When Christians Were Jews
By Paula Fredriksen
Yale, 250pp, £19.99/$27.50
How did a group of 1st-century Jews, the followers of a recently crucified Jewish apocalyptical preacher, inspire the most diverse and popular religion in the world? It’s a topic that has fascinated many since biblical scholarship began in earnest, and one that is simultaneously contentious and necessary if we are to understand the origins of Christianity.
Paula Fredriksen begins her study by surveying the political and religious background into which the Jesus movement (her term for early Christians) first materialised. First-century Jerusalem was an exciting, fractious and often surprising place. Self-proclaimed messiahs were popping up all over the place; Roman soldiers guarded holy sites during the four big festivals; a group of disaffected Jews invented monasticism out in the Dead Sea; and Jesus of Nazareth began his world-changing ministry. There were conflicts between Jews and Romans, as well as among Jews.
Judaism itself was split into at least three distinct categories (or sects). At the top of the social ladder were the Sadducees, priests of the Temple; then came the argumentative Pharisees (who would later develop into what we know as Rabbinic Judaism); and finally, the disaffected and eerie Essenes, writing their scrolls on the shores of the Dead Sea.
Fredriksen is particularly good at delineating the many apocalyptic or messianic offshoots that, in this period of oppression and occupation by Rome, were becoming increasingly popular. The Essenes are only the most famous example, but they too, like the early Christians, believed the end time was imminent and that only the elect would be saved.
She tries to pin down Jesus’s exact relationship to the Temple – a relationship, she says, that is often misunderstood, with the episode of the money-changers and later glosses distorting our view. Using the Synoptic Gospels, Paul’s letters and Josephus, she makes a very good case that Jesus and his followers had no theological problem with the Temple. Paul’s own notions of community are very Jewish in origin and replicate the Temple community structure.
By doing this, Fredriksen moves us away from the popular but erroneous belief that the Essenes were proto-Christians. Yes, they were messianic and monastic, but their mission was expressly set up in opposition to the Temple. John the Baptist and Jesus, however, both display a reverence for the Temple. The idea that Jerusalem was a place of sin and iniquity is easily put aside as a later attempt to distance early Christians from their Jewish origins. The first Christians specifically chose to settle in Jerusalem and the apostolic community frequented the Temple rather than moving to the desert as the Essenes did.
Fredriksen slowly winds Christianity back into its Jewish cocoon to show how alike the two religions could have looked in the years immediately following Jesus’s death: “Jews attracted to the Jesus movement still prayed to the same God as before; they still read the same scriptures as before … and their traditional practices, domestic and liturgical, were all the same as before.”
This is Fredriksen’s central thesis and her book attempts to trace the specific threads within Judaism which would end up tightly bound to Christian beliefs. She is particularly good at arguing for the primarily messianic message of Jesus and showing how this focus on the end times fits perfectly within the contours of late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic theology.
Fredriksen’s main source for the rest of her book is the Acts of the Apostles, the best document we have of the apostolic years. Here we see the evangelising missions of the Apostles and, more significantly, the way this nascent community goes back to the Jewish scriptures to interpret its recent past experiences.
We see how Paul in Romans and Matthew and Luke in their respective Gospels fill in a Davidic, messianic biography and lineage for Jesus so that he accords with the Old Testament’s prophecy of the Messiah.
This leads into a spirited discussion regarding Paul’s disagreements with the Jerusalem Church over the question of whether new converts should be circumcised. Paul’s victory is the point of demarcation from where the two religions begin to go their separate ways.
This is a fascinating period of history, full of intrigue and intellectual fervour, but a lot of this book is just too dry and analytical. Fredriksen is very good at parsing out fact from scripture and sources; she is less good at detailing the narrative ferocity of those years: the excitements and disappointments of a newly emerging religion. For that, I would highly recommend Anthony Burgess’s The Kingdom of the Wicked, a novel about the clash between Rome and the Apostles that is gripping, deeply insightful, and reads like a high-octane thriller.
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