Friday, October 21, 2005

The NT as 'Christian' texts?

Mike Bird has asked recently raised a question re: the referent of 'Israel of God' in Gal. 6.16. This question is important not just for theology but also for historical reconstruction. Over the last couple of weeks I've been thinking about the effects of the predominant classification of the NT texts as 'Christian' texts, and I was curious what other bibliobloggers thought about this issue.

The affirmation that the NT texts are 'Christian' has impacted NT studies in subtle but important ways. Relatively mildly, this affirmation has affected, for example, Dibelius's judgement on the Epistle of James, which he took to be a Jewish work that was later 'Christianised' by the addition of [KURIOU] IHSOU CHRISTOU at 1.1 and 2.1. More sinisterly, it allowed for anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic generalisations in which Judaism was a religion of law and external practices and Christianity was a religion of grace and internal transformation.

In the course of reading George W. E. Nickelsburg's Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins, which is shaping up to be a fantastic book, this question has become particularly urgent. On the one hand, Nickelsburg deconstructs the distinction between Judaism and Christianity at a number of points, such as:
This review of Jewish texts (cf. pp. 44-51) sensitizes us to elements in the New Testament that are often overlooked. Such a comparison indicates more similarity and continuity than the traditional paradigm has allowed. (p. 51)
The New Testament, too, portrays the God who saves in different ways and circumstances and employs a number of terms (often metaphors) for "salvation," which vary according to the complex of ideas in which they fit. The rich, explicit variety in postbiblical Jewish texts, and the important transformations of biblical traditions that they attest, help us understand better the variety in early Christian thought and the similarities and differences between it and the traditions on which it draws. (p. 61)
On the other hand, the title of Nickelsburg's book, and especially the subtitle ('Diversity, Continuity, and Transformation; my italics), reinforces the sense that there is a qualitative difference between Christianity and Judaism (as do some of his comments, e.g., at p. 36). Certainly by the end of the first century or in the second century (e.g., in the writings of Ignatius, or even in the Pastorals) such a distinction (hence, 'Transformation') is appropriate, but my question (and it is a genuine one; I don't have the answer) is: Is there a meaningful difference between Judaism and Christianity throughout most of the first century CE, reflected especially in the writings of Paul and even in the synoptic gospels? If not, wouldn't the subtitle 'Diversity and Continuity' have been sufficient?

Nickelsburg makes a number of other helpful observations which suggest that, in many quarters, at least, Christianity comprised another perspective within the diverse groupings of communities and theologies that were Greco-Roman Judaism. Even the high estimate of Jesus current in 'early Christian' circles, or the judgement of new texts like Mark or 1 Corinthians as authoritative (even approaching scriptural), do not represent 'breaks' with Judaism (e.g., p. 28). Neither does the relative marginalisation of the Torah, though this is a complex issue for both Jewish and early Christian studies (cf. Nickelsburg's comments re: 1 Enoch, p. 46f.). And neither does the inclusion of gentiles into the covenantal community, though, as before, 'early Christian' attitudes toward gentiles were not monolithic (cf. p. 76-79). And so on.

At any rate, here's the point. I suspect that most of us accept that a hard-and-fast division between Judaism and Christianity does violence to our sources. But, if you're interested, I'd be curious about comments from the blogging community re: how a reappraisal of the NT texts as Jewish texts affects specific exegetical, theological, and/or historical conclusions about the NT itself or about the early Christianity/ies that produced these texts. By way of example, I offer one here. The Lukan Jesus announces to the synagogue in Nazareth:
'But truly I say to you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was closed up for three years and six months, as a terrible famine was wrought upon all the land. And yet to none of them was Elijah sent, but to the widow in Zarephath of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel for Elisha the prophet, yet none of them was cleansed, but Naaman the Syrian.' (4.25-27)
Though some have seen Lukan theology at work here, and especially inasmuch as this represents a critique of Israel qua Israel and legitimises the so-called 'mission to the gentiles', this need not necessarily be the case. Certainly this passage serves Luke's theology. But it also makes sense as a critique of Israel made from within Israel. For one thing, its critique is not only made in terms of Israelite tradition but stems from that tradition in the first place. Also, within the gospel itself, Jesus is not made to turn his attention away from Israel on the basis of this passage. Though some passages (e.g., Luke 17.12-19) pick up this theme, Luke does not relate the story of the Syrophoenician woman's daughter, and 7.11-17 explicitly links the Elijah tradition with the exclamation, 'A great prophet has arisen among us, and God has visited his people' [TON LAON AUTOU]. If Jesus, in the Nazareth synagogue or in any other Jewish context, said anything like Luke 4.25-27, it is less likely to have been in anticipation of a 'gentile mission' as it was an expression of the thoroughly Jewish conclusion that, when God acted to restore/vindicate his people, some (= unrighteous) Jews would fare less well than the righteous among the nations (cf., e.g., 1 Enoch 10.21; among others; without the optimistic perspective on the gentiles, cf. 1QS 8.12-16; among others; cf. also Nickelsburg, p. 76-77). If this is on the mark, Jesus as a Jew comes into slightly crisper focus (hopefully), and our understanding of Luke's theological perspective may also find itself in need of some revision.


eddie said...

You might want to check out Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs by Neusner and Chilton.

James Crossley said...

