In When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, Fredriksen emphasizes the dangers of looking at history through an anachronistic lens; she successfully argues that it is only by appreciating the nuances of the Jewish community during the time of Jesus that one can fully understand what led to the eventual split between Judaism and Christianity. Building off of her earlier works (including From Jesus to Christ, and, most recently, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle), Fredriksen paints a scholarly but accessible picture of Jesus’s early acolytes. As she argues throughout, it was the Jewish context of Jesus’s birth, and his preaching — with its biblically-based anticipation of an earth-upending redemption, in which nations of the world would acknowledge the teachings of God — that only later morphed into what we now know as Christianity.
Fredriksen explains that the apostles and Paul of Tarsus crafted what became the New Testament, which built off of earlier Jewish beliefs, texts, and traditions — and not always so smoothly. For example, while the Book of Matthew notes Jesus’s descent from King David on his father’s side, since Jesus was also said to have been the product of a virgin birth, he can’t possibly have been both (and of course both of these traditions themselves emerged following Jesus’s death). When Christians Were Jews is a welcome addition to the library of those seeking a reasoned and lucid examination of this crucial period in world history.
Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advisor to the Provost of Yeshiva University. He has edited or coedited 17 books, including Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity and Books of the People: Revisiting Classic Works of Jewish Thought, and has lectured in synagogues, Hillels and adult Jewish educational settings across the U.S.