04 February 2008

were the authors real "Jews"?

Posted by at 11:55 PM Read our previous post
On a recent post, I questioned the tenability of an apocalyptic historical Jesus. In the subsequent discussion, some topics were brought up that inspire a post of its own.

Stating the problem:
What was it about Jesus that caused these Jews (the first Christians) to wrap their sacred history around him? (Moses, Elijah, Passover, Yom Kippur, etc.)
Stated thusly, it seems a fair enough question to ask. After all, devoted Jews just don't go around claiming that someone is greater than Moses everyday. (Have you ever read Hebrews?)

But what if the question is assuming that which it has yet to demonstrate? How do we know they were fully "Jewish"?

Most folks seems content to assume, because the authors appear to be familiar with some of the liturgical symbolism of the Temple cult and with the scriptures in general, that they must have been "Jews."
But if you recall, it wasn't the "Jews" who were the rallying masses behind this new messianic movement, but the gentile converts, with whom it resonated strongest (by all accounts). And by the time most books in the New Testament were being composed, the schism was already complete.

In my reading of the material, I see it spreading like wildfire in this its hellenic variation, but, in its original Jewish setting, the community consisted of an insular group of semi-ascetic Law-observing Jews who, though they tolerated Greek god-fearers-cum-"christians" being around, did not hold to the missionary standard that these hellenists held to and probably wished (a hunch) the hellenists would stop messing with their traditions. The initial Jerusalem Nazarenes, headed by Jacob, were in fact indistinguishable from their Jewish neighbors because they WERE fellow Jews for all intents and purposes. Being Jews, they weren't prone to proselytize and therefore did not "spread like wildfire" like the gentile school, but rather stayed in Jerusalem and simply continued to be Jews who upheld the memory and teachings of their "guru", Jesus, and were allowed to, just as those who kept the memory of Rabbi Hillel or of Rabbi Gamaliel or of Rabbi Akiba were allowed to commemorate their respective teachings and legacies. But these sages were never elevated to the point of surpassing even Moses in importance, even to the point of deification like Jesus eventually was.

The book we know as the Gospel of Matthew's obvious lifting of the Mosaic parallels and pentaform structure is fascinating in light of this.

Still the above question looms.

What could have made Jews proclaim Jesus exalted above all names, even that of Moses?

I find it hard to believe that an "orthodox" Jew would make that leap. Ask yourself what it would take for a Muslim to elevate some newcomer to a position higher than that occupied by Mohammed in that worldview? What would it take for a Christian to supplant Jesus with some modern supposed Second Coming (though, notably, over the centuries, there has been no lack of contenders for that particular title, I know—e.g. Montanus, Haile Selassie, Hong Xiuquan, Charles Manson - jk :P )?

But . . . . if you'll allow me an anachronism here . . . .
A Jew-for-Jesus could have easily made such a theological blunder.

That's what all of this has me thinking of.
Follow me here . . .
It seems plausible to me that it (GMatt et. al.) could have been written by a community of hellenist initiates into the Pauline mysteries who were resentful of having been kicked out of the Temple for their irreconcilable (downright heretical from a Jewish perspective) views (the dating of this severance - that is, of the expulsion from fellowship of those who held to these mysteries - Jamnia, circa 83–90 C.E., sounds just about right when Mathew came to into being (by current consensus, it is right in the strike zone).

I bring up the contemporary Jews-for-Jesus movement here because they serve as a good modern example of a devotional community that has co-opted the traditions (though only superficially) of another pre-existing group to the extent that they view THEMSELVES as the true advocates of the tradition.

We admit that there's something very "non-Jewish" about proclaiming Jesus as the Übermoses. A Pharisee would have been really annoyed by this teaching.

Of course, one could just accept that miracles did happen and that they vouchsafe the messianic claims. But, instead of thinking of the early kerygma's allure as simply resulting from reports of miracles and apocalyptic preaching (history must prefer confessions of ignorance to invocations of the supernatural, or necessarily fall outside of the scientific paradigm—and besides, miracle workers were a dime a dozen in those days) it seems more plausible (at least probable) to me that it might perhaps not "sound" Jewish simply because it ISN'T Jewish.

Yes, there is some genuine knowledge of Judaic forms and symbols reflected in Matthew. These, however could have been simply a result of the close contact these proselytes had had for half a century with the Jewish host tradition. These symbols were co-opted by these outcasts who then proclaimed themselves to be the true, newly-fulfilled Judaism (having bought into the Pauline mysteries necessitated borrowing Abram's Bossom for it to work, after all), yet very quickly (amazingly quick in fact) these symbols were grossly misinterpreted by subsequent initiates. I have had several discourses with Jew-for-Jesus missionaries in which I noticed that the symbolism is not only co-opted, it is sometimes misrepresented.

