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?