How Jewish is your Jesus?
How about getting inside the heads of the very first Christians?
(EXCITING NEWS: Have you heard our own programme on PREMIER RADIO yet? You can hear past episodes here.)
Now for the real challenging bit. Is it possible to get inside the minds of those first Jewish believers in Jesus? Are we able to discern their thought processes and their motivations? Can we discover how they saw their relationship with each other, with the World around them, with God? How can we honestly do this?
All we have is written words, of which we have two kinds. We have historical documents, some written by tried and tested commentators, others of more dubious origin, still others nothing more than self-supporting propaganda. Then there’s Holy Scripture. As Christians, we are in a privileged position, though others would call it a blinkered one. We trust 100% in God’s Word; without that trust our faith is in vain. So we can forge ahead in certainty if we are guided by Holy Scripture – correctly interpreted. Only the Bible! Sola Scriptura!
Correctly interpreted? The only catch. How many times have you heard a preacher, in the flesh or on TV, claim “The Bible says ...”, with theatrical certainty, usually wielding the said object as a visual aid? What they are really saying is, I believe that, in order to prove my argument, the Bible says ... This is fine and dandy when the preacher is developing his argument from Scripture, correctly applied, rather than using Scripture as a convenient confirmation of his own arguments, regardless of context.
If I am going to develop a picture of these early Jewish Christians, the Bible has to be the bedrock of my argument, the foundation stone of my story. So let me take you back to those exciting, spiritually-charged days, described in the Acts of the Apostles. Specifically we drop in on the events as described in Chapter 15. James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, had wrapped up a crucial meeting on what to do with the Gentiles and a letter had been written and delivered to the church at Antioch.
As an aside, isn’t it strange that the New Testament name “James” is exactly the same as the Old Testament name, “Jacob”. Both are translations of the Hebrew name Ya’acov, yet one sounds very Jewish and the other very British. Perhaps the reason why the New Testament translators used the British name was in some way to distance Christians from the Jewish Old Testament, reinforcing the idea (actually a feature of the ancient heresy, Marcionism) that the Old Testament is out-of-date, somehow lesser among equals (though of course another reason was to keep King James – he of the KJV - happy).
It seems likely that shortly after this, James sat down at his desk and wrote another letter. This letter was written primarily to Jewish believers in Jesus, now scattered all over the Roman world. We know the letter by his name, James, and it is probably the earliest piece of writing in the whole New Testament.
Another aside, isn’t it strange that the “Jewish” epistles – of James, Hebrews, Peter and Jude - are shoved to the back of the canon, among the final books of the New Testament. Of course there may be a perfectly good reason for this, but this is just a layperson’s observation.
So we have the earliest written Scripture of the Church and it was written to Jewish Christians. Here we have a Jewish mind speaking to other Jewish minds; perhaps this letter will give us an insight as to what made those Jewish minds tick; perhaps the content of the letter will offer some helpful clues. This was no parish newsletter; James needed to unload, as there were some serious issues at stake.
With typical Jewish directness, James gets straight to the point. Acknowledging the persecutions that many were suffering, he asks whether any of them are lacking in wisdom:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does. (James 1:5-8)
This is so key to our story, because one of the defining features of the human experience, whether Jew or Gentile, is our desire for wisdom, for knowledge, for understanding. Where does this idea come from? Well, that’s easy:
And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17)
It’s back to Eden we go, to the First Man. Adam is told that eating from this tree was a particularly bad thing, with dreadful consequences. Then he gets married and his wife, Eve, has an encounter with the serpent:
"You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:4-5)
The first statement is a lie, a direct contradiction of God’s command. But what of the second statement? Would eating from this tree give them knowledge of good and evil and the wisdom needed for using this knowledge, or was this another lie?
Well, they ate the fruit and, immediately ... the eyes of both of them were opened (vs 7). So the serpent was right on this account. This was no lie.
And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever." (Genesis 3:22)
They had now become like God, knowing good and evil. This was no lie, either. A burning desire had now entered the heart of man, a desire for knowledge and this was not compatible with their life in the Garden of Eden, so they were banished, kept away from the Tree of Life. The fruit of this tree, guaranteeing everlasting life, would now be unattainable for men and women until that day in the future when the redeemed may partake of it.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (Revelation 22:14)
So, this desire for wisdom in the heart of man (and woman) is a consequence of the Fall.