Friday, December 14, 2007

Definition of “Jewish Christianity”, “Jewish Christian” and “Jewish Believer in Jesus”, Part Two (1.1. Introduction)

I began in my last post developing the question of the definition of “Jewish Christian”, “Jewish Christianity”, and “Jewish believer in Jesus”. We noted that Skarsaune and the volume Jewish Believers in Jesus (from here it will be abreviated JBJ) use an ethnically based definition in designating the “who” of their study. Skarsaune believes that “(1) the modern terms ‘Jewish believers in Jesus’ and ‘Jewish Christian’ are not without precedent in the ancient sources; and (2) in the ancient sources, ethnicity is the sole criterion for the adjective ‘Jewish’ as it is used in the combined terms ‘Jewish believer’ and ‘Jewish Christian’”.[1]

Furthermore, the editors of the volume wish to differentiate between “Jewish believers in Jesus”, of whom they mean any person of Jewish ethnicity who believes in Jesus as their savior implying nothing of their relationship to a continuing Jewish lifestyle and a “Jewish Christian”. Of the latter they essentially follow the Frenchman S. Mimouni’s definition which he formulated in the late nineties in the essay “La question de la définition du judéo-christianisme”: “ancient Jewish Christianity is a modern term designating those Jews who recognized Jesus as messiah, who recognized or did not recognize the divinity of Christ, but who, all of them, continued to observe the Torah”.[2]

The primary question that arises, however, from such an ethnic-based definition is: how does one determine who is ethnically Jewish; what is the criterion for that determination in a person’s ethnicity in ancient literature? This has been perhaps the most considerable critique of ethnically based definitions in the history of research because there is an obvious inability to determine the race of a person: Who is really Jewish?[3]

Skarsuane anticipating this question seeks to address it by attempting to steer clear of any anachronistic appeal to current halakic answers, namely, “a Jew is a person born by a Jewish mother or a person converted to Judaism according to rabbinic halakic procedure”.[4] Instead, Skarsuane asserts that whatever difficulties surround the terms “Jew” and “Jewish” with respect to determination of how one became Jewish, there is still a “basic fact” that in the Second Temple period and beyond, “Jews in general have had little doubt about who were Jews and who were not”.[5] Thus, for Skarsuane the bottom line regarding Jewish identity is left to the individual Jewish community themselves. He avers: “people who considered themselves Jewish and were considered to be Jewish by the Jewish community were Jewish”.[6]

Skarsaune’s approach seems to me to be commendable for a couple of reasons. First, he has antiquity on his side and can’t be accused of imposing anachronistic categories on ancient phenomena. Second, since what might be called the ontological verification of Jewish ethnicity is inaccessible even for the question of race today for that matter, appealing to the “Jewish community” strikes me as reasonable basis for judging who or who isn’t Jewish. This places ethnicity not simply in a certain percentage of bloodline, but also in the determination of the ethnic group in question. This type of understanding of Jewish identity is perhaps no more evident than with Jewish proselytes who while not Jewish by blood, are considered Jewish by the community.

Given this understanding of ethnicity, however, one might legitimately call into question Skarsaune’s definition and object that such a definition stretches the categories of race and ethnicity too far. I think the issue of what constitutes ethnicity should indeed produce future discussions and debate, although I am quite ready to jump on board with his conception on Jewish identity.

A second way Skarsuane’s definition addresses the continuing scholarly discussion of definition is the diversity of expressions of belief in Jesus among Jews his perspective allows. Unlike earlier approaches, Skarsaune’s “Jewish believers in Jesus” incorporates both those who are traditionally referred as Jewish Christians—those who also continue a Jewish lifestyle, but also includes those who after belief in Jesus assimilate into the Gentile Christian expression of Jesus belief. What’s more, in agreeing with Mimouni’s definition of “Jewish Christianity” (see above), the approach advocated by the editors of JBJ allows for a diversity of opinion even among those who fit under the label “Jewish Christian”. This kind of diversity would be analogous to the diversity within Second Temple Judaism that is widely accepted by scholars today.

One final point about definition relates to the praxis aspect of Skarsaune’s definition of “Jewish Christianity”. The oft suggested critique of praxis-based definitions of Jewish Christianity in the history of research—that there is no clear formulation regarding which laws must be kept to be considered a Jewish Christian—can be again applied here. Still, for me this critique losses much of its force when the issue of praxis is placed in the context of the Second Temple period, for at least the beginning of the Jesus movement.
It seems clear to most scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity from the extant evidence of the late Second Temple period that there was a variegated covenantal nomism such that, while there was a basic “common denominator” of belief and practice, there was a wide degree of diversity. Moreover, some groups defined themselves as the “true Israel” in contrast to the rest of the Jewish people based on their “unique” praxis (e.g. Essenes, Pharisees, etc.). It seems reasonable then that differing Jewish expressions of faith in Jesus should be regarded as Jewish if a certain "common denominator" of practice were evinced.
In the next post I will address the issue of sources for Jewish Christianity.

[1] Skarsaune 2006a:7.
[2] Mimouni 1998; translation is Skarsaune’s (2006a:4, 9).
[3] See Carleton Paget’s (2006:38, 42, 44, 49) discussion.
[4] Skarsaune 2006a:11.
[5] Skarsaune 2006a:13.
[6] Skarsaune 2006a:13, emphasis added.
Works Cited:
Carleton Paget, James. 2006. The Definition of the Terms Jewish Christian and Jewish Christianity in the History of Research. In A History of Jewish Believers in Jesus: The First Five Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik:22-52. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
Mimouni, Simon Claude. 1998. La question de la définition du judéo-christianisme. In Le judéo-christianisme ancien: essais historiques, ed. Simon Claude Mimouni:39-72. Paris: Éditions du Cerf.

Skarsaune, Oskar. 2006a. Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity—Problem of Definition, Method, and Sources. In A History of Jewish Believers in Jesus: The First Five Centuries, ed. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik:3-21. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

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