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The First Christian


In this book Paul Zahl seeks a broader understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus. What was it within his message that burst his first-century Jewish context? What was creative, fresh, and universal about his message? What did Jesus maintain, within his own setting and period, that is still true and applicable today?

In pursuing these questions, Zahl swims against the current of modern scholarship, arguing that Jesus was more "Christian" than "Jewish." Jesus' teaching ...

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In this book Paul Zahl seeks a broader understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus. What was it within his message that burst his first-century Jewish context? What was creative, fresh, and universal about his message? What did Jesus maintain, within his own setting and period, that is still true and applicable today?

In pursuing these questions, Zahl swims against the current of modern scholarship, arguing that Jesus was more "Christian" than "Jewish." Jesus' teaching concerning the kingdom of God is replete with Christian perspectives on human nature and salvation, and his insights into original sin and grace are closer to core Christianity than much recent literature acknowledges. Drawing from both Jewish and Christian thinkers, Zahl shows Jesus to be a saving figure, a christological figure, even a radically Protestant figure. Zahl also brings his fresh perspective into present-day focus by showing how Jesus' dynamic teachings still have worldwide impact.

Zahl writes both as a highly trained theologian and as a pastor who recognizes that scholarship stands in the service of discipleship. In The First Christian he renders the contemporary "quest for the historical Jesus" not only accessible but also relevant to the life of faith. Students of the Bible and general readers alike will be enriched by his compelling portrait of a Christian, universal Jesus.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802821102
  • Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/1/2003
  • Pages: 152
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.35 (d)

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The First Christian

Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus
By Paul F. M. Zahl

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2110-3


The Jewishness of Jesus Christ is a core theme in contemporary New Testament scholarship. His Jewishness is a main plank of contemporary Christian theology. Partly the response within Christian circles to the Holocaust, an emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness is now a given.

It is also the lens through which almost all other portraits of Christ from the past two thousand years are viewed. Many of the old portraits, and especially the portraits of Jesus conveyed through the theology of the Protestant Reformation, are now criticized for their blindness to Jesus' Jewish roots and origin, their neglect of the Jewish context for the religion of Jesus. Therefore, since 1945 an injustice in the scholarship, and within the Christian church as a whole, has been rectified. It is an injustice that was anti-Jewish in essence and anti- Semitic in implication.

The restitutive re-Judaization of the historical Jesus, which is an overwhelmingly evident feature of post-1945 Christian interpretation of the New Testament, creates the impression that the Christianness of the founder of Christianity is elusive. Anchoring the historical Jesus in the thought world of Second Temple Judaism shapes a figure whose feet become set in concrete. The continuity of Jesus - in other words, the continuity of his teachingsand life with first-century Judaism - can become so insisted on, so invested with decisive rather than secondary significance, that it becomes hard to make out Jesus' discontinuity.

When Jesus' thought is viewed primarily in Jewish terms, the traditional Christian begins to ask, What was all the fuss about? If this man were just the sensitive child and exponent of the religious milieu from which he emerged, then what was different about him in comparison, say, with teachers such as Hillel and Gamaliel? What was new or fresh about him? More to the point for the average Christian, what was new and fresh about Christianity? Is it a universal religion? Did it really make a break with Judaism? Or was it, deep down, the same thing? Was original Christianity simply a variant, for Gentiles, of Jewish ethical monotheism?

These are vital questions for all Christian theologians and also for the rank and file to whom their ideas invariably drip down. The uniqueness and the continuing universal significance of Christianity are at stake.

Throughout Christian history issues have arisen that are sufficiently important that they unsettle Christian self-understanding. In the fourth century of the Christian movement, there was the question of the nature of priesthood: the Donatist schism. The church in North Africa split over this question. At the end of the nineteenth century, there was the burning question of whether the Old Testament should be considered divine revelation or (inaccurate) human history: the Colenso case. The church in South Africa divided over the question. Every century - every decade - of Christian existence has had a presenting issue of conflict and schism; absorbing, enervating conflict; wearisome, draining division.

The presenting issue for Christianity today is its relation to Judaism, and, more specifically, the relation of Jesus of Nazareth to the religion of Judaism. This issue is of ultimate and not penultimate importance. Like the question of Jesus' divine identity, which came to the fore in the second century of Christian existence, and like the question of the divine Unity in relation to the Son's separateness from the Father, which came to the fore in the third and fourth centuries, the question of the historical Jesus in relation to Judaism is of similar importance today.

What happened to give this question of the relation between Jesus and his Judaism such importance for Christians? It was the Holocaust. The Holocaust turned a brilliant, almost blinding light on the inherited views of most Christians and their churches concerning Jews and Judaism. That light threw the theological world of Christianity into a high relief of guilt, chaos, and retraction. This was partly because Christian theologians as a whole were silent in relation to the suffering of the Jewish people before and during the Holocaust. "One effect [of the Holocaust] was to make the Christian world see how wrong the relationship between Jew and Christian had been and to take a fresh look at it."

