Saturday, September 18, 2010

What exactly began in Jerusalem?

Beginning from Jerusalem (Christianity in the Making, vol. 2)The phrase "historical Jesus" is a rare example of the language of NT scholarship finding its way into common parlance. Since at least the nineteenth century many scholars have assumed that the traditions about Jesus found in the gospels reflect the communities which used and produced those traditions more than the historical person of Jesus. There is certainly some validity to this assertion. The gospels are not concerned with producing "history" in the modern sense. One of the difficulties with this suggestion, however, is that it assumes we know quite a lot about these early communities. This is simply not the case. As Dunn points out (following F. G. Downing) "the primitive church(es) were (on such a reckoning) as much an unknown as Jesus" (3). One cannot assume that Jesus tradition reflects a community rather than Jesus when less is known about the community than traditions about Jesus.

What then can be known about these early communities? Dunn specifically focuses on these communities from AD 30 to 70. He begins by defining what exactly it is that began in Jerusalem. His goal is to describe "from within" what began in Jerusalem‒ "to ask how the participants understood themselves and what was happening, when horizons were limited and outcomes unknown" (5). Dunn wants to articulate how these early communities saw themselves not how later historians describe them as the birth of a new religion.

What descriptors then are appropriate? This seemingly simple question has as many as seventeen possible answers. Rather than rehearse each of these options and the arguments for and against, I want to highlight just a few to observe overused anachronisms and underemphasized dimensions.

First, overused anachronistic titles are common. There are two in this category that are especially striking. The most overused anachronism to describe the early Jesus communities is "Christianity." To speak of "Christianity" before the 110s is incorrect. "Properly speaking, 'Christianity' did not yet exist" (5). The title first appears as a negative label given from the outside in Acts 11.26 (cf. Acts 26.28; 1 Pet 4.16; Ignatius, Eph. 11.2; Magn. 4; Trall. 6.1; Rom. 3.2; Pol. 7.3; Mart. Polycarp 3.2; 10.1; 12.1‒2; Did. 12.4; Diogn. 1.1; 2.6, 10; 4.6; 5.1; 6.1-9; Pliny, Ep. 10.96). Some have endeavored to qualify it as "primitive" Christianity or "emergent" Christianity. The chief problem with this is that it obscures a crucial question to the whole discussion: "what are the distinctives of Christianity, and when did they first emerge?" (6). "Christianity" is certainly what developed from Jerusalem, but not until decades later.

The second most overused descriptor is "church." The aware reader will contest, "But ekklēsia is a common NT word occurring 23 times in Acts, 62 times in Paul and 20 times in Revelation!" This is a true and important point that makes "church" a more helpful descriptor than "Christianity" but it suffers from its own problems as well. "Church" today does not mean what ekklēsia meant. The contemporary word "implies a unified entity" that did not exist. Certainly, this was the ideal quite early (Eph 1.22; 3.10; 3.21-4.6; Col 1.18, 24; 1 Cor 12.28; Gal 1.13). The singular "church" obscures the diversity that existed in these early movements.

It is now worth considering some of the descriptors that are less obvious and perhaps even surprising. It might be shocking to some, but "synagogue" appears as a descriptor of the early Jesus movement (James 2.2; cf. Ignatius Pol. 4.2; Hermas Mand. 11.9‒14; T. Ben. 11.2; Justin Dialog. 63.5; Irenaeus Against Her. 4.31.1). This term is not widespread or distinctive enough to carry the freight of describing the early Jesus movement, but it is indicative of the fact that early believers (another possible descriptor) were Jews being Jews following a Messiah. They were not "starting a new religion." "Saints," is particularly common in Paul and Revelation. Like "synagogue" it emphasizes the Jewish character of early believers for it claims "participation in the heritage of Israel" (12). It is a Jewish term (Pss 16.3; 34.9; Dan 7.18; 8.24; Tob 8.15; Wis 18.9; 1QSb 3.2; 1QM 3.5) that denotes a specific theological status within Israel (Pss. Sol. 17.26; 1QS 5.13; 8.17, 20, 23; 9.18; 1 Enoch 38.4-5; 43.4; 48.1; 50.1; etc.). The Jewishness of "Saints" is later obscured by hostile relations and the use of the term in later Christianity to refer to a special group of believers.

The most surprising of Dunn's suggestions for appropriate descriptors is "the poor." I was caught off guard at the suggestion that "the poor" could describe the early believers, thus betraying my western capitalist perspective. It is a descriptor that is rooted in the tradition of Israel (esp. Pss 69.32; 72.2), is used by Paul (Rom 15.26) and reflects Jesus' activity. In the end, the phrase is not broad enough to describe the early believers, but the fact that it's even an option is telling.

From these and the many other options, Dunn draws four helpful conclusions. First, no one term or descriptor can bear the load of describing the early Jesus movement. A number of terms are useful including: "believers," perhaps "disciples," "saints," "the Way," or even "Nazarenes." The diversity of terms is necessary to keep from one term becoming "unduly normative" (15). Second, the needed variety of descriptors indicates the multiform character of those following "the Way." As Dunn observes, "The 'Christianity' which was beginning to emerge in the 30s was not a single 'thing' but a whole sequence of relationships, of emerging perspectives of attitude and belief, of developing patterns of interaction and worship, of conduct and mission" (16). Third, the observably coherent center is "continuity with the mission of Jesus" (16). What and exactly how Jesus was honored is a question, but he was the central defining feature of these early believers. Fourth, these disciples were distinctively Jewish.

It began from Jerusalem‒ a diversely defined group of Jews who followed, honored and at some point worshiped Jesus as God.

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