How did what clearly started out as a part of Judaism become what we know today as Christianity? When did Christianity as we now know it begin?
A leading scholar on Christianity in its earliest form, Paula Fredriksen, has written much about the Jewish context of Jesus’ original disciples and about early Christian attitudes toward the Jews. In her recent book, When Christians Were Jews (Yale Univ. Press, Oct. 2018), she presents a history and analysis of Christianity when it was still a part of Judaism.
Fredriksen emphasizes the Jewishness of that first generation of Jesus-followers. She reminds readers that Jerusalem was at the heart of their Messianic faith. The disciples of Jesus left Galilee to live in Jerusalem and wait for the risen Jesus to return. Fredriksen argues that the early Jewish believers expected, as the Hebrew scriptures teach, that salvation for the world would go forth from Jerusalem and out of Zion, God’s “holy mountain.”
She contends that the disciples had a positive attitude toward the Temple in Jerusalem and challenges the idea that it was Jesus’ disturbances in the Temple that led to his arrest. “Jesus did not so much condemn the Temple as he did prophecy a new one,” Fredriksen writes.
The disciples’ faith and hopes in Jesus as the promised Messiah were rooted in their unwavering commitment to the Jewish faith. Initially, what we now consider Christianity was really just a form of Judaism, and was not Gentile-inclusive until later.
Even Paul’s avid refusal to require circumcision of Gentiles under pressure from the Jerusalem-based Judaizers was based on Old Testament prophecies that in the last days the Gentile nations would come to the God of Israel (e.g., Zechariah 8:20-23).
How did a group Jewish disciples end up inaugurating a movement that would grow into the Gentile Church? The gathering of Gentiles into the early ecclesia was “unintended”, Fredriksen suggests. It simply came about as Paul and others spread the message to the Jewish people throughout the diaspora. In synagogues throughout Asia Minor at the time, there were Gentiles know as “God-fearers” who were attracted to the God of Israel and Jewish culture, such as Sabbath observance. The early Jesus-followers required these Gentiles to cease from worshipping their ancestral deities. So the Gentiles who accepted Jesus could no longer be considered pagan Gentiles, nor were they any longer God-fearers, nor proselytes to Judaism. Instead, they were understood to be the fulfillment of scripture and the “Coming up of all nations to the Mountain of the Lord.”
The central understanding of what became the Gentile “Christian” identity was the belief that the end of the age and the Kingdom of God were at hand. Here we have a theological position that embraces both the unity and distinctiveness of Jew and Gentile. “In their own eyes, the early disciples were history’s last generation," notes Fredriksen. "It is only in history’s eyes that they would become the first generation of the church.”
Prof. Paula Fredriksen is currently serving as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.