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Apostles freely disagreeing

by
01 September 2009

A persuasive picture of early Christianity, says Lionel Wickham

Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, Volume 2
James D. G. Dunn
Eerdmans £53.99
(978-0-8028-3932-9)
Church Times Bookshop £48.60

HERE, six years on from publica­tion of the first part, Jesus Remem­bered (Books, 26 March 2004), is the second in James Dunn’s grand design in three volumes, Chris­tianity in the Making. The aim of the whole is “an integrated descrip­tion and analysis of the first 120 years of Christianity”: literary history, social background, and theological discussion combine to focus on and interpret the origins and evolution of Christian faith and religious organisation.

Projects on this scale are often the work of a group. How good it is instead to listen to a single expert voice, especially when the words it utters are so readily comprehensible, and their subject, seen as a whole and from one perspective, is made so interesting. It is a long book, but I had no difficulty in turning the page.

I warn potential readers: thereis throughout only one joke, which is a ghastly pun (on the feat/feet of the apostle Paul, who did so much walk­ing on them), designed origin­ally, you may be sure, to evoke toler­ant groans from the student audi­ence. The tone, though, is neither over-solemn nor preten­tious, but one of a warm engage­ment, at times generating eloquent lines.

Meditating for a moment on St Paul, “arguably the greatest of Christian theologians”, finding “just enough time in Corinth to set down this synthesis” (the Epistle to the Romans) “of his understanding of the most controversial aspect of his life’s work”, James Dunn likens him to the “thinker who has had to await retirement before he can find time to set down his mature reflection, fruit of many individual controver­sies and essays”: and so, with a charming touch, he paints himself in a small corner of the picture.

The title explains the scope of the book: the mission and expansion of Christianity in the emerging churches (and Church, but that latter name suggests an evolution adumbrated here, but lying just beyond the period of study). James Dunn traces the mission from its start with the “Hellenists” in Jerusalem and their transposition of the gospel off Palestinian soil to the Greek-speaking Jews and their Gentile hangers-on in the townsof Asia Minor, and thence to the est of the Empire.

By the end of the period with which this part of the grand design deals, the separation of Christianity from Judaism or, to put it in another way, of Christians from the Jewish synagogues was in the offing, and was entirely predictable, but not yet the irrevocable finality it was to become.

Paul’s letters and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, carefully analysed and docketed, are the main building-blocks; the external evidences, such as they are, are amply noted and discussed; and the settings in time and space of the towns where the new religion (as it was to be) took root are sufficiently dealt with.

Other readers and reviewers in the technical journals will comment on the details. I offer here two general impressions. First, James Dunn gives a consistent and persua­sive interpretation of “how things actually were”.

The “primitive Church” is never presented as an ideal to be imitated. The sharp disagreements between James, in the conservatively Jewish church of Jerusalem (who is pres­ented here as plausibly the source, if not the author, of the epistle that bears his name), and Paul, with his different understanding of the new faith, and again those of Paul and Peter (quite possibly to be credited with authorship of the First Epistle that is called his), are recognised and explained.

Paul, in this interpretation, is in part a tragic figure: a chapter, indeed, is called “The Passion of Paul”. The tragedy lies not only in his death (probably martyrdom by execution in Rome), but in his failure to win over the conservatives in Jerusalem even when he came bearing the, perhaps, lavish and certainly pain­fully extracted offerings of his con­verts.

Second, I am impressed that so much is known. Every page is replete with instances of “probably” and the like; Luke is recognised as a decent historian with various biases, but rebuked often for incompet­ence, and even once for “dereliction of duty as a historian”. Peter, surely a good half of the picture, neverhad his equivalent of Luke as bio­grapher, and fades out. None the less, a convincing account of Chris­tian origins can be given and is given here. I think that is a very surprising result. I look forward to reading the last volume.

The Revd Dr Wickham is a retired priest in the diocese of Wakefield.

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