Beginning from Jerusalem: Review

Dunn primarily uses Acts as a rubric for understanding early Christianity. But he also includes the Pauline corpus and identifiable Jesus traditions discernible in the letters of James and Peter. Dunn states the sources analyzed date from AD 30–70 (128). The book’s historical treatment formally ends with the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in AD 70. Peter and Paul both die in Rome in AD 64 under Nero’s persecution (1071). As a result, the epistles of Peter, since they are given a late date, must have been written by someone other than Peter (1072).

BEGINNING FROM ANTIOCH?

In the First Phase of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, Dunn argues for a Hellenistic origin to the sacrificial theology evidenced by the Christian creed in 1 Cor 15:3f: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures…” The Hellenists were likely from Antioch and elsewhere in the diaspora, and the confessional formula was “composed by and for the Greek-speaking converts” (232). The testimony of Acts, according to Dunn, “tells decisively against the possibility that Jesus intended to establish a new cult in place of the Temple” (233; but whence Mark 13’s Olivet Discourse?). The summary here closed with a question: “Is it simpler to deduce that the understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning sacrifice had never been clearly expounded in the church in Jerusalem?” (235). For Dunn, the sacrificial death motif is found in Hebrews and, to a lesser extent, in the epistles of Paul. The theory of a Hellenistic provenance for a sacrificially atoning death by Jesus continues to inform ch. 24 (241-321). The theory can be summarized neatly as follows: (1) Saul’s persecution scattered the earliest believers in Jerusalem, resulting in Hellenists taking the Jesus traditions to Antioch. (2) Upon their return to Jerusalem, the Hellenists had new insight into Jesus’ death, understanding it both as a sacrifice for sins and as subversive of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. This is why no pre-formed Aramaic tradition of the creed can be discerned behind 1 Cor 15:3f, according to Dunn, since the tradition is said not to begin with the Hebraists. While the study is impressive, the reader of Dunn cannot help but ask: Is it really plausible that the earliest Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, after being scattered and catechized anew in Antioch, returned to Jerusalem with a fresh counter-Temple doctrine, and successfully instructed the Apostles themselves on the meaning of Jesus’ death? Or that they held to and taught their own novel tradition successfully and alongside the true apostolic witnesses?

THE JERUSALEM COUNCIL AND THE ANTIOCH INCIDENT

In many ways chapter 27, “Crisis and Confrontation,” is the most important in the book since it demonstrates with great skill how Dunn understands the distinctiveness of Peter’s gospel to the circumcised and Paul’s gospel to the uncircumcised (Gal 2:7), and how each apostle’s mission was answerable to James in Jerusalem, and answerable to one another. “Crisis” designates the Jerusalem Council’s decision on gentile circumcision (Acts 15:5); and “Confrontation” denotes Paul’s confrontation with Peter in Antioch over Peter’s return to Jewish dietary laws (Gal 2:11-14). Faith alone is unquestionably (and rightly) the chief principle involved in the theology of Paul, according to Dunn (see subheadings “b” and “c” under §27.5, 484f; here 487): “The events at Antioch showed Paul that the teaching had to be sharpened – faith in Christ and not works of the law.” And again: “In defining acceptability to God, and therefore of believers to one another, nothing should be added to the gospel’s call for faith; faith in Christ alone is the sole basis for Christian unity.” The last quote given demonstrates that there is a common core holding Christianity together at this early stage, which is faith in Christ – though for James and Peter it is not faith alone. Nevertheless, it is this core that forms the basis of fellowship between Jew and Gentile. This basis of unity also does not eliminate the distinctive features remaining between the Jewish Christianity of Jerusalem, with James at the helm and Peter as its missionary, and the Gentile Christianity of Paul’s diaspora missions, which taught a more homogenous gospel with former divisions such as Jew and Greek evidently absorbed entirely into Christology.

