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RRCEC Research Center for

CECRR Early Christianity Report

Evangelische Theologische Faculteit • St. Jansbergsesteenweg 95-97 • 3001 - Leuven, Belgium • No. 020 May 31, 2009

The earliest New Testament letter sheds attachment to the founding team continued in from Greek idol worship and Roman imperial
their absence, since the Thessalonian believers ideology). That letter argues for this vision of
light on the emergence of a Christian are portrayed as the “crown of boasting” for identity, which likely does not yet fully overlap
social and religious group distinct from the team at the Lord’s return (2:18-19)–which with the experience of the Thessalonian
Judaism or other Greco-Roman groups. means that the loyalty of the Thessalonian believers. Yet, the frequent references to the
community increased the team’s honor before history of the missionary team in Thessalonica
Christian identity in their heavenly Patron. The team’s relationship indicate that vision and experience overlap
with the Thessalonian community is unique sufficiently to suggest clear awareness of a
1 Thessalonians (3:1-13). distinct Christian social identity in Thessalonica
Christian origins and Christian identity Moreover, the Thessalonian believers are by the missionary team as well as local believers.
formation are being studied increasingly with portrayed as connected to each other. They are This was established within 6-12 months after
the use of cognitive and social psychology. 1 addressed as “brothers,” which creates a fictive the community’s founding (see Acts 17:1-9),
These studies represent a new angle on the kinship group conforming to contemporary but references to the missionaries’ founding
discussion about the parting of the ways social usage. This kinship group is socially activity show that this awareness dates from
between Christianity and Judaism. When was connected with other similar groups in the very beginnings of the Thessalonian church.
Christianity recognizable as a social and Macedonia and Achaia through the networking Even outsiders recognized the distinctiveness
religious group distinct from Judaism, from efforts of various group members (1:7-8), as of Christian social identity in its earliest stages,
other Greco-Roman religious groups, well as the missionary team (e.g., 2:2). since Thessalonian unbelievers ‘persecuted’ the
voluntary associations and scholastic These connections to the triune God, the believers, probably to enforce social
communities? Cultural anthropology is able to missionary team, one another and other similar compliance with traditional household and
detect groups that have developed communities point to social structures in the civic customs which believers may well have
institutionalized forms or a material culture. Thessalonian community and define their abandoned in favor of the competing beliefs
However, early Christian identity formation group identity. Their identity is defined by and behaviors of their new-found social
deals with groups that are relatively unstable, ideological belief structures, mediated through identity.
with little institutional structure and without a particular authority structures and effectuated What do these observations contribute to
distinctive material culture. In this setting social in social networks. the discussion about the parting of the ways? I
and cognitive psychology provides better tools Groups define themselves not only by what would argue that before we ask when believing
to study identity formation in the rhetoric of a makes group members similar, but also by communities were first identifiable as distinct
community and its leaders. 1 Thessalonians is what differentiates them from other groups. religious groups in the Greco-Roman world,
such a piece of rhetoric, written only about 20 This process, too, is visible in this brief letter. we need to inquire when these Christ-believing
years after the start of the Christian movement. Thessalonian believers are distinct from idol communities perceived themselves to be a
The addressees are marked out as a distinct worshipping Thessalonians, from whom they distinct social and religious group. We
social grouping, an assembly “in God the turned away even as they suffered persecution answered this question from Paul’s earliest
Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thes 1:1), at their hands (1:6, 10). Thus, these believers letter,2 observing that Christian social identity is
a phrase which distinguishes this group are similar to Judean believers because of their clearly seen as distinct from Jewish and Greco-
theologically as well as socially from other common fate of persecution, while both Roman groups. Even though socially the
groups. The addressees are ‘beloved by God,’ groups are distinct from Thessalonian and group’s identity might have been unstable (it
