Perusing the religion section of a used bookstore can often result in interesting finds. One book that I discovered in this way was The Reluctant Parting, by Julie Galambush. The author is a former American Baptist minister who then converted to Judaism. The Reluctant Parting is essentially a commentary on each of the books of the New Testament, written from the perspective of Judaism, and aimed primarily but not exclusively at Jewish readers who might want a better understanding of Christianity and its Jewish roots. The author points out the New Testament was written by Jewish authors before the complete rupture between Judaism and Christianity had taken place.
This is an important point that often gets missed. Jesus did not self-consciously create a new religion. On the contrary, he was an observant Jew, who was circumcised, went to synagogue, wore fringes, and observed the dietary laws. His immediate followers, after his death, continued to worship in the synagogues. Christianity thus emerged initially as a sect within Judaism. Only after time did it split away and become a religion in its own right. (These points have also been stressed in a book I am currently reading, The Misunderstood Jew, by Amy-Jill Levine.)
The book provides some interesting insights, and I think it is worth reading for the overall perspective she offers--not for reasons of scholarship. I say this because I do occasionally take what she writes with a grain of salt; for example, when she writes of the authorship and dating of many of the New Testament books, she sometimes expresses views that don't necessarily seem to reflect the weight of scholarly opinion.
For example, here is what she writes concerning the authorship of the pastoral epistles of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus--which were traditionally believed to be written by Paul, but which the scholarly consensus now believes to have been written by later authors in Paul's name. Galambush offers an argument that the Pastorals could have been written under Paul's supervision, despite their stylistic differences from the uncontested Pauline epistles:
The letters' diction is frequently considered "non-Pauline", but given the role of secretaries in composing letters in antiquity, any "author's" diction might vary from letter to letter, depending on the scribe. (p. 204)I am certainly not a biblical scholar, and my personal collection of scholarly literature is quite scarce, so what I have as reference materials are incomplete and certainly scatter shot. But it is interesting to compare the above passage to what New Testament scholar L. Michael White wrote in his book From Jesus to Christianity, which was published the same year (2004) as Galambush's:
The language, tone, and style of the Pastorals is noticeably different from those in the genuine letters. Some earlier scholars still defending Pauline authorship attributed such differences to Paul's use of a secretary (or amanuensis), especially if he were "in chains". But this argument does not solve the problem, since it is clear now that Paul employed trained scribes as secretaries for most, if not all, of his genuine letters (cf Rom. 16:22). Thus, the differences remain stark. (p. 428)And the German scholar Udo Schnelle wrote in his 1994 book The History and Theology of New Testament Writings:
If the direct authorship of the Pastorals by Paul must be virtually excluded, the possibility of an indirect authorship remains. Here the secretary hypothesis hold the most important place, according to which the Pastorals were composed independently by one of the apostle's colleagues on the basis of instruction and materials from him....But the difficulties that stand against Pauline authorship are not resolved by this theory. The Pastorals know of no collaborative authorship, and in 1 Timothy and Titus there is no indication that these writings were composed only at Paul's behest rather than by Paul himself. The apostle's own linguistic features are also found in letters we know were dictated to a secretary (cf. Rom. 16.22), so the problem of linguistic peculiarities of the Pastorals is not set aside by the secretary hypothesis. (p. 332)Just to cite another example, in her commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews, she says the following:
Hebrews is quoted in 1 Clement, a Christian work usually dated to 95-100 C.E., making its composition by about 95 reasonably secure. (p. 223)But L. Michael White pointed out in his book From Jesus to Christianity,
The traditional date of 1 Clement is about 95-96, based on the legendary identification of the author, Clement of Rome, with a certain Flavius Clemens who was executed under Domitian. In fact, there is no direct or known connection between Clement of Rome and the senatorial family of Flavius Clemens, who was a relative of Dominitian. Consequently, 1 Clement has been dated as late as 140, but a more reasonable date would be about 100-120 C.E. Hebrews must be still earlier but may date anywhere between 90 and 115 C.E. (p. 319)
These criticisms may sound like nits, and in a way they are. The main thrust of her book is not to serve as a scholarly work, but to discuss each book of the New Testament as a Jewish writing produced for a Jewish audience. So as long as one is careful not to take her comments too seriously about the authorship and dating of the New Testament books, then one can achieve a deeper appreciation of the Jewishness of the early Christian movement. She rightly points out that early Christianity was a sect of Judaism, and in her book she often provides insights into how a given passage actually makes sense if it is understood in the light of the Jewishness of the author. Her background as a former Christian makes her qualified to attempt to bridge the communication gap between followers of the two religions.
The question arises as to why this matters. In my view, the historical origins of Christianity matter. Christianity would hardly deny the importance of its past; it is a faith that is rooted in traditions, reflected in the Bible, and acted out each year as part of the church calendar. But it is also a past that is often seen through the lens of centuries of accumulated dogma, piled on top of those original events. Understanding the origins of the faith can open up one's eyes to the nature of religious revelation and help one to break free of the constraints of dogma.