James and the Diaspora

James 1:1 indicates that he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Assuming that this line is to be read literally, we need to understand what a Jewish writer would have meant when he said “twelve tribes” and Diaspora. Simply put, a Jew “living in the Diaspora” was a Jew living outside of “the land.” But things are a bit more complicated than that.

Elephantine, Egypt

Elephantine, Egypt

The Judaism of the first century developed the way it did because of the exile. The exile could begin as early as 722 B.C. when Samaria fell to Assyria, but the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. is the usually beginning point for most scholars. The fall of Jerusalem was the event that shaped Jewish religion as we know it in the Second Temple Period because it stripped the Jews of all things which constituted ethnicity. They no longer had land, their language began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there was a significant threat from intermarriage. The Jews, as a people, were at risk of losing their ethnicity.

How did the Jews survive the exile? All other peoples of the ancient world integrated and disappeared from history. How many people claim to be Moabites these days? The primary factor is Jewish Religious tradition centered on the Torah. These traditions kept them from assimilating into a host culture. The story of Daniel is only one example of Jews working within a culture yet remaining distinct from it. Centers of Jewish cultures developed in Alexandria and Elephantine in Egypt and in Babylon. These places continued to develop well into the current era. It is likely that Babylon and Alexandria were superior centers of Judaism to Jerusalem for much of the Second Temple period.

Those who chose to live outside of the land rather than return to Jerusalem always face problems in living in accordance with their traditional customs. The main three which are typically identified: monotheism, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws. It is not a surprise to find these as the main points of controversy in the New Testament. While Paul does not shift on monotheism, he does not require gentiles to conform to the other three boundary markers and it is at least possible he may have been open to Jews not practicing food laws or worshiping on a day other than Sabbath.

The important thing to remember when discuss the Diaspora is that it was not as much geographical as cultural. Paul might encounter strongly traditional Jews in Ephesus or Rome, and relatively “liberal” Jews in Jerusalem. In fact, I suggest that the Jews who ran the Temple in the first century were far less traditional than the Jews who worshiped in the Greek-speaking synagogues in and around Jerusalem. The fact that the first violent persecution of the followers of Jesus came out of the Greek-speaking synagogue (Acts 7) is an indication that at least those Diaspora Jews were “conservative” with respect to the Temple.

So back to James. I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord. If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith.

How might this understanding of Diaspora help us to read the Letter of James? How can this Letter be understood as addressing the needs of Diaspora Jews?

Jewish Christianity: A Myth?

In a previous post, I re-visited Raymond Brown’s article on Jewish Christianity and found myself in agreement with the idea that the Christian church is rooted in Judaism.  While it is popular enough to emphasize the “Jewishness” of Jesus or Paul, there is dissent in describing the roots of Christianity as “Jewish.”

Jacob Neusner, for example, does not believe that there is a common foundation for both Judaism and Christianity.  Neusner states that “Judaisms and Christianities never meet anywhere. That is because at no point do Judaism, defined by Torah, and Christianity, defined by the Bible, intersect” (p. xi).   He contrasts Christians and Pharisees as an example of this absolute disconnect.  Both Pharisees and Christians “belong to Israel,” Neusner says, but they had completely different definitions of “Israel” to the point that they could not even have dialogue. Christians say “Israel” as salvation, while Pharisees saw “Israel” as a way of life (3-4).  Christianity is all about salvation (in the next life), while the Pharisees is all about sanctification (in this life).

His point is well taken, since Judaism is not as much interested in salvation “out of this world and into heaven” but rather living out God’s will in this life.  But in a typically Neusnerian fashion, he makes this dichotomy so strong that the two cannot be said to have any common ground.  In my view, he is taking Christianity as we know it from the fourth century and later as his model of what “Christianity is” and (rightly) judging it as having little or nothing in common with Judaism.

This is a problem for many studies of the first-century church.  There is an assumption that the earliest believers in Jesus were somehow more correct in their doctrine and practice than later generations.  I cannot agree with this, since the earliest believers hardly worked out the implications of who Jesus claimed to be let alone the what effect the Christ Event would have on “Israel.”  They were Jewish people who believe Jesus was the Messiah and that salvation only comes through him.  In practice, there was as much diversity as there was in Judaism at the time.  While James was welcome in the Temple courts, Peter and John were tolerated there, but Stephen and the Hellenists likely were not welcome.  All were Jewish and would likely consider themselves the correct continuation of Jesus’ ministry.

It is not until Paul’s letters that there is a serious attempt to understand Jesus’ death and resurrection and the implications that these events have for Israel.  For Paul, the people of God are a family (like Jesus taught), but also the Body of Christ.  Neusner correctly picks up on this and sees this as a dividing point between Christianity and the Pharisees as well.  Paul says that whatever the people of God are, they are a unique group apart from Israel.

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.

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.

Who Was James?

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?

Did Christianity Reform Judaism?

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.

Jewish Christianity (Revisited)

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.

Hebrews and the New Covenant (Part 2)

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).