Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.02.27 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.02.27

Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation.   New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2018.  Pp. viii, 261.  ISBN 9780300190519.  $27.50.  


Reviewed by Andrew S. Jacobs, Scripps College (andrew@andrewjacobs.org)

Paula Fredriksen’s new book spins a lucid and straightforward narrative of "the first generation" of an eschatological Jewish movement that would become, despite itself, Christianity. Fredriksen centers her narrative on the city of Jerusalem, the site of the Temple of the God of Israel, where Jesus’s mission culminated, his life ended, and the movement in his name developed numerically and theologically after his death. Transformed in and by the city of David, Jesus’s followers went forth to gather in all the people of Israel; encountering god-fearing pagans in the Jewish synagogues, they began to expand their target zone while waiting for the imminent return of Jesus and the end of the world. Paul, at first alarmed by the sociologically disruptive separation of pagans from their gods, attempted to discipline (or "persecute") these Jewish Jesus-followers; then, altered by his own experience of Jesus, he became the most influential theorist of this Jewish eschatological movement.

Readers familiar with Fredriksen's oeuvre will be surprised at neither the content of her argument nor at the vivacity with which she makes it. As Fredriksen notes, this volume follows on the heels of her close study of Paul and his reception (BMCR 2018.06.29) and the discussion of Paul that comprises the final chapter draws substantively from that work. More generally, When Christians Were Jews continues Fredriksen's decades-long attempt to recenter "Christian origins" squarely in their Jewish setting. Jesus and his immediate followers, along with Paul and the first generation of apostles, were (as the title proclaims) Jews tout court, having never left their ancestral, ethnic religion in any way, shape, or form. Only in the second century did gentile Jesus-followers begin to understand themselves as non-Jewish and then, through misreadings of the teachings of Jesus and letters of Paul, anti-Jewish.

The project of Jewish recentering in When Christians Were Jews zeroes in, as I noted, on the centrality of Jerusalem in the life and teachings of Jesus: "A positive orientation toward the temple and its cult seems to have been a virtually universal index of Jewish piety in the period before the first revolt against Rome," Fredriksen notes (43) and in the first two chapters she explains how this "positive orientation" characterizes Jesus and his first generation of followers, including Paul. Jerusalem, and the Temple on Zion, is the epicenter of the eschatological kingdom whose imminent arrival Jesus preached. Fredriksen distinguishes Jesus and his pacifist followers from the waves of "insurrectionists" (her preferred translation of lēstēs, more typically rendered "robber" in modern New Testaments), and argues that his arrest and execution were designed to pacify an overheated crowd rather than eliminate a political upstart and his dangerous pack of armed sidekicks. How else, Fredriksen asks, can we explain the fact that Jesus’s disciples not only remain unbothered by the Roman troops, but are even free to settle in Jerusalem and continue their eschatological preaching there after Jesus’s execution?

That Jesus’s death did not usher in the kingdom led his followers to begin readjusting their apocalyptic expectations, primarily through recourse to the Jewish Scriptures. Here their Jerusalem milieu continued to bear fruit. They began to understand Jesus as a messianic descendant of David who would return soon with angelic armies to bring about the end of the world. As Jesus became increasingly "Davidized" in the decades after his death, so too his followers became energized to prepare the ground for the restoration of the full kingdom of Israel; they began mission trips into every place where "Israel" dwelled, not just in the borders of the biblical land but in major cities such as Caesarea, Antioch, and Damascus.

Preaching Jesus’s eschatological kingdom in urban synagogues, Fredriksen further reasons, they would have encountered not only fellow Jews but also pagan semiadherents, "godfearers," whom they would view through the lens of Isaiah’s prophecies about the ingathering of gentiles at the end of the world. The turn of these non-Jewish pagans to belief in the messiah Jesus would serve to affirm that, in fact, the end times were coming and the eschatological kingdom could not be far off: "Thus began, unintended, the mission to the gentiles" (140). As she has argued elsewhere, Fredriksen posits that while these pagan adherents were not brought into the covenant of Israel they were admonished to cease worshipping the gods of their ancestors. The creation of "ex-pagan pagans" could, in turn, have generated a theopolitical crisis among other urban pagans, who insisted on maintaining peace with their gods, as well as among conscientious Jews—like Paul before his vision of Jesus—who resisted turning synagogues into sites of social disruption.

