A Common Foundation?

In his recent book on Paul, N. T. Wright argues that Paul has foot in three worlds, the Jewish, the Greek and the Roman worlds. His Jewish worldview is reinterpreted in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah and Paul’s mission is to present that reinterpreted Jewish Messiah to a world dominated by Greek categories of thought and Roman social practice. But as I mentioned in my last post, the final books of the New Testament canon seem to be written to primarily Jewish audiences that were not “Pauline” churches (i.e., mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles). Hebrews through Revelation are Christian, but with a decidedly Jewish-Christian appeal.

Bible TorahA couple of years ago I posted a summary of Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity (part 2 and part 3) and found myself in agreement with the idea that the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  There was a range of opinion on how the followers of Christ related to the Jewish Law. While it is popular enough to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus or Paul, there is still dissent in describing the roots of Christianity as “Jewish” and resistance to considering the “other letters” as a “Jewish Christian” literature.

Jacob Neusner, for example, does not believe that there is a common foundation for both Judaism and Christianity.  Neusner states that “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect” (p. xi).   He contrasts Christians and Pharisees as an example of this absolute disconnect.  Both Pharisees and Christians “belong to Israel,” Neusner says, but they had completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue. Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life (3-4).  Christianity is all about salvation (in the next life), while the Pharisees is all about sanctification (in this life).

His point is well taken, since Judaism is not as much interested in salvation “out of this world and into heaven” but rather living out God’s will in this life.  But in a typically Neusnerian fashion, he makes this dichotomy so strong that the two cannot be said to have any common ground.  In my view, he is taking Christianity as we know it from the fourth century and later as his model of what “Christianity is” and (rightly) judging it as having little or nothing in common with Judaism.

This is a problem for many studies of the first-century church.  There is an assumption that the earliest believers in Jesus were somehow more correct in their doctrine and practice than later generations.  I cannot agree with this, since the earliest believers hardly worked out the implications of who Jesus claimed to be let alone what impact the Christ Event would have on “Israel.”  They were Jewish people who believe Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation only comes through him.  In practice, there was as much diversity as there was in Judaism at the time.  While James was welcome in the Temple courts, Peter and John were tolerated there, but Stephen and the Hellenists likely were not welcome.  All were Jewish and would likely consider themselves the “correct” continuation of Jesus’ ministry.

It is not until Paul’s letters that there is a serious attempt to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection and the implications that these events have for Israel.  For Paul, the people of God are a family (like Jesus taught), but also the Body of Christ.  Neusner correctly picks up on this and sees this as a dividing point between Christianity and the Pharisees as well.  Paul says that whatever the people of God are, they are a unique group apart from historic Israel.

If this s the case, what do we have in the  Jewish Christian literature? Are James, Peter and John Jews or not? Could a Jew in the first century maintain their “Jewishness” and be a follower of Jesus? Or are these mutually exclusive categories?

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.

5 thoughts on “A Common Foundation?

  1. Of course James, Peter and John were Jews. John to me is the most Jewish of all the gospels. As you say, Paul was a Jew. He had Timothy circumcised. Jews today are accepted as Jews with varying theologies and levels of Torah observance all over the map – except Neusner won’t have Jewish believers in Jesus. I don’t get it. Jewish believers in Jesus and Torah should be considered good Jews. Yes, you are right. It’s because the church starting around A.D. 100 when Justin and Melito excluded our “elder brothers” that Neusner speaks as he does. Jump centuries ahead, and Luther and Calvin fanned the flames. I would do anything to be in this class. The “parting of the ways” is the greatest disaster in the history of the church, even worse than the RC sex abuse scandals. Let me know if and when you have an online version of this class, Phil. Thanks. Tom Schuessler

  2. I think that living, as a christian, under the assumption that modern Judaism and Christianity don’t have the same basic foundations, makes most of the Bible completely irrelevant to our lives, and we might as well throw it out. However, I think that realizing that our roots lie within the parameters of Judaism is essential to truly understanding the things that both Jesus and Paul taught. I think that this Jewish-Christian section of the Bible is important for modern Christianity, if for no other reason than gaining a greater understanding of where we came from, and the history of faith in Jesus as we know it. The only way we can understand that is to accept that a Jew who believes, and follows, Jesus as messiah is, at the same time, a good Jew and a good Christian. Yes, their Christianity may have looked strange to those Gentiles that had become a part of the Body of Christ, but it does not take away the validity of their belief. So, to conclude, I do not think that a “Jewy” Jew had to give up their “Jewishness” in order to follow Jesus.

