Types of Jewish Christianity (Donald Hagner)

Donald Hagner’s article on Jewish Christianity in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament provides a summary of the theology of Jewish Christianity.  This is a different way of getting at the “types of Jewish Christianity” than Raymond Brown’s four-levels.  I have taken his three points and applied them to the Jewish Christian literature in order to see if the theology of these books can be really be described as “Jewish Christian.”

The Law and Christian Life. The Jewish community in Acts appears to have continued to keep the Law.  As Jews, there was no real disconnect between keeping the law and salvation.  The Temple was the main location of evangelism.  This evangelism did not attack the Temple or the priesthood, but seems to use temple worship as an opportunity to reach priests and pharisees.  From the beginning of his Gentile mission, Paul had to deal with Judaizer who argued that Gentiles ought to keep the law.

The Jewish Christian literature displays a range of belief on the issue of Law.  Hebrews which is has the most to say about the Law and the role of the law in the present age.  The Law itself is rarely addressed in Hebrews, and the Hebrew Bible as a whole is treated as foundational for understanding Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews does not argues that Jesus “cancels the Law,” but rather that the law is most fully understood in the light of Jesus and his sacrifice.  There is a certain amount of “supersession” in Hebrews – what Jesus did goes beyond the Law, therefore the only way to “do the Law” is to read it through the lens of Jesus.

James seems to have been a law-keeping Jew throughout his life.  The book of Acts describes James as the leader of a robust church in Jerusalem with many priests and Pharisees, all of whom were “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20).   In James’ letter a short discussion on keeping the “royal law” (love your neighbor), and in the context James points out that breaking one Law makes one guilty of the whole law (2:8-10).  Remarkably, it is in the very next unit of the letter that James deals with faith and works, the point at which he appears most at odds with Paul!

The most extreme example of Jewish Christians and the Law were the Ebionites.  While it is likely that they are a sub-Christian sect, they claimed to be the real followers of Christ.   They required complete obedience to the laws, including circumcision, food laws  and Sabbath (Eusebius HE 3.27) They considered Paul’s gospel to be a corruption and held James as the leader of the church.

Anti-Paulinism. Acts 21 seems to indicate that at least some in the Jerusalem church were suspicious of Paul’s theology and his understanding of the Law.  Of Hanger’s three points, this is the hardest to see in the biblical material, although his point is absolutely true for the less orthodox versions.  The Ebionites are the obvious example since they represent a complete rejection of Paul’s theology of the Law.  To this group, Paul was a heretic who completely rejected the Law.

But James 2:14-26 must be discussed as at least potentially “anti-Pauline.”  He is dealing with the issue of salvation by grace as opposed to a salvation by  works.  To what extent is James “anti-Paul”?  If James was written very early, it is possible that James had never read Paul’s theology (a copy of Galatians or Romans, for example) since Paul has not written anything yet! If so, James may be reacting to Pauline Theology as it has been reported to him, not as it actually was being taught.  On the other hand, there is no reason to think that more extreme applications of Paul’s theology did not appear early on.  There may very well have been Jews who rejected Law in favor of Paul’s doctrine of Grace and therefore are attacked by James.  (I am not against the idea that James is actually arguing against Paul, but that is for another posting.)

Christology. Hagner’s third point requires some sliding scale of Christology, usually described as “High Christology” (Phil 2:5-8 or Col 1:15-20) versus “Low Christology.” The difference between the Christology of Mark’s Gospel and John’s Gospel is striking. This is not to say that Mark thought less of Jesus, but rather that the later a work is, the more likely that there is a carefully, theologically nuanced view of Christ.   I think that this assumption has some problems, but it is true that the more Jewish a work is, the more likely you will find a struggle with the divinity of Christ.

Hebrews argues that Jesus is the Son of God and superior to the sacrifices of the Hebrew Bible, Moses, the angels, and a number of other Jewish ideas.  This in and of itself constitutes a very “high” Christology, although it is possible to still see this description as a bit less that Col 1:15-15 or Phil 2:5-11. The writer stops short of using language like “the very essence of God.”  In fact, one could argue that the “son of God” language in Hebrews is consistent with messianic language found in Psalm 2 and 110 and not really saying something about Jesus’ ontological being.

