In the earliest days, Christianity was entirely Jewish, yet by the end of the first century the majority of the church was Gentile, and by the end of the second century only a minority of Christians were converts from Judaism. There is little doubt a book like Hebrews is Jewish Christian based on its focus on the Law and use of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the writings of the second century apologists are almost entirely Gentile because of their use of philosophical categories to argue for the truth of Christianity. In a previous post I survey Donald Hagner’s description of Jewish Christianity and Raymond Brown’s four categories of Jewish Christianity. Quite a long time ago I looked at Jacob Neusner’s suggestion Jewish Christianity was a myth. Neusner said “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect.” I think they do (go read that earlier post)and the Jewish Christian literature (Especially Hebrews and James) is evidence of that.
But most books are not as easy to categorize as Hebrews or James, so the following several posts will develop a set of criteria which may indicate a book is more or less representative of Jewish Christianity. I will start with the Christology of Jewish Christian literature.
It is often assumed “high Christology” means a book is “less Jewish” and ought to be dated as late as possible. High Christology refers to the belief that Jesus was in some sense divine. Low Christology is the belief that Jesus was only a human, or was human specially appointed by God. The general assumption is the belief Jesus is God and part of the Trinity developed over several hundred years, not finally taking shape until the fourth century. There is some truth to this since the claims the gospels make about Jesus could be read either way: Jesus is a human, but he also seems to claim some divine prerogatives which imply he was “more than just a human.”
This “low develops into the high” Christology can be seen in the New Testament. For example, Mark’s Gospel is the earliest of the four and does not contain any birth narrative. Jesus is the suffering servant who tries to keep messianic expectations to a minimum. Matthew and Luke include birth stories which expand Jesus’ origins to include a divine miracle (the virgin birth) and the fulfillment of prophecy. John’s Gospel was the last written and describes Jesus as the Word of God who was with God at creation, and is in fact God (John 1:1-3).
The main reason a low Christology is assumed to be “more Jewish” is the importance of monotheism in Second Temple period Judaism. If a Jewish teacher like Jesus announced he was The God of the Hebrew Bible in the flesh, he would have likely been immediately stoned for blasphemy. In Mark 2 Jesus claims to be able to forgive sin and he is accused (at least in thought) of blasphemy.
I had some reservations since Paul (a Jewish Christian) has a remarkably high Christology at a fairly early date (Phil 2:5-11). This particular example is important since it appears as though Paul is recalling a well-known tradition, implying this example of “high Christology” is earlier than the letter of Philippians. Martin Hengel, for example associates high Christology with the early church, commenting that a high Christology “grew entirely out of Jewish soil” and any “pagan influences have been suspected in the origins of Christianity were mediated without exception by Judaism” (“Early Christianity,” 2–3). Richard Bauckham also concluded “the earliest Christology was already the highest Christology” (God Crucified, viii, also see here).
There are some examples of Jewish Christian letters which do not have a robust Christology (James, for example, barely mentions Jesus!) Looking at a book like Hebrews for example, can we really say a low Christology indicates a book is representative of a Jewish Christianity? There are many examples of a rather high view of Christ in Hebrews, yet the book seems to assume a Jewish audience.