13 October 1977 John Howard Yoder Reframes the Paradigm of the Partings of the Ways #otdimjh


Yoder’s lecture was given on  October 13, 1977  at the University of Notre Dame.

He argues for a new way of understanding the Jewish-Christian schism of the early church, and anticipates the more recent “Ways that never parted” positions of Frederickson, Boyarin et al. His views were often seen as maverick positions (as was his character), but the Messianic Jewish movement owes him a debt of gratitude in the way he revisited and challenged the traditional “parting of the ways” view of Parkes, Dunn and others who allow the separation of Judaism and Christianity as two separate ‘religions’ as a reality sanctioned by Scripture and Tradition.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for the new understandings that have arisen in the last fifty years of the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Jewish believers in Yeshua in the early centuries of the Common Era. Help us to build on these new insights in our own contribution to Jewish-Christian relations, and demonstrate that “when Judaism and Christianity parted company, the truth was divided” (Archbishop William Temple, reported by James Parkes). In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.

See also:

The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited (Theology in a Postcritical Key) Paperback – 31 Jan 2009
by John Howard Yoder


The present commentary suggests that there is one other possible line of response. It would be to say that the criticism of “normative Christianity” should be undertaken from a point of reference within Christian origins which would enable us to disavow those developments when they happened. I.e. it would explain why they were wrong when they did happen, without waiting for the age of enlightenment to call into question the Byzantine dogmatics and without waiting for Auschwitz to dramatize the wrongness of the Constantinian establishment. This would mean not assuming, as I had been doing thus far in this introduction, that the polarized situation of the fourth century is a proper framework in which to interpret the mission of Jesus or of Paul, but rather seeking to save Jesus (and maybe even Paul) from the anti-Jewish meaning which he was given by later Christianity.


full lecture at:



John Howard Yoder, unpublished, 1977. Originally presented October 13, 1977 in a campus lecture at the University of Notre Dame, sponsored by the Department of Theology and the Notre Dame Graduate Theological Union. Reprinted unedited, with the author’s permission, 1992, for use at Allegheny College as a reading in Religious Studies 145 Christianity.

In direct contrast to the first lecture in this series presented a month ago, what I have been asked to deal with is not the prolongation or refinement of the major thrust of what I have been working at for years, but rather the hazardous projection of a line of research and a set of hypotheses whose promise lies precisely in their relative originality and untested quality.

With my doctoral concentration having been in the history of the 16th century reformation, and with my teaching responsibilities at Notre Dame lying first of all in the realm of peace and non-violence, what am I doing in the first century? That question points to what should be said first by way of introduction. My hypothesis testifies to the promise or at least the potential possibility of conversations not only across the disciplines but across the centuries, bringing to bear upon the interpretation of one period questions and orientation which were sharpened and clarified at some other time. With regard to the modern problem of peace and justice, as with regard to the 16th century problem of what constitutes the proper reformation of the Christian Church, I have had occasion to pursue with increasing sharpness the thesis that Christianity once took a very wrong turn. Certainly this is not a new idea, even though it has not been ratified by establishment Christian spokespersons. Something of what went wrong is symbolized by the epoch of Constantine. Yet anyone who looks at the changes brought by the age of Constantine will see in those turning points the rounding out and the fruition of something which had begun well before. If it be claimed at all that Christianity at some point went off the track, became unfaithful, not simply in the sense of participating in the weakness and fallibility of all that is mortal, but in a deeper sense of changing the nature of the faith, then when must that have happened? At what point did it happen, in the face of what issue, and at whose initiative? Knowing from the 16th century that something had gone seriously wrong enables us to read the first century story with fresh eyes, as over against those who take the entire story as it actually developed to be identical with the providential purposes of God and the best possible obedience that the believing community could have rendered him. So I propose to bring into the first two centuries the Radical Reformation notion of Christianity’s radical unfaithfulness or apostasy.

Secondly, this investigation represents a specimen of a very large question of method in the reading of history. We know how history came out. As historians, we are charged with the responsibility of making sense out of how it came out. “Making sense” is largely a matter of explaining what the processes and connections were, so that we see the way it did come out was the way it had to come out. This puts us at an unthinkable advantage over against the actors of the history who, they thought, were making decisions and did not know how things had to come out. My suggestion is that we would be reading history in a more live and open way if we could somehow protect ourselves against this advantage we have over the actors, by doubting the inevitability of how it actually did happen, and attempting to read the story the way it looked to its actors, namely under the veil of uncertainty as to how the things might happen. They didn’t know how it had to come out; if we want to understand the story with them we should try not to be too well informed about that either.

There are currently some very respectable forms of revisionism, which seek to reread history by the light of a new lamp: One uses the tools of Freud or Marx as they were not used before to provide the linkage between what people decided and how things came out. This is fine for the additional light it adds, but it is a different revision from the one I am suggesting. I propose that we bracket all necessary causative interpretations, in order to let the evident openness of the situation at the time become thinkable to us.

I have said this in terms simply of a thinkable ignorance on the model of our actually not knowing our own future. But beyond this there is an ethical reason for the same concern, namely the call to repentance or the specific denunciation of some decisions which were made wrongly, and some tragedies for which someone is to blame. The notions of blame, diagnosis, contrition, and pardon call us to stand in judgment morally upon the past events. That also demands an exercise of envisioning how they might have gone otherwise.

So my concern will be to ask of the first century how much potential it had for going otherwise, testing that question at the point of the specific problem of the wall between Christians and Jews. But if we are to ask that question authentically, we shall need consciously to retreat from some of our usual thought habits.

One of the common axioms of the way in which we in the western world (which has meant largely the Christian world) have been taught to read our history, is an understanding of the organic quality of growth which inclines us to read the first century documents in the light of developments of the second, third, and fourth centuries. We know what existed in the third and fourth centuries of our era. By that time, we can identify a “normative Christianity”, governed by the bishops and beginning to freeze its theological identity in liturgical and creedal formulas. There is a Jewish identity, governed intellectually by the rabbis, whose normative thought patterns are also codified in the Mishna. Normative Judaism and normative Christianity are mutually exclusive. By now the Jews reject Jesus and Judaism rejects Christianity (if these two formulations are somewhat distinguishable). We are motivated to read the first century story, even its very first years in the recorded ministry of Jesus of Nazareth before his passion, in the light of what we now know was to come to pass. We shall therefore expect to find in the very earliest accounts of the ministry of Jesus the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews. Then we shall maximize rather than minimize every element, in the story of Jesus’ relation to his countrymen, which can be interpreted as pre-figuring the tensions which later became so dramatically clear.

“Normative Christianity”, as we know very well in the third and fourth centuries, is most definitionally identified by those particular characteristics which are most objectionable to Jews. Normative Christianity is identified in the fourth century by the institutional victory of the Constantinian establishment, resulting in forced conformity with Christian cult and ethos or at the very best tolerance and second class citizenship for non-Christians. Secondly, Christianity is identified with the developments of Byzantine dogmatics, increasingly complex and abstract controversies concerning the formulation of statements about the status of Jesus as the divine Son. These debates were un-Jewish from the start, having their origins in Alexandrian circles where Christian thought (like Jewish thought before it) was being adjusted to the Hellenistic heritage, and only becoming dramatically important when (and perhaps because) the imperial court became the place where the debates had to be thrashed out.

These two definitions of normative Christianity, its quality of social establishment and its concern with Christological doctrine, are (not by accident) the elements of Christian identity which are the least acceptable to Jews.

