From Jesus to the Church by Craig A. Evans - Reviewing Chapter 6

Posted by Greg Monette on March 28 2014

In this post I will be reviewing chapter 6 of Craig Evans' recent book From Jesus to the Church. The previous chapters of the book have been reviewed by others and can be found listed with links provided: HERE smile

The overarching theme of Craig Evans’ recent book From Jesus to the Church is concerning the origins of the Jesus movement and whether Jesus of Nazareth envisioned anything like what eventually sprung up in the wake of his own personal ministry (i.e. the Church). With a stunning grasp of the primary sources Evans marshalls the view Jesus did in fact desire some sort of assembly (more likely in the Jewish sense of the word “synagogue”) to spin out from his ministry. I’m going to review the sixth and final chapter of this fine work. 

Evans titled this chapter “The Church between Paul, James, and Ignatius.” Reading this chapter was like experiencing deja vu. I’ve listened to Professor Evans explain the intramural conflict between Jews from the Jesus movement and Jews from outside the movement in a classroom setting. This is a very important topic not only for our ancient understanding of Scripture and the first decades of the Jesus movement but also for modern times as  accusations that the New Testament Gospels are anti-Semitic get thrown around by scholars and internet skeptics who have failed to read these ancient texts with a critical eye. 

The most important point Evans makes in this chapter is that the Jesus movement up and until the destruction of the temple (c. 70 CE) was not primarily a non-Jewish movement but was rather a movement primarily made up of Jews. This runs throughout the earliest Christian literature from Matthew and John’s Gospels to the letters written to the seven churches in the apocalyptic book of Revelation, in through the time of the writing of the letters of Ignatius, and finally into the first half of the second century during the time of Simon Ben Kosiba (Bar Kokhba). Evans’ main argument in this chapter is that when read and interpreted properly the New Testament writings are not anti-Semitic but rather an example of intramural dialogue and debate between Jews of different stripes (Jesus following Jews and non-Jesus following Jews). I’m going to focus on the Gospel of Matthew and John’s discussion concerning Jewish dialogue between these two groups to whet your appetite to want to read Evans’ book for yourself. 

Beginning with Matthew’s Gospel Evans writes: 

“The Matthean evangelist addressed a synagogue and Jewish leadership that had rejected Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and on occasion had persecuted those who believed in him. The evangelist was concerned to demonstrate that Jesus and his movement fulfill Jesus expectations and hopes and do not undermine the place of Torah. In short, the Matthean evangelist hopes to convince enough skeptics so that his band of Jesus disciples can remain in the synagogue.” (From Jesus to the Church, 117). 

Evans shows how the Sermon on the Mount (esp. Matt. 5:11-12) anticipates accusations from non-Jesus following Jews that the followers of Jesus didn’t respect or follow the Torah. This is understood by the Matthean Jesus’ clear proclamation that he did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets; [nor did he] come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). Later Jesus makes statements like his followers righteousness must “exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees" (5:20). Matthew's Gospel was not composed by some uninterested non-Jew but rather by a full-blooded Jew from inside the Jesus movement. Thus, we are dealing with debate between two different flavors of Jews from the first century. Matthew provides further references that the followers of Jesus will be persecuted by fellow Jews from outside of the Jesus movement much like the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament were persecuted by other Jews (Matt. 10:16-18; 10:21-22; cf. Micah 7:6 and m. Sotah 9:15). This only bolsters Evans’ claim that within a few decades of Jesus’ ministry Jesus following Jews were beginning to be kicked out of the synagogue. However, this becomes even more clear in the Gospel of John.

Concerning John’s Gospel Evans writes: 

“In comparison with the Gospel of Matthew, the nature of the polemic in the Gospel of John has changed quite significantly. In Matthew the debate is taking place in the context of the synagogue. In John the believers in Jesus have been thrust out of the synagogue. The “whitewashed sepulchers” of Matthew’s polemic (cf. 23:27) have become “sons of your father the devil” in John’s polemic (cf. 8:44). Nevertheless, the Johannine evangelist still believes it is important to mount a defense of the messianic identity of Jesus in terms of themes and fulfillment of the Scriptures of Israel. The evangelist’s perspective remains very Jewish, even if the evangelist and his circle of disciples are no longer associating with the synagogue.” (From Jesus to the Church, 122).

