“When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation” by Paula Fredriksen— Christianity’s Jewish Beginnings

Fredriksen, Paula. “When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation”, Yale University Press, 2018. Christianity’s Jewish Beginnings Amos Lassen Paula Fredriksen gives us a compelling account of Christianity’s Jewish beginnings. I worry a lot and often about things that I have no part of. I have often wondered and worried how a group of charismatic, apocalyptic Jewish missionaries who were working to prepare their world for the realization and acceptance of God’s promises to Israel, bring about a movement that would grow into the gentile church? Because they were so committed to Jesus’s prophecy of “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”, they were, in their own eyes, history’s last generation but in history’s eyes, they became the first Christians. Paula Frederiksen gives us the social and intellectual history of the by reconstructing the life of the earliest Jerusalem community. Her account comes out of this group’s hopeful celebration of Passover with Jesus and takes us through their bitter controversies that fragmented the movement’s missions, to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. She paints a vivid portrait both of this temple‑centered messianic movement and of the convictions that animated and sustained it. We see the early Christian movement firmly within Judaism and as “radically eschatological, variegated, evolving – and far less critical of ancestral customs and norms than is traditionally imagined.”  We get correctives to a number of prevailing views of Jesus, Paul, and the Gospel writers.   Fredriksen traces the first generation of Christians  with empathy and shows their changing perspectives as events unfolded in unanticipated ways. Fredriksen’s basic thesis is that Jesus was a fairly conventional apocalyptic prophet. He preached the coming of God’s kingdom for an unspecified number of years and was well-known to the authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus’s preaching of the coming of the Kingdom put the people in a state of high expectation during Jesus’s last visit to Jerusalem. Hence Pilate had his guard arrest Jesus and then then had him crucified to send a message to the crowds that Jesus was most definitely not their expected king. Quite simply this meant that Jesus would not be re-establishing the Kingdom. During this time, they reinterpreted Jesus’s message to include the destruction of the Temple and gave Jesus an ancestry from the House of David. Paul sees Jesus as a lesser divine being, but does not radically divinize Jesus as being one with the Father. Paul, importantly, never claims that Jesus is a god but he did say that Jesus was “in the form of [a] god” before he appeared “in the likeness of men.” Fredriksen crafts her narrative in some surprising ways. For example, she favors John’s gospel on a variety of issues. Thus, Fredriksen accepts the Gospel of John’s testimony to the number of years that Jesus was active and the number of trips he made to Jerusalem. She also accepts at least John’s version of the timing of the statements that Jesus made concerning the moneychangers in the temple.
It is important that Pilate and the temple priests knew that Jesus was not really a rebel and not a threat to the established order. Thus, the temple priests had no real reason to seek Jesus’s death, and they were too involved in Passover activities to be able to spend any time in all the back and forth of trials and crucifixion. This puts the blame on Pilate, who knew that Jesus was a peaceful teacher and not an agitator. Moreover, because Jesus’s teachings were known from his prior trips to Jerusalem, Pilate and the High Priests did not have to try Jesus and there was no opportunity for the crowd scenes that are attested to in the gospels.

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