Tag Archives: larry hurtado

The Nangeroni Seminar on the Jewish Apostle Paul

I returned last night from a very enjoyable trip to Rome to take part in the Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew.” For more information on the Nangeroni Seminars click here. This encouraging and demanding event brought together about 35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul. The premise and the broad conclusion to which all assented is that Paul was and remained in his ministry as apostle to gentiles a Jew. He did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people. He did not demonize his ancestral religion. He did not reject the Torah (“Law”) as false. He did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape. He did not play off the particularity of his Jewishness in favour of some kind of universalism.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
“Paul: The Second-Temple Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

In case you need a quick background on who Larry Hurtado is and what his qualifications are as a New Testament scholar, you can either Google him or read his Wikipedia page.

I’ve quoted Dr. Hurtado before on my blog and always for two reasons. One is that he is a noteworthy, mainstream Christian New Testament scholar who is currently active in his research, he’s well-respected in his field, and he has published extensively both in scholarly venues and in popular reading. The second reason I refer to him is that he has what I consider to be a fascinating view of Paul’s Christology and one that many “average” Christians might find surprising.

I’ve complained in the past that the latest findings of Christian scholarly research never find their way to the pulpit of the normative Evangelical church let alone into the hands and minds of Evangelicals sitting in their pews every Sunday.

More’s the pity.

That means as Christians, we have to go looking for this information, which isn’t that hard to find. After all, Dr. Hurtado’s books are easily found at Amazon and he maintains a WordPress blog.

Nevertheless, a statement such as the one I quoted above, would almost never be heard in any American church on Sunday, either in a sermon or a Bible study class.

What we hear, or rather, what I hear in the church I attend, is somewhat similar to how men like Pastor John MacArthur view Paul relative to Judaism and Christianity. I’ve reviewed the relevant sermons given by Pastor MacArthur in a three-part series (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three) on my blog, but in short, MacArthur believes that any practice of Judaism by Paul or the other Apostles was a “transitional period” between the end of the Law (Torah) and the beginning of the Christian era of grace. That is, from God’s point of view, Judaism was expected to cease as a valid and normative worship and religious practice in devotion to God through Christ (Messiah).

The Jewish PaulAnd yet, compared to “35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul” all gathered together who agree that Paul “did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people,” nor did he “demonize his ancestral religion,” did not “reject the Torah (“Law”) as false,” and “did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape,” opinions such as the one from MacArthur and most other Evangelical Pastors seem as archaic as dinosaurs.

I don’t say this to be unkind, nor do I “resurrect” my arguments about MacArthur just because I can. I’m trying to illustrate (again) for my Christian readers and for any other Christians who possibly will find my writings by “surfing the web,” that what we’re typically taught in church about Paul (and thus about Jesus) isn’t necessarily the most accurate information we can acquire. The majority of what is taught in most churches (as far as I can tell) is based more on the traditions we’ve built around Biblical exegesis than on active and modern Biblical research.

Studying the Bible isn’t supposed to be for the purpose of endlessly regurgitating what we have already been taught for years or even decades, it’s to discover what we may not know or understand about the message of the Bible, and thus to better understand God and who we are in Christ.

Science, in its broadest possible sense, is the testing and retesting of beliefs and observations to determine if they are valid. If we test a belief, an assumption, or a theory through objective means and the test validates our belief, that’s fine and well. However, if we apply such a test to a belief and we discover it to be invalid or at least questionable, then that demands an investigation…

…doesn’t it?

My experience in church and especially in Sunday school, is that the apparent purpose of Bible study is to confirm what we already know, which provides us with doctrinal and emotional security. Cooperation and agreement of opinions are emphasized and variations in beliefs are tolerated only if those variations are slight and conform to established and accepted parameters.

Heaven help someone in Sunday school if they were to say that not only did Paul remain Jewish and devoted to the Torah of Moses, but that he saw absolutely no inconsistency between continuation of Torah observance and worship of Jesus as the Messiah within a variant of normative first century Judaism. Within the Sunday school context, that statement would at least raise a few eyebrows if not be considered an extremely radical suggestion.

And yet we have thirty-five scholars and experts in Paul and/or the late second temple period who uniformly agree on exactly that “extremely radical suggestion.”

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

But I don’t want to put words in Dr. Hurtado’s mouth. After all, he’s said that Paul did not see an inconsistency between being Jewish, practicing Judaism and the prophetic revelation of Jesus as Messiah. But does that mean, at least from Hurtado’s perspective, that Judaism should have continued to be the religious framework for Jesus-worship and will be in the coming Messianic age? After all, I’ve previously written about the rather ugly divorce that occurred between Gentile and Jewish Jesus-believers. Could the relationship between Jesus-believing Jews and Gentiles have been saved or will it be restored in the future?