They happen also to be the elements of historic Christianity which are losing their hold on the rest of us as well. The situation of social establishment has been lost through the last centuries. Intellectual change has made it increasingly difficult for modern western thinkers to grasp what the ancient ecumenical councils were debating about.

What then are Christians from within this history to do about their non-Jewish or even anti-Jewish heritage? One answer would then be to abandon normative Christianity without becoming anything else. This would mean joining (a little late) the ranks of tired pluralistic liberal intellectuals, disavowing Christianity but not affirming Judaism either at the point which both have in common, namely the claim that the God of heaven and earth has spoken to his people.

Another tactic, which most of us take most of the time, is to muddle along with gradual adjustments, never admitting that we are disavowing normative Christianity, but never quite affirming it anymore either, keeping ourselves busy with questions which are sufficiently more modest in scope that we can continue to work at them without asking whether the whole framework has become untenable.

The present commentary suggests that there is one other possible line of response. It would be to say that the criticism of “normative Christianity” should be undertaken from a point of reference within Christian origins which would enable us to disavow those developments when they happened. I.e. it would explain why they were wrong when they did happen, without waiting for the age of enlightenment to call into question the Byzantine dogmatics and without waiting for Auschwitz to dramatize the wrongness of the Constantinian establishment. This would mean notassuming, as I had been doing thus far in this introduction, that the polarized situation of the fourth century is a proper framework in which to interpret the mission of Jesus or of Paul, but rather seeking to save Jesus (and maybe even Paul) from the anti-Jewish meaning which he was given by later Christianity.

I just spoke of “a point of reference within Christian origins which would permit us to disavow later developments.” This notion of critiquing later developments from the perspective of the origin from which they had fallen away explains the relevance to this first century theme of my own competence in reformation history. The label “radical reformation” has increasingly come into currency to describe a series of ways of reformulating the vision of Christian faithfulness beginning most effectively with the age of Pierre Vaudes and running through the Czech Brethren of the 15th century, the Anabaptists of the 16th, the Baptists and Quakers of the 17th, certain Pietists of the 18th, the American Disciples of the 19th , as representing an understanding of what it means to call the church to faithfulness structurally distinctive from the other kinds of reforms which are represented by state church protestantism and the intra-Catholic reformation of Trent. Over against the mainstream of Christian development which identifies the church with the majority and the dominant institutions, and therefore sees reform as only the amount of change which can be integrated with that mainstream history and its authorities, the radical reformation vision calls into question whether the mainstream is the main stream, whether the instruments of its fallenness can be counted on to be the organs of its renewal. On grounds which combine sociological realism with biblical apocalyptic, it concludes that the renewal which God wants for his people will have to go deeper and come from farther away than the patching and correcting which present authorities and present insight are willing to permit. Some have tried to capsule this difference in the suggestion that “reformation” works with the existing structures and ideas whereas “restitution” or “restoration” is the more radical vision of change. Without getting stuck on that question of vocabulary, we do well to recognize that there is here a very deep issue with regard to the criteria for the faithfulness of the Christian community and whether in the mess the Christian west has got into since Constantine it is sufficient to accept limiting ourselves to patterns of reformation which do not go to the root of things because they are committed a priori to working with everyone and all the heritage of the post-Constantinian synthesis.

Usually this “restitutionist” view assumed (as did all history-telling in the Middle Ages) that Constantine was both the real and the symbolic agent of the great reversal. Yet the restitutionist approach can just as well denounce a sell-out which happened in the third century, or the second, if we find that one took place.

The majority stream of church evolution which we can then criticize is not simply the late medieval mixture, and not simply the synthesis of church and world of which Constantine is a symbol. We are free to apply the same radicality of criticism to the anti-semitism of Christianity in the middle of the second century, or to any other development which when juxtaposed with the foundational events and witness falls short of being a faithful reflection and prolongation. Medieval sectarians and Renaissance partisans of reform, even before protestantism, had denounced the fallenness of Christianity after Constantine. All that I am doing in applying that same notion to the present theme is to suggest that the unfaithfulness began well before Constantine and that one of its key characteristics was the renunciation of the Jewish roots of the faith.

But now I must return to stating my major theme. Since we know that normative Christianity is anti-Jewish we have been taught to read all that we can of its non- or anti-Jewish orientation in the story of the New Testament Church. This is especially easy to do with the apostle Paul and especially easy to do with him as he has been interpreted by and since Martin Luther. In a similar way we shall see even Jesus as anti-Jewish i.e. as being most specifically himself where he most pointedly angers and rejects his countrymen, rejects their teaching and transcends their provincial views. The true Paul is the anti-Jewish Paul and the authentic Jesus is the anti-Jewish Jesus.

It is certainly an oversimplification, but it is not fundamentally unfair, to suggest that that frame of reference, reading the New Testament through the Christianity of Nicea and seeing Jesus and Paul as most authentically themselves when they are least Jewish, is still the dominant frame of reference in western Christian (and for that matter post-Christian secular) thought. Those assumptions have been challenged and weakened, they are no longer self-evident, but they have not been replaced with anything else. Various critical observations have been accumulating in recent decades, but they have not ye come up with an alternative total view of the story which has power to convince.

It is the thesis of the present paper that the time has more than come for a summation of the doubts which need to be addressed to that traditional framework. To itemize those doubts may help exploit our capacity for self-critique, without my being in a position to claim to be able to propose a satisfactory total alternative framework.

The task of inventory which I here undertake is that of an amateur, which in a sense all inter-disciplinary conversation must be. An expert is a person who shares his colleagues’ axioms. The amateur asks why they have become axiomatic. To the historians of the first century, and to interpreters of the dogmatic definitions of the fourth century, I bring questions sharpened by the study of modern western Christian history and contemporary social ethical concern. I must lean very heavily on the wisdom of many others who have supported my right to ask these questions, and who in the realms of their respective expertise have confirmed the validity of my search for alternative frameworks. In the local context I must especially acknowledge the encouragement of colleague Charles Primus, whose perspective on early post-temple Judaism is crucial to my hypothesis. I also have more to learn from colleague Robert Wilken, who has surveyed the same topic for a period just a little later.

Let me try once more to capsule my thesis before unfolding it more fully. Our standard definition of the problem of Jewish and Christian identities, and therefore the problem of Christian antisemitism, is derived from a time when the definitions of normative Christianity and normative Judaism as mutually incompatible were perfectly clear and there was no other mediating possibility. We project that later clarity into the early situation by looking in the earlier texts for the explanations of the later polarization. But the fact that we are looking for such explanations to answer a later question itself distorts our capacity to read the story for what it itself wants to say. Perhaps the purpose of those living that story then, or the purpose of God in letting it happen, was not to explain a later tragic division but perhaps even to offer some other option. If his purpose was to offer a different future than the one which actually came to be, then we do not do total justice to God’s intent in the story by reading it as if the outcome he did not want, but which did happen, had to happen.

Now I seek to summarize the basic theses of the inherited position before passing on to argue its limits.

1. There was first of all a base line of “normative Judaism”. We can draw from the documents what that was. For these purposes “Judaism” means both a position, i.e. a religious synthesis of beliefs and practices, and a population which we might more precisely call “Jewry”.

2. Jesus rejects normative Judaism and is rejected by it. That reciprocal rejection is not a misunderstanding or a tragic fluke but a proper and necessary response, a fundamental antagonism between what he was saying and the Judaism which he attacked.

