Book Review: From Jesus to the Church (Craig Evans)

Craig A. Evans. From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. 176 pp. $25.00.

From Jesus to the ChurchDr. Craig Evans is a household name to many. Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Dr. Evans is an internationally renowned scholar with notable expertise in historical Jesus studies and the Jewish background of the New Testament. His latest book, From Jesus to the Church, grew out of the Deichmann lectures delivered at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel in May of 2010. The purpose of the lecture series is to support scholarship that is concerned with the intersection of Judaism and Christianity.

The scope of this book is much narrower than the title might suggest. It’s not a broad history of the first generation of the Christian church; rather, this study is a treatment of “the clash between the family of high priest Annas and the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a clash inaugurated by a Jeremiah-related prophecy of the temple’s doom, uttered by another man named Jesus. My goal is to draw attention to the importance of this prophecy, what motivated it, and the effects it had on both the followers of Jesus and on the followers of Annas, his family, and allies” (2).

Evans begins with what he refers to as an “ambiguous prophecy” about a ruler that would arise out of Israel, a prophecy known to both Jews and Romans; this treatment provides the context for the rest of the book. He discusses a variety of literature from the Hebrew Scriptures, Qumran scrolls, and Roman writings that contained prophecies concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and/or the Temple as well as well as expectations of an eschatological temple. In this way, Evans begins to trace out the dynamics of the conflict between Jesus and his followers on the one hand, and the Temple hierarchy led by Annas and his followers on the other.

In chapter 1, Evans explores the fundamental question of whether Jesus intended to found the Christian church. Through examination of texts employing assembly language from the Gospels, Qumran scrolls, Paul, Peter, James, and others, Evans shows that there is no indication that the early Jesus movement thought of itself as standing outside of Israel, and that Jesus did not foresee or intend a break with Israel. Chapter 2 looks at the transition from Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom of God to the emergence of the Christian church. Evans spends some time investigating the proclamation of the kingdom of God and shows that the very seeds of the new community of the church are found within the framework of the kingdom proclamation. Here he presents Aramaic parallels of many Hebrew Scriptures, parallels in which there are many more explicit references to the kingdom of God.

Chapter 3 considers the questions of how and why James the brother of Jesus became the leader of the Jerusalem church, what kind of leader he was, and how he related to the other leaders of the Jesus movement. While Peter and others had left Jerusalem, James did not. “[W]e may infer that James’s commitment to Jewish faith and practice was such that the religious and political authorities saw no reason to take action against him” (65). This chapter also devotes some attention to the matter of whether Gentile converts had to become a Jewish proselytes, and also the issue of whether James and Paul agreed on the role of works of the law in the life of the believer. Chapter 4 explores this question further by looking at Phinehas, grandson of Aaron. Evans’s contention is that “proper understanding of works of law and being declared righteous, either for what one does or what one believes, must take into account the way Phinehas the zealous priest was appreciated among Jews and Christians in late antiquity” (78). Evans helps us to see this appreciation by highlighting texts that mention Phinehas in Hebrew Scriptures, deuterocanonical writings, and Qumran texts. Attention is given to a text from Qumran scroll 4QMMT that likely alludes to Phinehas and mentions “works of the law” and imputation of righteousness. The chapter concludes with more on Paul and James in relation to “works of the law.”

Chapter 5 builds on the work of Eyal Regev that traces the history of the conflict between Jerusalem’s priestly aristocracy and the leaders of the Jesus movement. Evans suggests that “the principal priestly family at odds with the Jesus movement was the family of Annas” (94), and gives us a glimpse of the temple controversy by highlighting the relation of the family of Annas to Jesus of Nazareth, the twelve, Stephen, James son of Zebedee, Paul, Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and Jesus son of Ananias. Evans concludes the chapter by giving a few reasons why he believes that Jesus ben Ananias was a member of the Jesus movement. He notes that “the deaths of Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus ben Ananias, two men who had spoken oracles inspired by Jeremiah 7 against the temple establishment, bracket the forty-year history of the church in Jerusalem” (115). The concluding chapter covers several major developments in the Jesus movements during the years following the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, looking at the relationship between Jews and Christians in the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of John, the letters of Revelation, and the letter of Ignatius. The chapter concludes with a note on the difficulties of the Jewish believers in Jesus during the Bar Kokhba rebellion. An appendix summarizes the “root causes of the Jewish-Christian rift.”

The title of this book gives the impression that it’s a general book on the first Christian generation, but the book actually covers an important facet of early Christianity that has not really been investigated. For this reason, anyone interested in early Christianity, especially the period from Christ to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, should read From Jesus to the Church.  This book is also a treat for anyone interested in Christianity’s Jewish background and as well as noncanonical Jewish texts. Evans has an astounding knowledge of deuterocanonical texts and Qumran scrolls that shed much light on the topics he discusses. This is a short book with a wealth of information that is both accessible for laypeople and enjoyable for scholars. I highly recommend it.

Purchase: Amazon

*For an in-depth look at each chapter, check out the blog tour going on over at Near Emmaus.

**Many thanks for Westminster John Knox for sending a free copy in exchange for an unbiased review!

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4 Comments

  1. Wow sounds interesting–especially with his interaction of inter-testamental extra-biblical literature.

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    • Indeed!! This is the first book I’ve ever read that interacts so much with apocryphal/DSS texts. Sheds so much light on Jewish background of NT.

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  1. Day 4: Book Tour for Craig A. Evans’ From Jesus to the Church: James as the Leader of the Jesus Community | NEAR EMMAUS
  2. Book Log: March 2014 |

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