Jewish Christians in the First Century

For the next couple of months I plan to “go beyond” Acts and Pauline theology and explore what is sometime called Jewish Christianity, or perhaps better, non-Pauline Christianity.  In some ways this is reading Acts  “between the lines,” since Acts is certainly interested in Paul and the development of his churches, not what was happening in Antioch or Jerusalem (or even less so, Alexandria).   The most obvious source for a “Jewish Christianity” are the letters from Hebrews through Revelation (sometimes called the Catholic Epistles, or the General Letters, or as I am calling, them, the Jewish Christian literature.)

It is possible to group the various types of early Christians around the evangelist responsible for the establishment of their group.  1 Cor 1-4 demonstrates that there were schisms along the lines of teachers.  While Paul says that these loyalties to leadership are having a negative effect on the church, the fact that they exist informs us that some of the house churches in Corinth were loyal to Paul, Peter, Apollos, etc.

It is possible, according to Brown, to identify at least four sub-groups of early Christianity:

Jewish Christians who practiced full observance of the Mosaic Law.  This group required circumcision for all converts including Gentiles. The Judaizers in Asia Minor and Antioch would fall into this category, as well as the Pharisees in Acts 15.  Paul considers these believers to be “false brothers” (Gal 2:4) and the Gospel of John strongly condemns those who do not separate from the synagogue (John 12:42).

Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, but did require them to keep some of the purity laws. This group was involved in the “Antioch incident” (Gal 2), and may have been associated with James and Peter. Brown includes Barnabas and John Mark in this type as well.   Brown speculates they were dominate in Antioch, Rome, Pontus, Cappadocia and the province of Asia (the last three are the recipients of  1 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. This is Pauline Christianity and first developed in Antioch, but was extensively elaborated by Paul in his letters.  That Paul was not anti-Law for Jews is an important distinction.  Paul continued to keep Passover and was willing to participate in some form of Temple worship (Acts 20:16, 21:26, 24:11).

Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, but also saw not significance for the Jewish Temple. Stephen and the Hellenists may represent this view (Acts 6-7).  Stephen’s speech seems to be a rejection of the Temple as a form of worship for those who are in Christ.  Perhaps Hebrews and the Gospel of John can be included here since the Temple is spiritualized or allegorized

Brown’s types of early Christianity are helpful, but it is also possible to develop a type or two on either end of this scale. The Ebionites, for example, would be more conservative that Type 1 since they reject Paul as a heretic.  The Nicolatians, for example, would be more liberal than Type 4 since they reject the Law to the extent that they embrace immorality.  In both cases these groups are sub-Christian since they have a serious deficient view of Christ or the atonement.  As we read through Hebrews and the other Jewish letters, this four-part typology may need to be modified or adapted.

It is possible not everyone is happy with “types” of Christianity in the first century. There is a perception that the earliest church was more unified and “pure” than later Christianity.  But the truth is that there was a great deal of trouble working out the details of who Jesus claimed to be and (more problematic) how Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus could relate.

Is this a useful way of looking at the second set of Letters in the New Testament?  Where do books like Hebrews and James fit in this rubric?

Bibliography: Raymond Brown, “Not Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity, but Types of Jewish/Gentile Christianity” CBQ 45 (1983): 74-79.

12 thoughts on “Jewish Christians in the First Century

  1. When it comes down to Brown’s four sub-groups for early Jewish-Christianity, the 3rd mentioned group is quite intriguing. It seems that Paul works very hard to break down the “heart barriers” for the Jews when the Law is brought into the equation. Romans 7:4 says, “So, my brothers, you died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God”. Paul explains to the Romans that they died to the law and that it exists now only to “reveal sin” (Rom 7:7). Yet, the third sub-group of early Christianity includes, and is noted as, Pauline Christianity; this being that a Jewish Christian did not need to abandon the Law. Was this distinction between the surrounding sub-groups a significant distinction then? It appears that Paul mostly sides with not observing the law, yet there are a few instances (mentioned in the post above) where Paul still practices some “participation” of “some form”.

