A New Look at the Jewish Origins of Christianity

A leading scholar of Christianity in its earliest form, Paula Fredriksen has written much about the Jewish context of Jesus’ original followers and about ancient Christians’ attitudes toward Jews. In her most recent book, When Jews Were Christians, she presents a history and analysis of Christianity when it was still a sect of Judaism. Larry Hurtado writes in his review:

[O]ne of the acute observations in the book is how noteworthy it is that Jesus’ followers relocated to Jerusalem from the Galilee in the aftermath of their experiences of the risen Jesus. Fredriksen rightly contends that this reflects their belief that the events of eschatological salvation would all unfurl from Jerusalem, Zion, the “holy mountain.” But she doesn’t seem to recognize also that this Jerusalem focus likely reflects the belief that Jesus had been designated as the royal-Davidic messiah. That is, establishing themselves in Jerusalem was another expression of this messianic . . . claim, which did not develop over time, but was prominent from the outset. As those who constituted the messianic community, where else should they locate than the Davidic city? Their relocation also represented, in short, their messianic claim upon Jerusalem [itself]! . . .

[After Jesus’ death], biblical interpretation led believers to “refine” (or reformulate) ideas about the “messiah” and the ways that Jesus fulfilled that role. So, for example, there was the novel idea that the messiah was to undergo a violent death and then come again in glory. [Along with this, Fredriksen identifies] another novel idea: the early believers felt themselves obliged to continue Jesus’ mission “to prepare Israel” for the coming Kingdom of God. Then, through various circumstances, this mission expanded to include Jews in the wider diaspora and then even Gentiles. . . .

This inclusion of Gentiles, however, she posits, was initially “unintended” and came about as a consequence of the mission to the Jewish diaspora. For in diaspora synagogues, there were also pagans, [known as] “God-fearers,” who were attracted to the Jewish deity and to some Jewish practices, such as Sabbath observance. . . . She contends that, unlike the more [permissive] common Jewish attitude toward such pagans, the early Jesus movement required them to desist from worship of their ancestral deities. Thereby, these Gentile converts were no longer pagans, and no longer God-fearers, and not proselytes to Judaism either, but, instead, “eschatological Gentiles” treated as the fulfillment of the scriptural oracles about the nations abandoning their idols and coming to embrace the God of Israel.

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More about: ancient Judaism, Christianity, History & Ideas, Jewish-Christian relations, Messianism

A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy