Jewish Christianity

The Making of the Christianity-Judaism Divide

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Matt Jackson-McCabe
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Jewish Christianity, Matt Jackson-McCabe writes a conceptual history of the term “Jewish Christianity.” He marks a beginning with 1st-century Christian heresiologists, like Ignatius of Antioch who invented the essentialist notion of Christianity that comes to expression even into the 21st century. Jackson-McCabe then jumps to the 18th-century English Enlightenment thinker John Toland, who reinscribed the Christian apologetic within a new modern category, “Jewish Christianity.” He labels Toland’s approach as an “incarnational model,” where the essence of Christianity comes to expression in various cultures, that is, Jewish Christianity.

The next step involves Thomas Morgan, an 18th-century English freethinker, and F. C. Baur. Baur had a larger impact because of his involvement in the German university. In the language of historical-critical methodology, Baur, nevertheless, expresses an essentialist Christianity. With critical tools he peels back “Jewish Christianity” from certain apostolic figures and the New Testament canon in order to find his Enlightenment morality, true Christianity exemplified in Jesus and Paul. Jackson-McCabe terms this approach an “occlusionistic model,” where something like “Jewishness” occludes the essence of Christianity from fully coming to expression.

The towering Baur received two distinct lines of criticism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Jackson-McCabe. Albrecht Ritschl and Joseph Lightfoot replicate the incarnational model and use historical-critical means to challenge Baur on the postapostolic figures and New Testament canon. New and unwieldy terms emerge like “Hebrew Christianity,” “Judaic Christianity,” and “Christian Judaism.” And the scholarly conversation takes a moral and more reflective turn after the Holocaust, where Christian anti-Judaism starts to receive attention, but both models persist. It is not until the 21st century that the apologetic models lose credibility and new social theories are applied. Scholars like Daniel Boyarin basically shatter the category, saying it is meaningless, and Annette Yoshiko Reed holds it in abeyance as a “heuristic irritant” (132). Hence, the strange category should make scholars reflect on how it is being used. Jackson-McCabe joins and concludes this conversation in the final chapter with a redescription of Christianism’s creation. He selected exemplary texts, like the Martyrdom of Polycarp and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, to highlight how they taxonomize themselves and others. Appeals to Jesus led Ignatius to create a distinct, local cultural movement called Christianism in the early 2nd century whereas others maintained an identification with Judean culture.

What is vital to notice in Jackson-McCabe’s tracing of the term “Jewish Christianity” is the reaction to and repetition of prior concepts. The narrative begins with a 1st-century ontologically real essence only to find a 21st-century reaction of fragmented plurality, as suggested by Boyarin. It is a move from pure being to pure nothing. After three hundred years, though, and thanks to scholars like Boyarin who shattered the idealization, Jackson-McCabe seems to have subverted the initial and repeated Christian apologetic or mirror-opposite reactions. “Christianism” is a local creation of an interested and infuriated Ignatius, not begotten. Confusing terms like “Jewish Christianity,” “Christian Judaism,” and others are not apt for the aims, methods, and theories in the academic study of religion. A new beginning beyond Christian apologetic essentialism, though always wary of its traps, is possible. Jackson-McCabe’s reading of the 2nd-century evidence is a good start, and I hope more scholars build upon his new approach.

“Christianism,” above, was not a spelling mistake. It is a defamiliarization strategy translating the Greek term christianismos rather than the usual “Christianity.”  Jackson-McCabe also uses the term “recruits” for those receiving Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Different terms provide another angle to work with in contrast to the first-order ones that Paul used such as hagioi “holy ones,” ethne (“nations” or “gentiles”), or adelphoi “brothers.” A final term he employs mostly throughout is “Judean” instead of “Jew.” For a book concerned with understanding, redescribing, and rejecting the concept “Jewish Christianity,” it is a good strategy to implement an unfamiliar vocabulary. It stops the reader, asking them to consider what he means by it.  

A handful of times Jackson-McCabe speaks of the “fluidity of cultural identity” (123), “ever fluctuating identities” (126), and “entirely fluid forms of cultural identity” (133). Everything humans do are events, happenings, or practices but “fluidity” goes too far. The perdurance of Christian apologetics in the academic study of religion is a river one can step into again and again. And one more minor criticism: the use of -ismos terminology certainly conveys cultural practices of a people, Hellenes or Judeans, that others could adopt. Though it can also have a more limited sense, for example, political action movement, as Matthew Novenson argues in “Paul’s Former Occupation in Ioudaismos” (Galatians and Christian Theology, Baker Academic, 2014). Not all Jews were Ioudaismos and Paul, leaving his former ways in Ioudaismos, is not a conversion to a new “religion.” Novenson’s argument complements Jackson-McCabe’s, which discusses the early 2nd-century use of Christianism rather than applying a category to 1st-century evidence.

Unhooking the lure of essentialism from any concept is difficult, especially with “Jewish Christianity.” Confessional Christian academics continue to defend it, whether purposefully or not, and so too their nonconfessional colleagues. They aim for the really real Christianity through theological or historical means. They are historical enough to say, “Paul and Jesus were Jewish” and apologetic enough to end with “but not too Jewish.” This conceptual problem has been a persistent research question for Jackson-McCabe, and with this book the fruits of his patience, erudition, and collaboration with colleagues has come to fruition. “Jewish Christianity” is to be rectified through rejection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Theron Clay Mock III is a PhD student at Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany.

Date of Review: 
July 19, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matt Jackson-McCabe is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University. He is the author of Logos and Law in the Letter of James and editor of Jewish Christianity Reconsidered.


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