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Early Christian Thought in its Jewish Context

  • Early Christian thought in its Jewish context / edited by John Barclay and John Sweet
  • p. cm.
  • Festschrift in honour of Morna Hooker’s 65th birthday.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN:  o 521 46285 I hardback
  • Bible. N.T.- Theology.
  • I. Barclay, John M. G. II. Sweet, J.P. M. (John Philip McMurdo)
  • III. Hooker, Morna Dorothy.
  • Bs2397.E.27 1996      27o.I-dc2o      95-25373 CIP

The theme is the continuity and discontinuity between early Christianity and its Jewish parent. The formation of Christian thought is currently the focus of much debate. These essays cover the historical and social context of Palestine and the Diaspora; the New Testament canon and non-canonical writings; and central themes. The concise treatments, with bibliographies, of intensely topical questions by international experts will be of interest and value to teachers and undergraduate students of the New Testament and Christian origins.

Concern for the careful study of the Judaism within which Christianity first took shape is prominent in New Testament studies at present. It has become habitual, of recent years, for New Testament scholarship to repudiate as discredited the distorted view of Judaism which marred the teaching even of highly reputable scholars, when they presented it as a barren and legalistic way of life, and made of it a foil to the freedom and warmth associated with Jesus. Following the trend set, for English-speaking readers, by Professor E. P. Sanders, there has been a revival of interest in the nature of Judaism at the time of Christ, a reaction against the tendency to disparage it, and a concern to recognize the Jewishness of Christianity. Although Sanders allowed that, at certain points, there was conflict between the practice and teaching of Jesus himself and aspects of the Judaism of his day, there is at present a tendency, with some scholars, to minimize this conflict and to apply specially rigorous criticism to the traditions that suggest it, and, correspond- ingly, to reduce the gap between Judaism and the convictions of the early Christians. But this, in its turn, can too easily become an over-reaction.

It is timely, therefore, that important aspects of the question of old and new should by authoritatively reviewed. This collection of studies in that area by a number of scholars, in Britain and beyond, including Professor Sanders himself, should be of lasting value for future investigators, as well as an appropriate tribute to Professor Hooker and her work.

The book falls into three unequal sections. The first contains two studies of the social and cultural context of Christianity at its inception – one for Judaea and Galilee, which describes the social, political and economic circumstances in which Messianic and related movements came into being, and one for the diaspora, which demonstrates the important influence exercised by Jewish literature and culture on the nascent Christian movement and its literature. Although the strength of the Jewish presence varied a great deal in different areas and at different periods, yet ‘whether as children, competitors, mimics or heirs, the early Christians can barely be understood except by reference to Diaspora Judaism’ (p. 38).

Part Two makes the same point as it brings into focus each of the main components of the New Testament in turn, together with some of the early non-canonical writings. The importance of the study of Judaism for understanding the beginnings of Christianity is evidenced by the fact that practically every part of this literature is shown to bear the imprint of Jewish thought – or even, as Dr Sweet finds in the Apocalypse, of a whole mode of apprehension which is different from the more logical, more cerebral style of the ‘Western’ approach. So far from being limited to the obvious examples such as St Matthew’s Gospel or the Epistle to the Hebrews, the impact of Judaism is found, in some measure, and in various manners, in them all. In parts of the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ there is, of course, open and vigorous polemic against Judaism; but ‘only rarely’, writes Professor Stanton, ‘are there signs of bitter enmity … the lines of continuity and discontinuity are not always easy to determine with precision’. There is, however, no denying that, in fulfilling the pattern of Jewish aspiration, Jesus is seen also to stretch and transform it. The novelty and originality of the Christian movement are as evident as the continuity.

Dr Wright’s study of the Jewishness of Jesus himself exposes the paradoxical nature of the culmination of his ministry in death and – as Christians claim – in resurrection. So, too, Professor Sanders’ study of Paul, here and in his books, shows the conflict set up in Paul’s heart and mind by allegiance to Jesus, which is reflected in inconsistencies in the handling of the question of the Mosaic Law. It is the painful dilemma of one who, committed to Jesus as Christ and Lord, wants still to call himself a Jew.

Part Three studies the relation of Christianity to Judaism in several areas of thought and practice – the Scriptures; the land, sanctuary and worship; monotheism; apocalyptic; atonement and martyrdom; ethics. In each of these areas, the same paradoxical continuity yet also discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity is confirmed and illustrated. For instance, take Professor De Jonge’s study of monotheism and Christology. While there are no passages in the New Testament which offer any foothold to unequivocal poly- theism, yet the relation between Christ and God is such that the Fourth Gospel can show Jews complaining that Jesus makes himself equal with God, while Paul has to safeguard against misunderstanding the bowing of every knee to Christ, by adding that this is to the glory of God the Father. As Dr Sweet says (alluding to a conclusion of Professor Bauckham’s), in Revelation ‘the divinity of Jesus is set firmly within Jewish monotheism’. Again, in the essay on land, sanctuary and worship, Dr Horbury – like Professor Rowland on apocalyptic – calls for a reconsideration of the theory that literal, this-worldly expectations were, in Christian thought, totally ‘spiritualized’. With persuasive learning he shows, for instance, how expectations of the restoration of worship, literally in Jerusalem, still left their stamp on Christian thinking, Gentile as well  as Jewish. On the other hand, Professor Grayston’s survey of Jewish  views about the atoning power of martyrdom, while showing the  importance of tradition, shows also how radical was the Christian  conviction that God was the subject, not the object, of the work of  atonement. Throughout this section, the newness of the Christian faith is clear, side by side with the continuities.

The generalizations to which this expert investigation points may not be new in principle, but are of the utmost importance in the present debate. The Christian movement emerges from it as amply confirming its roots in Israel and as aiming not at abolition but at renewal; not as ‘anti-Semitic’ (a misnomer in this connection), but as reforming. It is true, however, that the result is the supersession of certain Jewish ‘identity-markers’. In a sense, as Professor Sanders observes in the case of Paul, this only means replacing an old exclusivism with a new one: those alone who accept Jesus as Lord belong in the People of God. But it has to be said also that, in Christian belief, Jesus is not only Israel fulfilled, but ultimate ‘Adam’ that is, the fulfillment of all humankind. To belong in Christ is therefore to belong in what God intends through Israel for the human race. If that is exclusive, can it be by anything other than self- exclusion? Such is the programme which, with good reason, may be traced to Jesus himself. It led to his death; but as Christians claim, it led also to the achievement of that programme: through the fulfillment of Israel’s prophetic vision comes the fulfillment of human destiny. It led to a new perspective in eschatology, with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the central point. It led to a new and radical understanding of atonement.

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