Introducing Jewish Christian Literature

Starting this week I am teaching an undergrad class on the “Jewish Christian Literature.” Essentially, this is on Hebrews through Revelation. Sometimes this section of the New Testament is called the “catholic epistles” or the “general epistles” since they are perceived as being universal in appeal. James, 1 Peter and 1 John written as circular letters, but 2 and 3 John and Jude seem to be directed at specific congregations. While Hebrews more like a sermon than a letter, Revelation includes seven letters to churches struggling with real issues faced by those local congregations near the end of the first century.

But as I point out the first day of class, we could probably call these letters the “other letters” or the “Not Paul” collection. This is what is difficult about reading books like Hebrews and James. Christian Theology is almost always focused on Paul (and for good reasons). Yet this literature indicates there were other early church thinkers who attempted to explain Jesus to Jewish people rather than Gentiles. The results are compatible with Pauline theology, but also quite distinct. It is that distinctiveness I am interested.

I personally prefer to call these books the Jewish Christian Literature because most of the books are addressed to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora. I will work on the details later, for now I am only stating my conviction that (with the exception of 2 Peter) all the letters are “more Jewish” than the average Pauline letters. They appear to me to represent a stream of early Christianity which was ethnically Jewish and continued to practice some (all?) elements of their ancestral faith while believing Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of prophecy from the Hebrew Bible.

But what does “Jewish Christian” mean? Paul was Jewish and Christian. It is not as though Paul writes “Gentile Christian” letters. In fact, it might be the case there are no true “Gentile Christian” letters in the New Testament since even Luke-Acts has a Pauline influence. By giving these letters the title “Jewish Christian” I want to highlight the fact they are all addressed to “more Jewish than not churches” and Christians who looked to James, Peter, and John as their authorities rather than Paul. In contrast, churches in Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi, and Ephesus were “more Gentile than not” and looked to Paul as the authority (for the most part, anyway).

Is this a fair way to read Hebrews through Revelation? Is it possible to set Pauline Theology to one the side and read Hebrews (for example) without thinking in Pauline categories? Is that a healthy way to read these books?

16 thoughts on “Introducing Jewish Christian Literature

  1. Thanks, Phillip. This approach and perspective should be interesting. As to your ending q’s, “yes” on all.

    One of the things I think more important than almost any Evangelical/traditionalist owns to is some of what is NOT present in either Paul or the Jewish Christian Lit.: Use of Jesus’ BODILY resurrection, followed by a witnessed ascension as either a “fact” or as a reason for faith.
    (We often forget to notice the importance of what is missing that might be expected in a given interpretation or “paradigm”, and to then think through the implications.)

    In stark contrast is that much of the Protestant world particularly, in the last many decades at least, HAS made this a core evidence for “faith”. Even an undefined resurrection or “raising up” of Jesus (which could be non-bodily, and I think IS implied) is very minimal in the General epistles. It certainly is not a key reason or support for belief, nor for seeing Jesus as one “person” of the Trinity.

    Now, resurrection was an established if not highly emphasized Jewish concept well before the 1st century, as in Heb. Scripture and Jesus’ context. Thus, some kind of resurrection of Jesus fits and is not radical nor revolutionary. But did these early Jewish believers (or Paul, for that matter) conceive of it as bodily resuscitation, with 40 days of mingling with disciples and then an ascension?

    That hardly seems possible, on much further evidence than I’ve cited in my “null curriculum” observation above. Only the Gospels/Acts give us stories of “eye witness” accounts of Jesus in a “resurrection body”. And, to my recollection, only Acts (later than the Synoptics and perhaps than John) mentions an ascension. Let me add that if one reads I Cor. 15 (Paul) closely, it clearly supports visionary “appearances” to “more than 500 brethren” but not claims similar to stories in the Gospels/Acts. Rather, these were akin to Paul’s own experience/vision. And it definitely was not pre-ascension, if an “ascension” occurred.

    Bottom line: As far as I can see, we have no pre-70 A.D. “bodily resurrection” stated concept. And only the Gospels/Acts relating it, narrative form, from 70 to the presumed end of composition of the canonical NT books (by around 90-95 in conservative dating, and no later than 130-140 or so in more “higher critical” views.) We shouldn’t, for either Paul or these books, read back in our presumptions about the nature of early concepts (or “reality”) of the Resurrection. This is significant for reading the Jewish Christian Literature.

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  2. As I look over this and refer to the writing I think of what was discussed on the first day of class and the discussion we had on how we need to stop looking at all of Christian faith from a more Pauline aspect and allow the writers of these particular books to shine in their own ways. Although they may draw some of their own personal knowledge from Paul’s teaching you are right in saying that there were other church leaders that did their own teaching to the Jewish people. Jewish Christian is someone who believes the Christian faith and accepts Paul’s teaching, as many early believers were but it is also someone who maintains Jewish practice or has Jewish heritage while being a Christian believer. I think in some cases it is almost better to set Pauline theology to one side and read Hebrews to better grasp the beliefs that we hold as Christians. We cannot just forget all the things Paul taught but it is important to look at Hebrews and the as you call them “not Paul” collection from a different point of view than what Paul wrote to the Gentiles. These other church leaders need to be recognized for their own beliefs. I am not sure I would say it was healthy to look at just Hebrews and not refer to Paul’s teaching in some aspect when reading it but I would say that it is a good idea to look at these books of the Bible separated from Paul’s abundance of letters to the many churches of the first century.

