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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Christian identity: Jewish?

Rafael, followed by a couple of others, discusses the issue of the NT being Jewish and what it might mean, something we have both discussed recently off blog. But one thing is pretty clear, namely that Christianity does one day become a gentile religion on the whole, at least in the sense that its members no longer think of themselves as Jewish and most outsiders do not think of Christians as Jewish. One of the problems here is using the NT writers too much rather than thinkning about Christiainity as a movement. If we did then it is easy to think of Christianity as very Jewish because most (all?) NT writers had some clear claim to a Jewish backgound (e.g. ethnicity) and not quite come to terms with the issue that most Christians in history do not identify themselves as Jewish. If we start thinking more in terms of audience and participants then we might start thinking about more and more gentile converts, many of whom would have cared less about Sabbath, food laws or a whole host of practices that people identified as specifically 'Jewish'. Of course, redefining various practices is crucial but when this is done with gentiles in mind too then we start getting on the way to a religion which does not appear to be Jewish. Jews can react against their tradition, abandon this or that practice but may still think of themselves as Jewish and people may define them as Jewish but when gentiles start doing this then things start shifting that bit further.


Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

Modern scholars are pretty much unanimous on the point: Jesus was a Jew 'til the day he died.

The first Gentile converts were, in fact, proselytes. That is, they had converted to Judaism and embraced traditional Jewish practices to a greater or lesser degree. Most men stopped short of circumcision, which meant they could never be fully accepted as Jews. But otherwise many of them had completely embraced the "boundary markers" of Judaism. (For that is what the traditional practices were, in sociological terms — they marked who was inside and who was outside of the community.)

St. Paul spearheaded the movement not to impose the law on Gentile converts. There were more conservative elements in the early Church, evidently led by James (the Lord's brother) who was head of the Church in Jerusalem (see Gal. 2). Paul faced strenuous opposition to his policy his entire life.

Jewish Christianity left its mark on the New Testament. Notably the book of James, but also in Matthew's Gospel (e.g., Mt. 5:18 // Luke 16:17, "Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all things are accomplished").

And it is clear from the Church Fathers that a Jewish strain of Christianity persisted beyond New Testament times, though increasingly it was regarded as heretical. Jewish-Christian groups included the Ebionites and the Nazarenes.

If Christianity is a Gentile religion today, it's because Paul won the day with his brilliant theological mind. And I'm glad it happened. But I think Christians have lost touch with the Jewish roots of their faith to a degree that is unfortunate.

October 26, 2005

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul prevailed in large part because the Jerusalem Church -- the "headquarters" of the "Jesus Movement" -- disappeared when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. Paul had argued for full brotherhood among Gentile and "Jewish Christian" alike, but he deferred to James and the elders of the Jerusalem Church right up until his arrest. He and James appear to have been martyred/murdered sometime in the early 60s CE, and a few years later the destruction of Jerusalem meant that the "center of gravity" for the Christian movement shifted to the missionary churches outside Palestine, where Gentiles were a strong and growing presence.

Ralph Hitchens

October 31, 2005


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