Sunday, March 9, 2008

Jewish Christianity Reconsidered

Ebionites and Nazarenes

Scholars believe the early Jewish Christian group known as the Ebionites took their name from the Hebrew word for "poor," the name thus meaning "the poor ones." There is evidence they themselves claimed the name derived from the fact of their having given all their possessions to the apostles. According to Irenaeus, the Ebionites rejected the virgin birth, believed that the Christ entered Jesus at his baptism, used Matthew's gospel only (or a version thereof), opposed Paul, followed Jewish law, had a great reverence for Jerusalem, and celebrated the Eucharist with water rather than wine. Of course, given that the Ebionites may represent one of the earliest Christian movements, rooted in the Jerusalem church, it is possible their beliefs are more authentically Christian (by which I mean: going back to Jesus himself) than the orthodoxy that soon began developing around the Mediterranean.

The later heresiologist Epiphanius (4th century) presents a slightly different and markedly less congenial picture of the Ebionites. But evidence suggests that this group, encountered by Epiphanius on Cyprus, might be an offshoot of Samaritan converts to Christianity. In any case, they are vegetarians, reject the prophets, and have adopted the apocalyptic Book of Elchasai.

The issue of vegetarianism in early Christianity is an interesting one, linked by Epiphanius to temple sacrifice, which the group he describes considered a perversion of God's true law. Writing in the early 4th century, Eusebius, often called the father of Church history, stated that both the apostles and James the Just were vegetarians. But the New Testament texts themselves don't anywhere imply vegetarianism, which to me seems to trump Eusebius' statements.

(NB: As for the other group often mentioned in conjunction with the Ebionites, namely the Nazarenes or Nazoreans, I am convinced by Petri Luomanen's recent arguments that no such group existed as an independent sect. The term Nazarene was, quite simply, the common term for Christian in the Semitic languages, thus early Catholic Christians would also have been called "Nazarenes." Luomanen's careful discussion, in any case, should show us how little we can know about either Ebionites or Nazarenes. See his article "Ebionites and Nazarenes" in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered.)

* * *

Jewish Christianity, Christian Judaism,
or neither of the above?

Review of: Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts. Ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe, Fortress Press, 389 pp.

In addition to Petri Luomanen's article on the Ebionites and Nazarenes, the volume Jewish Christianity Reconsidered contains a number of excellent scholarly contributions to the question: How Jewish was early Christianity? Not surprisingly, one of the points made by most of the scholars is that this question itself, formulated in this way, is anachronistic and misleading. "Judaism" in the first century was not what it became later and, certainly, "Christianity" wasn't either. But what was Judaism, and, more importantly for this volume, what was first-century Christianity as found in these Jewish communities?

The range of topics of the articles is well-suited to wrestling with this question. There is an article on the Jerusalem Church, one on Paul and his opponents, one (mentioned above) on the Ebionites; there are articles on many of the relevant New Testament books (Matthew, John, the Epistle of James, Revelation) and some of the apocrypha (the Didache, the Pseudo-Clementines). The volume gathers papers by contributors both secular and religious, and there are a variety of methodological approaches represented. Some of the stronger articles make judicious use of the recent work of anthropologists and social scientists, particularly as regards religious identities and how borders between sects are established and defined. In the following I'll present several of the articles.

First, however, it may be useful to clarify a bit what the roughest distinction might be between "Jewish Christianity" and "Christian Judaism." The issue, put in simplest terms, is one of where the stress is. A "Jewish Christian" would be an ethnically Jewish person who followed Jesus as Lord and who believed that Jesus' coming as Messiah inaugurated a new covenant: henceforth Torah could be set aside as the "old covenant." Paul was of course the major figure behind such an understanding, and this is the common understanding of most Christian churches. A "Christian Jew," on the other hand, would accept Jesus as Messiah but would not accept that this meant the obsolescence of Torah. Rather, according to this understanding, Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel's history as Messiah and the fulfillment of Torah as its greatest interpreter: that he was Torah's greatest interprete didn't at all imply that he came to replace Torah with a "new religion."