John’s Gospel has an extremely high Christology, perhaps the highest in the New Testament.  It is for this reason that John’s work is thought to be later and somewhat beyond the “parting of the ways.”  In my view, that is premature – in many ways John’s gospel is the most Jewish of the four! (And if we include the Apocalypse, we are on solid, Jewish apocalyptic ground).

On the more radical fringe, the Ebionites seem to have struggled with the idea of Jesus as God since the shema clearly states that there is only one God. They therefore  have to reject the full deity of Jesus.

In the end, Hagner’s three theological categories are helpful and certainly describe the Jewish Christianity found among the Ebionites.   But it may not be as descriptive of the biblical Jewish Christian literature.

14 thoughts on “Types of Jewish Christianity (Donald Hagner)

  1. Reading through Donald Hagner’s article on Jewish Christianity in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament, there are a number of key interests that should be pointed out. Hagner gives evidence for what many people take for granted, that early Christianity was a “messianic sect within Judaism” (580). Having Acts as our only description of the beginnings of Christianity, it should be understood that it is shown as being exclusively Jewish. Furthermore, there appears to be hardly any discontinuity between someone who practices Judaism and messianic Judaism. The Jewish Christians still participated in a usual and consistent everyday life within Judaism i.e.. temple worship, sacrifices, going up at the hour of prayer etc. (see also Hagner, 580).
    It was not until people like Stephen and his views of Christ’s death that things started to become uneasy. Stephen’s speech alerted other Jews because according to them, he was attacking the law and the temple (6.13). However, Hagner suggests that Stephen’s persecution was not directed against the twelve apostles, arguably, because they had still associated themselves with traditional Judaic practice.
    It can be drawn from this idea that Jewish Christianity did not really become a major sect within Judaism until new conclusions were starting to be drawn about the law and the cultic practices. As Jewish Christianity would continue to develop, it would be outstanding things like Paul and his letters to the Galatians, a conservative James, and the inclusion of Gentiles that would spark different Judaic theologies resulting in multiple sects within Judaism. I will discuss this idea further in my next post.

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    • Continuing from my last post, I made the conclusion that “Jewish Christianity did not really become a major sect within Judaism until new conclusions were starting to be drawn about the law and the cultic practices” (this post while discuss the reasons and results of these new “conclusions,” which take place after Stephen’s death). This idea of adapting covenantal nomism and the use of the law in response to Christ’s work was necessary because the “age to come” had been pulled back into the present age creating an eschatological tension by living between two ages. The question now that everyone asks as result of the “Christ event” is: how do live in this “between the ages?” What happens to the promise, what happens to the law, what happens to exile and suffering, and what happens to faith? These questions need to be answered in light of the “Christ event.”

      As P-Long notes in his post, the old covenant is rendered “obsolete” as the result of Christ’s ushering in the new covenant (8.13). The word “obsolete” appears quite strong but Long states that “the word here simply means, “makes old,” in that it is chronologically an earlier version of the covenant.” In other words, the old covenant is not presented as something that needs to be thrown away, but something that needs to be renewed in light of recent events. More appropriately perhaps, is that the law of old prepares and gives light to those recent events. In other words, as the writer of Hebrews exhibits, the old law acts as a lens to fully understand these recent events and those to come. The old law is a copy or prototype which helps us relate to the one coming, the one the law points to (9.24). Thus, the questions posed above are answered by relating old covenant ideas and promises to the “Christ event,” while, at the same time trying to figure out what Christ fulfills now and what awaits to be fulfilled in the future. During this eschatological tension, there are bound to be multiple views resulting in different messianic sects.

