The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity

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The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity, by Magnus Zetterholm. Routledge Early Church Monographs. London/New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xiv + 272. $92.95 (hardcover). ISBN 0415298962.

Historical analysis of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of the Common Era, long a central concern in the study of Christian origins, seems to be approaching a crossroads. The general "Parting of the Ways" model that has dominated scholarship since the second World War has become the object of substantial and serious criticism (see, e.g., Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed, eds., The Ways That Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages [TSAJ 95; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003]). And Paul, traditionally regarded as a (if not the) decisive figure in this respect, has himself been read "within Judaism" in an increasing number of recent studies (see on this point John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000]). Yet another sign of the healthy reconsideration of conventional wisdom on this matter is the revised version of Magnus Zetterholm's doctoral dissertation (Lund University, 2001), which brings current sociological theory to bear on the separation as it occurred in one specific location, Antioch-on-the-Orontes. The book's provocative thesis is that the "parting of the ways," at least here, was essentially an inner-Christian affair: the result of a conscious effort by "Jesus-believing Gentiles" to dissociate themselves from the "Jesus-believing Jews" to whose community they were attached. What is more, it was not Paul who laid the groundwork for this separation, but James.

In the first chapter, Zetterholm explains that the approach to the general problem of the separation of Judaism and Christianity taken by James D. G. Dunn's The Parting of the Ways (London: SCM, 1991) is inadequate on three scores: its limited focus on "ideological aspects" (Zetterholm will deal with these, but "within a sociological framework" [p. 4]); its notion that Paul meant to replace "the Torah with faith in Christ for both Jews and Gentiles" (Zetterholm assumes, with Gager, that Paul envisioned separate paths to salvation for Jews and Gentiles [p. 5]); and, most interestingly, its assumption that "the original Jewish and Gentile identities of the adherents to the Jesus movement are transformed into a common Christian identity" (Zetterholm prefers to speak of "Jesus-believing Jews" and "Jesus-believing Gentiles" [p. 6, his emphasis]). Since the separation cannot in any case be assumed to have occurred uniformly everywhere, Zetterholm limits his study to one location: Antioch.

Given the paucity and questionable reliability of the sources, Zetterholm finds sociological theories to be indispensable "gap-fillers," indeed, "providers of information" in those cases where "the alternative," given the state of the evidence, "is to say nothing" (pp. 10, 11). He thus proposes a four-part method involving (i) the assumption of the general theoretical perspective of the sociology of knowledge as presented by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality (London: Penguin, 1991); (ii) the use of more specific sociological theories and models to illuminate particular problems; (iii) comparative study of other data from antiquity; and, of course, (iv) analysis of the primaiy source material from Antioch. A case is considered made "if we find something in texts about the local situation in Antioch that makes sense from an underlying social-scientific perspective, and if this text can be analyzed with modern theories in order to extract more information from it, and if we also find expressions of the same phenomenon in other ancient texts dealing with other locations" (p. 14).

In eh. 2, Zetterholm provides a broad treatment of the history of, and sociopolitical conditions in, ancient Antioch in order to provide a general context for the study. …