How should Gentile Christians relate to their faith differently in light of how profoundly our Jewish heritage shaped it?

Gentile Christians usually think about Gentile Christianity as the normative and normal type of Christian faith and practice. And accordingly we tend to think about the life and the practice of Jewish believers as something special, something that deviates from Christianity. Reading my book may serve to correct that perspective.

You say that many early Christians, despite some anti-Semitic remarks, had an essentially positive regard for things Jewish. How do we know that?

It's mainly an inference, but it is a very direct inference. For example, John Chrysostom says that members of his own Christian community socialized with Jews, visited Jews during their festivals, preferred the local rabbi to the local bishop in matters of marriage, taking of oaths and so on. So, it's quite direct evidence.

There are also some Christian editorial interpolations in Jewish works, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, which are very direct in their hope for end-time restoration of Israel and the salvation of the Jewish people.

Before Constantine, Christian worship followed the synagogue pattern of word and prayer. After Constantine, the Temple pattern of priest and sacrifice became the norm. What did we lose in that transition?

We lost the priesthood of all believers. After Constantine, the ordained ministry served in a kind of intermediary function between Christ and his community. The immediacy of the priesthood of all believers was weakened before Constantine, but afterward, it gets lost.

The whole notion of the Eucharist as a sacrifice pushes in the same direction. Because if there is a sacrifice, there have to be priests bringing the sacrifice. And that is the business of the ordained ministry rather than the general priesthood of all believers.

You devote a number of pages to explaining why Christians worshiped on the First Day. You don't say much their attitude to the Seventh Day. Why?

Christians (and it seems Christians universally) celebrated the first day of the week as the day of the Resurrection. Jesus rising from the dead on the first day of the week was such a groundbreaking event, such a foundational event for belief in Jesus. And that novelty of the first day of the week being the most important day in the week arising in a Jewish context is in itself a very strong indication of the historical reality of the resurrection.

With regard to the Sabbath, we have to distinguish between Jewish believers and Gentile believers. The early Christians (both Jewish believers and Gentile believers) regarded the Sabbath as special for Israel. It was part of the national heritage of the Jewish people. Observance of Sabbath was rarely taken over by Gentile believers.

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Remember also that they did not, in the beginning, transfer the Sabbath commandment to Sunday. That happened after Constantine, definitely.

So they celebrated Sunday as their day of worship while at the same time having Sunday as a normal workday. The inconvenience of that is another indication of how important the first day of the week actually was to them.

Why are you writing a history of Jewish believers in Jesus?

Basically because I was asked to do it by the Caspari Center in Jerusalem. They serve the messianic community in Israel. And they found out that no such history has ever been written on a large scale and in a connected fashion from the beginning until now. I accepted to do it because it interests me a lot.

What readership do you hope it will find?

I hope, of course, that Jewish believers themselves will find this interesting. As with all other believers, it is important to know one's heritage and to see that we are not something that came late in history. And for some periods of this history, the question of how earlier Jewish believers expressed their Jewish identity could be of great interest for Jewish believers today.

What insight do you gain from looking at church history from this angle?

When you look, for example, at a theological author in the first five centuries, more or less, it's always assumed that this author was a Gentile believer unless proved otherwise. The burden of proof is always on the scholar who claims that this could possibly be a Jewish believer.

I think we are going to, in some sense, normalize the Jewish believers as important members of the church and important contributors to church history.

Today some Jewish believers keep a very high Jewish profile and emphasize that they are Jewish. They bind together in messianic communities. At the same time, there are a lot of Jewish believers who are Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, so to speak, mainline church believers.

Our hunch is that this was very much the same situation in the old church. There may have been Jewish believers who were not making a big deal of their being Jewish and were simply members of mixed communities with both Jewish and Gentile believers.

We have this picture in the list of greetings of Paul in Romans 16. Obviously he is greeting some Jewish and many Gentile believers without making any distinction between them. They were probably living rather peacefully together in a mixed community. This category of Jewish believers is not very conspicuous precisely because they didn't wave their Jewish flags all the time.

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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 review; by David Neff
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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