It seems the Apostolic Decree delivered by James which declared that circumcision was not required by Gentiles (God accepts Gentiles precisely as Gentiles; cf. 442-5, 461-9), still retained a Torah-abiding Jewish Christian gospel that was in fundamental disagreement with Paul’s Torah-less gospel. Again, Torah-keeping Jewish Christianity is upheld by James (461-9; esp.467; cf. also James’ “law of liberty” in Jas 1:25; 2:12, pp. 1141-2), and Gentile converts are expected to respect their customs, even where these customs cause them to be set apart from Gentiles. Dunn tantalizingly notes Ernst Haenchen who explains that the Decree is actually consistent with Torah legislation concerning foreigners in the land of Israel (466 n.222; 468 n.231; citing Lev 17:8-9,10-14; 18:20,26; Acts 15:23-29). This indicates a Torah-respecting expectation among Jew and Gentile relations within earliest Jerusalem Christianity (467). The decision of the Jerusalem Council was only enforceable where the Jerusalem mother church held influence; the daughter churches being Antioch and Cilicia (468). Dunn further points out that fundamental for the decision reached by the council was the recognition that the Gentiles had been given the Holy Spirit just as the Jews in the beginning – though Paul leaves this part out.

The Confrontation, i.e., the incident at Antioch, follows next (470-89). Galatians 2:14, Dunn says, should not be taken “to indicate that Peter and the Jewish believers had totally abandoned the law governing relations between Jews and Gentiles” (473). Faith alone was Paul’s answer for the Antioch incident (487), but Peter does not seem to have acquiesced. This confrontation concerning the place of Torah becomes a clash of apostolic titans (491), resulting in an effective fracture between Peter and Paul and their respective churches (491), with Antioch and Cilicia following Peter, and Paul continuing, as his corpus shows, to vie for his gospel against the Judaizers within his Asian and Aegean churches.

Dunn notes Acts 16:4, which states that Paul and Timothy delivered the findings of the Apostolic Decree to Paul’s previously evangelized churches. Dunn writes that this “may also indicate a concern on Paul’s part to ensure that these churches did not follow the path chosen by Peter and the Antiochenes” (665). The context of Acts 16 verse 4 does lend credibility to Dunn’s schism thesis since it suggests that Paul may have only circumcised Timothy to avoid trouble with the Judaizers. Overall, however, the findings of the chapter, as argued by Dunn, do not clearly follow from his presentation. While he demonstrates a contrast, or disagreement, over Torah between Paul and the Jerusalem Pillars, Dunn concludes that it is actually a fracture (489-94), with Jerusalem prevailing and Paul’s influence in areas of Jerusalem influence significantly curtailed (494). This means a full break between Paul and Peter and James.

In sum, concerning the confrontation between Peter and Paul over Torah “it was Peter who prevailed,” though the reader of Paul’s account would not have known it (490). Again, though, has Dunn really demonstrated that the clash of the titans was a schism – a split of the churches according to their apostolic leaders? The intensity of the schism as described by Dunn speaks to F. C. Baur’s continued influence in the thinking of Dunn, and of early Christian studies.

JAMES AND PETER

In stark contrast to his treatment of Paul (over five-hundred pages; pp. 495-1057), Dunn briefly sketches James (1122-47) and Peter (378-415; 1058-76). Since the primary thesis of the book is to demonstrate the variegated nature of early Christianity, that is that James, Peter, and Paul makeup different types of Christian subgroups, it is somewhat disappointing that two of the Pillars (Gal 2:9) of nascent Christianity are given so little treatment.

In his examination of the Epistle of James, Dunn identifies several aphorisms of Jesus mostly drawn from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (1135). The aphoristic teachings are considered by Dunn to be indicative of the impact of the earthly Jesus and of his oral teaching. In this regard James acts as a valuable window into the earliest Jewish Christian followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea. Dunn further finds support for orality in James’ use of wisdom tradition stemming from the Second Temple period, such as the Wisdom of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon (1133). The noted wisdom citations are not fixed but fluid, indicating a lively, oral presence. It is a nice complement to Dunn’s orality thesis and continued focus.

James’ discussion of “works of law” is further seen as a deliberate affront to Paul, or at least those who have misunderstood Paul (1142, 1144). This is shown to be the case by recognizing the common themes on the discussion in their respective letters: (1) the issue is posed in terms of faith and works (Rom 3:27-28/Jas 2:18); (2) God is claimed as “one” (Rom 3:29-30/Jas 2:19); (3) Abraham’s example is integral to the understanding of faith/works righteousness (Rom 4:1-2/Jas 2:20-22); finally (4) both cite Gen 15:1 (Rom 4:3/Jas 2:20-22) and (5) Gen 15:6 (Rom 4:4-21/Jas 2:23). One might also add the “apart” motif, seen in Rom 3:27 “faith apart from works of the Law,” and seen also in Jas 2:18 and 20, “show me your faith apart from works,” and “faith apart from works is useless.” For Paul it is faith alone, as Dunn impressively points out (482-94); for James it is faith and works together.

