Studies on Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries

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Peter J. Tomson
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , February
     827 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Studies on Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries, a volume of studies by Peter J. Tomson written over thirty-five years, features twenty-six studies organized in four sections. The end result is a valuable book that explores the history of Jews and Christians in the early centuries in the following critical areas: halakha and Jewish self-definition, the teachings of Jesus and evolving Jewish and Christian tradition, Paul and his place in Judaism, historiography, and early Christian sources.

Each study by Tomson certainly deserves recognition for its in-depth research. Indeed, each one offers remarkable insight into the primary and secondary sources used by scholars to explore Jews and Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Nevertheless, an evaluation of every study is out of the scope of this review so instead I will highlight some of the research that might interest the potential readers of this book who are most likely scholars and students of early Christianity.

The first section focuses on a major dimension of Jewish life both past and present known as “halakha.” Tomson explains that this phenomenon of Jewish life as reflected in rabbinic documents and other Jewish writings is important for understanding Jesus and Paul. Perhaps the most interesting study on this topic focuses on the terms “Israel” and “Jew” in ancient Judaism and in the New Testament. Tomson notes in his foreword that he believes this particular study, though far from perfect, is noteworthy for its wide scope and amount of valuable information. Tomson seeks to elaborate on the social function of these appellations, noting how they have distinctive purposes: a Jewish speaker will refer to “Jews” in a speech addressing or quoting non-Jews but when communicating with fellow-Jews call them “Israel.” Although Tomson’s conclusions are certainly significant, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this study that might interest scholars and students of early Christianity is the analysis of several types of evidence. Besides discussing ancient Jewish and Christian texts, Tomson also examines papyri, coins, and inscriptions.

The second section focuses on the teaching of Jesus and evolving Jewish and Christian traditions. In an essay titled “Shifting Perspectives in Matthew: from ‘the House of Israel’ (10:6) to ‘All Gentiles’ (28:19),” Tomson explores the shifting perspectives of Jesus’s command to his disciples to avoid gentiles in Matt 10:5 to the instruction to “go and make disciples of all gentiles” (28:19). Overall, Tomson persuasively argues that the Gospel of Matthew is a text full of contradictions. Tomson concludes that the Gospel of Matthew, which was probably written in Antioch, reflects a community of Christians that has experienced dramatic changes of social perspective in a brief period of time. In addition, Tomson observes that the Gospel reveals anti-Jewish slander that comes from gentile-Christian origins, anti-rabbinic protests by Jewish Christians, the voices of “zealotic” anti-Pauline Jewish Christians, and a distant echo of the Jesus tradition. This study especially deserves recognition because its exploration of a foundational topic in early Christian studies (the inclusion of the gentiles) masterfully synthesizes literary sources while paying close attention to the social contexts wherein the Gospel of Matthew was written.

The third section focuses on Paul and his place in Judaism. In an interesting essay titled “Paul’s Collection and ‘the Saints’ in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8–9): Literary and Historical Questions,” Tomson explores the fundraising campaign by Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 by dividing his research into two areas: the sources and cultural background, and the socioeconomic parameters and rabbinic literature. Tomson’s research on the topic of Paul’s collection for the Saints in Jerusalem is comprehensive. Although Tomson’s study covers a large amount of material, it still is logically organized into several sections and provides an in-depth summary and analysis of a popular topic in Pauline studies.

The fourth section focus on historiography and early Christian sources. These studies are some of the most significant contributions in Tomson’s book. These studies focus on several sources, such as the Didache, the Gospel of Matthew, the letter of Barnabas, sources for Jewish and Christian history, Josephus, the epistles of Paul, and the Gospel of John. In particular, one study by Tomson provides readers an in-depth investigation of the historical Pharisees. Tomson explores what we can discover about the Pharisees by studying the letters of Paul. Yet another study explores the Gospel of John and the so-called “parting of the ways.” This essay is especially interesting because it explores several sources that discuss the ostracism of Christians, such as rabbinic and Roman texts.

Although Studies on Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries is an expensive book, it nevertheless is a valuable resource for scholars and students of early Christian studies for several reasons. First, readers are provided a valuable collection of studies that explore the popular topic of the process by which Judaism produced both rabbinic Judaism and apostolic Christianity in the 1st century, only to see them formally separated by the end of the second century. Second, scholars may discover insights into the interesting literary sources and material culture of halakha, Jewish self-identification, the Jesus tradition, Paul’s letters, and early Jewish and Christian history. Third, scholars may discover ideas about new avenues of research to pursue. And fourth, scholars will find that the essays examine literary sources without ignoring social contexts or material culture.

This collection of Tomson’s work over his career is remarkable. The studies effectively explore the complexity of the history of Jewish and Christian relations in the early period in clear language that engages readers and encourages them to reflect on the importance of Christianity in broader contexts. In addition, serious students and scholars of early Christian studies will greatly benefit from this book as part of their collection since it provides a summary of research about Jews and Christians in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Overall, the studies are of the highest quality and they will encourage scholars and students who research early Christian studies to reflect on the historical development of Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Shisley is an independent scholar of early Christianity and Instructional Designer at Eastern Kentucky University.

Date of Review: 
January 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter J. Tomson is Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Jewish Studies, and Patristics at the Faculty of Protestant Theology, Brussels; General Editor of Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum; Guest Professor of Biblical Studies, University of Leuven.


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