The evidence that followers of Jesus were being expelled from the synagogue in John’s Gospel is clear. See: John 9:22: “if anyone should confess him [Jesus] to be the Christ [the Messiah], he was to be put out of the synagogue”. This pops up again in the middle of John’s Gospel in chapter 12, “but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it (some of the authorities began to have faith in Jesus, lest they should be put out of the synagogue.” (v. 42) A third reference is found in John 14-16 in Jesus’ farewell discourse where Jesus explains that the disciples’ enemies “will put you out of the synagogues; indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (16:2). Evans, leaning on a later date for John’s Gospel (80’s or 90’s CE) feels that the link between confessing allegiance in Jesus and being expelled from the synagogue may be preserved in the revision of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, or Eighteen Benedictions, which may have been revised around the year 80 CE. Evans shares that:

“I refer to the revision of the twelfth benediction, evidently so as to identify and remove Christians  from synagogues, dating to the time of Gamaliel II (80-115 CE). According to the story, which is found in the Talmud, the twelfth benediction was revised by one Samuel the Small (cf. b. Ber. 28b-29a; y. Ber. 8a). If one did not pronounce the benediction audibly and clearly, it was assumed  that one was a Christian (on the reasonable assumption that one did not want to utter a curse against oneself). Whoever did not recite the twelfth benediction audibly and clearly was ejected from the synagogue.” (From Jesus to the Church, 124).

Evans provides the passage:

“For apostates let there be no hope, and the dominion of arrogance do speedily root out. Let the Nazarenes [Christians] and Minim [heretics] be destroyed in a moment, and let them be blotted out of the book of life and not be inscribed with the righteous. Blessed are you, O Lord, who humble the arrogant!” (From Jesus to the Church, 125).

One should note the line concerning Jews who refuse to renounce Jesus having their names scratched out of the “book of life.” The book of life can be found reference by Moses in the book of Exodus (32:32. cf. Mal. 3:16; Ps. 139:16; Jubilees 30:22; 36:10; 1 Enoch 108:3; Joseph and Aseneth 15:3; 4Q223 frag. 2, 2.54; Testament of Benjamin 11:4; Philo, Who is the Heir? 20). Evans provides Christian references to the book of life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 20:12; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.28.2; 5.35.2). It is fascinating how well this idea preserved in the twelfth benediction finds parallels within first century Jewish Christian writings. It makes even more sense to find a late first century date of composition as we see the book of Revelation explaining that followers of Jesus who confess Jesus will not have their names blotted from the book of life (Rev. 3:5; cf. 20:12). Evans states that this “may well be a direct response to the threat we see in the revised twelfth benediction of the Amidah.” (From Jesus to the Church, 127).

In the end, Craig Evans has written a fine chapter on how proper interpretation of the New Testament literature should not result in discovering anti-Semitism at play but rather fraternal debate within the Jewish fold. As the Jesus movement continued to grow in numbers, the synagogue late into the first century began to be increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of a crucified man being hailed as Messiah. This intramural squabbling increased and became more dangerous after the destruction of the temple (c. 70 CE) and especially in to the early part of the second century as we discover during the time of Bar Kokhba which Evans provides evidence for in this chapter.

I received this book from Westminster John Knox to provide a fare and unbiased review. However, that’s impossible! Who’s fooling who? I’m one of Craig Evans’ doctoral students. I’m totally biased. I’m sure I’ve read this guy with rose tainted glasses on the entire time. So, please, read the book for yourself and see if my short review can stand up to reality. I admit, I’m too blind to know if it does. But, WJK…thanks for the FREE book!

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