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In the Shadow of the Temple

Dowers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002

By Oskar Skarsaune
Caspari Center

I have been active during the past twenty-six years as an academic author (mostly in Norwegian), but there is no other book of mine in which I have invested more of my scholarly and personal interests than in this one, In The Shadow of The Temple. Let me explain.

It began as an assignment: I was contracted by the Caspari Center for Biblical and Jewish Studies in Jerusalem to write a study course on early church history from a Jewish perspective. This was back in 1983, when I spent seven unforgettable months in Jerusalem, working, reading, and writing in the close neighborhood of the scenes of the very turning points in biblical history: Mount Moriah, the City of David, Solomon's Temple, the Second Temple, the Garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives, and all the other scenes of biblical history in the Land of Israel within easy reach. There was also easy access to the excellent library facilities in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum, and the archaeological sites in the Holy City and elsewhere. And last but not least, there was the close contact with some Jewish Believers in Jesus in Israel, representatives of the primary readership for whom I was writing.

The staff at the Caspari Center taught me an important lesson: When choosing relevant study material to present to Jewish Believers in Israel, they found that little if anything that already existed was suitable for this audience, and for a simple reason. Most of the relevant study books which could otherwise have been eligible for translation into modern Hebrew were quite insensitive to, or unaware of, the existential concerns of Jewish Believers in Jesus. In the beginning of my own work, I shared quite a bit of this insensitivity. But I learned a lot by intensive and frank feedback by some of the Jewish Believers themselves and some who knew them well.

This, gradually, influenced my scholarly perspective. On the scholarly level, I was also much impressed by the work done by Israeli scholars (at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but also the universities of Tel Aviv and Haifa), who approached the earliest period of Christianity with fresh insight gained from their Jewish perspective.

All this taken together meant that those seven months in Jerusalem changed my outlook on many things. Having finished the first draft of what later became the book, I had the feeling of pioneering a new approach to early church history. That feeling did not last very long, however. In the years that followed, an avalanche of new books on early Jewish/Christian relations and problems was published, partly as the result of a scholarly reorientation in the wake of the modern Jewish/Christian dialogue. After some time, I had the feeling that what a few others and I had tried to say was now said by almost everyone. It convinced me that I was probably on the right track.

Keeping abreast of the flood of recent literature on this subject proved to be laborious, but also greatly interesting. I must admit that there were times when I wanted to shout to all fellow scholars: Hi, guys, could you please halt publishing your books till I have finished mine?

What am I trying to say in the book? I think I can sum it up in a few basic statements:

  1. In order to understand the history and development of Early Christianity, it is essential to know not only the Judaism of the late Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) but also the Judaism contemporaneous with Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church. This Judaism, in all its varieties, was not only in close continuity with that of the Old Testament but also contained some essential new features, unknown to any Old Testament author. These elements are of the utmost importance when it comes to understanding the origins and early development of Christianity
  2. When seen against the background of contemporary Judaism, early Christianity appears as much more Jewish than used to be the idea of many Christian scholars. In my view, this also goes for elements in Christianity that are often conceived of as typically Greek and utterly un-Jewish, e.g., Nicene Christology.
  3. Are the New Testament and the Early Church anti-Semitic? This has been quite a bone of contention in much recent scholarship and writing for Jewish Believers in Jesus; it was an issue I could not avoid. My basic approach to the question consists in distinguishing between things said to Jews in an inner-Jewish debate and the same things said about Jews by outsiders, as if these things objectively described the nature of all Jews. While the New Testament undoubtedly contains some rather harsh sayings directed against the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders in general, or even the majority of the people, all these sayings can be taken as Jewish self-criticism, uttered by Jews to Jews within a framework of deep solidarity with the people, as in the Old Testament. But these same sayings take on a completely different and more sinister meaning when they are used by outsiders - e.g., Gentile Christians - as describing the nature of all Jews, often in contrast with the much better nature of Gentile believers. This takeover is what happens in Gentile Christian writers in the early period after the New Testament. In this way, Christian anti-Judaic attitudes may seem to have a New Testament basis, while in reality they fundamentally change the meaning of inner-Jewish criticism. The same applies to early Christian use of Old Testament "anti-Judaic" sayings.
  4. Early Christian anti-Jewish attitudes are only one side of the coin. When Christian writers attack Judaism, they sometimes do not have Jews in mind at all, but some of their fellow Christians who, in their view, sympathize too much with Jews and Judaism. Read in this perspective, some of the anti-Jewish writings of the early Church may, paradoxically, be read as sources on Christian friendship with Jews: what I call Christian philo-Semitism. It seems to have been a grass root phenomenon, severely criticized by most church leaders. It has also been a much-neglected phenomenon in recent scholarship.
  5. The title of the book is the latest element in it. I had already written the bulk of the manuscript when it began to dawn on me how important the fact of the Temple was in understanding early Judaism as well as early Christianity. This resulted in a kind of double structure in the book: for each chapter, I added a text box called "Temple square," which tries to bring out the significance of the Temple for the subject of that chapter. Quite often, I had the feeling of bringing out in the "Temple square" a hidden subtext of what I had written in the main text of the chapter.

Let me finish by saying that work on this book has accompanied me intermittently for nearly twenty years. The manuscript kept changing as my ideas changed. It took some effort, but it was also great fun all along. My hope is that some of the fun in writing the book has spilled over into the book itself.