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The New Testament: Jewish or Gentile?

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.

Featured Image Credit: Christianity by Tama66. Creative Commons via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Philip Alexander

    Catches the complexities and paradoxes of the situation nicely. It’s worth noting that the “nostalgia for Jewish roots” is not new. There have been judaizing movements throughout the history of the Church, fed by the belief that, since Jesus and his first disciples were Jewish, judaic forms of Christianity must have greater authenticity.

  2. Ann Conway-Jones

    Thank you Philip. Yes, I am intrigued, for example, by my namesake (no relation as far as I know) Lady Anne Conway, who in the seventeenth century studied Jewish kabbalah, assuming it to be ancient wisdom. And further back are the members of John Chrysostom’s congregation in fourth century Antioch against whom he fulminated for taking part in Jewish festivities. Compared with all the appalling manifestations of Christian anti-Judaism, far better that Christians should reverence Judaism as the foundation of their belief system. Two things, however, trouble me. Firstly, we can’t turn the clock back, or even know much about the historical Jewish Jesus. Whilst seeking ‘authenticity’, people often project back anachronistic ideas onto Jesus and the first disciples, such as assuming that they sat down to a rabbinic Passover Seder. And secondly, Christians have long had a tendency to appropriate things Jewish that appeal whilst still condemning Jews and contemporary Judaism. I prefer to cultivate respect for Judaism as a tradition that is now different and separate from Christianity, with a validity all its own.

  3. Steve Brudney

    Hello, Ann Conway Jones,
    I have studied the emergence of Christianity for decades and still have trouble getting clear. Maybe I’m not smart enough. You wrote that “The New Testament books were written before any “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity.” But it seems to me that traditional Christianity is very much Pauline Christianity and that Paul–even though people are trying to explain his Jewishness–went so far beyond what most Jews believed about the messiah that he must have been seen as a heretic and part of that old debate over when a Jew is a bad Jew and when he’s no longer a Jew. “Savior” in the sense of one who could redeem someone was an attribute only of God. ”Messiah” did not mean “savior” in that regard but only in the sense that he might conquer enemies, re-establish the nation Israel, and help God usher in the Kingdom. In Deuteronomy 30:8-11 God says that the commandments are do-able and Paul contradicts God. Prayer and repentance could bring one close to God but it wasn’t enough for Paul. I would think that they would have viewed Paul as blasphemous.

    I think it takes more than following the moral teachings of Jesus to be a Christian. A Jew could have believed Jesus was the messiah, that he was resurrected, and that he would return without being a Christian since there is no belief there that his death was a sacrifice for “our” sins. And yet scholar after scholar refers to such people as the earliest Christians. Paul’s beliefs and the ones the Gospel writers no doubt placed on Jesus’ lips–the high Christology–were what went beyond the pale of first century Judaisms.

    I’d be very interested in reading what you have to say about what I’m writing here. If you have the time.

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