Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts

Jackson-McCabe, Matt, ed.  Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007. [DR1]

Scholars have made considerable progress since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when specialists in ancient Judaism and early Christianity, such as Emil Schürer, referred to the Judaism of Jesus’ time as Spätjudentum (“Late Judaism”).[1] The use of this term reflected the common Christian belief that ancient Judaism, as a religion consumed by decadence, had been rightly replaced by its superior, shinier Christian peer. For too long, the reading of the New Testament was entirely divorced from its Jewish context, and many of its ancient authors, especially Paul, were viewed as the first great Christian (and consequently non-Jewish) theologians of the Church.

However, certain events proved decisive in transforming this Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric into a favorable formulation of Judaism. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written during the Second Temple period-the new term now used as a replacement for the inadequate and admittedly biased term “inter-testamental Judaism”-informed Christian and Jewish scholars alike of the great diversity and vitality of Judaism in antiquity. In addition, the terrible events of the Holocaust as well as the establishment of a modern Jewish State shook the foundations of Christian supersessionism, forcing Christian scholars to reassess their theological and historical presuppositions about Judaism. The New Testament was finally viewed again within its Jewish matrix. Instead of talking of Jesus, Paul, and Peter as the first Christians, these characters were now reclaimed as Jewish figures who shared ideas and practices common to the diverse world of Second Temple Judaism.

Although the books and main protagonists of the New Testament are now included by mainstream scholarship within the Jewish stock, what elements, if any, are distinctive and may qualify as “Christian”? Such are the current challenges for scholars seeking to re-define the entities of “Christianity” and “Judaism,” and the many social religious groups lying in-between and beyond these two poles of the spectrum. This project becomes particularly acute when discussing the so-called entity of Judeo-Christians, a group of early Christians who have been defined in various ways by scholars as “Jewish” either because of their ethnicity, allegiance to the Torah, or appropriation of some form of discourse that is identified as being particularly Jewish. These questions are now discussed in a new book edited by Matt Jackson-McCabe, Jewish Christianity Reconsidered. This volume coincides with the publication of another important work dealing with many similar issues edited by Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik.[2] Both works explore the various New Testament books that portray early followers of Jesus not simply as Christian, but also as Jewish, hence Jewish-Christian.

While some may entirely discard the utility of defining an ancient entity as “Jewish-Christian,” since, in principle, all of early Christianity could be viewed as Jewish, McCabe and many of the contributors of his book still believe that such a categorization proves useful, since its ambiguity forces modern thinkers to reassess their conceptualization of Christianity and Judaism. McCabe provides his own introductory article on the history of research of Jewish-Christianity, underlying the problems attached to this label and describing the different presuppositions held by scholars who have approached the topic. Many will find this article extremely helpful for providing a broad, clear discussion on the various nuanced attempts made by scholars in defining Jewish Christianity.

Earlier scholarship tended to reduce the significance of ancient Judeo-Christians by confining their existence to heretical groups that were either ethnically Jewish and/or attached to Torah observance. More recent research has gradually moved away from such assumptions and developed new positions and vocabulary in an attempt to redefine this ambiguous category. The various terms, with different meanings depending on the scholar who coined them, are listed in McCabe’s chapter and include among others: “Semitic Christianity,” “Judaic Christianity,” “Judaistic Christianity,” “Hebrew Christianity,” “Hebraic Christianity,” and more recently “Christian Judaism.” This diverse taxonomy reflects the difficulty scholars have had in classifying this ambiguous brand of early Christians. Of course, we should remember that this scholarly jargon is entirely artificial and modern. None of the early Jewish followers of Jesus would have identified themselves as “Jewish-Christian,” since the entities of Christianity and (rabbinic) Judaism were still in the making. Nevertheless, McCabe and some of his colleagues find it useful to talk of such categories in order to make better sense of the complex and diverse worlds in which these early followers of Jesus lived. Certain readers who are familiar with contemporary Jewish-Christian movements will find this semantic discussion particularly interesting, as it seems to parallel in some ways the equally puzzling and diverse worlds of modern Messianic Jews, Hebrew Christians, Hebrew Catholics, Hebrew/Jewish Adventists, and so on.

