Wednesday, December 12, 2007

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

James Carleton Paget, in his essay titled “The Definition of the Terms Jewish Christian and Jewish Christianity in the History of Research” presents the major difficulty when approaching a study of the subject: “In antiquity no one, as far as we know, called himself a Jewish Christian or spoke of belonging to an entity called ‘Jewish Christianity’”.[1] While for some this is enough cause to abandon the terms altogether, others, and it is clear that the editors of Jewish Believers in Jesus (if not Carleton Paget[2]) are of this mind, have taken a more chastened perspective by employing the terms, but defining them clearly at the start of their work. It is true that they opt for the term “Jewish believers” in hopes of avoiding some of the baggage of the past.

One of the issues that rises to the top of any discussion of the definition is whether the terms “Jewish Christianity” (Juden-christentum) or “Jewish Christian” (Judenchrist, Judéo-chrétien) refer to the extraordinary influence of Judaism, theology and practice, on early Christianity or to an actual segment of believers in Jesus who were in someway “Jewish” and thereby distinct—the distinction most often understood in nationalistic and Torah-oriented ways—from other believers in Jesus. The terms, then, can be used on the one hand to characterize what the two religions have in common and, on the other, point to what divides them.[3] In the history of research, the terms have been used variously to refer to either one of these concepts and therefore are ambiguous and susceptible to very different usages.

Of equal importance to the definition of such terms when speaking of a segment of early Christianity is the question of whether one could speak of a unified group with a definable profile of traits and ideology/theology or whether in fact Jewish Christianity was a variegated phenomenon, in which case a plurality of Jewish Christianities would be a more accurate understanding. One final point of contention with respect to the definition of terms is whether one should use a praxis-, ethnic- , or ideology/theologic-based criteria for determining whether a particular writer, text or group is Jewish Christian.

O. Skarsaune in the first chapter of Jewish Believers in Jesus seeks to address these difficult issues of definition. The first step he takes is to avoid to some degree the baggage of the history of research by using the less loaded phrase “Jewish believer in Jesus”. This is not without historical precedent as well. While there is no fixed terminology in patristic sources, the phrase “Jewish believer in Jesus”, according to Skarsaune, “can be said to encapsulate the terms most often used”.[4] He provides a broad series of examples from New Testament and early Christian sources of the use of terminology similar to “Jewish believer (in Jesus)”. For example:

John 8:31 - “Jews who believed in him . . .”
Origen, Cels. 2.1 - “. . . those of the Jewish people who have believed in Jesus”
Origen Comm. Matt., in Eusebuis, Hist. eccl. 6.25.4 - “[Matthew published his gospel first] for those who from Judaism came to believe

Furthermore, Skarsaune defines “Jewish believers in Jesus” as “Jews by birth or conversion who in one way or another believed that Jesus was their savior”.[6] With this definition the issues noted above are addressed at least to some degree.

First, Skarsaune opts for an ethnically based definition rather than praxis or theologically based one. While the editors of the volume are not the first to base their definition primarily on ethnicity this approach to the question is less than typical in secondary literature. Thus, under the rubric of Jewish believers in Jesus they include not only Jews who after conversion maintained a law-observant lifestyle, but also Jewish converts who abandoned their Jewish identity and assimilated into Gentile Christianity. This definition, however, excludes Judaizers, by which he means Gentiles who after conversion to belief in Jesus underwent a secondary conversion to Judaism by circumcision and the taking on of Torah observance. Skarsaune, then, uses the moniker “Jewish believer in Jesus” to represent all ethnically Jewish believers regardless of their continuing relationship (or lack there of) to Torah, while reserving the traditional label “Jewish Christian” for “those Jews who believed in Jesus, and at the same time continued a wholly Jewish way of life”.[7] The definition of "Jewish Christian" offered would also include Gentiles who prior to their faith in Jesus converted to Judaism and subsequently to belief in Jesus.
I will finish these points with my analysis in forthcoming posts.

[1] Carleton Paget 2006:48; see also his earlier essay Carleton-Paget 1999. One of the most interesting points in this well-researched chapter is that the real birth place of the study of Jewish Christianity is England in the works of Toland and Morgan in the 18th century rather than Germany in the work of Baur in the 19th as is most often thought. It is not surprising that Carleton Paget, the quintessential Englishman, would have made this discovery.
[2] I am unclear what exactly Carleton Paget thinks. In reading between the lines of his conclusion, I gather that he is more of a mind to abandon the terms altogether for something else. This seems to be the point of his discussion of Michael Williams’ work on Gnosticism—see Carleton Paget 2006:51-52.
[3] See the summary of M. Simon’s position by Carleton Paget (2006:43).
[4] Skarsaune 2006a:5.
[5] Examples come from Skarsaune 2006a:5-6.
[6] Skarsaune 2006a:3.
[7] Skarsaune 2006a:4, emphasis his.
Works Cited
Carleton-Paget, James. 1999. Jewish Christianity. In The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period, ed. William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy, 3:731-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_________. 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.
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.
________ and Reidar Hvalvik, eds. 2006. A History of Jewish Believers in Jesus: The First Five Centuries. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment Geoff. I can see how you came to assert that a Jewish Christian is a Jew endowed with the Spirit. However, the term "Christian" does not mean "anointed one", but rather those who follow the "christos"; so I don't think it can mean what you suggest. Moreover, the fact remains that there are no anicent sources that use this terminology within Judaism or early Christianity.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

What of the whole problem of using the word "Christianity" to refer to the early experience and thought of believers in Jesus?

Anders Branderud said...

(le-havdil), A analysis (found here: (that is the only legitimate Netzarim)) of all extant source documents and archaeology using a rational and logical methodology proves that the historical Ribi Yehosuha ha-Mashiakh (the Messiah) from Nazareth and his talmidim (apprentice-students), called the Netzarim, taught and lived Torah all of their lives; and that Netzarim and Christianity were always antithetical.

Judaism and Christianity have always been two antithetical religions, and thus the term Jewish Christianity is an oxymoron.

The mitzwot (directives or military-style orders) in Torah (claimed in Tan’’kh (the Jewish Bible) to be the instructions of the Creator), the core of the Judaism, are an indivisible whole. Rejecting any one constitutes rejecting of the whole… and the Church rejected many mitzwot, for example rejecting to observe the Shabat on the seventh day in the Jewish week. Examples are endless. Devarim (“Deuteronomy”) 13.1-6 explicitly precludes the Christian “NT”. Devarim 13:1-6 forbids the addition of mitzwot and subtraction of mitzwot from Torah.

Ribi Yehoshuas talmidim Netzarim still observes Torah non-selectively to their utmost today and the research in the previous mentioned Netzarim-website implies that becoming one of Ribi Yehoshuas Netzarim-followers is the only way to follow him.