  2. Brown’s four sub groups for Jewish-Christianity can be useful in looking at the second set of letters in the New Testament; if they are understood in the right way. When reading and interpreting the letters, each one seems to be written for a specific sub-group. The combination of both Jewish Christian and Pauline views and morals in the letters would help create a mutual understanding between Christians with different beliefs. The one problem with the idea of sub-group Christians is that, over time, the groups would continue to focus more and more on their own personal beliefs over the one belief that brought them to faith in the first place; Jesus Christ. John 14:1 says, “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me.” Christians are meant to focus on Jesus and not just their personal beliefs. Christian sub-groups gave variety to early Jewish-Christians and Gentile converts, but they tend to take the attention away from Jesus and his teachings.

  3. In a way I see this as a sign that we have not moved very far from the same problems of the early church. We still have different denominations and belife structures. It is almost as if who Jesus is and what he said is still as cloudy now as it was thousands of years ago. Everybody also thinks that they are the most right with thier view of these things.
    I see this as an ok thing. This is showing that the Jesus of the Bible that I and other Christians belive in does not have a solid concrete definion of who is or what he was all about. This I feel is because he is bigger than any mind on earth can ever comprehend or understand. It is because of this biggness that there is so much of a debate.

  4. I would most likely put the book of James right in the middle of Brown’s categories. Hagner says, “James represents one of the most distinctive Jewish documents in the New Testament.” I completely agree with his statement but nowhere does it say that the Christians must still be circumcised or follow certain dietary laws. If it is ok for me to create another category I would put James in the category of, “Jewish Christians who were not forced to be circumcised but they were required to be obedient to many other aspects of the law.” James really stresses the importance of obedience. James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Then in chapter 2 it continues to talk about doing good deeds. James 2:14 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?”

    This makes me wonder where we as 21st century believers should stand. To be honest I think that Christianity as gotten a little off track from where it should be. All to often I see people getting “saved” and then living their lives as they did before. Many seem to resemble how the Nicolatians lived. I know we all still fail sometimes but change should be evident in our lives when we are truly born-again. I think all of us ask Jesus into our hearts, but do we really surrender our lives to Him? Would God appreciate the Jewish Christians in James way of living more the modern churches?

    • I could not agree with you more Greg! Where are many believers these days? But who am I to condemn others when I am a sinner as well. But really, I agree with your questions. God tells us not to be lukewarm, yet that is where many are. Fitting in is such an important thing in many people’s lifes. I can find myself falling into that category sometime as well, but that is not what God calls of us. We should not be conforming to this world, and looking at the 4 types of Jewish Christians and the Law, I just wonder… why did the people believe what they believed? Were they just so conformed in their ways that they did not want to do anything different? Were they just comfortable with their lifestyles? Feeling safe in their environments and cultural definements? Are we, as children of the living Lord, here on earth just going with the flow? Not wanting to stick out? Not wanting to be stretched? We are called, as believers in the one true God, to live lives that are pleasing and glorifying to God. Throughout the Bible there is evidence of trials and tribulations in the lives of many believers. There are only one or two disciples of Jesus that died a natural death. The others became martyrs, dieing because of their faith… because they made a difference. Are you and I standing out? Or are we just sitting back, following the traditions and beliefs of everybody else?

  5. Wouldn’t Type one Jewish Christians also be considered around about as conservative as the Ebionites, if many of them were Pharisees who were as devoted to the law as Paul used to be when he persecuted Christians?IF some of them were pharisees that thought as Paul had before, then it seems they would have issues with his new beliefs.

    Galatians 2:4-5 indicates that the “false brothers” had entered in among the people to spy on their freedom and to make them “slaves”, but they did not listen to them so “that the truth of the gospel might remain”. This seems to indicate that these false brothers did not even believe in the TRUE gospel. So my question is, why are they included in a category of Christians. I understand the people mentioned in John 12:42, as they are believers who are fearful of the Pharisees putting them out of the synagogue for proclaiming their faith (not that that is an excuse,but still) as opposed to the false brothers in Galatians 2 that I referred to above, that seem to not believe at all.

  6. There are “types” of Christianity in the twenty-first century just like there were “types” of Christianity in the first century. This fact will never make everyone happy. Some can be content in this, but the fact is that being unified cannot come out of this idea of the divisions. With this idea you get disagreement and barriers, like the Ebionites’ rejection of Paul because they required complete obedience to these laws. You do not get unification through the body of Christ by having “types of Christianity”, but rather by building up and encouraging fellow believers. Does it make us not “real” Christians today because we no longer follow the laws of the Old Testament, but rather “read it through the lens of Jesus” (P.Long, Reading Acts)? In 1 Peter 3:8 it calls us to have unity, unity of mind, and brotherly love. Therefore we should not let sub-sects or “types” of Christianity divide the body of Christ. I do not feel that we should ignore the concept of these types and sub-sects in and of themselves because the ignorance of these sub groups is ignoring a problem with no provision of a solution causing the continuation of divisions.

