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“When Christians were Jews”: Paula Fredriksen on “The First Generation”

December 4, 2018

Paula Fredriksen’s latest book is a readable, well-paced narrative of the first decades of what became Christianity, with lots of particular good points made:  When Christians Were Jews:  The First Generation (Yale University Press, 2018).  Intended for a wide readership, the main emphases of the book build upon (and the notes make frequent reference to) her earlier and more detailed studies:  Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews:  A Jewish Life (1999), and Paul:  The Pagans’ Apostle (2017).  I think that it deserves a wide readership, and I am in agreement with many points in it.  I count her as a dear friend, and so feel free also, however, to indicate some points of disagreement (I’ve communicated these to her in emails, so she won’t find anything surprising here).

Here are her aims in this book in her own words:

“I have attempted to reimagine the stages by which the earliest Jesus-community would have first come together again, after the crucifixion.  To understand how and why, despite the difficulties, these first followers of Jesus would have resettled in Jerusalem.  To reconstruct the steps by which they became in some sense the center of a movement that was already fracturing bitterly within two decades of its founder’s death.  To see how the seriatim waves of expectation, disappointment, and fresh interpretation would have sustained this astonishing assembly in the long decades framed by Pilate’s troops in 30 and Titus’ in 70.” (184).

She refrains from referring to this earliest stage of the “Jesus-community” as early “Christianity” and comprised of “churches,” as the terms carry baggage of later developments of “organized institutions, and of a religion separate from, different from, and hostile to Judaism” (185).  So, instead, she renders ekklēsia as “assembly” (quite appropriately in my view, reflecting the quasi-official connotation of the term, often both in the LXX and in wider usage).

Fredriksen emphasizes effectively the Jewishness of that first generation of Jesus-followers, their Jerusalem orientation, their positive attitude toward the Jerusalem temple, and, particularly, their eschatological convictions and excitement.  Along the way, she raises and pursues a number of questions, offering thoughtful and reasoned answers.  For example, she judges (rightly I think) that “No ideological breach yawned” between Paul and James (188).  She challenges the notion that Jesus’ temple-action was what led to his arrest (contra such figures as E.P. Sanders), and she contends that Jesus didn’t so much condemn the temple as he did prophecy a new one.

She argues that Jesus’ followers did not comprise a revolutionary party, and that the disciples’ “swords” in the Gethsemane scene were actually knives (the more common meaning of the Greek term machaira, 64), likely used for Passover sacrifice.  This, she contends helps us to understand why only Jesus was seized and executed, and his followers allowed to flee Gethsemane.  They didn’t comprise a revolutionary cell.  Otherwise, the Roman authority would have followed the more typical practice toward revolutionary groups that involved seizing all the ring-leaders and putting them to death.

Fredriksen takes the Johannine depiction of Jesus making multiple visits to Jerusalem as more convincing than the Synoptic Gospels’ narrative of only one such visit.  So, she argues, in these previous visits there was nothing sufficiently threatening about Jesus or his teaching that seemed to require his arrest.  But, she urges, in what became his final Jerusalem visit, Jesus’ arrest was provoked by his “updating” his prophecy of the coming kingdom of God, declaring that it would be manifested during this visit.  This led to “mounting enthusiasm of the holiday crowds,” and this in turn led the authorities taking action against Jesus:  “It was to disabuse them that Jesus died on a cross” (69, emphasis mine).  Jesus’ crucifixion (in her view) points “away from Jesus himself, toward those watching him die,” and “Pilate did not have a problem with Jesus . . . [but] with the crowds that followed him” (41).  Similarly, she insists that Antipas executed John the Baptizer because of “the numbers and the commitment of John’s followers . . . not what John was telling them.” (40)

Personally, I have to say that I find this argument to comprise a dubious either/or set of alternatives.  Granted, both John and Jesus generated a number of dedicated followers, and the execution of both men was surely intended to snuff out their respective movements.  But there would have been no such followers or movements without the powerful impact of both men.  So I would say that a more adequate statement is that Antipas executed John and Pilate executed Jesus not only because of their teachings and actions but also because of their effects upon their followers.