James concern for Torah distinguishes him from Pauline Christianity, but not to the degree that F. C. Baur had envisaged, at least according to Dunn (1174). It is rather that they worked together despite their differences of opinion concerning the place of Torah. James’ more conservative Jewish Christianity based in Jerusalem was Torah-keeping, while Paul’s Torah-free gospel was proclaimed in the diaspora among Jews and Gentiles. Peter is seen as a mediating figure who equivocated on the principle, although in Dunn’s work Peter ultimately aligns with James and Torah-based Christianity (1060). But Peter did come to accept, as did James, that due to the movement of the Spirit of God, the Gentiles were accepted precisely as Gentiles (465 n.216), i.e. without circumcision (464).

Aphorisms are also found in 1 Peter (1154), and they too are largely from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. Refreshingly, concerning the Pauline flavor of 1 Peter, Dunn points out that it is Paul himself who learned from Peter (Gal 1:18), so the direction of transmission may have started with Peter, a point often overlooked. Further, Peter himself should not be considered to have made no impact on his followers, with the result that his epistles cannot in any meaningful way be identified with him (1156). First Peter also reveals no meaningful tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians (1152, 1159), which would speak for an earlier date. On the contrary it presupposes a Jewish audience empty of a gentile presence (see p. 1159; cf. 1 Pet 2:12, 4:3). Dunn concludes that the epistle is very consistent with what we know of Peter’s commission to the circumcised: “the impression is more of one who has had to deal primarily with believers among the Jews of the diaspora, living in hostile Gentile territory” (1159-60).

CONCLUSION

It seems that the missions of Peter and Paul ran somewhat counter with one-another, or at least can be thought of as competing in some areas, in Dunn’s thought. Though they can be, to be sure, plotted along a spectrum of Christianity holistically understood, the tensions involved in their differing emphases do seem to generate factions within the whole. James and Peter espouse a continuing role for Torah in the life of the Christian communities founded, while Paul adamantly does not (Gal 3:1) – and his many churches are frequently troubled by Judaizers seeking to persuade believers in Messiah Jesus to obey Torah. In the aftermath of the 60s – complete with the loss of many leaders in the Jerusalem church, including Peter, as well as the Jewish War and destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – the ritualistic, Torah-keeping Christianity established in Jerusalem lost its prevailing voice. It will be sometime in the aftermath that Paul’s Torah-less gospel prevails. Or as Dunn tantalizingly closes the volume: “A particular issue will be whether the effective loss of the Jerusalem end of the spectrum was a foreshortening of the spectrum which changed the character of the whole” (1174).

Tantalizing indeed. What is the student to make of such a masterpiece? Greek-speaking Jewish Christianity is not only responsible for originating counter-Temple doctrine and the teaching of the death of Jesus sacrificially understood, but the Hellenists were also formative of, following the Temple’s demise, the eventual theological shape of early Christianity. The increasing Hellenization of early Christianity solidified it as a predominantly Gentile religion in later generations. As a fresh student in early Christianity, the hagiographical impression of the early church Pillars I once held has now been challenged – and challenged deeply. The new lens given by Dunn is carefully crafted, and when the student examines the New Testament with such a lens, many of his theories do seem to make great sense of the data. So where does this leave one so perplexed? A few answers follow.

It has not been convincingly established that a Temple/Torah free gospel is without some precedence in the Jesus tradition (cf. Mark 7:19; 8:31; 9:31; 10:45; 13:1ff.). Peter’s own influence seems closely associated with Torah-free traditions (seen particularly in Mark 7:19b; Acts 10:14; Gal 2:11-14). Nor is Dunn’s hypothesis about an Antiochene/Hellenistic provenance for counter-Temple doctrine – where the first rumblings of a sacrificial death of Christ are said to be located – convincing. Are we to ignore the triple tradition of the Olivet Discourse? Further, the theology of Peter and Paul, in terms of Jesus death understood as sacrificially atoning, stand united in many regards that it seems far-fetched to envision the sort of schism that Dunn does. Faith in Jesus Christ holds the core together, but even here it cannot be agreed that it is faith alone. In sum, too much is made of diversity at the expense of unity.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s