It is impossible to know what the earliest varieties of Christianity looked like. We have no relevant physical evidence at all. Our earliest sources are Paul’s letters, which come two or three decades after Jesus’ death. Even there we do not have his original letters, but copies of copies from centuries later, which show many signs of editing at the hands of copyists wanting to put their own views into Paul’s pen.1
And of course, Paul represents only one sect of early Christianity, and certainly not the “original” one: scholars now agree that if we know anything about Jesus, his family, his Twelve Apostles, the Elders, his family, and his earliest followers, we at least know they were Torah-observant Jews, whereas the main feature of Paul’s message was a rejection of the Torah (Jewish law).
Paul’s sect came to dominate Christianity, and since the winners write the history we know little about other sects in earliest Christianity. But in this new series on Early Christian Sects, I will survey what we might know about early Christian sects from the surviving evidence.
Today, let’s look at perhaps the earliest Christian sect, the Jewish Christianity practiced by Peter, James, and Jesus’ earliest followers.
Jewish Christians considered Jesus the saving Messiah, but insisted on continued observance of the Jewish laws about ceremony, diet, conflict, and circumcision.
James led the Jerusalem “mother church” until the Jewish revolt of 66 CE.2 His commitment to the Torah is recorded by Josephus3 and by Acts 21:17-21.4 Likewise, the letter of James “to the twelve tribes of the Jewish diaspora”5 praises the Torah and ascribes it saving function (Jas. 1:21), but only mentions Jesus twice, in incidental ways (1:1 and 2:1). Though Acts and the probably forged letter of 1 Peter depict Peter as Pauline, most scholars think he was a Jewish Christian like James, as did Paul (see Gal. 2:11-14).
Because Paul rejected the authority of the Torah, he wrote against Jewish Christians in 3 of his 7 undisputed letters. This is the main subject of Galatians, and he also warns against “dogs” who insist on circumcision in Phil. 3:2-3, and against “superapostles” who boast of being “Hebrews” and “Israelites” in 2 Cor. 11:5 and 22-23.
The author of Matthew was probably a Jewish Christian. He, like Luke, borrowed heavily from the earlier gospel of Mark, but changed the Markan story in ways to emphasize Jesus’ commitment to the Torah. For example, when quoting Mark’s story about Jesus discussing food, Matthew omits Mark’s note about declaring all foods clean.6 Matthew also quotes Jesus as saying that “not one dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (5:17-20).
Soon, Pauline Christianity came to dominance, but Jewish Christianity remained influential, and is preserved in some early Christian writings that are as old as some books of the New Testament but were not chosen for the New Testament canon (1 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Didache7 ). Mostly, though, we know about Jewish Christianity’s continuing influence through its critics.8
Jewish Christianity suffered a great blow from the Jewish-Roman wars of of 66 and 132 CE, during which the Jewish Temple was destroyed and Jewish Christians were scattered. Another problem for Jewish Christians was the incredible success of the Gentile mission led by Paul. Jewish Christians could not compete with Paul’s message that converts could “enjoy all the benefits of membership in Israel without suffering the inconveniences associated with strict observance of the Law,”9 for example self-mutilation of the penis.
By the fourth century, the Council of Nicea (backed by the weight of the Roman Empire) and the formation of the New Testament canon decided forever what Christianity was, and it was not Jewish Christianity.
A few Jewish Christian groups survive today, two notable ones being Jews for Jesus and Messianic Judaism. But nearly all the varieties of Christianity we see today – Roman Catholic and Russian Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran, Methodist and Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Assyrian, Anabaptist, Charismatic, Mormon, and Postmodern – are essentially Gentile, or Pauline forms of Christianity.
Pauline Christianity is the sect I’ll discuss next time.
- For example, see Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. [↩]
- See Bernheim’s James, brother of Jesus and Bauckham’s Jude and the relatives of Jesus. [↩]
- Antiquities of the Jews, 20.201. [↩]
- Although Paul (in Gal. 2:1-10) says James acquiesced to the decision of the Jerusalem council that Jewish law should not be imposed on Gentile converts, Gal. 2:11-14 indicates that James’ followers still thought the law was binding, at least for Jewish Christians. [↩]
- James 1:1. The letter was probably not written by James, but at least represents the thought of his sect. [↩]
- See Mark 7:19 vs. Matt. 15:15-20. Also see The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, p. 94. [↩]
- See The Didache: Its Jewish Sources and its place in early Judaism and Christianity. [↩]
- Here, it is useful to read an overview like Jackson-McCabe’s Jewish Christianity Reconsidered and Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple. [↩]
- The Cambridge History of Christianity: Origins to Constantine, p. 101. [↩]
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