Similarly, in her discussion of the early conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead, I think she poses another set of false alternatives:  “The point of his particular resurrection . . . was not to express Jesus’ special status as such . . . [but instead] was to vindicate his prophecy [of the immediate appearance of the kingdom of God]” (87, emphasis mine).  To be sure, Jesus’ resurrection signalled for earliest believers that the days of eschatological fulfilment were at hand.  But, surely, texts ranging from Romans 1:3-4 to 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 to Philippians 2:9-11 and others as well posit Jesus’ resurrection as also the action in which God designated Jesus as the unique divine Son, Lord, and monarch who is to preside  in the submission of all things to God’s kingdom.  So, wouldn’t it be more adequate to say that for early believers Jesus’ resurrection both vindicated him and his message and also signalled that he was the divinely exalted Son and Kyrios, which formed the basis of their subsequently developing christological claims?

One of the strong points in Fredriksen’s previous book on Paul, echoed in this book too, is that Paul’s opposition to requiring male circumcision of his former-pagan converts was a principled stand based on OT predictions that in the last days the gentile nations would come to the God of Israel, as gentiles (e.g., Zechariah 8:20-23), not as proselytes to Israel.  So, Paul insisted that his former pagans must not undergo proselyte conversion, for this would go against the divine intention.  She is correct also to insist that James and the Jerusalem leadership were basically on board with this.  And, quite plausibly in my view, contends that the demand by opponents to Paul that pagan converts should undergo circumcision was a somewhat later innovation, and not the position of the Jerusalem leadership.  But I missed discussion of Paul’s frequent insistence that his full-scale gentile mission was his own special task, and that he may well have even seen himself, as Johannes Munck proposed, as personally and singularly deputized by God to bring about the predicted ingathering (the “fullness”) of the nations (Romans 11:25).  That is, I think that Paul saw himself as what Munck called a salvation-historical figure in his own right[i]

Fredriksen’s claim that Jesus “updated” his prophecy of the coming kingdom of God, making its arrival coterminous with his last visit to Jerusalem, reminds me of Albert Schweitzer’s memorable and dramatic articulation of what seems a similar proposal.  In this view, the first of several disappointed eschatological hopes that the Jesus-movement had to overcome was comprised in Jesus’ crucifixion, and the failure of an immediate appearance of the kingdom of God.[ii]  (I’m not so confident, however, that Caligula’s demand that his image he set up in the Jerusalem temple was another such crisis for the Jesus-movement.)

To be sure, Jesus did speak to eschatological concerns of his time, and did excite messianic hopes for an imminent redemption of his people (e.g., Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6).  So, Jesus’ crucifixion was likely a huge shock and disappointment of hopes for his followers.  But also, as Fredriksen notes, “‘The resurrection’ gives us a measure of the degree to which Jesus of Nazareth had successfully forged his followers into a group intensely, indeed singularly, committed to himself and to his prophecy of the coming Kingdom” (75).  That is, Jesus’ person and validity became the polarizing issue, already during his own ministry.  She focuses more (almost exclusively), however, on the validation of what she proposes was the content of Jesus’ prophecy of the eschatological kingdom of God, but she seems to me to neglect (or fail to see?) that the experience of the resurrected Jesus also validated his person powerfully for his followers.  Indeed, in their view Jesus’ resurrection marked the exaltation of Jesus to a wholly new and distinctive status at God’s “right hand,” as unique plenipotentiary of divine purposes, and rightful recipient of devotion.  In other words, in the faith of early believers, Jesus’ resurrection not only had a backward effect, retroactively validating his message, but also comprised a new and further effect in which the risen Jesus was installed as this plenipotentiary and also as rightfully a co-recipient of devotion (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11).  In several publications over several decades now, I have pointed to the specific actions, a constellation of early devotional practices that form a “dyadic” pattern in which God and Jesus are central.[iii]

Moreover, this devotion is often expressed verbally in terms that convey an intensity, profound feelings of a relationship with both God and the exalted Jesus.  But Fredriksen says little about this.  Granted, as Alan Segal observed, this lack of attention to Paul’s religious experience is all too typical of Pauline scholars, whether Jewish, Christian, or non-committed.[iv]  Obviously, as Fredriksen emphasizes, Paul and that “first generation” held the eschatological conviction that Jesus’ return in glory and the consummation of God’s kingdom would take place within their lifetime (as reflected in Paul’s reference to “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord,” 1 Thessalonians 4:15).  But was it solely a sense of eschatological urgency that drove early believers such as Paul, for example?  What are we to make of statements that “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14), or that “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), or that Paul counts everything else as nothing in comparison to “the knowledge of Christ Jesus my lord,” seeking to be “found in him” (Philippians 3:8-11), texts which are not discussed in this book?