3. The apostle Saul/Paul again rejects Judaism and is rejected by it.

4. Christianity as such is defined by these rejections, not by its commonalities with Judaism. The many convictions which are still held in common regarding for instance the uniqueness of the one God creator and sovereign, his rejection of idols and polytheism, his law and his world vision, his loving kindness, are not as definitional for the identity of Christianity as the points involved in the double rejection summarized above (double in two ways: both Jesus and Paul, each for his own account rejected Judaism, and each rejection was reciprocal, with Judaism returning the compliment).

Now if we were to work slowly and socratically, there would be some problem involved in the fact that after Jesus and Judaism had already carried out the mutual rejection in the period of his earthly ministry recorded in the Gospels, Paul and the same Judaism would again have to go through the same division in the story recorded in the book of Acts and reflected in the epistles. Why did it have to happen twice and only twice? The timing, the subject matter, and the external form of the two reciprocal rejections are not as simple as you think to relate to one another. But here I shall have to limit myself to a direct collision with the theses as stated, within the limits of my present purpose of sketching an alternative view without fully proving it.

1) The first basic corrective: There was no such thing as normative Judaism in the first century of our era. That standard definition against which first Jesus and the Paul were thought to have reacted did not as a matter of fact exist. It is especially the contemporary Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner who has made much more conscious this historical understanding. Christians, guided by their experience of later authority models (i.e. the episcopal hierarchy), understandably ascribed to the Judaism of the time of Jesus patterns for defining what is normative which existed in the experience of these later Christians but not in the Judaism of that time. The function of a creed, the function of a bishop, the function of written constitutional or canon law, the function of a godly sovereign, the definitional effect of ethnic solidarity within an enclave, –all of these resources for self-definition could later so easily be ascribed to first century Palestinian Judaism but, the ease of the ascription not withstanding, they were not there.

What we have in Jewish society and experience is something much more confused. We have a number of competing authority structures. There are of course the rabbis, the most respected and successful of whom we identify with the position known as pharisaical, but their authority depended upon the voluntary loyalty of their disciples. In no sense were they like bishops. There is the constituted authority of the Sandhedrin, indisputable at the point of having arranged with the Romans to have charge of the management of the temple, but–partly for that very reason–not enjoying the respect or the adhesion of all the population. Other authority models, –the Dead Sea communities, other seers and preachers–established their right to speak on still other grounds and were accredited by still other constituencies. It is a disservice to understanding to think that one of these groups was more adequately or validly or normatively Jewish than the others. They were all there. The confusion was facilitated by the fact that they were in their own land rather than in a ghetto, and by the fact that they did not enjoy political sovereignty in the ordinary sense. After the year 70 and especially after the collapse of the second revolution 65 years later, the situation became much more clear. The Sandhedrin structures fell away, together with the Temple which had been their reason to exist, destroyed be the same Roman authorities who had once supported them. The Zealot definition of authority was still thinkable but after these two more resounding defeats was no longer credible. Simply being Jewish by virtue of having been born on the land was no longer a self-evident identity. What was left had to be a way of being a believer without the Temple and without the turf. This meant structuring a confessing community on non-geographical and non-political grounds, an identity voluntarily sustained by a minority of people scattered in lands under other sovereignties. There were two groups of Jews who did this successfully. As Neusner well says it, there were the Christians and there were the rabbis. Both of these were Jewish. They had almost the same moral traditions, almost the same social structures with regard to community management. They differed from each other only on a very Jewish question, namely whether the presence of the Messianic age was to be conceived of as future or also already as present. The Jews who affirmed the Messianic quality of their age, by confessing Jesus as risen, were no less Jewish than those who rejected that confession (or who may have lived in some particular region of the Jewish diaspora where they never heard of the idea).

But if then the very notion of a “normative Judaism” as backdrop and interlocutor for Jesus and Paul does not hold water, the whole picture must be redrawn. This calls forth our second corrective,

2) Second corrective: The Christians did not reject normative Judaism. This statement is not valid only on the superficial level, which follows with all of the clarity of tautology from what we have seen before, namely that there was no such thing as normative Judaism and therefore Jesus could not have rejected it. Far more than this, what Jesus himself proposed to his listeners was nothing other than what he claimed was the normative vision for Judaism, the proper interpretation of Jewish Scriptures and tradition for the present. Jesus rejected certain other teachings and scolded certain other people, but he never granted that the traditions and the people he was rejecting and scolding were qualified interpreters of Judaism. He claimed that he was that, and that they were misled and misleading in their contrary efforts to interpret the tradition. In a similar sense, the apostle Saul/Paul never surrendered the claim that a true son of Abraham must share the faith in the son of the promise made to Abraham. Those Israelites who had not yet seen in Jesus the promised one are not thereby for Paul mainline Jews, or authentic Jews, but rather Jews who have not yet accepted the fulfillment of the promises made to their father. In all of his polemic against people who make what he considers to be a wrong use of the values of the Hebrew heritage (the law, the ritual, circumcision, kaschrut) he never suggests that the people he is arguing against are good Jews or that he wants his disciples to be something other than good Jews.

There is in the gospel account of the ministry of Jesus nowhere a rejection of Judaism as a stream of history or a group of people.

With regard specifically to the law, Jesus’ attitudes are all affirmative. He came not to destroy it but to fulfill it, he says. He defends its intent against interpretations which destroy that meaning or cut its nerve. He appeals both to the historical experience and to the canonical writings of the Jews to authenticate and exposit everything he teaches. He places himself completely within that history, with no reference to other histories or sources of wisdom like those from which syncretists or a Jewish philosopher like Philo would borrow. At points where Jesus enters into debate, it is a debate with Jews about the proper meaning of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, never a relativizing or denial of that tradition. Within the debate about the meaning of its tradition, which is part of the nature of any living human community, his preference is for restoring the ‘original’ or the “radical” meaning of teachings on the sovereignty of God and the imperative of obedience. Sometimes he goes back to what he claims Moses really meant. In at least one case (with regard to divorce, Matthew 19) he goes back beyond a concession Moses had made to human frailty, to restore the original purpose of the creation, but he always does it in an absolutely Jewish context and in Jewish terms. The freedom he takes to redefine is no greater than the freedom taken by the earlier prophets and canonical writers as they each in their time had also reworked living traditions.

Nor is there in the ministry of the apostle Paul any denial of the Jewish heritage. Paul debates head-on with certain ways of applying the Jewish heritage to the diaspora situation, especially with regard to how much of the Jewish life-style should be expected of proselytes and of God-fearing adherents of the synagogue who do not become full Jews. That is a debate which had been going on two generations earlier, a debate provoked within diaspora Judaism by the extensive success in attracting sincere seekers which had been the experience of the synagogues for decades already. Paul’s advocacy of a relatively liberal attitude toward these people without a Jewish ancestry was one of the positions already taken in those earlier discussions. It was in no way an un-Jewish or anti-Jewish position. Paul was the great Judaizer of the Gentiles (I’ll come back to that). He can weave Aramaic liturgical language into his letters to non-Jewish Christians at Rome and Corinth, which means that he or someone else with similar orientation had taught Aramaic prayers to Gentile believers. He collected money to carry back to the poor in Jerusalem. He himself returned to Jerusalem to fulfill vows he had made involving temple attendance.

