Tag Archives: larry hurtado

Jewish Identity in the Way

paul_trebilcoIn recent years a lot of scholarly effort has been given to questions about early Christian “identity,” how early and in what ways early believers in Jesus saw themselves and acted as distinct groups with their own identity. Major research projects continue to be devoted to this sort of question (e.g., the project on Prayer and Early Christian Identity, based in Oslo, with which I’m connected currently).

Paul Trebilco has now published an important study relevant to these questions: Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). His new book comprises a further significant contribution to the study of earliest Christianity. Drawing on observations about how groups develop their own “social dialects” (“in-group” terms and expressions), he focuses on the key terms evidenced in NT writings that appear to have been used to refer to early Jesus-believers, each term given a chapter-length analysis.

-Larry Hurtado
“Trebilco on Early Christian Self-designations”
Larry Hurtado’s Blog

This sounds like a fabulous book but even the Kindle version costs over $63.00, so it’s deffo out of my price range. Hurtado is of the belief that Jesus was worshipped as God very early historically so he’s going to likely come down on the side of an early distinctiveness of identity of Christians as apart from Judaism, probably very soon after the ascension of Christ.

This is an important topic for me since in my readings, I regularly find that the early “Jewish Christians” continued to self-identify as Jews and understood “the Way” as a Jewish branch among the other “Judaisms” of their day.

When they heard it, they praised God. Then they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the Torah (emph. mine).

Acts 21:20 (NRSV)

I deliberately rendered the world “law” as it appears in the NRSV as “Torah” to communicate more how James and the elders in the apostolic council in Jerusalem would have understood the vital concept. There were thousands of Jewish believers in Moshiach who were all zealous for the Torah.

Sounds pretty Jewish to me.

Going back to Hurtado’s blog post, he praises Trebilco, referring to him as “a proven scholar in the field” and citing his earlier, important works.

Hurtado continues:

These terms = “the brothers” (αδελφοι), “the believers”, “the saints” (οι αγιοι), ”the church” (η εκκλησια), “disciples” (μαθηται), “the way” (η οδος), and “Christian” (Χριστιανος). Among his conclusions, he contends that “εκκλησια” originated among “Jewish Christian Hellenists” (“most likely in Jerusalem,” p. 301), but he further argues that this does not mean that they no longer considered themselves also part of the larger Jewish community. He judges the term “Christian” to have originated among outsiders/observers of early Jesus-believers, thereafter appropriated by believers, especially in the later period of persecutions.

As to the larger question about when and how believers saw themselves as a distinct group, Trebilco contends (rightly in my view) that the use of these terms indicates that “they were creating and shaping their identity” already before the time of our earliest texts. This means easily within the first couple of decades after Jesus’ execution. (I’d say likely within the first few months.) Trebilco again: “…these designations also involve the claim of a distinctive identity . . .” (p. 308), “have clear boundary-marking roles,” and “distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (309).

ancient_beit_dinWhat can we make of this? First, that the Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah continued to consider themselves Jews participating in a normative Judaism in their day. However, as “Messianics,” they also understood that their identity was unique and that they were, in some sense, distinct from their Jewish brothers who adhered to other streams of Judaism, because ultimately salvation and the realization of Israel’s redemption and restoration only comes through Messiah.

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.

Romans 9:2-3 (NRSV)

In stating this, Paul is saying that Jews outside the framework of “the Way” are also outside of salvation, and the anguish at this thought drives Paul to declare he would be willing to be accursed by God and cut off from Messiah if only it would save the Jewish people who do not know Messiah.

But it also continues to establish that the identity of a first century Jewish disciple of Messiah is as a Jew operating within a Jewish religious framework. This is opposed to Paul assuming a non-Jewish identity in a non-Jewish religious movement as many modern Christians currently believe. Being a “Messianic” (Christian) for a Jew was then both an exercise in normative Jewish religious worship and a unique Jewish identity because of adherence to Messiah, the living embodiment of Torah, Israel, and God’s gracious redemption.

