Book Review: Sean Freyne, The Jesus Movement

Freyne, Sean. The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion: Meaning and Mission. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 495 pp. Pb; $35.00.  Link to Eerdmans

Sean Freyne was the Emeritus Professor of Theology in Trinity College (Dublin) until his death in August of 2013. This book is a conclusion to his other studies on Galilee in the Second Temple Period. His other contributions to the topic include Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988); Galilee and Gospel:  Collected Essays (WUNT 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) and Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (London: T&T Clark, 2004).

Freyne Jesus MovementFreyne begins The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion with three chapters on the history and culture of Galilee in the first century. First, he challenges the common assumption that Galilee was a Gentile region in comparison to Judea. While the region was encircled by Gentile cities, a strong Judean presence was in Galilee with “a long-standing and deep attachment to the symbols of Jerusalem and its Temple” (48). From the Hasmonean period on there was a “steady growth” in the number of settlements with a distinctive Judean ethos (18). Evidence for this comes from the presence of miqva’oth throughout the region and a few traces of pre-70 C.E. synagogues (Khirbet Qana and Magdala, for example).

Second, Freyne examines the influence of Rome on Galilee and Judea. In order to accomplish this, Freyne examines the how the Roman world view was the developed by Herod and his sons. Freyne argues Herod “fully participated in the Roman exploitation of the idea of one world” (55). He demonstrates this with a brief overview of the building projects the Herodians initiated as well as the coinage issued during this period. The first revolt was an inevitable clash between the Hellenistic aristocracy and radical anti-Roman elements such as the “fourth philosophy” (59). For Freyne, the fall of Jerusalem functions catalyst for the writing of early Christian gospels. He makes reference to the apocalyptic claims of Mark 12:13-18 which seem to anticipate the events of 70 C.E.

The last introductory chapter surveys the economic and social conditions of Galilee in the mind first century. This is ground Freyne has covered elsewhere in more detail. He begins with the economy of the Hasmonean state, suggesting that Galilee experience some growth as Judeans moved into the region for economic reasons. While Herod is sometimes characterized as an oppressive ruler for the “ordinary people,” Freyne insists the Herodian period not necessarily characterized by oppression and extreme poverty. He cites several examples of Herod providing for the people in times of drought or famine (118). Even under Antipas, the ruler functioned as a Roman benefactor. Here Freyne is reacting to the work of Crossan and others who tend to overplay poverty as a factor for describing the culture of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus. He lists a number of items drawn from Mark’s gospel and Josephus indicating a more robust economy than usually granted. For example, In Mark 6:56, people could be expected to have money to provide food for themselves; in Mark 1:20 fishermen hired servants; in Mark 5:26 (cf., Life, 403) people who provided medical services expected to be paid (132).

Chapter 4 makes use this social and cultural background in order to read the presentation of Jesus as found in the Gospels. The Jesus Movement was one of several protest movements challenging the religious of the nation (183). This challenge comes from two perspectives often considered to be mutually exclusive in contemporary scholarship. First, Jesus is in many ways a wisdom teacher. Following Gerd Theissen, Freyne describes Jesus as “inaugurating a ‘values revolution,’ calling into question prevailing attitudes toward wealth and power,” either from Rome or the Temple aristocracy (162). To declare the poor “blessed,” for example, contradicted the usual Deuteronomic thinking that the Lord blesses the righteous with material wealth. With respect to apocalyptic, Freyne thinks the Jesus Movement came to identify themselves with the “wise” from Daniel 12, using Daniel and his companions as models of living a righteous life in the Gentile world (174).

Chapters 5-8 trace the Jesus movement beyond the early first century. He discusses the Hebrews and the Hellenists, Samaritan followers of Jesus, and the traditions associated with James the Just. He suggests that in Acts the relationship of James and the Hebraioi are “another story, running just below the surface and then springing to life occasionally and at key moments” (241). As I have often observed, there is far more variety in the early Christian movement than is usually recognized. Freyne sees diversity in Acts 6, the Hellenists (such as Stephen) and the Hebrews (the Twelve, perhaps James), but he points out the rift is not theological (206), although he goes on to indicate a major difference is the resurrection. Freyne follows Ben Meyer’s lead and suggests the Hebraioi are the link back to the earliest community of the Jesus Movement, consisting of the nucleus of Jesus’ Galilean followers (213). Hellenists were a link to a future Pauline / Gentile movement that went beyond Israel to a purified humanity.