The party against which Paul is arguing in some of the most polemic sections of the letter to theGalatians is sometimes called “Judaizers” by the scholars, but this does not necessarily mean they were Jews. I understand it to be the conviction of Markus Barth that these people were precisely not Jews but Gentiles trying to use particular Jewish rituals as rites of redemptions in a way Judaism had not meant them, looking at dietary regulations or at circumcision or the sabbath in a way Jews would not have, namely as obligatory pre-conditions of salvation for everyone. Who the “Judaizers” were is an unfinished debate in detail, I allude to it here only to indicate the kind of discussion we need, not to pass judgment on the correctness of the thesis.

Gregory Baum, in his introduction to the work of Rosemary Reuther, regrettably continues the older tradition when he says simply (p.6) that the Apostle Paul “had no intention whatever of recognizing Jewish religion as a way of grace.” It is possible after the second century, or after Martin Luther, to consider that to be a statement of what Paul spends three very complicated chapters of the Epistle to the Romans to deal with. Yet upon reading the story of Paul from the front end rather than from the back it is still imperative for the historian to doubt Baum’s facile assumption that Paul meant any such thing. Paul was arguing about the conditions under which Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Jesus in Rome could recognize one another as both within the faith of Abraham which should be carried on in unbroken continuity by incorporating (graft) into the believing fellowship people who had been born outside it. He never says the religion of Israel is not a way of grace. He knows no other way of grace; he knows no other way. What he is debating, in an intra muros discussion with other Christians, most of them born Jews and some of them not, is the freedom with which that heritage of grace may be shared with the outsider. As I have already said, sharing that heritage with the outside is not a new idea with Paul. It had been going on for centuries in the Hellenistic Judaism of which he was a product. All he adds is that this possibility of incorporation proselytes into the faith of Abraham, which had previously been an anticipatory fringe of Jewish awareness, could now become a joyful harvest since the promised age was beginning to dawn.

Paul is so far from being anything other than a Jew that he even invests three long and complicated chapters on his letter to the Romans in a discussion of how even those Jews who do not at present affirm the risen Christ will nonetheless sometime in the providential mercies of God find themselves in the same community. This must suffice to represent for this evening what in contemporary rereading of the Gospels and Paul is a theme of growing clarity in the detailed exposition by many scholars of numerous particular themes and passages. Neither Jesus nor Paul either rejected Judaism or was rejected by it, either by the bulk of Jewry when seen as population pool or by the majority of policy makers within the Jewish community most of the time or most places. The specimens of rejection recounted in the Gospels and in Acts are not authorized or representative, institutionally or statistically, of Jewry or Judaism as a whole.

But is it not the case that we do find in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel according to John, a significant series of texts speaking negatively of “the Jews” as being wrong, hostile, reprobate? That is evident. Nor is it a sufficient answer for me to say that these cases are rare or atypical (though they are). It is not sufficient to suggest (although it might well be true) that some of these more harsh references might have found their way into the text in the course of transmission over the generations and might not all have been in the original manuscripts. What is significant is the observation that even in these cases the people being talked about are not the Jewish nation as a whole, not the bulk of the people, but a particular set of authorities, the people who today would be called ‘the establishment’, a relatively small group of people wielding institutional power. This is quite clear if one asks for the actual social referent of the references to “the Jews” or even “the Pharisees” in John’s gospel. Not the crowds nor the poor nor the “nation” nor the congregations are meant, but a few rulers, the decision makers. A live parallel is what was meant a decade ago when the critics of our Vietnam war talked about “the Americans” in Southeast Asia. They did not mean the American people or the bearers of valid American moral values, or even the journalists and church related service workers, who were also American citizens, and were doing other things in Vietnam. They meant the power bearers of the diplomatic and military presence of the Washington government. The same is often true in ethnic controversy; one often grants by a linguistic convention what one really intends to challenge on the level of principle, namely that the power elite or decision making minority is in some sense, or represents (or ought to be made accountable to) the “people”. So when John’s gospel speaks of “the Jews”, in almost every case the actual referent of that narrative is to a mere handful of people who had major decision making power in the society of the time. Empirically, visibly, they are in control. But Jesus does not grant the validity of their definition of Jewishness. By no means does he grant that they are more Jewish than he. After the year 70 they do not exist.

These two revisions demand a third. The Jews did not reject Christianity. Jewishness or Judaism as a system of beliefs and practices did not reject Christianity as a belief system. Nor did Jewry as a body of people and most of their institutions reject believers in Jesus as people. The Temple at Jerusalem was always open to them until its destruction. The experiences of clash reported in the book of Acts are not typical, few of them are official, and they were not successful in interrupting effectively the continuing participation of the believers in Jesus in Jerusalem in the life of the Temple, in the celebration of the Jewish week and year and the observance of a Jewish life-style.

The social context of the believing communities outside of Jerusalem was the synagogue. Until near the end of the century at the very earliest there was no general expulsion of Christians from synagogues. In fact no specific expulsion of Christians from particular synagogues is recorded that could be taken as representative or as setting a trend. The few cases we can look at, or the grounds for thinking that such expulsions happened, are both late in the century and of questionable representativity. So there was no need to choose. There were no normative polar options such a later history had always led us to expect we must find there, between which a believer in the God of the Jews in the year 50 or the year 65 or the year 75 or our era would have had to choose. To be a Jew and to be a follower of Jesus were not alternatives. Tertium Datur

But is there not a record of the earliest Christians’ being persecuted by the Jewish authorities? Is not most of the New Testament story under the shadow of an already irrevocable rejection of Christians by Jewish authorities and the Jewish community at large?

There is no questioning the fact that when we read the New Testament story with the glasses (and perhaps also with the glosses) of later experience, this already polarized mood is present. But a closer scrutiny of what the stories themselves actually say represents a situation which is much less decided and much less divided. Douglas R. A. Hare has examined the issue carefully in a dissertation on “Jewish Persecution of Christians” (Cambridge 1967).

The real accounts in the entire New Testament of what can be called persecution of believers in Jesus by Jews are very few. In the cases we do have, the agents of such mistreatment are generally not the most morally qualified representative leaders of the Jewish community, often the action they take has no official status, and even when such action is taken it means that the believers in Jesus are being dealt with as Jews subject to the internal discipline of the Jewish community, not as Gentiles or as irrecuperable apostates. For present purposes I shall not attempt to make much of one additional consideration which would be important to most historians, namely the assumption that by the time the New Testament writings took their present form the way in which the story was told had been significantly influenced by much later events. For Hare this is very important for reading Matthew, as it will be for Louis Martyn in reading John.

Despite the simplicity and the relative, sustainable, sweepingness of the generalization just stated, I must look more directly at one specific text, one specific argument related to it, and one creative contemporary synthesis. I refer to the writings of Louis Martyn, especially his History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel. Harper, 1968.

We read in chapter 9 of the Gospel according to John that a man who had been blind from birth, and whom Jesus healed, was threatened by “the pharisees” (vs 13, 15) or more simply by “the Jews” (18,22) with expulsion from the synagogue, which was a penalty applicable to persons like this blind man (verse 22 states it as a threat, verse 34 as actually carried out). No sources testifying to the life of the Jewish community around the time of Jesus give us any help in understanding what it would have meant to be cast out of the synagogue. We do however have traditions suggesting that sometime in the 9th decade of the first century action was taken by the rabbis, tending to purge the synagogues of believers in Jesus.

