Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts

By Matt Jackson-McCabe, ed.
Minneapolis : Fortress (2007). 389 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
18.2 (Fall 2007) : 263-265

It is encouraging to note that the study of early Jewish Christianity has experienced something of a revival in recent years, after decades of serious neglect. The neglect can most likely be traced to the influence of such scholars as Adolph Harnack and Rudolph Bultmann, who saw Jewish Christianity as a primitive form of the faith that was quickly replaced by a Gentile Christianity, influenced by Paul. This volume could be viewed as something like a status quaestionis regarding the subject.

The book is an edited collection of papers, most of which were originally delivered in the Jewish Christianity Consultation at recent meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature. The chairman of that consultation, Matt Jackson-McCabe, is editor of the book. The first chapter by Jackson-McCabe discusses the problem of what to call this early movement—Jewish Christianity, Christian Judaism, etc. The following chapters are divided into two main sections: “Part I: Groups” and “Part II: Texts.” The authors, who evidently have thought deeply about their subjects, discuss familiar themes: the early composition of the Jerusalem church (Hebrews and Hellenists); the identity of the so-called Judaizers opposed by Paul; and the continuing history of those Jewish groups called by the Fathers “Ebionites” and “Nazarenes.” Later chapters deal with the Jewish-Christian character of the mythical “Q” document, the Gospels of Matthew and John, the Apocalypse, and the Didache. The final chapter is a very helpful discussion of what is often considered the last ancient writing by a Jewish Christian author, the Pseudo-Clementines, written by the world’s authority on that composite document, F. Stanley Jones.

As is always the case in a collection of different authors, the chapters are uneven, with some more valuable than others. In this reviewer’s opinion, the most insightful and helpful chapter for the non-specialist and/or pastor is the one by Patrick Hartin, “The Religious Context of the Letter of James.” It is so good in analyzing the thought of this neglected epistle that it alone is worth the price of the book. The chapter on the Didache by Jonathan Draper is also quite insightful, especially serving as an excellent introduction to the issues raised by the study of this unique little gem from the early church.

Sadly, the editor’s introduction is perhaps the weakest part of the book. Consider as one example the following biased and almost arrogant statement by Jackson-McCabe, “No serious scholar believes that the canonical Letter of James . . . was produced within the Jerusalem community, let alone by James himself” (11). Having been engaged in a serious study of this subject myself, I marvel at his describing such recognized scholars as Luke Johnson and Richard Bauckham as not being serious scholars, because they can offer no better alternative to the authorship of the epistle than James the Lord’s brother! These and other statements revealing his higher-critical bias may indicate that the title “no serious scholar” might apply to the editor himself.

This flaw is fortunately not indicative of the other excellent chapters. Readers will benefit greatly from becoming more familiar with a movement in the Christian world that sadly disappeared after ca. A.D. 400. The current revival of “Messianic Judaism” both in Israel and in the Diaspora is an indication that Christians need to pay greater attention to the deep Jewish roots of their faith. This volume is a good place to do just that, as is the more conservative work by the evangelical Norwegian scholar, Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (InterVarsity, 2002).