I asked Dr. Hurtado the following on his blog:

Dr. Hurtado, I don’t know if you can answer this question but it’s one I need to ask. I attend a rather conservative Evangelical church. The Pastor preaches that although Paul continued to live as a Jew after his “conversion” to Christianity, the continuation of his (and the other Jewish apostles) Jewish practice was always considered by God to be a “transitionary period.” Judaism was expected to cease as a normative approach to God through Christ and be replaced by “the Church” which would “retire” Jewish practices and replace them with a “law-free” body of Jewish and Gentile believers.

If, as you say, Paul saw the worship of Messiah as a variant of Jewish practice in his day, is it reasonable to believe that he expected Jesus-worship to remain a variant Judaism that included a Gentile component not required to undergo the proselyte rite? That is, was (Gentile) Christianity always destined to replace Judaism in the worship of Christ or was/is it expected that worship and devotion to Christ was to remain a Judaism that included Gentiles?

To which he replied:

James: To engage your question involves speculation . . . about what Paul might have imagined that the future would comprise, how much of a future there would be to his present world, etc. The intense eschatological hope/expectation that seems reflected in Paul’s letters has led some scholars to judge that Paul’s vision of the “ekklesia of God” as both comprising Jewish believers (who continued to practice Torah as Jews) and non-Jewish believers was not viable over the long haul. Historical events of the first couple of centuries after Paul’s time can be invoked in justification for this judgement. But one might also ask whether the problem was an inherent problem in Paul’s vision, or whether other factors, including the Jewish war of 66-72 CE and other things (including a failure of many Christians of that time to grasp Paul’s vision) contributed to the emergence of a mainly gentile “Christianity” distinguished from a “Judaism”. For one view, I recommend a book by my friend, the late Alan F. Segal, Rebecca’s Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univesity Press, 1986).

In any case, Paul didn’t undergo a “conversion” to “Christianity.” He refers to his experience as a prophet-like “calling” (e.g., Gal. 1:13-15), and there was no “Christianity” (as a separate religion) to which he could “convert” as a Jew. We could describe the former “pagans” (gentiles) that formed his churches as “converting” from the worship of their various ancestral deities to the God of the Bible/Israel.

So, to break this down:

  • We would have to speculate about how Paul thought the future Messianic movement would develop since we cannot definitively know from his writings.
  • Some scholars judge Paul’s vision of the “ekkelsia of God” as being made up of formerly pagan Gentiles and Torah observant Jews was not a viable model and could not persist over time.
  • History seems to validate the viewpoint of scholars who did not expect the Jewish/Gentile ekkelsia to endure.
  • We don’t know if this is because there was an inherent flaw in Paul’s vision or if various factors including the Jewish revolt contributed to the outcome of a splitting off of Gentile Christianity from Judaism.

In other words, as Dr. Hurtado outlines things, we can’t really know, based on a scholarly understanding of Paul’s letters, what he expected the future to hold. We also can’t really tell if Paul’s vision of the “ekklesia of God” was flawed and thus could not endure as he attempted to construct it, or, assuming his model was fine, if history conspired to destroy Messiah-worship as a normative Jewish practice going forward in time.

beth immanuelIt’s also possible, as Hurtado states, that one of the factors was the Gentile inability to grasp Paul’s vision, although from other books and papers I’ve read, plus my own understanding of the relevant sections of the New Testament, it seems as if the other streams of Judaism in Paul’s day had an equally difficult time accepting Paul’s concept of non-proselyte Gentiles entering a Jewish social and religious space.

I did like Hurtado verifying for me that Paul indeed did not “convert to Christianity” as is preached in many churches (including the one I currently attend), and that his experience in Acts 9 and later was a “prophet-like calling” that revealed the identity of the Messiah within a wholly Jewish experience. This sent Paul on a mission to the Jews and Gentiles, not unlike how God would call upon and task the prophets of old. Paul would have “converted” to “the Way” as I suppose a Jewish person of that era would have “converted” from one branch of Judaism to another (Sadducee to Pharisee for example), although I have no idea how common that sort of thing would have been in those days (and my understanding is that “the Way” was very similar in most respects to Pharisaism apart from it’s very liberal attitude about Gentile admission and, of course, devotion to a known-Messiah).

The only real converts would be Gentiles, since they would be exiting their worship of the various pagan gods and begin worshiping the God of Israel through faith in Israel’s Messiah.

