E. Van Voorst,
The Ascents of James, History and Theology of
a Jewish Christian Community
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
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
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
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
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
implausible contrivance, it was in this guess of a circumcision-for-baptism
trade-off and the broader idea it served, a Catholic-Ebionite reconciliation.
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
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,
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
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))
Robert M Price
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