In a New Book on the Early Church, a Prominent Scholar Disavows Anti-Jewishness in All Its Forms

July 10, 2019 | Brad East
About the author:

In her recent book, When Christians Were Jews, the distinguished historian of ancient Christianity Paula Fredriksen examines the church’s formative decades between Jesus’ death around the year 30 CE and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70. Her focus is on how what was originally a Jewish sect adjusted to its growing number of Gentile adherents. Reviewing this book along with Fredriksen’s 2017 work on the apostle Paul, Brad East writes:

The most salutary aspect of Fredriksen’s scholarship, across the whole of her career, is her disavowal of anti-Jewishness in all its forms. The phenomenon is endemic in scholarship of the Bible because it is endemic in Christian history and theology. And it is nowhere more prevalent than in interpretation of Paul. So here is the . . . most controversial contribution of her books: Paul’s identity—before and after encountering the risen Jesus—as a Torah-observant Jew.

Common Christian teaching on this point says something like the following. The coming of Jesus is the end of the Law of Moses. The Law was once the means of knowing and obeying God’s will, and thus of shaping the life of God’s chosen people. But now God’s people is the church, not Israel, defined by faith in Jesus, which is available to all humanity. . . . If any ethnic Jews . . . come to [that] faith, then they should cease Torah observance, for otherwise they would be continuing in the old way of things. The result: a new people of God, shorn of theologically relevant ethnic distinctions, universal in every way, a “new humanity” of Jews and Gentiles indistinguishable one from the other.

More than any other author in the New Testament, Paul is claimed as proponent and progenitor of this view, [known as “supersessionism”]. Fredriksen begs to differ: . . . Paul is always or nearly always writing to primarily or entirely Gentile congregations; whatever he counsels about the Torah concerns the Torah in relation to Gentile believers in Jesus.

[M]any forms of Pauline supersessionism rely on, trade on, or positively perpetuate anti-Jewish beliefs. . . . In modified form it becomes the suggestion that the Jews failed their God, or neglected to accept their messiah (or, with sole and lasting culpability, murdered him), and God rejected them in favor of the Gentiles. . . . If you have ever heard or read someone refer to “the God of the Old Testament”—never an approbative epithet — you’re in the ballpark. . . . One [thus] comes to see the impetus for Fredriksen’s ceaseless reminders of Jesus’ and Paul’s Jewishness. Gentiles are apt to forget. Gentile Christians are sometimes eager to do so. But remembering, as Fredriksen well knows, makes for good history and even better theology. For jogging our collective memory, and with such erudition and elegant prose, we are all in her debt.

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