While Hurtado presented me with something of a scholarly “dead-end” in my quest to develop the idea that Judaism was the proper context for Jesus-faith and possibly that it will be again in the Messianic age (since this requires some speculation), I’ll still proceed from that speculative platform for lack of any better place to stand.

My reading of Magnus Zetterholm, Mark Nanos, and others leads me to believe that while a Gentile/Jewish schism did take place splitting Jesus-faith into two camps and ultimately extinguishing the body of Jewish Jesus-faith, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate Judaism as a context for devotion to Messiah, complete with the continuation of Torah observance in response to their covenant relationship with God.

What will the future bring? I have my own ideas about that, but I suppose in an ultimate sense, we’ll have to wait and see about the exact details of the unfolding of the Messianic Era.

Since Dr. Hurtado suggested it, I went ahead and ordered the book he referenced (see the quote above) and I look forward to reading it when it arrives.

I intended to publish this tomorrow or maybe on Sunday, but then I realized we are rapidly approaching a major (American) national holiday weekend and I can expect a significant drop off in my readership over those three days, so I’m offering this to you now as an “extra meditation”. Have a good, fun and safe Independence Day and for those of you who observe it, a Good Shabbos.

Addendum: Dr. Hurtado published another blog post today, based on his time at the Nangeroni Seminar, called Paul and Gentile Circumcision. I definitely recommend it.

Hitler’s Final Solution, the Oral Torah, and its Meaning to Christianity

These are the statutes and the judgments and the teachings (Toros- plural of Torah) that HASHEM gave between Himself and the Children of Israel at Sinai through the hand of Moshe.

Vayikra (Leviticus) 26:46

Toros: One (Torah) Written and one (Torah) Oral. This informs that both were given to Moshe at Sinai.


This is a critical and oft underappreciated nugget of information. Not one Mitzvah in the entire Torah is capable of being carried into action given only the parameters provided in the text. There are almost 30,000 details that comprise phylacteries and 5,000 in the ubiquitous mezuzah with little information to guide to their uniform completion. What’s called “killing”? When does life begin? When does it end? What one person calls “family planning” another may legitimately define as “murder!”

The Torah cries out for explanation. There must, by definition, have been a concomitant corpus of information that accompanied the giving of the laws and that is what we call the “Oral Torah”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch uses the analogy that the Written Torah is like the notes to a scientific lecture. Every jot and squiggle has significance. If properly understood it can awaken the actual lecture. The notes remain useless to someone who has not heard the lecture from the Master. Therefore in the Oral Torah is the sum of the lecture while the Written Torah is merely a shorthand record. Without an Oral Torah that book the whole world holds in such high esteem, the Bible is rendered in-actionable. It becomes a frozen document that cannot be lived. Unfortunately, so many over the ages have become lost due to a failure to appreciate this single point and its significance for our very survival as a people.

When my wife and I were engaged, at the party there was a cousin of hers that has written voluminously about the holocaust. He himself survived, somehow, seven concentration camps. One of the Rabbis encouraged him to speak. He claimed to be unprepared and not a good English speaker. He spoke amazingly well.

-Rabbi Label Lam
“Understand it Very Well” (2007)

Rabbi Lam got my attention when he wrote, ”Not one Mitzvah in the entire Torah is capable of being carried into action given only the parameters provided in the text.” Most of what I hear about the Oral Torah from Evangelical Christians is that it’s all a bunch of made up rules and cannot be considered the valid Word of God. Many in the Christian Hebrew Roots world say the same thing, believing it is possible to observe the mitzvot based on the Written Torah alone.

And yet Rabbi Lam says this is impossible.

Moses received the Torah from [G-d at] Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly. They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.

-Pirkei Avot 1:1

Talmudic RabbisOrthodox Judaism generally believes that the Oral Torah was handed down in an unbroken chain as described above. Given the history of Israel’s exiles, that seems difficult to believe.

Even the written Torah was lost for a great deal of time and when it was found (2 Kings 22:8-13), King Josiah ”tore his clothes” because ”great is the wrath of the Lord that burns against us, because our fathers have not listened to the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” If the words of the Torah had been lost even though written, how much more so can it be true that the original Oral Torah given to Moses could have been forgotten?

But that doesn’t mean Oral history didn’t accompany the written Torah in some matter or fashion across the many centuries. The Oral tradition just might not have survived intact from its earliest inception. That is, what Judaism understands to be Oral Torah now may not be entirely traceable back over three-thousand years.

I’ve repeatedly suggested that the “Jerusalem letter” we saw crafted in Acts 15 as a set of instructions for new Gentile disciples of Jesus, had to have been accompanied by oral instructions because the “four essentials” of the letter are so barren. It’s quite possible that the Didache is the documentation of the original oral instructions for the Gentile disciples, so oral information being transmitted across time to explain written instruction isn’t foreign to early Christian tradition.

