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“When Christians Were Jews”

Dr. Paula Fredriksen in Fairfield Nov. 5    

By Cindy Mindell

Dr. Paula Fredriksen

Award-winning author and prominent religious scholar Paula Fredriksen is the Aurelio Professor of Scripture emerita at Boston University and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
She will present Fairfield University’s Seventh Annual Lecture in Jewish-Christian Engagement, on Monday, Nov. 5, co-sponsored by Fairfield University’s Bennett Center for Judaic Studies and the Center for Catholic Studies.
In 1994-95, Fredriksen was a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University. Since 2007, she has held an annual appointment at the university. “Jerusalem stands as a global crossroads for the study of religion: between the scholars resident there and the scholars who come to visit, I have an incomparable body of colleagues in religious studies to speak to and think with,” she says. “Students of all religious backgrounds — and none — attend classes, and Hebrew University attracts an international student body. And the rich diversity of Christianity is more evident in Jerusalem than it was in Boston. ‘Comparative Christianity’ in Boston means looking at Catholics and Protestants, Congregationalists and Unitarians. In Jerusalem it means Armenian Christianity and Coptic Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy and Ethiopian Christianity: the Christological fall-out from the doctrinal battles of the fourth and fifth centuries is very much more in evidence.”
Fredriksen’s book, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity” (Knopf, 1999), won a National Jewish Book Award.
About the book’s subject, she explains that “a ‘moment of origin’ is always a creation of retrospect.”
“The first snippet of the first story in the Bible, the story of Creation, ends, ‘And it was evening and it was morning, one day. Not ‘the first day’ — yom rishon — but ‘one day,’ yom echad,” she says. “Why? Because it’s only once you have a second day that you realize that the day before was the beginning of a series, a ‘first’ day. So also with this generation of late Second Temple Jews. In history’s eyes, they were the first generation of the Church, but in their own eyes, according to their own fierce convictions, they were history’s last generation. ‘Christian’ was not a term that any of them ever heard, or thought with. It’s their experience, the experience of living at the very edge of the End of Time, that I want to re-create for the listeners of my lecture.”
The people who first attributed the title “messiah” — “Christos” in Greek — to Jesus of Nazareth were, like Jesus himself, Jews, Fredriksen says. “Their moral compass was pointed by the teachings of the Torah. Their god was the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They measured by Jewish time, most especially by the Sabbath. They turned to Jewish scriptures to structure their world-view and their categories of meaning. And they believed in the vindication of the righteous, the defeat of evil, the resurrection of the dead, the coming – or second coming – of the messiah, and the End-time turning of the nations to Israel’s god. The only people in the early first century with such behaviors and convictions were Jews. This is why the Christian New Testament is one of the best resources of historians of Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking, Judaism. The gospels, Paul’s letters, Apocalypse: these are all Hellenistic Jewish texts.”
Fredriksen explores the period through these questions: “Christianity begins with the message that history was about to end: the Kingdom of God was ‘at hand.’ Yet by the time we have our earliest evidence – Paul’s letters, mid-century – the Kingdom was already late,” Fredriksen says. “How did the movement survive despite outliving its own foundational prophecy? And why, decades after taking this message to gentiles, was Paul convinced more than ever that ‘the Day is at hand?’”
The idea of God’s coming Kingdom as an end to normal history arose within Jewish biblical prophecy, and flourished especially in the late Second Temple Period, roughly 200 BCE to 70 CE, she says.
“The Kingdom would be announced by unmistakable end–time events,” Fredriksen explains: “an apocalyptic battle between the forces of Good and Evil; the ingathering of the exiles; the appearance of a warrior angel, or of a messiah son of David; the resurrection of the dead; the turning of the pagan nations and even their gods to the god of Israel; universal justice and peace under the reign of God. Ancient Christian texts — Paul’s letters; the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke; the Apocalypse of John – attribute this teaching to Jesus, who urges his Jewish hearers to prepare for the Kingdom through repentance and rededication to the Ten Commandments.”
Paul takes this message to pagans, urging them to prepare by repenting of specifically pagan sins, idolatry, in particular. “Though his letters were written some 20 years after Jesus’s death in Jerusalem, Paul continued to believe in Jesus’s prophecy – that the Kingdom was at hand – and he urgently communicated this message to his gentile communities,” Fredriksen says.
“By the time we have our earliest evidence for what will eventually become the Christian movement, the Kingdom was already ‘late.’ Jesus had preached his prophecy in c. 28-30 CE. Paul writes his letters two decades later, c. 50, with no diminution of urgency or conviction. Sometime around the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70, both the Gospel of Mark and the Apocalypse of John repeat the message, teaching that the time is ‘soon.’ How did all these people, and the communities who preserved their teachings, continue to commit to this prophecy, to believe in the imminent approach of the End-time, across so many years? That’s the historical question, and puzzle, that my lecture will address.”

Dr. Paula Fredriksen will discuss “When Christians Were Jews” on Monday, Nov. 5, at Fairfield University, Dolan School of Business Dining Room, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield. The lecture is free, but reservations are recommended. For more information call (203) 254-4000, ext. 2066.

Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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