In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity

In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity

Oskar Skarsaune
InterVarsity Press,
455 pages, $30

The year was A.D. 70. Jerusalem was surrounded by Roman troops, and an important Jewish leader made a daring escape. He had his friends carry him inside a coffin past guards at Jerusalem's gates. (Josephus reports that in the two and a half months before Jerusalem's final destruction, 115,000 corpses were carried out of the city. No wonder Yochanan employed this ruse.)

Once outside the walls, Rabbi Yochanan made his way to the Roman camp and asked to see General Vespasian. They struck a deal, and Rabbi Yohanan went on to Yavneh where he took the lead in reorganizing Jewish belief and life, thus laying the foundations for the Rabbinic Judaism we know today.

But Rabbi Yohanan wasn't the only one to escape. According to Eusebius, the community of Jewish believers in Jesus fled Jerusalem as well and took refuge in the Gentile town of Pella in the Decapolis.

Those who remained in Jerusalem died. The Temple, the ritual center of Jewish religion, was destroyed. And much of Judaism died with it. The various religious and political parties whose names we know from the New Testament and Josephus were wiped out: No more Sadducees, Shammaite Pharisees, Essenes, or Zealots.

But the followers of Yohanan and the followers of Jesus survived, each group developing its own unique way to worship the God of Abraham without the sacrificial system of Moses. Though the two groups went their separate ways, they continued to influence each other, much the way Republicans and Democrats do: by the way they frame issues and by the way they try to distinguish themselves from each other. In In the Shadow of the Temple, Oskar Skarsaune, professor of church history at Norwegian Lutheran Theological Seminary, tells how that competition helped keep Christianity Jewish.

Becoming the Temple
Each of the two survivor movements had to find a way to "replace" the recently destroyed Temple and its sacrifices. Rabbinic Judaism bolstered the role of synagogue and the Torah in order to fill the void. The nascent church thought of itself as the new Temple (Eph. 2:19-22; cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8). Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate priest. He was also the chief cornerstone of the new living temple, the foundation being the apostles and prophets, and believers being the living stones. The Holy Spirit was the new Shekinah, the manifestation of God's Temple presence.

Those images are familiar to modern Bible readers, but the power of these metaphors is lost on us. For Jewish followers of Jesus, the precincts of Jerusalem and the Temple provided a point of geographical integration. Isaiah had predicted that the word of the Lord would go forth from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:3). In that poetic passage, Jerusalem is in synonymous parallelism with Zion, the mount of the Lord, and the house of the God of Jacob. The latter two phrases refer to the Temple, while Zion was the part of Jerusalem where the cenacle (or "upper room") was located and the earliest church was informally headquartered. Thus apostles prayed in the Temple and taught in the Temple. Skarsaune writes, "It seems as if the early believers purposefully ignored the sacrificial cult going on in the Temple. … They treated the Temple as if it were the supreme synagogue"—a place for teaching and for prayer, but not for sacrifice. According to Acts 4, their earliest clashes with the authorities came precisely because they taught in the Temple.

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Thus when the Temple was destroyed, the church adopted a powerful new understanding of itself as the temple built of living stones. It gave believers after A.D. 70 a sense of divine calling, of prophetic fulfillment, and of being part of God's eternal plan. To stress the importance of this temple imagery, Skarsaune provides a brief text box at the end of each of the book's chapters to show how each topic connects to the temple in early Christian thought.

Affirming creation
Some scholars see the development of early Christian thought and practice as a series of Hellenizing moments, as Christianity became increasingly less Hebraic and more Greek. Skarsaune devotes much of his book to debunking such claims.

One of the most crucial examples is the way the early Christians clung to key Hebrew notions about the material world: God is the creator of the material world. Creation was good. The Hebrew Bible is a genuine revelation. And the Bible's teaching about the resurrection of the body—that God will restore those who trust him to a bodily existence for eternity—must be believed.

