Gerd THEISSEN. The Religion of the Earliest Churches: Creating a Symbolic World (trans. John Bowden)
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Pp. 393. $20.00

Reviewed by Scott SPENCER, Wingate University, WINGATE, NC 28174

In this bold, innovative and wide-ranging study, Theissen attempts to reconstruct the entire historical, theological and ecclesiastical landscape of the NT and early Christianity within the framework of a formal theory of religion. Understanding religion as "a cultural sign language which promises a gain in life by corresponding to an ultimate reality," T. proves a basic "grammar" of the emerging language of "primitive Christian religion" in its first two centuries. Put another way, T. guides the reader on a tour of the symbolic world of the earliest churches as a "semiotic cathedral" fashioned upon the foundation and out of the materials of normative Judaism. The development of primitive Christianity both within and beyond its Jewish home is a major concern of this study.

Symbolic religious systems or "semiotic cathedrals" are constructed from three major "building blocks": myths, ethics and rituals. The central myth or meta-narrative of early Christianity, discussed in part one, revolves around Jesus’ climactic revelation and fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth. Thus the fundamental Jewish myth of the monotheistic rule of the one, true God, propounded most forcefully in the Hebrew prophets, is both "historicized"–in the charismatic person and work of Jesus of Nazareth–and "demilitarized"–in the evangelical extension of messianic salvation to all peoples. This tension between myth and history is further manifest inversely in the early Christians’ tendency to "mythicize" the historical Jesus as the supreme Son of God, as a means (among other motives) of compensating for their "cognitive dissonance" over Jesus’ shocking crucifixion.

The ethics of primitive Christian religion, covered in part two, polarized around two core requirements: love of neighbor (agape) and renunciation of status (humility). With solid roots in the Jewish scriptures, these demands were both extended and restricted by Jesus and the early church. For example, Jesus’ radical itinerant mission laid special emphasis upon loving enemies, strangers and sinners, as well as neighbors, and pushed the virtue of status renunciation as far as forsaking one’s family, occupation and possessions for the sake of God’s kingdom. As Christian communities developed, however, in the midst of various crises and conflicts, a more conservative ethic emerged, concentrating on nurturing beleaguered in-group members and complying with established societal norms. Additional ethical tensions were wrapped up with an "aristocratic self-confidence," on the one hand, to exceed all other competing standards of righteousness (cf. Matt 5:20), and a radical inversion of hierarchical position, on the other hand, programmatically set forth in Mary’s Magnificat and Jesus’ paradoxical assessments of "the first and the last."

As for its key organizing rituals, primitive Christianity once again appropriated two important elements from its Jewish heritage: baptism, derived from the eschatological cleansing rite of the Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, and the eucharist, built upon the high Jewish festival of national emancipation, Passover. Linked initially with the historical Jesus’ own baptism by John and last supper with his disciples, the two rituals soon became entwined with the myth of Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death as the definitive, sacramental symbols of "initiation" (baptism) and "integration" (eucharist) into the Christian faith and community. Christianity thus developed its own distinctive re-visioning of cultic practice –which, in one way or another, all Jewish groups had to do after the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE–in an ethical dialectic which diminished the force of sacred violence (by eliminating animal offerings) even as it scandalously heightened such violence by stressing the necessity of Jesus’ human sacrifice.

In part four, T. explores the factors contributing to the increasing autonomy of early Christian religion from its Jewish parent, with particular attention to the formation of a separate NT canon alongside the Jewish scriptures. The four gospels played a special role in this creation of an independent "sign world": Mark grapples with a ritual dilemma sparked by the failed Jewish revolt and razed Jerusalem Temple; Matthew fuels an ethical conflict by advocating a "higher righteousness" beyond that practiced by other Torah observers; Luke extends the mythic-historical gap with Judaism by constructing a lengthy narrative (including Acts) charting Christianity’s expansion from its Jewish roots in Jerusalem to the extremities of the Gentile world ("the ends of the earth"); and finally, the fourth gospel marks a stage of "complete autonomy" in which the new religion is wholly determined by the one divine revealer who proclaims himself ("I AM") as the world’s unique creator and savior.

While progressively defining itself over and against Judaism, early Christianity also had to negotiate various internal crises of identity. In part five, T. discusses the rich plurality of NT responses to three particular controversies: the ongoing Judaistic debate (the Jewish-Christian dichotomy was never absolute or universal in the first two centuries); the more recent and varied Gnostic crisis; and certain radical prophetic movements promoting extreme ascetical and/or apocalyptic agendas. The genius of the NT canon is that it preserves a variety of competing voices on these critical issues even as it establishes a common, unifying "grammar" or "sign language" of authentic Christian belief and practice. In T.’s scheme, this grammar is comprised of two principal axioms–monotheism and covenantal nomism--and eleven motifs: creation, wisdom, miracle, alienation, renewal, representation, indwelling, faith, agape, change of position, and judgment.

Overall, T. has succeeded in providing an impressive, panoramic tour of the primitive Christian "cathedral" from a refreshing perspective, both sympathetic and critical, affirmative and creative. By his own admission, he writes confessionally, as one "who still preach[es] and pray[s] in this cathedral," and yet also academically, as one "fond of analysing its architecture and the forms of its language"–a rare combination these days. Similarly, with respect to the seminal issue of Jewish-Christian dialogue, T. consistently strikes a mature balance between understanding and appreciating early Christianity’s rich Jewish heritage, on the one hand, and recognizing and assessing its emerging autonomy from Judaism, on the other hand. While scarcely offering the last word on this vital and complex subject, T.’s semiotic approach to religious study provides a useful theoretical framework for interfaith conversation: "What is decisive here is that in the depth structure of its convictions, primitive Christianity largely participates in convictions of Judaism. The difference from Judaism lies . . . above all in the christocentric reorganization of the images, motifs, narratives and sign elements the two religions share. Otherwise most of the differences are more at a superficial level" (p. 291).

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