BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Review: When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation

When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation

By Paula Fredriksen
(New Haven: Yale, 2018), 272 pp., 3 maps, 2 b/w images, $27.50 (hardcover), $20.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Zeba Crook

If history is not the past itself, but the creative narratives scholars weave about the past, then in this book Paula Fredriksen has certainly produced history.

Fredriksen combines evidence from Josephus, the canonical gospels, Acts, and the Pauline letters in an attempt to reconstruct what happened in the years between (and including) the execution of Jesus of Nazareth and the destruction of Jerusalem. Her driving question? How did a thoroughly Jewish millenarian “kingdom” movement become a Gentile movement planning for a future what was never supposed to have come? The result is as readable and accessible as a novel, with something for everyone: provocative reevaluations of traditional scholarly paradigms for the academic readers and generous (for some, perhaps, overly generous) assumptions about the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts for those so inclined.

Acknowledging the Jewishness of Jesus and his followers means, among other things, recognizing that criticism of the Temple is not tantamount to a rejection of Judaism. This applies as much to Paul of Tarsus as it does to Jesus of Nazareth. Fredriksen offers many examples of people whose Jewishness is never questioned, and yet who were critical—even hostile—toward the Temple and Jewish elite society. Indeed, the Temple remains the focus of the followers of Jesus until the very end in Fredriksen’s telling of the story. It warrants stressing that even for post-Holocaust, modern-day Christians, this is a point that cannot be made often enough. Though open hostility from mainstream Christians toward Jews is currently very low, too often supersessionism thrives, even if subtly: namely, the belief that because Jesus came to fix something broken, lacking, or missing in Judaism, he somehow sits just outside of it.

In addition, acknowledging that Jesus’s Jewish message was one meant for—and, presumably, understandable only to—Jews means that we need to explain how it came to be that the Jesus movement grew most strongly among non-Jews. It is not as simple as postulating that Paul took it upon himself to proselytize Gentiles. Fredriksen’s provocative hypothesis is that including non-Jews in the movement was an after-thought, almost accidental. The inclusion of Gentiles then came to be theologized—as a sign of the approaching kingdom of God, which they believed Jesus had prophesied. This is one of Fredriksen’s strongest points.

Another very strong point in her book relates to Fredriksen’s treatment of the Gospel of John. She makes a case that John’s three-year mission for Jesus is much preferable to the synoptic one-year mission. Though the case is made early in the book, Fredriksen returns to it at numerous places throughout the narrative, which adds to its strength. It is a convincing case and has forced me to reconsider my own position on the matter.

Despite these (and many other) strengths to the book, there is something about it that feels dated. While there are a few small nods to recent scholarship (e.g., the second-century date suggested for the composition of Acts), the broader theoretical frameworks that drive the narrative of this book are those that represent the best of 1970–80s biblical scholarship, such as sectarianism, millenarian movements, cognitive dissonance, and referring to the Pauline groups as “assemblies.” At many paper writings places, Fredriksen’s observations would have gained nuance, theoretical richness, and even confirmation with the incorporation of recent thinking on social identity and collective memory. Indeed, her very subject matter begs for these, for she is writing about how a community forged an identity for itself while pressed to construct memories of its past. Such considerations might have given the book a more contemporary feel. Of course, no book can do everything, and this book already does much.


Zeba Crook is Professor of Religion at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research and teaching focus on Christian origins and the historical Jesus in the context of the ancient Mediterranean social world.

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1 Responses

  1. As a PhD in Philosophy who now teaches an undergraduate course called Humanism and Mysticism every semester, I’m ordering this book. Remember that undergrads somewhat naively are eager to uncover what the historical figure “really said,” and “what really happened.” If this book is “as readable and accessible as a novel, with something for everyone,” that’s for us. I also, frankly, value the humanization of all Jews that comes from discovering that Jesus truly was one.

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1 Responses

  1. As a PhD in Philosophy who now teaches an undergraduate course called Humanism and Mysticism every semester, I’m ordering this book. Remember that undergrads somewhat naively are eager to uncover what the historical figure “really said,” and “what really happened.” If this book is “as readable and accessible as a novel, with something for everyone,” that’s for us. I also, frankly, value the humanization of all Jews that comes from discovering that Jesus truly was one.

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