In his article on the Didache, Jonathan A. Draper, after explaining why the terms "Jew" and "Christian" are misleading, nonetheless admits that it is hard to avoid using them and goes on to characterize the Didache as an example of "Christian Judaism." His remarks make clear what this would mean in terms of the community at issue:
I would describe the Didache as "Christian Judaism." "Judaism" because its community considered itself a faithful group within "all Israel" and indeed stood in a tradition of Torah interpretation close to the Pharisaic-rabbinic party. . . . "Christian" because its community believed that Jesus was the Davidic messiah inaugurating the coming of God's eschatological kingdom, which could be "made known" to Gentiles as well as to Israelites, and which defined itself with regard to Jesus as "Christian" (12:4). "Jewish Christian" [on the other hand,] implies that there is an entity called "Christianity" in existence, separate from Israel, that provides the primary reference point of identity, and that ethnic Jews might belong to it like other ethnic groups . . . . The reality in the Didache community is the reverse: its primary reference point is Israel and the Torah, as these are affirmed and fulfilled in Jesus, and Gentiles may belong to this community only if they are prepared to respect the cultural world of Israel. (258-9)
These are the kinds of differences that inform many of the articles in the volume. I will present a few of them.

Warren Carter writes on the Gospel of Matthew and the question of whether it should be classified as a work of "Christian Judaism" or "Jewish Christianity." Like Draper, Carter finds such constructs inadequate. He presents the issues by comparing the views of A.J. Saldarini (who argues that Matthew should not be seen as representative of a new religion) and D.A. Hagner (who insists on just such newness). He assesses the strengths and weaknesses of both positions in relation to sociological theories of religious identity, questions of Matthew's christology, and the role of Torah in the text. Though finding problems in both positions, Carter concludes that Saldarini's understanding of Matthew is more persuasive than Hagner's: Matthew's Jesus doesn't annul either Torah or the pre-eminent place of Israel as God's chosen people; rather he is understood as "the definitive interpreter of the Law and Prophets." (178)

Raimo Hakola writes on the Gospel of John and how it may or may not be considered a Jewish Christian work. The article is of particular interest in that it shows the serious flaws in a position taken by much recent scholarship: namely that John reflects a Jewish Christian community reacting to persecution at the hands of an authoritative Judaism. Hakola argues that neither element in this current model of the origins of the fourth gospel holds up under scrutiny. I agree with him, and still suspect that John is most likely the product of a largely Gentile community--one however containing prominent Jewish members--seeking to establish its ground on the borders between Torah-observant Judaism and the wider Gentile world.

Patrick Hartin's excellent article on the Epistle of James is in large measure persuasive in its argument that the epistle represents a community that both considers itself fully Jewish and fully Christian. Hartin argues, however, against using these terms "Jewish" and "Christian" to characterize the community, as, once again, they are somewhat anachronistic. In Hartin's terminology, the writer of James is both a member of "the house of Israel" and a "devoted follower of Jesus." James refers to Jesus as Lord--a term previously used for God alone--but is more interested in Jesus' message than his person. Hartin convincingly shows that "the law" referred to throughout the text is to be understood quite simply as Torah, while Jesus is to be understood as Torah's most authoritative interpreter. He is also convinced that Jesus' mission as portrayed in Matthew is the same one we see in James; in both texts, we are dealing with the same understanding of Jesus: he has come to correct, instruct and perfect the house of Israel. If Hartin is right, such corroborative testimony to a single vision, coming from one of earliest gospels and the epistle associated with James and the Jerusalem Church, offers perhaps our strongest portrait of the historical Jesus.

These are a few articles in Matt Jackson-McCabe's well-conceived new book. With contributions from a dozen scholars, Jewish Christianity Reconsidered offers a multi-faceted introduction to recent debates on the beliefs of some of Jesus' first followers.

Check Jewish Christianity Reconsidered at


Anonymous said...

Shouldn't the "Jewish Christian/Pauline Christian" divide include the contrast between the Didache/Pauline eucharistic formulae: bread & wine as gifts of the fields vs body & blood redemption?

Eric Mader said...

Yes, you make a very interesting point, one well worth studying further. See my review of Keith Akers' book on this blog, where many related issues are taken up. In terms of the divide you mention, it's somewhat odd Akers didn't delve into the Didache in his book.

Virgil H. Soule said...

Would the group described beginning at Acts 4:32 be considered Proto-Ebionite, Proto-Nazarene, or neither? According to Acts 11:26, believers were first called Christians at Antioch. Would the Didache community have been aware of this?