As early as the Jerusalem church, there was linguistic diversity, as likely reflected in the Acts depiction of ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Hellenists,’ terms which probably designate respectively those Jews in the Jerusalem church whose first language was Aramaic and those whose first/primary language was Greek. Also, Paul’s deployment of the little ‘Marana tha’ formula in 1 Corinthians 16:22 is commonly taken as reflecting his acquaintance with Aramaic-speaking circles of Jewish believers, as distinguished from the Greek-speaking (gentile) congregations to whom he wrote.
Moreover, remarkably early there was also a trans-local diversity. In Acts we have reports of the young Christian movement quickly spreading from Jerusalem other sites in Jewish Palestine, to Damascus, Antioch and Samaria, and through the activities of Paul and others (often anonymous) spreading through various locations in Asia Minor, Greece, Rome and elsewhere. Though the historicity of some features of Acts has been challenged, it is commonly accepted that there was an early and rapid trans-local spread of the young Christian movement to locations such as these. It is to be expected that this remarkably rapid spread of the Christian movement would have been accompanied by diversity, Christian circles taking on something of the character of the various locales, and also the varying ethnic groups and social classes from which converts came.
from pre-publication typescript of his article Interactive Diversity (PDF), pp 7-8
As published in Journal of Theological Studies.
“Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.”
The Journal of Theological Studies 2013; doi: 10.1093/jts/flt063
I tend to think of the early Messianic (Christian) movement as having started out as a single, unified entity and then at some point, splitting into divergent trajectories. I just found out, thanks to reading the above-referenced Hurtado essay, that there is a “‘trajectories’ model of early Christian developments introduced by James Robinson and Helmut Koester.” I think it’s what many Christians think about when they consider the origin and development of our faith from the first century CE forward.
In the Abstract of his essay (pg 1), Hurtado states:
The earliest model of Christian origins appears in certain ancient church fathers, who posited an initial and unified form of Christianity from which a subsequent diversity then flowed, including alleged heretical divergences from the putatively original form.
That sounds terrifically familiar.
But it isn’t necessarily so.
As the quote from Hurtado at the top of the page states, we can expect a certain diversity between Aramaic/Hebrew and Greek speaking Jews was established from the very beginning (see Acts 6:1). Hurtado also brings out how there very well could have been “trans-local” variations in the Christian populations in the diaspora based on ethnicity and social class as well as language and nationality. However I’m interested in exploring one slice of the pie, so to speak:
On the other hand, there are also indications of far more adversarial interactions as well, and at a very early date. Paul’s letter to the Galatians will serve to illustrate this. Exegetes are agreed that this epistle reflects Paul’s exasperation over unidentified other Christians (probably Jewish) who have visited the Galatian churches calling into question the adequacy of Paul’s gospel and urging his gentile converts to compete their conversion by circumcision and a commitment to Torah-observance. Paul represents these people as proclaiming ‘a different gospel . . . confusing you and seeking to pervert the gospel of Christ’ (Gal 1:6-7), and he thunders an anathema on anyone who proclaims a gospel contrary to that which he preached (1:9).
-Hurtado, pp 10-11
This is actually a key point that my Pastor and I regularly discuss. His opinion is that Paul had been teaching both the Jewish and Gentile disciples in the Galatian area against circumcision and Torah observance, while my position is that Paul did not require circumcision and Torah observance for the Gentile believers, but they were a “given” for the Jewish disciples.
We can see a few things from Hurtado. One is that he (and other “exegetes” or textual interpreters of the Galatians scriptures) believes that certain people, which Paul identifies as “false brothers” (probably Jewish) were invading the churches in Galatia and questioning the validity of Paul’s teaching. The second point is that said-false brothers were encouraging the Gentile disciples that they had to be circumcised and take on board full observance of the Torah, and Paul refers to that teaching as a “different gospel,” one this is “contrary to the gospel of Christ.”
The specific focus upon the Gentiles by the false brothers and Paul’s response tells us that in not being circumcised (i.e. having converted to Judaism), the Gentile believers were not obligated to the full weight of Torah obligation. It also tells us by contrast, that the Jewish disciples (born Jews and those Gentiles who previously converted to Judaism) were obligated to observe the mitzvot. Paul defines this “diversity” between the Jewish and Gentile believers he’s addressing in his letter as the “gospel of Christ” and any attempt to change that relationship, Paul says is a perversion of Christ’s gospel.