Fredriksen does not imagine the Jerusalem community of Jesus-followers maintaining centralized control over the movement, as suggested by the much later Acts of the Apostles, but does see Jerusalem as the "nerve center" (157) of these earliest assemblies awaiting the return of Jesus’s eschatological kingdom. Two particular traumas exacerbated the stark division between Jerusalem and Rome inaugurated by Jesus’s execution: the emperor Caligula's threat in 39/40 C.E. to place an imperial cult statue in the Jewish temple, averted only by his untimely death; and the growing winds of war in the 60s, fanned by a series of messianic insurrectionists and culminating in military conflict and the temple's destruction. Both of these traumas Fredriksen finds preserved in the "scriptural improvisation" (185) of the canonical gospels as they seek continually to recalibrate their apocalyptic timeline. The destruction of the Jewish temple and de facto destruction of the city of David in 70 C.E. stands as a watershed for Fredriksen: "What did happen to this earliest original community of Christ-followers? Did they perish in the flames of Jerusalem? Perhaps some did" (190). With Jerusalem gone, the Jewish theological center could no longer hold; by the time the author of Acts rewrites this earliest generation, the kingdom has been de-eschatologized and Jerusalem has become a point of departure for the greener, more gentile pastures of Rome.

Fredriksen's style is enviably readable. Her penchant for framing her prose around series of questions draws the reader along, allowing us to see her build her narrative from the ground up. Thus, to take one example, Fredriksen walks us through her reconstruction of the execution of Jesus: "Why arrest Jesus, and Jesus alone?" "How did the high priest and the prefect know that Jesus was not really dangerous?" "So how did Jesus—and Jesus alone-—end up on a cross?" "What, then, made this Passover different?" and so on (65–67). Her distinctive voice ("bel canto Christological arias" [103]; "flames of Jerusalem in the year 70 backlight the passion narratives" [127]; "Herod—the king everybody loves to hate" [201 n.6]) remains crisp and inviting.

Much of When Christians Were Jews seeks to undo the historical revision of Acts, relying primarily on Paul's authentic letters, the historical context of Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and careful "sifting" (66) of the gospels as sources of Jesus’s life and teaching. (Fredriksen also takes time to correct what she views as theologically tendentious mistranslations of New Testament texts: 46–47, 63, 118–19, 134, 144–47, 209 n.7). Fredriksen's general approach throughout—bolstered, of course, by the most up-to-date scholarship cited in the carefully curated endnotes—seems to be a kind of historiographic common sense: she posits that such-and-such a reading is the most "plausible" among several options (117, 126, 144, 214 n. 15) or asks which reading makes "most sense" (47, 64, 164). Mark's depiction of multiple meetings of the priestly Sanhedrin "quite simply beggars belief" (61); John's depiction of Jesus’s itinerary, involving multiple trips to Jerusalem, "seems the more plausible" (16). Yet as Fredriksen admits throughout, history can be a bit of a wobbly target for the historian of the Jesus movement, no matter how persuasively she has reconstructed the social and religious worlds of the first-century Mediterranean (as, indeed, she has time and again). Although Fredriksen hopes to "construct a more historically sturdy impression" from surviving texts (125), she must also frankly admit on occasion: "I do not know" (161; see also 157: "We have no idea").

By the end of her compelling reconstruction of this Jewish movement in its Jewish milieux, it is clear that history-writing for Fredriksen is more than mere reconstruction. Historical narratives like hers are deeply ethical endeavors. "With historical work," she writes on the last page, "categories determine how you see, which in turn determines what you have to work with. How you see is what you get" (191, emphasis original). To understand earliest Jesus-followers as Christians is not only historically but ethically inappropriate: "If we use 'Christian' of this first generation, we pull them out of their own context, domesticating them for ours" (191). Fredriksen leaves unidentified the "we" of this sentence, so readers are free to fill in the blank: historians, students of the Bible, Jews, Christians, on and on.

By introducing the ethical stakes of her argument, Fredriksen is by no means attempting to inoculate it against disagreement. Some scholars, to take one example, will no doubt continue to insist that machaira in the gospels means "sword" and not "knife," and that we should therefore understand Jesus’s followers as armed insurrectionists (63–64). Others might make more hay out of Paul's vituperations against the Law as indicative of a theological turn, rather than isolating them as imprecations toward gentiles (186). Even as I write, I have no doubt dozens of quite different historical reconstructions of the first generation of Jesus-followers are rolling off of the presses. What Fredriksen does do with her coda, however, is keep the modern stakes of our historical reconstructions squarely in our sights. To what ends are we imagining our histories? Where will the Jesus of our historiographies lead?

This lesson appeals across the spectrum, from general educated reader to hardened veteran of the mines of New Testament studies. Fredriksen—as is her wont—has produced a thoroughly researched, deeply learned engagement with ancient sources that can be read by a total novice or a colleague. She provides a timeline of biblical history from King David to Bar Kokhba, but also an up-to-date bibliography of secondary sources in three languages. Depending on your particular situation, this book could make a suitable gift for your father or your Doktorvater.

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