The study of Jesus' life has, since the rise of Holocaust awareness, reflected a pervasive and deep-seated diffidence on the part of many Christians in relation to their Jewish heritage. The study of his life now bears the imprint of Holocaust guilt and Christian shame.

The drive, therefore, to draw lines of continuity connecting Jesus to Judaism has become extremely strong. The breaks in such lines of continuity - the discontinuities, in other words - have become a little embarrassing, a little close to historic Christian anti-Judaism and thus all too close to anti-Semitism. This is why current Christian thinking about the historical Jesus stresses and underscores the continuity of his life and words with the Jewish background from which he came. The Christian world, discovering itself for reasons of Holocaust guilt to be on the defensive, has sought to re-Judaize its principal figure. Jesus of Nazareth has become enculturated in the ancient past.

Can such a heavily determined figure of history continue to exist as a universal person for the world? Can a Jesus who is solidly contextualized within the world of Second Temple Judaism also be the object of a worldwide religion?

In the question of Jesus' Jewish context, we are up against a perennial issue in the history of thought. What is the relation of a general concept or idea to the context from which or in which it originated? Nothing comes from nothing. Haydn wrote string quartets before Mozart wrote his. Sondheim wrote West Side Story before he wrote Company. Jesus taught in continuity with the context in which he had been reared. He was taught by the rabbis and in turn taught in their synagogues.

But a Jesus in unbroken continuity with Judaism is problematic for traditional Christianity. A Jesus in unbroken continuity with Judaism can give the impression that traditional Christian theology has been guilty of making him into a "Christ-figure," a savior-messiah very different from the man who really lived and really was. A Jesus primarily in continuity is hard to recognize as the one whom Christians worship as "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28).

There is an old distinction in theology between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith." This distinction refers to the difference between the historical figure of Jesus in his actual life and death and the divine object of faith who became transnationally real to believers after the resurrection. The distinction is correct in the sense that we all know what a huge difference exists between an actual person we love who lived and died in the past and the place that person now holds in our heart and memory. We romanticize the one who died. Or maybe we curse him. We paper over the bitter memories in favor of the good ones, or forget the good memories and focus on the bad. We remember selectively, depending on our original attitude toward the person. Such selectivity would have also had to be true, in memory and recall, regarding Jesus who became known as Christ. Inevitably a gap would come to exist between the person as he was in life and the person who lived on in the mind's eye. That much is obvious and reasonable.

The problem comes when Christian theologians regard the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith as being deeper than it really is. The impression left on the mind and memory by someone's action or word is based on that action or word. There is projection, naturally, but the impression that lingers came about from an event that really took place. Every memory begins with something that occurred in time. The overwhelming impression created by Jesus on his hearers has to have been rooted in something that happened. Jesus' memory among the first Christians has to have been rooted in remembered things.

What has occurred within wide sectors of Christian self-understanding since 1945 has been so to detach the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith that it has become hard to say whether the Christ whom Christians worship is the same as the rabbi Jesus who taught and lived within a specific time and place. Jesus in almost total continuity with Second Temple Judaism comes to have a fragile and tenuous connection with the Christ whom Christians assert they know and love. When Christ's continuity with his original context is the main thing, Christianity starts indeed to become a variant of first-century Judaism. Christianity begins to become a biblical monotheism open to Gentiles but not different in substance from the broad norms of Jewish ethical teaching. Christianity begins to become a form of Judaism for non-Jews. The substance of this book is a refutation of that idea.

The idea that Christianity is Judaism for Gentiles is not a straw man. It has always been one possible option in the history of what Christ began. Even as Jesus left, there were three options for the development of Christianity. The first was to consider it a sect of Judaism that believed in him as the Messiah but regarded the Law of Moses, its commandments and precepts, as being still in effect in toto. The second option for the development of Christianity was to regard it as an opening up of the blessings of Judaism to Gentiles, according to which Gentiles could become Jews without having to be circumcised or live according to the Jewish diet. On this line, Christianity was Jewish monotheism without specific ethnic boundary markers. The third alternative was to understand Christianity as new in substance, involving a materially original approach to the Law. Most traditional Christians still believe, or think they believe, the third version.

The idea that Christianity is more or less Judaism for Gentiles is not an idea to be resisted simply because it flies in the face of most traditional Christian teaching. The idea that Christianity is more or less Judaism for Gentiles needs to be refuted because it is not true.

