August 25, 2015—Given a choice between understanding Jesus as a first century Jew, or Jesus as a Christian, Paul F. M. Zahl, dean of the Cathedral of the Advent (Episcopal), would probably choose Jesus as the original, “first” Christian. He suggests as much in the title of this provocative short work. Zahl’s small but rich book deals with the fundamental questions surrounding the relationship of Christianity to its mother faith, Judaism, and more specifically, the relation of Jesus of Nazareth to first century Judaism.
In The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus Zahl attempts to provide a corrective to what he sees as the prevailing re-judaizing and re-culturation of the founder of the Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth. This tendency, he believes, has been motivated by a shared Christian “Holocaust guilt” and results in a contextualized second-century historical figure that is inadequate to the realities of the unique claims of both the founder and the faith or Christianity.
Zahl claims that “what has occurred within wide sectors of Christian self-understanding since 1945 has been so to detach the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith that it has become hard to say whether the Christ whom Christians worship is the same as the rabbi Jesus who taught and lived in a specific time and place.” (p. 5). The result of this has been the tendency to understand Christianity as a variant of first-century Judaism, not much different in substance from the norms of Jewish ethical teachings and monotheistic belief. In the end, the risk is, as Zahl sees it, that Christianity becomes “a form of Judaism for non-Jews” (p. 5).
The corrective for this inaccurate understanding of Christianity is to understand its founder, Jesus of Nazareth, as uniquely Christian and discontinuous with his contemporary Second Temple Judaism. It is this discontinuity, claims Zahl, that becomes the centrifugal force of the movement that ultimately became the Christian church. As such, Zahl emphasizes that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed, “the first Christian” who was at the center of this centrifugal dynamic.<
Zahl is not unaware, nor insensitive, to the potential discomfort that a position of choosing to understand and interpret Jesus as uniquely and overtly Christian over his ethnicity may cause. He handles those objections not only through acknowledging the risk involved, but more importantly, through the courageous commitment to theological and scholarly discipline.The early chapters of the book contain the groundwork for the treatment of Jesus as the first Christian. They include a survey of the search for the historical Jesus movements, a responsible and balanced treatment of Jesus as a first century Jew and as a religious figure who shaped a unique eschatology that led, naturally, to a discontinuity with the Jewish religion of his time. The heart of Zahl’s arguments is found in the subsequent chapters titled, “Jesus the Christian” and “The Centrifugal Force of Jesus the Christian.”
This is a readable but responsible treatment of an important, often complex, subject. Zahl provides a stellar example of responsible scholarship and theological thinking.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.