In an essay on distinctive elements in Paul’s “messianic Christology,” I discussed briefly what I called an “affective emphasis,” and complained that this is not commented on very frequently in Paul scholarship.[v]  What I refer to are the numerous statements in Paul’s letters such as those cited in the preceding paragraph here about Christ’s love for him (and believers more generally) and Paul’s deep sense of a relationship with the risen Jesus.  If I have one major criticism of Fredriksen’s otherwise impressive new book, it is that this intense devotional element in Paul and early Jesus-circles is not given its rightful attention, whereas I think that it was a major factor in accounting for the enthusiasm and staying power of the Jesus-movement.

I also remain unrepentant in dissenting from her view that Paul the Pharisee “persecuted” Jewish believers because they were recruiting gentile god-fearers (she repeatedly refers to “apostles” doing so), requiring them to abandon their pagan gods.  This, she argues, caused pagans and Jews anxiety, “a highly charged situation” (151), and this generated the disciplinary efforts of the young Pharisee, Saul/Paul.  In making her case, however, I think she reads a plausible reason for Paul being on the receiving end of repeated synagogue lashings (2 Cor. 11:24) inappropriately back into the scene in Damascus assemblies.  As I’ve contended earlier, Paul’s reference to his turn-around “Damascus road” experience as a revelation of God’s Son (Gal. 1:15-16) shows that the content was deeply christological, and this in turn suggests that it was in Paul’s mind a divine corrective to his previous stance, which was an opposition to christological claims of the Jesus-movement.

But, notwithstanding certain points of disagreement between us, I reiterate my commendation of Fredriksen’s book, which compresses a lot of matters into an impressively concise but clear presentation.

[i] Johannes Munck, Paul and the Salvation of Mankind (ET, Richmond: John Knox Press, 1959; German original, Aarhus/Copenhagen: Universitetsforlaget/Ejnar Munksgaard, 1954).

[ii] “There is silence all around. The Baptist appears and cries, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’  Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close.  It refuses to turn, and He throws himself upon it.  Then it does turn; and crushes Him.  Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them.  The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still.  That is His victory and His reign.” Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London:  Macmillian, 1910; German original 1906), 370-71.

[iii] I first drew attention to these actions in Larry W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988; 2nd ed. Edinburgh:  T&T Clark, 1998; 3rd ed., London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), esp. 93-127; 97-134 in the 3rd ed.).

[iv] Alan  F. Segal, “Paul’s Religious Experience in the Eyes of Jewish Scholars,” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children:  Christology and Community in Early Judaism and Christianity:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado and Alan F. Segal, ed. David B. Capes et al. (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), 321-43, esp. 342.

[v] Larry W. Hurtado, “Paul’s Messianic Christology,” in Paul the Jew:  Rereading the Apostle As a Figure of Second Temple Judaism, ed. Gabrielle Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 107-31; republished in Larry W. Hurtado, Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion:  The Context and Character of Christological Faith, Library of Early Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 539-58.

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29 Comments
  1. john permalink

    Also, I was wondering which “prophecy” of a new Temple does Paula now think is authentic historical Jesus? I must say I am more in the Sanders camp that the over turning of the money-changers’ tables really happened. I know Paula has changed her mind on this over the years, and she is correct in saying it is very important how we imagine such an event. For example, there would have been perhaps a dozen or more such money-changer tables, like concession stands around a modern baseball stadium, when the game is on. If Jesus had simultaneously arranged a stampede of still alive sacrificial animals (like in John), to divert attention, he may have been able to slip away into the crowd without being arrested immediately. I have no doubt Jesus was against animal sacrifice, the Temple’s main business, just like Isaiah and Hosea were against it, and other prophets, and even Jesus himself was according to Matthew, when he quotes Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” sure seems like the historical Jesus’ view of animal sacrifice, to me! The idea that Jesus was not angry about the animal sacrifice goings on and other money goings on at the Temple is not supported by the facts, unless we consider Luke-Acts’ pro-Roman/Pro-Jewish collaborators gospelling a fact. After Jesus’ ministry the disciples may have set up shop near the Temple, but that says nothing of their support for the Temple either. Rather, they were probably operating an eschatological commune for widows and orphans, that just happened to adjacent to the Temple.

