites in the Holy Land such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Cenacle and appointed subsequent Bishops of Jerusalem.
The term "Jewish Christians" in the 3rd and 4th Centuries can refer to groups such as Ebionites, Nazarenes and other groups, and related to these groups are quotation fragments of non-canonical gospels referred to as the "Jewish-Christian Gospels".
Jewish origin of Christianity
According to the Acts narrative, following the Crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples, "together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers" withdrew to the "upper room" (traditionally the Cenacle), in Jerusalem (Acts 1:10-14). Initial preaching (Acts ch. 1-9) was to Jews only. In Acts 10 Peter baptised Cornelius the Centurion, marking the beginning of a mixed Jewish and Gentile church.
According to Church tradition, the Roman Centurion Cornelius is considered the first Gentile convert, as recorded in Acts 10, although he was also a "God-fearing" proselyte who participated in a Jewish synagogue. The major division prior to that time was between Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Jews or Koine Greek and Aramaic speakers. The conversion and acceptance of the Gentile Cornelius can be described in terms of the Judaic teaching which describes strangers becoming part of the community. Acts does not use the term "Jewish Christians", rather those led by James the Just, Simon Peter, and John the Apostle, the "Pillars of the Church", were called followers of "The Way". Later groups, or perhaps the same group by different names, were the Ebionites and Elkasites.
The terms "circumcised" and "uncircumcised", which occur frequently in the New Testament, are generally interpreted to mean Jews and Greeks respectively, who were predominant in the region at the time; however this is an oversimplification as 1st century Iudaea Province also had some Jews who no longer circumcised (usually Hellenized Jews living in the diaspora), and some Greeks (called Proselytes or Judaizers) and others such as Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Arabs who did. See also Abrahamic religion and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity#Jewish background.
The Council of Jerusalem and other developments
It has been argued that this Jewish Christian sect (3,000 +) was in danger of being wiped out  as they were being persecuted. The Acts of the Apostles depicts instances of early Christian persecution by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court at the time, however the Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles is disputed. Peter and John were imprisoned by a "Jewish leadership" ("the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees") who were "much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead". The Sadducees in particular rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Saint Stephen was tried by a Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) for blasphemy against Moses and God and was stoned to death, under the watch of Paul of Tarsus, before his conversion.
A further blow to this Jewish sect was the death of their second leader (their first leader Jesus having been crucified c.30). According to Josephus, "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James" met his death after the death of the procurator Porcius Festus, yet before Lucceius Albinus took office  — which has thus been dated to 62. The High Priest Ananus ben Ananus took advantage of this lack of imperial oversight to assemble a Sanhedrin (although the correct translation of the Greek 'synhedion kriton' is 'a council of judges', see Synedrion for the Greek use of the word) who condemned James "on the charge of breaking the law," then had him executed by stoning. Josephus reports that Ananus' act was widely viewed as little more than judicial murder, and offended a number of "those who were considered the most fair-minded people in the City".
Three events would greatly affect the fortunes of early Jewish Christianity. The first was the Conversion of Paul in the early 30's (and the possible conversion of his teacher Gamaliel), the second was the Council of Jerusalem c.50, and the third was the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70, which according to Josephus was one of the most significant events of the First Jewish–Roman War. Nonetheless, according to the Church History of Eusebius, the line of Jewish Christian bishops of Jerusalem continued until the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136) when Hadrian renamed the city "Aelia Capitolina" and barred all Jews except for the day of Tisha B'Av. After that, the Jerusalem bishops were uncircumcised Greeks. The Cenacle as it exists today is a Gothic reconstruction, but it may be the location of the original Jewish Christian church.