According to the rabbinic traditions, sometime in the epoch of the leadership of Gamaliel II, a new clause or paragraph was added to the “Eighteen Blessings”, one of the most regularly used elements of synagogue worship. These “Eighteen Blessings” are actually nineteen; it is therefore fitting that we should ask which one is the extra one. There are those who believe on formal grounds that the extra one which was added later is the nineteenth, but the tradition I am now referring to is an alternative etiology, namely that the blessing which is presently the twelfth was inserted when Gamaliel invited one of his students, Simon the Small, to formulate a text against the heretics. God is praised for his opposition to all miscreants. These are called the minim, which may mean heretics or schismatics or people of wrong belief. It does not specifically mean Christians. The tradition assumes that its intention was to exclude from synagogue worship those believers in Jesus who would know that it applied to them and could then no longer participate.

The tradition is very widely accepted in popular rabbinic history, but it still awaits serious testing by critical scholarship. If we grant that things were done as the legend recounts, we still have considerable leeway in dating when that would have been. Gamaliel succeeded Jochanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh but nobody is quite sure when. Some would place his coming into responsibility as late as 96, whereas others suggest (and Martyn assumes) that this action was taken as early as 85.

The second critical problem with the legend is that the word minim is so broad that followers of Jesus could very well continue to pray that prayer and understand that it applied to someone else. Still another weakness is the fact that the wording of a prayer is a strange way to exercise discipline in the synagogue. It would only sort out someone who would be leading in the speaking of the prayer, and would not need to compromise a silent participant in the meeting. It includes no instrument for the implementation of the exclusion of someone, even someone who would be identified as one of the minim.

Even the best scholars can only guess at what point it came to be assumed that the minim were the followers of Jesus. There is an ancient manuscript, discovered in Cairo not long ago, which actually uses the term Nozerim, which does mean the followers of Jesus, but no one can know how far back that usage goes or how broadly it applied.

Yet another limit in the interpretation of the 12th blessing as a disciplinary measure is our ignorance regarding how such a suggestion to change a prayer, if it were made and circulated by Gamaliel, would be dealt with by the rest of Jewry. Some Christians have referred to this as an Episcopal letter or an encyclical, following Christian notions of a document which, as it goes out around the world from a central office, has to be taken seriously. But we do not really know that Yavneh had this kind of authority, especially not that such an authority was already established this soon.

Despite the failure of that legend to convince we must still look seriously at the reconstruction proposed by Louis Martyn. Martyn offers an analysis of several sections of John’s Gospel, after first having found his key in the 9th chapter. He discovers a very complicated kind of communication on three levels. First of all, there was something that really happened in the earthly ministry of Jesus in the time concerning which the Gospel stories purportedly described. A kernel is “historical” in the ordinary critical sense, although what this is is not of primary importance either to John or to Martyn.

Secondly, there were specific experiences of rejection by the synagogue, encountered by some or all of the contemporaries of the author, sometime in the 9th or 10th decade of the century. That contemporary experience of rejection by the Jews was then telescoped back into the account of the events 50 or 60 years earlier, since it was clear to the Christians that their own life was a prolongation of the ministry of Jesus. What they encountered in their own mission, they assumed, must have been cut from the same stuff as what Jesus encountered. Thus it was fitting to write up the stories of Jesus with additional content provided by contemporary experience.

The interlocking of these two levels is the challenging charm and complexity of the work of Martyn. Without elaborating it, he enables us to separate these two levels from still another, namely what becomes of the Gospel account when it begins to be received and read as canon, so that the experience of rejection in about the year 90 is not only read backwards into the story of Jesus but also projects forward as an archetype or prototype describing what Jewish Christian relations are or should be everywhere. I can hardly try to respond to Martyn in this context except to suggest that the fruitfulness of his way of trying to read a New Testament text will have to apply and will have to be tested in a far wider context than what I am here discussing. This very creative new suggestion as to the fusion of contemporary and historical elements may enable us to bypass some of the traditional rigidities regarding what historical criticism is trying to find out and what it means really to report a story. But with regard to my question, it should be pointed out that Martyn does not prove or test the notion that the expulsion of the Christians from synagogue was provoked by an encyclical from Javnah approximately in the year 85. He simply accepts that as the accepted wisdom of the story telling of pre-critical rabbinical tradition. If the date should be 30 years off, or if this experience of expulsion had really happened only in a few urban centers where John was living and not in others, Martyn’s thesis would be just as credible, but the whole Jewish Christian story would not have the same meaning.

So what I am arguing is not really at stake in Martyn’s analysis. Even if we assume that the text of John 9 which now stands is the result of a retelling of the story of Jesus in the light of the situation of the mid-80’s, and even if a sweeping act of expulsion was put in effect at that time, this still leaves us with a fundamental theological datum which is usually avoided. It leaves intact the first 50 years of the life in the Christian community in which this action had not yet been taken. During these first 50 years it is an empirical fact but therefore also a theological datum that it was possible, therefore that it is theologically possible and could conceivably, legitimately still or again be affirmed as theologically possible that a person could/can at the same time be a fully faithful Jew and a believer in Jesus of Nazareth as the anointed one. For a half century these two commitments were not incompatible. Their mutual compatibility was lived out Sabbath by sabbath by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, in Jerusalem for first two-thirds of this period and in the diaspora beginning with the ministry of people like the apostle Paul. Of course there were some believers in Jesus who were not good Jews, and how they related to the Jewish believers was an ongoing problem to which we shall return. Of course there were some Jews who did not believe in Jesus. That hardly needed to be said. But the significant datum we usually forget is that it was completely possible, subject to no necessary disciplinary measures according to the best traditions of both communions, to be both a Jew and a “Christian”. The incompatibility of those two commitments thus must not be interpreted as the base line from which both communities evolved organically so that we should actually already read the ministry of Jesus and of course the ministry of Paul as carried out under the shadow of an already inevitable schism. This incompatibility is rather the product of historic development which took at least a half century ( I suspect much longer) to turn its first corner. The incompatibility of faith in Jesus with Jewish identity is not the point of departure for the problem of Jewish and Christian relationships. It represents rather a departure from the original interlocking of Jewish and Christian identities.

But did not the Christians claim that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah? Was this claim not the heart of the offense? To take this for granted itself is a product of the later polarization. There was nothing wrong in the first century with thinking that some particular person was an anointed one or even the anointed one. As Jesus himself is recorded as having predicted, candidates for that dignity arose frequently. For a faithful Jew to recognize someone as Messiah might be a mistake but certainly not heresy. Historians believe that Rabbi Aqiva for a time was ready to recognize Bar Kochba as Messiah. He was wrong, and he was sorry , but during the period when he made that affirmation about a particular man, nothing about that recognition made him less Jewish. Nor did his error on this matter keep Aqiva from going down in history as one of the major figures in the formulation of the rabbinic tradition for his generation. Other Jews, on into early modern times, have taken the risk of accrediting other messianic claimants.

More than this: there are other rabbis whose sayings have entered into the talmudic collections, who seem to have been ready not simply to recognize that some particular human being could be Messiah but even that Jesus of Nazareth may have been that person. Of course the sources are hard to interpret but there is some indication that perhaps Eliezer in the age of Gamaliel II, or Ben Soma in the age of Aqiva, might actually have continued to hold the opinion, certainly a minority view but not an impossible one, that Jesus had been the waited one and/or that the reports of his resurrection might be credible. These people did not need to break faith with the other rabbis because of this kind of question. Eliezer did for a part of his career experience rejection by his colleagues, perhaps for this reason, but that isolation did not deprive him of the status of Jew or even of rabbi. Thus it is not true either in theory or in actual experience that to affirm the Messianity of a man make one less Jewish, in the late first or early second centuries. So this reason, which ordinary Christian thought assumes would automatically have driven Jesus out of the fellowship with his neighbors, and all the Christians out of the synagogues, did not actually function that way in the first century.

