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.