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.

7 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).

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    • 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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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