PAUL BETWEEN SYNAGOGUE AND STATE: CHRISTIANS, JEWS, AND CIVIC AUTHORITIES IN 1 THESSALONIANS, ROMANS, AND PHILIPPIANS CONIECTANEA BIBLICA, NEW TESTAMENT SERIES 34Written by Mikael Tellbe Reviewed By Stephen Catto
In this excellent book, which was originally his doctoral dissertation, Tellbe examines the interaction between the early church, Jewish communities and civil authorities. Tellbe argues that although initially the Christian movement was seen as part of the diverse Judaism of the first century, as differences emerged, the Jews became hostile to a group that could threaten the privileges they enjoyed. The Romans, at the same time, viewed new religions as potentially subversive. Consequently, Tellbe argues, the early Christian communities found themselves ‘between synagogue and state’, and this interaction helped to form the Christian communities’ self-understanding.
After a general introduction in chapter one Tellbe examines diaspora Judaism and its legal status in the Roman Empire. He concludes that although there was no empire-wide legal ruling in favour of the Jews, ‘the Jewish rights and privileges repeatedly affirmed by the Roman authorities throughout the empire … contributed to the creation of a sort of “official” Judaism that was generally authorised throughout the empire’. Nonetheless, the degree to which a Jewish community might be protected by the state was dependent on the relationships local Jews had with influential Romans.
Tellbe then goes on to examine three Pauline communities, their social settings and Paul’s interaction with them in 1 Thessalonians, Romans and Philippians. He gives a detailed account of the political background in each of these cities as well as the potential influence that the local Jews might have. He examines the language that Paul uses in addressing the churches, and argues that there appear to be differences in Paul’s recommendations to each, regarding how they ought to interact with their local communities. Some of the language that Paul uses; the ‘Lordship of Christ’, the ‘coming of the Lord’ and ‘meeting the Lord’ etc., have strong political connotations and Paul encourages his readers not to put their trust in the ‘political salvation’ of the empire.
In conclusion Tellbe argues that there needs to be a recognition that individual Christian communities interacted within the socio-political surroundings in which they found themselves in different ways, often depending on their relationships with civic authorities. There is no unified way of addressing these issues. He also argues that although it was not necessarily Paul’s intention, particularly with the Roman church, his teaching meant that these early Christian communities would inevitably move away from the Jewish community, or synagogue. Similarly although he discourages political extremism in Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:11–12) his use of political language means that the communities self-understanding will challenge ‘imperial propaganda’ (140) and they will define themselves outside of this sphere. He argues that contrary to the prevalent view that the ‘parting of the ways’, between Judaism and Christianity took place towards the end of the first century after the events of 70 ad, can be seen from the earliest of Paul’s letters.
This is a very good book, which has been well researched. In the copy that I read there were a number of typographical errors, and on a purely personal level, I found Tellbe’s excessive use of italics somewhat frustrating, but these are minor criticisms.
Although his analysis is detailed at times, the book would be of great value to someone with a particular interest in the social setting of the early church, or, because Thessalonica, Rome and Philippi are dealt with in separate chapters, it could also be used as a reference work for the background to each of these communities and Paul’s letters to them.