Jesus was discontinuous with Second Temple Judaism in vivid and memorable ways. He came with a novum - or, better, novums. From a traditional Christian's point of view, many of his teachings and actions appear like, sound like, feel like "Christian" teachings and actions. They read like words and works of mercy that most traditional Christians would regard as characteristically Christian. The significance of such words and works, played out in the theater of first-century Jewish sectarian debate and against the backdrop of an extremely sensitive and also threatening political situation, became centrifugal. What began as relatively small disturbances in conventional thinking became a Mount St. Helen's in the course of thought and intellectual reception. There is a connection between things Jesus said and taught and things that Christians understand to be classically Christian. Such "Christian" things include compassion in the face of merited penalty, inwardness as opposed to show, humility as opposed to the receiving of credit, self-denial as opposed to self-assertion, peacefulness as opposed to violence in any form, and so on. Whether such things really are uniquely or self-evidently "Christian," as opposed to Buddhist or Stoic, Muslim or Jewish, remains to be weighed in my argument. But there is no doubt that most traditional Christians would regard such values as part of their way.

This book affirms the discontinuity of the historical Jesus in relation to his context. It decontextualizes Jesus in relation to the hypercontextualization of him in recent Christian theology. Specifically, it affirms the continuity of Jesus with the idea of grace-Christianity as over against Law-Christianity, as that antithesis was understood by the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century.

I believe Luther did well to grasp the discontinuity of Christ's teachings in his famous thorough distinction between the Law and the Gospel. The Reformer caught a fair glimpse of something important when he underscored the breakthrough of grace into world events that occurred at the coming of Christ. It is possible to regard familiar icons of a very Christian Jesus, such as Bertil Thorwaldsen's Compassionate Christ, or Warner Sallman's Head of Christ, and see in those conceptions an enduring continuity, in visual form, of core Christianness.

Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus, was the first Christian. The phrase is actually controversial. It expresses a continuity between Jesus and Christianity with which much contemporary New Testament scholarship has become uncomfortable. It puts the man on a collision course with his past, a man "whose life, though blameless, had incurr'd perpetual strife."

I will not be saying that Jesus was an unusual rabbi who became caught up in a political vise turned by the Romans. I will say, rather, that Jesus broke fundamentally with his past, as a maturing man might, at least for a period, with his father and mother or sisters and brothers. I shall be saying that the birth of Christianity, and its parting of the ways in relation to Judaism - so awesome and also so tragic a phenomenon in world history - is implicit in the man himself. Christianity was not the creation of St. Paul, nor of St. Peter, nor of the Emperor Constantine, nor of St. Augustine.

Jesus of Nazareth was the first Christian.

The sensitivity of my book's theme weighs on me. The issue of Jesus and his central significance for Christians is at the heart of all interreligious dialogue within a world riven by religiously engendered divisions. September 11, 2001, will be with us for decades, and in a sense forever. Relations between Islam and Christianity have shipwrecked unendingly over the question of Christology, Christ's identity in comparison with the Prophet's. The identity or divine uniqueness of Jesus separates Christianity from Islam, for Islam reveres but does not worship its founder. Christology, which is the assertion of Jesus' specialness theologically understood, is the wall of partition between Christianity and other religions.

Christology is also the barrier, the impassable barrier, that exists between the daughter, Christianity, and the mother, Judaism. An attempt, like this book, to magnify the dissidence of Jesus in relation to the Judaism that birthed him is bound to enter some deep waters. Could it, in fact, trouble the waters? Could it thicken or prop up the "dividing wall of hostility" (Ephesians 2:14) between mother and daughter? One reason for the magnetic attraction of the Jewish Jesus in the contemporary milieu is the way in which this Jesus starts to pull down the old costly barrier between Christians and Jews. If Jesus was primarily a Jewish teacher and a sympathetic exponent of the Law of Moses, then his Christian followers have made a sorry mistake in building up their side of the partition against the religion of Judaism. Christianity's Christianness could be a mistake, a form of assertion and self-righteousness that led directly to the Nazi Holocaust. By foreshortening the distance between Jesus of Nazareth and the Judaism that nurtured him, we might be combating actively and constructively the virulent virus of anti-Semitism. It has been a particularly resistant virus. "Rabbi Jesus," the contextualized Jesus of our new age, could prove an influential resource in immunizing the world against a repeat of 1933-1945.

The charge against Christianity, that it created a climate in which the Holocaust became inevitable, is a principal issue in Christian identity today. Nothing is more damaging, nothing whatever is more vitiating to Christian self-confidence than the accusation of intrinsic, incipient anti-Judaism. That charge depletes and exhausts the Christian mission to its very core.

A Jesus contextualized, on the other hand, a Jesus whose existence in history is not universal but is rather essentially and centrally derivative, a Jesus anchored in Judaism and not in fundamental tension with it, such a Jesus fits the spirit of the age. In some respects he fits the needs of our age.

So why write this book? Does anyone do well to contend for a Jesus whose interpreted departures and remembered independence from Judaism are divisive by nature?


Excerpted from The First Christian by Paul F. M. Zahl Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Historical-Jesus Problem 17
2 Jesus the Jew 44
3 Jesus and John the Baptist 64
4 Jesus the Christian 78
5 The Centrifugal Force of Jesus the Christian 108
Epilogue: A Meditation at Christmas 128
Selected Reading List 133
Index of Authors 135
Index of Biblical References 137
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