Jewish Christianity according to N. T. Wright

In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright points to three issues that may give some indication of the “Jewishness” of a particular writer.  He begins his discussion of Paul’s redefinition of Jewish Monotheism in Jesus with a survey of the “Origin of Christology.” He points out that the “orthodoxy of the Enlightenment” was that so-called high Christology is late and non-Jewish development (645). Coupled with what Wright calls the Romanticist idea that the earliest form of Christian was more “pure,” this led to the stripping of anything that was looked like too “high” of a Christology from the original, pure kernel of Christianity (citing Bousset and Bultmann in particular).

Paul and the FaithfulnessSince the Second World War, this search for a non-Jewish pure form of early Christianity has come under serious revision, beginning with W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders. One of the benefits of the “New Perspective on Paul” is that scholars were going to the Jewish sources and reading them for the first time and reading Paul in the context of Second Temple Period Judaism. Following on the work of Martin Hengel, it has become  increasingly obvious that all Judaism in the first century was in some sense Hellenistic, so that looking for a non-Hellenistic, Jewish Christianity was “to search blindly in a dark room for a black cat that wasn’t there in the first place” (647).

What this means, for Wright, is that there is no “Pauline Christianity” over against an earlier “Jewish Christianity.” In fact, he points out that there is no evidence that there was a Jewish Christianity that rejected Jesus as the God of Israel, such as the Ebionites in the second century (648). Paul’s Christology is already as “high” from the time he began writing letters and he claims that this was a tradition passed down to him from the earlier Jewish apostles of Jesus.

I am in agreement with Wright that Christology ought to be dropped as a criterion for Jewish Christianity, and that the Enlightenment was simply wrong to assume some sort of slow development of the sort theology we find in Phil 2:5-11 or Ephesians and Colossians. But I am not quite ready to jettison the idea of a Jewish Christianity. What I am saying in this series is not that there was an early, Jewish Christianity that someone mutated into Pauline Christianity as theologically minded writers began to think more deeply about who Jesus was. I do not have in mind a linear development “from Judaism to Christianity,” but parallel developments in Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts.

There seems to have been a conscious effort on the part of Jewish Christians to target Jews in Jerusalem and in the synagogues of the Diaspora with the message that Jesus is the Messiah. Hebrews is an obvious example, but James seems to be a very “Jewish” book targeting people who are more or less Jewish in worldview. In my view, 1 Peter also is obviously directed to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora (but I will get to that later in the series!) As I suggested before, the first two items in Hagner’s article (importance of Law and anti-Pauline thinking) are more useful than Christology.

Wright’s warning is important: there was no slow development of Christology over the first hundred years of Christianity so that the church eventually came to the semi-creedal statements of Phil 2:5-11. This observation will be valuable as we read a book like Hebrews. From the very first verses of Hebrews, Jesus is described in divine terms!

Does this observation tell us anything about the state of Second Temple Judaism? Perhaps this is a case of “the time was right” for Jesus to appear and hint at being God since there were some Jewish thinkers already wondering about how God interacts with creation.

6 thoughts on “Jewish Christianity according to N. T. Wright

  1. Interesting stuff. Thanks. I agree that both the older traditional views and early forms of “higher criticism” have had oversimplified (and often wrong) views. One implication of your point is that maybe we should be looking (or looking again) at the data of Alvar Ellegard (“Jesus 100 Years Before Christ”). Not necessarily his conclusions but his categorizing of canonical and noncanonical lit as to dates, etc. He believed (probably wrongly) that the evidence indicates Jesus may have actually lived well before the early part of the first century.

    The fact that he can even present a reasonable case for this possibility ought to tell us something, even if it can fairly easily be shown to be flawed.

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  2. Why is Christology such a major issue? In a past posting you mentioned that James had very little even mention of Jesus yet it is considered a Jewish Christian letter, and now the issue in this post is if a high christology is a necessity for the Jewish Christian authors. I would think that it might be a factor, but not one of the main focuses in these discussions. James, a very jewish book, has aspects such as works and law to really show us the jewishness of the book. I think author and audience would be more helpful in determining the jewishness of a book. Paul talks of jewish ideas occasionally, yet is not considered jewish christian lit due to the audience he was writing to. Jewish ideas and philosophies are going to shine through some author, even some more than others, because of the audience, subject of the letter, and the authors up bringing. We are going to see a Jewish author bring up jewish references just like an american author will bring up baseball as an analogy every five pages.

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  3. N. T. Wright speaks of discovering whether an unnamed Biblical author is of Jewish descent. He names Christology, the importance of law, and anti-Jewish thinking as valid indicators in this search. Christology, the study of the Person and works of Jesus Christ, tells the the reader who Christ is as God and man. While Christology might be less helpful in verifying a writer’s ethnicity and upbringing, it is of major importance to each person’s salvation and understanding of who Christ is. My personal decision for salvation was made at an early age, but a lifelong study of Christ is coupled with this relationship. I am able to see Him as Lord and Savior, and I continually experience His unconditional love.

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  4. Have you seen Charlesworth’s essay in “God and the Faithfulness of Paul”? Might be of interest for your line of question …

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    • Getting notice of the new comment by Chris brought this 2-yr-old post back up. Interesting to re-read! One summary “take-away”, which many conservative scholars and lay people seem to be misguided on: NO question, both our attempts at historical reconstruction AND almost certainly the actual situation of the 1st century, are/were complex!…

      The idea of a clear and clearly authoritative “once for all” revelation of “the faith” to the Twelve Apostles plus Paul is way off and totally lacking in reasonable support… once one looks even a bit carefully. The Enlightenment scholars (and many since) certainly made some over-reactions and bad assumptions, having less to go with than we do now, including discovery of a good number of ancient Jewish, Christian and Gnostic docs (and not entirely from Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls).

      However, from Reimarus et al onward, we needed their work to continue the deepening understanding, begun even earlier, of not just biblical scholarship…. Also, the social, historical, cultural and other factors playing into the development of beliefs, practices, ritual; their role in governing and in human development, etc., etc.

      Relative to this, we’ve recently lost a great mainly-20th-century scholar who “stood on the shoulders” of scholars of overlapping disciplines who were close descendants of Enlightenment ones, as such sub-disciplines began to develop: Jonathan Z Smith. If you’ve not looked into him, you should (and the related work of his close partner, Burton Mack)!

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