Conflicts and Challenges in Early Christianity

  • Conflicts and challenges in early Christianity / Martin Hengel, C. K.
  • Barrett ; edited by Donald A. Hagner.
  • p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Contents: Early Christianity as a Jewish-Messianic, universalistic movement / Martin Hengel – Paul, councils and controversies / C. K. Barrett.
  • ISBN 1-56338-291-1 (pbk. alk. : paper)
  • 1. Jews in the New Testament. 2. Christianity and other religions – Judaism. 3. Judaism – Relations – Christianity. 4. Bible.
  • N.T. – Criticism, interpretation, etc. I. Hengel, Martin. Early Christianity as a Jewish-Messianic, universalistic movement.
  • II. Barrett, C. K. (Charles Kingsley), 1917- Paul, councils and controversies. III. Hagner, Donald Alfred.
  • BS2545.J44C65 1999      270.1 -dc21 99-36959

Today, no Christian theologian would deny that Christianity began and took root in Jewish soil. But this consensus begins to become questionable, at least among many of my Protestant colleagues, if I add but one word and say without qualification that Christianity grew entirely out of Jewish soil. By arguing that early Christianity is completely a child of Judaism I am going against the view that early ChristiaNity is a syncretistic religion with various roots, a view that was originally formulated by Hermann Gunkel, subsequently accepted in the German school of religious history at the end of the nineteenth century, and firmly established in New Testament scholarship due to the influence of Rudolf Bultmann.

As the argument goes, Judaism was not alone at the cradle of Christianity but was attended by such diverse godfathers as Gnosticism, Greek and Oriental mysteries, magic, astrology, pagan polytheism, stories of divine men (theioi andres) and their miraculous deeds, popular Hellenic philosophy, and much else besides.

But the popular catchword syncretism, like all catchwords, has done little to further historical understanding of the beginnings of Christianity, being true neither to classical Judaism, either in its native soil or in the Diaspora, nor to early Christianity. It is true that from the beginning ancient Israel and thereafter Judaism were always and variously exposed to foreign religious influences (from the earliest biblical text, the song of Deborah, dating from the twelfth century B.c., up unto the time of Jesus and Paul), but it was in such a context of attraction and repulsion that their religious identity was first established and furthermore strengthened, which is particularly true of the Hellenistic period in which foreign influences upon Judaism are said to have reached their climax. It is therefore not to be denied that Judaism had taken up numerous foreign influences, or perhaps one should say stimuli; but as the exilic and Persian periods show, these influences were either integrated or rejected.

In either case, such encounters effectively made Judaism more self-confident and influential, which is attested from the third century B.c. by the attraction of the synagogue for non-Jews and the great number of God-fearers who gathered in the Jewish houses of prayer. In fact, I would claim the same strong measure of self-identity for Qumran, the Pharisees, and the apocalyptic sects as I would for the translators of the Septuagint and Philo of Alexandria. In any case, the “syncretistic elements,” which are overemphasized by such leading members of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule as H. Grefmann (e.g., in “Die Aufgaben der Wissenschaft des nachbiblischen Judentums,” Zeitschril fir die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 43, n.s. 2 [1925]: 1-32), have much more to do with pagan interest in Judaism than with Judaism itself. In comparison with their pagan surroundings, Judaism and early Christianity were not “syncretistic religions,” unless one understands this notion to apply in a most general way to foreign influences of all kinds, in which case it becomes so general as to be empty.

From this thesis I would conclude first of all the following: It could be that whatever pagan influences have been suspected in the origins of Christianity were mediated without exception by Judaism. For one can nowhere prove the direct influence of pagan cults or non-Jewish thought on early Christianity. What is described in the New Testament as Hellenistic could very well stem from Jewish sources that remained embedded in the religious koinS, the common religious language of the Hellenistic period.

Only by participating in the religious language and imaginations of their day could they be attractive and have a certain effect– hence Judaism’s rapid assimilation of the Greek language and its religious terms both in the Diaspora and even at home among its leading minds, as had already been the case with Aramaic during the Babylonian exile and the Persian period. Of course, at the time of Jesus and the apostles, Eretz Yisrael had stood under Greek influence for four hundred years, and one can therefore with complete justification designate the entirety of first- and second-century Judaism after Christ as Hellenistic–in other words, as stamped in various ways by the transmission of Hellenistic civilization and by conflict therewith.

