Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times

  • Paul Barnett
  • Jan 1, 2000
  • Series: Volume 3 - 2000

Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999. 448 pp. $29.99 ISBN 0-8308-1588-0

Paul Barnett is a longtime Australian evangelical who is currently the Anglican Bishop of North Sydney, visiting fellow in ancient history in Macquarie University, Sydney, and research professor in Regent College, Vancouver. His previous book-length works include treatments of Jesus and the logic of history, along with the trustworthiness of the New Testament, and commentaries on 2 Corinthians for both the Bible Speaks Today and New International Commentary series.

This book is the product of the mature scholarship of a classical historian, aware of all the major swaths of contemporary biblical scholarship, but writing primarily by interacting with the ancient sources, inside and outside of Scripture. More often than not his endnotes are content rather than reference notes, but the secondary literature that he does cite, along with select bibliographies at the end of each chapter, focus on state-of-the art studies, especially in the conservative arena.

The results in some ways parallel F. F. Bruce's classic New Testament History (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969); university and seminary professors may well choose to substitute Barnett for Bruce because he has updated the discussion. But the work is not an exact equivalent. Barnett offers less sustained narrative of pure historical background recounted in chronological sequence, and provides instead at key places more thematically organized material directly relevant to each of the New Testament documents.

The primary thesis of the book is that the historical Jesus is the "engine" that drives early Christianity. One cannot put a wedge in between Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of later faith. Paul after all had a Christologically mature belief-system passed on to him at the time of his conversion (cf., e.g., 1 Cor. 11:17ff. and 15:1ff.), within approximately one year of Jesus' death! The heart of New Testament theology is the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Jewish Messiah, and the fulfillment of the Scriptures, with which claim all must reckon who wish to understand Jesus or early Christianity, even if purely on historical terms.

Thus before beginning his narrative of intertestamental history, Barnett opens with successive chapters on historical methodology in general and the pervasiveness of claims of Jesus as the Christ throughout the first century in particular. Then we read overviews of the Hellenistic period and the Herodian dynasty, especially as each impinges on understanding the New Testament. We proceed to Jesus' birth and boyhood, noting key parallels between Galatians 4:4 and information scattered around Luke 1. We wrestle with the problem of Luke's census; Barnett opts for a translation that makes it one "before" Quirinius was governor in A.D. 6. And we note the probable nature of Jesus' Jewish upbringing, including a Torah-centered elementary school education.

Next comes "Jesus' context"--first in Galilee and Perea, then in Judea. Barnett prefers to date Jesus' ministry from 29-33 and explains Pilate's willingness to give in to the Jews based on the change of policies instigated by Tiberius after the execution of the anti-Semitic praetorian prefect Sejanus in 31. Then appears a lengthy chapter on Jesus' ministry per se, focusing on the self-revelation of one who had a robust messianic consciousness. Chronology, geography and Christology are all well treated; Jesus' ethical teaching receives virtually no attention. A chapter on Jesus' resurrection, exaltation and sending of the Spirit argues for the historicity of these events, refusing to bracket them as outside the domain of historical investigation.

The most detailed discussion of any single period of time comes next, with several chapters on the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death and resurrection--the formation of the church. Acts 1-5 provide serious historical information concerning the "birth of the Messianic community." Stephen's ministry and martyrdom, followed by the scattering of the church and Saul's conversion, provoke in-depth consideration of the Hebraist-Hellenist dispute, Saul as Zealot, and the "hidden years" of Saul's early ministry (ca. 34-47). Following Luke's geographical outline of the expansion of the church, Acts becomes intensely interested in Paul only as he moves westward. The historical setting of this more well-known period of Paul's ministry includes growing foment in Israel against Rome and the rise of greater Judaizing factions within and outside Christianity. Galatians, the only epistle to be analyzed in detail, discloses numerous features of these turbulent days and comes just before the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem of ca. 49.