  7. Reading this post makes me think of if I was a Jew in the time of Paul. I wonder what I would believe. Assuming that I was a Jew and that I was a believer of Jesus, I would have grown up with the Law. I would have learned it at a young age and followed it throughout the entirety of my life. Then, there are people saying to abolish the Law. The Law no longer matters for Christ has replaced the Law. Galatians 2:16 says “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. Then there are passages like First John 3:4 saying “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness”. This implies that the law still matters. It is easy for me to believe what I believe now. I have the whole Bible to read and interpret. I have it already pieced together. However, I can’t imagine how confusing it would have been, hearing several different views and deciding whether I should stick with what I know, completely abandon everything I’ve been taught, or find some middle ground. It reminds me of one dilemma Christians face today. The same dilemma of what to believe. There are over one hundred denominations who all believe different things. Some denominations are only different because of one small thing, like obeying the law or not. We face the same decision today, that people faced in Paul’s time. I do not believe that we will ever come to an agreement on beliefs in this lifetime.

  8. When looking at the different classifications presented by Brown it is intriguing that there is such a wide spread in interpretations of rules and expectations. Hagner mentions that earliest Christianity which is explained and described in the early chapters of acts was exclusively Jewish. This sparks wonder on my part to ask, If the Christianity described in early Acts is primarily Jewish, why does it spark such a big debate in terms of our foundations in Christianity today? Yes it makes sense to look to the text and draw our own conclusions, but at the same time it is important to look at what the original intent of the author was. I may look at a painting and see one thing, but it could be completely the opposite of what the intent of the artist is. When I see the four divisions that Brown presents and also the Ebionites and Nicolatians I ask, did these people see things in the sense that the author intended? Did they consider the underlying meaning of what the disciples were actually said and wrote?
    Looking upon this thought I simply wonder why it was so hard for some to think one thing and others to think completely another based upon the same basic ideas. Part of that is just me and the way I think, but part of it also leaves the question of why such a big discrepancy?

  9. When reading the different “types” of Jewish Christianity, some requiring circumcision for all converts including Gentiles, others not insisting on circumcision for Gentiles but requiring the adherents of purity laws, and some requiring neither, I can’t help but think of all the different denominations of Christianity today. Like Shelby mentioned, there are many “types” of Christianity today. Today Christianity is used as a broad group category, encompassing numerous denominations such as; Catholicism, Lutheran, Baptist, Evangelical, and the like. Although I agree that unity is important in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12: 12-27) (Ephesians 4: 1-3); I also believe there are certain doctrinal truths that if convicted need to be adhered. Some doctrinal truths that I hold strongly include eternal security and means of Salvation. I believe that once you are saved you are always saved and nothing can separate you from spending eternity in Heaven (Romans 5:10-11). I also believe that one becomes saved through faith; believing in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). I suppose in some ways we really are like Jewish Christians in the First century. We desire unity yet there are certain doctrinal truths that we hold very strongly to; often unwavering, which inevitably cause schisms.

  10. This rubric is very helpful seeing though the different lenses of the subgroups of Christianity. “It takes time and effort to more deeply comprehend God’s word by understanding it in its original historical context (Jobes 427).” Simple things like this rubric help me a lot. But, yes Typology can be dangerous in certain instances.
    One thing that this rubric brought to my eyes was the fact that Paul still had something to do with Temple at some times. Specifically in Acts 21 we find that Paul took a few Jews to the Temple to allow them to purify themselves. That is surprising to me because we know that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51).” Wouldn’t that be a indication to the Jewish Christians that the meaning of the temple has changed?

  11. I think it is true that not everyone is going to agree on what should happen in every church. I noticed that each church that I have visited has different does each thing differently. It could be from the music to the sermon no one will ever agree on what should be done in the church. I like that there is going to always be a debate then it will give people things to do. But there is no exact and correct way things should be done no person is exactly right its just a debate that has been going on for years and will keep going on. (1 Corinthians 10:31-33) So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God- even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

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