Book Review – From Jesus to the Church by Craig Evans

Craig Evans was my first ever professor at Fuller Seminary – he was teaching a summer course on the gospels. That was my first ever exposure to historical Jesus studies, and I have been hooked ever since. So when I was presented with an opportunity to review Evans’ book From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation I jumped on it.

When the Jesus movement started it was almost entirely Jewish – essentially it was focused on the redemption and restoration of Israel. Evans points out that during the first forty years of this movement, Jesus and his followers competed with the religious leaders and the temple establishment for the hearts of the Jewish people. So in its earliest days, Christianity was understood as a Jewish restoration movement. However, Evans points out, when James died, Jerusalem was captured, and the temple was destroyed, the relationship between the Jewish Christians and the non-Christian Jews rapidly deteriorated. This book chronicles the process of that deterioration and it does so through the lens of conflict. Evans understands the major conflict as lying between the “family” of the high priest Annas and the “family” of Jesus of Nazareth. This conflict culminates with the clash of a Christian also named Jesus, who takes a prophetic action against the temple right after James’ death and before the destruction of the temple, and the temple establishment.

As Evans develops the theme of conflict, he asks several questions which lead up to his understanding of the root causes of the Christian-Jewish split. First Evans asks: Did Jesus intend to Found a church? Evans concludes that the answer is yes and no. He did not intend to do so in the way we think of “church” today, however he did intend to assemble a community of disciples who would have embraced his teaching. In addition to these question, he asks about the relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Church of Christ. He asks, what was James’ role within the Christian community? Are James and Paul in conflict when it comes to faith and works? What role does the temple play in the conflicts between the ruling priests and the leaders of the Christian movement? Finally, what does the relationship between Jews and Gentiles look like in the letters of Paul and in the works of Ignatius?

As he concludes this short book, Evans explains that the Temple and competing understandings of the role of the temple was a primary cause of division between Jewish Christians and Jewish non-Christians. Yet there are also other reasons why this division developed. Among these reasons are:

  • Christianity’s aggressive Gentile mission and lenient requirements for entry into the Church
  • The divinity of Jesus
  • Gentiles’ failures to observe Jewish food law, purity laws, and Sabbath observance
  • The Bar Kokhba rebellion
  • Jewish nationalist interests
  • The fact that by definition a Messiah could not be crucified This final reason was the decisive factor for why Jews could not accept Jesus as Messiah.

Pros

Evans presents the reader with a very fascinating (and underutilized) lens for interpreting the series of conflicts between Jesus followers and Jewish Religious leaders – namely the Temple. Others, namely Nicholas Perrin, have written extensively regarding the role of the Temple in early Christianity’s self-understanding. Perrin has also made an argument that Jesus and the early church saw themselves as a counter-temple and/or temple restoration movement. This book makes a similar argument, but instead uses that argument to show why Judaism and Christianity ended up splitting.

One interesting chapter in Evans’ book was the chapter on “Phinean Zeal and the Works of the Law.” The role of Phineas and his actions in the Old Testament as well as in 2nd temple Judaism has been an under-explored topic when talking about early Christianity. In fact, even James Dunn only devotes a small section to this topic in his massive theology of Paul. This section will be a valuable resource for those interested in the topic of “Zeal” in Qumran literature and zeal for doing good works in Paul and James.

Also, there are a lot of cool side-bars and pictures of important locations for early Christianity.

Cons

This book is a very important resource for understanding the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity – the very fact that he presents readers with a new lens for understanding that parting of ways makes purchasing this book a must. However the book does suffer from a few flaws. For instance, its not always clear how some of his topics fit into his over all thesis. I mean to say that although these topics are relevant to the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity, they stray from his “temple” theme.

Another issue that I have with this book is that at times Evans tends to over-Judaize the early church in Asia and Europe. For instance, in a discussion of the seven letters Revelation, Evans says:

Given the Judaic orientation of much of the polemic in the letters to the seven churches, we should assume that the people whom make up those congregations are mostly Jewish. Their opponents are not Gnostics or Hellenizers: they are Jewish skeptics and members of synagogues, who reject the claims that Christian Jews make about Jesus. (132)

I grant the fact that the seven letters are steeped in Jewish categories and language – but one cannot infer from that the fact that the congregations are mostly Jewish. All one can infer for certain is that the author of those letters has a Jewish worldview steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish traditions.

Conclusion

It has been a long time since I have been as excited for a book on the history of early Christianity as I have been for this one. Evans thesis is original, and it makes a lot of sense of the facts. For that reason I believe that Evans’ argument is not only plausible, its is likely correct. Jewish leaders and Christian leaders clashed over the role of the Temple. This clash eventually became separation once the temple was destroyed, and this separation became animosity during the Bar Kokhba rebellion.

(Note: I received this book free of charge from WJK in exchange for an impartial review.)
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