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  2. While reading Donald Hagner’s article, there seemed to be a lot of confusion during the early church as to what Jewish Christianity and Christianity as a whole should look like. The major heresies were those that had flawed Christology not necessarily those that focused on Law observation and practice. Granted the higher the value on observance of the Law generally lead to a lower christology due to the influence of the shema (Duet. 6) The idea that Christ is God, would seem to most Jews a false message. The Jews are not to have any other gods before YHWH, and the christians are proclaiming that the criminal they just put to death is messiah let alone God. It is no wonder why Jews that decided to follow this messiah were ostracized from the community. The strange and humorous thing is that to the gentiles these Jewish Christians were just a strange sect of Judaism. “They continued their Jewish practices and customs, including circumcision, temple participation, Sabbath worship, and observance of food laws. They were fully Jews, although to be sure they held the quite strange conviction that a recently crucified criminal had in fact risen from the dead and that he was the Messiah.” (Hanger, 580) If early Jewish Christians are still observing the Law it would seem that they understand fulfillment of the Old Testament differently than the Pauline tradition. “The writer of Hebrews does not argues that Jesus “cancels the Law,” but rather that the law is most fully understood in the light of Jesus and his sacrifice. There is a certain amount of “supersession” in Hebrews – what Jesus did goes beyond the Law, therefore the only way to “do the Law” is to read it through the lens of Jesus.” (P. Long) I think that the Jewish Christians were in a unique position to see the gospel through the lens of the Law, which enabled them to look back on the Law with greater appreciation, because of the sacrifice of Christ. Otherwise, the early Jewish Christians would have ceased to follow the Law if they found it to be of no longer value in light of Christ’s sacrifice.

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    • Jacob said “I think that the Jewish Christians were in a unique position to see the gospel through the lens of the Law, which enabled them to look back on the Law with greater appreciation.” This is a great point, but I’ll as the obvious question, does that mean that a Gentile Christian (saved out of paganism, no Jewish background,etc.) is at a disadvantage in understanding the Hebrew Bible?

      Usually we talk about Jewish converts having a head start ethically, since the Christian Ethic is not that far removed from the practice of Judaism, but there are all sorts of other disadvantages I can think of for the Pagan Convert.

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      • I agree with P. Long. I believe there was a reason the early Church followed the Law to the degree that they did. Due to Christianity being appointed the title of a sub-Jewish religion, they had not completely cut away from their ancestral roots. Early Acts churches were trying to figure out how to approach the Law with the newly risen Christ. While this was happening, It was only responsable for the early Christians to continue to follow the Law during this time. As the Churches theology developed, they slowly began to understand that the Law did not have the hold it used to, but again the important thing to understand is that before this theology, the Church was Jewish.

        But then again, we should not take this too far. To completely shed the Law from our faith would be to shed the teachings of Jesus from our theology.

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  3. I like how Donald Hagner traced some of the origins of the various types of Jewish Christianity. He points out early Christianity is Jewish. In fact it “…was exclusively Jewish,” (580) in the opening chapters of Acts. All of Christianity could be classified “as a messianic sect within Judaism” (580). From early on it is possible to see different types of Jewish Christianity developing. Stephen full of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by, “…saw his face as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15), said things which not even the Apostles likely agreed with (580). Stephen represents a new branch or type of Jewish Christianity that minimized the importance of keeping the law. And on the other end, the Judaizers that Paul fought against in Acts 15 were not a typical type of Christian Jew but may be as a near polar opposite of Stephen’s kind of Jewish Hellenized Christianity. There seems to be a middle type or types because Paul, Peter and James were arguing against the Judaizers (581). The significance of this is that James is seen as part of the group that was “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20) where Paul was not. So already there are at least three types of Jewish Christianity. The number is not important.

    Hagner is right when he says, “Jewish Christianity was anything but a single, unified phenomenon” (579). Hagner explores the various kinds of Jewish Christianity that can be deduced from the New Testament(minus the books written by Paul) and also from some non-canonical books and writings. Hagner avoids coming up with a certain number of types of Jewish Christianity. Hagner instead explores the historical settings of the early Christian Jews and how they viewed such things as the law, how they viewed Paul, and most importantly how they saw Christ. I saw this as an improvement and helpful in understanding early Jewish Christianity.

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    • Aaron said “but may be as a near polar opposite of Stephen’s kind of Jewish Hellenized Christianity.” Good point, IMHO the Hellenists were more conservative with respect to the “Works of the Law” than perhaps the aristocratic priesthood in Jerusalem. Maybe then Stephen represents ministry to more conservative Jews than what Peter is doing in the Temple!

      If you extrapolate that out to the Diaspora Jews in Antioch and Ephesus, does this help explain why Paul runs into such problems with the “Works of the Law” in these communities?