  3. The question of whether a follower of Jesus can maintain their ‘Jewishness’ is an interesting question because to me it seems that to follow Jesus meant doing some things that Jews would not do. From our perspective now, it is easy to say that you could be a follower of Jesus and maintain your ‘Jewishness’ because we read about several Jews who were followers of Christ. But for me, what comes to mind first is all the times that Jesus was investigated/questioned for breaking the Sabbath (Ex. John 9:14). Seems like Jesus, although a Jew Himself, was not too concerned about this ‘Jewishness’,or at least in the Pharisees eyes. However, it is important to note that many of the struggles between following Jesus and being Jewish come from the rigid Pharisees. Even Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7 by the Sanhedrin shows this struggle. So if the question is asked if one could follow Jesus and maintain “Jewishness” in the eyes of the Jewish leaders of the day, I would say no, a follower of Jesus might have a hard time doing that. But to be a follower of Jesus and maintain your Jewish rituals and lifestyle is completely possible. Therefore, it depends on what it means to maintain ‘Jewishness’ and who is judging that. After all, “Earliest Christianity was exclusively Jewish” (Hagner 580). The earliest Christians were Jewish,and they lived that way. Being a follower of Jesus and maintaining ‘Jewishness’ are not mutually exclusive in my opinion.

  4. Peter, James, and John were absolutely Jews, and they could have kept their first century Jewishness and be followers of Jesus. As you mentioned in your post, Neusner “…contrasts Christians and Pharisees as an example of this absolute disconnect…they had completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue. Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life”
    This contrast and disconnect between Jewishness and Christianity is exactly why they can co-exist. Judaism is much more than a faith and a set of rules. By the first century, Judaism is a fully developed culture with a vast and rich history. Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life because that was their culture, and Israel was in fact a way of life. A christian is not required to deny his culture, but he is called to live a way of life that is reflective of our faith. That is the point of much of Paul’s argument against Gentiles becoming Jewish in order to be Christian in Acts 15 and Galatians. Christianity is not defined by a culture or a strict set of rules. The faith of a Christian transcends culture. Gentiles could understand the Gospel as presented by Paul because it was not limited to one culture.
    However, despite this clear disconnect between the Jewish way of life and Christian faith, Paul makes it clear in some of the more difficult passages in his letters that there is a clear and definitive connection between the Christian faith and Judaism such as Romans 9-11 and Galatians 3. Christianity is founded in Judaism, but can exist apart from Jewish culture. The history of Judaism is essential for a complete understanding of the entirety and the narrative of the Scripture and the faith. Thus, what we have in the Jewish Christian literature is a uniquely Jewish perspective of the Christian life lived out in a Jewish context. These epistles are written to Jews who are of the Christian faith seeking sound instruction on how to understand and live out the new faith in Christ.

  5. They were all Jews, but they could still follow Jesus. They didn’t exactly know what to think of Jesus while they were with him. Christianity didn’t come around until after they were all dead. At the time, after Jesus was raised to Heaven they were converting Jews, but they weren’t really converting them to Christianity, or to Gentiles, so really they were Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah that they were looking for. That the Messiah that was supposed to save them from their sufferings; was there to save them from their sins, not from their oppressors. So yes, I think that first century Jews could maintain their “Jewishness”, to a point, and still be a follower of Christ. For some of those Christ followers that were still Jewish, after they were told of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again, they were not given much instruction at that time. So if you were a Jew during this period, and one of the apostles came up to you and told you about Jesus. But didn’t tell you how to change your life, would you continue doing what you were used too? Also during this time, they Jews started converting to this religion called “the way” which is what Christianity was originally called, but it was treated as a reform.

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