The Illusion of the Unified Body of Messiah

In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results. The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity. For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.

Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan. Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
discussing the presentation of his paper,
Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62
on his blog post “Interactive Diversity SBL Session”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I suppose it would be naive to consider that there was a single, uniform expression of Christianity in the mid-to-late first century CE. As Dr. Hurtado points out, both on this blog and in his paper, there are multiple different theories to describe these varying expressions including the “trajectories model.”

However, in his paper, Dr. Hurtado suggests a different viewpoint he calls “Interactive-Diversity”.

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.

I should note that regardless of believers being Jewish or Gentile, Dr. Hurtado refers to them as Christians.

In this first example, the diversity is linguistic and between Greek speaking and Aramaoic speaking Jewish disciples of Rav Yeshua (Jesus), as well as distinguishing them from the Greek speaking Gentiles.


Moreover, remarkably early there was also a trans-local diversity. In Acts we have reports of the young Christian movement quickly spreading from Jerusalem and 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.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

There was, as we might expect, also diversity among the Gentiles based on “trans-local diversity,” or distinctions of geography, nationality, ethnicity, and custom.

All this seems to suggest that there were different interpretive traditions of not only the Jewish scriptures (remember, at this time there was no such thing as the “New Testament”) but how these differing groups understood the letters of Paul as well.

The different attitudes toward ‘food sacrificed to idols’ (8:1-13) comprised another potentially serious difference in Corinth that may well have reflected different social groups. Likewise, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 14:1—15:6 are widely thought to address differences that likely reflect a diversity of a social or ethnic nature.

But along with the evident diversity, a well-attested ‘networking’ was another feature of early Christianity. This involved various activities, among them the sending
and exchange of texts, believers travelling for trans-local promotion of their views (as, e.g., the ‘men from James’ in Gal 2:11, or Apollos’ travels to Corinth in 1 Cor 1:12; 3:5-
9; 16:12), representatives sent for conferral with believers elsewhere (as depicted, e.g., Acts 15:1-35), or sent to express solidarity with other circles of believers (as, e.g., those accompanying the Jerusalem offering in 1 Cor 16:3-4).

For that matter, Paul wasn’t the only one establishing “churches” in the diaspora. There were others, most or all of whom were anonymous, who were also “planting” faith communities and apparently establishing differences in teaching and praxis.

However, it wasn’t because these communities were isolated from each other geographically that allowed the rise of diversity. In fact, according to Hurtado’s paper, they were quite interactive, sometimes uncomfortably so.

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 complete 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).


This is rather clearly an example of early Christian diversity of a more hostile variety! But it is also indication of the interaction that I emphasize here, with non-Pauline teachers visiting Corinth (with intent!) and Paul reacting with an uncompromising vigour.

It can result in some exchange and adaptation or in a hardening of previous positions. But my point is that early Christian diversity was often (even typically?) of a highly interactive nature.

Apostle Paul preachingDoesn’t sound terrifically different than how different Christian denominations “get along” in the 21st century CE.

You can read the full 16 page document as a PDF to get all of Dr. Hurtado’s message on this topic. My point in bringing all this out on my own blog is somewhat similar to what I pointed out in one of my reviews of the Nanos and Zetterholm volume Paul within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle.

Various articles within “Paul within Judaism” put forth the idea that Jews and Gentiles “in Christ” not only did not share a single, uniform identity and role within the faith, but that the identity and role of the Gentile within the first century Jewish movement of “the Way,” was ill defined and incomplete.

Paul and others may not have thought this was a problem if they believed that the Messiah’s return was imminent. If Messiah was coming back in a year or two, or a decade or two, he would straighten things out as he completed establishing his Kingdom.

That may also be one way to view the diversity between various diaspora congregations and their differences in interpretation, doctrine, and praxis. While it’s compelling to imagine that in the beginning of the Yeshua movement within Judaism, and as it was being exported to the diaspora Gentiles, the conditions operating within the overall movement and trickling down to specific “churches” were uniform, representing a single, complete unity, perspectives such as “Interactive-Diversity” paint a much different portrait.

What we think of may never have been unified, at least not since Rav Yeshua lead his small inner circle of apostles and disciples through the Galilee or taught from Solomon’s Portico at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. His teachings wouldn’t be documented and widely disseminated for decades, and even then, they would likely have been interpreted differently by the numerous congregations and house fellowships of Jews and Gentiles in both Israel and the diaspora nations.

