Book Review: An early Jewish movement

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Nonfiction works can appeal to readers for very different reasons. Take, for example, potential audiences for Paula Fredricksen’s “When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation” (Yale University Press). It gives Christian readers an opportunity to learn more about the roots of their religion. For Jews, the book’s focus on the first century C.E. offers a lesson rarely taught in synagogue religious schools: that there were many different Jewish groups, each with its own ideas about the appropriate way to practice Judaism. My interest in this time period is the way Judaism began its transformation from a Temple-based religion to a home- and synagogue-based one. While this is not Fredricksen’s main interest, readers can glean insights into the religious practices of Jews during this period.
Fredricksen emphasizes an important idea from the first page of her book – one that some readers may have difficulty grasping. All the early followers of Jesus and all the writers of The New Testament were people who considered themselves Jewish. That includes Peter, James, John and Paul – none of whom thought they were forming a new religion. In fact, there would have been no time for a new religion to form because, as Fredricksen notes, “[these men] foresaw no extended future. They passionately believed that God was about to fulfil his ancient promises to Israel: to redeem history, to defeat evil, to raise the dead, and to establish a universal reign of justice and peace.” It was only later, when it became clear that the world was not going to end, that they had to change their theology to explain why that had not occurred.
What Fredricksen does throughout her work is explain events from a historical perspective, rather than a religious one. That means she looks at how people would have felt during that time period, rather than how events were later interpreted by Christian churches that saw Jesus and his followers as Christians, rather than Jews. For example, she believes that Jesus and his followers had positive feelings about Jerusalem and the Temple, rather than negative ones. Fredricksen makes the case for this by noting that Jesus frequently visited Jerusalem and that his followers settled there after his death. She wonders why they would have done this if they were against the Temple and the priests who served there. This leads her to explore the reason behind Jesus’ crucifixion. She makes it clear that crucifixion was a Roman punishment – a punishment that could only have been ordered by Roman officials and which was reserved for political offenses. Fredricksen believes that “Pilate executed Jesus as an insurrectionist because Pilate thought that Jesus was politically and possibly militarily dangerous. ‘Insurrection’ means armed uprising; Rome tolerated no such activities on the part of its subject people.”
This, however, leaves Fredricksen to ponder why Jesus’ followers – particularly his disciples – were also not crucified. She believes that Pilate knew that Jesus himself was not dangerous, but the acclaim he received from the population was. There were large crowds in Jerusalem during the preparation for the Passover holiday and the crowd’s reactions were unstable. The Romans believed that the large group proclaiming Jesus as a messiah might easily turn into revolt against Roman rule. That was something they could not allow to occur and the best way to prevent that was to kill Jesus. Fredricksen notes that “together with two others accused of rebellion... Jesus was crucified outside the wall of Jerusalem. ‘King of the Jews’ – Pilate’s sardonic nod to the crowds’ messianic convictions – proclaimed his offense. What better way to deflate their hopes, and to discredit Jesus’ message?” The discouraged crowd would now be quieter and the Passover festival activities could continue without disruption.
Fredricksen also believes that the priesthood had no role in these events due to the nature of life around the Temple just before Passover. Her discussions of how the holidays period could be spread over three to four weeks are excellent, as are her explanation of how those visiting Jerusalem would have had to undergo purification before they could present their Passover sacrifice at the Temple. She also believes that, although Jesus did not like the moneylenders at the Temple, he was a supporter of the Temple and the sacrificial system, as were all Jews of that time period.
What happened to the movement after Jesus’s death? First, his followers had to explain why he died. In order to do this, they looked to the biblical text to discover writings that could now be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ death and his appearances afterward to his followers. These interpretations differed from those of other Jews, although, as Fredricksen notes, studying text this way was part of their Jewish heritage. An additional problem occurred when Jesus no longer appeared to his followers. That was when talk of a second coming began.
One of the most interesting sections of the book is Fredricksen’s discussion of the connections between Jews and pagans during this period – one that affected the Jesus movement when it began to consider allowing non-Jews to become members. She notes that pagans regularly attended synagogues – donating money for their upkeep and celebrating holidays with Jews. Some of these pagans adopted Jewish practices, but did not convert to Judaism – meaning they also worshipped the gods of their cities and cultures. Fredricksen believes that Jesus’ original message was aimed only at Jews: he was not looking to convert anyone to Judaism. However, once Jesus’ followers sought to include pagans, a problem arose: while they didn’t make these ex-pagans convert to Judaism, the ex-pagans were required to stop worshipping any other god. That turned out to be problematic for a variety of reasons – for both Jewish members of the cities and Gentile ones – since it upset the delicate balance between the religions.
My simplistic summaries of Fredricksen’s complex and fascinating discussions only touch the surface of her work. “When Christians Were Jews” is easy for non-scholars to read, although some knowledge of the Christian scripture is helpful. Fredricksen ends her work on an interesting note that puts the book into perspective. She explains that, in the title of her work, “the term ‘Christian’ is an anachronistic one” because there were no Christians or Christian churches at the time. She closes by saying that the followers of Jesus thought “they were history’s last generation. It was only in history’s eyes that they would become the first generation of the church.” Anyone interested in Judaism in the first century C.E., or in the early history of Christianity, will find this book a welcome addition to their book shelves.