Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion? Matthew Thiessen’s Answer

I know, I know – I’ve been on a Matthew Thiessen kick as of late. First, my review of his fantastic book Jesus and the Forces of Death. Then his interview over at the OnScript podcast. Now, this post. But let me briefly explain why I am a bit obsessed. Thiessen reminds me of Paula Fredriksen, the author of Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (Yale University Press, 2017). No, it isn’t the hair. Rather, both Fredriksen and Thiessen write in such a clear and compelling way that you come away from their work not only with the feeling you’ve learned something of value but also with a model to pattern your own writing after. I know I’m no Fredriksen or Thiessen but I feel like if I can write half as well as they do then both of my readers will be better off for it. I digress.

Thiessen recently posted over on his academia.edu profile his contribution to the recently released edited volume Understanding the Jewish Roots of Christianity: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Essays on the Relationship Between Christianity and Judaism (Lexham Press, 2021). In his essay “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion?” Thiessen argues that on the basis of the data we have in the Synoptic Gospels, we can at least say that as far as their authors were concerned Jesus had no interest in starting a religion apart from Judaism. Jesus valued the temple as the dwelling place of Israel’s god, the ritual purity system as the means by which the impure can deal with their impurities and approach God, and the Sabbath as the day prescribed by God to rest. Poignantly, Thiessen notes that if the historical Jesus had rejected these as passé then why do the Evangelists “depict him in a way that contradicts this truth? Could the gospel writers ‘really have understood nothing’?” (p. 31) This question has implications for the study of the historical Jesus since if the Gospel writers were wrong then their historical value is seriously undermined.

This essay is packed and fully referenced so you’ll find some great material in the footnotes from which to launch your own expedition on the subject. But if you’re wondering if Jesus was trying to start a new religion, Thiessen’s piece is a great place to start. It’s clear that as far as the Synoptic Jesus is concerned, Jesus was a first-century Jew with a Jewish worldview and therefore Jewish beliefs about Temple and Torah.

13 thoughts on “Did Jesus Plan to Start a New Religion? Matthew Thiessen’s Answer

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  1. This was one of my very first peeves about Christianity. I don’t think you have to be a scholar to reach this conclusion: Jesus was born a Jew, lived his entire life as a Jew, comments on the imperative of the Law as sine qua non, absolute and sacrosanct, and, finally, dies and was buried as a Jew.

    Where’s the argument that he came to change the Law and create a new religion? It comes from Paul, a man who never met Jesus, never spoke with him or sat and learned his teachings, or even seemed to know anything about him if you read his letters. doesn’t mention anything about his life, his mother, any of his miracles, his birth from a virgin, nothing at all except his death and supposed rising from the grave. Everything else seems to be useless trivia according to Paul.

    It should be called Paul-ianity, not Christianity. It has nothing to do with Jesus, if such a man actually even existed.

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  2. How could he NOT have been trying to start his own religion? He says he was a devout Jew, a Pharisee in fact! He ends up teaching that keeping the Law is no longer necessary; keeping kosher, circumcision, etc. all goes out the window.

    Isn’t that a new religion? It certainly isn’t Judaism; it’s not any pagan religion that I can recognize.

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    1. I think it’s pretty clear that Paul thought he was promoting the messianic ingathering of the gentiles into existing, true, and valid Jewish religion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I take a slightly different view, that Paul wanted the Jews to be Jews and gentiles to be gentiles as they followed Christ, thereby fulfilling eschatological expectations found in the prophets that gentiles as gentiles, not Jews, would come to worship the god of Israel.

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  3. Isn’t it already a settled matter? Paul & Peter argue about eating with gentiles, circumcision, etc. with Paul arguing that gentiles needn’t be subjected to the rigors of the Law? I always thought this was Paul’s way of starting something he could lead and the gentiles were a open & welcoming audience for him.

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    1. I think there was a lot more flux in the early Jesus movement than some believe. If you want to read an excellent survey of Paul and his beliefs in their Jewish context, Paula Fredriksen’s ‘Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle’ is eye opening. I’ve read it twice since it came out in 2017 and will probably read it again this year.

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      1. Yes, I read it and will also re-read at some point. I love her work. I personally believe she has about the best handle on the Jesus movement

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on Apetivist and commented:
    I came to the same conclusion. Pauline Christianity and other variations were never a part of Jesus’s supposed plan depicted in the Hospels.

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    1. Not at all. Paul takes great license in re-creating Jesus’ “message.” He also doesn’t seem to know much about Jesus’ life at all.

      A really good book on this subject is Hyam Maccoby’s “MythMaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.” Maccoby is a Hebrew scholar and demonstrates how full of shit Paul actually was. He calls Paul out on almost all of his assertions starting with his claim to have studied under Gamaliel and his being a Pharisee. It’s a short read but very well done.

      Also, see Rabbi Tovia Singer on YouTube and watch his short vignettes about about the holes in theNew Testament, how Jesus couldn’t have been the messiah, etc. Usually 10-15 minutes each. Worth the time.

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