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Robert E. Van Voorst,
The Ascents of James, History and Theology of
a Jewish Christian Community

Scholars Press

Reviewed by Robert M. Price



In this comprehensive dissertation, van Voorst embarks on a history of the source criticism of the Pseudo-Clementines, detailing previous suggestions as to the existence and extent of possible Jewish-Christian source documents beneath the surface of what now appear as a pair of versions of a Hellenistic Christian picaresque novel. F.C. Baur, followed by many scholars, saw in the Pseudo-Clementine character of Simon Magus a thinly veiled representation of Paul from an Ebionite standpoint. Here was the opponent of Peter who claimed to be an apostle of Jesus, but who based his claim not on any apprenticeship during the Lord's earthly sojourn, but rather on dubious visions. He was an opponent of the Law as well.

            (What is less often remembered is Baur's extension of this theory to the canonical Acts, where he saw even the Lukan Simon Magus as a Lukan reworking of an Ebionite casting of Paul as Simon. Simone Petrement, A Separate God, pp. 236-237, is one of the few contemporary scholars venturesome enough even to consider Baur's theory seriously. She seems seriously tempted by it. Others are content to consign Baur and his exegesis to a comfortable oblivion).

            Baur's whole scenario of Jewish-Hellenistic conflict in the early Church was significantly buttressed by his acceptance of Jewish-Christian sources in the Pseudo-Clementines. Thus the importance of the subject. Most previous scrutiny of the texts has centered on the possible Ebionite character of the Kerygmata Petrou. But Van Voorst has chosen instead to tap a neglected vein. He argues quite ably that Recognitions 1. 33-71 present us with a Jewish-Christian document that is to be identified with the hitherto-enigmatic ­Ascents of James­ mentioned by Epiphanius.   

The work as Van Voorst isolates it, begins with a summary of the salvation history of Israel culminating with the career of Jesus, the Prophet like Moses, who came to replace sacrifices with baptism. Sacrifice had been allowed for the hardness of Israel's hearts (thus here is a difference from the well known Ebionite hermeneutic of the false pericopae). What follows is an interesting series of formal exchanges between various apostles and representatives of Jewish sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, and followers of John the Baptist. This last, of course, is especially valuable in that it seems to preserve actual bits of Baptist polemic and theology. Finally, James is invited to make a presentation before the people and their elders. This speech has come very near to success, with even Caiaphas ready to submit to baptism, when the unnamed antagonist, "a certain hostile man" interrupts the proceedings, leading a murderous assault on the Jesus-believers present. His persecution eventually extends, with the collusion of the High Priest, to ransacking the church at Damascus in an attempt to find Peter there. Of course, Paul is meant.

Van Voorst seems to have accomplished his aim of setting forth for our consideration a "new" Jewish-Christian source. His commentary on it presents many helpful insights, but one or two points invite further attention. First, the identification of the source with the "Ascents of James" of Epiphanius seems logically separate from the character of the source as Jewish-Christian. Is this Epiphanius' apocryphon? Van Voorst explains the title as a reference to the flights of stairs climbed by James to the position in the Temple from which he delivers his address. But who would derive the title of the work from such a detail? Epiphanius himself guessed that the title might refer to ascending degrees of initiation provided by degrees of esoteric teaching offered by the book.

Second, as Van Voorst notes, we find a near-miss as regards Baur's theory that Jewish Christianity gradually assimilated to Catholicism, yielding circumcision in favor of baptism. Instead, we find here a substitution of baptism for sacrifice. The Ebionites, too, had Jesus rejecting animal sacrifice, albeit via a different apologetical path. If his supposed Hegelianism led Baur into implausible contrivance, it was in this guess of a circumcision-for-baptism trade-off and the broader idea it served, a Catholic-Ebionite reconciliation.

 Third, this difference between the "hardness of heart" and the "false pericopae" apologetics implies an interesting variety of Jewish-Christian sectarian approaches, not just the hypothesized two or three that would make life simpler for scholars of Christian origins. In the same vein, it is striking that the Ascents provides a forthright reference to a doctrine of a pre-existent Christ. He took, it says, a Jewish body when he appeared on earth. Perhaps this is nothing new, as we already knew the Ebionites had a sort of a pre-existence Christology, but this True Prophet doctrine (to be distinguished from the Ascents' Mosaic Prophet doctrine) implied adoptionism. Here, by contrast, we hear of "taking a body," but then maybe this, too, would be compatible with adoptionism: an adult body.

Fourth, can we be so sure as Van Voorst that the Ascents vilifies Paul in the same manner as the Ebionite sources elsewhere in the Pseudo-Clementines? To be sure, it depicts Paul as a terrorist, but then again so does Luke. So does Galatians. The Ascents breaks off, after all, just before the point at which Luke relates the conversion of Saul. Since this document is clearly heavily dependent on Luke-Acts elsewhere, can we rule out the possibility that it would have vilified its Saul more darkly in order to make its converted Paul shine all the more brightly?

Fifth, one must note that when Van Voorst claims to have uncovered a "new" Jewish-Christian source, he is not at all claiming to have opened up a channel of independent access to the events of early Christianity. This text is very definitely post-New Testament. It is a late work like the Acts of Pilate, though of course it may preserve early emphases or traditions here and there.

The Ascents of James: History and Theology of a Jewish-Christian Community
(Dissertation Series (Society of Biblical Literature))



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