DECONSTRUCTING THE MYTH OF MISSIONARY ORIGINS?
Alan Le Grys, talking about his book Preaching to the Nations (SPCK, 1999) at Trinity House, Southwark, 23.05.00. A summary and response by Simon Barrow, revised 2001.*

1. Summary of Le Gry's argument

The book configures the ideas of many different scholars who can be seen as critiquing the claimed eschatological paradigm in the Early Church – one that exists behind many accounts of universal mission.

Mission in the NT is often held to be about a universal reaching out to the gentiles. But Jesus almost certainly limited his own mission to the people of Israel. This is a common position in scholarly circles. But by the time Matthew's Gospel was written there had been what amounted to a complete turn around. Whereas the Jewish paradigm in Isaiah was about the nations streaming into Jerusalem (coming into the home of Judaism) the early Christian mission soon became a movement to the gentiles away from Jerusalem  – centripetal instead of centrifugal.

The finger of suspicion here is naturally on Paul. In his early writings he is clear about the need to proclaim the Good News to gentiles too. Why?

To get an answer you need to know what was going on in Palestine and in the Diaspora. The primary focus of Paul was the latter, the Eastern Mediterranean. Consider, for instance, what's going on between Paul and Peter at Antioch in Galatians. Here we have a major split in one version of the early Jesus movement. Paul lost the argument and was booted out, contends Le Grys. And it is at this point that he starts (according to Acts) his missionary activity - a massive input of energy.

The honour-shame culture in the Eastern Mediterranean meant that other people (relationships) defined the self, cf. the twentieth century trend towards self-definition ('identity'). Moreover your status was given to you, and status was seen as a limited commodity. An economy existed where status was vigorously competed for. (See Bruce Molina on Luke, for example) This is the world of the pre-industrial city.
So Paul lost his status in Antioch. He was effectively challenged either to put up or shut up. So he founded his own churches. He went to the synagogues and preached his message. But in the first century Diaspora context this meant preaching at least to a few gentiles. And where did he stay? Again the synagogues, not guilds, would have been his likely refuge.

His preaching would have been treated with incredulity. Many would have respected him and a few will have accepted the message. Most would have ignored him - amongst the Jews. The gentiles, on the other hand, would have been likely to be more receptive.

For social reasons God-fearing gentiles were not able to become full Jewish proselytes. Nevertheless they were attracted to the monotheism and the ethical rigour of the Jewish faith. By sitting on the edges they were able to benefit without having to betray their own cultural heritage.

Paul, remember, talked of a Jewish reform prophet embodying acceptance by God without total embracing of the weight of the Torah as a precondition. This was manna from heaven. So 'Judaism without tears' pulled in recruits from the gentile fringe (God-fearers), while having little impact among the Jews.

'First to the Jews and then the gentiles' in the Epistle to the Romans is therefore a chronological and pragmatic statement of how it was for Paul. He tried to make sense of his actual experience in the synagogues by re-reading scripture and the tradition that formed him. He eventually came up with an eschatological event waiting to happen. Nb. his fixation with Abraham, not Moses. Genesis 15 to a Jewish Christian is about the fatherhood of many nations, not just Israel.

Paul therefore posits a flow of righteousness from God to the nations, tragically interrupted by sin. God gives a temporary solution for a fixed group in Moses (the election of the Jews). But finally God intervenes decisively through 'the seed of Abraham' (Galatians), better known to us as Jesus. Now the flow can go out to the nations. This is his paradigm. It was not simply 'made up'. It drew on elements of the tradition, but it was a significant reconfiguration also.

The Jerusalem church, which opposed Paul, declined itself around AD70 or so, following the fall of Jerusalem.

Zephyrus, the Greek speaking capital of the region, is some 4 miles from Galilee. Joseph the techne (DIY man, not just carpenter) must have worked there. But there is not a sniff of Jesus being there in the Gospels. This is incredible if he really did have a universalizing mission. No matter how hard the redactors work to bring the gentiles into the story, they continue to be marginal and to command Jesus' attention only when they impose themselves on him. He reacts to them as a typical first century Jew would, with a combination of disdain and mild intrigue.

The Gospel writers are political in their constructions -- though in acknowledging this we are not questioning their spiritual integrity. What we get in the Gospels is retrojection from the later world (of universalizing mission) into the earlier, more limited one.

Where is Jesus on the spectrum of religious opinion in his day? He probably saw himself as a decisive prophet, though not for whole world (the 'last judgement' of the nations is still part of a Jewish picture.)  His teaching on Sabbath and Torah was in the middle of contemporary Judaism. More liberal than some, but less liberal than others. See the extensive arguments in Mishna.

