Craig Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation, WJK Press, 2014
Craig Evans delivered these lectures at the Ben Gurion University of Beersheba in 2010. Its title is general, but the book is mainly about the intensive Jewish character of the early Jesus movement and how that played out in conflict with the non-believing Jewish leadership through 70AD and up until 135 AD. In his Introduction, Evans defends Jesus’ prophecy about the Temple’s destruction and traces other similar prophecies in canonical and non-canonical literature are well worth its moderate cost. He lays out clearly what he is trying to do: To trace the conflict between Jesus and His followers with the Temple hierarchy led by the family of Annas.
In the first chapter, Evans’ creatively explains and expounds the “Twelve Tribe Typology” in the NT (Mat 19:28; James 1:1). If Evans’ approach that neither Jesus, Peter, James, nor even Paul envisioned a “church” not in continuity with Israel is accepted, it will shake up the academy - in a good way. And I am not talking about replacement theology in which the Church replaces Israel. Evans strongly argues that Israel in Rom 11:25-26 is ethnic Israel.
The second chapter expounds fresh insights into the Kingdom message of Jesus. He develops an argument that takes notice of the Aramaic versions of the OT that bring out more references to “kingdom” and “Messiah” than the Hebrew texts. He is very attuned to the importance of intertextuality which shows itself not only in the Aramaic parallels but in his careful handling of the “Son of Man” issues in Daniel 7 and in the NT.
The third chapter is another excellent handling of an important but neglected subject - the role of James. It is so refreshing to find another scholar who is not afraid to describe the leadership role of James in the early church in the way the evidence presents him. James was the lead “pillar;” the “rampart;” the voice of authority; the man whom second and third century fathers recognized as número uno in the movement until his death in 62AD. Evans suggests that James and the sons of Annas were competing for the hearts of the Jerusalem populace until his death. Evans is one of the few who have pointed out the significance of Josephus’ mentioning only one early Jesus believer, James. Evans has mastered the literature and I find his arguments to be quite illuminating for the events that transpired in Jerusalem from 30-70 AD.
In the Fourth Chapter, Evans brings to our attention “the zeal of Phineas” (Num 25 and Psa 106) and the “works of the law” in the DSS document 4QMMT. By skillfully explicating these texts he compares and contrasts what Paul is saying about faith vis a vis the “works of the law” and what James is commending about “works” (acts of love and mercy). Evans’ argument that Paul was reacting against a theology like that in 4QMMT (the only place outside of Rom-Gal where the phrase is mentioned) echoes some writers sympathetic to the New Pauline Perspective.
The fifth chapter is Evan’s most controversial but also his most valuable. Fleshing out an article by Eyal Regev, he argues that Jesus, the twelve, Stephen, James brother of John, Peter, Paul, James brother of Jesus, and a Jesus son of Ananias (in Josephus) engaged in a temple controversy with the family of high priests known as the sons of Annas. These characters all either died or suffered at the hands of the Annas family. OT references like Psa 118 and Jeremiah 7 play a key role in this conflict. Evans’ goal is “to explore the dynamics of the conflict between Jesus and his followers with Annas and his followers.” This conflict “will help us understand better the history of the Christian church in Jerusalem in that crucial first generation.” I find his arguments quite illuminating for the events that transpired in Jerusalem from 30-70 AD.
In Chapter Six Evans traces effectively the thorough Jewish context of the Gospels, the seven Letters in Revelation as well as the seven Ignatian epistles of the early second century. The tension of a Jewish believing group that viewed itself within Israel (Matthew) is contrasted with a believing Jewish group being ostracized from Israel (John). These are balanced by the many Jewish connections (good and bad) of Jesus believers in the 7 churches of Asia Minor. Ignatius in his dramatic letters criticizes some believers who still observed outward Jewish observances. The chapter closes with the evidence for the false messiah Bar Cochba’s persecution of Jesus believers in Judea who would not (and could not) follow him. Evans, as has others, sees this as a decisive break between the Jesus believing Jewish believers and the Jewish community. This is insightful information for most Gentile Christians who are simply not aware of the Jewish roots of their faith.
Evans’ Appendix sums up the “root causes of the Jewish-Christian rift.” I summarize them briefly as follows:
1. Christianity’s aggressive Gentile mission and lenient requirements for Gentile entry into the church (e.g., no circumcision).
2. The divinity of Jesus, as expressed in Johannine and Pauline Christology, over against the “lower” Messianic Christology of the Ebionites.
3. Failure to include Jewish food laws, laws of purity and Sabbath observance forced a complete separation between Christians and Jews.
4. Preferring the Scriptures of the Septuagint, not the Hebrew and the Aramaic paraphrases.
5. The destruction of the Jewish temple and the subsequent Jewish hope of rebuilding the Temple (see Barnabas 16:1-4).
6. The inclusion of the birkat ha’minim in the daily synagogue prayers, which was a curse on Jewish believers.
7. The Bar Cochba War and the resulting persecution of Jewish believers by him.
8. More important than any of these is the root cause behind the Jewish-Christian rift. “The fundamental sticking points for many Jewish people were the simple facts that Jesus had been put to death and the kingdom of God failed to materialize” (145). The curse on someone who hangs on a tree (Deut 21:23) was the decisive stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23) and it even had to be faced and refocused by Paul (Gal 3:10-14). The only way this problem could be handled by early evangelists and apologists was by the appeal to the suffering Messiah in Israel’s scriptures.
My only serious concern with this book is its title and subtitle, which really do not convey adequately the excellent contents of the volume: “From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation.” The book really is about the intensive Jewish character of the early Jesus movement and how that played out in conflict with the non-believing Jewish leadership. And it covers that subject well, being quite familiar with other scholarly literature that confirms and furthers Evans’ arguments. I strongly commend this book to scholars and to all serious students of early Christianity.