I remember during my early days in the Hebrew Roots movement (some fifteen years ago or more) I thought what I was experiencing in my local, little “One Law” group was something akin to what the Gentiles experienced in their congregations in the days of Paul.

I was really inexperienced and unstudied.

I’m not exactly a genius now, but as time has passed and I’ve accessed a wider variety of information sources, I’ve come to realize that we aren’t particularly certain of what was normative practice for Gentiles in Messiah while Paul was on his journeys and writing his letters. Here we see that there probably was no one normative practice, but that not only were the teachings and praxis of the different groups of Gentiles highly variable and even competitive, but that their very identities and roles as disciples of our Rav were probably indistinct and variable as well.

Granted, I’m drawing a great deal out of a few small examples, but it does possibly mean we do have one thing in common with the earliest non-Jewish followers of Yeshua. Our variability or interpretation and practice and even the competition and (sometimes) hostility between differing factions within both the Hebrew Roots and Messianic Jewish movements is normal.

Like Paul, we too may have to wait until Messiah comes so he can sort everything out.

Christian CoffeeAlmost a week ago, I had coffee with a friend, and we were discussing this topic. He believes that as the time of Messiah’s return draws near, the variability between all the denominations of Christianity, let alone those of us who, at least in name, don’t call ourselves “Christians” (well, we do and don’t…long story), will begin to erode and a clearer vision and more stable platform will emerge for Messiah’s disciples.

I disagree.

In fact, I think the opposite will happen. I think we’ll all become increasingly fragmented and confused. Sure, there will be a remnant that will maintain a stable perception of God, Messiah, Israel, and the Bible consistent with God’s redemptive plan for His Jewish nation, and through them, the people of the nations, but a lot of “nutsiness” will emerge and thrive as well.

I even think there will be scores of churches that will reject the resurrected Messiah and ascended King because he’s too Jewish, because he rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem, because he rules from Jerusalem instead of Heaven, and because the “raptured” will join him in Jerusalem instead of Heaven…

…and because Israel will rule the nations of the world with King Messiah instead of “the Church”.

I’m not saying we should just sit on our laurels and wait around for Messiah to come back. I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to study the scriptures, to teach, to go to teachings, to seek out greater truth, to improve our walk, or any of that.

I’m saying it’s expected if we don’t know everything right now. It’s normal not to get everything right. We should accept that, when Messiah does come and when he teaches, that he will point out where we made mistakes, even as we were (and are) sincerely seeking him and searching out the face of God.

Fortunately, Hashem is patient. He understands us, even though we don’t always understand Him or what He’s trying to tell us. We may have the Spirit of God, but that doesn’t mean we always listen to the Spirit either, no matter how much we think we want to.

We aren’t one candle, but many, yet all burning for our God.

8 thoughts on “The Illusion of the Unified Body of Messiah”

  1. Hey James, another beautiful article. Do you think there would be a theology school that would be more furnished with Judaism-slanted theology and teachings of the sages? I mean, I assume there could be already, however, based on my assumption when I’ve met with the students from theology schools, most of them pretty grunt about theology school not really meeting their expectation and longing. I mean, setting the entire curriculum with church history, the past errors of the church fathers, how the Judaism and the Church got divorced, the significance of Israel, and so many others so as to educate the uninitiated so that the would-be pastors and reverends would be more attached to land of Israel, Jews and so forth. I know that would mean we would face much objection from the mainstream churches, nevertheless, I think that would propel the believers to become more chasids. What would be the most realistic proposition to build up the theology schools to become more Jewish-friendly, sage-friendly, and so forth?

  2. It is sad that people think the 1st century was a time of kumbayah brotherly fraternity among the Jews, much less amongst those Jews following Mashiach. I think they look at the first chapters of Acts, and assume it always went on that way as the teachings about Yeshua ran like wildfire through many disciples. Sometimes I think that the Christians Church believes that only Paul every spopke officially to anyone Gentile! However, it is even worse when you consider the Christian Church, as inherited from the Catholic Church, has mis-information built into it’s history about what both Jews and ‘Christians’ did and believed.

    No religion should be run by any government, but only by G-d…which, is Yeshua, as G-d’s appointed and anointed representative as opposed to man’s appointments. Most Church Denominations agree to that at the moment, but keep forgetting what Yeshua told John in Revelation…that the world would be run with an iron fist during the Kingdom, not just by Yeshua, but by Yeshua’s representatives among the Incorrupt in ruling the nations of the earth.