The limits of Hurtado’s blog post allows for a minimal exploration of Gentile identity but that’s not my main point at the moment (though I do touch in it below). My primary point is to affirm for my Gentile Christian brothers and sisters, as well as any Jewish readers, that the historic worship of Jesus by Jews is not an aberration within Judaism or an abandonment of Judaism and the Torah. It was and is the highest expression of devotion to God both within the first century context and within what some have called modern “Bilateral Ecclesiology” Messianic Judaism.

It’s important to note though, that at least one Jewish scholar has a different idea as Hurtado points out:

I mean no criticism in saying that this all seems rather obvious to me, but in view of the nature of recent scholarly discussion (e.g., Boyarin’s claim that we don’t have “Christianity” as such before the fourth century CE), I’m very grateful to Trebilco for this fine evidence-based study, which will further confirm his status as a noteworthy figure in NT/Christian Origins.

Without reading “Boyarin’s claim” in full, I have no context upon which to comment, but I would have to guess that Boyarin may be stating that the “Jewishness” of Christianity extended much further forward into history than Hurtado or Trebilco believe. If, based on Trebilco’s book, Hurtado believes that the Christian identity replaced the Jewish identity of Jews in “the Way” in the first century forward, then I’m going to have to strenuously disagree. As long as Jews participated in the worship of Yeshua as Messiah, I can’t see them self-identifying as anything other than Jewish, and certainly I don’t believe they would ever abandon the Torah and a Jewish identity for the sake of Messiah. I say this because it is totally contrary to the Jewish Messiah himself to request that devotion to him should require abandoning the Torah and Israel.

I will split a hair and say that Jewish identity was not imposed on the Gentiles being admitted into the Jewish “Way” (see Acts 15:22-35, Acts 21:25), thus the Gentile “Christians” would have established an identity that, while initially contained within a Jewish religious framework, made them distinct not only from their Jewish mentors relative to Torah-observance, but also distinct from the pagan people and religions in their world.

In addition, we’ve already seen Hurtado quote Trebilco as saying:

“distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (emph. mine)

jewish-davening-by-waterI’m going to argue, based on the above-statement, that the distinctiveness of first century “Messianic Jews” was in relation to the Gentiles in “the Way.” By definition, all Jews were distinct from all Gentiles, so it would be redundant of Trebilco to say that it was “Christian Jewish” identity that distinguished them from pagan Gentiles. It makes more sense for him to make this statement if he is defining a distinctiveness of Jewish identity within “the Way” that identified the Jewish disciples uniquely both within the context of larger Judaism and as compared to believing Gentiles.

Of course, I’d have to read Trebilco’s book to actually confirm this, but what I can gather from Hurtado’s blog post certainly suggests it.

In summary, Gentile Christian identity distinctiveness as a religious stream wholly separate from paganism would have occurred very early, probably within Paul’s lifetime. Jewish discipleship in Messiah would have continued to be Jewish in every sense and yet, would still have distinguished Jewish members of “the Way” from other Jewish streams by virtue of Messianic redemption and the promise of national restoration upon Messiah’s return.

Here then, we see a template for the modern Messianic Jewish movement, a model for how Jews today can view adherence to Yeshua (Jesus) the Messiah as truly and completely Jewish, and unlike the vast majority of Christian history otherwise indicates, as a movement which does not require a Jew to abandon Jewish identity or the Torah in order to be a disciple of the Master.

112 days.

