One of the great achievements of scholarship of the last one hundred years has been the progressive recovery of a startling variety of Judaisms and Christianities with specific examples of the latter correctly defined as varieties of Judaism no less than as varieties of Christianity.
For example, a strong case has been made to the effect that the OT Peshitta, the Old Syriac Gospels, exegetical traditions attested in Ephrem and Aphrahat, and other features of Syriac Christianity bear witness to a species of Jewish Christianity with demonstrable roots in Judaism as reflected in a variety of sources; the elements in question are nonetheless not attested in the Jewish Christianities reflected in Matthew’s Gospel, the Didache, the Didascalia Apostolorum, and the Clementine Recognitions.1
To be sure, the dynamics and timing of the negation and partial retention, as one element in a larger synthesis, of Osrhoene/Adiabene Judaism by Christianities of the same region - with the catholic Christianities of Ephrem and Aphrahat negating less and retaining more than the Christianities of Tatian, Bardeisan, Marcion, and Mani - are no clearer to us than are the processes by which Enoch literature in the form of 1 Enoch came to be treasured among Greek-literate Christians and included among the scriptures of Ethiopic Christianity; Ezra literature in the form of 4 Ezra came to be integrated into a larger work transmitted among Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Armenian Christians; a set of Jewish Sibylline oracles came to be integrated into a larger collection of Sibylline oracles by Greek-literate Christians; Tobit, a novella full to the brim with conflicts and concerns and conceptions of the battle between good and evil with which many Jews must have identified, came to be widely read by antique Christians; and Matthew’s Gospel came to express both great deference and great antipathy for Pharisaic Judaism.
Nonetheless, that such occurred can only be attributed to an understanding among tradent communities that the purposes of God who is the first and the last and there is no other (Isa 44:6; 45:5) come to expression in all of these texts and all of these streams of tradition.
Given advances in the fields of Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan, Peshitta, Old Syriac, Targum, “Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” New Testament, and early Christian literature studies, it is possible to explore the history of the text of the Old and New Testament and the reception-history of OT and NT theology in antiquity across a wider set of text forms and a wider set of ancient Jewish and ancient Christian texts than ever before.
When that is done, the results are interesting. For example, an understanding of repentant prayer, fasting, and good deeds as God-given means of atonement is an emphasis that is indigenous to a large cross-section of Judaisms and Christianities in antiquity. “The world belongs to grace (ṭaibuthā),” affirms Aphrahat, “until its perfection, repentance (tyābuthā) [i.e., prayer, fasting, and other fruits of repentance] is to be found in it” (Demonstration 7.27).2 In particular traditions, the emphasis on said means of atonement sometimes stood in tension and sometimes went hand in hand with a recognition and emphasis on other means of atonement, including but not limited to temple sacrifice, acts of martyrdom, and other examples of suffering endured by some for the sake of others.
A form of faith that privileged practices of contrition and mercy was constitutive of Matthean and Jacobean Christianity, many Palestinian and Babylonian synagogues insofar as they followed the teaching of the Sages, and other varieties of antique Judaism. Said understanding of faith deserves a closer look than most people are willing to give it. Ray van Leeuwen’s summary of one of Gary Andersen’s key theses in a recent monograph (Gary A. Andersen, Sin: A History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009], 135-51) is to the point: “almsgiving became “the commandment” for Judaism and early Christianity alike … the hands of the poor are as a sacrificial altar through which one stores up “treasures in heaven,” … alms have salvific consequences for this life and the next” (Raymond C. van Leeuwen, “Toward a Biblical Account of Sin?”, JTI 5 : 133-44; 136-37).
Jesus’ teaching about almsgiving, prayer, fasting, and treasures in heaven as reported in Matthew 6:1-21 reflects this understanding but has been dismissed as inauthentic by some critics because the emphases enunciated are not dissimilar from those held by majority coeval Jewish teaching and later Christian teaching. To be blunt, that is an incompetent style of argument from a historical point of view.
At the same time, the choice of many contemporary versions of Judaism and Christianity to regard such emphases as “proper” (insofar as they reflect biblical and/or traditional teaching) but not “correct” (insofar as they are incompatible with a commitment to individual autonomy or an emphasis on divine benevolence falsely so-called) amounts to a betrayal of significant proportions. The ability of religious traditions to effectively set aside key components of received heritages is enormous, but not always healthy by any means. Still, the way forward, given how far Judaism and Christianity have strayed from their roots on these matters, is not at all clear.
1 Sebastian P. Brock, “Jewish Traditions in Syriac Sources,” JJS 30 (1979) 212-32; “A Palestinian Targum Feature in Syriac,” JJS 46 (1995) 271-82; “The Peshitta Old Testament between Judaism and Christianity,” Cristianesimo nella Storia 19 (1998) 483-502; Gerard Rouwhorst, “Jewish Liturgical Traditions in Early Syriac Christianity,” VC 51 (1997) 74-82; Michael P. Weitzman, The Syriac Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Charlotte Fonrobert, “The Didascalia Apostolorum: A Mishnah for the Disciples of Jesus,” JECS 9 (2001) 483-509; Bas ter Haar Romeny, “Hypothesis on the Development of Judaism and Christianity in Syria in the Period after 70 C.E.,” in Matthew and the Didache: Two Documents from the Same Milieu? (Huub van de Sandt, ed.; Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum Ad Novum Testamentum; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 13-33.
2 For the quote and a discussion of Demonstration 7, see Cornelia B. Horn, “Penitence in Early Christianity in Its Historical and Theological Setting: Trajectories from Eastern and Western Sources,” in Repentance in Christian Theology (Mark J. Boda and Gordon T. Smith, eds.; Collegeville: Liturgical Press / Michael Glazier, 2006) 153-187; 180-182; 182. Good deeds in the sense of care for the poor are treated separately by Aphrahat, in Demonstration 20. On care for the poor according to Aphrahat, see Richard Finn, Almsgiving in the later Roman Empire: Christian Promotion and Practice (313-450) (Oxford Classical Monographs; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 125.