Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What kind of γένος was early Christianity?

Ever since my master's thesis on 1 Peter, in which I argued, among other things, that Peter (i.e., the author, irrespective of 1 Peter's actual authorship) was writing to a mostly gentile audience and inscribing on them Jewish identity markers (e.g., 1 Pet. 2.9–10), I have been interested in the phenomena of first-century Christian identities. Lately, I've been flirting with a new, perhaps unnecessarily provocative formulation of the relevant questions. I'd be interested in any response from you.

In popular Christian lingo, we commonly say something along the lines of, "Paul's ministry among the gentiles converted pagans to Christianity directly without requiring them to first become Jews." This type of thinking about Paul is common and also affects contemporary reading of other NT texts (e.g., Acts 10–11). At its heart, of course, is the assumption (which goes largely ignored, if not unnoticed) that to become a Christian is not to become a Jew.

But is this how the labels would have been understood in a first-century context? If we were average, everyday, nameless gentiles going about our business in the agorai of any major city of the Mediterranean and someone in our family forsook the family devotion to Apollo or Artemis or any of the other gods to worship Israel's God and his crucified prophet, Jesus, would we understand this development as anything other than a conversion to Judaism? And if not (and I'm not assuming a negative answer, except perhaps for the sake of argument), is this because we, as outsiders, have an insufficient understanding of the relation between Christianity and Judaism? In other words, would Paul, or Peter, or the average Christian, have seen a gentile's conversion to Christianity as not being a conversion to (a form of) Judaism?

At the moment I'm reviewing Not God's People: Insiders and Outsiders in the Biblical World, by Lawrence M. Wills. His discussion of "Jew and Gentile as Other in Paul" provides a helpful discussion of a number of issues regarding the construction of the We and the Other, though the book as a whole suffers some important weaknesses. But he makes one particular comment that stood out to me for being fairly standard within New Testament scholarship and yet perhaps in serious need of rethinking. Wills says,
Immediately before and after Paul's formula of "neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:28) it is emphasized that those who have been baptized into Christ are now children of God and children of Abraham. Paul, and other writers of the early church, quickly developed new language of being children of God, an extended kinship group. All ethnicity in the ancient world was understood as genealogy, and Paul bestows a new family tree on the converted gentiles. (2008: 187; my emphasis)

My problem: I realize that it won't do for us to ignore any differences between Christianity and Judaism in the first century; clearly there were differences between Jesus, Paul, and other characters in first-century Christian narratives and other Jewish figures with whom the former came into conflict. But how do we justify to ourselves and our readers the assertion that the family tree onto which gentile converts to Christianity were grafted (to echo both Wills and Paul) was new and not Jewish? How can Wills (or other NT scholars, for that matter) recognize Paul's appeal to Abraham (!) as a patriarch of the heirs of the promise and yet ignore the clearly Jewish markers delimiting Jesus' followers from others dotting the social landscape?

As a tentative hypothesis, then, I would like to test the formulation: In the first century CE (and so throughout the texts comprising the New Testament), to become a follower of Jesus was to convert to an expression of Second-Temple era Judaism (even toward the end of the century after the Temple was destroyed). I would understand the dynamics of these labels as analogous to the dynamics that would have obtained if a gentile resident of the Decapolis became an Essene and took up residence at Qumran. Clearly there are differences between Essenism and Christianity, but those differences do not amount to the former being an expression of Judaism and the latter something else altogether. Gentiles-become-Christians were gentiles-become-Jews, though other Jews (some of whom considered themselves devotees of Jesus) would have engaged Paul critically on the question of the terms of this "becoming."

What say you?


Eddie said...

I think your essentially correct. The "Jesus movement" was a thoroughly Jewish movement, depending of course on how we define "Jewish". If we define "Jewish" along ethnic lines, then the Jesus movement was Jewish, but to become a follower of 'the way' did not mean to become a Jew in this sense, that is not possible.

It is the corporate identity of Second Temple Jewish people that one could enter into by taking on a life bound up with the Jewish peoples corporate history and covenant relationship with YHWH. Jewish corporate identity was found in the story of this history and their continuing relationship with YHWH. The Apostles believed that their story was the continuation of this story, making them thoroughly Jewish in this sense.