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    • You make some great points in not leaving out different aspects of Christian faith. I agree with you in the discussion that we should look at it more than just a Pauline aspect. From stepping back and seeing that there is more to these books than just a Pauline side, we need to take into mention everything that is going on. The context, the audience, the culture, etc. Many may in fact have stemmed off of Paul’s teachings, but to read the book from a context of not a nonPauline worldview, we can learn a lot more and accurately understand what is going on in the book. It is like an author writing a book from his own thoughts and words but instead someone else getting the credit. Likewise, as humans we all have our own thoughts and we want others to hear about them as our words and not take them out of context or from someone else.

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  3. I think that calling the non-Pauline letters Jewish-Christian is probably better than calling them the universal epistles. I feel that by calling them the universal epistles creates the connotation that everyone can understand them, which leads to a lack of prep time that is needed to really delve deep into these books. Each of these books were addressed to a certain type of people, more often than not the people of the Diaspora who had become Christians either through Paul or other missionaries. These Jews would have had at least 1,200 years of history and tradition that can be used to make references and create connections from the past to Christ. The book of Hebrews does this at every step. Without really understanding the audience of these books attempting to study them can prove to be an effort in futility. When people call them Jewish-Christian Epistles individuals who wish to study them are immediately reminded of the audience that the books were intended for. Moving on to the question of whether or not it is possible to divide Pauline theology and the rest of the New Testament, I would have to say yes. There were several anti-Paul sects of Christianity that were formed after Paul’s ministry and they neatly divided Paul’s theology and Jewish-Christian theology. I do not believe that it is healthy because the two theologies, while they may come into conflict every so often (James 2 and Ephesians 2), do make a cohesive theology that is needed for further development of Christian Spirituality.

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  4. I think that it is very challenging to read the Jewish Christian Literature in the New Testament because as Western believers we taught to view everything through a Pauline lens. I do think that it is in some small part possible to read these without referencing to a Pauline paradigm, but it is also very challenging to set those preconceptions aside. Is it healthy for us to do so? Absolutely. I would almost say it is necessary in order to understand what the books say on their own merit. But it is also important to realize that there is a great deal of synergy between the Jewish Christian Literature and the words that Paul wrote. We must see Scripture as a whole, not as segmented or segregated parts. In point of fact, Peter lends weight to the fact that Paul’s writings are on par in terms of authority with the Jewish Scriptures, being the Old Testament.

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  5. I think calling them “Jewish Christian Literature” is a good word choice. I feel like calling them “not Paul” collection has a connotation that I do not think you are aiming for. Calling them “not Paul” gives the impression that they are not as good or meaningful as if they came from Paul. Which the focus of a book should not be whether or not Paul wrote them, but rather that everything in the Bible is inspired by God as mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:16. Saying that it is not Paul who wrote it as their name shifts that focus that should be on God to Paul. The name you choose does a nice job with that. My perception of the title is that it is who the target audience probably was as you mentioned.
    I do not think that we should split the two categories, I feel like they complete each other or at least round each other out. I feel like you cannot truly dig deep without thinking about Paul’s theology. Paul’s theology brings in a new aspect that is not in the others since he is more gentile focus while the Jewish Christian literature is more Jewish literature. I feel like this combination brings everyone together. If it was solely Paul’s theology then those who are coming from the Jewish background may feel left out. While on the other hand without Paul’s theology the gentiles may feel left out.Together they bring the bigger picture together that is meant for everyone.In Hebrews 9, it talks about how Jesus Christ is the “mediator” between the Old and New Covenant (v. 15). There is no specific group this new covenant is geared towards. John 3:16 does not specify what group is able to have eternal life, but rather what needs to be done to obtain eternal life. It does not say Jews that believe get it, but rather whoever believes. So having both Paul and Jewish Christian Literature is important because both audiences are able to take part of the new covenant. I think that it is important to have both categories in mind for this reason.

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  6. In reference to your final question, I absolutely believe that it is healthy to read these books in their intended context, while keeping in mind the cultural implications of their time. In my experience, it is very important to be able to communicate the gospel in ways that are relevant, applicable, and understandable to the audience. I think this a main reason why the letters that were written to primarily Jewish churches are more Jewish than the Pauline letters. In order to reach them and communicate clearly, they use terms and ideas that are familiar to them. One of the most important parts of delivering information is to understand and keep in mind the intended audience.

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  7. This sounds like a class I’d delve into . I’m a Catholic who was raised Protestant in community which has a sizable Jewish contingent. I have studied Judaism. I have read TANaKh with Rabbis and Jewish friends. I get frustrated when Christians claim Christianity supersedes Judaism and that Jesus came in part to replace Judaism.

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  8. My father in law introduced me to Arnold Fruchtanbaum who is a Messianic Jew. He teaches the Bible from a Jewish perspective since even Paul was a Jew. He’s worth looking into.

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  9. So, can I take your class? Haha. As a current Christian Ministry major, I found this brief bit of information fascinating and not something I’ve heard. I think it makes perfect sense to look at the books this way as long as you are not throwing away one or the other. Thanks for the post!

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