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.
A 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.