Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Judaism and the Jesus Movement Were Both Solving an Old Testament Problem

jesus movement

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.Tweets at @peteenns.

Hear me out.

One way (not the only way, but one way—hold your horses) of describing the Old Testament is as a story of striving for national identity.

Yeah, that sounds “secular,” but it’s not. We’re in the ancient world here, folks, and there is no secular vs. sacred dichotomy when it comes to nationalism. “God and country” were enmeshed.

The story of Israel—aka Old Testament—was fashioned by scribes into more or less its current form after the Babylonian exile (after 539 BCE). This story traces Israel’s centuries-long struggle with God to become the independent nation they believed God meant it to be.

The high point of this story was the conquest of Canaan and the establishment of the monarchy, which, as the promise goes in 2 Samuel 7:13-16, was to have lasted “forever.” Even though that doesn’t literally mean “forever” as in “for all eternity,” I think we can all agree it’s still a big deal.

All the prior action in the Old Testament was focused on getting God’s chosen people to this point. The stories of the ancient ancestors in Genesis, the exodus from Egypt, and all those laws and worship practices outlined in Exodus through Deuteronomy were all leading to a “forever” dynasty in a particular patch of land, with a faithful king, a bustling Temple, and a standing army.

If Israel’s story doesn’t get to that point, none of what comes before means much. I will go so far as to say that hardly a syllable of the Old Testament can be found that doesn’t support this trajectory.

Being a nation in the land with a king and Temple is how the Israelites knew God was with them. To lose those things meant God’s abandonment, of giving them over to other nations as punishment—a move so unsettling it is metaphorically depicted as “death” (for example, Ezekiel 37).

This is why exile is the most devastating thing that could have happened to the chosen people.

The concept “Israel” only works as it was meant to in the land.

I think I’ve made my point. But here is the point of this point.

After the exile, Israel never again recaptured the vision of a forever dynasty as it was during the reigns of David and Solomon (at least part of their reigns).

Yes, they did eventually come back to the land after the exile, but always as a subjugated people, under the thumb of the Persians, then Greeks, and finally Romans.

After centuries of trying to reinvigorate the monarchy, all hope for reclaiming the glory of the past ended in 70 CE, when, after a period of Jewish revolt, Rome crushed the resistance. The Temple was razed for the second time in its history and Jews scattered.

Thus began a new volume in Israel’s story. Now they would have to learn to live as Jews in a way that their tradition never imagined.

Elsewhere.

Outside of the land.

Without a Temple and king.

Judaism did not die, but flourished because Jews accepted the challenge of transforming how to stayed tied to their ancient tradition now that national identity was taken off the table.

And that is where the Jesus movement and Judaism share a common point of origin.

Both Judaism and the early Jesus movement transformed the nationalistic tradition of old to address the non-nationalistic reality of a post 70 CE world—albeit differently.

The difference between the two, is that the loss of land, Temple, and any hope for a reinvigorated dynasty were seen by the Jesus movement not so much as evidence of God’s abandonment but as validation of their movement, an apocalyptic act of God to sound the trumpet of a new chapter for the faith of Abraham.

It is best not to see the Jesus movement as the birth of a new religion, with Judaism more or less holding fast to the old ways and Christianity starting afresh. Both were Jewish responses to profound upheavals that could not be ignored—and that wound up reshaping the ancient tradition is very different ways.

Get smarter about the Bible and stuff.

Get insider updates + articles + podcast + more.