Jesus came to expect a prophet's death, but in Gethsemane there is the 'oh my God' realization of the approach of a genuinely humiliating death. He has gathered a group who witness this awful death but who later become convinced (by one means or another, we cannot be sure) of his continuing aliveness. The Jesus movement is dispersed, and attaches itself to different synagogues around Jerusalem that then begin to give different accounts of the growing faith and its founder.

What of St Paul and his missionary motives? He was in the business of self-vindication. He also believed passionately that he was called by God. And his conviction was that he had a responsibility to prove his version of the Gospel. All three points are true. It is not an either or situation.

Similarly we operate out of complex and mixed motives.  Maybe the key message for us is about the discernment of the purposes of God in the midst of mess.

What are the other implications of all this for contemporary mission?  Le Grys suggests a number:

1. It calls for more serious engagement with Scripture, not the pre-critical naiveté that predominates in many missionary and pastoral circles. (The simple is accessed through the complex, not through the simplistic.)

2. It tells us that there is no such thing as 'the church'. The early Christian movement was a collection of churches. Original unity is a myth.

3. Today we Christians in the West are dining out on the Christendom heritage. But there is less and less left. The Decade of Evangelism and similar initiatives seem to proceed by saying  'the argument is a bit weak here, let's shout louder'. We are missing the point if we take that view. We Christians are a tiny and mainly ignored minority, which does not know how to live in the real world but seeks protection in a holy huddle.

4. The challenge is to deal more maturely with our mixed motives, situational complexity, and a to evince a genuine responsiveness to the plurality of models of mission. Mission as pastoral care (arguably the more traditional Anglican approach) is one, which commends itself to the multivalent situation, we face, though it must not end up being a chaplaincy to the powerful. The more radical approach of Ched Myers also has much to commend.

2. Comments from SB:

There is much in this overall picture that I find likely and interesting. But I think Le Grys is wrong to say that, in effect, Jesus was not radical or distinctive in his religious setting. His questioning of the application of the Sabbath, purity laws etc. was strong. Prostitutes and others were entering the kingdom he embodied and proclaimed ahead of the righteous, so the Gospel writers have him claim. This was a threat to the religious establishment. The social levelling involved in Jesus’ kingdom message also became a political threat. Otherwise the crucifixion of Jesus is turned into just one more random piece of violence. But surely, as Crossan, Borg, Wright and others argue (from different positions on the theological and critical spectrum), this figure was a real menace.

I accept the point that Jesus was primarily concerned with the Jews, but also take the view that his boundaries were stretched and stretching - and that the universalizing tendency in Christian mission (which still has many miles to go) is not unfounded in some of the most basic impulses of the Jesus movement and its founding figure. Maybe Paul recognized much more than Le Grys allows for here? He has to work hard to excise Gospel references to the edges and boundaries of Judaism (the good Samaritan, the Syro-Phoenecian woman etc.)  The thesis seems to be controlling the evidence, rather than the other way round at this point.

This reflects the fact that Le Grys' approach is in many ways rather old fashioned. He is dedicated to the insights of the historical critical method, though not slavishly so. He recognizes his work as tentative construction. But it is not clear that he has taken on board the limits of critical reconstruction. Much the same point is made by Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza in her recent critique of over-confident historical method my many (male) scholars.

Le Grys seems to me to be in danger of pressing the evidence (the Gospel texts, especially) into the service of his argument rather too readily. The gentiles need to be of minimal significance to Jesus on his account, and they are. The other interpretative possibility -- that Jesus was much more of an innovator in this regard is discounted. As in much historical-critical study, the context is determinative. It ain't necessarily so. Jesus stood out, and continues to disturb.

Le Grys’ argument about Paul convinces me more, but again an over-reliance on the contested ‘honour-shame’ paradigm is evident.
Nevertheless, as with Robert Wilken’s important study on ‘The Myth of Christian Origins’, Le Grys has rightly touched some raw nerves. There is too much sentimental nostalgia in our approach to the Early Church, and an over-willingness by modern missionary apologists to assume that the kind of Christian missions constructed under the pressures of modernity and post-enlightenment culture – which includes those that reject modernity – are essentially in continuity with the early propagation of the gospel. This does not properly allow us to identify those features of the message and its transmission which have undergone significant transformations over the centuries.

(c) Simon Barrow

* I hope I have recorded what Alan said accurately, and that he will forgive me if I have not!
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