Is Judaism the Background of Christian Faith?

Is Judaism the background of the Christian faith?

I am a child of what has been dubbed the “Third Quest” for the historical Jesus. This was the term given to the study of Jesus since at least the early 90’s which focused the study of Jesus on his Jewish context. Notable figures of the Third Quest are Crossan, Meier, Wright, Sanders, Charlesworth, Allison, Thiesen, just to name a few.

These days it is hard to find any NT scholar that doesn’t think that Jesus is best understood as an observant Jew. So most informed folks, even non-scholar types, are aware that Jesus was a Jew and that his teaching and life is best understood within the frame of the Hellenistic Judaism of the Second Temple period, though they may not put it that way. A comparable fact however that in my view has not yet been adequately recognized by both scholars and Christians alike is that all the Apostles were Jewish and maintained a Jewish identity, including Paul. What’s more, it is quite possible that every one of the writers of the NT was Jewish (even Luke). I suppose what I mean is that few scholars, let alone Christians, recognize or take seriously this fact.

It is commonplace then to assume that the best background for the study of the  NT is Hellenistic Judaism. and indeed this is solid. But for most, Judaism stays in the background. It is believed that with the Apostles, particularly Paul, and the formation of the NT in the second and third centuries Judaism was “left behind”.

But could Judaism also be Christianity’s foreground? Did Judaism actually form both the back story and the ongoing story of the early church? Is it possible that while history reveals the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity, it was not suppose to be that way? Or at least it was never a strategy of the Apostles to divorce faith in Jesus Messiah from its Jewish storyline?

This I think is the thrust of Daniel Boyarin provocative new book The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ.

For those that don’t know of Boyarin, he is one of, if not the, preeminent Jewish scholar in the world today. Boyarin is a Talmudic scholar at the University of California Berkley. He has wide academic interests and has written a number of books on early Christianity, perhaps most notably Borderlines and A Radical Jew. The latter is a book about Paul, and the former is a book about the relationship between burgeoning Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism in the first four centuries.

The Jewish Gospels is a popular distillation of his argument in Borderlines with some very provocative assertions about the Jewish foundation, yes the Jewish foundation, for ideas that both Jews and Christians have thought separated the two religious traditions: a divine messiah, a suffering, crucified messiah, and the abrogation of Jewish laws. These ideas, Boyarin argues, are either misinformed (as in the case of the abrogation of Jewish dietary laws) or affirmed by other Jews at the time of Jesus and the apostles. So, Boyarin argues that there was nothing unprecedented about the claims of Christian faith. The fundamental Christology of the NT can be also found among other first-century Jewish thinkers. The single defining point which distinguished followers of Jesus was their assertion that Jesus of Nazareth was the divine, suffering Messiah. It was on this point that the difference began and ended.

If Boyarin is correct, what are the implications?

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  • I suppose this means we all have to become Messianic Jews.

    • jwillitts

      Or better Messianic Jews and Gentiles.

    • Bobbienry

      The Ethiopian Orthodox pretty much already are that. They follow most of the dietary laws, fast a lot, have liturgy similar to that of the Judaism of the era, etc. I sometimes think that if the Ethiopian form of Christianity had become dominant instead of the Western form, that Christians and Jews would not have become nearly as “far apart”, theologically speaking, and indeed may never have even separated at all (so that all Jews would now be Christians).

      • If we would let Christ be dominant, then we would have the right Jewish tone. Church structures – east and west – are dominated by humans and thus the spirit of Christ is not prevailing in them.

  • Danieljameslevy

    I didn’t think Crossan was a third-quester. I’m pretty sure that according to Keener he isn’t.

    • jwillitts

      I don’t know what Keener thinks, but to the extent that Crossan seeks to interpret Jesus as a first-century Jewish peasant, he’s within the scope in my view. You can see my article on the Historical Jesus in JSHJ, if you want to see my assessment of Crossan.

  • Kevin

    Implications…that the worship and praxis of the early Church was in fact seen by believers as an extension of Judaism…as the Eastern Orthodox Church has always taught and practiced the faith.

  • We can hope that the degentilization of the Bible will continue. When complete, however, we will not find a rabbinic gospel. Both rabbinic Judaism and Gentile Christianity will be shown to have each misappropriated the true Jewish legacy of the Scriptures. What remains will be a clearer-than-ever expression of the face of God through Jesus Christ – the Jew par excellence through whom the salvation of the world has come.

  • Michael Barber

    Very interesting post, Joel!

  • Irving Salzman

    Great post.