The fattest of the pieces of assigned reading for the Reclaiming Paul conference is a book by esteemed New Testament scholar Bruce Longenecker. It departs from his traditional scholarly format, engaging in a remarkable work of historical fiction. Except unlike many such books, this one is written by a first-rate historian, so the reader can relax and trust that she is not being led along by some overly imaginative assertions about Second-Temple Judaism. Plus, it features some polished but not overly prosaic writing.
In this book, Longenecker imagines a fictional correspondence between two historical figures: Antipas, an early Christian martyr, and Luke, the author of the two-volume account of the life of Jesus and the efforts of the early church. Though it drags a bit in the second half as it moves toward its foregone conclusion, it is an engaging read.
The implications here are even more interesting than the history, however. In Longenecker’s view, the central theme of the New Testament is found not in doctrine or creed or theology or literary assertion, but rather the building of communities that eradicate ethnic differences and dismantle social strata (both of which were proud and pervasive features of society in the first century). These new groups of people existed to create a “new, truly generous society”. Longenecker shows that though Jesus resided within a much larger empire, he lived for “the empire of God”. In this way, he was not antisocial or escapist or individualistic, but in fact very social as he invited people toward true health and true community. These Christian communities are not, then, contrary to Rome’s empire, but a better and richer fulfillment of Rome’s aspirations than Rome could ever deliver on its terms or with its methods.
All of which has some almost overwhelming resonance for those of us who live within this American Empire, as Longenecker commends an apologetic that is not philosophical, but practical (ie., the compelling common life of Christians), and a kind of evangelism that is not confrontational or coercive, but civil and generative. Something that bestows the kind of life that makes the empire sit up and take notice, and just might earn you the scorn of that empire, too.