Larry Hurtado on “A Muslim Reads Galatians”

paul-editedIn the course of the presentation, he drew contrasts between the more negative and even caustic references to “the circumcision party”, “Judaizers” and the Torah in Galatians (and also Philippians), and the more positive references to “Israel” and the Jewish people in Romans (esp. chaps. 9-11). But, of course, as I pointed out in the ensuing discussion, in Galatians (and Philippians too) Paul seems to be critical of fellow Jewish Christians, not because they were Jews, but because they were apparently seeking to impose Torah-observance (including male-circumcision) on Paul’s (former pagan) converts as an additional requirement for full recognition as co-religionists with them. It was this “Judaizing” stance, i.e., the view that baptized pagans had to become Jewish, that Paul opposed, and his opponents (I repeat) were Jewish believers in Jesus. So, because their stance seemed to Paul to call into question the sufficiency of Jesus, and because it also represented to him an interference in his gentile-mission (the terms of which he believed he had received directly from God), he went at the matter with full force (and in places some serious vituperation).

But in Romans (esp. 9-11), his subject is the Jewish people and their future in God’s redemptive plan, an altogether different subject.

-Larry Hurtado
Scholar of the New Testament and Christian Origins
“Paul, ‘Judaizers’ and Jews” (February 13, 2013)
from Larry Hurtado’s Blog

I don’t know what I can add to what Dr. Hurtado wrote on his blog yesterday (today, as I write this). I wanted to share it because it confirms everything I believe about what Paul was trying to say to us, especially in Romans and Galatians. Long time readers of my blog know that I am a staunch critic of traditional supersessionism in the church (also called “replacement theology,” “completion theology,” and “covenant theology”), and believe that the church did not replace Israel in God’s covenant promises, but rather that Israel and the Jewish people continue to have a vital role in God’s plan for humanity, both in this world and the world to come.

I also believe that God never intended the “grafted in” Gentile Christians to ever take on a Jewish identity by converting to Judaism (or to “Israel” if you prefer) en masse, and thus being compelled to perform the full list of Torah mitzvot in a Jewish manner as God requires of His people Israel.

PrayingDr. Hurtado, in the above-mentioned blog post, was describing a presentation he attended recently entitled, “A Muslim Reads Galatians,” given by Dr. Shabbir Akhtar (read Dr. Hurtado’s blog for the details). I suppose I should thank Dr. Akhtar in addition to Dr. Hurtado for providing a short and concise description of Paul’s views on the distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers relative to conversion, Judaism as a religious practice, and Torah observance. Traditionally, Christians have believed that Paul abandoned Torah observance and encouraged both Jews and believing Gentiles (not that believing Gentiles had a history of Torah observance prior to coming to faith in Jesus) to abandon Torah as well. Hebrew Roots Christians (at least in some variants of the tradition) believe the opposite, that Paul continued to observe Torah, and encouraged both Jews and Gentile believers to observe the full yoke of Torah, and that all Christians today are obligated to Torah observance.

Dr. Hurtado ends his brief blog post with this statement:

Paul’s only critique of the Torah (Jewish Law) was when some fellow Jewish believers tried to impose it as an additional requirment (sic) for salvation upon his pagan converts. He had no problem with fellow Jews observing Torah, Jewish Christians included, so long as they didn’t try to impose full Torah-observance upon baptized pagans. He certainly seems to have insisted that Jews as well as pagans must recognize Jesus as God’s Son/Messiah, and held that Jewish failure to do so was a kind of unbelief and “hardening”. But he also believed that God would ultimately deliver fellow Jews from this stance (Romans 11:25-32), showing “mercy” to all, both pagans and Jews.

Wow! Hurtado, commenting on Akhtar, states that “he (Paul) had no problem with fellow Jews observing Torah, Jewish Christians included, so long as they didn’t try to impose full Torah-observance upon baptized pagans.” That’s exactly what I’ve been saying for a while now. That’s what much of Messianic Judaism (especially the articles and books published by First Fruits of Zion [FFOZ]) have been saying for years.

HeavenBoth Hurtado and Akhtar agree that Paul’s letter to the Romans (esp. Chapters 9-11) addresses God’s redemptive plan and the future of the Jewish people, which is not the same subject as Paul’s objections to “Judaizers” attempting to induce formerly pagan Gentiles to convert to Judaism and be bound to the full yoke of Torah as a condition of salvation. Paul held out a bright hope for Israel’s future redemption for the “fullness” of “all Israel.” We should grasp onto that hope as well.