By contrast, as Tom Wright demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God, there were no parallels to the resurrection of the body in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Greeks thought Paul foolish when he preached the resurrection in Athens (Acts 17:32). If the early Christians had been trying to become user-friendly in a Hellenized culture, they would have avoided the Resurrection and rejected, as Marcion and the Gnostic heretics did, the Old Testament and its affirmation of the material world.

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Scholars like Princeton University's Elaine Pagels are promoting an alternative Christianity these days by trying to rehabilitate Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas. They claim these materials were excluded from the New Testament because of political struggles between Christian factions. For them, heresy is more about politics than truth. But it is crucial to note that early church definitions of heresy uniformly focus on the goodness of the material world. Skarsaune cites Justin Martyr writing in the middle of the second century and the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum from the middle of the third. Both define heresy as the rejection of the creator God portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures and the denial of the resurrection of the body. And to underscore how Jewish this is, Skarsaune cites the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), which lists among those who have "no share in the world to come" those who deny that the Torah teaches the resurrection of the dead and those who say that the Torah did not come from heaven.

Skarsaune offers similar arguments regarding conversion rites. The practice of Christian baptism (in "living water" that is allowed to touch every part of the body), accompanied by a formal renunciation of Satan and ritual exorcism followed by a first Eucharist in the early church have their parallels in Jewish texts about proselyte baptism (also in "living water" that is allowed to touch every part of the body), accompanied by a renunciation of idols and the offering of a first sacrifice.

Pagans were not known for dying for their religions. But Christians and Jews were. Thus Skarsaune is able to draw careful comparisons between stories such as the Martyrs of Lyons (ca. 177) and the accounts of the Maccabean martyrs, once more showing the essential Jewishness of the Christian ethos.

Skarsaune also points to the parallels between early Christian writers (the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the letters of Ignatius) and contemporary Jewish texts. He even finds that in his apology, Justin used the same messianic proof texts as those most quoted in the Talmud.

Readers with a theological bent will be especially interested in Skarsaune's analysis of the differences between how the Old Roman creed and the Nicene Creed describe Christian belief in the Messiah. Skarsaune's summary: "While the Old Roman creed portrays Jesus as the Messiah doing the task predicted by the prophets, the eastern creed portrays him as a divine being becoming incarnate, as the mediator of creation who himself became man, suffered for his own creatures, and was then exalted." The first is narrative and horizontal; the second, theological and vertical.

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This theology, with its emphasis on the Incarnation, is another place at which scholars wrongly assert a Hellenizing influence. That is easily dismissed, given Hellenic attitudes toward the material world. But Skarsaune goes further. He shows that the theology of the Nicene Creed is a mirror of the way the Rabbis wrote about Wisdom and Torah. Simply put, the Rabbis took what Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon said about Wisdom's being God's firstborn, a participant in creation, and the "radiance" of God's glory, and they applied it to the Torah. The apostles took the same material and applied it to Jesus. And the Nicene Fathers simply appropriated that very Jewish mode of thought from the New Testament.

The church history of earlier textbooks often ignored the contributions of slaves, women, and populist movements. Recent volumes have begun to remedy this. Skarsaune and his New Testament colleague Reidar Hvalvik are now hoping to do the same for Jewish believers. They are collaborating on a three-volume History of Jewish Believers in Jesus from Antiquity to the Present. The first volume (antiquity to ca. 500) is due from Hendrickson in 2004. If this major history is as readable as In the Shadow of the Temple, it will be of great interest to all who seek better understanding in the body of Christ. Too often, Jewish believers in Jesus have been seen as an anomaly, with Gentile Christianity serving as the norm. This major project should help to restore the New Testament sense of the church as the place where Jews and Gentiles are fellow members of the household of God.

Related Elsewhere

Skarsaune is the chief editor of the Caspari Center's History of Jewish Believers in Jesus project.

InterVarsity Press has more information on the book, including the full text of its introduction and first chapter.

In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity is this month's selection for CT's Editor's Bookshelf. Elsewhere on our site you can:

Read an extended interview; with author Oskar Skarsaune
Buy the book online

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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