Sunday, May 28, 2017

Book Write-Up: The Dawn of Christianity, by Robert J. Hutchinson

Robert J. Hutchinson.  The Dawn of Christianity: How God Used Simple Fisherman, Soldiers, and Prostitutes to Transform the World.  Nelson Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

In The Dawn of Christianity, Robert J. Hutchinson covers the time from the last days of Jesus to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15.  Chapter 1 is somewhat of a novellization, but the remainder of the book has more of a tone that one would expect from a non-fiction historical book.  Hutchinson tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.

Here are some of my reactions to the book:

A.  I am giving the book five stars, for reasons that I will explain below.  Let me start, though, with a few critiques.  For one, Hutchinson argues against the scholarly idea that Jesus predicted an imminent end of the world.  Overall, his arguments were not particularly convincing (at least to me), and he did not entirely explain what Jesus meant when he preached about the Kingdom of God.

Mark 9:1 states that some standing there will not taste death before they see the Kingdom come with power.  Hutchinson seems to argue that the Kingdom was already coming in power at that time, with the ministry of Jesus.  On some level, that may be true, but is that what Jesus was talking about in Mark 9:1?  Why would Jesus say that some standing there would not taste death before seeing the Kingdom, if he were discussing a Kingdom that was breaking out all around them?  Hutchinson believes that Matthew 24:14, which states that the Gospel shall be preached to all the world before the end comes, precludes the possibility that Jesus envisioned an imminent end of the world, for the Gospel at the time was a long way off from being preached to all the world!  And yet, Paul in Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:6 (assuming Paul wrote Colossians) seems to suggest that the Gospel then had gone or was going to the entire world.  Hutchinson states that certain Jesus Seminar scholars dispute that Jesus believed in an imminent end of the world, and yet he does not share that some of the Jesus Seminar scholars dismiss as secondary and non-authentic the apocalyptic parts of the Gospels.  I doubt that Hutchinson embraces that kind of methodology!

Hutchinson tried to offer an idea of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.  He presented a picture of God offering forgiveness and people repenting, lives being changed, and people gathering together in groups in which Kingdom principles were practiced.  The Kingdom of God arguably entails those things.  And yet, on page 19, Hutchinson states that “Jesus saw himself, and was seen by others, as the long-promised Jewish Messiah, the divine Son of Man who was inaugurating a new era in human history—-and whose reign would threaten and ultimately destroy all the kings and warlords of the earth.”  That sounds rather apocalyptic, perhaps imminently apocalyptic!  (Well, there is that word “ultimately” there, but the statement still implies that eschatology was a significant aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.)

This is not to suggest that all of Hutchinson’s discussion of this issue was lacking.  I myself wonder if Bart Ehrman is correct in saying that Jesus envisioned an imminent divine destruction of the Romans, since Jesus hardly ever mentioned the Romans.  Hutchinson had a pretty good response to Bart Ehrman’s arguments that Q has an imminent apocalyptic saying: Hutchinson noted that the saying includes Jesus’ statement that Christians will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man but will not see it (see Luke 17:22).  As Hutchinson notes, that sounds like a delay in the Son of Man’s coming, not imminence.  Hutchinson also recommended scholarly books on the topic.  And the endnote about Dale Allison’s struggle with this issue was endearing.  To quote Allison: “…a Jesus without eschatological error would certainly make my life easier…I might, for instance, be able to tell some of my relatives, without them shuddering aghast, what I really do for a living” (quoted from Allison, Resurrecting Jesus, p. 133).

B.  There were a few factual errors.  Hutchinson seemed to equate God-fearers with proselytes, when the two were not the same.  He considered such Jewish dietary prohibitions as the ban on mixing meat and milk to be biblical, when it was post-biblical.  Not that this necessarily counts as a “factual error,” but Hutchinson assumed that Isaiah 40 was written by Isaiah of Jerusalem, when many scholars believe it was written by Second Isaiah, who was a century later than Isaiah of Jerusalem.  This was surprising to me, since Hutchinson is well-versed on scholarly debates.

C.  Hutchinson generally believes in the historical reliability of the Gospels and the Book of Acts.  This approach actually led to interesting discussions in this book, as when he suggested that there is plausibility in the Gospel portrayals of Pilate being reluctant to execute Jesus, even though Pilate is presented in non-biblical sources as quite ruthless.  Hutchinson offered ways to reconcile these pictures.  At the same time, Hutchinson was not rigid in defending biblical inerrancy.  He thought that the Gospel of John’s timing of Jesus’ last meal and crucifixion makes more sense than that of the synoptics, for the Jewish establishment would not try Jesus on a Sabbath.  (In an endnote, however, he refers to a scholarly argument that there were different ways to date the Passover at the time.)  In discussion the question of whether the creed in I Corinthians 15:3-7 coincides with the Gospels, Hutchinson mentioned possible areas of overlaps (i.e., an early appearance to Peter), but also difficulties (i.e., the difficulty of assuming that Jesus’ appearance to the 500 is what Matthew 28 depicts).

D.  I had a slight problem with Hutchinson’s implication that Jesus was on everyone’s radar: that everyone was thinking about Jesus (well, maybe that is overstating his argument, but he did seem to suggest that a lot of people in first century Palestine were thinking about Jesus).  Hutchinson may just be following the Gospels here, since there are statements in the Gospels that state that Jesus was famous, or was unpopular with the Jewish establishment.  I wonder why, if Jesus’ was on so many people’s radar, there is such a dearth of first-century non-Christian references to Jesus.  Maybe my question is off-base: one could argue that there are major historical events that we only know about from one source, or that not all sources have survived.  Maybe.  The question still nags me, somewhat.

E.  Hutchinson attempts to explain why the early Christian movement was controversial.  He opts for Larry Hurtado’s suggestion that the early Christians were portraying Jesus as divine, on some level, and that was what many first century Jews did not like.  Hutchinson refers to a few passages in Acts that he thinks may imply this.  This discussion was rather brief, considering how significant the issue is: why do so many people in Acts hate the Christians so much?  Yet, Hutchinson deserves credit for attempting to offer an explanation.  (And, as Hutchinson notes, many Gentiles did not care for Christians turning people away from idols and, in turn, their business.)

F.  I said above that “Hutchinson still tells the story of Jesus and the early church, while interspersing information about customs, cities, and figures of the time, as well as scholarly discoveries and controversies.”  This is where the book shined!  And Hutchinson did so in a compelling, lucid, and engaging manner: readers would not get caught up in a bunch of weeds (those were saved for the endnotes!), and the asides did not inhibit the story but often advanced it.  There are many examples in this book, and I will not share all of them here.  I will share one, though: I appreciated Hutchinson’s discussion of Herod Agrippa I.  Herod Agrippa I became King of the Jews on account of his friendship with Caligula, so he had the authority to implement the death penalty, something that the Jewish authorities in Palestine often lacked under Roman rule.  In the Book of Acts, he used that authority against early Christians.  And yet, Josephus and rabbinic literature portray him as a pious man.  But Josephus and the Book of Acts also talk about his demise, with overlapping details: both present him as dying soon after people were extolling him as a god!  Okay, many who have read and studied the New Testament may already know this, but Hutchinson also shared some less-known scholarly controversies.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers.  My review is honest!

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