Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questions in Continuity and Discontinuity

Beginning from Jerusalem (Christianity in the Making, vol. 2)Alfred Loisy famously quipped, "Jesus proclaimed the kingdom, and it was the Church that came" (The Gospel and the Church cited in Dunn 25). Loisy's observation cuts to the heart of the puzzling relationship between Jesus and the communities that developed out of his mission. On the one hand, it cannot be doubted that Jesus was the most important cohering feature of the early family of believers. On the other hand, however, emphasis on the Jewishness of this Nazarene sect militates against elevating any human to the kind of status Jesus is given in Christianity. Thus, there is continuity with Jesus as the center of Christian identity and discontinuity with the Jewish theology out of which Christianity developed.

Dunn articulates the difficulty of sorting out the continuity and discontinuity by raising two questions. First, how does one bridge the gap between Jesus and Paul? This question must be answered to satisfactorily explain "how it was that Jesus' message of the kingdom became Paul's gospel of the crucified Jesus as Lord" (17). Second, how did "a Jewish sect become a Gentile religion" (17)? The Way, conceived as life following Yahweh articulated by Jesus, developed in Second Temple Judaism but gradually emerged as a predominately Gentile religion. The development has often been misread back into the earliest communities in such a way that Paul becomes a convert from Judaism to something else entirely‒ namely Christianity. The conversion of Paul is anachronistic but, based on the developments of the second and third centuries, understandable.

Following E. P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) and Joseph Klausner's (Jesus of Nazareth) suggestion that a hypothesis about the historical Jesus must show continuity with both Second Temple Judaism and the eventual break from it, Dunn suggests the same for the early Church. So, "A good hypothesis regarding Christianity's beginning should equally be required to explain how Christianity emerged from Jesus and how the movement which thus emerged within the matrix of Second Temple Judaism so quickly broke out of that matrix" (18). Out of this question comes two more exciting and difficult questions. Did the developments of the churches remain true to the mission of Jesus? And then, did Christianity evolve into something else along the way or did it maintain a basic identity throughout its early development? The heart of the matter for Dunn is Christology. When and why did the Early believers start worshiping Jesus?

Rather than setting out to answer these questions Dunn gives attention to articulating how they have come to be asked in the first place. He starts with Reimarus and makes his way through the "third quest" in a matter of only eleven pages. Along the way he sharpens the articulation of discontinuity between Jesus and Paul (Reimarus) leaving the subsequent Jesus of History vs. Christ of Faith dichotomy (Strauss, Harnack, Kähler and Bultmann) which raises the difficult question of Christology where he finds an impasse in current discussions. Dunn also raises the crucial issue of eschatology both imminent and realized expectation. The current state of affairs leads Dunn to suggest, "the more Jewish we see Jesus to have been, the harder it is to understand how and why the Christ dogma emerged; where the latter obscured and blocked the way to the former, now the former may seem to obscure and to form a block on the way to the latter" (27).

Dunn is concerned to raise the questions in his introduction and not yet to answer them. I'm excited to see exactly how he does so and I'm appreciative to see how the questions have come to be asked. Good scholarship is always aware of how it has inherited the questions it asks.

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