Book Review: The Emergence of Christianity

bovonemergencechristianityTitle: The Emergence of Christianity: Collected Studies III

Series: WUNT 319

Author: François Bovon

Editor: Luke Drake

Bibliographic info: x, 276 pp., 32 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

The author of this collection of studies, François Bovon, recently passed away on November 1, 2013. During his career Bovon was a Professor at the Divinity School at the University of Geneva (1967-93) and then was the Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion at Harvard Divinity School (1993-2010). Amongst his other accomplishments, Bovon also served as the Editor of the Harvard Theological Review (2000–2010). This is the third collection of Bovon’s studies, with the first two volumes being Studies in Early Christianity (2003) and New Testament and Christian Apocrypha (2009).

The first study (pp. 1-16) is a basic look at the emergence of Christianity, the faith which began as “a Jewish αἵρεσις.” Bovon develops this study by following a line of progression from Jesus to the early Christian faith, from this faith to the early church, from the church to the gospel and culture of Christianity/Christendom, ending with a look at the movements and journeys of the first Christians in Jerusalem and Rome. A part of this study examines Luke 10:21/Matt. 11:27 and 1 Cor. 1:21, which Bovon sums up in the following quote:

Both sentences are polemical. They attack a particular type of humanism, a certain type of religion, a special genre of culture that misapprehends the divine and manipulates God. But neither Jesus nor Paul conceive of intelligence and faith as being irreconcilable. … According to Jesus and Paul, deity conceals his wisdom from these wise men and intelligent women. For despite their wisdom these people missed the true wisdom: God himself and his messengers. Consequently, from this time forward true wisdom is the wisdom of the weak; it is the knowledge possessed by children; a wisdom that focuses on the oppressed Christ hanged on a cross. (10)

The second study (pp. 17-31) provides an examination of the earliest Christologies in the twofold framework of the Christology of exaltation (Easter) that is representative of the Jerusalem Church and the Christology of incarnation (Christmas) that is representative of the Antioch Church. The third study (pp. 32-38) is a short response of Bovon’s to the book Redescribing Christian Origins (ed’s Ron Cameron and Merill P. Miller; SBL Symposium Series 28; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004). The fourth study (pp. 39-48) is on the Gospel of John, specifically tackling the questions of what is the origin of this writing, its aim, and what message did the authors desire to transmit. The fifth study (pp. 49-53) contains a brief look at Jesus in the epistles of Paul. Here Bovon examines four situations in Paul’s life experience in order to see how the apostle develops his own Christianity in specific historical situations.

The sixth study (pp. 54-63) is on the Johannine theology of revelation. Apart from the traditional view of Jesus presented in John 20:31 (“so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”), Bovon says that Jesus is “presented very differently in the body of the Gospel.” In what way?

Without being nonexistent, the classical Christological titles are scarce and new epithets are what appear. Christ’s traditional roles–the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the use of parables, or expiatory suffering–recede in favor of new roles: the gift of life, elevation, and glorification. … The Gospel must be updated, and this can occur because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, in the Johannine Church. (54)

The seventh study (pp. 64-77) provides a way of rethinking orthodoxy and heresy. Bovon proceeds by providing a survey of the nineteenth and twentieth century perspectives. This essay contains a useful four page bibliography of English, French, and German literature on orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity.

The eighth study (pp. 78-106) looks at the Aramaic church of Jerusalem (grouped around the twelve) and the church of the Hellenists at Antioch (Greek-speaking Jews established in Jerusalem e.g. Stephen, Philip), specifically in how each group understood the miracles/signs of Jesus. In a similar manner to the second study of this volume, Bovon differentiates the Christians at Jerusalem and Antioch as follows: “Their [i.e. the Hellenists] Christianity was a Christianity of Christmas and of the Incarnation, whereas that of the church of Jerusalem was a Christianity of Easter and of the Resurrection” (84). The Hellenist Christians view on the miracles/signs of Jesus is summed up in the following quote:

The narration of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36 par.) greatly pleased the Hellenists. The other miracles suited them as well. Nevertheless, their reaction was to approve them by glorifying the Son of God rather than the messiah of Israel. Being a miracle-worker, the Jesus of the Hellenists indeed took on the characteristics of the Greek heroes, of divine men or inspired philosophers. (84-5)

For the Jerusalem Church, while they did attribute a positive value to the miracles/signs of Jesus, they are primarily meant to be seen as “forerunners of an imminent Kingdom” (86), and the meaning of Jesus’ miracles “is given by faith alone; without faith, signs remain ambiguous. … No proof can convince the one who doubts. Signs attest but do not prove. Such was the conviction of the Jerusalem community” (83-4; cf. Mark 8:11-12). The important thing to note is that, “In both cases they fit into a polemical framework. In Jewish lands, signs faced the scrutiny of religious authorities; in foreign regions, they entered into competition with every manner of oracle” (86).

While one may think that this division of early Christians into Antioch/Hellenist and Jerusalem/Aramaic groups is a tad bit simplistic, Bovon does also examine the miracles/signs of Jesus from the perspectives of the Galilee community (e.g. Q 7:3, 6-9), Paul and the Pauline churches, the Johannine community, the community of Jesus’ family, a community in Eastern Syria (i.e. the community from which–as it is commonly believed–the Gospel of Thomas originated from), and other communities of the first and second centuries (the communities from which came the Apocalypse of John, the Apocalypse of Peter,  and the Epistle of the Apostles).

