After the Protestant Reformation, it became taken as a near axiomatic assumption that the Christianity given in the New Testament was in conflict with Judaism. The Lutheran antithesis of Law and Grace had become a controlling meta-narrative for understanding the contrast between Judaism to Christianity. Judaism began to become characterized as a legalistic, works-righteousness religion compared to the pure Gospel of justification by faith. However, within the 20th century, a sustained push-back took place against this portrayal of Judaism as a caricature. Since the New Testament defines Christian faith in contrast with Jewish religious teachers, primarily the Pharisees, and the works of the Torah, a new understanding of Judaism would lead to a different understanding of Christianity, one that did not easily fit within the Law and Grace metanarrative in its various forms.
As a result, it has become much more common to suggest that the early Church saw themselves as a branch of Judaism. To put it differently, the discussions with Jewish religious leaders about Torah may be considered to be more appropriately described as an intra-Jewish division rather than a conflict between two different religions. Using a modern analogy, it would be like the difference between evangelical Presbyterians and evangelical Methodists. While both share many similar beliefs in orthodoxy and practices such as infant baptism, they can be sharply divided in their understanding of God. While this is not a perfect analogy as there is simultaneously more of a common identity between Judaism and the early church more hostility and antagonism between the two, it casts a picture that early Christianity was not a new religion that just simply popped into existence in a vacuum when Jesus was conceived in the Virgin Mary’s womb.
However, there are some problems with this way of understanding the relationship of the early Christians with Judaism. In Gal 1.13-17, Paul contrasts his previous life and identity in ‘Judaism’ (Ἰουδαϊσμός) with what occurs to him after he was called by a revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul does not identify a specific branch of Judaism in the form of the Pharisees, but he uses the overarching, more general term that was used to define Israelites who were faith to the way of life, including diet, given in the Torah, including those who fought against Antiochus during the Maccabean rebellion (2 Macc. 2.21, 8.1, 14.38; 4 Macc. 4.26). By referring to Judaism, Paul has a particular way of life, rather than what we today would call a religion, as is evident by using the word ἀναστροφήν to refer to his involvement in Judaism. That Paul’s former way of life is further described not simply by a specific diet or concern about purity, but resembling the violent behavior of the Maccabean revolt by his own similarly violent attack against Christians suggests something: the early Paul thought there was a difference between early Christians and Judaism in thinking that the followers of Jesus were abandoning Torah, much like the Gentiles accomodates to Antiochus’ pressures. The echoes of the Maccabean zealotry in Gal. 1.13-17 strongly suggests Paul believed there to a difference between Judaism and the early followers of Jesus such that they were considered worthy of being as a threat to the Jewish faith. This is perhaps further evidenced by his somewhat vague statement in Galatians 2.18 about building up what was once torn down as a reference to a life lived by the works of Torah. Devoting themselves to the teachings of Jesus, early Jewish Christians would look like they were abandoning the Torah. In what was considered to be most determinative of Jewish identity for Paul, one’s adherence to the Torah, Paul saw a marked difference between the early Jesus movement and Judaism.
A critical difference is that many of Jesus’ words and actions seem to flout how the Pharisees understood the Torah to be rightly understood and applied, Jesus could have appeared to be bordering on apostasy as Jews did under Antiochus’s oppression. Consistent with perception is the Babylonian Talmud from a few centuries later, which century recounts traditions about Jesus “the Nazarene” as one who mocked the teaching of the Jewish sages, was a prophet of the nations seeking the well-being of the Gentiles rather than the Jews, tried to seduce people into idolatry, was a sinner, and was favored by the Roman government.1 Compared to the teachings of the Pharisees/Sages, Jesus and his early followers might have looked as downright apostates and traitors to the Jewish people and way of life, which foment a Maccabean zeal to protect and preserve the Torah once again.
