I am a strong advocate for teaching Jesus and Paul within the context of their native Judaism(s) as well as the greater Greco-Roman world. My working hypothesis is that neither individual rejected or abandoned Judaism. I accept the general historical postulate that there was no such thing as Christianity until the second century and probably no good evidence for someone being called a “Christian” until at least the late first century. This means that nearly all of our New Testament texts were written when the Jesus-movement still looked to Judaism for self-understanding.
This has profound implications for how we approach the subject of Christian origins. If neither Jesus nor Paul abandoned Torah, or taught others to do so, what was their message and to whom did it apply? If Judaism was not immediately dismissed by the earliest communities of believers, how was the relationship between Christ-following Gentiles and (Christ-following) Jews envisioned?
I believe that it is naïve, if not willfully ignorant, for a 21st-century person to pick up a collection of texts written nearly two thousand years ago and claim to be able to understand them without the benefit of studying the history and culture of the day. Those authors did not write for us – they did not frame their ideas according to modern, Western notions. They were not beneficiaries of the Enlightenment, of the scientific process, of the theory of evolution, of advanced medicine, of equal rights, of space travel. They did not speak or write in English or any other modern language. The New Testament authors did not write for an audience beyond their own generation. The historical and cultural gap is immense. Only by recognizing this gap and attempting to bridge it to the best of our ability can we have any hope of understanding what those authors were trying to say.
The study of Christian origins is one that will never end. It is too fascinating, too alien, too inscrutable to ever stop yielding fruit from our efforts to study it. Many come to the New Testament steeped in Christian dogma. No light can shine within when the doors and windows to the outside world are closed. The academic study of the origins of Christian faith will necessarily challenge a number of traditional beliefs that cannot be supported by the evidence. This does not mean that fundamental beliefs – in God, in an afterlife, in the principal of love, etc. – cannot be maintained in concert with academically rigorous historical investigation. But doctrinal beliefs must not dictate the results of the research. If there is any “truth” at the heart of Christian teaching, it will not be threatened by honest historical inquiry. The layers will, and indeed must, be peeled off. But any revelatory core, if there is one, should appear more clearly than before. Fear of change is the root of ignorance.
I have spent the better part of my life engrossed in the study of Christian origins. Every year, as my understanding grows, I see ever new horizons to explore. With me, it is a passion that never cools. My ultimate satisfaction comes from sharing what I have learned with a new generation of seekers willing to pick up the baton and continue running the race. It seems that every decade or so, new and better models are constructed that help us conceptualize the matrix within which Christianity was formed. I hope that some of my students will find themselves on the cutting edge of some future discoveries, achieved, in part at least, with the same enthusiasm that I hope they saw in me.