I can’t think of a better way to start my day, especially after the last few days on the blogosphere, than to read this message of hope and encouragement for both Jewish and Gentile believers, including our roles and identities in God’s plan for the present and future, written in a blog post by this eminent New Testament scholar.

Kudos Dr. Hurtado and thank you.

“Try not to become a man of success but rather to become a man of value.”

-Albert Einstein

Who Let The Dogs Out?

And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

Mark 7:24-30 (ESV)

Since the assigned lection a few Sundays ago on Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), I’ve intended to comment on what appears to me a surprisingly widespread mis-reading of the passage. Essentially, the “dogs” (who Jesus says here must wait till after the “children” have eaten before they can be fed) are taken with an extremely pejorative connotation as feral mongrels, and the scene is read as if Jesus is pictured insulting the woman and treating her with contempt. I am embarrassed to find this basic take on the passage even in the learned commentary on Mark by a scholar I deeply admire: Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: Hermeneia (Fortress Press, 2007), 366-67. But for several reasons, among them prominently the specifics of the Greek term used (unusually) in this passage, I think it pretty clear that this take is wrong.

Dr. Larry W. Hurtado
“Dogs, Doggies, and Exegesis”
Lary Hurtado’s Blog

Disclaimer: In using the title of the song Who Let the Dogs Out? written by Anselem Douglas and originally covered by the Baha Men, I am in no way attempting to be insulting to any individual or group of people, either those addressed within the context of this blog post or otherwise. Given the core statement made by Jesus in the Mark 7 quote, it just seemed like a “clever” title for my missive. That is the complete extent of my intention for using the song title.

Note: I’m taking an interpretation written by well-known New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado and using it as a springboard to make a suggestion of my own. I certainly don’t expect Hurtado (should he ever read this) to agree with me and frankly, what I’m doing in today’s blog post is something of an “experiment.” Just so you know.

Was Jesus a racist? This question doesn’t come out of thin air. There have been several recent conversations in the blogosphere in relation to Messianic Judaism (click the link to see my rather specific definition for the term) and whether or not proponents of Messianic Judaism as a form of Judaism, rather than an all-inclusive “Christianity,” is racist. (See Judah Himango’s blog post Two Church: Defining Bilateral Ecclesiology in Simple Terms for the latest discussion) The suggestion is that, by insisting that the modern Jewish disciples of the ancient Jewish Messiah are a Judaism and, like all other Jews, are the sole inheritors of the Mosaic covenant because they are the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that Messianic Judaism and Messianic Jews are being racist. That is, Messianic Jews, by overtly excluding non-Jewish Christians from the conditions of the Mosaic covenant (the Torah), are denying people access to being obligated to the full weight of the Torah mitzvot based on race.

The topic is extremely rich and can be taken in a lot of different directions, but since I had recently read Dr. Hurtado’s above-quoted blog post and it’s companion article, I thought I’d use them as the focus of my investigation. They really are quite fitting since they directly address Christ’s interaction with the (non-Jewish) Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7 and he appears to treat her rather badly because she’s not Jewish. But is that really the case?

This sense of a domestic scene ought to be obvious simply in reading the passage. Jesus is pictured as responding to the woman’s request by saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it isn’t right to give the childrens’ food to the dogs.” The point of the statement is the temporal priority of the “children”, of course in this case, referring to Jesus directing his ministry to fellow Jews. The metaphor presumes a setting in which the household dogs are fed the leftovers after the family has eaten (not custom-produced dog-food). (I know the practice well, having grown up in a rural setting in which the household dogs ate what we ate, only after we had eaten.)

The woman’s clever reply confirms this, respectfully pointing out that “the dogs under the table eat from the portions of the children.” “Wild” dogs and “scavenger dogs of the street” aren’t typically allowed “under the table” and around the children! And anyone with both children and household dogs will know how it goes at mealtime: If allowed, the dogs hang about the children’s chairs, knowing that children love to “drop” morsels to their pets.