However, this doesn’t mean the perceptions of Jesus by the Pharisaical Paul or the Rabbinic tradition were accurate. In devoting themselves to the teachings of Jesus rather than to the traditional conventions as to how one was taught to obey Torah, the early Christians may be understood as engaging in a very different manner of submitting to the Torah based upon a different hermeneutical grid, with Jesus’ teachings as the way to understand how to live faithful to God’s Torah. In that way, they would have been similar to the Qumranic community’s ‘Teacher of Righteousness.’ After the revelation of Christ, Paul came to understand the early Christians as obedient to the Torah in the way Christ taught from it (Gal. 6.1: τὸν νόμον τοῦ Χριστοῦ) through the Spirit. While abandoning the body of traditions that prescribed specifics works for obeying Torah (Gal. 2.16: ἔργων νόμου), Paul expresses elsewhere in Romans that the Spirit leads people to uphold the righteousness that the Torah taught (Rom. 8.4: τὸ δικαίωμα τοῦ νόμου).
While Romans is perhaps written in part with Paul working against a perceived suspicion from other Jews that he could have been acting as an apostate and an agent of the Gentiles, Paul takes pains to clarify himself to his fellow Jewish Christians. While he does not think the teachings of the Sages in prescribing specific works to obey Torah as effective for God’s redemption, he does still see the Torah as teaching righteousness, is deeply concerned about the well-being of his fellow Israelites (Rom. 9.1-5), that God has faithfully kept a remnant among Israel (Rom. 11.1-5), believes Israel will be redeemed by God in the end (Rom. 11.25-27), and affirms the promises given to the patriarchs (Rom. 11.28). Rather than defining Judaism according to the tradition of Maccabean zeal and observance, Paul instead reconceptualizes a Jew as one who sees the Torah as good, affirms the promises given to the patriarchs, and seeks and wants the good of his fellow Israelites.2
In other words, there seems to be a social disagreement and conflict over what defines and makes a person a Jew when it came to the early followers of Jesus. For those most resonant with the victorious Maccabean rebels, to be a Jew means to hold firm and steadfast to the Torah, even to the point of taking violent action to fight off those who would threaten that. To those who were more influenced by the combative mentality, the definition of being a Jew would be more determined by maintaining the commitment to Torah observed as espoused by the Sages during the Second Temple period. In case of of hostility, suspicion would be easily provoked, leading to ready distortions and understandings of anyone who smelled fishy. People like Jesus and later Paul would have been seemed as too deviant from the Torah and were considered apostates and enemy of the people, making room and loving the Gentiles more than they care for their own people. On the other hand, Paul in his letters to the Romans, seems to envision a true Jew without this strong attachment to hearing and learning the Torah from the specific traditions of the Jewish Sages. This is not to mention to apparently brazen authority that Jesus Himself act with when it came to teaching and observing the Torah, acting as if He had the authority to do with it as He wished would have certainly rejected the Jewish traditions having any merit or authority.
So, was the early Christian movement Jewish? Your answer would depend on who you ask. If you ask a modern European or American scholar, it would depend on a variety iof factors such as whether one is talking about ethnicity or religion, how influenced they are by the 20th-century shift away from the earlier Protestant division, etc. If you were to ask an ethnic Jew during the 1st century, it would have depended on how zealous they were for the Jewish traditions stemming from the Maccabean period onwards. In the end, it may be best to either not be more specific until we can answer the question “Jewish according to who?” or, if we wish to give an answer that attempts to represent the period of late Second Temple Judaism, the identity of the early Christian movement as Jewish was highly ambiguous and often on the margins because of the teachings of Jesus and the later leadership of Paul and the inclusion of the Gentiles. Even if we try to go with early Jewish believer’s own sense of the definition of Judaism, they would have probably considered themselves closer to a reforming movement that would simultaneously make them Jewish while setting them at odds with the prominent Jewish leaders and teachers. Yet, once the movement infirmly entrenched the inclusion of the Gentiles without requiring circumcision and Torah, even this self-identity would have undergone serious reformulations and challenges.
Questions of identity are often thorny questions in periods of societal change and conflict. The question of who is considered to belong to a specific identity group significantly depends on what prototypes and criteria one has for defining that identity. Through time, these prototypes and criteria for membership and identity can change markedly in such a way that they simultaneously (a) retain some continuity with the past while yet (b) being different enough that other could think they have distorted what the identity either originally meant or what it should mean. The community and Qumran and the Essenes seemed to have thought so, and so they had a radical redefinition of Judaism. So too did the early Christians, but their radical redefinition in the teachings of Jesus was so different from the traditions of the elders that they would have themselves been considered as operating on the margins by those Jewish leaders who had influence and authority.