Just recently, I said I thought later Christian commentary was a refactoring of the original Jewish understanding of the scriptures, and my statements were inspired by comments made by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado on his blog, including this paragraph:

But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. (emph. mine)

-Hurtado, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions

Rabbi Label Lam
Rabbi Label Lam

Put all together, we can paint a picture of an Oral set of instructions accompanying the written Torah, perhaps changing over time to respond to the differing demands and requirements of ”particular times and cultures.” If Judaism is guilty of this process, so indeed is Christianity. We just don’t talk about it.

I’m including the rest of the quote from Rabbi Lam’s article because it includes important points from history, and we ignore history at our own peril.

First he looked out at a room filled with newly observant Jews and wondered aloud, “Where do you people come from?” He then quoted the Talmudic principle, “Torah returns to those who have hosted it.” He explained, “If you are sitting here today then it’s probably because you have some great ancestors who were willing to and did give blood to keep this Torah alive.” He went on to talk about my wife’s and his illustrious family tree.

Then he said that had he known he was going to speak he would have brought with him a document he held in his hands that morning that answered a question that had been nagging him for almost four decades. “We all know Hitler’s “final solution” for European Jewry. What was his global scheme? Where was his plan to eliminate the rest of world Jewry?” He then paraphrased what he had learned from that document. Here is a printed transcript with a partial English translation:

“This document transmits a memorandum dispatched by I.A Eckhardt from the chief of the German Occupation Power. It is an order dated October 25, 1940 from das Reichssicherheitshauptamt-the central office of the German Security Forces to the Nazi district governors in occupied Poland, instructing them not to grant exit visas to Ostjuden- Jews from Eastern Europe. The reason behind this order is clearly spelled out: the fear that because of their “Othodoxen einstellung” their orthodoxy, these Ostjuden would provide “die Rabbiner und Talmudleher” – the Rabbis and the teachers of the Talmud, who would create “die geistige Erneuerung” the spiritual regeneration of the Jews in America and throughout the world.”

The Oral Torah is essential for our existence as a people. It is our most vital organ and instrument for survival. Without it we are immediately lost. It makes sense that those who plan our demise understand it very well!

Even the reprehensible Nazis understood the power of the Talmud and Rabbinic rulings and traditions to save the Jewish people, particularly in the face of certain disaster. We see here that beyond the extermination of the six million Jewish victims of the Third Reich, the Nazis had plans to prevent the rest of world Jewry from learning of the so-called “final solution,” for fear that the Jews in America wouldn’t be easy targets if prepared (assuming the Reich was victorious in conquering the world, which, Baruch Hashem, they were not).

Holocaust survivor David Faber
Holocaust survivor David Faber

Oral Torah, which was eventually recorded in writing and then adapted repeatedly as circumstances required, was responsible for Jewish survival during a two-thousand year history where the world was continually trying to destroy them. For this reason alone, we should be thankful for the Jewish adherence to Talmud, but as I’ve already stated, in many ways, Christianity in its various forms including Protestantism, has a parallel set of “oral law” upon which it relies to define Biblical application across the changing historical and cultural landscape.

I only ask that the Evangelical Church “come clean” and admit that we have our own oral traditions that were eventually written down and upon which we continue to depend to define our faith. Just don’t let our traditions diminish the Jewish people and national Israel in any sense, or we might find ourselves “on the wrong side of God.”

Did Paul Know Jesus was the Second Person in the Trinity?

First, a quote: “The Church cannot indefinitely continue to believe about Jesus what he did not know to be true about himself,” J. W. Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (London: SCM, 1945), p. 108.

This is not really a historical claim but a theological one, and it reflects a common assumption: The assumption that the theological/religious validity of claims about Jesus rest upon what Jesus believed and taught about himself. In my book, Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 5-9), I’ve noted the irony of how this assumption has been shared by critics and advocates of Christian faith, and also how it has worked mischief in the historical investigation of Christian origins.

-Dr. Larry Hurtado
“Questioning a Common Assumption,” May 13, 2014
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

Dr. Larry Hurtado has been prolifically writing on something rather compelling over the past few days. Did Jesus know he was Divine during his “earthly ministry?” Did Jesus know he was to be an object of worship?

I think most Evangelicals would assume the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes,” but here we have one of the most preeminent New Testament scholars in the world drawing that assumption into question. I think Hurtado’s comments deserve further scrutiny.

