Wednesday, August 13, 2014


by Ross Saunders, 
Acorn Press, 2014

This is an interesting book: its twin, published earlier, is Outrageous Women, Outrageous God: Women in the First Two Generations of Christianity. In both books Ross Saunders unpacks the idea that Jesus upended ancient Mediterranean notions of honour, authority, leadership, and servanthood. He offers readable, well-researched word-pictures of Jesus' first-century disciples as they work out in their personal and communal/ecclesial lives what it means to be truly radical, eschewing privilege and power. The struggles they faced in the first two generations of Christianity are also still ours. 

Ross Saunders (1926-2005) was a Sydney Anglican clergyman best known as a religious broadcaster. But he was also an 'auto-didact' - a scholar in the fields of Theology, Ancient History and Communications. 

Anthropologists tell us that Mediterranean cultures were built around honour maintenance; women were recognized only in relationship to some man: a father, an uncle, a grandfather, a brother, a husband, a son. It was almost impossible to better the social position into which you were born. And it’s important to note that only men experienced dishonour, not women. Women without  the benefit of male sponsorship found it almost impossible to survive. Social security as we know it did not exist. The 'poor' helped by temple-funds were usually asset-rich males who'd fallen on hard times. The beggars in the streets were poor or disabled males. Women couldn't easily survive by begging, because passers-by would favour males. Younger women often had no option but to go into prostitution.

Eldest sons invariably followed their father's craft (so Jesus was a plough-maker, as Joseph was). Peter came from the household of an entrepreneur: he had no status until his father died. Until then he was known as Simon-son-of-Jonas. 
Jesus had brought shame upon his father's reputation by leaving the household after his father’s death. (Note that at the cross Jesus hands over his mother to the care of the disciple John. Note also that with Jesus' death, his brother James became next in line in the household. 'But Jesus had changed that by entrusting his mother to John, not to James').

And following Jesus came at a cost. If a junior member of a household became a disciple there would be division in the household, often resulting in that member being disowned. Should Jesus prove to be a fraud, they could not return to their families as though nothing had happened. It was an irrevocable decision.

Socio-cultural result? In contrast to a situation where everybody has a place virtually fixed at birth, in today's world we regard ourselves primarily as individuals. Christianity changed the way its members found their identity and, in the process, helped to break down the Mediterranean household as the basic unit of society. 'When households are mentioned [in the NT] in connection with conversions to Christianity, this was the exception and not the norm. This was one of the things that set Christianity off from all other religions at the time.’

Ross Saunders’ main emphasis is on the theme of leadership: Jesus in his life and teachings changed the model of leader-as-director to leader-as-servant. 'Ultimately, this is what Christian leadership is about: eliminating the chasm between the leader and the led'. Jesus called upon his followers 'to relinquish their status... [so] women went up a step or two on the social scale, [while] men went down a step or two'. Adult males were to divest 'themselves of all their pretensions to status, and became like a child - in that society completely without status –[otherwise] they had no hope of membership [in the kingdom]'. When he sent out his disciples [in Mark 6:7-13] they were to wear sandals, the footwear of the peasant. But 'the concept that honour must be attached to leadership... was [still] strong, and it was something that was to dog missionaries like Paul...'

Saunders’ book does not go beyond the end of the first century: then 'male bishops took over Christianity, [reverting] to the normal household model for centralising church structures, and lay ministry, both male and female, disappeared almost totally.'  

This book is as interesting in terms of scholarly style as it is thematically. I don't think he cites one scholar, and there are no footnotes. However an excellent Select Bibliography gives us a clue about his wider reading: here there are listed authors like the Evangelicals F. F. Bruce, I. H. Marshall and E.A.Judge, to scholars with a wider theological stance, like J. Jeremias and G. Theissen. He has, for example, a fairly conservative view of who-wrote-what in the NT, but he is not afraid to cite differences in the four Gospels' narrative-details - without doing too much explaining about how they can be reconciled. They are simply left, side-by-side, expressing differences in perspective between Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Australian colloquialisms are sprinkled throughout:  'a dandy dressed up to the nines'; 'cop all the shame'; 'they tear out in great consternation to find their leader'; 'whatever I have in mind for John, even if it is to hang around until I return to earth’; Peter was ‘clapped in irons in prison’…
And twenty-to-thirty more…

I marked the following, to ponder:

  • For Israelites, prayer was always audible, never silent in the mind the way we today tend to pray. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading his scroll aloud: 'Silent reading was certainly not the process of reading in those days'.

  • The ‘laying on of hands’ was never on heads. Human hair was not to be touched by other people for fear of touching dust or sweat. The main greeting method: 'the two shoulders grasp'.

  • 'Giving to the poor was not counted as maintaining one's honour in the community. The poor could not repay by having a benefactor's name written up in the synagogue or temple.'

  • Paul was 'not a consultative or democratic kind of team leader... We must be careful... not to romanticise Paul and smooth over the sharp edges and directive attitudes'.

  • 'Whenever Paul uses "head" with respect to Christ it is always associated with his self-sacrificial love for the church. In other words "headship" here derives from commitment and self-sacrifice and does not entail privilege and the right to be obeyed.'

  • 'I believe it is abundantly clear that there were no orders, of deacons, priests or bishops, during the first two generations of Christianity. In fact, there were no clergy, in our sense, until the turn of the century.'

If there had been a list of discussion starters, this would have been a good one:
'Prayer and the drawing of straws' (Acts1:15-26). Does your church elect leaders this way?

Conclusion: 'For men, neither ascribed nor acquired honour had any place in the congregations. The usual games of challenge and response that occurred when men greeted each other on the street had to stop'. 'We must have a great deal of sympathy for those first two generations of men in the churches. They had to lose just about everything they had been born with: honour, prestige, position, authority and entitlement to dominion over women and children.'
Rowland Croucher

May 6, 2014 

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