Some claim an alleged Council of Jamnia in 90 excluded Christians from the synagogues, but this is disputed. Jewish Christians continued to worship in synagogues for centuries. According to Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem c.50, customarily believed to have been led by James the Just, determined that Religious male circumcision (assumed by some to signify conversion to Judaism) should not be required of Gentile followers of Jesus, only basic abstentions: avoidance of "pollution of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood" (KJV, Acts 15:20, also Genesis 11:1-8 (idolatry), 9:20 (sexual depravity), 9:5 (cruelty to animals), 9:3-4 (abstention from blood)). The basis for these prohibitions is not detailed in Acts 15:21, which states only: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day", stressing that they are Mosaic Commandments which Gentiles must pay attention to. Many, beginning with Augustine of Hippo consider the consensus emphasised the four stipulations based on the Noahide Laws stated in Genesis, and applicable to all people (Noah's descendants after the Flood). On the other hand some modern scholars reject the connection to Noahide Law (Genesis 9) and instead see Lev 17-18 (see also Leviticus 18) as the basis. Some modern Christians are also unclear as to whether this meant that this Apostolic Decree in some way still applies to them or merely that the requirements were imposed to facilitate common participation by Gentiles in the community of Jesus' followers (which at that time included Jewish Christians), so as to remind the Jewish followers of Jesus to uphold those Laws applicable to them (i.e. the full Mosaic Laws). According to Karl Josef von Hefele, this Apostolic Decree is still observed today by the Greek Orthodox. See also Biblical law in Christianity, Expounding of the Law, and Noahidism.
Early Jewish Christians included those who believed non-Jews must become Jews and adopt Jewish customs. They were derogatively called Judaizers, and even Paul used this term against Jesus's student Peter in public according to Young's Literal Translation of Gal 2:14:
However, even Barnabas, Paul's partner up till then, sided with Peter. Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers: The Incident at Antioch claims: "St. Paul's account of the incident leaves no doubt that St. Peter saw the justice of the rebuke." however, L. Michael White's From Jesus to Christianity claims: "The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return." See also Incident at Antioch and Pauline Christianity. Scholar James D. G. Dunn, who coined the phrase "New Perspective on Paul", has proposed that Peter was the "bridge-man" (i.e. the pontifex maximus) between the two other "prominent leading figures" of early Christianity: Paul and James the Just.
Marcion in the 2nd century, called the "most dangerous" heretic, rejected the Twelve Apostles, and interpreted a Jesus who rejected the Law of Moses using 10 Pauline Epistles and the Gospel of Luke. For example, his version of Luke 23:2: "We found this fellow [Jesus] perverting the nation and destroying the law and the prophets". Irenaeus in turn rejected Marcion and praised the Twelve Apostles in his Against Heresies 3.12.12:
According to Eusebius' History of the Church 4.5.3-4: the first 15 Bishops of Jerusalem were "of the circumcision". The Romans destroyed the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem in year 135 during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. However, that does not necessarily mean an end to Jewish Christianity, any more than Valerian's Massacre of 258, (when he killed all Christian bishops, presbyters, and deacons, including Pope Sixtus II and Antipope Novatian and Cyprian of Carthage), meant an end to Roman Christianity. Traditionally it is believed the Jerusalem Christians waited out the Jewish–Roman wars in Pella in the Decapolis. After the Jewish–Roman wars (66–135), which Epiphanius believed the Cenacle survived, the significance of Jerusalem to Christians entered a period of decline, Jerusalem having been temporarily converted to the pagan Aelia Capitolina, but interest resumed again with the pilgrimage of Helena (the mother of Constantine the Great) to the Holy Land c. 326–28. According to the church historian Socrates of Constantinople, Helena claimed to have found the cross of Christ, after removing a Temple to Venus (attributed to Hadrian) that had been built over the site. For that reason she is seen as the Patron Saint of Archaeologists. Jerusalem received special recognition in Canon VII of the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Later, under Justinian I (527-565), it was designated one of the Pentarchy, though the Pentarchy has never been recognized by Roman Catholicism which instead claims Papal supremacy.