Besides McCabe’s very helpful article on the history of research and the different morphologies of Jewish Christianity, other chapters of this book written by various authors are concerned with either specific books or groups of early Christians and their relation to the rubric of “Jewish Christianity.” Here a variety of interpretations emerge depending on the scholar and ancient literature involved. Perhaps, the most significant and provocative position is formulated by John W. Marshall’s article, “John’s Jewish (Christian?) Apocalypse.”[3] Marshall is correct in disagreeing with Adela Yarbo Collins, who described the author of the Book of Revelation as alienated from the Judaism of his time.[4] More significantly, Marshall argues that the epithet “Jewish-Christian” is inappropriate for understanding the value of Revelation as a thoroughly Jewish writing. Marshall prefers to qualify Revelation as simply Jewish in order to highlight its author’s solidarity and identification with Judaism. Marshall’s corrective, in my opinion, is persuasive and convincing. When read in this light, Marshall interprets verses such as Rev 2:9 (“those who say they are Jews but are not, but are a synagogue of Satan”) not as a statement demarcating Christians from other Jews, but rather as an appropriation by the author of Revelation of the term “Jew” as one belonging to him.[5] The author of Revelation identified himself with other Jews and chose to direct his invective against non-Jews as well as the Roman Empire, which he saw as responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem.[6]

Equally interesting is Jonathan Draper’s article, “The Holy Vine of David Made Known to the Gentiles through God’s Servant Jesus: “Christian Judaism” in the Didache.”[7] Draper places the Didache within the category of “Christian Judaism,” and believes that the admonition in Didache 6:2-3 (“For if you can bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you cannot, do as much as you can. And concerning food, bear what you can . . . .”) was addressed to Gentile converts. Accordingly, the community of the Didache, in a similar fashion to the council of Jerusalem as described in Acts 15, decided not to impose upon non-Jewish Christians the obligation to observe the Torah in its entirety, but did encourage gradual adoption of Mosaic precepts, which could have even included circumcision.[8] In contrast to certain scholars, Draper rightly disagrees with qualifying the community of the Didache as having separated from Judaism, positioning it instead within the broad and diverse world of the Jewish Diaspora.[9] Draper concludes that the Didache represents the first adaptation of the followers of Jesus to the world of Diaspora Judaism and to the Gentiles who wished to associate themselves with them, not requiring non-Jews to practice circumcision in order to fellowship with them but hoping for the eschatological age when Gentiles would completely submit themselves to the yoke of the Torah.[10]

Along similar lines of reasoning, Warren Carter’s article “Matthew’s Gospel: Jewish Christianity, Christian Judaism, or Neither?”[11] debates whether Matthew’s Gospel should be viewed as a “Christian-Jewish” or a “Jewish-Christian” document. Warren first refers to Anthony J. Saldarini, who viewed Matthew’s Gospel as addressing a Christian-Jewish community and representing a Christian form of Judaism.[12] Saldarini believed that the Matthean comments on Law, Messiah, and Jewish authorities stemmed from someone inside the Jewish community and were representative of first-century Judaism. Saldarini went as far as taking Matthew’s silence on circumcision as evidence for the Gospel’s support for such a practice among Gentile converts.[13]

Carter then turns to Hagner who has argued more recently that Matthew crafted a Jewish form of Christianity instead of a “Christian Judaism” (contra Saldarini). Hagner’s thesis, however, is based on certain theological assumptions, which in my opinion are no longer adequate. As noted by Carter, Hagner overemphasizes the supposed uniqueness and newness of the Gospel of Matthew in order to argue that Matthew’s community had been dislocated from first century Judaism. But the study of early Christianity within its Jewish context reveals how much the first Christians shared common ideas and practices with their fellow Jews. It is no longer possible to aggrandize the novelty of early Christianity, especially when Jesus and his movement are studied within history and placed in their proper Jewish sphere. Thus, Carter sides with Saldarini’s taxonomy, preferring to classify Matthew as part of Christian Judaism rather than representing a new form of Jewish Christianity.

Nevertheless, Carter highlights the limitations of such a definition, since it only signals one facet of the Gospel of Matthew (its interaction with Judaism) and overlooks other aspects that the author of Matthew was confronted by, namely, Roman imperialism. According to Carter, the ways in which the Gospel of Matthew negotiated with life under Roman imperial rule is a question that has been highly neglected by scholarship. Analyzing different Jewish and non-Jewish responses to Roman power is a promising field for further research.

