Christianity: Judaism MkIIB?

Any discussion on the relationship between Christians and Jews or Judaism (which are not exactly the same thing) involves complex theological, historical and cultural issues. Even thinking about beginning to sketch out some thoughts in this area causes me to tremble… But here goes.

Anecdote One: I was talking to my children about my many good friendships with Jewish people. My daughter said: I’ve got some Jewish friends. Really? I replied (there are hardly any Jews in our part of the city). Yeah, Jesus, and Mary, and Joseph, and Peter, and John… Great kid, my daughter.

The upshot of which is that we all know Christianity had its beginnings among the Jewish people. But perhaps many Christains are insufficiently aware of the fact that Christianity only makes sense in the context of its Jewish roots.

Another anecdote. A Rabbi friend likes to distinguish between Judaism Mk I (Biblical or Temple Judaism) and Judaism Mk II (Rabbinical or Synagogue Judaism). When he says this, I like to correct him and say that Rabbinical Judaism is actually Judaism Mk IIA — Judaism Mk IIB is Christianity.

This is, I think, one of the most important points that can be made about the relationship between modern day Jews and Christians: Christianity is a form of Judaism. I would argue that it is a form of Judaism which is just as valid (in terms of historical continuity) as the religion which commonly goes by that name.

In making this claim, we need to recognise three important historical events and the effects they had upon the Jewish community and religion.

The first event was the Babylonian Exile (587-539 BC). This was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora and the establishment of synagogues as an alternative focus for Jewish religious practice over against the temple (which had been destroyed by the Babylonians). The temple was eventually rebuilt, but not until the synagogues had more than a century to establish themselves. At the time of Jesus and St Paul (see the Gospels and Acts) we see both systems–temple and synagogue–existing side by side, each with their own parties–priestly saducees and rabbinical pharisees. Of course, as studies by folk such as N.T. Wright are now conclusively showing, there were a host of different “Judaisms” in the late 1st Century BC/early 1st Century AD. But significantly for both forms of Judaism MkII, the synagogues were well established by this time not only throughout Palestine, but all through the Roman Empire and beyond.

This brings us to the second event: The execution of Jesus of Nazareth by Pontius Pilate (c. 30 AD). For the history of the years following this event, I refer you to the scholars–people like Martin Hengel and N.T. Wright will do for a start. (I find this stuff spiritually fascinating as well as intellectually stimulating–it simultaneously challenges and confirms my faith). The one thing we cannot deny is that the Christian Church started off as a 100% Jewish movement. Among these early Christians, as the Book of Acts and Martin Hengel’s studies confirm, were “Greeks”, but these were Greek-speaking Jews, not Gentiles. There is ample evidence to show that the new Christians (who were first called that in Antioch outside of Palestine, not in Jerusalem) continued to regard themselves as Jews. Most significantly they continued to worship in the temple, while attracting many of its adherants from the pharisees and synagogues. Judaism Mk IIB had begun.

It is important for our modern discussion to take good note of the fact that the very earliest doctrinal crisis to face the infant Church was not whether the gospel should be preached to Jews (ie. whether Christians should seek to convert Jews), but rather whether the gospel should be preached to Gentiles–and to what extent and by what method Gentiles could become members of what was undeniably a Jewish Christian community.

The matter was, of course, resolved in favour of allowing Gentiles to convert to Christianity, imposing only very minimalist “Jewish” requirements (“Council of Jerusalem”–Acts 15, c. 50AD). But that it took about 20 years for this decision to be decisively taken shows that for a very long time (and a good time thereafter as Paul’s letters show) this remained an issue. Paul’s activities greatly increased the percentage of non-Jewish members in the Christian Church, but even he always followed the mission-strategy of starting at the local synagogue first. Afterall, they were the ones for home the message was originally intended, and the ones who would have made most sense of the decidedly Jewish categories in which the Gospel was proclaimed.

At this point, there were at least three varieties of Judaism widely practiced: Mk I (Temple cult), Mk IIA (Synagogue), and Mk IIB (Christianity). But the real tipping point came with the third important historical event–an event that finally spelled the end of Judaism Mk I and marked the break between Mk IIA and Mk IIB: the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD.

We are today perhaps not quite as aware of the significance of this event for Christians as we should be. Our interpretation of Christ’s death as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world may well have its crystalisation (if not its origin) in this event. There is a very good case to be made that the Letter to the Hebrews dates from soon after the destruction of the Temple, and its entire argument that Christ has replaced both the Levitical priesthood and the sacrifices seems to answer the question: How are we, as Christian Jews, to understand this catastrophe?

Synagogue/Rabbinical Judaism–which had long had its tensions with the centralised cult at the Temple–also asked itself “What does this mean for us?”. In effect, it meant that their day had come. The scattered Jewish populace was welcomed by the synagogue communities throughout the empire, and a new understanding of religious service to God–studying and living according to the Torah–took the place of the reliance on the preistly/sacrificial system.

There is an interesting historical point here that fascinates me. The Jewish Encyclopedia has this to say about Gamaliel:

Gamaliel, as it appears, did most toward establish-. ing the honor in which the house of Hillel was held, and which secured to it a preeminent position within Palestinian Judaism soon after the destruction of the- Temple. …That Gamaliel ever taught in public is known, curiously enough, only from the Acts of the Apostles, where (xxii. 3) the apostle Paul prides himself on having sat at the feet of Gamaliel.

Thus Gamaliel forms a clear connecting point between both MkIIA and MkIIB Judaism.

The relationship between Synagogue Judaism and Christianity from this point until the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire is one that need to study more. However, it is quite clear that there was a good deal of interaction between the two post-biblical Jewish movements and communities for quite some centuries. For instance, even the formation of the Jewish canon–and the decision to use only the Hebrew books excluding the “Greek” books previously included in the Septuagint–at the Council of Jamnia (c. 90 AD) was probably influenced by a need to distinguish the Synagogue Jews from the rapidly growing Christian movement which used the Greek version.

But population studies are also interesting. I don’t have the figures in front of me (Joshua has alluded to them in his comments on the extraordinary form of the Roman mass), but sociological historians have asked the question “What happened to the Jews of the Roman Empire?”. For it seems that whereas in the early 1st Century AD there were X% of Jews among the population of the Em
pire, by the establishment of Christianity by Constantine in the 4th Century there were only a fraction of X%. Where did the others go? Answer (acc. to these sociologists): they became Christian. Other sociological historians debate about the impact that the movement had right at the very beginning in Jerusalem. If the Acts of the Apostles is accurate in saying that 3000 converts were made on the first day, and if this group “continued to grow” as was claimed–there could have been as many as 50% of the population of Jerusalem affected by this movement in some way.

Anyway, these are all questions for another time. I have to go now to the inaugural Australian meeting of the “Scriptural Reasoning” movement–a movement started in the US for Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars to come together and study their texts together. In the mean time, lets ponder on our Jewish heritage and identity and what it means for our relationship with those who are racially Jewish today. I have looked here only at some historical issues. There are theological issues I would like to address. And sociological ones too–for one of the strange (but not unexpected) things about modern Jews is that there are many who are not religious in any sense at all but still have a strong identity with Judaism. These “secular” Jews are a whole new sort of Judaism today–perhaps Judaism Mk III?

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1 Response to Christianity: Judaism MkIIB?

  1. benfan says:

    Very very interesting. Thank you

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