BOOK REVIEW Published in Volume 52, 2004
Judith M. Lieu, Neither Jew nor Greek?. (SNTW; London: T. & T. Clark, 2002).
Pp. Xiii+263. £40.00.
This book is a collection of Judith Lieu’s essays written over a number of years on “the origins of early Christianity, particularly within and out of its Jewish matrix” (p. ix). As the essays indicate, Lieu has been a very significant contributor to the complex question of Christian origins and her work shows consistently fine scholarship and engagement with the sources. Most of the essays have appeared in journals or edited volumes but some are the first publication of papers given in various scholarly contexts. The essays are grouped under four headings: Disappearing Boundaries, Women and Conversion in Judaism and Christianity, Theology and Scripture in Early Christian Views of Judaism and the Shaping of Early “Christian” Identity.
The first section begins with an essay called “The Parting of the Ways? Theological Construct or Historical Reality”? Lieu challenges the commonly accepted “model” of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerging from the varieties of Judaisms in late Second Temple period, each with its own distinct identity. She argues that this model works well with a theological agenda but that the social reality is far from clear. Citing numerous textual sources—Christian, Jewish and Graeco/Roman, as well as epigraphical remains—she claims that, up until the fourth century, the boundaries were “fuzzier” than the rhetoric suggests. “It may prove to be theologically less satisfying but sociologically more persuasive to picture a criss-crossing of muddy track which only the expert tracker, or poacher, can decipher” (p.29). The next two essays in this first section consider those called “God Fearers,” where Lieu questions many assumptions about this group and certainly whether the term denotes any clear religious conviction. The final essay here places the world of early Christianity within the competing world of “pagan” cults and Judaism. Christian texts often pay little attention to the outside world with its competing religious claims and Lieu argues for more attention to be paid to this social reality when reconstructing historical pictures of early Christianity.
The second section has two essays on women in Early Christianity. The first addresses the claim that “women were particularly attracted to Christianity, and that women numbered significantly among its early members” (p. 83). Lieu points out that the evidence also shows that the same can be true for women and their conversion to Judaism. What is missing in both cases is any biographical material that would describe the motivation for such conversion/s. She argues that evidence cited about the attraction of women to either religion often has a political agenda and so is more rhetorical than historical. The second essay examines the issue of women proselytes within Judaism. Here she argues that women’s conversion to Judaism through a ritual of immersion was not considered inferior to male circumcision, at least from second-century evidence. The issue of salvation for these uncircumcised women raises issues about women’s participation in the covenant, and inclusion in the people of Israel.
The third section raises the spectre of the charge “Anti-Semitism” as Lieu examines the theological claims of Christianity about Jesus, and the implications of these claims for Judaism. Historical events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E., appeared to validate Christian claims that the Christian community is now the true Israel and that the Jews, by their own rejection of Jesus, have placed themselves outside the covenant. Such is the common view among patristic writers. Lieu paints a picture of a Christian community emerging with a great deal of contact with the Synagogue, even though such contact involved tension and conflict. Looking at both Christian and Jewish texts she points to clues that suggest some Christians continued to participate in Jewish life. Some “Jewish Christians” become identifiable groups labelled heretical such as the Nazarians and Ebionites. The next essay examines the accusations in early Christian writings that Jews persecuted Christians, and the third essay discusses various interpretative stances in reading Deut 21:22–23. The hermeneutical history of this text provides an example of Christianity’s appropriation of Israel’s sacred text and at the same time of constructing the Jew as “other.”
The final section has three essays concerned with Christian identity. The first, entitled “The Forging of Christian Identity and the Letter to Diognetus,” examines the rhetoric employed by early Christians to self-consciously construct a distinctive identity. The second essay is somewhat similar in its methodology: “The New Testament and Early Christian Identity.” In this essay the problem of accurately “naming” Christianity and Judaism in the first-century is raised along with issues around the determining of a canon. The final essay addresses the phenomenon of Martyrdom and the Beginnings of “Christian” Identity, where the act of martyrdom is a public affirmation, “I am a Christian,” as distinct from other possible identities. The book concludes with two indexes providing page references to topics and ancient, non-biblical sources, as well as to modern authors.
Anyone interested in early Christian origins would be well advised to read this text. Lieu is a very careful biblical historian, marshalling a range of evidence while also able to acknowledge the limitations and ambiguity of some of this evidence.
Lieu’s style of writing does not make for easy reading, partly because of the complexity of the issues. Sentences are often long, with parenthetical remarks added to caution against a simplistic acceptance of the evidence at face value. The cautions are necessary and also frustrating, but this is the price to pay for a critical evaluation of evidence that is often ambiguous.
Lieu raises more questions than she answers and muddies what were once (thought to be) clear waters, but such ambiguity provides a surer ground for scholarship than false certainties. For both its content and scholarly method, Neither Jew nor Greek is a must for any theological library.
Dr Mary Coloe PBVM
Australian Catholic University, Brisbane
St Paul’s Theological College, Brisbane
PO Box 456
Virginia QLD 4014, Australia