Earlier this year I read with great delight Paula Fredriksen’s When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (Yale University Press, 2018). Without going into great detail, Fredriksen’s work attempts to situate the early Jesus movement in its original Jewish context, specifically as an apocalyptic sect within Judaism. It wasn’t until the end of the first century and the beginning of the second that the Jesus movement began to diverge from Judaism generally and could rightly be called “Christianity.” But for the earliest Jesus followers, Judaism was what they lived and breathed. Fredriksen writes that “in its founding generation – which was committed to the belief that it was history’s final generation – members of this movement were traditionally observant Jews, Paul included” (p. 140, electronic edition).
In the last month or so I’ve had the opportunity to read two different reviews of When Christians Were Jews. The first appeared in the summer issue of Biblical Archaeological Review and was written by Zeba Crook (pp. 24-25). Crook’s review is generally positive, noting that Fredriksen makes some strong points (e.g. her case that the Johannine three-year mission of Jesus is historically more preferable to the Synoptic single year). But he also points out that Fredriksen’s engagement with recent scholarship is minimal and that, for him, “there is something about it that feels dated” (p. 25). Nevertheless, Crook thinks that When Christians Were Jews “already does much” (p. 25).
Another review was written Shayna Sheinfeld for Ancient Jew Review. This too is a positive review, but she also notes that Fredriksen’s citations skew to her own older work. But Sheinfeld places it in perspective, writing, “The work presents the culmination of a senior scholar’s career, and the footnotes are signposts of her earlier more typically academic, defensive, and painstaking work.” She concludes by commending the book and noting that interested lay people (like me) with little to no background in the Second Temple period would benefit from Fredriksen’s work.
When Christians Were Jews is to me a lot like some of Bart Ehrman’s trade books. When you read Ehrman’s endnotes, you see he refers often to other things he has written in the past. And that’s because he’s written a lot. And since trade books are written for a popular level audience, he doesn’t try to talk about everything one would in a more academic work. I think the same is true of Fredriksen. When Christians Were Jews feels more informal and less of an academic treatise than a casual exploration of the first generation of Jesus followers. That doesn’t mean it is without rigor; anyone who has read any of Fredriksen’s previous books or listened to her lectures knows that her bite is as powerful as her bark!
When Christians Were Jews has a lot of bite.