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.