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When I was in Seminary I took a class in Eccelsiology and at some point in the class I shared my thought that James was the “leader of the Jerusalem Church.”  The professor looked at me rather strangely and dismissed my comment with “well, you have James all figured out, don’t you.”  MA students are apparently not allowed to have those sorts radical of opinions, they are reserved only for PhD students.

Since that slap-down, I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular.  Part of this interest is the belief that my comment in that particular class was on target, although it was probably came across arrogant (I was older back then, I am younger than that now).  I am always pleased when I read things that more or less state that James was the leader in Jerusalem, such as James Dunn in Beginning in Jerusalem, especially chapter 36, although he says things like this throughout the book.

I think a fair reading of the book of Acts will show that Twelve fade from the scene quickly.  James the Apostle is killed in Acts 12 and not replaced.  Peter sends a message to James the “goes elsewhere.”  Peter drops out of site at that point in the narrative, except for a brief report at the Jerusalem council.  Luke introduces James as a significant player in in Acts 12 and the major force behind the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  John, the only other apostle mentioned in Acts also disappears from the book after Acts 8 (and he was silent anytime he was in the story anyway!)

What is remarkable to me is that James appears as a leader at the level of Peter and Paul as early as 1 Corinthians.  In 1 Cor 15:7 Paul passes along the tradition that he received concerning the resurrection.  Only three names of individuals are included, Peter, James and Paul.  These are the three men to whom the Lord appeared, and at least in Peter and Paul’s case, they are commissioned to a particular ministry.

James appears as a leader in Jerusalem quite early, a point that is often missed.  Gal 1:19 describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after his conversion.  He met with no one except Peter and James, the Lord’s brother.  It is possible that James the apostle and James the Lord’s brother are confused in the later traditions, but there seems to be strong evidence that the family of Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah before the resurrection.  Gal 1:19 therefore can be understood as saying that within three to four years after the resurrection James not only became a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but he had already risen to some sort of leadership position in Jerusalem.

The book of James is therefore a window into an early form of Christianity, one that was comfortable with Judaism and perhaps did not see Christianity as separate from Judaism in quite the same way Paul does later in Ephesians 2 or Romans 9-11.  How would this observation change the way we read James?

I am still reading Neusner’s Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition.  He argues that the idea that Christianity is a “reform movement” within Judaism is a “fundamental theological error” by Protestants (18).   I have a certain attraction to the idea that Paul sought to interpret the Hebrew Bible in the light of the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He was not converted to Christianity, since there was nothing like “Christianity” to convert to at that point in time.  Paul was working within a Jewish worldview in Galatians and Romans and he appears to still practice Judaism as late as his arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21.

Neusner properly warns us away from what he calls “if-only” Judaism (19).  By this he means the belief that if the Jews has properly responded to God and followed the law right, they would be right with God.  Usually this is presented along with a healthy condemnation of the supposed legalism of the Pharisees.  There are other examples: “If only” the Jews responded to Jesus’ simple ethic in the Sermon on the Mount, “if only” they Jews had properly read the Old Testament prophecies.  Neusner again is correct to see Reformation history and theology in this sort of statement rather than the Judaism of the first century.

But this brings me back to my point of contention with Neusner.  He is arguing that Judaism and Christianity have no “common foundation.” While he is right to condemn “if only” Judaism, he fails to recognize that the first followers of Jesus after the resurrection were in fact Jews, many of whom continued their practice of Judaism as they always had practiced.

In addition, there was such a wide variety of Judaisms in the first century, a point Neusner constantly makes.  The Pharisees could be described as a “reform movement,” as could the Qumran community and/or the Essenes.  The Sadducees should not be thought of as the status quo of Judaism, they too were looking to “reform” Judaism in the light of present changes in the world.   The core beliefs of the first believers were clearly within the world of Judaism: the belief that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the suffering servant of Isaiah, that he is returning as the promise davidic ruler could be held along side the practice of Judaism.  The first followers represent a reform movement within Judaism similar to Qumran or the Pharisees.

What is the point here?  I think there is a difference between what Neusner calls “Christianity” and what is happening in the book of Acts.   Neusner commits the same sort of error as the Reformation interpreters of Paul.  He is reading later ideas of Christianity back into the early chapters of Acts.   Even post-Marcion Christianity on the second century is different than the Christianity described in Acts.  Neusner finds no common tradition because after A.D. 135 the traditions were no longer common.  But a century earlier, Christianity and Judaism were using  the same scripture and practice.

Bibliography: Jacob Neusner, Jews and Christians: The Myth of the Common Tradition. Classics in Judaic Studies.  New York:  Binghamton University, 2001.  Originally published by Trinity International, 1991.  The 2001 edition has a 40 page preface written for that printing.

I have just finished teaching through the non-Pauline letters in the New Testament and enjoyed the class immensely.  Our school breaks upper division Bible classes into 8 sections, four for the Hebrew Bible and four for the New Testament .  Since this was the only section I have never taught before, I learned as much as my students did this year.  Christian Theology is almost synonymous with Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is sometimes shocking to find variations on that view in this Jewish literature.

I began back in January with Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity.  He identified at least four sub-groups of early Christianity, to which I have added two more categories which are “sub-Christian.”

  • The Ebionites, who remained within Judaism yet accepted Jesus as Messiah.  This group is sub-Christian, in my view.
  • Jewish Christians who practiced full observance of the Mosaic Law (the “Judaizers”)
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision for Gentile converts, but did require them to keep some of the purity laws  (James and Peter).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, nor did it insist that Jewish Christians abandon the Law (Paul).
  • Jewish Christians who did not insist on circumcision or purity laws for Gentile converts, but also saw not significance for the Jewish Temple (maybe Stephen and the Hellenists)
  • The Nicolatians, who rejected the Law so thoroughly that they “sinned so grace might abound.” This group is also sub-Christian in my view.