(As an aside, I recently read a criticism stating that Gentile conversion to Judaism is not supported Biblically and is an extra-Biblical anomaly introduced by the later Rabbis. However, a quick reading of Acts 13:43 shows how Paul and Barnabas encountered such converts in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch [they probably found converts to Judaism in any synagogue they visited, but this is the first example I could find]. To the degree that Luke doesn’t record any displeasure or complaint by Paul at meeting with the converts in this verse, and I don’t believe we see Paul objecting to the authenticity of “righteous converts” to Judaism elsewhere in the New Testament [the exception is in Galatians, when Paul objects to Gentiles converting to Judaism specifically in order to be justified], we cannot automatically infer that either he or “the Bible” object to or invalidate such a practice.)
The diversity of Jewish and Gentile believers relative to Torah observance and related issues are points I’ve been attempting to assert, both in my personal interactions with my Pastor and here on my blog. I bring Hurtado’s work into the mix as a way of illustrating that this discussion exceeds the bounds of what we call “Messianic Judaism” or any interest in a Hebraic interpretation of the New Testament, and is of scholarly interest in the far wider arena of general Christian studies.
(I should say at this point that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Hurtado and Galatians on my blog.)
I’ve never been convinced that the Jewish and Gentile disciples ever “cemented” into a single, unified body of worship, at least not on a large scale. I believe that the “Jesus movement” was too young and was forming in too turbulent a world to allow for a widespread integration of populations. In just a tiny march of years after Paul wrote his Galatian letter, he would be arrested, testify at multiple legal hearings, eventually be transported to Rome, and ultimately be executed. Jerusalem would fall and the Temple would be razed. The Jewish people, including disciples of Jesus, would be scattered. The troubled and frail unity between the Jewish and Gentile disciples of the Master would crumble like ash in such an inflammatory environment.
The diversity of the early Jesus movement was based on a significant number of differences between varying bodies of disciples. Not all believing Jews supported Gentile entry into the way without conversion (see Acts 15:1-2 for example). Even after the halachah issued by James and the Council of Apostles (Acts 15), divisiveness continued. Many Jews said Paul could not be trusted and that he did not support and affirm the Torah of Moses for the diaspora Jews (Acts 21:21). There were even accusations that he was taking Gentiles past the Court of the Goyim into the Temple (Acts 21:28-29).
While Paul fought strenuously to keep the fragmented and unstable populations within the body of Messiah together, it was a losing battle. He even admitted that Israel would be calloused because of the Gentiles for a significant period of time (Romans 11:25), and Hurtado points to Romans 14:1-15:6 as Paul’s attempt to address the social and ethnic differences between varying groups of Jesus believers, trying to draw them alongside each other.
I know I’m painting a rather dismal picture of Jewish/Christian relations, both past and present. In his letter to Rome, Paul was writing of a temporary separation between Jewish and Gentile believers. Temporary means that one day, we will draw closer to each other again (or for the first time). I see some evidence of that today, but it’s only the beginning. I don’t doubt that Messiah will come and it will be he who finishes the work that was started so many centuries before.
But my message for today is that a certain amount of diversity between Jewish and Gentile believers is by design. The gospel taught by Paul supported Jewish continuance in Torah observance but did not require Gentiles to convert, which would have made them obligated to the Law (the implication is that Gentile disciples in the Way were not so obligated). Any teaching imposing circumcision and Torah observance on Gentile disciples was vehemently criticized and opposed by Paul.
Hurtado doesn’t attempt to predict the mechanism of how the diversity will be resolved and for the moment, neither will I. I simply write this to offer further evidence that such diversity between the Jewish and Gentile believers did exist and that it is substantiated not only within Messianic Jewish studies but within mainstream Christian scholarship as well.
Addendum: I wrote this meditation before last night’s (Wednesday, June 26th) conversation with my Pastor. I’ll blog about our discussion including how it may impact what I said above in a subsequent missive.