But then you rephrase your objection. Did not the Christians call Jesus the son of God? Was that not logically impossible and morally inadmissible for the Jews? Again, the argument is circular. Ifthe title “son” has to be taken with the meanings defined in the course of the controversies of Gentile Christians in the third and fourth centuries, that is clearly true. But we haven’t got there yet. In the first century it could not mean that. In the second Psalm it is a title applied to the King. In Jesus’ temptation it is another word for the temptation to be the Zealot King. Obviously such a title was an offense to anyone who didn’t want to be Jesus to be King ; but not because it was either metaphysical nonsense or blasphemy.

This seems to me to be the flaw in Rosemary Reuther’s nonetheless epoch-making work Faith and Fratricide. She derives the Jewish -Christian split from Christology, but in order to do so she must project back into first-century Christology meanings which those phrases need not have had (then). Their original sense was at the outset just another kind of language to make the same point I was discussing before. Martin Hengel has renewed the demonstration that this kind of “Son” language must have developed very early in Jewish Christian congregations, where it cannot have had the kind of meaning that it later had when it became categorically offensive to any Jew.

At two points we must be very careful when seeking to understand the conflicts of another age. One level is logical; ideas or arguments which to us seem contradictory may not have seemed so then. More important is the sociological level. Let us not assume, just because people argue with each other, that they are in separate movements.

Any human community is marked by internal conflict as well as by conflict with the outside. In fact, one of the marks of the importance of any group identity is the special virulence and dramatic weight which it imparts to intra-group conflict. There is and always was conflict within Jewish identity. It is recorded within Jewish canonical scriptures. The notion of apostasy, uncomfortable for majority Christians, is routine for the prophets.

Conflict has marked post-Mishna Judaism through the centuries, and still does. This is one of the specifics of Jewish identity, marked as it is by the revelation claim ceaselessly standing over the empirical ethnicity. Therefore when we take account of the existence of conflictual materials (attitudes, vocabulary, actions, institutions) within the first-century story, we must recognize a need for the kind of sophistication in definition which will enable us to distinguish between the kind of conflict which is an affirmation of the common identity of those who are in tension with one another, and other levels of tension or conflict which imply the denial or the destruction of the other. No one has scolded the Jews more rudely than their own prophets. But does that make them anti-Semites?

If then the standard superficial explanation for the break, the “fact” that Judaism could not tolerate the idea of a Messiah, does not stand up, what other explanations do we then have? The next most likely answer would seem to be that the synagogues rejected the Christians because the Christians had not helped in the war of 66-70 against the Romans. Some time in the early months of that war, the “Christians” are reported to have fled the city of Jerusalem, taking refuge in Pella. It would be understandable that the rest of the Jews might have seen this withdrawal as treason, or at least as a denial of solidarity with the national uprising, and that that might have become a fundamental offense calling for the sanction of excommunication. This hypothesis is however more convincing to us than it would have been then.

a. This interpretation falls short of explaining why it took 15 years or more for the non-Christian segment of Judaism to draw this conclusion and pronounce the sanction.

b. It is a hypothesis without any affirmative basis in the documents; we are never told that what is wrong with the “Christians” was that they refused to support the national uprising.

c. It would be hard to explain why it should be specifically the rabbinic teaching center at Yavneh/Jamnia which would have taken the initiative in such a response to the offense of failure to support the war, since the center at Yavneh/Jamnia was founded by Yochanan ben Zacchai, who also escaped from Jerusalem before the end. He also had rejected the claims being made by the Zealots for that uprising, not only after its defeat but before. His relocating in Yavneh was with Roman approval.

If we were to take seriously this hypothesis, we would also have to ask not only about the reasonableness of the particular reaction to the offense but about also the reason for the Christians’ rejection of the Zealot war.

a. Would it have been because the “Christians, ” on the ground of a very specifically pacifist teaching which they had received from Jesus, rejected on the grounds of general moral principle all violence, even for the sake of a righteous cause? This makes assumptions about the clarity and unanimity with which the earliest Christians had already settled their ethical teaching, which numerous scholars would doubt although I would not. But rejecting violence as immoral does not yet explain fleeing from Jerusalem.

b. Did the Christians reject the Zealot war because the Zealots actually claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that their leader was the Messiah and and the “Christians” knew he was not, because they knew who the Messiah was? This would be a coherent explanation as far as the New Testament is concerned. There we are told that the early church would have to deal with other claimants to the title and function of Messiah. These texts may well be taken as referring to historical figures arising after the foundation of the early church who would pretend to be not simply an alternative to Jesus but rather the risen and descended Jesus in his parousia or second coming, whom Christians would have to look at discriminatingly because they were expecting the true Christ to return. They therefore had to ask of every claimant to be the returning Christ whether he was the one. The Christians would then be less reticent than other Jews to entertain the notion of someone’s being Messiah, since they were expecting a returning Lord. If they did reject the Zealot leader it could not have been because he claimed to be a Messiah but because of on grounds of content he differed from what they knew the coming Messiah would have to be. That is : the Christians might have rejected the Zealot leader Menachem because there could not be a returning Christ. This hypothesis would however make incredible the Jewish response on the other side. For certainly no Jews around the year 85 were going to condemn the Christians for refusing to accept a Zealot king as Messiah. If that was the reason the Christians forsook Jerusalem the rest of the Jews in the year 85 would have had to agree with them.

c. A third explanation for why the Christians fled Jerusalem would be that they were taking literally an instruction which Jesus had given them. We have such a word of instruction which actually tells them to flee. (Mark 13:14ff and Matt. 24:15ff). If we set aside the critical considerations which might call into question whether this account plays back a historical word of Jesus, it would indicate that the Christians in 66 did not need to theologize about the Messianity of the Zealot leader or about the morality of his methods but simply did what they had been told 35 years before they should do. That is thinkable but not very convincing. Many critics will read the text the other way ’round, as an ex eventu description of what happened, put into Jesus’ mouth as an apology for the action.

The fourth corrective is not very important for present purposes but it needs to be said to fill out the picture. There was at this time no normative Christianity either. The picture we have of what constitutes being normative for a religious community is based upon developments which did not exist at all in the first century and only incipiently in the second: creeds, bishops, occasional synods, and a canon of Scripture. None of this existed in the Christian first century. Until missionary effectiveness scattered Christians and brought them into contact with all kinds of new cultures to speak to and to borrow from, and until persecution put the pressure of the outside world on the costliness of belief, there was nothing to push Christians toward an objectified definition of the difference between faithful and unfaithful Christianity. What we understand now to be a norm within the ongoing Christian history is a selection from the witnesses of the life of the first two generations which was recognized by some later Christians as a scriptural canon. In an analogous way the structures of creed and hierarchy were developed by some later communities, over against others, to recognize the canon as authoritative and to establish habits of interpreting it. None of this existed in the first century. The Christianity that was actually being lived or rather (to be more precise for the later discussion) the Messianic Judaism which was really being lived by widening circles of Jews and their friends in the age of Paul was much more variegated than what any extant documents tell us about.