While Hagner, Marshall, and Draper represent the current trend, which emphasizes early Christianity’s inclusion within its Jewish environment, Raimo Hakola, on the other hand, seems to go against the swing of the pendulum by underlining the impropriety of classifying the Gospel of John as Jewish-Christian. In “The Johannine Community as Jewish Christians? Some Problems in Current Scholarly Consensus,”[14] Hakola relates how mainstream scholarship at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century saw behind the Gospel of John a community that had drifted away from its Jewish roots. Johannine features such as its christology, determinism, and dualism were understood as being part of the generalizing rubric of “Hellenism.” John was viewed by some as reflecting a time when the earlier conflicts between Hellenistic Christians and Jewish Christians were left behind and the separation of Christianity from Judaism had been completed. But with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, scholars reaffirmed the Jewishness of the fourth canonical Gospel. Certain features, such as John’s dualism, could now be compared with the dualism of the sectarian Qumranites (e.g., the Community Rule).

Nevertheless, Hakola believes that it is improper to apply the epithet “Jewish-Christian” to the Johannine community, unless this term is confined to its ethnic-ideological dimension. At the praxis level (Torah observance), however, the Johannine community does not fit well within the Jewish-Christian rubric, since, according to Hakola, Jesus is portrayed in John as above the Law and as superior to Moses.[15] Hakola also discards interpreting the Johannine community as a group persecuted by the leading Jewish authorities (often identified with the early rabbis), claiming that no evidence exists for such synagogue-organized persecutions, and that other theological and religious developments must be taken into account in explaining the Johaninne community’s estrangement from the rest of Judaism.[16] While we may not be totally dissuaded from identifying John’s Gospel as Jewish-Christian in its widest sense, Hakola’s remarks remind us of the complicated and ambivalent relationship which existed between the Johannine community and its Jewish surroundings.

The remaining articles deal with various Jewish-Christian groups (e.g., Ebionites and Nazarenes) or other early Christian books (e.g., the Letter of James, Pseudo-Clementine literature, and the Q document). In sum, then, this book provides the reader with a useful introduction to many of the main issues related to the study of Jewish Christianity. While a unified, cohesive treatment written by one scholar on this important topic is greatly desired, the reader, in the meantime, will have to learn the various methods used by different scholars who wrestle with this subject. McCabe’s edition, then, probably provides the best starting point for such an inquiry, since it is intentionally written with a broad audience in mind, avoiding excessive scholarly technicalities, and presenting its content in a clear and accessible way. As such, this book will prove useful for students of the university at all levels and even for specialists of ancient Judaism and Christianity. The general educated reader, interested in Judaism and Christianity, will also be able to listen in and enjoy the different discussions.  Moreover, the readers of this journal will especially find this book intriguing as it addresses issues that in certain ways are reminiscent of the contemporary Jewish-Christian (and/or Messianic) movements.


Isaac W. Oliver is a Ph.D. student in Judaism and Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World at the University of Michigan. Isaac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religion at Andrews University, MI.


[1] E.g. Emil Schürer, Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (3d/4th ed.; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1901-1907).

[2] Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik, Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007).

[3] John W. Marshall, “John’s Jewish (Christian?) Apocalypse,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts (ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 233-56.

[4] Adela Yarbo Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984).

[5] John W. Marshall, “John’s Jewish (Christian?) Apocalypse,” 251-52.

[6] Ibid., 253-55.

[7] Jonathan Draper, “The Holy Vine of David Made Known to the Gentiles through God’s Servant Jesus: ‘Christian Judaism’ in the Didache,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, 257-83.

[8] Ibid., 260-63.

[9] Ibid., 258.

[10] Ibid., 281-82.

[11] Warren Carter, “Matthew’s Gospel: Jewish Christianity, Christian Judaism, or Neither?” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, 155-79.

[12] Anthony J. Saldarini argued for the former category in his book Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994). More recently, Donald Hagner has promoted the latter category in “Matthew: Christian Judaism or Jewish Christianity?” in The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (ed. S. McKnight and G. Osborne; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 263-82.

[13] Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community, 156-60.


[14] Raimo Hakola, “The Johannine Community as Jewish Christians? Some Problems in Current Scholarly Consensus,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, 181-201.

[15] Ibid., 186-92.

[16] Ibid., 185.

[DR1]We need to discuss with Wipf & Stock how we want this kind of information to appear in the title header