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.