A common interpretation of the circumcision controversy of the New Testament was that it was over the issue of whether Gentiles could enter the Church directly or ought to first convert to Judaism. However, the Halakha of Rabbinic Judaism was still under development at this time, as the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus notes: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakha was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity." This controversy was fought largely between opposing groups of Christians who were themselves ethnically Jewish. According to this interpretation, those who felt that conversion to Judaism was a prerequisite for Church membership were eventually condemned by Paul as "Judaizing teachers".
The source of this interpretation is unknown; however, it appears related to Supersessionism or Hyperdispensationalism (see also New Perspective on Paul). In addition, modern Christians, such as Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox still practice circumcision while not considering it a part of conversion to Judaism, nor do they consider themselves to be Jews or Jewish Christians. In 1st century Pharisaic Judaism there was controversy over the significance of circumcision, for example between Hillel the Elder and Shammai. Roman Catholicism condemned circumcision for its members in 1442, at the Council of Florence.
Surviving communities whose origins reflect both Judaism and early Christianity
Certain Christian communities of Syria, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestinian Territories have traditionally been associated with some 1st century Jewish Christian heritage. The Syriac Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Antioch are churches with known Jewish Christian membership that dates as far back as the 1st century. All three churches had common origins in terms of membership, where the majority of adherents was a mix of Greeks and Hellenized Jews and Syrians from Antioch and the rest of Syria who adopted the new faith. The Syriac Orthodox Church follows the Antiochene rite that celebrates liturgy in Syriac and still carries some particular customs that are considered today as purely Judaic in nature. Today, certain families are associated with descent from the early Jewish Christians of Antioch, Damascus, Judea, and Galilee. Some of those families carry surnames such as Youhanna (John), Hanania (Ananias), Sahyoun (Zion), Eliyya/Elias (Elijah), Chamoun/Shamoun (Simeon/Simon), Semaan/Simaan (Simeon/Simon), Menassa (Manasseh), Salamoun/Suleiman (Solomon), Youwakim (Joachim), Zakariya (Zacharias) and others.
The Nasrani or Syrian Malabar Nasrani community in Kerala, India is conscious of its Jewish origins. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. This is because they follow the traditions of Syriac Christianity and are traditionally descendants of the early Jewish converts by Thomas the Apostle. Today, they belong to various denominations of Christianity but they have kept their unique identity within each of these denominations.
An existing community that still maintain their Jewish traditions are the Knananites. The Knanaya, who are an endogamous sub-ethnic group among the Syrian Malabar Nasrani are the descendants of early Jewish Christian settlers who arrived in Kerala in AD 345. Although affiliated with a variety of Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox denominations, they have remained a cohesive community, shunning intermarriage with outsiders (but not with fellow-Knanaya of other denominations).
Contemporary movements: Jewish Christians, Messianic Jews
Jewish Christians are ethnic Jews who have converted to Christianity. They are mostly members of Protestant and Catholic congregations, usually are not strict about observing the Laws of Moses, including kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) or the Sabbath, and are generally assimilated culturally into the Christian mainstream, although they retain a strong sense of their Jewish identity.
The Hebrew Christian movement of the 19th Century was a largely Anglican led, and largely integrated initiative, with figures such as Michael Solomon Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem 1842-1845. Though figures such as Joseph Frey were more assertive of Jewish identity and independent.
Messianic Jews are people who adhere to Messianic Judaism, a syncretic religion that combines evangelical Christian belief with some Jewish ritual. Adherents, many of whom are ethnically Jewish, worship in congregations that include Hebrew prayers and use of a Torah scroll. They circumcise their sons and often observe Kosher dietary laws and Saturday as the Sabbath. Many do not use the label "Christian" to describe themselves, but they do recognize the Christian New Testament as holy scripture.
The two groups are not completely distinct; some adherents, for example, favor Messianic congregations but freely live in both worlds, such as theologian Arnold Fruchtenbaum, the founder of Ariel Ministries.