The Origins of Christianity. A Historical Introduction to the New Testament

Written by Schuyler Brown Reviewed By Colin J. Hemer

The new Oxford Bible Series (General Editors P. R. Ackroyd and G. N. Stanton) aims to give a broad thematic view of the biblical literature, and is to include general introductions to each Testament as well as a volume on the interpretation of both.

Dr Brown, Associated Professor in the University of St Michael’s College, Toronto, has contributed this introductory volume to the New Testament part. It is difficult to assess briefly a book so densely packed with latent learning, which steers a refined course between the extremes of fundamentalism and Bultmannian hyper-scepticism (pp. 15–17). It has many virtues. It is a smoothly written exposition of many positions widely held among contemporary scholars. One can only admire its easy command of the secondary literature. The book traces its way conscientiously over each lineament of current debate, with comment which nuances the author’s position at each point within the stream. Yet I find the result disappointing. It is probably very heavy going for the general reader, while lacking specific documentation to assist the student. (It would be a good exercise to identify throughout the books and articles whose influence has shaped the refinements of presentation.)

In this short review I shall focus on basic questions of method rather than attempting detailed discussion. The heavy, if tacit, dependence on synthesizing opinions constantly provokes the reader to ask ‘Are these things so?’ An important example will illustrate. Brown rejects the idea that the ‘we-passages’ in Acts denote eye-witness authorship on the two grounds that ‘we’ cannot consistently include both Paul and the author, and that the first person plural is to be explained as a stylistic device used in Greek accounts of sea-voyages (pp. 27–28). On the former we observe simply that this imposes an artificial rigidness on the application of the pronoun, which in Greek as in English shifts with context between inclusive and exclusive senses, and advocates of traditional authorship have no need to suppose otherwise here. The second objection reflects V. K. Robbins, ‘The We-Passages in Acts and Ancient Sea Voyages’, Biblical Research 20 (1975), pp. 5–18 (cf.C. H. Talbert (ed.), Perspectives on Luke-Acts, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978, pp. 215–242), who argues for this literary practice from Greek and Latin examples. The first obvious narratives I happened to check (Caesar,Gallic War 4.23–4, 28; 5:8; Lucian, Ship 7–9) were all in the third person, and Lucian actually puts his voyage narrative in third person indirect speech in a first person context. (In Caesar’s Latin the Roman forces are constantly termed nostri [our men], but this of course is used with a third person verb, occurs in contexts of all kinds, and has no bearing on our question.) Of course such narratives are often first person accounts, because they recall personal experience, and plural because they recall communal experience. The same tendency is as true of colloquial English as of literary Greek (or Latin), but it is no proof of the existence of a literary style appropriate to what was not personal experience. Robbins’ examples are not representative, nor accurately analysed.

That kind of example worries me, for in a popular survey of this kind the general reader is in the hands of his author, and in no position to unravel what lies beneath his statements. I am not reassured when Brown advocates ‘reading between the lines’ as the means of knowing the social history of first-century Christianity (pp. 12–13), where the historian must surely attempt to wrestle with the primary collateral documents, however sparse. And his over-simplified account of ancient historiography (pp. 13–14) and his dismissive reference to ‘a historical consciousness which did not yet exist’ (p. 31) should not be allowed to pass without a close reading of Polybius 12.25a–k (2nd cent. bc; accessible in Loeb translation).

Questions of the status of Luke-Acts in particular are of course crucial for determining whether we have to deal with documents which are basically sound in their ostensible account of Jesus and of Paul or whether they have to be radically reinterpreted to meet a readjusted synthesis. This is not to challenge the validity of the observations underlying tradition-criticism and redaction-criticism, but to suggest that some of the large and confident conclusions drawn from them are tenuously based. It is very proper to recognise the factor of diversity in primitive Christianity, but the idea that theological similarity indicates contemporaneity and theological disparity a difference of date (p. 26) presupposes a linear idea of development often determined by rule-of-thumb lexical or formulaic criteria. Thus the word ‘church’ is taken to refer first to a local community, and to be universalized only at a deutero-Pauline stage (pp. 120–1), a pattern which entails some reinterpretation of references contained in the generally accepted Pauline epistles. (The argument from theological similarity to date is I think a weakness of J. A. T. Robinson’s case for very early datings). And anonymity, we are told, was a distinctive feature of the second generation (pp. 133, 136)—but then, so was pseudonymity, as a cover for anonymity (p. 141). Criteria like this are highly suspect. The same conclusion may be drawn whether a text bears a name or not.

Brown explains Jesus’ continuing attractiveness as largely due to a self-understanding as ‘a man for others’ (p. 68). The historian as such is not competent to pass judgement on divine intervention (p. 73), but Jesus’ performance of miracles was uncontested and must be rated an historical datum (p. 60). The gospel accounts of the sayings of Jesus (p. 48) and of the empty tomb (pp. 75–77) are to be treated with respect. There is a thoughtful assessment of form-criticism (pp. 36–40). Acts must be accepted as a source for Paul (p. 102), though chronological nearness is ruled out by differences in theology, as in the understanding of apostleship (p. 28). There is a lengthy tradition-critical study of the word ophthe (‘he appeared’, 1 Cor. 15:5–8, pp. 81–92), concluding that its original function was to legitimate the preacher rather than to validate the resurrection, and equating the appearance to the 500 with Pentecost (pp. 90–92). I find these last, and the subsequent accounts of the history and tenets of Johannine and Matthean communities, among the most speculative and least convincing parts of the book. The ‘early Catholicism’ attributed to Luke-Acts and the Pastorals is taken in conclusion to have been the ‘winning’ strand, the form of early Christianity which influenced subsequent religious history (pp. 152–153).

This densely packed book is useful for the initiate as a concise repository of assumptions and opinions, flavoured with a few additional hypotheses, but for a reasoned New Testament introduction or a convincing account of Christian origins I should prefer to look elsewhere.

Colin J. Hemer