It's an interesting question. undoubtedly identity is always going to be a slippery issue and sometimes requires imposing a definition just to make sense of things (I got told off - pointlessly - once for repeatedly calling law observant Christians in the 30s 'Christians' but I think that's pedantic: it's a useful term to distinguish this group from other Jews like Pharisees etc. even if the boundaries were blurred but that's another story). Prophetic critique is one thing but then what do you do about something like John 5 where there are 'the Jews', Jesus advocating breaking of biblical Sabbath laws, and Jews being amazed about Jesus making himself equal with God. What would you do with something like that?

Rafael Rodriguez said...

Thanks, Eddie. I've read Judaism in the New Testament, but not for a while now. You're right: I'll have to check it out again.

James, I think you're right that identity is a difficult issue, and my thoughts are exactly along these lines. (E. Zerubavel's book, The Fine Line, was the original catalyst for my questions here; you might be interested in its analysis of how we make distinctions and the consequences.) I must confess I'm not sure what to do about John. While John does use 'the Jews' as a blanket label (and this negatively), it seems to me - and I could be wrong here, I know - that this label is more akin to labels such as 'Sons of Darkness', 'the unrighteous', and other sectarian/polemical labels. John, then, could be another example of a Jew[ish group] labelling another Jew[ish group] in harsh terms. What is interesting, then, is that the harsh term in question is 'the Jews', which suggests the Johannine author(s) would have rejected that identity for themselves.

But there are still a number of factors that suggest 'Jewishness' is a postively appraised aspect of John's social identity. Moses (and 'the Scriptures' in general) is incorporated as one of Jesus' witnesses at John 5.39-37. John the Baptist is similarly coopted; the Baptist's ministry was thoroughly Jewish, and despite being 'Christianised' it is still true that the link between John and Jesus suggest a recognition that the two (and their followers) come from similar/the same ethnic/religious/ cultural milieux. So John seems, implicitly at least, to recognise that Jesus and his followers represent a Jewish phenomenon EVEN AS he almost spits the words 'the Jews' out of his mouth. Do you agree, or am I way off base?

Let me ponder some about the Sabbath laws and the relationship between Jesus and God. I think you're probably right, but I hesitate to say so publically without giving it some contemplation!

[NB: Obviously, Christianity BECAME Christianity (= not Judaism), and John may represent an important step in (or indicator of) that process.]

Michael F. Bird said...

I read somewhere (Wayne Meeks I think) something along the lines of: when John appears to be unJewish in his criticism of other Jews, that is precisely the point in which he is being the most Jewish.

Richard H. Anderson said...

In the following articles on my blog I discussed various aspects of the Jewishness of Luke-Acts.

Was the author of Luke-Acts Jewish?

The Style and Technique of Luke-Acts

The Knowledge of Theophilus of the LXX

The Finger of God

First to the Jews, then to the Gentiles

During the 4th Watch

Zenon and the wicked tenants

Pseudo-Philo and Luke

Richard H. Anderson

Rafael Rodriguez said...

Richard: Thanks for this; I will check out your posts; I'm particularly interested in the 'finger of God' one.

Michael, thanks for the Meeks quote. I have to confess that, in light of the polemics in the Qumran texts as well as other 2nd-Temple Jewish texts, I suspect Meeks is onto something. But certainly I would want to qualify this by suggesting that the diversity of turn-of-the-era Judaisms could also eschew the sectarianism evident in John. Luke's portrayal of Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-39 suggests this as a possibility, even if Luke's account is rejected as unreliable.

eddie said...

We may look at it in these terms. If we look at the OT, then we see that the Jewish faith developed over time as their God did new things and as they faced new situations (e.g. the adoption of the law, the establishment of monarchy, the exile, the return). The coming of the Messiah was but another new thing to occur (albiet a highly significant one), so was the coming of the Spirit. All of these events were attached to the same God, and so belonged to the one faith as it developed through history.

What if the great majority of Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah, would we speak of the parting of ways if all Jews continued the development in this way?.

I think it is when we define ancient religious movements in purely social terms that "Judaism" and "Christianity" get pulled apart. But even if we were to work along these lines, Christianity should be placed within Judaism in general as another variation alongside the essenes, and all the other various movements that we regualarly include within first-century Judaism.

No doubt the Israelites had a more variegated faith than is legitimated by the OT, and we see this variagation continue into the first century, where the Jesus movement becomes a part of it.

Mowens said...

R.R. writes:
"While John does use 'the Jews' as a blanket label (and this negatively), it seems to me - and I could be wrong here, I know - that this label is more akin to labels such as 'Sons of Darkness', 'the unrighteous', and other sectarian/polemical labels. John, then, could be another example of a Jew[ish group] labelling another Jew[ish group] in harsh terms."

Are you aware of L.T. Johnson's article ("The New Testament's anti-Jewish slander and the conventions of ancient polemic," JBL 108 [1989]: 419-441.) on this issue?
His article seems like a helpful way of dealing with the issue. But, I'm not certain that it provides a full solution.

Rafael Rodriguez said...

Thank you, Mowens, for the reference. I'll have to track it down. In JESUS REMEMBERED Dunn makes some comments that link what we would call 'anti-Judaic' or '-Semitic' rhetoric to the procedures of (typical?) intra-Jewish polemics, if I remember correctly.

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