James was a leader in the Hebraioi, but based in Jerusalem rather than Galilee. Freyne detects hints of the importance of James in a number of non-canonical texts expanding his role beyond the description in Acts. James appears two sometimes opposing traditions. Some traditions connect James to the Ebionites, the orthodox Jewish Christians, but James also appears in several Gnostic texts as well. Gospel of Thomas Logion 12 seems to pass leadership of the disciples to James the Just, preserving a title found elsewhere. Jerome knew a tradition that placed James at the Last Supper (De Vir. 2.3). The recently published Tchacos Codex includes a Greek translation of the Apocalypse of James which helps fill in gaps in the Nag Hammadi version of this Gnostic text. In this story, Jesus appears to James after the resurrection and instructs him on what is necessary for the soul to ascend (239). For Freyne, the late acceptance of the Letter of James into the canon of the New Testament is an indication of James’ increasing status in the early church.

In chapters 6-7 Freyne examines how Jesus was remembered, first among Galilean Christianity (Gospel of Thomas and Q) then in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, which he suggests originated in Syria. He examines the Saying collections as early evidence for how the Galilean followers of Jesus understood their relationship with Judaism as well as the terms on which a Gentile might be admitted to the Messianic community (258). In the Sayings sources, Jesus is the “coming one” (Luke 3:7-9) who invites his listeners to participate in a banquet (GThomas 28, Prov 9:1-6). This is a combination of apocalyptic and wisdom at the earliest levels of the tradition. Freyne argues the sayings material is dismissive of Jewish practices and is not as dismissive of Gentiles as other contemporary examples of Second Temple Judaism, “the main focus is clearly on Israel” (265).

Freyne associates the Gospel of Mark with Syria (as opposed to Rome) argues the Gospel deals with the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt and loss of the Temple. The Gospel is “apocalyptically structured” (311), looking back at Jesus as a way to encourage Jesus-followers to cross the political and cultural boundaries necessary in a post-Jewish Christianity. Matthew, on the other hand, deals with a different set of circumstances. For Freyne, Matthew wrote fifteen to twenty years later, using Mark and Q to argue for an inclusive Israel that could “bring new things out of the old” (Matt 13:52).

Finally, Freyne follows these trajectories into the Second Century. He begins by examining the state of the Jesus movement in Rome in the second century, after the time of Domitian. The attitude of Rome was generally positive, despite occasional threats of persecution at the local level (323). Freyne wonders why Celsus went to such great lengths in the late second century to refute toe claims of Christianity. It is likely Celsus realized the threat Christianity posed to Roman order, especially as it moved from an obscure religion to “third nation” within Rome (325). Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians continued to separate during this period. Despite some attempts to maintain a connection to their Jewish roots, the growing orthodoxy rejected Judaism entirely. Ignatius wrote “it is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and practice Judaism” (Ign. Magn. 10.2). But the early Christians also rejected attempts to bring Christianity in line with Greek philosophy, as Tertullian famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”? Christian orthodoxy finally took shape as a reaction to Christian heresies. As challenges arose, orthodox teaching attempted to clarify and separate from forms of Gnosticism and Marcionism.

Conclusion. This book is an excellent contribution to the study of the Gospels and the growth of early Christianity. Sean Freyne argues clearly for an influential Galilean Christianity that is responsible for preserving a collection of Jesus’ sayings (Q). He concludes Christianity was much closer to its Jewish roots than is normally thought. I would have liked a chapter on Luke/Acts, tracing the expansion of the Jesus movement to the Roman world (assuming Freyne accepted some sort of western provenance for the Gospel). Based on his comments throughout the book, he might have taken Acts more seriously as history than recent commentators have (especially Luke’s hints of deeper divisions between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and Paul’s Gentile mission).

In addition, there is not much in the book on the Pauline mission to the Gentiles. Granted, this would greatly lengthen an already good-sized book, but the topic is not necessarily excluded by the sub-title of the book. Freyne argues well his point on how the Jesus movement spread form Galilee to Syria, but in his final chapter he leaps to the second century without any attention at all to Paul’s Gentile mission or the problems it caused for more conservative forms of Jewish Christianity.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book to students of the Gospels and the early church.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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