A chapter on James, Cephas (Peter) and John gathers together all that can be known or inferred about each of these key Christian leaders from Scripture and elsewhere. Barnett briefly discusses the literature each produced. He finds both 1 and 2 Peter authentically Petrine but ascribes the dramatic differences in style to two separate amanuenses, Silas and an otherwise anonymous individual, respectively. Breaking with both major factions in the debate over the date of James' epistle (40s or 60s), Barnett opts for a mediating position--in the 50s.

Paul's ministry from 50 onward is collapsed into one chapter. Most of the Pauline epistles are treated in a paragraph or two as part of the broader historical narrative Barnett supplies. Colossians appears, however, only in one sentence; Philemon, not at all. The traditional datings of the key events and letters of Paul's ministry, ably argued a generation ago by Bruce, remain largely unchanged. But Barnett breaks from many by plausibly developing the idea that particularly Roman communities were a priority for Paul and can account for most of the itineraries of his so-called missionary journeys. Barnett also suggests that Luke may have been Paul's amanuensis for the Pastoral Epistles, thereby accounting for their quite distinctive style from the rest of the Pauline corpus.

A chapter on churches and evangelists proceeds geographically outwardly from Jerusalem, area by area, surveying chronologically what can be reconstructed of the history of each, and finally deals with the Pauline churches more rapidly in larger groupings. Hebrews receives brief treatment; Barnett thinks it more likely that it was written to Jerusalem than to Rome. Jude is never discussed (except earlier in one sentence as a probable source for 2 Peter). In a chapter on the four Gospels, building on the work of E. E. Ellis, Barnett argues for a very early date for the sources M, L and Q, and even the final draft of Mark--at least going back to the 50s but perhaps even to the mid-40s. But he offers no criteria for how to distinguish oral tradition from the finished form of the Gospels when he bases this argument (at least for Mark and Q) in large measure on the parallels in Paul's major letters to key sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Also in part following Ellis, Barnett believes each of the four can be viewed as designed for the missionary effort of one of the four major branches/missionaries of the early church, associating Matthew with James, Mark with Peter, Luke with Paul, and John with the son of Zebedee by that name. The book closes with a discussion of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Revelation, a triumphant climax to the New Testament's central theme of the kingdom of the Christ.

With this much detail, one can always question individual conclusions. To mention just three, it is not clear that Barnett has felt the strength of the case for dating Jesus' crucifixion to A.D. 30. It seems unlikely that all the Hebraists (save the apostles) as well as the Hellenists would have fled Jerusalem after Stephen's stoning. If the Fourth Gospel is literarily independent of the Synoptics even as late as the 90s, while incorporating traditions that overlap considerably in content (though seldom in exact wording) at numerous places, can we really argue that the noticeably fewer parallels in Paul vis-`a-vis the Synoptics demonstrate the existence of the latter already in the 40s or 50s? Also at times Barnett gets carried away and declares the absolute or virtual certainty of minority positions for which he argues in language he elsewhere rejects when other authors use it.

Footnote superscripts are not raised and are in too large a font on pp. 97 and 138. The reference to Acts 11:34-48 on p. 285 should be to chap. 10. The title of Porter's article on p. 213 is wrong. Barrett's commentary on Acts comes in two volumes, not one, and not both in 1994, contra the bibliography. Eerdmans is missing one of its "e"s on p. 353. And all the listings in the index to a book by M. Hengel and A. Schwemer are given a separate entry labeled M. Hengel immediately under an identically named entry that supplies all of Hengel's other appearances in the volume.

None of these criticisms or errors, however, should be allowed to obscure the enormous value of Barnett's work. There is a gold mine of information here that can benefit the educated layman, theological student or pastor, and scholar alike. Particularly in an age when writers like John Dominic Crossan (with whom Barnett interacts at key junctures), with his lengthy and highly touted books on The Historical Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 1991) and The Birth of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper, 1998) deceive many into thinking there is no intellectually viable case for a conservative portrayal of Christian origins, the data amassed by Barnett merit far more attention than they will probably receive.

Craig L. Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

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