The letter to the Ephesians is frequently located at a mid-point on a trajectory in early Christianity; i.e. Ephesians is seen as evidence of a Christianity lying somewhere between Paul’s struggle to forge unity between ethnic Jewish and non-Jewish Christ-believers and the full-blown use of the concept of Christians as a new “ethnic” or “racial” entity to deny legitimacy to ethnic Jews. This paper questions this trajectory by conducting a comparative analysis of Ephesians and the Epistle of Barnabas. Taking its starting-point from the imperatival clause, “Therefore remember that you were once Gentiles in the flesh” (Eph 2:11), it explores the way in which Ephesians and Barnabas respectively shape a collective memory for their recipients with respect to Israel, its Scriptures and its symbols.
The paper finds that Barnabas and Ephesians both seek to construct collective memories for their readers by evoking Israel’s scriptural narrative and symbols. However, the two epistles differ strikingly in the way they construct these memories.
On the one hand, Barnabas contrasts Christians with Jews as the “other”, adopts a hermeneutical approach that sees Christians as appropriating all the promises to Israel, depicts Jesus’ sacrifice as a judgment against Jews, regards Jews as having been supplanted by Christians in “first” place, describes the nullification of the law as the end of ritual, and emphasises the contrast between the new spiritual temple and the physical Jewish temple.
On the other hand, Ephesians contrasts Christians with their former way of life as the “other”, adopts an Israel-centred hermeneutical approach that views Gentile Christians as graciously included within the promises to Israel, depicts Jesus’ sacrifice as an act of reconciliation between Gentiles and Jews, regards Jews as retaining their position as “first” in Christ, describes the nullification of the law as the end of hostility between Gentiles and Jews, and emphasises the unity of Jew and Gentile in the new spiritual temple.
Looking at the two epistles from this perspective highlights their differences strikingly. This calls into question the posited trajectory. In this regard, at least, Ephesians is quite consonant with the undisputed Pauline letters (e.g. Rom 1:16, 11:17–24). There is no obvious development from Ephesians to the ethnic “replacement” concepts of the second century and beyond.