Book Review – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity’ by James D.G. Dunn (part 2)

IMG_1438In this second part of my review of James Dunn’s Neither Jew nor Greek I will finish up chapter thirty-eight which covers the emergence of the early Christian movement alongside Judaeo-Christianity, anti-Judaic tendencies, Gnosticism, and Marcion (§38.3b-38.5).

In the center of two religions which eventually parted ways was a middle-ground group known as Jewish-Christianity. Both sides regarded this compromised group as a heretical and unacceptable option. This is unfortunate because ‘Jewish-Christianity’ would actually be a honest manner of identifying what the earliest Christian movement actually was in theology and praxis. Origen regarded those Christians who wanted to live according to the law of the Jews as a considerable group worthy of mention (contra Celsum 5.61). Dunn does not find it surprising that Jewish-Christianity ceased to exist as a recognizable entity after the final parting of the ways in the latter half of the fourth century CE.

One of the primary factors leading to the hostile partings is the continually debated question regarding the nature of anti-Judaism and anti-semitism within the NT documents. Various examples are discussed, such as Jesus’ indictment against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, the manner in which John’s Gospel portrays the opponents of Jesus as “the Jews,” and even Paul’s famous remark in 1 Thes. 2:14-16. Personally, I do not think the polemical tone within the NT is any harsher than what can be observed in the Qumran scrolls (evil Jews = sons of Belial) and within some of the Old Testament Pseudepigraphal writings. Nevertheless, these NT examples are in need of clarification, and Dunn promises to tackle this issue later in the book.

Before discussing the influence of Gnosticism upon the early Christian movement, Dunn comments on the process of Hellenization of Christianity. His statement here is powerful:

It had always been recognized that during the patristic period Christian thought drew progressively on the language and ideas of Greek philosophy to express what were emerging as its distinctive theological claims, particularly in reference to Christ.

Dunn notes how Philo of Alexandria was one of the first to mix Greek thought within a Jewish matrix and that his thoughts greatly influenced the Alexandrian school of Christian theology (Clement of Alexandria and Origen).

A long discussion on the varieties of Gnosticism(s) ensures, highlighting such key Gnostic teachers as Simon Magus (Acts 8), Menander (who encouraged his converts to be baptized “into him”), Cerinthus (who taught that Jesus was an ordinary son of Mary and Joseph later met with the divine Christ at his baptism), and even Valentinus, the most influential Gnostic of the second century CE. After surveying the conclusion of modern scholars, Dunn insists that the quest to uncover a clear, pre-Christian Gnosticism has come up short. He does, however, highlight the usefulness that the Nag Hammadi texts have provided, especially when one tries to correlate what the early Christian heresiologists said about their opponents. The question regarding the date of the Gospel of Thomas, arguably the most famous Gnostic work, is placed on hold for another chapter.

Finally, Marcion and his version of Christianity, which used a shorter form of Luke’s Gospel and some of Paul’s letters, is discussed. I found it interesting that modern scholars estimate that there were more Marcionite Christians in the 160s and 170s than there were non-Marcionites. His influence greatly faded around the time of Constantine but nevertheless was still attested in Arabic sources as late as the 10th century CE. Fascinating.

Dunn lays out his methodological approach in that he will start from the past and work his way forward rather than starting from where Christianity ended up and working backwards. This may seem like a simple approach but it aims to avoid the pitfalls exhibited by Eusebius who regarded his favored form of Christianity as the true thread which he hoped to trace back to the apostles, thus achieving self-validation. In other words, Dunn wants to ask how the major factors which shaped the first-generation Christians were received into the second, third, and forth centuries.

This volume is shaping up to be a staple text for the study of early Christianity for many years to come.


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