who has ‘chosen’ them (1:4). They have put Judean unbelievers who initiated persecution was only 6-12 months old when 1 Thes was
their hope in Jesus Christ whom they imitate (2:14-16). The Thessalonian believers are not written), and even if this social identity was not
and whom they expect from heaven (1:3, 6, 10). to live in lust like unbelievers but adhere to readily accepted within existing social
They experienced the power and joy of the their own norms for group behavior (4:5), structures in Thessalonica because it competed
Spirit (1:5-6). Thus, they are ideologically and while even grief over their dead is distinct from with traditional values, the founders clearly
socially connected to the triune God in a creed the normal grief in the Greco-Roman world envisioned Christian identity as a unique and
distinct from other Jewish and Greco-Roman (4:13). distinctive social group, and successfully
religious groups. The letter also reinterprets favored Greco- convinced at least some Thessalonians of their
This group was also connected to the Roman identity markers to attribute honor to case. Even though the parting of the ways may
missionary team, not merely by historical Christian identity. Unlike the mythological not yet have been sociologically observable in
accident, but as the source for its origin and nymphs who cuddle the infant Dionysius (and terms of established social institutions or a
identity. The group formed around the the cultic female attendants), the missionary material culture, the observed cognitive and
message of the founding team (“our gospel”), team offers truly tender leadership “like a social psychological phenomena indicate that
while its team members became representative nursing mother taking care of her own this sociological result was just a matter of time.
models for group behavior (1:5-6). This children” (2:7). And unlike the imperial The separation was already present in the first
promise of “peace and security” (5:2), Christ observable definitions of Christian social
offers true salvation and security. Christian identity and its boundaries.
For instance, see Bengt Holmberg, ed., Exploring identity offers better worship, better leadership,
Early Christian Identity, WUNT 1:226 (Tübingen:
Mohr Siebeck, 2008), Bengt Holmberg and Mikael and everlasting peace. - Jack Barentsen
Winninge, eds., Identity Formation in the New Testament, In summary, Christian identity is defined Teaching Assistant, NT
WUNT 1:227 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) and both by beliefs and values treasured by insiders _____________________________
Petri Luomanen, Ilkka Pyysiäinen, and Risto Uro, (a triune confession, apostolic authority, and 2 Galatians is sometimes dated first, but similar
eds., Explaining Christian Origins and Early Judaism:
Contributions from Cognitive and Social Science, vol. 89, local and regional fictive kinship) and by arguments about Christian identity can be drawn from
Biblical Interpretation Series (Leiden: Brill, 2007) marking boundaries with outsiders (distinct observations of that letter.
Reviews & Annotations
Matt Jackson-McCabe, ed. Both print a nice selection of articles Servant Jesus: ‘Christian Judaism’ in
Jewish Christianity on related subjects, written by the Didache (Jonathan A. Draper)
Reconsidered (Minneapolis, specialist in their field.2 Both 11. The Pseudo-Clementines (F. Stanley
MN: Fortress Press, 2007); 387 provide excellently categorized Jones).
pgs. ISBN: 0800638654. $35.00. bibliographies. Either one of them The question on top of the back
could serve well as a textbook for dustcover is “What is ‘Jewish
my seminar. I have chosen Jackson- Christianity’? Where in antiquity do
The main theme of RCEC is the McCabe, not only because it is less we find it?” All the contributions
origin of Christianity and its expensive, but also because it is less deal with an important group or a
continuity–or discontinuity–with massive than Skarsaune and Hvalvik. key document representing Jewish
later orthodox Christendom. Anyone Of course its more modest size is a Christianity in antiquity, but the
interested in the formative phases of disadvantage too. In less than 400 book does not answer (or even aim
Christianity will have to deal with its pages it cannot cover the field to answer) the question. Nowhere do
relationship with the Jewish people, completely. However, even we find an inventory of other
culture and religion. This is not new. Skarsaune and Hvalvik with their documents possibly related to Jewish
Christian scholars throughout church book of almost 1000 pages are far Christianity, and nowhere is the
history have recognized their Jewish from exhaustive. Elizabeth Boddens selection of groups and texts that are
roots and defined their relationship Hosang and Bart J. Koet in their treated explained or defended.
