When Christians Were Jews

The First Generation

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Paula Fredriksen
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , October
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $27.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300190519.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Two thousand years later, scholars are still trying to figure out how and why Christianity came into existence. Paula Fredriksen’s When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation is the latest in a growing number of works on “Christian Origins.” As a work of revisionist history, Fredriksen synthesizes a lifetime of scholarship and some of the most recent research into a short and accessible monograph.

Traditional Christians will be particularly challenged by the author’s perspective and reconsider a number of conventional ideas about the gospels, Paul, the early church’s thought-processes and motivations, and Jesus’s death and resurrection. Those familiar with “Christian Origins” will find something very similar to the work of Pamela Eisenbaum, Bart Ehrman, and others who suggest that “Christianity” was essentially a mistake that should never have gotten off the ground in the first place. Christians (in this view) have always misread Paul and the Gospels to conform with later developments without properly paying attention to the inherently Jewish context. “Christianity,” then, is essentially a collection of (many or mostly) fabricated ideas, narratives, and events produced in the minds of the later Gospel writers projected back into the past. For what purpose? Evidently, self-legitimation, anti-Semitism inherent to the earliest Christians and/or Gospel writers (62, 183, 186), and generally a way for the disciples to cope with the trauma of losing a friend and leader. 

This thesis emerges from a stark temporal framework. The “then” of early Christianity was roughly the 30s-60s, to which “Christianity” is anachronistic (91). The second period is the 80s-120s CE, where the Gospels were written and traditional ideas about Christianity emerged. The near half-century gap between these phases provides few sources for what happened to Jesus’s disciples, so historians must therefore speculate. “Filling in” that gap and connecting the dots is what When Christians Were Jews is trying to do. 

Features of the early proto-Christian period were (a) Jesus’s prediction that the end of the world (“coming of the Kingdom”) would come at Passover; (b) Jesus and Paul’s loyalty to the Temple (and its sacrifices); (c) Jesus’s resurrection pointed to Jewish prophecy; (d) Christianity was really just a form of Judaism and wasn’t Gentile-inclusive until later.

In the later phase, however, (a) the proclamation of the Kingdom morphed into a present and ongoing reality, and the concept of Jesus’s second coming was forged out of the failed first kingdom come; (b) the temple was now destroyed, providing the opportunity for Jesus’s disciples to disassociate with (and even condemn) Judaism; (c) Jesus’s resurrection now pointed to Jesus’s divinity (status indicator) instead of Jewish prophecy (time indicator); (d) Christianity was now distinct from Judaism and became a religion for everybody, and supposedly that’s what it was always about to begin with. In the end, the main driver of Christian identity was eschatology—anticipation of the end. “In their own eyes, they were history’s last generation. It is only in history’s eyes that they would become the first generation of the church” (191). 

This is a rough summary of the book’s argument. Fredriksen’s own unfolding is far more pointed and lucid—though no less controversial. Readers unfamiliar with Christian origins will likely find themselves with many “aha” moments, especially as the author is particularly well-rehearsed in the primary sources of the time—and particularly capable of showing how they illumine the story in the Gospels. 

At the same time, other readers will be left with perplexing questions from this ground-shifting argument. For example, Jesus is portrayed as relatively at ease with the Jews of his day; “Jesus’ popularity is what led him to the cross” (62). Readers are left to guess about what to make of all the conflicts with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the issues of taxation/politics scattered throughout the Gospels. Elsewhere, Jesus is said to be extremely peaceful and unsupportive of armed rebellion; “neither Caiaphas nor Pilate would ever have lost a night’s sleep” (66) about his preaching. But this leaves hanging the offensiveness of people calling Jesus by subversive, political titles (“lord,” “son of God,” etc.)—which are said to only be later, Christological titles (102). Readers are told non-Jews “were not part of Jesus of Nazareth’s original following” (81); the concept of Gentile inclusion comes later. But this leaves hanging the Canaanite woman episode (Mk 7 and Mt 15), and also (perhaps) Paul’s reading (and living out) of the inclusive Abrahamic promises. Luke is said to discard the “impending kingdom” (93) of Mark in Luke 17 in place of a continuous one in order to save face. But, one wonders why Luke then includes the (embarrassing) text about “this generation.” 

Sometimes Fredriksen is forced to perform a little fabricating herself to make things fit the new story—such as a conspiracy of the gospel writers to insert scripture quotes in Jesus’s mouth when visiting the temple mount (47-48), and a retrojection of Josephus’s Antiquities regarding the composition of the early church to retain a Jewish composition (81). Another gnawing question was why the gospel writers didn’t cash-in on the 70 CE events to support their innovative beliefs. If they were willing to imagine the resurrection, revise its meaning, create a second coming of Jesus, and extend the coming of the Kingdom based on the life of Jesus and his traumatic death, surely they would have elaborated on how the Jewish-Roman war and conquering of Jerusalem legitimized so many of these ideas. But they never do.

This leads to the first of two elephants in the room: the premise of a late dating of the Gospels. While the author often distinguishes her speculation from probable facts throughout the story, the post 70 CE dating of all four Gospels is dogmatically and repetitively asserted without argument (e.g., 90, 97, 116, 160, 168, etc.). It has to be, of course, because if Mark (and esp. Matthew) waswritten anytime before the 70s, the whole proposal collapses. 

A second (and more significant) elephant is the lack of interaction with dissenting secondary sources. When Christians Were Jews would be infinitely more persuasive if the author engaged with her detractors. James Dunn’s three volumes on Christian origins, N. T. Wright’s five volumes on Christian origins, and the works of Larry Hurtado are completely ignored—none are even cited (except a passing reference to Dunn). One gets the impression that When Christians Were Jews is more of a confirmation to those who are already inclined towards the book’s proposals than an argument to convince others. 

Despite an uncertain audience and substantial concerns, When Christians Were Jews is an excellent distillation of current academic trends by a very thoughtful and articulate scholar. Rich in primary sources, it is sure to get anyone thinking about the early formation of Christian identity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is a former Dean and Associate Professor of Christian Studies and is currently an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paula Fredriksen, Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University, is currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is one of the world’s leading scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

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