A recent phenomenon in New Testament research is the involvement of Jewish scholars. They perform the vital task of correcting Christian misunderstandings, distortions, stereotypes, and calumnies, with the aim of recovering the various Jewish contexts of Jesus, Paul, and the early Christian movement. This is a welcome development in the painful history of Jewish-Christian relations.
There is a danger, however, among Christians, of a kind of nostalgia for “Jewish roots”—an expectation that by closely examining Jesus’s original message, and “authentic” Jewish form of Christianity, one can bypass centuries of mistrust and worse. Matters are not that simple. Christianity grew out of a complex dual heritage: the Christian message quickly spread into the Greek-speaking world, and its adherents were soon majority Gentile. The implications of this are profound and already reflected in the New Testament.
The New Testament books were written before any “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity. In the first century, it was impossible to distinguish between what was “Jewish” and what was “Christian.” “Messiah” started as a Jewish concept, and the followers of Jesus interpreted his life, death, and resurrection within the framework provided by the Jewish scriptures. There was, however, a recognised distinction between ”Jewish” and “Gentile”–as clear as the difference between male and female, or slave and free (see Galatians 3:28).
What we now call “religion” was then more tied up with civic custom, ethnicity, and culture. To be Jewish was equivalent to being Greek, Egyptian, or Syrian–less about what one believed than about which community (and therefore which god) one belonged to. Paul considered himself a Jew and was proud of it. Following his experience on the Damascus road, however, he embarked on a mission to Gentiles: now was the time, prophesied by Isaiah, when all nations would flock to Jerusalem and worship Israel’s God. He called on pagans to abandon their native gods and follow the Jewish God’s Messiah. There was no need, however, to become Jewish–no need for circumcision; they were to remain Gentile.
This process, begun by Paul, of presenting Jewish messianic ideas to a Gentile audience–assigning worldwide significance to the traditions of one particular community–was not straightforward. All sorts of tensions were set up, the results of which are still with us. Having abandoned their former lives to worship the God of Israel, but without becoming Jewish, where did Paul’s Gentile converts now fit? They were stranded in an ethnic no-man’s land. And once Jewish scriptures were declared to be of universal (cross-cultural) importance, what was to happen to the Jewish narrative of a unique communal relationship with their national God? Paul’s perspective was conditioned by his expectation of Christ’s imminent return, leaving these issues of identity unresolved.
But a complex relationship developed between the New Testament’s theology and its sociology.
By the time the Gospels were written, Jesus’s teachings were being relayed in dramatically different contexts from his native Galilee. When Jesus argued with scribes and Pharisees over, say, the observance of Shabbat, these were intra-Jewish debates. Everyone agreed about the significance of Shabbat; the disagreements were over how best to honour it. Many readers of the Gospels, however, were Gentiles, for whom Shabbat was a foreign custom, and who were unsure over whether they were required to keep it. This gave such disputes a new edge. Whatever Jesus may have intended by his parables, they quickly acquired fresh meanings, often reflecting a Christian movement at odds with the majority of Jews.
The theology of the New Testament, even its Christology, is Jewish. It represents one offshoot of the tremendous variety within Second Temple Judaism. But a complex relationship developed between the New Testament’s theology and its sociology. It turned out that its ideas had more traction among Gentiles than Jews. Paul was already aware of the ironies–hence his convoluted, horticulturally suspect, image of the wild olive shoot grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11:17-24).
The subtext to much of the New Testament is Jewish indifference to the Christian message. When Matthew calls the Pharisees hypocrites (23:13), or implies that God was responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem (22:7), or John has Jesus telling “the Jews” that their father is the devil (8:44), the defamatory polemic is indicative of the predicament Christians found themselves in. They were convinced of having identified the Messiah, and unlocked the key to the Jewish scriptures, but the Jewish community was unresponsive. Today’s Jewish scholars are right to delve beneath the rhetoric, correct the stereotypes, and reconstruct the Jewish viewpoint.
It is intriguing to ponder the motivations of the first Gentile Christians. Something about the Jewish scriptures and Jewish traditions must have attracted them, and Jesus Christ opened up the way for them to be part of the story. But by inserting themselves into that story, they changed it. The New Testament consists of Jewish ideas presented to an increasingly Gentile audience, taken in a direction not recognised by most Jews. And for that lack of recognition, it turns against them.
Things were easier when Jews and Gentiles each had their own god(s). In the New Testament, we see the inception of the struggle between Jews and Christians over the same God. What was to be the future of the God of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah? Who knew best how to interpret the scriptures? The New Testament read Sunday by Sunday in churches is not a simple record of the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish Paul. It witnesses to the beginnings of Christian identity formation–a convoluted process whereby Jewish concepts were appropriated by outsiders. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity was skewed from the start, and the complications are still with us today.
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