In recent years a lot of scholarly effort has been given to questions about early Christian “identity,” how early and in what ways early believers in Jesus saw themselves and acted as distinct groups with their own identity. Major research projects continue to be devoted to this sort of question (e.g., the project on Prayer and Early Christian Identity, based in Oslo, with which I’m connected currently).
Paul Trebilco has now published an important study relevant to these questions: Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). His new book comprises a further significant contribution to the study of earliest Christianity. Drawing on observations about how groups develop their own “social dialects” (“in-group” terms and expressions), he focuses on the key terms evidenced in NT writings that appear to have been used to refer to early Jesus-believers, each term given a chapter-length analysis.
“Trebilco on Early Christian Self-designations”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog
This sounds like a fabulous book but even the Kindle version costs over $63.00, so it’s deffo out of my price range. Hurtado is of the belief that Jesus was worshipped as God very early historically so he’s going to likely come down on the side of an early distinctiveness of identity of Christians as apart from Judaism, probably very soon after the ascension of Christ.
This is an important topic for me since in my readings, I regularly find that the early “Jewish Christians” continued to self-identify as Jews and understood “the Way” as a Jewish branch among the other “Judaisms” of their day.
When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Torah (emph. mine).
–Acts 21:20 (NRSV)
I deliberately rendered the world “law” as it appears in the NRSV as “Torah” to communicate more how James and the elders in the apostolic council in Jerusalem would have understood the vital concept. There were thousands of Jewish believers in Moshiach who were all zealous for the Torah.
Sounds pretty Jewish to me.
Going back to Hurtado’s blog post, he praises Trebilco, referring to him as “a proven scholar in the field” and citing his earlier, important works.
These terms = “the brothers” (αδελφοι), “the believers”, “the saints” (οι αγιοι), ”the church” (η εκκλησια), “disciples” (μαθηται), “the way” (η οδος), and “Christian” (Χριστιανος). Among his conclusions, he contends that “εκκλησια” originated among “Jewish Christian Hellenists” (“most likely in Jerusalem,” p. 301), but he further argues that this does not mean that they no longer considered themselves also part of the larger Jewish community. He judges the term “Christian” to have originated among outsiders/observers of early Jesus-believers, thereafter appropriated by believers, especially in the later period of persecutions.
As to the larger question about when and how believers saw themselves as a distinct group, Trebilco contends (rightly in my view) that the use of these terms indicates that “they were creating and shaping their identity” already before the time of our earliest texts. This means easily within the first couple of decades after Jesus’ execution. (I’d say likely within the first few months.) Trebilco again: “…these designations also involve the claim of a distinctive identity . . .” (p. 308), “have clear boundary-marking roles,” and “distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (309).
What can we make of this? First, that the Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah continued to consider themselves Jews participating in a normative Judaism in their day. However, as “Messianics,” they also understood that their identity was unique and that they were, in some sense, distinct from their Jewish brothers who adhered to other streams of Judaism, because ultimately salvation and the realization of Israel’s redemption and restoration only comes through Messiah.
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.
–Romans 9:2-3 (NRSV)
In stating this, Paul is saying that Jews outside the framework of “the Way” are also outside of salvation, and the anguish at this thought drives Paul to declare he would be willing to be accursed by God and cut off from Messiah if only it would save the Jewish people who do not know Messiah.
But it also continues to establish that the identity of a first century Jewish disciple of Messiah is as a Jew operating within a Jewish religious framework. This is opposed to Paul assuming a non-Jewish identity in a non-Jewish religious movement as many modern Christians currently believe. Being a “Messianic” (Christian) for a Jew was then both an exercise in normative Jewish religious worship and a unique Jewish identity because of adherence to Messiah, the living embodiment of Torah, Israel, and God’s gracious redemption.
The limits of Hurtado’s blog post allows for a minimal exploration of Gentile identity but that’s not my main point at the moment (though I do touch in it below). My primary point is to affirm for my Gentile Christian brothers and sisters, as well as any Jewish readers, that the historic worship of Jesus by Jews is not an aberration within Judaism or an abandonment of Judaism and the Torah. It was and is the highest expression of devotion to God both within the first century context and within what some have called modern “Bilateral Ecclesiology” Messianic Judaism.
It’s important to note though, that at least one Jewish scholar has a different idea as Hurtado points out:
I mean no criticism in saying that this all seems rather obvious to me, but in view of the nature of recent scholarly discussion (e.g., Boyarin’s claim that we don’t have “Christianity” as such before the fourth century CE), I’m very grateful to Trebilco for this fine evidence-based study, which will further confirm his status as a noteworthy figure in NT/Christian Origins.
Without reading “Boyarin’s claim” in full, I have no context upon which to comment, but I would have to guess that Boyarin may be stating that the “Jewishness” of Christianity extended much further forward into history than Hurtado or Trebilco believe. If, based on Trebilco’s book, Hurtado believes that the Christian identity replaced the Jewish identity of Jews in “the Way” in the first century forward, then I’m going to have to strenuously disagree. As long as Jews participated in the worship of Yeshua as Messiah, I can’t see them self-identifying as anything other than Jewish, and certainly I don’t believe they would ever abandon the Torah and a Jewish identity for the sake of Messiah. I say this because it is totally contrary to the Jewish Messiah himself to request that devotion to him should require abandoning the Torah and Israel.
I will split a hair and say that Jewish identity was not imposed on the Gentiles being admitted into the Jewish “Way” (see Acts 15:22-35, Acts 21:25), thus the Gentile “Christians” would have established an identity that, while initially contained within a Jewish religious framework, made them distinct not only from their Jewish mentors relative to Torah-observance, but also distinct from the pagan people and religions in their world.
In addition, we’ve already seen Hurtado quote Trebilco as saying:
“distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (emph. mine)
I’m going to argue, based on the above-statement, that the distinctiveness of first century “Messianic Jews” was in relation to the Gentiles in “the Way.” By definition, all Jews were distinct from all Gentiles, so it would be redundant of Trebilco to say that it was “Christian Jewish” identity that distinguished them from pagan Gentiles. It makes more sense for him to make this statement if he is defining a distinctiveness of Jewish identity within “the Way” that identified the Jewish disciples uniquely both within the context of larger Judaism and as compared to believing Gentiles.
Of course, I’d have to read Trebilco’s book to actually confirm this, but what I can gather from Hurtado’s blog post certainly suggests it.
In summary, Gentile Christian identity distinctiveness as a religious stream wholly separate from paganism would have occurred very early, probably within Paul’s lifetime. Jewish discipleship in Messiah would have continued to be Jewish in every sense and yet, would still have distinguished Jewish members of “the Way” from other Jewish streams by virtue of Messianic redemption and the promise of national restoration upon Messiah’s return.
Here then, we see a template for the modern Messianic Jewish movement, a model for how Jews today can view adherence to Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah as truly and completely Jewish, and unlike the vast majority of Christian history otherwise indicates, as a movement which does not require a Jew to abandon Jewish identity or the Torah in order to be a disciple of the Master.