Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity

Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity

Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity

Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity


Early Christians spoke about themselves as resident aliens, strangers, and sojourners, asserting that otherness is a fundamental part of being Christian. But why did they do so and to what ends? How did Christians' claims to foreign status situate them with respect to each other and to the larger Roman world as the new movement grew and struggled to make sense of its own boundaries?

Aliens and Sojourners argues that the claim to alien status is not a transparent one. Instead, Benjamin Dunning contends, it shaped a rich, pervasive, variegated discourse of identity in early Christianity. Resident aliens and foreigners had long occupied a conflicted space of both repulsion and desire in ancient thinking. Dunning demonstrates how Christians and others in antiquity capitalized on this tension, refiguring the resident alien as being of a compelling doubleness, simultaneously marginal and potent. Early Christians, he argues, used this refiguration to render Christian identity legible, distinct, and even desirable among the vast range of social and religious identities and practices that proliferated in the ancient Mediterranean.

Through close readings of ancient Christian texts such as Hebrews, 1 Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle to Diognetus, Dunning examines the markedly different ways that Christians used the language of their own marginality, articulating a range of options for what it means to be Christian in relation to the Roman social order. His conclusions have implications not only for the study of late antiquity but also for understanding the rhetorics of religious alienation more broadly, both in the ancient world and today.


All Christians placed their citizenship in heaven. On earth they were but
pilgrims and strangers

Roland Bainton

At the close of the first century C.E., the early Christian text 1 Clement (c.93–97) opens with a greeting from one group of Christian aliens to another: “The church of God residing as aliens (paroikousa) in Rome to the church of God residing as aliens (paroikousē) in Corinth.” This was not the first text to characterize Christians in terms of their status as aliens or sojourners. But as the first century came to a close and the second century progressed, the trope proved to be an increasingly useful one. Other Christian writers made use of it in epistolary prescripts and elsewhere. Polycarp addresses his Letter to the Philippians (c.117–120) to the resident alien church at Philippi, while the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c.155–160 or 170–180) figures not only its specific audience as aliens but in fact the entire “holy and catholic church” as a body that sojourns. Similarly 2 Clement (mid-second century) seeks to reassure its audience and strengthen their resolve by reminding them that their sojourn in this world is of short duration.

In all these ancient texts, we see instances of what I will call “the resident alien topos”—the designation (one that quickly became traditional) of the Christian self as a stranger, sojourner, foreigner, and/or resident alien in order to communicate varying forms of Christian alterity. in view are Greek terms such as paroikos, “resident alien,” xenos, “stranger-foreigner,” parepidēmos, “sojourner” and politeia, “citizenship” that together form a linguistic complex repeatedly used by early Christians to speak about who they were and what it meant for them to be Christian. in light of the evidence for the widespread use of this topos in the first and second centuries C.E., numerous historians of Christianity have drawn . . .

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