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How Jewish was the early Church?

Written by Knut Hoyland

In Matthew 15, we read the story of Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman. After initially dismissing her pleas for help, Yeshua (Jesus) ends up healing her daughter and acknowledging the woman’s faith. As one of the few encounters between Jesus and non-Jews recorded in the gospels, this passage has been interpreted as providing a model for the relationship between the Jewishness of the early Jesus movement and the predominantly Gentile Christian church which emerged in the post New Testament era.

Today we speak of Judaism and Christianity as two separate and distinct religions. It is true that the Messianic movement challenges this distinction by reconciling faith in Yeshua with Jewish identity, even making it a natural consequence of that identity. However, for most of the world, Judaism and Christianity remain two clearly different religions. The question remains: at what point in our history can we begin to point to two distinct religions? The first followers of Christ were all Jews, and identified as such. Even with the influx of Gentile believers into the movement, for many centuries the Jesus movement remained a Jewish movement in active dialogue – sometimes in agreement and sometimes in dispute – with other Jewish groups and streams of thought.

These essential questions are the ones on which The Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) aims to shed light. How did the early Jesus movement evolve into what we know today as the Christian Church? How did it influence and how was it influenced by what later became Rabbinic Judaism? Where can we find traces of that early movement? How Jewish was it? And at what point(s) can we identify a “parting of the ways”, if there was a parting at all? Through original articles covering a variety of fields, JJMJS hopes to bring to light new facets of this important part of both Jewish and Christian history.

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In the third JJMJS issue, Deborah Forger discussed how the aforementioned passage from Matthew 15 is interpreted by different sources during the 4th century, and how these varying interpretations can provide clues as to Christian and Jewish identity formation in Syria during that era. Forger discusses two texts drawn from the sermons of John Chrysostom and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. The full analysis of these texts, and what we can learn from them, can be found in Forger’s article itself, which I highly recommend reading (http://www.jjmjs.org/uploads/1/1/9/0/11908749/jjmjs-3_forger.pdf).

To sum up her fascinating findings: Both texts relate to the story from Matthew 15 (and its parallel in Mark 7) – but end up with diametrically opposite conclusions: “While Chrysostom employs the narratives to construct for his congregants a ‘Christian’ identity that was disassociated from the Jewish ethnicity of their founder, Jesus, the Homilist suggests the woman receives Jesus’ aid only after she becomes a ‘Jew’ herself.” (p. 138). In Chrysostom’s thinking, Jesus is stepping out of the Jewish world physically and ideologically. By acknowledging the Canaanite woman’s faith, he lays the foundation for the Gentile Church. This Church leaves behind her Jewish roots and identity and forms a new identity. This new identity can be seen as hostile to Jewish identity and faith, as is evident from Chrysostom’s other writings. The author of the Homilies, on the other hand, sees the faith of the Canaanite woman as a sign that she has accepted the God of Israel as her own, putting her faith in him and in Jesus as his prophet, thereby becoming part of the people and faith of Israel. Jesus affirms her faith, and he chooses to heal her daughter.

These competing interpretations paint a complex picture of the Jesus movement in the 4th century. The lines between Jew and Christian are not clearly drawn, and there is an ongoing process of shaping the identity of Jesus followers, Jewish and Gentile. Forger notes, “For both John and the Homilist, the Jewish ethnic background of Jesus no longer mattered, albeit for very different reasons. For the former, ethnic identity was replaced by ideological belief. For the latter, ethnic identity was superseded by faithful observance. The net effect of these interpretive moves was that while John attempted to divorce himself and his congregations from ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism,’ the Homilist embraced them instead.” (p.164).

This article, then, does not answer the question: “How Jewish was the early Church?”, but it does give us a glimpse into the complex reality of the Jewish-Christian Jesus movement as it took shape in the centuries following the New Testament era. For more glimpses into this fascinating history, I suggest you go to www.jjmjs.org and explore the many articles available in JJMJS.


JJMJS is an independent academic journal published by Eisenbrauns Publishing, available online for free and supported by the Caspari Center and other academic institutions around the world. The fourth issue has just been released and is currently available on the JJMJS website.

Rev. Hoyland is the former Caspari Center CEO (2007-2013). He currently serves as Pastor of the Evangelical Free Church in Grimstad and the managing editor of the Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting.

This article originally appeared on Caspari Center, October 31, 2017, and reposted with permission.

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