Rafael said...

I think what I'm getting at, though, is less which label we should attach to early Christian phenomena and more how this should affect our interpretations and historical reconstructions. I'm fascinated how, in the work F. C. Baur, an antonym of Jewish in many contexts is Pauline [!], and I'm increasingly suspicious that his legacy has persisted even when his analyses have been largely discredited.

Robin Parry said...


My thoughts for what they are worth:

A fascinating question. There are several different questions here
- what would pagans have thought about other pagans converting to Jesus-followers? I suspect that you are quite correct that they would have thought of them as converting to a kind of Judaism (indeed in Acts the disputes between the Jewish authorities and Paul were viewed as intra-Jewish disputes)
- what did Jews who did not follow Jesus think about pagans converting to follow Jesus? I think that they would NOT have thought of them as converting to Judaism. They may have seen them as having the status of God-fearers but not as being Jews
- what did the Gentile converts think of their status? Well, I imagine that there would have been a range of views here and some uncertainty. Perhaps we are on safer ground asking
- what did the early Christian leaders think of the status of Gentile converts? Again there may well have been a range of views. Were they seen as converting to Judaism?
Here is where I do think we need a more nuanced answer - a simple 'Yes' or 'No' is inadequate. Yes they were seen as converting to worship the God of Israel. Yes they were seen as acknowleding Jesus as the Messiah of Israel (and thus as Lord of the world). Yes they were seen as joining the commonwealth of Israel and participating in the covenant blessings of Israel. Yes they were children of Abraham. However - and this is not an insignificant 'however' - they were not children of Abraham by physical descent as Israel was. Nor were they joining that community through circumcision (which was required for straightforward conversion). For Paul Abraham is father of the circumcised and the uncircumcised. So within the community of the Messiah there is a distinction between the circumcised and the uncircumcised.

I think that the early church did make a distinction between Jews and Gentiles within the community and I think that they saw the commandaments of God for each of these subcommunites as different. Jews-in-Christ follow the Torah. Gentile-in-Christ do not.

This suggests to me that however pagans and non-Messianic Jesus thought of them, the early church saw Gentiles-in-Christ as having an identity that was 'new'. They were no longer pagan but they remained Gentile. They were not becoming Jewish in a straight forward sense. But whilst Gentile they were in some significant sense grafted into the vine of Israel.

I suspect that spelling out precisely what identity Gentiles-in-Christ had was a working project in the early church (and indeed in Paul's work). Paul was working on shaping Gentile identity in Christ. But it seems clear to me that he wanted to say that in some sense it was concersion to Judaism but in others it was not at all (as Galatians and Romans make clear).

Jewish identity in Christ was not an issue - that was clear. They were eschatologically renewed Israel as foretold by the prophets (there was no sense of conversion from one religion to another). The issue where clarity was lacking was the identity of Gentiles.

But I still don't have a clear sense of precisely how Gentiles-in-Christ were thought to be part of and not part of Israel. (I'm also not convinced that 1 Peter is addressed to Gentiles although if it was it would not contradict what I have said).

Such are my fuzzy thoughts at present

Cheryl said...

I think the issue was fuzzy - Gentiles most likely saw themselves as following Jesus, a Jew, so a Jewish sect, but early church leaders were divided as to whether Gentile converts were Jewish at all. Some would have insisted circumcision and following dietary laws were required, Paul clearly did not. So I think the issue was unsettled until Christianity became more separate from Judaism and more believers were from Gentile populations rather than Jewish communities.

Andrew said...


In terms of our historical reconstructions and interpretation of Scripture I think that this is a valid question. However, I do not think a simple answer exists. With the instability of the relationship between Rome and the religions of the empire....especially Judaism and Christianity and the status with which they were held by Rome (how many time did that change in the first Century AD?) that the leaders of Christianity would have essentially changed their views of what it meant to become a Christian. While holding that being a Christian essentially meant following Jesus, a Jewish element probably would have existed until it became problematic to be associated with Judaism. Is Antioch a hint of a need for a identity change? Or even that the outside world saw them as different from Judaism? This may turn into a lifelong question.

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