‘When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation’ by Paula Fredriksen – A Brief Review

Author: Paula Fredriksen

Book: When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation

Publisher: Yale University Press

Year: 2018

Page Count: 272 pages

Price: $22.00 (paperback)

Both readers of my blog probably know that I have a deep respect for and admiration of historian Paula Fredriksen. My own views on Paul and the Christ-following movement he was part of have been shaped largely by her illuminating book Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle[1] that was published in 2017. She is eminently readable and always informative. This is true of everything she writes including her 2018 volume When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation.[2] Building on work she’s done in prior volumes like Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle as well as Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews,[3] Fredriksen peeks behind the curtains of history to query how a sect of Judaism became a religion of gentiles. 

In reading When Christians Were Jews, it is glaringly obvious that Jerusalem plays an important role in the story. And why wouldn’t it? Jerusalem was not only a gravity well around which Judaism orbited, it was the location in which Jesus of Nazareth was executed for insurrection (“King of the Jews”). But this data point betrays a fact that is surprising: the earliest Christ-followers centered themselves in the very city that had killed their leader. Why? The answer to that question unfolds page-by-page in Fredriksen’s work, taking us to places that at first may seem unrelated to that query. 

For example, what was Jesus’s relationship to Jerusalem and its temple to the Jewish god? One scene problematizes it: the incident in the Court of Nations. Space does not permit a full telling of the scene that can be read in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:10-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17) but important here is its meaning. By casting out the money changers and preventing people from carrying items through the temple (a scene Fredriksen correctly assesses as “untroubled by a strong sense of realism,” p. 46; cf. Mark 11:16), is Jesus signaling his disdain for the temple? Fredriksen doesn’t think so, citing the apostle Paul who held to a positive view of the temple, thereby reducing the likelihood that his movement’s progenitor held an opposite view. This is one of many places (pp. 26-29) where both her prose and attentiveness shine since she teases from the undisputed letters of Paul details often missed by many readers, I among them. If Paul revered the temple, why wouldn’t Jesus? Indeed, various pericopes suggest Jesus valued the Jewish temple with its adherence to Levitical law (e.g., Mark 1:44, Matthew 5:23).[4]

If the scene in the temple doesn’t communicate Jesus’s negative view of it, what is its purpose? In short, in the Gospel of Mark it provides Jesus with new enemies, specifically priests  and other religious authorities in Jerusalem who will move the plot along toward the cross. But this raises more issues. For example, why would Rome care? By-and-large, intramural disputes were of no interest to the Roman governor. That is, unless they could lead to an uprising. What caught Pontius Pilate’s attention was not so much Jesus, Fredriksen opines, as it was the crowds that followed. By himself, Jesus posed no threat: he never said that he himself would lead a political change, only that the “reign of God” was soon to come. But the crowds began to declare him messiah and that was unacceptable. The expedient solution was not to violently suppress the crowds but to ruin their messianic expectations. Crucifying Jesus as a rebel accomplished just that. 

Yet this wasn’t the end of Jesus of Nazareth. Some of his followers began to claim they saw him alive. Paul is our earliest source for this, writing in 1 Corinthians 15 that the good news he had received and had passed on to the Corinthians included not only Jesus’s death and resurrection but also a variety of appearances, beginning with Cephas (i.e., Peter) and, pertinent to them, Paul himself. But some of the details offered by Paul differ in significant ways from what we find in the Evangelists. And many of the details proffered by the Evangelists differ from one another. Reconstructing what happened that Easter is nigh to impossible but, Fredriksen writes, these accounts “all assert that these appearances began very shortly after Jesus’s execution; indeed, within days of his death” (p. 79). If Paul is to be believed, such appearances continued years later (Galatians 1:16; 1 Corinthians 9:1; cf. Acts 9:1-9 and parallels). Seeing Jesus alive functioned as confirmation that the End was right around the corner. If Jesus had been raised, then the general resurrection must be near. And where better to wait for it but Jerusalem? 