Finally, we also have to ask ourselves how likely it is that the authors of Mark (writing for a Christian readership at least largely made up of converted gentiles) would have inserted a scene in which supposedly Jesus insults a gentile woman in the harsh terms imputed by some modern readers. She is “put in her place” as a gentile, but it’s a temporal place. The scene functions to explain that, although Jesus’ own ministry was confined to his Jewish people (apparently, a tradition that Mark couldn’t deny/ignore), the subsequent mission to gentiles was (Mark wants to imply) on the agenda, only it had to wait its time, and Jesus is pictured as anticipating that gentile-mission in responding positively to the woman’s respectful but clever response.

Was Jesus racist? Seemingly not, according to Dr. Hurtado, at least not in a way where he was being “cruel” to the non-Jewish woman. What Hurtado describes is a situation whereby Jesus seems to order his overall ministry, with the Jews (“the children”) “served” first, and only afterwards are the domesticated “dogs” under the table (non-Jews) fed. According to Hurtado, Jesus wasn’t being insulting or racist and in fact, he was certainly “inclusive” (using a modern term appropriate for such discussions) of non-Jews, but he did not see them on the same lateral plane at that point in time. They (we) wouldn’t be served until after his death, resurrection, and ascension. During his first coming, Gentiles didn’t occupy the same “space” or the same roles relative to his mission to the Jews as the Jewish redeeming Messiah and Savior. Nevertheless, he did take the time to “feed the dog under the table” so to speak.

This is made a bit more clear by Dr. Hurtado’s subsequent blog post:

One further observation about the little scene between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 is that the initial response ascribed to Jesus is not a derogatory reference to the woman, or a simple misogynist or racial put-down, but is instead a parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman.

The part about the “parable-like saying specifically appropriate to the woman” could stand some examination. If I say that the sequence of events we see in Mark 7:24-30 represents how Jesus saw the prioritization of his ministry in relation to Jews and Gentiles, and if I say that, based on these verses, it was Christ’s intent to “feed” both the “lost sheep of Israel” and the non-Jews living among Israel, but giving a later temporal priority to the non-Jews, then can I generalize this as Christ’s intent to maintain some sort of distinction for the disciples among the nations that he would later (after the resurrection) command his Jewish disciples to make? (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Hurtado doesn’t directly address this issue and he would probably disagree with how I’m using his material. He seems to say that the only difference between Jewish disciples and Gentile disciples is that the Jews would be brought in first. The Gentiles would enter discipleship later on. But is the only distinction temporal?

Based on the Last Supper narratives (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-39 and John 13:1-17:26), Jesus intended on bringing all of his followers, Jewish and Gentile alike, into covenant relationship with God via the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36), a covenant which confirmed and expanded upon the previous covenants God made with Israel. Prior to this point, the non-Jewish nations did not have direct access to God through covenant (unless they converted to Judaism). Only through the blood and bodily death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection could we be brought in and placed on a level plane in the Kingdom relative to access to God and experiencing God’s love for us. This fits quite well with what Hurtado wrote.

But would that make a difference in how Jesus saw the Gentile disciples made after his ascension to how he saw the Syro-Phoenician woman? Was it his intention to elevate the “dogs sitting under the table” to the status of “children sitting around the table?” Given that Mark was writing his Gospel primarily to non-Jewish disciples, I believe I can make a case for the answer “no.” Otherwise, Mark’s description of this transaction becomes wholly anachronistic to the disciples from the nations (i.e. non-Jewish Christians).

I’d like to suggest that the distinction between the Jewish and Gentile disciples wasn’t necessarily temporal, but sequential and derivative. In fact, the way I understand how Gentiles manage to be injected into a relationship with God through the covenants (specifically Abrahamic and New) made with Israel, it would have to be.