(NOTE: I should mention here that I have no intention of matching my meager brain power and limited knowledge of New Testament scholarship with Dr. Hurtado’s. I merely want to bring this issue to my readership in order to explore what he presents on his own blog and to see what responses his viewpoints elicit here.)

Looking at the evidence in the New Testament, Hurtado concludes that the “high” view of Jesus as Divine Messiah didn’t emerge until what he calls “post-Easter.”

But I’d like to make two observations. First, the earliest extant Christian texts themselves make it perfectly clear that the “high” notions about Jesus sharing in divine glory, exalted to heavenly status, worthy of worship, etc., all erupted after Jesus’ ministry, not during it, and that the crucial impetus for these notions was what earliest believers saw as God’s actions, particularly their belief that God had raised Jesus from death to heavenly glory. (See, e.g., Philippians 2:9-11; Acts 2:36).

To underscore the point, the remarkable escalation in the status/significance of Jesus to the “right hand” of God, to sharing the divine name and glory, and to the central and programmatic place he held in earliest Christian devotional practice all rested on the fundamental conviction that God has exalted him and now required that Jesus’ exalted status be recognized, and that he should be reverenced accordingly.

My second observation is this: Why should this be taken as some kind of threat to the theological legitimacy of traditional Christian faith?

-Hurtado, ibid

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

This sounds like it was only after the resurrection that it was known to anyone else including Jesus that he was indeed the Divine Son of God the Father.

I think a lot of people would find that startling, but as Hurtado says above, why should that be a threat? And yet on the aforementioned blog post and two others, many, many comments were generated, some of them rather “impassioned.”

Indeed, more explicitly than any of the other Gospels, GJohn makes it clear that the author saw and accepted a distinction between what he regarded as the level of understanding of Jesus among his followers during his earthly life and the subsequently enhanced level of understanding in the “post-Easter” period.

But my point here is that even GJohn doesn’t make the high Christological claims affirmed by the author rest simply (or even particularly) on demands and teaching of the earthly Jesus. Instead, the text fully affirms that the realization of Jesus’ glorified/glorious status came subsequently, through the revelations of the Spirit.

-Hurtado, Jesus and Christology: The Gospel of John as a Case Study, May 14, 2014

Hurtado wrote this as a follow-up to his prior missive, which continued to inspire passionate discourse, and based on those comments, he wrote a third blog post, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions on May 15th.

He breaks his response down into four points to which he comments on his blog at length:

  1. His response to his emphasis that the NT makes God’s actions (esp. in raising Jesus from death and giving him glory) the basis for the “high” Christological claims and the remarkable devotional practice in which Jesus was included with God.
  2. His position about texts such as John 1:1-2, where, of the “Logos” (here, the “pre-incarnate” identity/form of the incarnate Jesus), we read: “he was with God and he was God”.
  3. What we are supposed to make of statements ascribing “pre-existence” to Jesus (to use the typical theological buzzword). If you entertain these, how could Jesus not have known this and spoken of it?
  4. What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations? E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?

I don’t want to re-create the full content from Hurtado’s blog and reader comments, but I do want to draw attention to one particular paragraph (for full context, please use the links I provided and read all three of Hurtado’s posts):

But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement. And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.

-Hurtado, Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc: Responding to Questions

This goes not only to what Jesus thought of himself prior to his crucifixion and resurrection, but what Paul and the Jesus-believing Jews (and Gentiles) believed about the nature of Christ relative to God during the Biblical period.

The Jewish PaulDid Paul believe in the Trinity? Again, an Evangelical wouldn’t miss a beat in saying, “Yes, of course,” but again, we have Hurtado, who we have every reason to believe is presenting a credible case from current NT research, saying that Paul wouldn’t have a clue about the Trinity.

I should mention that Derek Leman at Messianic Jewish Musings has been writing a great deal about the Divinity of Jesus lately, and a lot of his perspectives are based on Hurtado. His own research and conclusions will be presented in his forthcoming book Divine Messiah, which should be available for digital download from Amazon as early as May 23rd, so maybe Leman’s text will offer some insights.

In addition to my recent commentary on Zetterholm and the implications of his research on our view of the Church, I’ve recently read an article at Bible History Daily called The Origin of Christianity by Noah Wiener, which is a review of Geza Vermes’ work, From Jewish to Gentile: How the Jesus Movement Became Christianity (November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review).

By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.


The implication here, as I’m reading it, is that many of the Biblical truths we hold onto as Christians were conceptualized and codified after the Gentiles formed the Christian Church and left Jesus-worship within the Jewish context. In other words, the Jewish apostles and disciples wouldn’t have imagined many of the theologies developed later by the Gentiles in relation to their own understanding of scripture (the Tanakh/Old Testament) and of the teachings of Messiah. In fact, Jesus himself, even “post-Easter,” may not have seen/see himself as “the second person of the Trinity,” at least not using that particular language.

