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Advent book review: Jewish Christians in Puritan England by Aidan Cottrell-Boyce

27 October 2023

These ‘Jewish Christians’ even practised ritual circumcision, says Judith Maltby

JUDGING from the title, readers may find Aidan Cottrell-Boyce’s book is not about what they think it will be about. “Jewish Christians” is usually a term used to describe Jews who have converted to Christianity. Cottrell-Boyce’s interesting study, however, is about a rather niche, theologically diverse group within the 17th-century English Puritan Movement. These “Jewish Christians” adopted Jewish practices such as dietary laws, observing the sabbath on Saturday, and even in some cases (and painfully, I imagine) circumcision. To their contemporary critics — and they had many — they were called “Judaizers”. To anyone who knows their St Paul, that was not a compliment.

At its best, this was a theological and political movement that took seriously the Jewish origins of Christianity and engaged with the Hebrew Scriptures almost as an equal to the New Testament. At its worst, and from the perspective of the long and shameful history of anti-Semitism in England, Cottrell-Boyce gives us a study of “cultural appropriation” by a group of 17th-century Christians of aspects of Jewish faith and practice. This appropriation was never intended for the benefit of, or out of admiration for, Jewish people themselves. Rather, it grew out of an eschatologically driven political agenda in a time of ever-increasing polarisation and violence held by a group of radical Puritans convinced that the End Times were imminent.

This was especially true in the middle decades of the 17th century, which brought forth catastrophic civil wars and rebellions throughout the British Isles, regicide, and the creation of England’s first republic, which to modern eyes looks remarkably like a theocratic military dictatorship.

Puritan interest in Judaism, or perhaps more accurately in “Judaizing”, was not primarily for the benefit of actual Jews. Like so much of the Puritan tradition, finding ways to exclude, to distinguish oneself from the mass of the “ungodly” — to establish “differentiation” with those considered reprobate — was key to maintaining a certain kind of Puritan self-esteem.

Some readers will know the story of the resettlement of the Jews in the mid-1650s and the informal arrangement that allowed them to worship openly. London’s remarkable Bevis Marks Synagogue has its origins in these events, although the building is slightly newer. Along with a genuine idealistic belief in religious liberty held by some radical Christians, there was also the view (God’s Anglo-centric views a given, of course) that the return of the Jews to England would hasten the Second Coming of Christ.

This is a well-researched book about a very specific movement in the history of Christianity, and of a movement that, in the end, did not really stake out a place for itself in the diverse and pluralist Christianity of pre-modern England. It is also a case study of the recurring desire by some Christians to assert “otherness”, to separate, and to differentiate themselves from fellow Christians deemed apostate. It feels timely.

Canon Judith Maltby is College Lecturer in Theology and Fellow Emerita, Corpus Christi College, Oxford.


Jewish Christians in Puritan England
Aidan Cottrell-Boyce
James Clarke & Co £26.50

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