    Revelation 2:24-28 (CJB)
    24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, to those who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some people call the ‘deep things’ of the Adversary, I say this: I am not loading you up with another burden;
    25 only hold fast to what you have until I come.
    26 To him who wins the victory and does what I want until the goal is reached, I will give him authority over the nations;
    27 he will rule them with a staff of iron and dash them to pieces like pottery.

    But then, the Christian Church is scarcely aware that we will be entering a Kingdom on this earth, as opposed to floating sureally around the Throne of G-d, singing hymns all the time. They don’t seem to even realize that the laws for Government will issue from Torah, even in the Nations to a minimum of the Ten Commandments, and the Pilgrimage Feasts. I cannot see these laws at least being uniform among the Nations as well as Israel, even if those in the Nations don’t believe in any G-d at all. That means anyone who does not obey what these laws mean when applied to the current Nation’s governments will have to go by the wayside.

    I myself am looking forward to seeing a local political campaign, if permitted by Yeshua at all in the nations along somewhat democratic lines for each nation, being run on the basis of complete truth, yet with a strong imposition of guidelines on lashon hara. A polite and civil debate done honestly yet without disparaging one another would be a refreshing change.

    Even better would be Yeshua tearing up all the laws in the world, and issuing some very simple ones, and then enforcing them as Yeshua states he will…by with holding rain. Yeshua, please come soon!

  3. James,

    Good post. It would be nice to know which divergences Paul believed we should handle with conflict resolution (uniformity) and which with conflict management (variability).

  4. Agreed on the diversity of expression, but I would assert the expressions were all much more Jewish in flavor precisely because there was no alternative. Today’s Torahless expressions are the result of intentional antisemitic adulterations.

    Even within Judaism we see broad diversity. I don’t see the problem or encroachment when non-Jews want to take on a Jewish expression. It is the highest form of flattery.

  5. @sagacio23: Greetings and thank you. As far as an educational venue focused on Messiah with a more Judaic focus, you might want to try the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute:

    As I understand it, they have various programs but also interesting stand-alone classes for someone not necessarily pursuing a degree.

    @Questor: I never considered the idea of political campaigns associated with the Messianic Kingdom. I imagined King Messiah appointing local delegates and having them enact his rule in the foreign (Gentile) nations. Interesting thought.

    @Peter: That’s the $64,000 question.

    @Pete: I’d tend to agree for the reasons you state. Everything I’ve read points to the idea that Gentile Yeshua-followers could have been mistaken for Jews by the casual observer because many of their practices appeared Jewish (and of course, if a sufficient population of Yeshua-believing Jews were near, many of the Gentiles’ associates would be Jewish).

    The point of departure between me and thee of course, is that I believe the Gentiles acted “Jewishly” because it was the only model available and for the sake of table fellowship with their Jewish counterparts, not because Jewish and Gentile roles and responsibilities in Messiah were identical.

  6. Actually, I was envisioning a Delegate of Yeshua having absolute Veto powers over democratic powers permitted to local bodies, perhaps on a County or City level, allowing the inhabitants some leeway in how the laws, as interpreting the Ten Commandments play out in the nations, by taking into consideration their local customs and heritage, and local feeling.

    Just the fact that every other minute they would have a new law submitted to the Delegate of Yeshua being struck down for lack of truth, honesty, and the Yeshuan way tickles me no end!

  7. @James — I found it interesting to see this re-visitation of your essay (and Dr.Hurtado’s) of 27 June 2013. I went looking for it because I remembered responding previously to his reference to an Aramaic-speaking Jewish faction, in that I find irritating when folks read references in the Greek text to “Hebraion” and presume that it must mean “Aramaic” rather than Hebrew due to a few Aramaisms quoted in some passages, neglecting DSS evidence of common Hebrew usage in correspondence of the period and the fact that the Greek text never actually refers to the Aramaic language at all. Given the developmental history of multilingual usage among Jews in Israel, it shouldn’t be unexpected to find Aramaic touches in Hebrew of the period, much as Hebrew spoken colloquially in modern Israel is laced with Arabic words and phrases. However, one would never presume to report that Jews are generally speaking Arabic rather than Hebrew, nor would one imagine such speakers representing a diverse subcultural group among modern Rav-Yeshua disciples. It should *not* be surprising nor unexpected, nonetheless, to consider that the first-century disciples may very well have evidenced every bit as much diversity as we have seen in four decades of modern MJ development.

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