This isn’t to deny the Divine nature of Messiah, the profound mystery of him being “the visible image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) or his sitting at the right hand of the Father in all exalted honor and glory, but exactly how we see the nature of Jesus may be based more on Evangelical assumptions and long-cherished traditions than how the original authors of the Gospels and Epistles actually understood the nature and character of Messiah.

It seems clear then, that the origin and development of Christianity as a completely separate entity from the ekklesia we see recorded in the Bible, departed from the original theological and doctrinal template taught by the apostles, and I imagine Paul, witnessing the Evangelical Church of the twenty-first century CE, would find little if anything to relate to or even recognize as devotion to Messiah, Son of David.

Any thoughts?

Hurtado, Wright, and the Significance of Israel

In this posting I query another of Tom Wright’s major emphases in his mammoth new work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. This concerns his emphatic view that in Paul’s view ”Israel” becomes effectively the church, or more specifically becomes simply all those who put faith in Jesus.

-Larry Hurtado
“‘Israel’ and the People of God: Wright & Response”
from Larry Hurtado’s Blog

For those of you who don’t know, Larry Hurtado is a scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins with quite a number of published works to his name. I follow his blog because I find his research and insights into the early church to be interesting and informative.

How Hurtado started commenting on Wright’s latest book is as follows:

Late in 2013 I was asked by the journal, “Theology,” to review N.T. (Tom) Wright’s then-forthcoming book on Paul. As I am committed to preparing an essay on Paul for a conference in Rome in June this year, I agreed. A few days later a huge parcel arrived for me, and upon opening it I found that I had agreed to read/review a work of two volumes comprising over 1600 pages! I’ve sent off the review now, and it’s been accepted for publication in due course. But, even with the special generosity of the editors, I had to confine the review to 1800 words, which required brevity and a selection of things to mention. I have more to say about the work, however, and so in this and subsequent postings will give some further observations and thoughts beyond what I was able to include in the “Theology” review.

Hurtado has written a small series of blog posts thus far, reviewing different aspects of Wright’s tome (and at 1600 pages, it can correctly be referred to as a tome).

This morning, Derek Leman wrote a brief blog post regarding “Hurtado’s critique of Wright’s low view of the Jewish people,” but I felt there were a few more things that could be said.

The first is that N.T. Wright is a well-known and read scholar and author, and I find his perpetuating Christian supersessionism (also known as “replacement theology” or “fulfillment theology”) by replacing Israel with “the Church” to be at least disturbing if not completely offensive. Not that Wright is trying to be offensive. He’s being honest within the context of his understanding and convictions. I just happen to believe he’s wrong and I’m gratified that a scholar of Hurtado’s stature is willing to challenge Wright’s low view of Judaism on his blog.

But Hurtado said something else in last Sunday’s blog post:

But (as I see it) Paul did continue to see the family of Abraham, the full company of the redeemed, as comprised of believing Jews (such as himself) who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles. To be sure, their respective identities were to have no negative impact upon accepting one another, for they were all “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). But along with that oneness there remained (for Paul) the significance of “Israel” as fellow Jews, who were (as he saw it) heirs of divine promises (Rom 9:4-5). Although at present, most of his fellow Jews were “enemies” (so far as concerns the gospel), they were, nevertheless, “beloved” by God, whose gifts and calling were irrevocable (11:28-29).

I hope you read that quote carefully. In the realm of Messianic Judaism in its various expressions, it is generally affirmed that Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are united and yet remain distinct identities, each possessing unique (though somewhat overlapping) responsibilities to God. Jews in Messiah are still Jews and Gentiles in Messiah are still Gentiles, though all are “one” in God’s love, in the promises of salvation, and participation in the Messianic Kingdom.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Larry Hurtado is a Christian scholar of early Christianity, not a “Messianic”. And yet we see him stating something that is quite familiar to those of us who are affiliated with or otherwise “friends” of the Messianic Jewish movement. And this isn’t the first time. I’ve mentioned before, primarily in Larry Hurtado on ‘A Muslim Reads Galatians’ and Jewish Identity in the Way, that Hurtado is associated with supporting the continuation of Jewish identity and Torah observance among the early Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Today, the typical “Christian on the street” (so to speak) takes it completely for granted that when Jews came to Christ, they stopped being Jewish (or at least stopped behaving “Jewish”) and converted to Christianity. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of Evangelicals truly believe Paul preached a “Law-free” gospel of Christ and that the Jewish believers were no longer “under the Law.”