Paul appears to echo Mark’s theme and suggest one that mirrors my suggestion in his famous letter to the church in Rome:

There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

Romans 2:9-11 (ESV)

PaulThis short verse tells us several things. First, Paul, in speaking to a “mixed congregation” of Jews and non-Jews, continues to draw a distinction between them (he calls them “Jews” and “Greeks,” not “Christians” or some other all-inclusive term designed to negate any distinction between the two groups). He also says two things that seem to be contradictory. He says that God shows no partiality” between Jews and Greeks, but he also says “the Jew first and also the Greek,” which dovetails very nicely into Hurtado’s analysis of the Mark 7 passage where he describes a “temporal” prioritization, but also a sequential prioritization, where the Jews would always be considered before the non-Jews regardless of circumstances, good or bad.

Since Paul at this point, is addressing Jews and Gentiles who are all covenant members under the Messiah, it is reasonable to say, in my opinion, that the relationship between Jews and non-Jews remains distinctive. The non-Jews are not considered before the Jewish disciples, and their (our) relationship with God derives from the Jews after the non-Jews have entered into covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We are equal, because God shows no partiality, but the distinction between Jew and Gentile is maintained as is the rather (on the surface) unflattering relationship between the Jewish “children” and the non-Jewish “domesticated dogs,” though a kinder metaphor such as parent to child (no, it’s not a perfect metaphor) might be more fitting.

There’s a strong tendency to try to understand the relationship between believing Jews and believing non-Jews in terms of 21st century western cultural, social, and legal definitions. America and the other nations of the west, are based on a strong imperative to treat all people of differing races, cultures, ethnic groups, languages, and nationalities as equal in terms of law and access to resources. Our system of equality is flawed, but the principle exists and it’s a good one.

But we can’t seem to get around the fact that first Jesus (as described by Mark) and later Paul both differentiated between the Jewish and non-Jewish followers and disciples of the Messiah. The Jews were brought in first but they continued to be first, even after the Gentiles were brought into covenant. The Jews were directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and as such, were the beneficiaries of all of the covenants God made with Israel. The people of the other nations would not be able to enter into covenant with God except through Jesus and the New Covenant (the original blessings can be traced back to the Abrahamic covenant) and thus, Jesus and later Paul, order their priorities differently depending on…yes, on race. They order them differently based on whether or not a person is physically a descendent of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob or not. Everybody except for the Jewish people, are not.

Was Jesus a racist? Not in the sense we understand the term today. He did however, differentiate based on racially associated covenant relationships. Being Jewish was one thing. Being non-Jewish was something else. Through Jesus, we Christians enter into a relationship with God, think of it as going from wild, scavenging dogs, to domesticated dogs. Not very flattering, as I said before, especially if we (to extend Mark’s metaphor) continue to consider the Jews as “children” by comparison. On the other hand, maybe we’re much newer additions to the family and must continue (as in many families) to pay deferential respect and have differing privileges than the older members of the family.

But setting aside the uncomfortable literal interpretation of this language, the difference between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers is not one of God’s love or access to our Creator, but of older vs. younger or, who we are as non-Jews in the family is directly derived from the older Jewish members. Jews are “served first.” The dogs eat what the children eat but the children will always come first. Or the younger family members eat what the older members eat, but the younger eat later, waiting first for the older members to be served. Perhaps we even eat only because the older members of the family, the root, provides the nourishment.

I don’t think I’ve “solved” the “are Messianic Jews racist” debate. I admit that I’ve taken liberties with the text and explored alleyways Hurtado would likely not approve of. I’ve also probably raised more questions than I’ve answered,  but I wasn’t actually trying to answer questions. I’ve been trying to introduce the possibility that Jesus never intended to eliminate any of the “specialness” of the “Children” of Israel when he, through God’s grace and mercy, made a way possible for the people of the nations to also enter God’s Kingdom. I think our connection will always be through Israel and we will always be dependent on Israel (and Israel’s firstborn son Jesus) for our access to God.

Something to think about anyway.