The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus

Book Review by Theresa Newell

The First Christian: Universal Truth in the Teachings of Jesus
By Paul F. M. Zahl,
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK. 2003.

Paul Zahl’s thesis that Jesus is the first Christian can disturb many a reader. To call Jesus “the first Christian” is to be controversial in the face of today’s “Jewish roots” teachings based on scholarly works over the last century and the writings of some contemporary messianic congregational leaders. To say that Jesus is in more continuity with Christianity than with Second Temple Period Judaism can make many uncomfortable or even angry. “The aspiration of this book is not a particularly safe one,” Zahl confesses (11). But rather than wanting to raise the divide between Judaism and Christianity, he contends that heightened Christology not only places Christianity in the position to be good news to all people, recognizing that Jesus identified the universal human problem (sin) which trumps “gender, race and power” (12), but also is the honest thing to say about Christianity to the Jewish person. If Jesus were only a “good rabbi” then does this not denigrate the 2,000 years of Jewish resistance to him? Zahl asks.

In another newly published book, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, Yale’s anti-Christian literary critic, Harold Bloom, concludes that “Jesus, with his deep connection to the uncanny Yahweh, can seem like the last real Jew, rather than the first Christian.” 1 Paul Zahl’s book, The First Christian, take the opposite tact. (Bloom and Zahl would not only be found at opposite ends of an alphabetical listing of authors but poles apart philosophically and theologically. On the other hand, David Flusser, former professor of New Testament at The Hebrew University, who was “free of an anti-Christian agenda” (13) is on Zahl’s recommended reading list for Christians).

Zahl says that the fact that Jesus is Jewish is a given, in German, selbstverständlich – obvious. But he presents questions, such as, is Jesus so much a man of his time that he is indistinguishable from a Second Temple Period rabbi? Especially if that era of Judaism was marked by what Zahl characterizes as “semi-Pelagian” in its soteriology? Zahl contends that Jesus broke radically from the definition of man needing God’s grace plus his own efforts to be saved - that Jesus’ was a more pessimistic view of man who was in fact completely helpless to save himself without God’s grace, the classic view of Reformation theology. Is Christianity just Judaism for gentiles? he asks. Or did Jesus bring into the world a radical “new thing” that went beyond the Judaism of his day? While standing against two-covenant theologies that say Jesus is good for gentiles but unnecessary for Jews, Zahl explores the question of where the continuities and the discontinuities of Jesus and Judaism lie.

To do this, the five chapters of this book cover the following: The Historical-Jesus Problem (he examines the three ‘quests” while proposing a fourth); Jesus the Jew (Jesus’ continuity with his Jewish world); Jesus and John the Baptist (the discontinuity’s beginning, particularly in their two contrasting views of eschatology); Jesus the Christian (the five New Testament themes of discontinuity); and, The Centrifugal Force of Jesus the Christian (the universal, missional force of Christianity).

Zahl stands against the mainstream “liberal” Christian scholarship that writes in the post-Holocaust style which often “is involved in suppressing difference for the sake of unity.” He contends that while this is “an uncomfortable possibility . . . truth may be necessary in order to create peace” (9). If Jesus is so contextualized in his period of Judaism, can he be the object of a worldwide religion? This is the other side of the coin usually heard in the circles reaching out to Jewish people with the Gospel to a church that barely knows his Second Temple Period context! He writes that Jesus “came with a novum or, better, novums” (6). Chapter Four is the center of this book and sets forth these novums as the author sees them. The uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching which historic Christianity became is outlined by the following: a) his message of repentance (Matthew 4:17); b) his exorcisms (Luke 11:20); c) his antitheses (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28. 43-45); d) his teachings on purity (Mark 7:1-8, 14-23); e) his association with and calling of sinners (Matthew 9:10-13; Mark 2:15-17; Luke 5:29-32, 33-34).

The struggle will undoubtedly go on to place Jesus in his proper Jewish context while at the same time acknowledging that his message of salvation is meant for all people everywhere and for all time. Zahl’s book adds to this most important discussion and should be read. The author studied under James D.G. Dunn (with whom he disagrees on “the new perspective of Paul”) at the University of Nottingham, and did his doctoral studies in systematic theology under Jürgen Moltmann at the University of Tübingen on the subject of the Pauline doctrine of justification as understood by Ernst Käsemann (viii). He has pastored in Anglican Episcopal churches for 30 years and is currently Dean-president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

Read the book and come and discuss your ideas with Paul Zahl at our LCJE NA conference April 24-26, 2006 in Pittsburgh where Dr. Zahl will bring the Bible Readings.

1. Rosen, Jonathan. New York Times Sunday Book Review, November 27, 2005, p. 12.

Theresa Newell