I have been thinking it out for some time and this might explain why the texts utilize elements of Jewish symbolism and metaphor and borrowed forms while at the same time audaciously ascribing divinity to a mortal man. It is no wonder to me that these people got kicked out of the synagogues for their views.

Thanks to the theological ruminations and innovations of Paul and those who influenced him (wouldn't it be so lovely to have something from Apollos or from Barnabas or from Thecla?), this salvation was now not only available to all, but its implications essentially rendered the Judaism which inspired it more or less obsolete.

To those who would insist on the genuine Jewishness of the authors, just one question for now:
Why would the early church not latch on to the initial reference to the scapegoat motif of Yom Kippur and instead choose a literal interpretation of the Barrabas episode? How Jewish were these people, that they so quickly and completely forgot their inherited iconography?

Still, the textual evidence that the authors had deep knowledge of Judasim seems to testifiy to their "Jewishness". No?
Well, not necessarily.

Take my next example (just so Jew-for-Jesus won't be the only folks offended by this humble post . . . :)

The Mormons, in their sacred writings, display a profound understanding of Christianity. No? They freely borrowed the phrasing and symbolism of that religion which they claim to be a splinter of. Indeed, they felt entitled to do this as the true inheritors (by their own self-definition) of the gospel.

Can one deny that a deep familiarity and even understanding of Christianity is evident in their texts?
Oh, yeah . . . except for that bit about Jesus appearing in North America during his three days missing from Jerusalem after his crucifixion, while he was dead (the orthodox church line says he went to hell - the Mormons must think that North America must be hell, then, by logical reasoning . . . o_Ó . . .). Oh . . . and that little bit about how he was actually a brother of Lucifer . . . . Oh . . . and that little thing about men earning their godhood (and a planet of their own to boot) through piety and righteousness in this life. These digressions are blasphemous to most orthodox Christian traditions.

Are Mormons Christian? Well . . . their texts reflect a deep understanding and dependence on the New Testament, so . . . surely . . . . they MUST be Christians. No?

But I'm not gonna argue whether I think Mormons are Chritians (I think they're not— in the same way that Christians are not Jews—which is not to say I object to their existence—I wanna be careful to not be painted into an anti-Mormon corner) . . . Regardless, they co-opted the sacred texts of the religion which they splintered from and added their own teaching which misinterpreted those texts they co-opted. This paralells the early Christian situation (to my eyes) and I think this might be the kind of thing that happened when hellenist converts persuaded themselves that they were the "New Jerusalem".

As you can tell . . . I see a problem with taking for granted the Jewishness of the New Testament authors just because they utilize Jewish themes and symbols despite their idolatrous (from a Jewish perspective) exultation of Jesus.

To hold that those bits that are un-Jewish were adopted because the orthodox community was convinced that God had stepped into history to raise Jesus . . . requires an enormous leap. It needs a supernatural intervention for it to work. My model at least attempts to explain the un-Jewishness of the texts in a way that leaves the supernatural out of it (Yes, I am an unashamed naturalist).

The greek precursor of the concept we now call Ockam's razor was the "think horses" axion. In ancient greece, medical students were exhorted to think horses - not zebras - when they heard the sound of hoofbeats coming (my point here being that invoking the supernatural is like thinking zebras).

Again I must insist that most Jews rejected the claim of his followers that he was the Messiah, and, except for the small group led by Jacob in Jerusalem, who were pretty much left alone (and even respected). To keep insisting that the early spreading Christianity was comprised of mostly genuine Jews who only blasphemed against their god because miracles compelled them to is to beg a lot of questions, in my opinion.

Anyway . . . I'm gonna chew on this for a while.



  1. Anonymous8:03 AM


    Cool discussion, I haven't the time to digest the whole thing because I have some meetings in Manhattan today, but I'll respond more later.

    Just one quick observation, though, I think the idea that Jesus was transformed into a movement by Gentiles is dubious. His brother James was appointed head of the movement and it was based in Jersusalem for 30 years. James was a well-respected Jew whose murder was protested by Jews.

    Paul was a Jew. The issue of whether Gentile converts needed to abide by the Torah is an indication that Jews were driving the bus.


  2. Anonymous8:32 PM

    Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

    Please check out this radically different understanding of the origins of the Paul created cult which is called Christianity.


