June 27, 2019

Walking With the Jews Who Created Christianity

A distinguished Christian scholar has written a fascinating book about a crucial moment in Jewish history and about one Jew in particular, perhaps the most famous Jew of all — Jesus of Nazareth.

“When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation,” by Paula Fredriksen (Yale University Press), offers a glimpse in tight close-up of the Jewish community in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era, when “the Jesus movement,” as Fredriksen puts it, was a sect within Judaism that regarded Jesus as the long-promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, she argues provocatively, the Christian Scriptures can be seen as “a genre of Jewish scriptural improvisation.”

Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and a member of the Faculty of Humanities at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She has written often on the linkages between Christianity and Judaism, and her previous books include “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” and “Augustine and the Jews.” Indeed, she wrote her new book in Jerusalem, and she was inspired by setting her own feet on the ground where David and Jesus once walked.

“Simply being here, being able to walk to and in the Old City, to stand near the Kotel and, when local politics allowed, to pace the Muslim area built upon the ruins of Herod’s magnificent temple, charged my imagination and filled me with sadness and wonder,” Fredriksen explains. “What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”

Throughout her account, Fredriksen parses the Christian Scriptures to tease out “the intra-Jewish religious arguments” that they embody. When she invokes the founding fathers of Christianity, Fredriksen pauses to note: “All of these men were Jews.” Above all, she reminds her readers that Paul —who cut the ties between Judaism and “the Jesus movement” and thus can be regarded as the actual creator of Christianity — boasted proudly of his Jewish identity: “Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born to Israel.”

Her knowing attention to detail often turns the Christian version of the life story of Jesus on its head.  For centuries — and, thanks to Mel Gibson, even in our own times — the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as depicted in the Gospels has been a source of deadly Christian anti-Semitism. Pilate is shown to blame the Jews of Jerusalem for demanding the execution of Jesus. “As history,” Fredriksen argues, “the scene cannot fit into what else we know had to have been the case — namely, that Jesus’ popularity is what led him to his cross.”

Nor is it plausible, as the Christian Scriptures suggest, that the Temple priests contrived to frame Jesus because they regarded him as a dangerous subversive. “After all, just southeast of Jerusalem, at Qumran, an entire community was busy producing their own biblical commentaries, developing their own halakhic practices, disdaining the current temple, reviling its priesthood, and anticipating the Endtime arrival of an entirely new temple, which at least implied the destruction of the current one,” Fredriksen writes. “Against them the Jerusalem priesthood never so much as lifted a finger.”

“What a beautiful, blood-soaked, beloved, contested piece of the planet Jerusalem is.”
— Paula Fredriksen

Paul may have looked beyond Judaism when he brought the Jesus movement to Rome, but even he carried the threads of Jewish tradition into Christianity. The earliest followers of Jesus expected the world to end in their own lifetimes, and they embraced what Fredriksen describes as “the contours of late Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic eschatology.” Jesus is explicitly described in the Christian Scriptures as the direct descendant of King David precisely because his fellow Jews expected the Messiah to carry David’s blood in his veins. 

“The figure of Jesus was draped in the antique robes of Davidic traditions; and those traditions were thereby ‘updated’ by being conformed to the figure of Jesus — his death as ‘King of the Jews’ and his postresurrection anticipated return,” Fredriksen writes. “It is through this process that Jesus became ‘Christ.’ ” 

Even as Christ, however, Jesus was expected to bring a version of the end of the world that owes much to Jewish messianism. “Not only would life be restored to the dead; the ten tribes of Israel, ‘lost’ to the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C.E., would be restored to the nation, ‘gathered in’ with the exiles of Israel,” Fredriksen summarizes. “The false gods of the nations, subdued in their turn, would themselves acknowledge the God of Israel. … And the mother city of the wide-flung Jewish nation, Jerusalem, restored and resplendent, would shine in the End as the place of God’s presence, the seat of his Kingdom.”

The best evidence that Christianity began as a “small messianic sect” within Judaism is that the authors of the Christian Scriptures “retrofitted” the life of Jesus to recall specific passages of the Hebrew Bible, an exercise that would have been meaningful and convincing only to their fellow Jews. “All Israel had been awaiting such a messiah, they proclaimed,” Fredriksen writes. “Moses and the prophets together witnessed to the significance of Jesus and the messiah. … Finally, finally, and in their own days, these prophecies had already been — and would soon be — fulfilled.”

Exactly here is where “the Jesus-community,” as Fredriksen puts is, branches off  from its Jewish theological roots. The Jews who expected Jesus to return in apocalyptic glory during their own lifetimes died off. “The single biggest problem was that the End, stubbornly, continued not to come,” the author writes, and “[t]ime continued to continue.” Subsequent generations of believers in Jesus now sought to convert the gentiles among them and to bring their “good news” to Rome and beyond. Thus did the first Christians explain the delay in the Second Coming: “’The gospel must first be preached to all nations’ before the End can come.”

Surely it is no coincidence that Fredriksen is able to conjure Jerusalem in ancient times while seated at a desk in modern Jerusalem, but it is deeply ironic. Both the Jewish world and Jerusalem in particular are the seat of conflict today, and Fredriksen shows us that it has always been so.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.