A parenthetical reminder about definitions: the very word “Christian” must be used here only with quotation signs. For Jews, the word “Christian” means a Gentile, with government on his side, speculating about how divine and human essences can be fused. The people we are talking about fit none of this. They are practicing Jews who also believe in Jesus as anointed and as risen. So in this context “Christian” simply “messianic Jew”.

This might be the place–but both time and expertise are insufficient–to take note of the notion of a specific entity called “Jewish Christianity”, clearly Christian yet non-Pauline. Books with that entity named in the title have been written by Danielou, by Longenecker, and by Schoeps. These scholars differ widely on how clearly this entity can be defined, on which sources legitimately witness to it, and on how much diversity the label covers. Is this what I am talking about?

To the extent to which these interpreters increase our awareness of the diversity of beliefs of which Jewish minds were capable, and foster the dismantling of the notion of a monolinear movement out of Judaism into graeco-romanisation, I welcome them. But at the point at issue they are little help, for they too assume at the outset that Paul was less Jewish than Matthew or Pseudo-Clement, which is what I am doubting.

I have focused doubts on each major element of the traditional understanding. Can we now very tentatively project the outlines of what would be an alternative developmental scheme, if it is not correct to perceive Christianity as having either rebelled against or been expelled by “normative Judaism”?

The approximation we make to such an alternative formulation must be very hesitant and unsure, not simply because I am an amateur in the first century, and not simply because as a matter of record Christians have failed rather uniformly in the past to deal with this matter either respectably or respectfully. Any effort is unsure because all of the available language has already been used wrong. All of the identifiable issues have already been dealt with improperly, for so long that we have very little potential trust left for the possibility that serious dialogue can ever take place without falling back into the gaping ruts.

The alternative construction begins where we already have been, namely with the record that in the first century of our era Jewry exists but not normative Judaism. That is to say: There does not exist one standard definition, either intellectual in a body of concepts, or institutionally, in one authorized agency, which is qualified to define Jewish identity in a normative way. One Jew can contest a fellow Jew’s faithfulness to the law but he cannot tell a fellow Jew he is not Jewish. Jewry is defined partly territorially, in that the centrality of Jerusalem and the land can never be challenged, and yet that territorial definition is not as precise and definitional as for being a Swede or a Dutchman. One can perfectly well maintain Jewish identity for several generations of life abroad while the attachment to Jerusalem is only symbolic and liturgical. Certainly Jewry has an ethnic definition, because a Jew is normally a child of a Jew, yet by virtue of the success in proselytizing to which we have referred, there was probably less genetic purity among Jews than among most other ethnic groups. Thus the stream of Jewish population and culture is not firmly definable by any of the standard criteria. It is ethnic, but more than that; geographic, but more than that; ethical, but with considerable leeway in details of compliance; gathered around community practices of prayer, scripture study and preaching, yet less concerned about the proprieties of ritual or dogma than most other religions, (including later Christianity) whom we are accustomed to defining by their cult. Yet the inadequacy of each of our definitions does not mean that Jewishness was vague.

It is into this ill-defined but powerfully self-aware pool of people that the message of Jesus fell, alongside many other catalytic messages, charismatic persons and organizing principles, among which the Pharisees, the Essences, and the Zealots were the most nearly analogous. The message and memory of Jesus persisted in the form of an organize sub-group within Jewry, perhaps somewhat more firmly organized than some of the Pharisaic chabouroth, less firmly than an Essene commune, certainly differently organized from some of the Zealot bands, but hardly fundamentally different from those other sub-groupings at the point of being a recognizable entity fully at home within Jewish population and culture. What we know about the first generation of this movement gives us no basis for projecting how they would have had to break with the rest of Jewry if it had not been for the Zealot wars.

The real division had to come later because it could only come in the diaspora situation. Here too the “Christians” were Jews and the “Christian” community was part of the Jewish community. The “Christians” did not differ in being missionary because as we have seen abundantly the Jews were also missionary. The “Christians” did not differ at the point of keeping the law because as we can tell from the writings of Paul they did keep the law although with their own understanding of just why.

They obviously differed at the point of specific beliefs about Jesus, but that was a difference which was tolerable within Jewish pluralism and had been for a generation already. They did not differ by being less concerned for Jerusalem. The difference was a very thin line between degrees or tonalities in the attitude towards the incorporation of the Gentiles into the faith of Abraham. Should that widening of the covenant be permitted, or even encouraged to proceed so wholeheartedly and so rapidly as to shake and threaten the structures of the diaspora minority community? Or should it be only expected and permitted to happen around the fringes of the community, in such a way as to leave its core leadership among the old ethnic families? This is a most natural structural issue in any growing human movement. It is no surprise that it should have threatened and divided the Jewish community in every city where the new Messianic movement came with some vigor.

But even then there is not a basis for creating two movements separate from each other and each united within itself. The Jews at Ephesus or at Corinth or at Beroea who have not accepted the Messianic message do not thereby acquire a distinctive theological identity and become “normative Judaism.” They are defined thus far only at one point, negatively, by their not moving into the next phase into which the messengers of Jesus say all Jewry is invited. They do not thereby have a rationale or a structure for being non-Christian Jews. That rationale and structure will be developed only gradually, as the refugee school at Yavneh establishes its prestige and spokesmanship, as the lessons of the collapse of the Herodian and Sadducean strategies sink in, and as the Zealot strategy clearly fails not once but once again. Only after that sifting process, which could only enter its final phase after the year 135, can we begin to affirm a defined (non-Messianic) Jewish identity. Only after that will the rabbinic patterns of guidance, instead of representing one cultural stream among many, settle into being the backbone of their people’s identity. Only now does the safe-guarding of the chains of oral tradition become codifiable. Even then, even in the jelling of the Mishna, that vast corpus will never be “canon” as is the Hebrew Bible, or like the New Testament for Christians. In one sense “normative Judaism” begins with the fall of Bar Kochba, in another sense a century later with the redaction of the Mishna; but whatever the date, Judaism so defined is younger than Christianity. Nobody withdrew from anybody; but later Judaism is more marked by its rejection of the Messianic Jews’ claims than the Christians are marked by rejecting what the other Jews standfor. The Christian New Testament includes significant sections–most of James and the Apocalypse, sections of the letters of Peter ( as, at the other end, most of the teachings of Jesus) which are not specifically Messianic and could have been written by non-Christians. Nothing in the Christianity of the New Testament canon is anti-Jewish or even un-Jewish or non-Jewish. Christian anti-Semitism arose after the New Testament period, from causes running counter to the New Testament experience and witness. Thus normative Christianity, when defined by the New Testament rather than by the fourth century, was documented before the Jewish-Christian split, whereas the documents of non-Christian Judaism come in their written form from after the split. The Judaism of the Mishna, being post-schism, is committed to being non- or anti-messianic, whereas the Christianity of the New Testament is committed to being Jewish.

To exemplify the significance of this alternative perspective (rather than to prove it) permit me to reach aside for some specimens of the difference it would make in our classical western understanding of the origins of Christianity through the second and third centuries.