with Judaism. What is new is the review of Jewish Believers in Jesus On the whole the essays in Jewish
recognition that in an early stage can still complain that important Christianity Reconsidered form a
Christianity was still fully Jewish, subjects and documents were less harmonious collection than
and that for several centuries some insufficiently discussed.3 These are Skarsaune and Hvalvik’s Jewish
believers in Jesus remained self- the chapters in Jackson-McCabe: Believers in Jesus. After the
confessed Jews. These Jewish introductory chapter by the editor on
Introduction (Matt Jackson-McCabe)
believers in Jesus are commonly terminology, one would expect
1. What’s in a Name? The Problem of
designated by the general term ‘Jewish Christianity’ (Matt Jackson- consistent usage of terminology in
‘Jewish Christianity’. McCabe) the rest of the book. But that is not
In 2006 I taught a seminar at ETF 2. The Jerusalem Church (Craig C. Hill) the case, not even for crucial terms
on the subject ‘Identity and 3. Paul and Christ-believing Jews Whom like ‘Jewish Christianity’ and
significance of Jewish Christianity in He Opposes (Jerry L. Sumney) ‘Christian Judaism’ (cf. p. 79, 159,
the formative years of the Church.’ I 4. Ebionites and Nazarenes (Petri 287). While reading through the
had a hard time choosing a Luomanen) eleven interesting and well-written
handbook. I decided to work with 5. The Q Document (William Arnal)
essays, one cannot but wonder where
Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity.1 6. Matthew’s Gospel: Jewish
Christianity, Christian Judaism, or
the volume is going. The
It is exciting and involved, nicely contributors each have their own
Neither? (Warren Carter)
documented, and capably argues its 7. The Johannine Community as Jewish views, their own questions and their
position. However, it is slim (only Christians? Some Problems in own interests. Maybe their
153 p.); the work of a single scholar, Current Scholarly Consensus (Raimo assignment was each to answer their
and by now, dated. In 2007 one Hakola) part of the question on the back.
other impressive publication on the 8. The Religious Context of the letter of However, as no one summed up or
same subject matter appeared beside James (Patrick J. Hartin) concluded the book, it is hard for the
this present book: Oskar Skarsaune 9. John’s Jewish (Christian?) reader to see what progress is made
and Reidar Hvalvik, Jewish Apocalypse (John W. Marshall)
and what remains to be researched.
Believers in Jesus: The Early 10. The Holy Vine of David Made
Known to the Gentiles through God’s
If at the end of the book the editor
Centuries. (Peabody, Mass.: had provided a chapter comparable
Hendrickson, August 2007). 930 p. with the final chapter of Skarsaune
I do not know which editor was 2 and Hvalvik (The History of Jewish
Contributors to Jackson-McCabe will be
the first to recruit other authors. My mentioned below. Contributors to Skarsaune Believers in the Early Centuries–
guess is on Skarsaune and Hvalvik, & Hvalvik are (in alphabetic order): Philip S. Perspectives and Framework),
though the team of contributors to Alexander, Richard Bauckham, James Jewish Christianity Reconsidered
Jewish Christianity Reconsidered Carleton Paget, Anders Ekenberg, Torleif
Elgvin, Craig A. Evans, Donald A. Hagner,
would have been twice as valuable.
consists of equally capable scholars. Gunnar af Hällström, Sten Hidal, Peter Now it is only an interesting
Hirschberg, Reidar Hvalvik, Wolfram collection of nice essays on an
Kinzig, Lawrence Lahey, Oskar Skarsaune, important topic.
1 Graham Stanton and James F. Strange.
Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish
Christianity: from the end of the New - Gie Vleugels,
Testament period until its disappearance in In RBL 07/2008 and also at Professor of NT & Early Christianity
the fourth century Jerusalem: Magnes Press,
Hebrew University (Leiden: Brill, 1988). pdf.