  3. Paul:
    Since no comments are forthcoming . . .
    James was "appointed" to what position by whom?

    From Josephus we are only justified in surmising that James remained a pious Jew. Once again, the easy relagation of James to "leader of the movement" position that we inherited from our enculturization comes only "after the fact" of being familiar with the stories contained in the book of Acts regarding James approving the dismissal of Torah among the new gentile Messianists and other early goings on (and even Acts say very little indeed about James' role, mind you).

    But any assertion that James "led the movement for 30 years" is a theological or otherwise a poorly-thought-out one. Though taken for granted, it is simply textually unsupported.

    "Paul was a Jew. The issue of whether Gentile converts needed to abide by the Torah is an indication that Jews were driving the bus."
    No . . . it is indicative that it was initially a Jewish movement which was co-opted early on. The insistence on the observation of Torah would have been an unnecessary exhortation to pious Jews. It merely reflects that they were resentful of the gentile indifference for the law.

    Obviously, I do not place the high value in Acts as a historical document that is common in NT study circles, which is to say that I think Jerusalem was only important to the early gentile converts because they needed some kind of historical grounding for their adopted Messiah.

    Mr anonymous:

    Thanks for the links.



  4. Anonymous8:43 AM

    Sorry I haven't had more time. It was a busy weekend with house project, a birthday party and a scout dinner.

    Anyway, there are plenty of non-Biblical accounts that -- when added to the sketchy account in Acts -- make it relatively certain that James was in charge of the Jesus movement. The unanswered question is whether he was a follower before Jesus died. Some scholars -- including Bart Ehrman -- think not because the Bible seems to indicate Jesus' family did not support his ministry. Others -- James Tabor is an example -- think that he was. Tabor proposes that James and Jesus' other three brothers were among the 12 apostles.

    As far as the point about the NT authors being Gentiles, I'm not really competent to answer that. My own opinion is that it seems unlikely, but I don't know enough to give a serious rebuttal.

    I will say that the handful of books that scholars generally believe to be written by Paul, including Galatians and Corinthians and Thessalonians, do generally exhibit an apocalptic mentality. For example, Paul talks about the Lord' second coming like a thief in the night, he gives advice on relationships in light of the imminent end of the world order (don't marry because the end is near), etc.

    The forged letters written in Paul's name tend to downplay the end of the world.

    Same with Peter -- his first letter is apocalyptic (the end is near!). Then the second letter, probably a different author, downplays that speculation (stop worrying about the end -- a day with the Lord is like a Thousand years).

    It seems to me the earliest followers were Jews expecting the end, then that morphed into something else after the Temple was destroyed. In the wake of the rebellion against Rome, the Jews became non-grata in the Roman empire and Christians at that point began to emphasize differences with Jews that led to it becoming more Gentile over time.


  5. " ... there are plenty of non-Biblical accounts that -- when added to the sketchy account in Acts -- make it relatively certain that James was in charge of the Jesus movement...

    I'd love to know what those non-Biblical accounts are. There's only Josephus' Antiquities as far as I can see (and even THAT was written nearly thirty years after Yacob's murder).

    But I'll accept, for the sake of argument, that Yacob "led" some small group of ascetic Jerusalemites in keeping the memory of Jesus alive in their midrashing and such. But, lacking any textual evidence, I insist that there is no basis to ascribe Paul's theological and christological innovations to Yacob and that the only reason we do is because we are conditioned to by our familiarity with the complete story as we inherited it—way after the fact. Josephus says he was a well-respected and particularly pious Jew who was killed in what seems like some political power-play. That's all he says.

    I know what the traditions are, I was raised on them as you were ... as Bart Ehrman was. If you recall, it was my objection to Bart's "certainty" about Jesus' apocalypticism which sparked my initial volley of thoughts. I have read a fair amount of Ehrman's work. Where I think he misses the boat most is in that he seems to confuse the usefulness of criteria such as "multiple attestation" and "embarrassment" in determining the historicity of a given story. While multiple attestation IS useful in determining what goes back earlier than what, "early" is not necessarily "authentic" (and the "earliest" we have was already forty years incubating, distilling, as it is).

    I'm afraid I've not read Tabor's work, but he IS on my reading list.

    I would recommend Robert H. Eisenman's James book, in which he posits that the Qumran descriptions of a Teacher of Righteousness are veiled references to Yacob. His theories have limitations and problems (like all do :) , but it's fascinating stuff.

    As far as the Pauline letters are concerned . . .

    two points:

    1- Any apocalypticism they may reflect has no bearing on the person of Jesus or what he might have stood for, for Paul, in those very same letters, says he never knew Jesus personally. While I realize he says he got it in a divine revelation, I am an unashamed naturalist ("a miracle on the road to Damascus happenned" seems an escape-hatch answer to me). Now, I don't know whether Paul pieced his christological constructs together along the way and what help he could have had, but (as Schweitzer and other have pointed out) just as the enterprise of looking for a historical Jesus is like looking down a well and seeing one's own reflection today, so then. Though Paul is clearly worried about the end, the parable material seems to indicate that Jesus didn't think much about it after the Baptizer's demise.