Fredriksen notes that choosing Jerusalem as their base of operations was “in any practical way, economically or politically,” senseless (p. 91). But it did make sense for other reasons. First, the apostle Paul writes that all Israel will be saved because “out of Zion will come the Deliverer” (Romans 11:26). Jerusalem would be ground zero for the Parousia. Second, she writes, “it would be to Jerusalem that all the families of man, at the Endtime, would flow” (p. 92). This point is underappreciated, but it is a theme recurrent in prophetic literature (e.g., Isaiah 66:20-23; Zechariah 14:17, etc.). Jerusalem was the epicenter of eschatology. Why leave? 

But leave some of them did. The delay of the End no doubt created some measure of cognitive dissonance within the earliest Christ-followers. But rather than abandon the movement altogether, they came to believe there had been a misunderstanding. If Israel was not coming to them, they would go to Israel, specifically in the Diaspora. Thus, the mission to the pagans was born. But as the mission spread and Jesus had not yet returned, more creative attempts at resolving the dissonance emerged (“The apostles needed to improvise, and that is what they did,” p. 142). The apostle Paul, for example, told his Roman audience that the End was delayed because all Israel was not yet saved. And all Israel was not yet saved because God was bringing in the “full number of the Gentiles” (Romans 11:25ff). 

In this way, a movement that began as a thoroughly Jewish sect gradually became thoroughly gentile. Could they have foreseen this? I doubt it. The messiah was a Jewish king who would rule on the Jewish throne in the Jewish city of Jerusalem. What role would the gentiles play other than to pay homage to him? And yet the mission to the Diaspora spelled the doom for the Jewish Jesus movement and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE all but sealed its fate. This is the note Fredriksen ends on. What happened to the assembly of Christ-followers in Jerusalem when Rome sacked the city and razed the temple? Did they flee the city as centuries-after-the-fact tradition claims? Were they executed by the Romans, following in the footsteps of Jesus himself? It’s impossible to know for certain. What we do know is that following this traumatic event and the failure of Jesus to show up the cognitive dissonance that had built up over decades of delay only ramped up, resulting in a change of expectations, including that the assemblies were in it for the long haul and needed structuring (see the Pastoral Epistles). 

There is much in When Christians Were Jews to commend to readers. For those wanting a history of the first generation of Christ-followers based upon the few sources we have available with which to reconstruct it, it is a compelling read. For those looking for a perspective that normalizes placing Jesus and Paul in their native Judaism, this volume accomplishes that and more. Coupled with her Paul: The Pagans’ ApostleWhen Christians Were Jews offers us an accessible yet scholarly introduction to this ancient movement that appeals neither to anachronism nor anomaly. It is for that reason I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

[1] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017). 

[2] Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

[3] Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage Books, 1999).

[4] For more on this, see Matthew Thiessen’s Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020).

1 thought on “‘When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation’ by Paula Fredriksen – A Brief Review

  1. Excellent review. Though I must say I remain quite unconvinced of Frederiksen’s core presentation of Paul. I find his stark statement in 1 Cor. 9: 19-24 incomprehensible if Paul’s ‘identity’ markers remained as a Torah-observant Jew. Similarly, Paul’s statement in Phil. 3 that his Pharisaic background, zeal, persecution of the assembly of God is of loss to him (seemingly in an absolute sense) and he considers it dung – skubala.

    Seems like special pleading to Isolate persecutor of the assembly from Paul’s list and say he considers that a loss in an absolute sense, yet somehow relativize the other items in the list? Seems like a weird, strained interpretation of Paul’s rhetoric in that chapter, especially when he then says his citizenship is in heaven, awaiting the Lord Jesus (Phil. 3:20).

    Though I thoroughly appreciated Frederiksen’s demolition of the tired myth in NT studies that to Jews crucifixion in the 1st century was considered a “cursed” type of death. That is indeed nonsense.

    Liked by 1 person

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