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      • I think that this maybe what is going on with Stephen. The Jewish authorities were not going after Peter and the apostles yet for a second time at this point. The Jewish authorities had decided to leave them alone for awhile after their initial imprisonment, escape from imprisonment, and beating thereafter upon Gamaliel’s advice. Hagner says, “The ability of the twelve apostles to remain in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1) implies that the persecution was not directed against them, probably because they disassociated themselves from the views of the Hellenistic Christians” (580).
        But I am not sure this is exactly the case either. Acts 8:1 says, “…they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” If the last phrase “except the apostles” refers to a group that stayed with and practiced the kind of Jewish Christianity that they did then yes. If it just means literally the apostles it doesn’t really hint at a different type of Jewish Christianity as being the reason why some had stayed and why some were scattered.

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  4. I think the title of Donal Hagner’s article, Types of Jewish Christianity, is saddening. It seems like a simple command when Hebrews says, “let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess…” and “…let us encourage one another…” (Heb 10:2325). Christians should all profess the same hope, but instead we often get caught up on the details and they quickly get little twists and bends in them as they are passed from person to person. Once our idea of hope is twisted we can no longer follow both of those commands to hold unswervingly as well as encourage others in their hope. But it is not just recently that Christians have become confused with this, even Paul was fighting fellow Christians, “the Judaizers against whom Paul fights in Galatians and Romans, and the gnosticizing Jewish Christians agains whom he fights in Colossians…After the NT…heterodox forms of Jewish Christianity begin to harden in their opposition to the Gentile church” (Hagner pg 5). Why are they already fighting and opposing each other? In 1 Corinthians Paul is already pleading with the believers to stop their arguing and to seek Christ together (1 Cor 1:10-17). What was the cause of so many ‘groups’ of Christians? Do you think there is a way for us to overcome it even though it has obviously been a struggle from the beginning?

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  5. I very much agree with Shelby on this topic of sections of Christianity. It is so saddening to be studying all these groups who were disagreeing and fighting about the slightest change in their theology. In FttE, the authors talk about endurance and perseverance as one of the main sub-themes of the book of Hebrews. They say that “the world is understood to be a place of testing, hardship, and temptation. The goal of such testing is to persevere, to endure…”(pg. 22) It also claims that “perseverance is a mark…of maturity.” (FttE 22) If we are put into this world of testing and hardship and are expected to come out the other side through perseverance and endurance why aren’t we pulling together and supporting one another? Shouldn’t we all we striving to reach the same goal? And yet in spite of the fact that we are serving the same God, we allow slight differences to come between us and to alienate us from one another. It is frustrating to know that this has been an issue even from the beginning and that we have not gotten any closer to the end of it. Can we hope to overcome it?

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    • I wouldn’t characterize the differences as being small. The differences between the group that Peter and James belonged to and the hellenized Jews like Stephen were not seen that way at the time. Those differences could get you killed back then. And the issues that Paul dealt with the Judaizer’s were fundamental. It seems like there was a lot of spiritual warfare going on and attempts of the evil one to try to divide the church and corrupt its doctrine right from the outset. If they didn’t believe in the right gospel there was going to be eternal consequences. As for today, Christians fight way too much over things that don’t matter.

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    • I agree with both Shelby and Hannah of this subject. But, I do not think that anything is going to change. I personally think it is pathetic that people can not get past their differences on small little things. Many of the things that fought and argued about are very small and not even worth the arguement. I have heard stories about churches that have split over the color of the new carpet and the types of songs being sung during the services. I have little cousins that have bigger fights and can put them behind them and still play during Christmas. It upsets me that us as children of the Lord fight over things and turn so many people off to the Lord. Things like this just show us how selfish and childish people are that they can not do something for a purpose that is bigger then them.

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  6. Aaron said, “As for today, Christians fight way too much over things that don’t matter.” I agree. It’s hard to distinguish between the battles worth fighting and the ones we should just leave alone. The major problem I have is when people try to “add to the grace of God” and preach a different gospel. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone.

    Now relating to the Hagner article, Hagner mentions that it seems probable that “James 2:14-16 is against Paulinists…those who took Paul’s free gospel to an extreme” (Hagner 586). I don’t think this is exactly the case. This passage in James is talking about faith and works, saying that faith without works is dead. This may seem to contradict what Paul says in Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved…not through works”. But I believe that both Paul and James would agree that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone, and that works is a necessary result.

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