Into All the World

Emergent Christianity in Its Jewish and Greco-Roman Context

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Editor(s): 
Mark Harding, Alanna Nobbs
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , July
     2017.
     400 pages.
     $55.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802875150.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The recent explosion of books on early Christianity combines new methodologies in the study of Paul (yes, he remained a Jew) and a much more detailed understanding of Christianity in the matrix of the Greco-Roman world. Traditionally, theologians concentrated on the emergence of dogma to the exclusion of other factors. We are now learning to combine resources from classical historians, archaeologists, and social scientists to gain a fuller understanding of the earliest Christian movements. This combination will become foundational for the next generation of New Testament scholars.

Into All the World is a compendium by scholars associated with Macquarie University in Australia and the Australian College of Theology. It is dedicated to E. A. Judge, who is credited with promoting the necessity of studying early Christianity in its historical context of both Second Temple Judaism and Greco-Roman culture (The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century, Tyndale Press,1960). This book is the third in a series (The Content and Setting of the Gospel Tradition, Eerdmans, 2010 and All Things to All Cultures: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans, Eerdmans, 2013). The current volume considers the remaining literature of the New Testament (Acts, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude, the Johannine epistles, and Revelation) to demonstrate the influence of both Judaism and the Greco-Roman world on the Christian communities in the first century.

After a “Retrospective” by one of the co-editors, Alanna Nobbs, the book is then divided into three sections: “The Spread of Christianity to AD 100” (Chris Forbes, Johan Ferreira, Bradley J. Bitner, David Starling); “Christians Among Jews” (Paul McKechnie, Lydia Gore-Jones and Stephen Llewelyn, Ian K. Smith, Edward Bridge); and “Christians Among Romans” (Bruce W. Winter, James R. Harrison, Timothy McBride, Murray J. Smith, L. L. Welborn). Each chapter begins with a history of scholarship and speculation on both the historical setting and the intended audience.

“The Spread of Christianity to AD 100” references Greco-Roman literature, historiography, philosophy, ethics, rhetoric, and popular religious concepts. The writers of these documents borrowed literary methods and concepts to articulate the teachings of Christianity. In this sense, a Christian concept of mission utilized arguments that would appeal to Gentiles. The very nature of the historical circumstances dictates that most of the chapters explore elements of Christian self-definition in relation to both Judaism and Greco-Roman culture. This self-definition is also explored in light of internal debates in the communities that changed over time.

“Christians among Jews” details the continuing debate over the concept of “Jewish-Christianity.” We revisit “the parting of the ways” debate, or the conditions that gave rise to a distinctive identity apart from Judaism. The documents demonstrate that early Christian ideas remained embedded in Jewish scripture and in dialogue with Jewish sectarian beliefs up until at least the end of the first century.

The third section, “Christians among Romans,” highlights the many admonitions in these texts to “keep the faith” in light of persecution. These chapters discuss the institution of the Imperial cult, especially in the provinces, as well as clues as to historical and social setting. Modern theories of insider/outsider identification and minority group rhetoric are useful tools (see, for example, Timothy MacBride’s article).

What is new in this collection? Several contributors take a fresh look at the eschatological elements that are found in all the documents. The delay of the parousia was an ongoing problem in these communities as the decades passed. The contributors emphasize both the insider/outsider admonitions against deniers of Christ’s imminent return and the polemical language directed against the persecutors in relation to eschatological condemnation.

In light of external persecution, we learn a vast amount of information about several ancient cities with Imperial cult centers. Usually found in the work of historians, archaeologists, and classicists, this material adds significantly to the background of the New Testament world. Many new parallels with Greek literature, culture, history, religion, and philosophy are added to our growing body of sources.

However, evaluations of historical evidence do fall short at times. Several contributors rely upon Acts and the alleged Nero persecution for reconstructions of early Christianity (these sources are late). Against Forbes’s chapter on the value of Luke in relation to historiography, Luke’s knowledge of historical names and events does not confirm the events he relates. This is particularly germane for Paul’s trials and speeches in Jerusalem and Caesarea which Forbes cites as credible information.

For Jewish-Christianity, we see another discussion of the birkat-ha-minim (the synagogue benediction against dissenters). The date and function remain uncertain. It is difficult to determine whether the anti-Jewish polemic in this period is directed toward Jews per se or to Jewish-Christians. Actual expulsions from synagogues remain difficult to establish through external evidence. We have Paul’s claim of “lashings” in synagogues but debatable interpretations of what his persecution of Christians actually entailed.

I find it extraordinary that the contributors failed to discuss the deification of Jesus as a factor in both Jewish-Christian relations as well as an element that would relate to Greco-Roman religion. Recent scholarly publications on the timing and details of the worship of Jesus argue for a pre-Pauline date. How much did the worship of Jesus contribute to the Jewish-Christian polemic? How did the worship of Jesus fit into traditional elements of the native cults? Nobbs’ “Retrospective” claimed that the chapters also explore the impact that early Christianity had on the Roman state. This is not clearly examined by the contributors.

With those exceptions, Into All the World is a necessary volume for anyone working in the New Testament. The footnotes are phenomenal. They include the history of scholarship, the primary sources, and the contributions of historians, classicists, archaeologists and social scientists. This volume succeeds in demonstrating that “sharing the wealth” of all disciplines can illuminate ancient texts and motivate new conversations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Denova is senior lecturer in the early history of Christianity in the religious studies department, University of Pittsburgh.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Harding is the former dean of the Australian College of Theology and an honorary associate of Macquarie University.

Alanna Nobbs is professor of ancient history and former deputy director of the Ancient Cultures Research Centre at Macquarie University.

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