Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, vol. 2
Scott Wenig's review of "Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, vol 2" by James D.G. Dunn
James D.G. Dunn. Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009. 1347 pp, ISBN 978-0-8028-3932-9.
This massive tome (1175 pages of text apart from the bibliography and indices) is a magisterial – and I might add – lovely behemoth of a book. As the second part of an intended three volume set by Professor James Dunn, it takes up where volume one, appropriately entitled Jesus Remembered, left off. His goal is to survey the development of the Christian faith from A.D. 30 to 70, a period which the author describes as the first generation of the movement. To accomplish this daunting task, he focuses his attention on the major sources (the New Testament) groups (the Jerusalem church and the Hellenists), individuals (Peter, Paul, and James) and events (the Aegean missions of Paul and the destruction of Jerusalem). But even with that broad of a scope, its most important themes are still drawn primarily from The Acts of the Apostles and the (early) letters of Paul.
Dunn is Lightfoot Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Durham, England and in this work, he demonstrates that retirement is no barrier to an active and productive life of scholarship. Despite his early disclaimer that it’s impossible to interact with the massive corpus of secondary literature devoted to this specific era, he appears to have done exactly that. No academic or literary stone seems left unturned in Dunn’s prolific effort to trace the development and expansion of the Jesus sect from Judea into a burgeoning religious movement encompassing the larger arena of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean.
Following the design of volume one, Beginning from Jerusalem is organized into parts six through nine. Part six, composed of two chapters, addresses the related methodological issues of defining terms and identifying sources in the quest for the historical church. Part seven devotes six chapters to the first phase of the church’s development in and around Jerusalem, including its outreach to Syrian Antioch. But it also incorporates a chapter on the church’s initial expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean by means of Paul and Barnabas’ mission to Western Asia. Part eight is the book’s core and, in my view, its most fascinating and important section. Centered on Paul’s person, life, and ministry, this portion can only be described as enjoyably comprehensive. If you’re looking for either new or old information about “Christianity’s second founder” (Dunn’s description of Paul) you need go no further than the six chapters that compose this part of the work. Dunn concludes with part nine, a four-chapter analysis of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the last years of Paul, Peter, and James and their legacy as the first generation of Christian leaders.
It might be best to describe this book as a brilliant combination of biblical studies and early church history. Dunn provides so much information on both subjects that students and scholars in either field will benefit from its use. Along the way, he shows us that the early Christian movement was not a single, unified whole but a conglomeration of competing theologies, interests, foci, and personalities. And yet, at the end of the day, Paul’s approach “won out,” not least because of his theological brilliance, strong and godly leadership or even his personal “charm.” A key point of Dunn’s analysis is that the apostle was able to create a team of devoted followers and co-workers who continually assisted him in spreading the “gospel of grace” throughout Asia and Greece. In time, their form of Christianity dominated the little churches of the Eastern part of the Empire and paved the way for its eventual expansion further west.
Early on I noted that despite its size, this is a “lovely” book. By that I meant it engages the heart as well as the mind. Dunn does his best to approach the topic with scholarly objectivity but it’s clear that he loves his subject and, in some intuitive way, he gets the reader to love it too. Although initially intimidated by the book’s size, I quickly became enamored with it and got caught up in the controversies and dramas of the early church as it spread beyond the confines of Judea. Dunn’s chapters on Paul were inspiring and his take on various New Testament letters, individuals of importance and ecclesiastical conflicts make for stimulating reflection. One small but important example illustrates this point. At the end of his section on the crisis at Antioch over circumcision (chapter 27), Dunn makes a strong case that Paul actually “lost” to Peter and the Judiazer party and consequently became alienated from his ‘sending’ church. Yet it was this loss which pushed him forever outward in his never-ending efforts to reach the Gentiles with the good news of the Gospel.
In addition, Dunn takes the time to address the question of how much of an “anti-imperialist” Paul was in his writing and apostolic leadership. Arguing that the apostle always identified himself first and foremost as a man “in Christ” who preached Jesus as Lord, the author takes great pains to show that Paul was sensitive to cultural and political realities. Of course, Christ was King à la the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel. But Paul was not a “Christ against culture” kind of guy. When it came to the Roman Empire, he accepted it for what it was and leveraged it for the advance of the Gospel when he could. He was far more interested in creating a new kind of humanity in his little urban churches than in spending his time, energy, and attention in a foolish and losing battle. Given some of the more recent interpretations of Paul as aggressively attempting to undermine the Imperial cult, Dunn’s interpretation is refreshingly realistic. I might also add that it simply makes sense.
On a different note, Dunn agrees with the current scholarly consensus that the Pastoral Epistles were written by some of Paul’s disciples years after his death. Thus, Dunn’s analysis of these three letters will help to compose a significant section of the third volume in his intended trilogy. While there are certainly reasons for taking the view that Paul did not compose these, Dunn’s defense here seems a bit weak given both the internal evidence of the documents and the church’s tradition that they were from Paul’s person, if not his pen. Moreover, if the Pastorals are interpreted as the work of the apostle and not just as a later expression of his ‘interpreted thought,” it substantially adjusts how we understand the ongoing theological and ecclesiastical development of the first generation of church leadership.
Those small criticisms aside, I can’t recommend this book enough. Dunn’s work is accessible to all and of great value to the younger student as well as to the mature scholar. Despite its cost, this is a work that every student of the early church will want to possess. In fact, I would surmise that it will serve as one of the standards on mid-first century Christianity for decades to come. In my view, that makes it a good investment of both one’s time and money.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Applied Theology