Gerald R. McDermott, ed. Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity

McDermott, Gerald R., ed. Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Studies in Scripture and Biblical Theology. Lexham Press, 2021. xv+271 pp. Pb; $29.99. Link to Lexham Press

Gerald McDermott previously edited a collection of essays, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (InterVarsity Press, 2016), and published a popular presentation of his ideas as Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Brazos, 2017, reviewed here). This contribution to Lexham’s Studies in Scripture and Biblical Theology collects essays on the Jewish roots of Christianity.Jewish Roots of Christianity

After McDermott’s short introductory essay, Mark S. Gignilliat asks, “How Did the New Testament Authors Use Tanak?”  He surveys the current state of research in broad brush strokes. To give but one of his examples, the logic of the parables is based on Isaiah’s portrayal of deafness and hearing as metaphors for judgment and redemption (9). Does the New Testament exist without the Old Testament? Like the two natures of Christ, he suggests that scripture has a two-testament character. Gignilliat concludes Christians must expel any latent Marcionism from the church.

Matthew Thiessen answers, “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion?” The obvious answer to this somewhat click-bait title is “No.” Thiessen argues that Jesus, his earliest followers, and Paul all stayed well within Judaism. All we know about Jesus comes through the synoptic gospels, so it is anachronistic to talk about Christianity as a religion in this context. Jesus did not reject Judaism and become a Christian (a sentence so anachronistic I find it difficult to write). He examines Jesus’s view of the temple, ritual purity, and sacred time to demonstrate his point. He shows that Jesus is consistent with the Judaism of his time.

David Rudolph addresses a similar question in the fourth essay, “Was Paul Championing a New Freedom from—or End to—Jewish Law?” Did Paul argue that something (specifically, Christ) superseded the law? What is the law made superfluous by Christ? Or was Paul indifferent toward the Jewish law? Rudolph suggests Paul thought of Jewish identity and law observance as “a matter of calling and covenant fidelity” (50). Paul remained a Torah-observant Jew, faithful to Israel’s law and customs. He interacts with Acts 15:22-29, 21:17-26 (Paul’s claim to Torah faithfulness), and 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (Paul’s rule on circumcision). The key assumption of this essay is that Paul’s view of the Jewish law observance was for the Jewish people, not Gentiles.

In the fifth essay, David M. Moffitt discusses “Jesus’ Sacrifice and the Mosaic Logic of Hebrews’ New-Covenant Theology.” Some argue that the idea of the New Covenant in the book of Hebrews represents a decisive break with the Jewish roots of early Christianity. Moffitt says no, these interpretations fail to understand the covenantal framework of the writer of Hebrews and the analogies between Jesus’s work and the new covenant. Hebrews is informed by the Mosaic covenant, and the book never repudiates it (52). To demonstrate this, he shows that the author of Hebrews sees Jesus’s death as a sacrifice that inaugurates the new covenant, but his ascension maintains the new covenant.

Matthew S. C. Olver examines the “Missed and Misunderstood Jewish Roots of Christian Worship” in the sixth essay. What Jewish worship practices really influenced early Christian worship? He suggests sacrifice is “the most overlooked and important legacy that Christian cultic practice received from Judaism” (72).  He begins by examining four common influences which he determines are false. For example, it is sometimes suggested that the synagogue was a place of worship like a church building. Olver points out that synagogues were not always physical buildings, and not every community had one. Additionally, the influence of the synagogue increased after 8070. He offers three important Jewish influences on Christian worship, participation in temple worship and daily prayers (which may have influenced Jewish daily prayers). But he suggests that “sacrifice is the thread that binds Christianity to Judaism” (82). To support this assertion, he examines the book of Hebrews, which argues that Jesus is the great high priest and brought an end to sacrifice: so how can this be? He surveys sacrificial language in the New Testament and in the early church documents such as Didache, Polycarp Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. He concludes that the earliest form of the Eucharist was understood as a form of sacrifice (102). He concludes with a citation of John Chrysostom, “Do we not offer sacrifices daily?”

Isaac W. Oliver discusses the so-called “parting of the ways” by asking, “When and How Did the Ekklēsia Split from the Synagogue?” He begins by defining what he means by ekklēsia and synagogue. He argues there were no differences for the earliest followers of Jesus. So when did they “split” into two different things? As long as Jesus’s followers remained within Judaism, “it is misguided to speak of a split” (110). There were Torah-observant followers of Jesus well into the 2nd century, even after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Although he recognizes that this is a convenient date, it is not as if there was a definitive time when the synagogues split from the ekklēsia. For Jews, Jesus’s followers were a radical sect who preached A controversial message, specifically that Jesus was the crucified Messiah. This was also a politically dangerous claim in the Roman world. Jewish Christians were eventually excluded from the ecclesia as much as they were excluded from the synagogue. With the resurgence of messianic Judaism, he concludes his essay by observing whether the ways ever really part?

