Sheila E. McGINN. The Jesus Movement and the World of the Early Church. Winona, Minnesota: Anselm Academic, 2014. Pp. 393. $33.95 pb. ISBN 978-1-59982-156-6. Reviewed by Anthony J. BLASI, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX 78249
This is a college text for generally educated readers not prepared to read the specialized literature in biblical studies and ancient history. Questions for review and for discussion appear at the end of each substantive chapter, and appendices include an account of Paul and his theology, the Logion-Quelle, a glossary, a who’s who, and a select bibliography. The scholarship behind the account is current, so that non-student readers may find it useful for updating their knowledge of the early Christian movement. We use the term “Christian” with the proviso that movement participants did not think of themselves as Christians rather than Jews until well into the history of the movement.
The preface and occasional later reminders point to the difficulties of reading New Testament passages as history, the difficulty of dating them, and the differences between our notions of history and the ancients’ use of history for entertainment and commentary. Fundamentalists will be uncomfortable with this book; scholars will be impressed with its balance.
Ch. 1 is a brief history of the Hellenistic world. The subsequent chapters proceed decade by decade through the first century of the Christian movement, paralleling it with the history of the Roman emperors and, where relevant, the major officials and Herodian kings in Palestine. This parallel political history helps provide contexts for the Christian movement as reflected in its literature. This is important because the world of the Roman Empire was very much a political and military world (not an “honor/shame” theater, as some commentators insist).
Ch. 2 describes the world of Jesus, introducing the reader to Herod the Great and Herod Antipas, Pilate, and various bandit kings. It describes the absentee ownership of lands once owned by locals and in the lifetime of Jesus owned by Romans and their urban elite allies. Ch. 3 focuses on the conviction that Jesus had been raised, which made his execution by the Romans secondary. The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John have the male disciples experiencing the risen Jesus in Galilee, while the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles has all the disciples experiencing the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, with a mother church led by James the Righteous emerging there. Some followers left Jerusalem and lived in less Jewish settings as hostility developed in the city. When gentiles join the movement and mixed churches develop outside Jerusalem, issues of membership and organization arose.
Ch. 4 sifts through the limited evidence for the early missionary expansion (41-50 CE). Herod Agrippa I had John Son of Zebedee executed in Jerusalem. Egalitarianism marked the movement for a time, and the issue of circumcision for gentile followers had to be addressed. Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark, member of a relatively elite family, set out on a missionary journey to Cyprus. McGinn refers to the hypothetical role of Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus owning properties in Asia Minor, assisting the mission, with Saul taking the name “Paul” in his honor. Here I think McGinn should have put more stress on the hypothetical nature of this.
Ch. 5 introduces the Logion-Quelle (sayings source common to the Matthew and Luke) and the authentic letters of Paul. In a reference of the Christian leader, Lydia of Thyatira, McGinn suggests she had two homes—one in Philippi and one in Tyatira. We do not know this was the case; it is hypothetical. McGinn does provide an interesting and well-warranted interpretation of the First Corinthians injunction that women wear hair coverings when prophesying—it was an indicator of being a respected women, not a prostitute or slave, to do so, and that when prophesying women had authority over their heads. The instruction would have an egalitarian effect when lower status women covered their hair to prophesy. Also interesting: McGinn does not consider Romans 16 to be a separate letter from the rest of Romans.
Ch. 6 describes the tumultuous era of persecution in Rome by Nero, the Jewish War in Palestine, and the deaths of Peter, Paul, and James the Righteous. McGinn seems to think that the Letter of James was written by James the Righteous (p. 171)—probably a minority view among scholars. With the destruction of Jerusalem, the movement lost its center. The flight of Torah-observant Christians out of Palestine led to disputes over Torah-observance in the movement.
Ch. 7 takes up the organizing of the church within a new period of relative peace. The decade 71-80 features the writing of the Gospel of Mark, Colossians, Ephesians, and, ironically, the Letter of James. There is good reason to put these in the following decade, but little difference in the historical account arises from McGinn’s placing them here. Ch. 8 uses the Gospels of Matthew and Luke as data, especially their friendlier stance toward the Roman Empire. Ch. 9 records sporadic efforts to force the Christians to conform to Roman ways in the late first century. Christian literary evidence include First Clement (non-canonical Roman Church letter to the Corinthian churches), and the Johannine books. Of these, the Gospel of John and the letters of John represent an isolated Christian community more or less reconciled to the Empire, but the book of Revelation adamantly opposed to it. Chs. 10 and 11 feature internal organizational developments in the movement (2 Thessalonians and the Pastoral Epistles, and such non-canonical works as the Didache, quotations from Papias of Hierapolis, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and the Acts of Paul and Thecla). Not all scholars would date the Pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) in the 111-120 decade.
In general, I recommend this as an excellent history and background reading for the Christian scriptures. While there are junctures where many scholars would disagree with the author, it must be said that her positions are defensible ones. The volume is not at all out of the mainstream of historical and biblical scholarship.