Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Method and Sources for the Study of Jewish Christianity (1.2. Introduction)

To sum up the earlier discussions of definition, we have defined “Jewish Christianity” as a particular expression of what can be characterized as a more general Jewish belief in Jesus. What’s more, we have defined “Jewish” in both cases by ethnicity or as Boyarin articulated, “a genealogical attachment to physical Israel”, but what is unique about Jewish Christians in contrast to Jewish believers is that the former maintain a Jewish lifestyle after conversion (Boyarin: “an attachment to the fleshly practices of that historical community”). Two qualifications are in order. First, conversion to Messiah Jesus in this sense is not a change of religious traditions as the term is commonly understood today, but rather a change in beliefs, belonging, and behavior within the Jewish scriptural tradition. Second, this entity is not however a monolith as it has been treated in the history of scholarship; but rather Jewish Christianity is a variegated entity like its mother, Second Temple Judaism.[1]

This means most importantly that one should not be overly concerned to define exactly what practices defined a unified Jewish Christianity. Since its mother consisted of diverse and competing sets of exegetical interpretations of Torah and consequent practices, it only stands to reason that no uniform list of practices can be established for Jewish Christianity. This in no way however should disqualify Jewish practice as an essential in any definition of Jewish Christianity or Jewish Christian.

With this definition in mind, we now turn to discuss briefly the sources and method used in researching Jewish Christianity in the early history of the church. Sources for the study of Jewish Christianity in the later first and early second centuries are of four types: early Christian literature, Greco-Roman literature, rabbinic writings and archaeology.

Addressing early Christian sources first, it must be admitted that there is an inherent difficulty in the determination of who is a Jew in an ancient text. Skarsaune quotes Shayne Cohen’s quip: “How do you know a Jew in Antiquity when you see one?”[2] In general, Skarsaune answers people would have known a Jew as a Jew by some “characteristic of their behavior”. To complicate matters more, with the existence of Gentile Judaizers—Gentiles who took on a Jewish lifestyle after converting to belief in Messiah Jesus—recognizing a Jewish Christian is even more difficult than recognizing a Jew in general.

In addition, given the Jewishness of early Christianity with its pervasive use of Jewish genres, symbols, images and ideology (e.g., apocalypticism, the Scriptures, Messianism, etc.) in earliest Christian writings, it is not enough simply to notice something “Jewish” in an ancient text and assume it represents Jewish Christianity. What we are after are quotes and sources authored by Jewish Christians. Thus, Skarsaune suggests three criteria for determining relevant material in early Christian literary sources for research on Jewish Christianity.

(1) Unless there is reason to doubt the particular author’s opinion, one should trust the patristic sources when they reference the Jewish ethnicity of a person.
(2) Given the dearth of Gentile believers who were adroit in Semitic languages (notable exceptions are Origen and Jerome), it is reasonable to assume that when patristic authors make use of Hebrew and Aramaic and/or show familiarity with post-biblical Jewish traditions they are relying on sources that ultimately go back to Jewish believers.
(3) Prohibitions against Jewish practices among early Christians, especially in Constantinian era, are near proof that those practices were in fact occurring.

Among the most widely recognized sources for the study of Jewish Christianity in early Christianity are:

(1) New Testament
(2) Pseudo-Clementine Writings
(3) So-called Jewish Christian Gospels
(4) Fragments of literature contained in the Heresiologists (Greek & Latin church Fathers)
(5) References to Jewish Believers in Fathers (Greek, Latin & Syriac)

Besides early Christian literary sources there is information on Jewish Christians in early Greco-Roman sources, rabbinic works and from archaeological finds. The two latter areas are rife with their own methodological difficulties they will not detain us here. In latter posts we will deal with each of these areas separately. Among Greco-Roman authors the most noteworthy is Celsus, a Middle Platonist philosopher, and will be dealt with when discussing references to Jewish believers in the Fathers.

[1] See Segal (1992:327) has expressed this well: “Although most Jewish groups remained loyal to the law, what loyalty meant differed radically for each sectarian position . . . all these opinions about the law were represented in early Christianity as well, since the earliest Christians took many of their converts from the ranks of Judaism”.
[2] Skarsaune 2006a:17.

Works Cited
Segal, Alan F. 1992. Jewish Christianity. In Eusebius, Christianity, and Judaism, ed. Harold W. Attridge and Gohei Hata, 42:326-51. Leiden ; New York: Brill.

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