Bovon concludes:

When we finish reading through the earliest Christian literature we come to two conclusions. First, in its variety and nuances, the biblical tradition of signs influenced Jesus and the early Christians: God enjoys giving signs to his people in order to confirm his intentions, express his authority, or reassure their faith. Second, God’s envoys refuse to disparage signs or consider them as proofs: they know that signs remain fragile and ambiguous. They acknowledge them as such and include them in the faith. Moreover, they express their reaction on a terrain glutted with ambiguities, wherein false prophets perform wonders that are strangely similar to the signs accomplished by true prophets. (102)

Furthermore, Jesus and early Christians “refuse to accede to their request and do not provide any demonstration under pressure. Instead they often prefer to reverse values and maintain that weakness and failure are what represent legitimacy, obedience and conformity to God” (102). This study also concludes with a four-page bibliography.

The ninth study (pp. 107-25) is on the soul, immortality, and resurrection in early Christianity. Here Bovon looks at various writers and texts, including Eustratios, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Athenagoras, Pseudo-Justin, the Odes of Solomon, the Third Epistle to the Corinthians, the Prayer and Apocalypse of Paul, and finally, John’s Gospel, Paul, and Jesus. Bovon concludes:

I read in the early Christian witnesses special interest in the soul and its immortality, strongly related to their faith in the resurrection itself. Immortality was not for them an anthropological given by a Christological gift. It was for them the fruit of redemption and not the result of an immanent process. … They claimed a holistic view of the person, with ethical embodiment now and the risen person tomorrow, and suggested the preservation of the person between the two through the existence of the soul and the care and memory of their God. (125)

The tenth study (pp. 126-46) is on the reception of Acts in Late Antiquity. Sidenote: For the unaware reader, Bovon wrote several studies on the Gospel of Luke including the three-volume commentary in the Hermeneia series. The eleventh study (pp. 147-60) examines the idea of a third category of books that is not canonical nor apocryphal, a category of books described as useful for the soul.” The majority of early Christians divided books into three categories: “the most authoritative were considered canonical; those deprived of any authority were rejected and called apocryphal; and those that had some authority, that is, those that were considered profitable or useful, composed a third category” (149). This three-fold division is found in Origen, Athanasius, and Eusebius (though he ultimately avoids it).

Bovon then shows three prefaces from Late Antiquity (out of a dozen he has found) that “not only illustrate care for the third category, but also demonstrate how to rescue the best of the non canonical texts from shipwreck” (150). Bovon finishes by providing an example of Elias Hutter, who in 1599 presented a polyglot bible in twelve languages that “offered a fascinating solution to the perplexing problem of how to preserve an epistle that on one hand was not considered to be canonical, but, on the other, was so valued that it could not be rejected as apocryphal” (160). He says that Hutter left a blank page at the end of Colossians and then writes the Epistle to the Laodiceans where one would expect 1 Thessalonians (the Epistle to the Laodiceans was beloved in the Middle Ages and was copied into many manuscripts of the Vulgate). Hutter published it side by side with Paul’s other letters but preceded it with a blank page and didn’t number the pages of the Laodicean text. Bovon concludes: “What better proof could I have of the third category!”

The twelfth study (pp. 161-68) takes a look at two texts: the Letter of Peter to James and the Solemn Commitment, both of which appear before the Clementine Homilies. The thirteenth study (pp. 169-83) is on manuscripts and the digital era. The fourteenth study (pp. 184-98) examines The Prayer and Apocalypse of Paul, complete with the Greek text, a critical apparatus, and notes. The fifteenth study (pp. 199-235) does the same for an unedited fragment of the Acts of Peter, also providing a linguistic analysis that looks at syntax, verbal morphology, and nominal morphology. These two studies are stupendous if you’re into non-canonical early Christian texts. The sixteenth study (pp. 236-61) is on a new witness to the Acts of Philip, which also comes with nineteen images found on the manuscripts.

The seventeenth (pp. 262-65) and eighteenth (pp. 266-69) chapters are both short obituaries for Pierre Bonnard (1911-2003) and Jacques Dupont (1915-1998). Finally, the nineteenth study (pp. 270-76) is on the intertextuality between Aeschylus and Judges.

All in all, this is an impressive anthology of studies by François Bovon that clearly demonstrates his significant contribution to the study of the New Testament and early Christianity. They cover a variety of aspects of early Christian studies, from specific manuscripts, icons, and texts, to the broad concepts of Christology, orthodoxy and heresy, and immortality. All of these studies will expand the readers understanding of early Christianity and some of them were truly valuable and interesting (particularly chapters two, seven, eight, nine, eleven, fourteen and fifteen). A great volume.

One response

  1. Thanks for this! I’m curious: does François Bovon make any explicit comparisons between a teleological view of reality and one that is more of a mechanical philosophy, an “I’ll manipulate everything and everyone as much as I want” view of reality? It strikes me that it is the latter which God especially enjoys thwarting: while people think they are building up all sorts of science/​technology/​’wisdom’ for purposes of manipulation, God is slowly undermining them, ‘teleologically’. I know that’s a bit vague, but it’s an idea I’m actively working on. I wonder if telos can be seen as “that which binds”, and if the rock/sand in Mt 7:24–27 could be pattern matched onto the telos disintegrating and resulting in some sort of “explosion”. (Hehe, Tower of Babel, anyone?) Then one could take note of Jesus being described as telos in Rom 10:4…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: