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When Christians Were Jews: The first generation, by Paula Fredriksen

25 January 2019

Peter Forster reflects on Jew and Gentile in the Church’s early years

PAULA FREDRIKSEN is a distinguished Jewish American scholar of the New Testament period. The central theme of this book is that the first Christians did not constitute a “church” as such, but were just a group within the Jewish people. Followers of Jesus Christ were, and considered themselves to be, part of their host synagogue communities.

Judaism accommodated early Christianity much more than later accounts have acknowledged. Fredriksen argues that this was partly because of an inherent flexibility in Jewish monotheism, which acknowledged the potential existence of subordinate deities. Similarly, the Roman world was well populated with gods, including its emperors.

The distinctive belief of the first Christians — who were all “Jewish Christians” — was that Jesus Christ would shortly return to the world in a final apocalyptic event. When this stubbornly failed to happen, the Church adapted in a Gentile mission.

Interestingly, Fredriksen argues that the emerging and distinctive Church came to draw strength precisely from the non-appearance of the Messiah. The Church continued the charismatic work of Jesus, and claimed to provide a new and authoritative reading of the Jewish scriptures. Furthermore, the part played by the Church was to continue Jesus’s mission to the Jews, and to extend it to all Gentiles.

While still awaiting Christ’s second coming, the apocalyptic hopes of the first Christians were calmed, a process that is most directly witnessed in Luke-Acts. Sociologically, the Christian movement succeeded precisely as its central prophecy failed.

For Fredriksen, the early Christians located Jesus somewhere high on a divine-human gradient, but still as essentially human. Only the imperially sponsored episcopal councils of the fourth and fifth centuries asserted the radical divinisation of Jesus Christ.

Despite evidence of considerable historical learning, at times the discussion struck this reviewer as somewhat naïve. There is little reference to the substantial recent scholarship that has argued that the essential divinity of Jesus Christ was asserted and established in the first century, before its formal consolidation in the ecumenical councils. Distinguished scholars such as Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Tom Wright are unreferenced in the book.

There is also little discussion of the difficult issue how the historical value in the Gospels might be assessed. The variety of earlier quests of the historical Jesus are simply ignored. In trying to identify a core of historical facts about Jesus, Fredriksen concentrates on his death by crucifixion. This is claimed to be due to a fear by Pilate of popular insurrection rather than to any specific teaching or actions by Jesus. The concerns of the Jewish authorities are thereby minimised, and essentially conflated with those of the secular powers.

The strength of this book lies in its refusal to read back into the first decades of the Christian community later perspectives, which were sadly, and fatefully, coloured by anti-Jewish sentiment. But this may also be its weakness, in that its distrust of the evidential value of much of the Gospels leads to a rather attenuated account of early Christianity.

Dr Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester.

When Christians Were Jews: The first generation
Paula Fredriksen
Yale £20
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