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Professor Searches for Evidence of Jewish Christianity

The apostle Paul in Romans 11:17-18 wrote that the Gentiles were grafted into “Abraham’s tree,” which represented the Jews, God’s chosen people. For years after Jesus' resurrection most of his followers were considered by outsiders to be a sect of Judaism. At some point in the early church, however, there was a “divorce” between the two groups and Christianity was considered a separate religion from Judaism.

Dr. Edwin Broadhead

Scholars like Berea College’s Dr. Edwin Broadhead, a general studies professor, have long been interested in finding out just when this split occurred. Last year, he was invited to become a visiting scholar at Wolfson College of the University of Oxford in England and was able to take time to research this subject as well as work on other projects.

Broadhead presented his findings at a Friday Faculty Colloquium recently. He likened early Jewish Christians to Australian aborigines, who were not legally recognized as natives by the government of that nation for centuries. Likewise, Jewish Christianity wasn’t formally acknowledged by the Christian church for hundreds of years. “People were very interested in seeing these people not on the map,” he explained.

Broadhead defined Jewish Christians as “persons and groups in antiquity whose historical profiles observed that they followed Jesus and followed the law and that they did so as a continuation of God’s covenant with Israel.” He said they ceased to be recognized as a group some time between the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of rabbinic rule.

“Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. What kind of Jew was Jesus and why did his followers so quickly become un-Jewish? If the first followers of Jesus were Jewish, what happened?” the professor asked rhetorically. What initiated the road to separation was Pentecost, when Jesus’ early followers began reaching the Gentles with the news about Jesus, remarked Broadhead.

The account of the early church in the book of Acts was written by Luke, a close associate of Paul and chiefly follows the story of that apostle. Broadhead stated, “Luke lays out to show the value of Paul’s mission … how it moved westward to Rome …. It doesn’t tell us what’s happening in other parts of that part of the world.”

The scholar looked closely for evidence of early Jewish Christianity in four cities: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Rome. “In Rome and Alexandria, Christian communities grew up around synagogues until Paul showed up. All had Jewish Christian beginnings.”

Those beginnings are hard to discern because of what occurred once Constantine declared Christianity the official religion in Rome. “The church fathers declared Jewish Christians to be heretics among other heretics, so truth is hard to find.” This suppression, says the professor, was implemented over time by orthodox Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. “They tended to present themselves not only as the traditions which won out, but also as traditions which dominated from the beginning. That was clearly not the case …. Once these traditions became normative, other traditions were ignored or suppressed. It is the task of historians and scholars of faith to recover and reconstruct the history behind these developments.”

Archaeological evidence of early Jewish believers in Jesus has also proved difficult to discover because of the many layers of construction that cover up possible sites of worship. While in the Holy Land, Broadhead looked for possible evidence while studying facts about a series of caves under the traditional site of Jesus’ birthplace; the “upper room” site in Jerusalem built over the “tomb” of King David, which was erected over at least two other chapels; and at the site in Capernaum believed to be the house of the disciple Peter, which contains the remains of a church and synagogue and multiple layers of ancient flooring. “It was a possible gathering (place) of Christians in the first century. They’re (archaeologists) wading through a whole lot of data, trying to decide if there was anything there …. I do not expect any archaeological evidence to shine further light on these developments. Any evidence will likely come through a second look at various pieces of literary and sociological evidence.”

While he will continue to research the topic, Broadhead says he has reached his major conclusion. “I argue that Jewish Christianity was not a limited phenomenon which quickly disappeared from history. Evidence suggests that it endured in a number of different places in a variety of forms. The separation from Christianity was not a singular development: it occurred in different ways in different place at different times. This means that the history of primitive Christianity cannot be written as a simple triumph of orthodox Christianity over various forms of heresy. Primitive Christianity was itself a varied phenomenon which included numerous forms, including Jewish Christianity.”

Two other major projects received Broadhead’s attention during and since his time in Oxford. He is editing the autobiography of BC founder John G. Fee, originally published in 1891. “I have edited the autobiography to modernize its punctuation and phrasing, to explain a few references, and to highlight the Berea story (leaving out some accounts of some denominational quarrels.)” He says is goal to make “a readable, affordable account” available for students. Publication should occur by the end of this year. Separately, he is publishing a pamphlet on Fee’s well-known Bible that has versus cut out of it.

“Here I catalogue and analyze all of the cut passages. My conclusion reverses the common tradition that Fee cut out slavery passages. I show that he cut out a variety of passages and that he likely did so in order to use these texts in sermons and speeches.”

Also nearing publication is his edited edition of William Penn Davis’ autobiography, which has never been in print. According to Broadhead, Davis was a white Baptist minister who was active in the civil rights conflict. Between June 15 and Sept. 15, 1964, approximately 35 African American churches were burned down in Mississippi. Nearly 15 more were burned beyond that date. “(Davis) organized the effort to rebuild these churches and to begin the process of reconciliation. He did so on the basis of his understanding of the Gospel. My edition of his autobiography will make this story available to a wider audience.”

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