Jewish Christianity: A Myth?

In a previous post, I re-visited Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity and found myself in agreement with the idea that the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  While it is popular enough to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus or Paul, there is dissent in describing the roots of Christianity as “Jewish.”

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 the what effect 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 Israel.

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.

14 thoughts on “Jewish Christianity: A Myth?

  1. It’s an odd usage of Myth in Neusner’s title, appealing to the true/false axis rather than the story/truth axis.

    I’t hard to know where to start with the problems in this sentence: (I corrected say to saw) “Christians saw “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life (3-4)”.

    It seems to me that Christians without sanctification, i.e. without action seeking the holy and the good in the present age and life, are impossible to believe ultimately. The way of life is critical to salvation (whatever that means).

    • I am tempted to say, “well, that’s Neusner for you.” Post-WW2 Christian scholars have sought the origins of Christianity in Judaism (and properly so), Neusner is trying to reign in that trend.

  2. Probably a big problem with Neusner looking at Christianity is that he mostly came in contact with trinitarians and did not come to know enough unitarian Christians.

    The earliest believers in Jesus never took him to be God, but accepted that he was the sent one from god, a prophet and master teacher, who was taken out of the dead to become a high priest for God and a mediator between God and man.

    • This will always be an open question, since the earliest Jewish writer we have on Jesus is Paul, and he has a rather high Christology. Philippians 2:5-11, for example, exalts Jesus to divine, and it may reflect a worship tradition pre-dating Paul’s letter. I would be happier with “not all earliest believers in Jesus never took him to be God” than dismissing the Pauline witness.

      If you refer to the disciples of Jesus prior to the resurrection, you are of course correct. No one worshiped Jesus as God until after the resurrection and ascension.

      It is likely the case that describing anyone as “trinitarian” or “unitarian” Christians is anachronistic since that kind of language is current until we get closer to Nicea.

  3. I started reading this book called, TORAH! TORAH! TORAH! by Peter Thalhofer, in his acknowledgment the pastor he grew up learning the Bible from stated, “Israel had the Gospel centuries before Jesus’ ministry.” This statement had me thinking more about my life as a believer and how or what can I learn through Judaism through Christ Jesus. Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets, I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17, NIV).” Furthermore, if Jesus is the New Covenant with the old covenant in him, because what he said in Matthew 5:17, does this mean both the Written Torah and the living Torah is made one but different concept meaning? This blog, now has me wanting to search more and get a good understanding and knowledge to help me put pieces together both Old and new of the Bible. From following the Torah to God writing the Torah in our hearts.

  4. The premise of this article – the validity of Jewish Christianity – surprised me.
    After some consideration, I realized that I have so strongly associated Jewish history with Christianity that I considered nothing else.
    The post highlights the work of Jacob Neusner. From the article, it seems that Neusner believes that Christianity and Judaism are distinctly separate groups One of his supporting arguments notes that they have different Holy books – one the Bible, the other the Torah. While they are separate the Torah, in my opinion, is part of the Christian Bible. The Bible is not the Torah, nor is the Torah the Bible. Yet I would not go as far as to agree with Neusner that the two never interact. Even in the New Testament, selections and quotations from the Torah are present. An argument could also be formed that the Bible cannot be properly understood without a knowledge of the Torah.
    That being said, I am left with the question: What is the Torah? Or more accurately, how would Neusner define the Torah? Good research contains working definitions. In this article and in my response I’ve taken the assumption that the Torah indicates the Pentateuch. Whether or not it is a correct assumption is to be determined.
    If Neusner is in fact, referring to the collective of the books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, I would struggle to agree with his main premise.
    I do however, find this blog article helpful in better and more accurately understanding the distinctiveness of Judaism and Christianity.

  5. “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.” This sentence caught my eye. I think as Christians we see our salvation as a free pass to do what we want. It’s true, if we’re saved, we’re going to Heaven, but it is important that we don’t take God’s salvation for granted–that we focus on living out God’s will in this life. What is our purpose? What can I do for God in this life? I think as Christians, we tend to forget to live out God’s will for our lives.

  6. I believe it to be a bit bold of Neusner to say that Christianity and Judaism do not share any common ground. I understand what he may be trying to claim but to go as far as to say that there is no commonality? I’m not sure that we can claim that here. I agree that Christians in the 1st century were fundamentally different than the Pharisees of the time, sanctification versus salvation. Works versus faith. Christianity draws much from that though. We see in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 that sanctification comes only through the work of the Holy Spirit and no longer through the abiding of the Law (Exodus 31:13). 1st century Jewish Christians, still practicing Jewish law, looked much the same as their law-abiding, temple-worshipping, Jewish brothers and sisters that did not hold to Jesus as the Messiah. The Torah was included in scripture for a purpose, and as far as I know Neusner does not properly address this commonality and its significance.
    I often look at 1st century Christians as having it figured out. They had disagreements and arguments about doctrinal issues but for the most part they seemed to be functioning as one church, just in many places. But I see that I was in error here. The early Christian churches looked much like the American church in that it had many different doctrinal and practicing beliefs. Division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians I would imagine caused many different opinions on practices. Those not familiar with the law would see no place for it, and those raised in the practice of the law would not have just let it go.

  7. I have also very much thought that the people that knew Christ were the ones to listen to more in the Bible than people like Paul who are speaking after the fact. After reading this article I stand corrected because Romans 9:24-27 means more to me than a lot of other verses in the Bible. That is because it states I get to be saved if I chose to be. I no longer have to be an Israelite. Paul also states that God’s people are christians and not just the people of Israel.

  8. We look at the roots of Christianity in Judaism to be a possibility. Before proceeding, I’d like to take a moment and look at the surface of what Christianity and Judaism are. I believe it is important to recognize the differences and commonalities of Christianity and Judaism. We understand at the core of both is God, but it is expressed differently. Individuals practicing Judaism focus more on fulfilling God’s will here on earth. Christianity, however, focuses on the salvation being a gift that is sufficient over our actions. That’s not saying we do not practice living God’s will, it just is not the defining focus of our relationship with God. When we recognize the surface of how they are practiced today we get an understanding of their focus. This is not enough to decide if they are rooted in each other. The context tells us both come from the same place, Israel. Neusner makes a point that their Israel’s are different. At the same time, I think it’s important to realize these individuals grew up during the same time or their ancestors did. Generations came through learning more about what Jesus’ life meant to them, over time these views became different and expanded to new ways of thinking. Our textbook touches on this too as it talks about how much easier it would be if Jesus wrote us a systematic theology book, but instead, others were inspired to do so (Jobe, 2011, pp.13). It takes time for others to write and talk about who Jesus was and the way of life, so the beginning churches would not have had a clear picture. Overall, it is interesting to recognize the commonalities and differences in the roots of Christianity and Judaism.

  9. This was a great passage to read with Jewish Christianity “A Myth” by Raymond Brown the article was very useful to me as I learn more about the Christian world. In the passage it said that “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.” It caught my eye because us as God children and we know he always forgive us because that what he died for some time we take it overboard because and feel that we can Sin and do what we want because God will overlook that. I don’t think we do it on purpose but that something that us Christians need to work on to become better for God’s Kingdom.

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