Did Christianity Reform Judaism?

I am still reading Neusner’s Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition.  He argues that the idea that Christianity is a “reform movement” within Judaism is a “fundamental theological error” by Protestants (18).   I have a certain attraction to the idea that Paul sought to interpret the Hebrew Bible in the light of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He was not converted to Christianity, since there was nothing like “Christianity” to convert to at that point in time.  Paul was working within a Jewish worldview in Galatians and Romans and he appears to still practice Judaism as late as his arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21.

Neusner properly warns us away from what he calls “if-only” Judaism (19).  By this he means the belief that if the Jews has properly responded to God and followed the law right, they would be right with God.  Usually this is presented along with a healthy condemnation of the supposed legalism of the Pharisees.  There are other examples: “If only” the Jews responded to Jesus’ simple ethic in the Sermon on the Mount, “if only” they Jews had properly read the Old Testament prophecies.  Neusner again is correct to see Reformation history and theology in this sort of statement rather than the Judaism of the first century.

But this brings me back to my point of contention with Neusner.  He is arguing that Judaism and Christianity have no “common foundation.” While he is right to condemn “if only” Judaism, he fails to recognize that the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection were in fact Jews, many of whom continued their practice of Judaism as they always had practiced.

In addition, there was such a wide variety of Judaisms in the first century, a point Neusner constantly makes.  The Pharisees could be described as a “reform movement,” as could the Qumran community and/or the Essenes.  The Sadducees should not be thought of as the status quo of Judaism, they too were looking to “reform” Judaism in the light of present changes in the world.   The core beliefs of the first believers were clearly within the world of Judaism: the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the suffering servant of Isaiah, that he is returning as the promise davidic ruler could be held along side the practice of Judaism.  The first followers represent a reform movement within Judaism similar to Qumran or the Pharisees.

What is the point here?  I think there is a difference between what Neusner calls “Christianity” and what is happening in the book of Acts.   Neusner commits the same sort of error as the Reformation interpreters of Paul.  He is reading later ideas of Christianity back into the early chapters of Acts.   Even post-Marcion Christianity on the second century is different than the Christianity described in Acts.  Neusner finds no common tradition because after A.D. 135 the traditions were no longer common.  But a century earlier, Christianity and Judaism were using  the same scripture and practice.

Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition. Classics in Judaic Studies.  New York:  Binghamton University, 2001.  Originally published by Trinity International, 1991.  The 2001 edition has a 40 page preface written for that printing.

Jewish Christianity (Revisited)

I have just finished teaching through the non-Pauline letters in the New Testament and enjoyed the class immensely.  Our school breaks upper division Bible classes into 8 sections, four for the Hebrew Bible and four for the New Testament .  Since this was the only section I have never taught before, I learned as much as my students did this year.  Christian Theology is almost synonymous with Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is sometimes shocking to find variations on that view in this Jewish literature.

I began back in January with Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity.  He identified at least four sub-groups of early Christianity, to which I have added two more categories which are “sub-Christian.”

  • The Ebionites, who remained within Judaism yet accepted Jesus as Messiah.  This group is sub-Christian, in my view.
  • Jewish Christians who practiced full observance of the Mosaic Law (the “Judaizers”)
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, but did require them to keep some of the purity laws  (James and Peter).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, nor did it insist that Jewish Christians abandon the Law (Paul).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, but also saw not significance for the Jewish Temple (maybe Stephen and the Hellenists)
  • The Nicolatians, who rejected the Law so thoroughly that they “sinned so grace might abound.” This group is also sub-Christian in my view.

For the most part the non-Pauline letters fall into the third category listed above (certainly James and 1 Peter), although Hebrews could fit comfortably in the fifth category because of the clear influence of Hellenistic philosophy (neo-Platonism,etc).  The Epistles of John, Jude, and 2 Peter are harder to categorize within this rubric, but at least we can say Jude and First  John represent Jewish Christianity. Second and Third John are too small to deal with separately.

I think there is a value in reading through these books and bracketing out (if possible) both Pauline Theology and modern systematic theology, especially post-Reformation view s on the church and soteriology.  What I find in these letters are several “other” attempts to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus which attempt to remain true to the author’s Jewish roots.  James, for example, hardly departs at all from the Law, Hebrews (on the other extreme) allegorizes much of the ceremonial law.  This implies two things.  First, the earliest form of Christianity was not unified, monolithic, or even consistent.  Several voices sought to apply the events of Jesus’ death in slightly different ways.  Second, the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  While I am not in favor of practicing a form of Christian Judaism, it must be recognized that Judaism and Christianity are not easily separated in the first 40 years of Church History.