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Is Judaism the Background of Christian Faith?

Is Judaism the Background of Christian Faith? April 11, 2012

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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