Gentile Christian Identity from Cornelius to Constantine
The Nations, the Parting of the Ways, and Roman Imperial Ideology
- ISBN: 9780802871756
- Published By: Eerdmans
- Published: November 2020
Terence Donaldson’s Gentile Christian Identity from Cornelius to Constantine is a substantial contribution to the fields of early Christianity, comparative religion, and sociology. Donaldson focuses on the term ethnē (“nations” or “Gentiles”), analyzing how non-Jewish Christians understood the term. The first three centuries of Christianity’s existence saw a seismic shift in the ethnic makeup of the movement and likewise in the movement’s understanding of its own identity. Donaldson’s study traces this development from Cornelius (marking the beginning of the mission to the ethnē) to Constantine (marking the union of Christianity and empire). Specifically, Donaldson seeks to understand why the term ethnē, which was once “a Jewish term for the ethnically other,” soon “came to be adopted by non-Jewish Christians as a significant term of self-identification” (69).
By bookending his historical investigation with Cornelius and Constantine, Donaldson locates his findings within two important themes of New Testament study. For the first, the so-called “parting of the ways,” Donaldson clarifies that his work does not examine the final “parting” of Jew and Gentile, but rather the intermediate stages of the various partings, particularly the development of Gentile Christian identity (54). Instead, he investigates the various perceptions of the relationship between Gentile believers and Israel, the Jews, and Judaism. For the second theme, the relationship between Christ and empire, Donaldson concludes, “Christians appropriated imperial themes for their own use, presenting the church from all the nations as a kind of empire” (463–64). Under Constantine, rather than counter-imperial, Christians saw themselves as an “empire within an empire,” and even an empire that held claim to nations outside Roman imperial boundaries (464).
The research and scope of Donaldson’s book is impressive. The first two chapters introduce the themes and outline the research questions. Chapter 3 examines the Jewish understanding of ethnē as an identity marker for non-Jews. Donaldson argues that texts such as Jubilees and the Assumption of Moses, and documents from Qumran, are rigid in their distinction between Jew and Gentile. He places the writings of Josephus and Philo on the opposite end of the spectrum. While these writings do maintain ethnic boundaries, their heavy use of allegory allows their position to be more palatable to outsiders. Donaldson does not examine mediating positions between the two extremes (e.g., the Jewish attitude toward Gentile proselytes), an addition that would have further supported his argument. As is the case with every chapter, the reader will greatly benefit from a slow and careful reading of this book, whether or not he agrees with every conclusion.
Chapter 4 analyzes ethnē as a non-Jewish identity by Jewish Christians. Here the investigation becomes more complicated because it requires a degree of confidence in the identity of the authors of texts. Donaldson outlines several categories of texts based on his level of confidence in Jewish authorship. The first group, representing the highest level of confidence of Jewish authorship, includes the seven undisputed Pauline letters, Q, Mark, Matthew, Revelation, and the Didache. The second group includes Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter, and the third group includes some non-canonical Jewish gospels and 4 Baruch, among other texts. Donaldson identifies three general “typologies” to which these texts belong. The first maintains the most continuity with Judaism: Christ is Israel’s Messiah, and Gentiles can stand in a positive relationship with the God of Israel in ways previously established (207). The second represents a middle ground: Christ inaugurated a new era for a remnant of Israel in which Gentiles can also participate (209). The third contains the most discontinuity: Christ created a new people comprised of Jew and Gentile without distinction and who now receive the promises given to scriptural Israel (230). For Donaldson, most of the analyzed texts belong in the third category, with only Q and some of the non-canonical Jewish gospels belonging to the first category (208–09) and Paul’s letter to the Romans in the second category (211–13). Donaldson—rightly in my opinion—argues against the scholarship that holds that even Matthew’s gospel and the Didache should be seen in the third category (214–221). There is no monolithic view of the term ethnē in the writings of Jewish Christians, even though most of the texts belong to the third category. Nevertheless, for Donaldson, there is fluidity in the term ethnē because even Paul’s writings can land in different categories (314). Readers need not agree with every jot and tittle of Donaldson’s categories to benefit immensely from his analysis of these key texts.
Chapter 5 contains a survey the term ethnē in Greek and Latin literature and serves as background information for the investigation to follow. Chapters 6 and 7, the heart of the book, look at the term ethnē in Gentile literature from before 135ce and after 135ce, respectively. The analysis in chapter 6, while full of insightful comments on primary sources, stands out as perhaps the most problematic, due to questions of authorship. Donaldson includes Luke-Acts, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy in his study of non-Jewish literature. He takes all four of these books to be pseudonymous (153; 364), which is potentially problematic for his argument on two fronts. First, Donaldson mostly assumes pseudonymity rather than arguing for it (e.g., 365). Especially for 2 Timothy, though it remains a minority position, Pauline authorship has been robustly defended in recent years. Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if one assumes pseudonymity of these letters, the Gentile identity of the author remains to be proven.
Donaldson concludes his work with two laments and a challenge. He first laments the trajectory of Gentile Christian identity regarding Jews and Judaism, particularly the denigration of Jews that occurs in the adversus Judaeos tradition, a tradition that seeks to promote Christianity by a thorough and, at times, overly critical eye toward Judaism. Secondly, he laments that Christians have not taken more of an “Israel-like stance” regarding empire. Israel sought to keep herself separate from the imperial culture, in contrast to the Gentile-Christian “empire-like identity that turned out to be so easily absorbed into the empire itself” (482). In response, Donaldson presents the reader with a hermeneutical and sociological challenge: “gentile Christians should learn to read the Scriptures . . . as gentiles, and that such a reading would make a positive contribution to Christian self-understanding generally and to the ongoing dialogues between Christians and Jews in particular” (479).
The reader will not agree with everything in this monumental study; nevertheless, Donaldson’s work is well worth slow and careful engagement. His organization of texts within different “typologies” especially stands out as a contribution that will help further scholarly conversations.
Mark Baker serves as the director of the Risen Institute, Cypress, Texas.Mark BakerDate Of Review:August 24, 2022