Craig A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation (Louisville: WJK, 2014).
In From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation distinguished scholar of early Christianity Craig A. Evans examines the rivalry between “the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth” (p. 2). This is one segment of the “first generation” of Christians that doesn’t receive a lot of attention. What sort of rivalry developed between the priestly elite and the followers of Jesus from the crucifixion of Jesus until the destruction of Jerusalem and her Temple in 70 CE? This is the focus of the book, but there is an adjacent question Evans seeks to answer in the process: Did Jesus intend to establish what we have come to call “the Church”?
This question may not seem related at first, but it is central to Evans’ study. As he examines the rivalry between Jesus’ earliest followers and the Jerusalem elite he simultaneously shows how and why Christianity transitioned from a Jewish sect to another Mediterranean religion. Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem struggled under the thumb of the priesthood while the mission to the Gentiles thrived. Eventually, as things when sour for the Judeans in their struggle with Rome fewer and fewer of Jesus’ own people came to acknowledge him as Messiah while more and more people from the surrounding nations, many due to the works of the apostle Paul, did come to consider Jesus as “Lord and Christ”.
In Chapter 1, “Did Jesus Intend to Found a Church?” Evans tackles the aforementioned question. He concludes, in gist, that Jesus intended to create a remnant community of renewal in Israel, one that may have been open to including people from the surrounding nations, but not something completely divorced from Israel.
Chapter 2, “From Kingdom of God to Church of Christ” attempts to address the question of Rudolf Bultmann: how did the proclaimer become the proclaimed? How did Jesus who was proclaiming the Kingdom of God become the center of the Gospel for his earliest followers, “the Church”?
Chapter 3, “James as Leader of the Jesus Community” shifts back toward Jerusalem examining how early persecution affected Peter and the other disciples opening the door for the more Temple-friendly James, the brother of Jesus, to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem.This discussion of James’ role is the impetuous for
Chapter 4, “Phinehan Zeal and Works of the Law: What Paul and James Are Really Saying”. Evans looks at how the figure of Phinehas influenced Jewish thought and how Phinehas’ actions inspired Jewish ideas about faith and action. Evans concludes that James and Paul are not in disagreement, but that they are address different questions altogether. So the divine between Jewish and Gentile Christians can’t be read primarily through the difference between Paul and James since both would see faith in Christ as the means by which one enters into the Church with good deeds (“works”) be the expected response.
Chapter 5, “Jerusalem Communities in Conflict” brings the attention back to Jerusalem for a second time. Now that Evans has established what Jesus intended to do in forming a community, and how that community evolved in Judea and abroad, he can now focus on the central theme of the book: the rivalry between Jesus’ followers the the priestly elite. Evans proposes that Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion is the beginning of a rivalry that ended with the mysterious prophetic figure Jesus ben Ananias, but more importantly the destruction of Jerusalem.
Chapter 6, “The Church between Paul, James, and Ignatius” presents the trajectory from the fall of Jerusalem to a religion where many of the adherents were trying to differentiate themselves from the Jews because of the tensions caused in 70 CE and the later Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132-135. The book ends with a related appendix “Root Causes of the Jewish-Christian Rift: From Jesus to Justin”.
This book is very informative, easy to read, and thought provoking. Evans aims to draw attention back to an area he feels has been overlooked: namely Jewish Christianity in and around Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple when Christianity began to quickly become a Gentile religion rather than a Jewish sect. The unique interchange of two main themes—early Judean Christians and why the Church eventually became a Gentile religion—is more intertwined that one may presume at first.
For a fuller review of this book please consult the contributions of the blog tour that I hosted here a couple weeks ago.
This book was received from Westminster John Knox Press in exchange for a bias free review…but Evans is my doctoral supervisor, so as you can imagine, I’m not bias free!