In the eighth essay, Eugene Korn surveys the relationship of the church and Judaism from Constantine to the Holocaust. He begins with the observation that there were certainly theological issues, but there were many empirical realities of how each treated the other from a political, social, and moral perspective. This article contributes valuable insights from rabbinic and Jewish thinkers on Christianity and concludes with the theological potential to move forward in the future. He traces anti-Judaism and overt anti-Semitism through church history. He often illustrates this with photographs of Christian art, which depicts synagogues as blind, in contrast to the church. But rabbinic attitudes towards Christians were also dismissive. Christians were idolaters and not pure monotheists at all. Some later Jewish writers, however, were more positive. In recent years, Messianic Judaism and Christian Zionism (to use McDermott’s term) have given hope for bringing Jews and Christians closer.

Jennifer M. Rosner’s essay on “Post-Holocaust Jewish-Christian Relations” suggests that the post-Holocaust era has seen many official Christian statements charting a new way for Jewish-Christian relations. She focuses on Karl Barth and his doctrine of Israel and the church. Barth’s theology “left no room for a de-Judaized savior nor a supersessionist church” (153). But Barth did not adequately deal with the implications of a Jewish Jesus. For a Jewish perspective, she examines Franz Rosenzweig’s Star of Redemption. She argues that he saw neither Judaism nor Christianity as fully possessing the whole truth, although the idea of a Jewish Messiah remains a problem. But other more recent writers have extended the trajectory away from Judaism to Christianity as mutually exclusive terms (167).

In the tenth essay, Sarah Lebhar Hall surveys “the (Largely) Untold Story” of Anglican support for Jewish communities beginning with The London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (LSJ), founded in 1809. She praises the Anglican community for recontextualizing the gospel through “thoughtful use of language, worship style, and architectural space” and empowering Jewish believers through outreach into Jewish communities. This includes early English missionaries to Jewish communities that built long-lasting relationships.

Mark S. Kinzer shows how Messianic Judaism and recovering the Jewish character of the Ekklēsia. He begins his essay by observing that there are really three parties in discussions on the parting of the ways: the Jewish community, the emerging gentile church, and the Jewish members of the ekklēsia (190). It was not as though there were only Jewish Jews in the synagogue and gentile Christians in churches. As this essay points out, there are still Jews who believed in Jesus, like the modern messianic Jewish community. These messianic Jews are not found just among evangelicals but also in Catholic and Orthodox traditions. He suggests that the early rupture between Christians and Jews was not inevitable. He cites Daniel Boyarin, calling the parting of the ways a “partitioning of territory” one shared without border lines.

Archbishop of the Anglican church in North America and General Secretary of the Global Anglican Fellowship Conference Foley Beach answers the question, “What Difference Does the Jewishness of Jesus Make?” The article summarizes much of the evidence for a Jewish Jesus born into a Jewish world, raised by Jewish parents, and lived out his life as a Jewish man. All of this is very clear and obvious, but so what? Beach suggests first that there should be no anti-Semitism among followers of Jesus. Second, modern followers of Jesus ought to desire to understand the Hebrew roots of their faith. Third, they ought to value the Jewish Bible, and fourth, they ought to seek to understand Jesus in the light of his Hebrew background. 5th, Christians ought to seek to share Jesus with their Jewish friends. Lastly, they must realize the debt Christians owe to the Jewish people.

In his concluding essay, McDermott asks what difference an understanding of the Jewish roots of Christianity makes for Christian theology.  After summarizing the preceding essays, he makes several key points. First, the word Christ ought to be replaced with the word Messiah. In the New Testament, and especially in John’s gospel, the word Jew ought to be understood as “the Judean leaders of the temple establishment.” This avoids anti-Semitic readings of the gospel of John, which paint all Jews as enemies of Christians (which was never the case). Christians need to understand the law as the apostle Paul did, and finally, they need to understand the Kingdom of God as the Second Temple period century Jews did.

Conclusion. This collection of essays demonstrates the importance of reading Jesus, Paul, and the early church in its Jewish context. This is not anything new for scholars working in the areas of Historical Jesus or Pauline theology. But for many Bible readers, it may be surprising to learn just how Jewish the earliest church was. More importantly, these essays trace out several theological and practical implications of the Jewish roots of Christianity. Certainly, they could have gone further. For example, some recent contributions to “Paul with Judaism” might suggest that Paul was not even a Christian. Matthew Thiessen comes the closest in this collection.


NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.



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