But the Christian on the street, that is, the average man or women in a church pew on Sunday morning, most likely doesn’t keep up with current Christian scholarship, nor are they aware that there are bodies of Christian scholars who disagree with each other and strongly debate key principles of Christian theology and doctrine. It is more comforting for traditional church goers to believe that everything is settled and has been for many centuries. Christianity is what it is. All the questions have long since been answered. There are no mysteries. Sunday school is merely to discuss what everybody already knows (except perhaps the “baby Christian” who has just come to faith). Even seasoned Pastors tend to believe that, though their knowledge base is usually much broader than that possessed by their flocks.

The implication of Hurtado’s statements upon Messianic Judaism is interesting and encouraging. In Messianic Judaism and the somewhat related movement of Hebrew Roots, we talk to ourselves all of the time about the Torah not being “dead” or “nailed to the cross” with Jesus. We talk (and sometimes argue) about Jewish distinctiveness and uniqueness of obligation within the wider Messianic body.

But having a conversation with yourself isn’t very illuminating and that dialogue most often stays within our particular silos, rarely escaping into normative Christianity (or Judaism), at least in a form that can be heard or accepted by those groups.

So when a Christian and not Messianic scholar and author such as Hurtado can independently study the Bible and arrive at a conclusion which states “Jews who remained Jews, and gentiles who remained gentiles” and yet “they were all ‘one in Christ Jesus'”, it is remarkable. The significance of Israel as Israel remained in the Apostolic Era, and even unbelieving Jews were considered beloved by God and possessing gifts and a calling that are irrevocable.

One Caveat to consider is that Hurtado is defining Paul’s perspective not necessarily his own. But if this is indeed how Paul saw things (and I think it likely), then Paul, the author of much of what we think of as early Christian theology and doctrine, was setting the pattern for how we Christian (Gentile) believers should understand ourselves in relation to the Jewish people and Israel.

It’s pretty hard to ignore Paul and still call yourself a Christian.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Where are the Scholars?

Separating-the-Wheat-from-ChaffLast week a friend pointed me to a web site where a guy, claiming expertise in something else (cryptography, I think, but it doesn’t matter) also claimed to have established beyond dispute and for the first time in modern scholarly studies the “true” meaning of a particular Greek word used by Paul. Moreover, on this basis the guy claims a radically different understanding of what Paul had to say on the topic with which this Greek word is associated. So, what did I think?

Well, I have to say that it’s curious that someone with no training in a given field, lacking in at least some of the linguistic competence required (both relevant classical language and key modern scholarly languages), thinks himself able to find something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in that field who labor year-upon-year to try to discover anything new and interesting. It’s also curious that, as is typical, the guy doesn’t submit his findings to scholarly review for publication in peer-reviewed journals or with a peer-reviewed publisher, but flogs his thinking straight out on his web site, complete with bold claims about its unique validity. We mere scholars in the field, by contrast, do submit our work for critique by others competent in the subject. We present at symposia and conferences where other scholars can engage our views. We strive to get published in peer-reviewed journals and with respected publishers. Even after publication, we hope for critical engagement by other scholars.

-Larry Hurtado
“Expertise and How to Detect It”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I was reading the various articles and blogs I use for morning studies and came across this piece by Hurtado. It brought to the forefront something that Messianic Judaism and particularly the large number of Hebrew Roots bloggers seem to struggle with. There are a great many pundits in the religious blogosphere and, as Dr. Hurtado points out, not all of them are scholars in a strictly defined sense. And yet, like the individual Hurtado describes, that doesn’t stop most people from presenting an opinion as fact without any significant scholarly or educational basis.

Before continuing, I want to say that I don’t describe myself as an expert or scholar in religious studies. The purpose of my blog is not to lay down doctrine and theology as if I’m a teacher or instructor of any kind. My blog is simply an expression of my thoughts and feelings on any given morning. I ask more questions than I provide answers and even when I seem to present conclusions, they are my opinions and often, I publish them on the web to inspire conversation so that I can learn more from my readers. I do not fit Dr. Hurtado’s definition of a scholar nor would I ever claim to.

But what about scholarship in the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots spaces (I separate the two movements because to me, they don’t represent the same emphasis, at least in terms of population)?

I believe there is a growing scholarly expression existing within Messianic Judaism. Educational organizations such as The New School for Jewish Studies and The Messianic Jewish Theological Institute kinbaroffer the promise of an organized educational basis for producing scholars in this specific area of religious studies. I’ve not taken any courses from either school so I can’t personally attest to their quality, but there is at least an effort being made to build a valid, intelligent, and organized teaching framework from which to produce teachers and researchers within the Messianic Jewish space.

