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'Great Church' challenged

08 April 2016

Early Christianity has a complex history, says John Barton

Neither Jew nor Greek: A contested identity (Christianity in the Making, volume 3)

James D. G. Dunn

Eerdmans £42.99


Church Times Bookshop £38.70


THE very first Christians (before they were even called that) were Jews; yet two generations later Christianity was predominantly a Gentile religion, even beginning to turn on the Jews and reject them in the name of a new and superior covenant. Yet it continued to venerate Israel’s scriptures, and rejected those such as Marcion who contrasted the God of Jesus with the God of Israel. The relation of Christianity to Judaism has always been complex and intricate.

In this massive book, the third volume of his trilogy Christianity in the Making, James Dunn continues the story of this relationship, from the time of Jesus (covered in volume 1, Jesus Remembered) and of Paul and the earliest believers (volume 2, Beginning from Jerusalem), down into the period after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in AD 70.

His end point is the work of Irenaeus at the end of the second century. This means that there is an immense amount of material to cover: the early apologists such as Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus himself; but also masses of pseudonymous writings such as the Epistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, and the material ascribed to Peter and Paul — which includes some of the epistles in the New Testament.

Furthermore, most scholars date the canonical Gospels to some time after 70, so that these, too, have to be re-examined, as evidence now not for the historical Jesus, but for the Church of the late first and early second century that produced them.

The treatment is systematic and balanced, with all the evidence carefully weighed. There are frequent charts showing how different documents such as the Synoptic Gospels, or John and Thomas, overlap or differ, and there are many bullet-point lists to clarify the conclusions that have been reached — all of which makes this a potential textbook as well as a learned monograph. Readers should not be put off by the length: it is compendious but never abstruse.

Dunn’s overall objective is to challenge the simple picture we have inherited from Eusebius, the first Church historian, of a “Great Church” that fought off heresy, and to assert, as others in recent times have done, that the true picture is far more complicated. “Would Peter, James and Paul have been as satisfied with what happened in the second century, and thereafter, as Eusebius was? Would they have affirmed that the emergence of the great church, the antithesis with Judaism, the disowning of Jewish-Christianity and denunciation of the Gnostic variation, was the best or most desirable outcome?”

By implication, no, or at least not wholly. In particular, the loss of connection with Judaism was deplorable, as Dunn sees it: many early Christians saw no difficulty in keeping the sabbath as well as Sunday, in practising circumcision and observing the food laws, and their eventual exclusion as “judaisers” was a disaster.

There are fascinating sections on the continuing importance of Peter and James (brother of Jesus) in the second century, alongside the more obviously dominant Paul. In both these cases, the continuation of Jewish themes is more in evidence that it is in deutero-Pauline material, which can veer towards the beginnings of Marcionism — it was, after all, the core of Paul’s letters, and especially Galatians, that formed the heart of Marcion’s biblical canon. And we are never allowed to forget that Jesus himself continued to influence the Church through his sayings and actions as well as through his Passion and resurrection: “Gospels”, such as Thomas, that reduced him to merely a teacher, and omitted the acts, the sufferings, and the eventual glorification, ended up outside the New Testament.

Dunn is a significant international figure in New Testament scholarship, and has here triumphantly completed a magnum opus. Yet the diverse themes presented here — and especially the relation of Christianity to Judaism — could all be developed even further: 946 pages are not enough for such a rich vein. There is room for further magna opera from his pen.


John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

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