    • John: You can read Paula’s new book (or her earlier and fuller discussion in her book on Jesus) to consider her argument that Jesus didn’t condemn the temple as such. As for his position of blood sacrifice, coming to Jerusalem for Passover shows he was OK with it! The biblical prophets didn’t condemn blood sacrifice as such, but demanded that it had to be accompanied by the behaviour that demonstrated obedience to God. Early believers didn’t just meet in the temple, Jewish believers took part in sacrificial rituals, e.g., Paul’s sacrifices in the temple on his return to the city with the Jerusalem collection.

  2. john permalink

    What I have always found agreeable about Paula’s guess work is her notion that Jesus was known to both the Roman authorities and their Jewish collaborators, for perhaps up to three years before his arrest, as John says. Do you remember from reading if she has anything new to say about that “fox”, (or “skunk” is perhaps more appropriate, because Jews of Jesus’ day thought of foxes as stinky rather than sly), Herod Antipas? Or did she give any take on the historicity of “Joanna” as a supporter of Jesus, “wife of Chuza, Herod Antipas’ steward”? Luke’s picture certainly supports John. Jesus does not simply appear as an unknown agitator upsetting the tables of the money-changers, like he does in Mark.

  3. Dr Hurtado,

    I have enjoyed the works of both you and Paula Fredriksen and I hope you are recovering well from your recent illness.

    May I ask, do you agree with the view that the Gospel of John is in some respects a more accurate historical record of Jesus than the synoptic gospels e.g. that Jesus was a fairly frequent visitor to Jerusalem.
    And if so, why did he suffer crucifixion on this occasion. Did he encourage the belief that this was the time of the arrival of the Kingdom of God or did the Passover crowds just get carried away in this particular year? Or can we only speculate?

    • I agree that it is more likely that Jesus visited Jerusalem for festal events more than once. There are other details as well in GJohn that deserve to be taken seriously, even if the larger work is heavily reflective of “post-Easter” faith and experience.

  4. I’m impressed with your review of Paula Fredriksen’s book and have ordered it. The Jewish background of Jesus has always interested me and the contemporary Church tends to skate over the full implications. A book by Michael Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, challenges me. The introduction by R. Kendall Soulen is very profound. I shall be interested to see how Paula’s book parallels Wyschogrod’s thinking.

  5. Dr. Hurtado: Just double checking — you believe that Paul was flat out wrong about the second coming of Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, correct?

    • In so far as Paul appears to expect to be around for it, he was obviously wrong.

      • raduzj permalink

        How do we overcome this problem? Dies it invalidate St Paul’s theology?

      • That’s a theological issue. But in principle one could say that Paul was wrong about his hopes and expectation as to the time of Jesus’ parousia; but that wouldn’t invalidate his basic theology about God, Jesus, redemption, etc.

  6. Paula writes well. And she has a full and deep and personal comittment to, and talent for, emphasizing ties between Judaism and Christianity; Paula having married a Jewish professor years ago, and having taught (with him?) in Israel.

    But is she right in, say, minimizing signs of conflict between Christianity and say, the Jewish temple? It may not have been just the crowds of followers that ran afowl of Judaism. Jesus himself after all, was an out-of-towner, from Galilee, etc.. And perhaps he was not fully acclimated to specifically, definitive, Jerusalem Judaism.

    Galilee may have had especially, inadvertent Samaritan influences?

    • First, your use of “Christianity” may reflect an anachronism: Earliest believers were Jewish, and didn’t see themselves as occupying a new and different religion. That’s why the earliest Jesus-community relocated to Jerusalem, and visited the Temple. As for Galilee, repeated studies of the archaeological and literary evidence indicate a firm connection in religious outlook and practice with Jerusalem. E.g., the ritual washing facilities in Galilee, the use of stone vessels, et alia. Samaritans were something else, not Galileans!!

      • Thanks. Though this leaves me wondering where the differences came from, that caused the priests’ condemnation of Jesus. If Jesus’ teaching wholly consistent with the Temple priest theology.

        It seems to me there was clearly some fatal difference. And I’m looking for something more extensive than common differences of opinion among Jews.

        Possibly stemming from some subcultural conflicts?

        Specifically, say, the Jesus of the New Testsament seems less literal about the meaning of a “temple.” Were there other Jewish groups or individuals who favored non literal readings? Maybe Philo?

      • You’re way off. The charge against Jesus, and the nature of the execution by crucifixion confirms it, was that he was a messianic claimant, which = sedition against Rome. The temple authorities were responsible for maintaining order and obedience to Rome. Jesus excited messianic hopes among some crowds of followers, and this led the authorities to seize and hand him over to Pilate.