If this is called syncretistic, then everything in Judaism of the Hellenistic era ,would have to be so called; consequently, the frequently used term Hellenistic is of as little use as the term syncretistic for making clear distinctions. Jerusalem, for example, the world-famous city of Jewish pilgrims, had its own unique brand of Hellenistic culture since the days of the Hasmoneans and Herod, namely, a special Jewish Hellenism that was different from that of Alexandria in that it was more strongly shaped by the Holy Land, the temple, and its cult. In any case, because so-called Palestinian Judaism, like the Jewish-Hellenistic Diaspora, formed anything but a unity, a clear and careful historical account of the matter stands in need of more precise characterizations than given by such catchwords as “syncretistic,” “Hellenistic,” or even “Palestinian.” To cite another example, the Jews in Syria and Rome were more strongly under Palestinian influence than were, say, those in Alexandria and Egypt, who had a longer independent history going back to the sixth century B.C. To understand the matter better, we should therefore make distinctions among the spoken languages, such as Aramaic, Greek, and later Latin; likewise, for studies of Judaism and particularly of the early church, we should make geographical distinctions among Galilee, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. In addition, we must also take note of differences regarding education and social conditions. For example, the Herodians and the priestly upper class in Jerusalem and the extremely wealthy family of Philo in Alexandria were much more Hellenized, which is to say, they received a better than average formal education. On the whole, Judaism in antiquity was much richer and more creative than is usually supposed.

Along with these Jewish foundations of the new, messianic movement, one must note that the great majority of the New Testament authors were Jewish Christians who for the most part either came from the Palestinian homeland or had some connection to it on account of their education and the groups to which they belonged. This last case applies above all to Paul, the earliest Christian author and scholarly trained Pharisee, who came from Tarsus to study in Jerusalem, but also to such figures as John Mark, the oldest Evangelist; it applies, furthermore, to the unknown (Syrian?) scribe and author of the Gospel of Matthew, the author of the Apocalypse of John, and the entire Johannine corpus. As far as I can see it, the author of the Fourth Gospel, who is identified with the “old one” (ho presbyteros) of the second and third letters of John, came from the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem; as for Luke, the “beloved physician,” he was probably a God-fearer or sympathizer before he became a Christian and later travel companion to Paul. His two-part work, unique among early Christian literature until Eusebius, demonstrates among all the non-Jewish authors of antiquity by far the best knowledge of Judaism both in the Diaspora and in the homeland.

One can furthermore presume that the unknown author of the Letter to the Hebrews was a rhetorically versed Hellenistic Jew who masterfully employed the Alexandrian art of allegorical and typological exegesis; similarly, that the author of Clement’s first letter in Rome must have been familiar with the liturgy and scriptural tradition of the synagogue. For him, the Septuagint is the great collection of paradigms for correct church order. All in all, there remain few writings in the New Testament that one could in good conscience attribute to Gentile Christians. It is likewise reasonable to suspect that James, which is to some extent an anti-Pauline letter, was not written by a Gentile Christian, which would also seem to be true of the letter allegedly written by his brother, Jude. James, the brother of the Lord, is perhaps the real author, but the Letter of Jude is pseudonymous. The only remaining texts that could have been written by Gentile Christians are the very late pastoral letters, perhaps the somewhat earlier first letter of Peter (dating from around A.D. 100), and the considerably later second Petrine letter, which is in turn dependent upon Jude.

These seminal essays by two leading New Testament scholars of our day focus on the interface between Judaism and Christianity in the New Testament.

Professor Hengel writes in a broad and incisive manner on Early Christianity as a Jewish-Messianic Universalist Movement. He argues that Christianity grew entirely out of Jewish soil and that pagan influences in the New Testament were mediated through Hellenistic Judaism. With an increasing number of Jewish scholars, he therefore contends that the New Testament must be considered an important source for our knowledge of ancient Judaism. In a final portion of his essay, he comments in some detail on the final separation of Christianity and Judaism.

Professor Barrett’s Paul: Councils and Controversies addresses a more specific topic, though one with wide-ranging implications. His focus is the council described in Galatians 2 and Acts 15. What is the gospel of Jesus Christ for Jews and what is it for the Gentiles of the Pauline mission? Barrett explores the historical circumstances and the theological issues at stake. He traces the weakness of the initial compromise agreement between Paul and Peter to take the gospel to the uncircumcision and the circumcision respectively, as well as the significance of the later compromise decree of the council that made minimal demands upon the Gentiles. The inadequacy of both approaches is found in their failure to refer to the center or core of the gospel, that is, to Jesus Christ.

A brief concluding chapter draws together some of the essays’ themes, by summarizing responses to them by Fuller Seminary’s New Testament department and proposing prospects for future discussion. An annotated bibliography is also included.

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