When I received my copy of The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century by Fr. Stephen De Young, I felt I had finally come home. I expected the book to be my final vindication in dozens of ongoing debates with well-meaning brothers and sisters who keep telling me that knowledge of the Second Temple period (roughly the period in Jewish history from the reconstruction of the Temple at the time of Nehemiah through it its destruction in AD 70) is neither necessary nor helpful for understanding the New Testament. Consequently, I greeted the arrival of Fr. Stephen’s book with glee, looking forward to having ammunition with which to spar with the next Protestant who told me that all we need is the Scriptures, or the next Orthodox or Catholic who told me that all we need is Scripture plus the Patristics.
Yet as I began reading The Religion of the Apostles, my pride quickly turned to shame. Almost from the beginning of the book, Fr. Stephen began dismantling many assumptions that had been part of the taken-for-granted background to my understanding of Christian origins. While underscoring the continued need to take into account the historical context that forms the background to the New Testament (at least I got that right), Fr. Stephen’s historical research dismantled beliefs that I held in common with thousands of other modern Christians about the Bible and its teachings.
One of these beliefs concerned the Jewish origins of the New Testament. Since I have always wanted to understand ancient texts through the lens of their original context, I have taken a keen interest in Judaism. I remember as a boy going to the Christian Booksellers Association annual convention (publisher-funded trips to the convention was one of the perks of having a well-known Christian author as a dad) and relishing a cassette tape I picked up of a new translation of the Bible. This translation introduced a Jewish flavor into the text to make the Bible more “Messianic.” Later on in life I’ve participated in everything from Passover Seders to Messianic services in an attempt to discover the Jewish roots of my faith. But I was misguided. Fr. Stephen shows convincingly that, as far as world religions go, Judaism is the newest kid on the block, having originated in the 6th century.
If you think about it, this has to be the case. The Judaism at the time of Christ was entirely centered on the temple, but the temple was destroyed in AD 70. So how could the Jews who did not convert to Christianity still practice their faith? The answer is that they had to invent a new religion. Hence, the emergence of Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism was invented specifically in reaction to Christianity, and involved systematically expunging aspects of their theological pedigree that overlapped with the Christian faith. Consequently, Christianity has more continuity with the religion practiced by the Pharisees than what we know of today as “Judaism.”
One of the doctrines that Rabbinic Judaism removed from their religion was the teaching – widespread in the Second Temple Period – that God is more than one person.
I had always assumed that the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity took time to develop, and that the apostles wouldn’t have been explicit Trinitarians. I did believe the doctrine of the Trinity was in the OT, but in a latent or implicit form. Two things had to first happen for Trinitarian theology to be hammered out, or so I thought. The first is that Orthodox Christianity had to interact with heresies, resulting in various doctrinal formulas such as Trinitarian doctrine. The second thing that happened—and I was explicitly taught this in the Protestant church I used to attend—is that because the apostles were worshiping Jesus as the Messiah, they inferred He must be God because you can’t worship a merely created being.
Once again, I am delighted to announce that I was mistaken. Fr. Stephen shows convincingly that throughout the Old Testament, God was understood to be more than one person, and this was never a point of dispute during the Judaism of the Second Temple Period. The early Christians did not deduce the doctrine of the Trinity from the fact that they were worshiping Jesus, nor did they come up with Trinitarian theology as a way of buffering the Church against heresy. Rather, the doctrine of God being multiple hypostases was already widely accepted even before the incarnation.
So why isn’t this more widely understood? The answer, according to Fr. Stephen De Young, goes back to what I explained earlier: our understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ day has been tinctured by Rabbinic Judaism, which we anachronistically assume reflects the tradition of the Pharisees. But when “Judaism” was invented in the 6th century, they rejected much of their heritage that overlapped with Christianity, from the Septuagint to the doctrine of God being more than one person.
Here is another misconception Fr. Stephen dismantles, and one very dear to my heart. It has become fashionable within American Eastern Orthodox convert culture to deny that the Orthodox believe in substitutionary atonement. This is a giant exercise of throwing the baby out with the bathwater combined with an historical amnesia propagated by lazy anti-intellectualism. (Ok, technically the Orthodox Church denies penal substitutionary atonement while affirming substitutionary atonement, but most people, including well-meaning Orthodox who deny substitution completely, are not familiar with this distinction.) For anyone who leaves the Orthodox faith for Protestantism, this becomes an easy issue to take up and throw stones back at the Orthodox Church. I have two good friends who left the Orthodox church and now refer me to the Old Testament to clinch some version of the following argument: “See, substitutionary atonement is real, so the Orthodox are actually heterodox when they deny this.” Well folks, the Orthodox Church does teach substitutionary atonement, and if you don’t believe me, read chapter 7 of The Religion of the Apostles. Fr. Stephen wrote his PhD dissertation on the atonement, so he is well-qualified to address the issue.
These are just a few examples of how Fr. Stephen uses historical scholarship to nudge the reader closer to the Orthodox position. In addition to chapters on the Trinity and atonement, the book features sections on the powers of the spiritual world, the saints, creation, Israel, and the law of God. The book is deeply scholarly and deeply spiritual at the same time. When I say “scholarly” I mean that the book has emerged out of Fr. Stephen’s deep learning and years of study, not that the book is academic. It does not offer a literature review or footnotes for those wishing to explore these issues further, and the bibliography is scant; instead, the book offers a more popular tone that makes it accessible to a wide readership.
My only criticism of The Religion of the Apostles is that its purpose seems ambiguous. The book’s subtitle, preface, and publisher’s blurb on the back seem to over-promise what the book actually delivers. It is being explicitly pitched as a defense of Eastern Orthodoxy as such. But no Christian disputes that the theology of the apostles is the standard for Christian orthodoxy, so saying the apostles were orthodox in a general sense is not a very punchy claim since this is true tautologically. The real question we want to know is which Christian tradition has faithfully carried on the legacy of the apostles. Is the ecclesial body of Eastern Orthodoxy the most “orthodox” (faithful to the apostles), or is the most faithfulness to orthodoxy perhaps found in a Protestant denomination, or maybe Roman Catholicism? As modern Americans, these are important questions. At first, it appears the book will address these questions, for Fr. Stephen writes in the preface, “the Orthodox Church…proclaims that its liturgical ritual and way of life are in complete continuity with that of the apostles… This book makes that case.” Then the book’s conclusion has a couple pages suggesting that the Eastern Orthodox Church of today is the most faithful continuation of the apostle’s legacy. But I’m not sure that the body of the book establishes this. With the exception of a few details, there is nothing that a good Catholic or Protestant shouldn’t be able to say a hearty Amen to. The fact that some of the most exciting work done in the Second Temple context to the New Testament is being undertaken by non-orthodox scholars like N.T. Wright (Protestant) and Brant Pitre (Catholic) and others should give the Orthodox pause before too quickly assuming these types of historical considerations automatically vindicate the claims of Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology. It may be the case that this scholarship does vindicate the claims of Orthodox Church, but much more work needs to be done connecting the dots. Maybe Fr. Stephen can write a follow-up book to help us connect these dots. But that is a minor detail. I liked the book, and I am so grateful for the discussions it has spawned within my own Orthodox congregation concerning the role of historical scholarship in interpreting Scripture.
Don’t wait: go buy yourself a copy of The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century.