      • Jewish priests deferring to Romans would mean a kind of Greco Roman influence on practical Judaism before Jesus.

        But it is suggested by Paula, there was no such influence on Jesus himself? Though Jesus said he never saw as much faith in any Jew, as he saw in a Roman Centurion.

      • Look. First of all if you want to discuss Fredriksen’s book, then read it first. Second, the role of the Temple leadership in maintaining order has little to do with cultural/religious influence of Rome on Judaism. You need to immerse yourself in the sources and stop opinionating from some abstract position. OK? W’ere done.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Thank you Larry; but might there not be an additional reason for the earliest Jesus-community to relocate to Jerusalem and gather around the Temple; which would be that they expected that to be the place where Jesus’s promised return would be proclaimed? Unpacking Paul’s expectations in 1 Thessalonians 4, he does seem to expect Christ’s coming down from heaven to be located on earth (although he does not specify where); the ingathering of those believers not at that location to happen as a second stage.

  7. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Does Paula Fredriksen say explicitly what she believes was the Christology of the early Jesus community? Does she support an angel Christology in Paul for example, as Bart Ehrman does in a recent book?

    • Donald, She emphasizes the view that for earliest believes Jesus was Messiah. No angel christology for her (rightfully)!

  8. Does Paula Fredrickson believe the resurrection was a real historical event, real in the sense that Columbus “discovered” the new world…? Some of her early books make me wonder about this… I have not read her recent books, but I have read yours, or most of them, and with great benefit. Thanks!

    • Doug, No, she would say that Jesus’ resurrection was a firm belief of earliest Jesus-movement, but doesn’t herself express a view on it. I rather doubt that she thinks it a “real historical event”.

  9. Thank you for the thorough review! Just a question: when you write that you are “dissenting from her view that Paul the Pharisee “persecuted” Jewish believers”, did you mean “christian” believers? Thank you

    • Lorenzo: “Jewish believers” = Jews who believed in Jesus. They didn’t call themselves “Christians” yet. And Saul the Pharisee took action against those fellow Jews, not non-Jewish “Christians”.

      • Thank you for reply, my bad. In my comment I intentionally wrote “christian” in quotes cause I’m aware of the anachronism. But is there any way to know if Paul was actually persecuting “Jewish” believers vs. “greek/hellenist” circles/church of early believers? (i.e. Stephen)?

      • But Lorenzo, the “Hellenists” of Acts, such as Stephen, were Jews, simply Jews from the diaspora.

  10. Thank you for this, Larry.

    I share your appreciation for Fredriksen and her work both on Paul and on the early Jesus movement. Despite the fact that I have not yet finished the book, I have read at least a dozen of her essays where these ideas were developed – at least in an introductory way.

    My question is to find if there isn’t a mediating position between Paul within (apocalyptic) Judaism and Paul’s religious experience. For example, 2 Cor. 5:14 I think legitimately describes a true experience for Paul of the love of Christ by the Holy Spirit. Yet, his experience seems informed by this eschatological conviction (See 2 Cor. 5:1-9 on his certainty of the coming resurrection of the dead, and 2 Cor. 5:10-11 on his motivation to ‘compel men’ being the coming day of judgment).

    Philippians 3 seems to frame his religious experience within this same eschatological backdrop. Paul’s desire to have the ‘knowledge of Christ’ and to be ‘found in him’ is anchored to the final clause, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Php 3:10–11). Here, Paul seems to interpret his own religious experience in terms of his eschatological convictions.

    I think you are right that these things are under-addressed. Yet, perhaps seeing Paul outside of the over-realized eschatology of later Christian tradition might better prepare us to address them more in-line with his actual experience of them. What do you think?

    Lastly, I have followed some of your posts regarding your health and I am glad to see that you feel up to posting now and again. I pray things are going well with treatment/recovery.

    Blessings

    • Bill, I certainly agree that eschatological convictions were central in framing early believers’ outlook. And the loss (in the Eusebian stance of post-Constantine Christianity) of the “eschatological proviso” has had a bad effect on Christianity, which tended to assume that the church and the kingdom of God were one and the same!

  11. Thanks for this great review. Paula Fredriksen is my favorite scholar. Always rock solid in research and objectivity. This book is a timely addition to my Christmas list.

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