Thursday, March 11, 2010

Was Christology decisive in dividing Jews in the early decades of the church?

I've been reading a very stimulating article by Anders Runesson that appeared in JBL not long ago entitled "Rethinking Early Jewish-Christian Relations: Matthean Community History as Pharisaic Intragroup Conflict" (JBL 127.1 [2008]: 95-132). 

The essay is dense and well researched with a number of interesting and significant observations. Among the many points to ponder is Anders' argument that Pharisees should not be thought of as a sect as is so often the case. Instead he labels them with the sociological category "denomination", which is more "positive in terms of society tension" because of "their acceptance of the Jerusalem cult [the civic religion] and thus the religiously legitimate use of it by individuals other than their own members" (114-15). I'm giving only the briefest sketch of his argument. You'll need to consult the article for the full argument, but his argument is very convincing at least at first glance. 

It is the near afterthought that most caught my attention however. In the second to last paragraph of the conclusion, Anders raises a the controversial point that what divided Jews in the first century of the church was not Christology. He notes the diversity within the Pharisaic movement of the first century stating:
The Pharisees themselves, in existence since the Hasmonean period, whom we have defined sociologically as a demonination, had among them diverse groups that at times exhibited schismatic tendencies . . . This diversity calls into question the (anachronistic) tendency among many scholars to understand christology to be the distinguishing factor behind intragroup tensions that resulted in the parting of ways between people who originally belonged within the same institutional context (132). 
He appeals to two early Rabbis to advance the point. Rabbi Akiva was ridiculed by some, he notes, for acclaiming Bar Kokhba messiah, but he nonetheless became a celebrated authority in the rabbinic community. In contrast Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated as a result of a dispute over a halakic issue (b. Bava Mesia 59a-59b). From this Anders concludes "it seems indeed that halakah was more central for Jewish identity than dogma" (132). 

What do you think of this conclusion?


Jonathan Robinson said...

I think it is eminently sensible. Wright makes exactly this point in the NTPG chapter on the Beliefs of Israel. In Jerusalem where events around Jesus death might make his messiahship a sensitive issue it would be a divicive issue also, but in the diaspora and post AD70 surely it would be the holy trinity of Sabbath, Purity and Circumcision, and the Christians approach to them that would be the divisive factor?

James F. McGrath said...

In a sense, I think it depends what you mean by "Christology." I think it is entirely plausible to suggest that the notion of a crucified Messiah may have been more than some could stomach. I've drawn the conclusion in my books that the debates between non-Christian Jews and Christians were not about monotheism, about the exalted status of a mediator figure per se (and thus about Christology in the sense of the revision of monotheism in some new direction), but about the application of exalted titles to an individual who was not believed by non-Christian Jews to genuinely have been sent by God.

Bill said...

Yes, Yes, Yes. Especially in Matthew. It wasn't what Jesus said about himself that flummoxed the scribes and pharisees. It was what he said about the Law, and about their theory/practice of it.

Emerson Fast said...

Do we approach the gospels with a heavy dosage of form criticism here? If so, I see not a few examples of the Pharisee "denomination", not to mention the Sadducees getting ruffled over Christology. If these are actually doorways into the sitz im leben of the early church, what do we make of something like the Pharisees getting angry over Jesus proclaiming forgiveness for the paralytic (Mt. 9:3, Mk 2:7)

"Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Of course, I'm of the persuasion that this was a real situation in the life of Jesus, but even if I was wrong wouldn't it imply that in the life of the early church some confrontation was occurring with the jews over Christological issues?

Perhaps the church in its kerygma was issuing statements about Jesus' ability to forgive sins, and this was attracting controversy from local jews?

Steven Coxhead said...

Christology is definitely the issue in John's Gospel, but this also has implications for how Jesus is viewed as a (false) teacher of the law.

But in the early church, the issue at stake between the orthodox and the Judaizing factions was the law, not Christology per se.

But I think that Paul would link it all back to Christology in the end. To continue to advocate obedience to the Mosaic covenant after the coming of the new covenant in Christ is actually to deny the lordship of Christ over all (including Moses).

Yahnatan Lasko said...

Regarding Christologically-motived schisms: I think Daniel Boyarin (in his fascinating book Border Lines) places the creation of minim (related to Two Powers in Heaven) to late second/early third century. I'm interested on how others thinks Boyarin's thesis interacts with Runesson's point.

Steven, you wrote: "To continue to advocate obedience to the Mosaic covenant after the coming of the new covenant in Christ is actually to deny the lordship of Christ over all (including Moses)."

I'm not trying to hijack the thread into an unrelated debate. I'll just say that I question why you think disobedience to the law of Moses is necessary in order to prove the lordship of Christ. James and Paul didn't seem to think so (Acts 21:24).

James F. McGrath said...

I think that the two powers material does indeed reflect a later period, as Boyarin suggests. Some of the views that were objected to under the label "two powers" may be older, but they seem not to have been found objectionable in earlier times.

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Yahnatan,

Moses prophesied about a second Moses who would come. According to the first Moses, whatever the second Moses taught, Israel had to listen to, i.e, to obey (Deut 18:15-19).

The Christian tradition identifies this second Moses as Jesus of Nazareth. If the second Moses says that the laws regarding physical circumcision, and clean and unclean foods, have been changed (thereby allowing Gentiles to participate in the covenant and righteousness), then to keep insisting on these things as currently-applicable torah is in reality to disobey both the first Moses and the second Moses. That’s Paul’s view, as I understand it.

Moses foreshadowed a greater Moses, and a greater torah taught by this greater Moses. He foreshadowed that Mosaic torah would morph into Messianic torah with the revealing of the Messiah to Israel. This means that in the age of the new covenant both Jew and Gentile are under obligation to keep Messianic torah. Followers of the Messiah are to be torah-observant (Matt 28:20), but the details of what constitutes torah are a little different when compared with the details of Mosaic torah.

But having said that, Paul was happy to live culturally as a Jew, and cherished the traditions of the fathers. However, he strongly asserted that the traditional understanding of Mosaic halakhah was no longer to be linked with righteousness (i.e, justification), and he also taught that a cultural attachment to Mosaic halakhah should not get in the way of fellowship with Gentiles. To help with this, Messianic Gentiles should also be mindful of Jewish sensibilities.

Yahnatan Lasko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yahnatan Lasko said...

I agree about the second Moses. It seems where you and I differ is in our reading of Paul. I tend to follow those readings which advocate for a Torah-observant (e.g. "Mosaic halakhah") Paul--such as can be found in and among the various new perspective authors (Mark Nanos comes to mind). The main point I hope to communicate is that under such readings, the lordship of Christ remains intact--since disregarding the law of Moses is not a true requisite of lordship. Rather, it all depends on "whatever the second Moses taught." Or, in this case, what Paul taught that the second Moses taught...

I appreciate the sensitivity in your closing paragraph. :-)