I just read a blog post written by Dr. Larry Hurtado called Early Christian Diversity as well as a brief commentary by Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski on Pirkei Avot 1:14. Interestingly enough, I think they both speak to me personally as well as to the wider body of modern Yeshua (Jesus) believers.
Part of what Rabbi Twerski wrote was:
What Hillel really meant can be better understood with a statement by the Rabbi of Kotzk, who said, “If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am and you are. But if I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not and you are not.”
William Shakespeare said the same thing with the words “To thine own self be true,” and I think that’s what I’m attempting in creating my own definition of a life of holiness (not that it’s so easy to follow such a definition).
In reading Dr. Hurtado’s blog post, I am once again reminded that what I’m going through, what we are all going through, is not new at all:
But it isn’t as though we didn’t know that before Bauer wrote. From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.
This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases…
I’ve tended to think of the differences between “early Christian” communities as being divided largely across the lines of Gentile believers and Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua, but I believe Dr. Hurtado is making finer distinctions. There may have been numerous branches of “Christianity” in the latter part of the first century and into the second that had other points of separation or distinction. In fact, there was likely no real effort to “form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement” until Eusebius or Constantine, according to Dr. Hurtado.
That makes me wonder what the Apostle Paul was up to if not attempting to create unified and uniform communities of Yeshua followers among the Gentiles (certainly Jewish praxis and community was already well established for Jewish disciples of the Rav).
Now let’s look at the Christian and Jewish religious landscapes today. There’s a wide variety of denominations and branches in both faith movements. There are thousands of separate or overlapping Christian denominations, and a number of different branches to Judaism including various subsets.
We could spend a lot of time debating who is right and who is wrong, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog post. Each early “Christianity” (I keep writing that word in quotes because until the Gentiles forcefully separated themselves from their Jewish mentors and teachers and reinterpreted the Bible as a Gentile religious document which excluded Jews, there was no such thing as “Christianity” … it was just another Jewish sect, albeit with an unusually liberal policy about admitting Gentiles) was the result of a separate understanding of the teachings of Rav Yeshua, sometimes interpreted by Paul, sometimes interpreted by other Jewish or Gentile teachers.
In modern times too, we are separate by differences in theology and doctrine, but I believe some of these separations are also the result of efforts to define identity. This is a key issue for Messianic Judaism certainly, but I believe we “Judaicly aware” non-Jewish disciples of the Rav are also worshipers in search of an identity.
Some are comfortable identifying as “Messianic Gentiles” and operating within the confines of a Messianic Jewish community (or primarily Messianic Gentile community in some cases), while others, though appreciating the Jewish perspective on the Bible, feel a need to not necessarily emulate Jewish praxis, even to a minor degree.
In a number of ways, I think that Gentile involvement in Messianic Judaism, while it works for some, can lead other non-Jews to attempt to ingrain Jewish practice and Jewish identity into themselves, either via the “one law” theology promoted in areas of the Hebrew Roots movement, or in extreme cases, by these Gentiles abandoning Yeshua altogether and converting to (usually Orthodox) Judaism.
For some of these non-Jews, there is a justification for conversion, either to the aforementioned Orthodox Judaism (or some other traditional branch) or even within certain streams of Messianic Judaism.
However, there are a plethora of Biblical prophesies stating that both Israel and the people of the nations of the world will acknowledge God and bow to the King in Messianic Days. For that to happen, there have to be some Gentiles around. We can’t all convert to Judaism.
And we can’t all practice Judaism as such. There have to be people around who are devoted to God who nonetheless are recognizably Gentile.
And there are tons of us, but we are mostly in Christian churches of one sort or another. Lots of diversity even within “the Church”. And then there are outliers like me who don’t really fit anyone’s mold, system, or structure, who are seeking an identity that fits our personalities, educations, perceptions, and circumstances.
Rabbi Twerski summed up his small missive with:
Today I shall…
…try to achieve my own identity. Whereas I will listen to the advice of those who are wiser than me, I will nonetheless never hold others responsible for what I do.
Of course, he is describing his personal identity. His identity as a Jew in Jewish community is well-defined largely by the community. Anyone who belongs to any community is, in some fashion, defined by the norms of that community.
One mistake we often make is to take offense at how an individual defines themselves relative to the Bible, Rav Yeshua, and God. In writing Isaiah 56 and the Gentile, I started a bit of a “conversation” that was the result of my self-definition spilling over onto how other non-Jews define themselves.
Really, I’m hardly in a position to tell other people who they are and how to live when I’m struggling with those very issues myself. I believe I have a self-identity that’s fairly well-formed but a life of faith remains vital only when it is constantly under scrutiny.
Dr. Hurtado wrote of an early Christianity that was highly diverse as well as interconnected, finding different local and ethnic expressions. Rabbi Twerski spoke of consulting other individuals and the community and ultimately allowing self-identity to emerge from the “self”.
Whoever we are as human beings and people of faith, in community or not, the final responsibility to grasp an understanding of who we are, who God made us to be, and how God defines our identity, remains with each of us.
No one can threaten that unless you let them.