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.

2 thoughts on “Did Christianity Reform Judaism?

  1. “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”

    But that they “were in fact Jews” is essentially a meaningless statement. That’s like saying that many people who go atheist today “were in fact Christians.” So what?

    So the apostles were ethnically Jewish and raised as Jews. Fine, but what kind of Jews? Was Peter really much of an observant Jew before Jesus called him or even afterwards? According to Acts Peter was so Talmud-Jewish that he believed it unlawful to enter a Gentile’s house (Cornelius story). But in the gospels we don’t find this sort of Peter. In the gospels we find the Peter who picks corn on the Sabbath and eats without washing his hands in outright defiance of the traditions of the elders (the same traditions he is presented in Acts as being a zealot for!).

    Was Jesus followed by really religious Jews or more basically secular Jews? When Jesus mocks the scribal interpretation that Christ is a son of David by saying “if David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” the text says “and the common people heard him gladly.” (Mark 12:37) WHY?? Why did “the common people” (emphasis on COMMON) hear him gladly?

    First, “common” people are usually non-religious, what we call “unchurched.” Why did they hear Jesus gladly? Because he was making fun of the religious authorities.

    This would be like if some guy came into your church and made fun of your pastor’s sermon, and the “common people” in your congregation (i.e. the ones who go to shut their parents or their wife up but who aren’t too into the whole religion thing) would hear it gladly.

    Jesus was constantly flaunting the Sabbath and even contradicting the Torah. He says an eye for an eye is wrong and you must turn to the other cheek. What “good” Jew would listen to that? Any Jew who was concerned with Jewish “orthodoxy” would immediately reject such a teacher. Therefore, Peter and all the rest clearly didn’t care much for Jewish orthodoxy. The idea that they did care about Jewish orthodoxy is fiction invented for the late book called “Acts of the apostles” which was written in the second century as polemic against Marcion.

  2. The Jew who cared about orthodoxy would have applied Deuteronomy 13 to Jesus.

    Deuteronomy 13:1-5 “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, (2) and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’; which you have not known; ‘and let us serve them,’ (3) you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (4) You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear Him, and keep His commandments and obey His voice, and you shall serve Him and hold fast to Him. (5) But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.”

    This is what the Pharisees and chief priests OBEYED when they handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified.

    “But Jesus didn’t teach a new god” you will say. In essence he did. Jesus’ God sends rain on the just and unjust whereas the OT god shuts up heaven against the wicked as in Elijah’s draught or in the prophets where he promises the early and latter rain IF Israel is faithful. Jesus’ God wants us to turn the other check but the OT god to poke out an eye for an eye. Jesus’ God is kind to the unthankful and evil but the OT god is froward to the froward (that is, crooked to the crooked or wicked to the wicked). Etc.

    Any Jew who was religious would know that Jesus was teaching a God who was in many ways the opposite of Yahweh. Jesus purposefully endowed his God with properties that were at variance with known attributes of Yahweh. How could any religious Jew interpret this as anything other than teaching a new god? As anything other than saying ‘Let us go after other gods and let us serve them’?

    So, then, a religious Jew would have wanted Jesus dead as Deuteronomy 13 commanded.

    Therefore, Jesus’ disciples were not religious Jews.

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