It is often claimed that there is a significant ethical difference between Judaism and Jesus. One example is the discussion in Matthew chapter 19 of the issue of divorce. It is said that the Mosaic permission for divorce (Deut. 24) represented a concession made by God to the hardness of men’s hearts, but that Jesus is re-establishing another moral standard, that which God intended from the beginning, life-lone monogamy without exception. In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus says six times that he is now saying something which goes beyond what his hearers had been told before. Two of these statements have to do with sexuality (including a parallel to the Matthew 19 insistence on life-long monogamy), three have to do with attitudes toward the enemy and one with truth-telling and the oath. In all of these cases, it appears at first that what Jesus is setting aside is normative Judaism, which permitted the concessions to human frailty which Jesus is now revoking. Yet another sample is the place of warfare in the Old Testament, reported especially in the period before the Kings to have been a matter of direct divine intervention, which is now set aside by Jesus’ call to total enemy love and nonresistance to evil. This latter complex we may identify with the slogan “the pacifism of Jesus,” as standing in contrast to the militarism of Israel exemplified by Joshua and David (and the Maccabees).

Even the Christian ethicists like Reinhold Niebuhr who do not consider that teaching of Jesus to be a determining guideline for Christian ethics do think that that is what he said. This picture of the pacifist Jesus over against warlike Jews or the morally demanding Jesus against the compromising Jews, seems so easy that it has dispensed us from being careful about a significant number of observations which point in the other direction. One is that evolving Hebrew religion after David, and especially after Josiah, had moved far away from the early models of military and political self-definition to a life-style of diaspora powerlessness. This experience of weakness always involved a degree of pragmatic realism, to the effect that in exile one could not very well expect anything else but weakness, but it also involved profound understandings of the nature of God who would let his servant people pass through that kind of suffering for reasons meaningful in his wisdom and demonstrative of his providence. The pacifism of rabbinic Judaism is increasingly being set forth in our time, in terms that begin to be accessible to Goyim, in such articles as two recent contributions by Reuben Kimmelmann in the quarterly Judaism, or in the unfortunately not very accessible work by Steven Schwarzchild. But it is in no sense a new position.

Thus when we look at Jesus with the glasses and the glosses of the lessons of the centuries we see that his pacifism is anti-Jewish. Yet if we read him again from the start, and especially if we admit as a learning help the parallel history of our sister community, diaspora Judaism, then we have to say that the pacifism of Jesus is Jewish, nothing but Jewish and altogether Jewish. Only in a Jewish context could his kinds of reasons, that kind of attitude toward the enemy, toward violence, toward suffering, toward the ultimate saving purpose of an all powerful God add up to the ethic Jesus teaches. Through the centuries the pacifist behavior, and the rationale for that behavior, read into the record by centuries of post-Constantinian Jews are far closer to the ethic of Jesus than the behavior of Christians in those same later times and places.

A second specimen paradigm shift is how we take the person and the mission of the Apostle Paul. The standard recent scholarly interpretation sees Paul as a person who broke the shackles of Jewish separatism. Normative Judaism was focused on an understanding of the law such that the best way to keep it pure was to keep strangers from hearing about it. Paul became non-Jewish or anti-Jewish through his insistence on Christian missions. Again this self-evident interpretation fits neither the facts nor the statements of theology. Jews had long been looking forward to an in-gathering of the Gentiles in a future time. Nor were they committed to insisting that that future time had to be far away or had not yet begun. Well before Paul, the Hellenistic Judaism of which he was the product had been integrating into the synagogues numerous people of Gentile background. We have the record of discussions in the age of Hillel and Schammai, which is to say two generations before Paul, about the degree of severity or flexibility with which this process of incorporating Gentiles into Jewry could be carried on. All that Paul does is to round off and accentuate that theological expectation and that practical anticipation by saying that we are now ready to move from the proleptic openness to a few God-fearing outsiders into the in-gathering. That is not an anti-Jewish conclusion. It is a conclusion to which only a Jew could meaningfully come, which can continue to have that meaning only as long as the people holding it are Jews.

I have used the Jewish pacifism of Jesus and the Jewish missionary vision of Paul only as samples. There would be others, e.g. the congregationalism of Jewish polity. I have drawn in these parenthetical illustrations as a way of recognizing that if the orientation I suggest makes sense it would call for a wide ranging reconception and resynthesis going far beyond our starting point. I do not promise to do that wider job. Nor do I suggest that the validity of what I have been talking about would depend upon the possibility of bringing that all off. The central originality of what I have been trying to report is simply that what we could possibly conceive of as normative Judaism and what we conceive of as normative Christianity has to be changed if we simply sit still and think about the indisputable fact that for 50 years (and probably in many places for twice that long) to be Christian and to be Jewish were not alternatives. That changes all the questions. It might then be permitted to suspect that it could change some of the answers.

One more sample of the paradigm shift overlaps a little with the second. It has to do with the nature of the broad world-view shift which tool place when Christianity moved from the Jewish base (which included many Jews at home in the Hellenistic world) to a Gentile social and culture base. Dom Gregory Dix has portrayed in his book Jew and Greek the importance of that beginning shift, which for him was a providential and Catholic necessity, a step forward under the guidance of God, to venture beyond the narrowness of Judaism into the cosmic and ecumenical vision of the Hellenistic culture and the Roman empire. So Hellenisation in a broad sense, a shift to a total new cultural vision, represents a salutary disavowal of Jewish provincialism. What Dix says in order to point forward to the evolution of Catholicism, Protestant scholars of the school of Harnack say with a still longer evolutionary vision pointing forward to modern secularization. To forsake the provincialism of Jewishness for the ecumenicity of Greek and Roman cosmopolitanism was the indispensable prerequisite if Christianity was to become a world religion. Paul was the entering wedge of such a radical reconception of the meaning of Christianity that it had to be estranged from its Jewish base. Thank God that Paul did that, because otherwise it would have remained cooped up in a tiny territory, an illegible language, and an unappealing cult which would never have won the world.

The primordial expression of this system shift (whether we see them as its cause or its reflection) is the group of writers we call “apologetes”, beginning to flourish toward the middle of the second century. We call the apologetes because, positively, they face the challenge of communicating to the Gentile world in its own terms. They commend Christian faith as the most reasonable philosophy, monotheism as the only intelligent world view, Christian morality as the order of nature. But as a part of this concern to be credible to intelligent doubters, they had to forsake the Hebrew heritage and attack the Jews.

What would the alternative model be at this point? I must obviously say, as I did briefly before, that Paul was not the Hellenizer of the Jews but the Judaizer of the Greeks. He taught the Christians in Corinth to pray in Aramaic and to take collection for brothers and sisters in Jerusalem whom they had never met. He told them to understand the Hebrew Scriptures as their Scriptures and their cosmic Lord as first of all the awaited anointed one of the children of Abraham. He taught them to understand that wandering Aramaen who had no turf to call his own as the father of the faith of everyone. What Paul had started to do was a superficial job of translation and reformulation in order that the Gentiles could see that Judaism was already the world religion, in its rejection of polytheism and idolatry with all of their ways of supporting the localization of divine presence. It is with the beginning of an apologetic approach to the wisdom of the Gentile world, that the meaning of Christian mission has been radically shifted. Paul was a missionary because he rephrased the major claims of historic Judaism so that a Gentile could understand them. The apologetes are missionary in that they try to show the Gentiles that they can have the God of the Jews without the Jews. That shift, somewhere between the New Testament canon and the middle of the next century, is the real change in character in the Christian community, the sell-out to Greek or Roman provincialism instead of Hebrew universality. This is then what we would have to call the Fall of the Church.

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
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