Beginning from Jerusalem.
This is the second of three volumes in a series intended to cover the history of earliest Christianity. The first volume. Jesus Remembered, presented the life of Jesus as it was remembered by his first followers, and was notable for its stress on the concept of memory with its idea of "a living tradition of Christian celebration which takes us with surprising immediacy to the heart of the first memories of Jesus"; that this "remembered Jesus" is very close to the "historical Jesus" is a clear implication of the detailed argument. A third volume will tackle the period after the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.), and the present one is devoted to a detailed history of the early church during the forty years following the death of Jesus (probably 30 C.E.).
Dunn adopts the role of the historian seeking for "the historical church" and dependent on sources that he carefully assesses. He is throughout critical, probing the historicity of what they describe or imply, and a marked feature of the book is the way in which time and again he examines the material in the book of Acts, which has so often been found to be late, tendentious, and imaginative, and finds that the arguments against the historicity of what is there recorded simply do not stand up. Frequently the historical skepticism of such scholars as E. Haenchen is found to be inappropriate. Even where Lukan interests and Tendenz can be identified, this does not diminish the value of Acts as a historical source. This is not to say that Dunn does not recognize a one-sidedness in some of the material and cases where the earlier testimony of Paul gives a different picture, but on the whole Acts survives the critical testing remarkably well, with the result that it can be used to provide the main framework for the story.
The popular reverse procedure that considers Acts to be of secondary value and importance to the primary material that can be gleaned from elsewhere is decisively rejected: Acts is dependent upon eye-witness testimony, whether directly from the author himself or indirectly, and is to be treated with appropriate respect. The various incidents need to be understood within the horizons of the different groups of first-century Christians rather than within the "omniscient" total knowledge of background of modern readers. As for Paul. Dunn recognizes seven letters as certainly Pauline and two (2 Thessalonians and Colossians) as probably Pauline, and uses all these critically, recognizing that they tell only one side of a story that may be more complex. Dunn's positive conclusions on historicity are thus all the more impressive in view of his careful, questioning approach and reasoned discussion.
The story is refilled in three parts. "The first phase" covers the beginnings in Jerusalem, the social and religious character of the new community, the Hellenists and their outreach, the conversion of Paul, the mission of Peter, and the crisis that led to the council in Jerusalem. Second, there is a detailed study of Paul, the character about whom we have the most information; this deals broadly with the missionary and the congregations that he founded before covering the progress of his mission and giving a survey of his letters to these congregations. The third part, entitled "the end of the beginning," covers Paul's imprisonment (with the letters from this period) and death, the work and death of Peter, who is deservedly pulled out of the shadow into the light, the catastrophe in Judea involving the death of its leader James, the dispersal of the Christians with the fall of Jerusalem, and the immediate literary legacy of letters (Ephesians. James, and 1 Peter) that depend heavily on the three leaders and worthily extend their influence.
New Testament students will already be aware of the many contributions that Dunn has previously made to our knowledge of this period, largely in commentaries on the Pauline corpus but also in major works on early Christian theology and history. This book brings together the results of a lifetime of scholarship to provide a satisfying synthesis. The range of the author's reading is phenomenal; nothing of importance seems to have evaded his eye. Although, therefore, much might be expected to be repetitive of his earlier work, the author demonstrates his ongoing interaction with the continuing scholarly debates and his willingness to think through problems yet again. Page after page contains fresh insights and the whole enterprise is expressed with great lucidity and readability. The footnotes give adequate references to sources and scholarly discussions that make this book ideal as a textbook for students. One might query whether the contents of the Pauline letters needed to be summarized so fully in what is a history rather than a theology of the early church, but this is an added bonus for readers who want a history that covers the development of ideas as well as the mission of the church and its life.
The reviewer cannot avoid making the usual comment that a notice of this length cannot even summarize meaningfully what is said in broad terms in this volume and give readers some indication of the author's conclusions, never mind draw attention to any of the detail. But let me say that I am particularly impressed with the attempt to prevent Paul from stealing all the limelight by demonstrating the importance of the other actors. I also applaud the way in which the relationships of the early Christians to the earthly Jesus and to their social and cultural environments are repeatedly the subject of investigation.
Part of the importance of this volume lies in the way that it does not simply repeat the New Testament story in other words. Dunn is concerned to analyze the material and what it implies about the character of the early Christian communities and to assess the contributions made by the main actors. He is frank about the differences of opinion that existed, the tensions and debates that arose particularly around the mission of Paul, the changes and developments in belief reflected in Paul's letters, and the places where he finds the actors open to criticism.
Much recent scholarship has come to the conclusion that the Gospels are substantially reliable accounts of the mission and teaching of Jesus; this volume performs the same service for the story of the early church. Dunn offers a penetrating study of how the early congregations were planted, grew, and spread, what was the message that inspired them, and what the experience of being first-century believers was like. I cannot recommend it too highly.
I. HOWARD MARSHALL
UNIVERSITY OF ABERDEEN
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|Author:||Marshall, I. Howard|
|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2009|
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