For the most part the non-Pauline letters fall into the third category listed above (certainly James and 1 Peter), although Hebrews could fit comfortably in the fifth category because of the clear influence of Hellenistic philosophy (neo-Platonism,etc).  The Epistles of John, Jude, and 2 Peter are harder to categorize within this rubric, but at least we can say Jude and First  John represent Jewish Christianity. Second and Third John are too small to deal with separately.

I think there is a value in reading through these books and bracketing out (if possible) both Pauline Theology and modern systematic theology, especially post-Reformation view s on the church and soteriology.  What I find in these letters are several “other” attempts to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus which attempt to remain true to the author’s Jewish roots.  James, for example, hardly departs at all from the Law, Hebrews (on the other extreme) allegorizes much of the ceremonial law.  This implies two things.  First, the earliest form of Christianity was not unified, monolithic, or even consistent.  Several voices sought to apply the events of Jesus’ death in slightly different ways.  Second, the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  While I am not in favor of practicing a form of Christian Judaism, it must be recognized that Judaism and Christianity are not easily separated in the first 40 years of Church History.

When the Writer of Hebrews describes the New Covenant, it simply replaces the Old. The first covenant was not faultless, but the new covenant will be perfect (Heb 8:7).   The key term is “faultless” (amemptos), a word which is normally associated moral perfection (often in Job).  The problem was not that the first covenant was flawed, but rather no sacrificer was pure in heart, nor was any sacrifice  offered in the first covenant really adequate to deal with the extent of the problem of sin.  This is the same sort of critique of the Law Paul makes in Galatians.  If the law as intended to be a guide for living one’s life in order to obtain salvation, it is a failure!  The Law itself was good, but the people to whom it was given were unable to keep it perfectly.

The key word here is in verse 13, the new covenant makes the old covenant “obsolete,” as most translations render the word.  The word here simple means, “makes old,” in that it is chronologically an earlier version of the covenant.   There is some baggage which comes along with the world obsolete in English. We all have a computer which is obsolete; if I was working with a computer from 1980, it would be completely useless by today’s standards.  For Americans, advertisers have only to suggest that something we own is obsolete and we run out and buy the upgrade.  “Planned obsolescence” is a part of business these days.

But that is not necessarily what this word means in this context.  By way of analogy, I recently renewed my driver’s license by mail.  I sent in my check and got a new license, but I still have my old license.  If I was pulled over by a policeman and tried to use the old license, I would be in a great deal of trouble because it is the old license, it is “obsolete.”   The writer is saying that the old covenant has been superceded by the new chronologically, this is the way in which God is dealing with his people in the present age (recalling 1:1-3 once again).   This is a rabbinic principle which appears several times in Hebrews (4:8, 7:11, 28, 10:2, cf., Philo Rer. Div. Her., 178).  The same principle was applied in 1QHab 1:5 to the New Covenant passage, although with a different application.

The grammar is tricky though – the old is growing old and is “near destruction,” or as the ESV translates, it “is vanishing away.”  Is the Old Covenant gone and the New Covenant already here, or not?   The tense of the verbs are important.  The old covenant “has been made obsolete / old,” in the perfect. This implies a past event with present ramifications. But the next to verbs (in the second half of the verse) are present tense – the old covenant is becoming obsolete and nearing death. But it is not quite there yet!  Ellingworth (NIGTC 417) comments that “old age” is a sign that death and dissolution are near, but not quite present yet.   “Statements about the supersession of the old dispensation appear to grow generally bolder as the argument progresses (cf. 7:18f; 10:9, 18), yet the continued existence of the first covenant is never completely denied.” (NIGTC 418).

Perhaps this is a case of “living between the ages,” after the new covenant has been established, but before it is fully consummated (cf. Eph 1:15-22).

Hebrews 8-9 are theologically more controversial than the rest of Hebrews because it appears that the writer of Hebrews says that the Jewish people have been replaced by the Church – the New Covenant has replaced the Old, Jesus’ sacrifice is superior to the old sacrifice.  As such, chapters 8 and 9 have been used to teach that the Jewish people are no longer God’s people and the church replaces them completely.  This would therefore imply that any promises made to Israel in the Hebrew Bible are either canceled or to be reinterpreted as applying to the Church.

The theological term for this is supersessionism, the church supersedes the Jews as the people of God.  For some types of theology, the idea that the Jews have been replaced by the church is an assumption, the proof for which is found here in Hebrews, especially chapters 8-9.  The historic view of the church is that it is the new Israel, and all the promises of the Hebrew Bible are fulfilled in the church.  The rebuilding of Jerusalem mentioned in the New Covenant passage is therefore re-interpreted spiritually.  For example, commenting Jeremiah 31,

The “wall great and high” is of no earthly material; the extension is not one of yards on miles, but of nations and ages; the consecration of the unclean places is but typical of the regenerative force of Christianity, which reclaims the moral wastes of the world, and purifies the carnal affections and sinful tendencies of human nature; and no material city could ever “stand for aye.” Only the kingdom and Church of Christ could satisfy the conditions of such a prophecy. (A. F. Muir, in The Pulpit Commentary: Jeremiah 2:28).

However, when one reads Hebrews without the modern church in mind, the book does not argue that Israel has been replaced, but that the promises made to Israel, including the New Covenant, have their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah.  I find Richard Hays, “We Have No Lasting City,” pages 151-173 in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) to be an extremely helpful sketch of the problem.  Hays cites his own work as implying that Hebrews is supersessionist, and then shows how a proper reading of Hebrews will show that the book is not actually teaching that the church has replaced Israel.

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