    2- It is easily demonstrable that the spread of Christianity was primarily among gentiles. This being so, and especially in light of Paul being explicitly named the "Apostle to the Gentiles" ("appointed" so by Yacob, no less, as the story goes), Judaism has nothing to do with Paul's message. He knew who his audience was. Paul was not selling Judaism in his epistles, and HIS writings are the only ones in the NT that can arguably be called "early" if you ask me (and even the seven "authentic" letters are arguably full of interpolations and accretions, but that is a matter for another post altogether). He needed to borrow Abraham's bossom for his spiel—Jesus was a Jew, after all. But the epistles aren't selling Judaism, and there seems to be indication that there was some "original" Jesus tribute-band (pardon the metaphor; I just heard Terri Gross' interview with Mark Walberg . . . laughs) that was complaining about what Paul was saying. In my opinion, to take at face value Paul's telling of the story—the only side of the story that was preserved (later added to by the author/editor of Acts, who clearly thinks Paul is a swell guy)—is historically naive.

    If we strip away the veneer of "tradition" . . . what do the texts "actually" say?

    In our focus, I come up with: "Very little about Yacob."

    Not until such later works as the Protevangelion and the Gospel of the Hebrews (preserved in Jerome) did scribes feel the need to flesh out this brother of the Lord in textual form. They're interesting works, but are they useful historically?

    If the answer is "no" (my vote), then again the question:
    Show me in the texts where James is a "Christian" in the Pauline christological sense.

    I'm left wondering if one day we might discover a trove of buried Ebionite or Nazarene scrolls or codexes (comparable to the Nag Hammadi collection— :D ... hey! I can always cross my fingers and dream . . . laughs). But seriously, I wonder what such a find would tell us about the progression of traditions regarding Yacob.

    anyway . . .


  6. Anonymous2:11 PM

    This is an interesting book that gets into a lot of historical references to James: "The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity" by Jeffrey J. Bütz.

    I actually got into the apocalyptic frame through the writings of Anthony Buzzard, professor at Atlanta Bible College. One of his books was "Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted WOund." Obviously an anti-Trinitarian argument.

    At the time I still believed more conventionally in the Bible being true (although I've always been liberal in the sense that I have an open mind and hate fundamentalism). The idea of the "Christadelphian" belief is that Jesus taught the coming of the Kingdom of God, a literal earthly kingdom. People do not have immortal souls, but Christians will be resurrected from an unconscious death at the second coming (living ones will stay alive).

    Anyway, it is to me a persuasive argument about what Jesus taught based on the texts and the history. Thew rub is that Buzzard believes that the resurrection is still to come. Jesus was right, just the timing is off. I tried that out for a bit, but it really doesn't make a lot of sense in the end. That's why I like more secular apocalyptic scholars such as Ehrman and Tabor.

    I did wrote some articles for Buzzard's newsletter in recent years that can be found at "".

    Who is Yacob? James?

    Eisenman is provacative, but articles of his I have read seem to leap kind of far. His recent attack on April DeConick in Huffington Post was a bit bizarre.
    I think the scrolls were written pre-Jesus movement, so his interpretation is a bit off. I don't think he has many scholars agreeing with him on that.

    Too bad you don't live on the east coast, it would be better to discuss this over a drink.


  7. Yes, Yacob is James. I can use "James" too for the sake of ease of communication, if you like, but it has always seemed a curiosity to me how the name was transformed beyond recognition, so I usually say Yacob.

    Yeah Eisenman is a bit out there, and I don't buy into his main thesis, but that's never stopped me from reading a book before (I can even make my way through NT Wright's stodgy prose! - laughs) and dang if Eisenman doesn't know those scrolls backwards and forwards. It's uncanny.

    I'll give that website a look.



  8. Remembered you had written about this stuff, found this article and thought you might be interested:“hey-get-away-from-my-bible“-christian-appropriation-of-a-jewish-bible/

    As a former Christian, I don't come to the same conclusions, but as a former Christian with Jewish roots find it interesting. I've been part of traditional Seders, both secular, orthodox, reformed, and messianic. Actually put together and led a few as a Christian.

    "Obviously, I do not place the high value in Acts as a historical document that is common in NT study circles, which is to say that I think Jerusalem was only important to the early gentile converts because they needed some kind of historical grounding for their adopted Messiah."

    Yes, excellent, me too.


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