I’m less familiar with any organized group of teaching institutes within the wider collection of Hebrew Roots groups. The only two that immediately come to mind are TorahResource.com, which was founded by Tim Hegg and TNNOnline.net which seems to be edited by someone named J.K. McKee (I should say that I’ve met Hegg on several occasions and, while he and I may not always agree, I more than acknowledge his educational and scholarly background, however I’ve never met McKee and don’t know what he brings to the table, so to speak).

Dr. Hurtado continues:

Now, of course, I believe in freedom of speech and thought, and I wouldn’t press for a gag on the sort of dubious stuff that I criticize here. But in scholarly life the peer-testing of claims/results is absolutely crucial, and it’s really considered rather unscholarly (and so of little credibility) to present as valid/established claims that haven’t gone through such testing. People (specifically those not clearly qualified in a field) have always been able to make bold claims about a subject of course, asserting their idiosyncratic “take” over against whatever view(s) is/are dominant in the subject. But before the World Wide Web I guess it was much more difficult to get such unqualified opinion circulated. Now, however, ”the Web” and the “Blogosphere” make it so easy.

But, frankly, when I’m shown something that hasn’t been through the rigorous scholarly review process (often, it appears, peer-review deliberately avoided), and comes from someone with no prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject, I’m more than a bit skeptical. If the work is really soundly based, then why not present it for competent critique before making such claims?

Obviously, Hurtado sets some very specific standards for information he’s willing to take seriously, which makes about 99% of the blogosphere unacceptable as sources of theological scholarship. But the question we must ask ourselves is whether or not either the Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots movements have any process in place for a “rigorous scholarly review process” and have access to writers with “prior reputation for valid contributions in the subject(s)” being addressed in their respective areas (I’m not being snarky here, I’m asking a serious question).

I do know based on my ten plus years of history within Hebrew Roots that it tends to be a magnet for just about anyone with an opinion. Some of the individuals presenting information are well-meaning and are trying to work through both intellectual and personal issues in regard to how they see Christianity and Judaism. Others, unfortunately, have theological axes to grind and produce vast amounts of dreck designed to provide religious “thrills and chills” but which have absolutely no basis in fact or scholarly research.

For example, I’ve heard people claim that the lost ark of the covenant was hidden underneath the crucifixion site of Jesus and that his blood “anointed” it. I’ve heard people say that the “lost years of Jesus” were spent with the young Yeshua traveling through India at the side of his “uncle” Nicodemus. I’ve heard some folks claim to have possession of the lost original Hebrew manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew. I even read one individual say on a blog that the reason the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed was that the Jewish priests failed to share the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton with the nations of the world, thus preventing the Torah from going forth from Zion (see Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2).

All of that stuff is baloney, but it’s important to remember that Hebrew Roots is an extremely wide container and its contents are enormously varied.

yeshiva1I more or less regularly read a few blogs in the Hebrew Roots space, not because I agree with their opinions but so I can be aware of them. I absolutely avoid the kind of “crazy” material posted on the web that makes claim to the sort of “hidden truths” I listed above.

Mainstream Christian and Jewish educational and research foundations have a long, world-wide history and are well established, but the Messianic Jewish and Hebrew Roots movements are in their infancy. I place Messianic Judaism as an entity in a rather narrow field in order to exclude the more “loosely defined” collections of non-Jewish folks out there who have shall we say, rather unusual and unsubstantiated statements to make. Unfortunately, that puts them in the same container as others in Hebrew Roots who are sincerely attempting to study and research the Bible in a manner that will provide illumination within their own context.

But at this point, I’m asking a question because I don’t know. Given the brief set of statements made by Dr. Hurtado (I provided a link to his blog post above), do either Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots in its various forms, have or are they building an educational and scholarly system that would provide the same level of peer review and well researched papers as Hurtado describes from his own experiences as an educator and researcher?

One of the books produced by those I would consider established scholars in Messianic Judaism is Introduction to Messianic Judaism. Do you think this book would meet Dr. Hurtado’s expectations for scholarly and peer-reviewed work? Are there other books and papers that would do so within Messianic Judaism? What about Hebrew Roots? Do the writings of Hegg and McKee fit the bill? Are there others doing similar work within that space?

The Internet is a wild west show with no oversight and anyone can create a blog and start publishing anything they want within minutes. It’s important to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. In order to do so, where do we begin?

Struggles in Diversity

Apostle-Paul-PreachesAs 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.

Larry Hurtado
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

jewish-sand-paintingThis 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).

paul-editedWhile 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.