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).

Since 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.