Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Benjamin H. Dunning, Aliens and Sojourners: Self as Other in Early Christianity. Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 186. ISBN 9780812241563. $49.95.
Reviewed by Yii-Jan Lin, Yale University


Early Christian writers from the first and second centuries C.E. used the terms παρεπιδήμος, "sojourner," πάροικος, "resident alien," and ξένος, "stranger," to define themselves and their fellow Christians. This group of terms and others denoting foreign and alien status form what Benjamin Dunning calls "the resident alien topos." In Aliens and Sojourners, Dunning explores the rhetorical uses of this topos in five early Christian texts: 1 Peter, Hebrews, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes, and the Apocryphon of James.

Dunning makes it clear in the Introduction that his aim is not to to determine the civic and political status of the audiences of these texts based on the use of the topos. Neither does he believe that these texts provide a direct insight into their audiences' realities. Rather, his interests lie in the rhetorical possibilities at play when communities are addressed and exhorted to identify themselves as foreigners and sojourners. He describes his methodology as a "melding of broadly Foucaultian historicism, Bourdieuian sociology of knowledge, and contemporary literary theory" (21), the last including the influences of Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes.

A very brief analysis of 1 Peter is included in the Introduction to open an insightful discussion of methodology. Dunning does not interpret the term "aliens" and "sojourners" in 1 Peter either as actually reflecting the legal status of the letter's addressees (as John Elliott does in A Home for the Homeless)1 or as a metaphor for social ostracism experienced by the addressees after conversion to Christianity (as Reinhard Feldmeier does in Die Christen als Fremde).2 Instead, Dunning reads 1 Peter as creating a "usable social identity" (12) that demarcates its audience as a group while simultaneously allowing them to participate in Roman society.

Chapter 1 explores the limits of interpretation by looking at the sociohistorical background of the resident alien topos. Dunning begins by investigating ancient concepts of citizenship as the counterpart to status as an exile or alien. Citizenship under the Roman Empire could be gained in numerous ways, either by individuals or communities. However, citizenship not only indicated civic status but could also connote ethnoracial identity, which made it an ambiguous and ambivalent concept. The generous granting of Roman citizenship served the interest of imperial expansion and the acquisition of territories and allegiances but worked against the projection of a distinct and superior Roman identity. The term "exile" was similarly ambivalent. Greek and Roman texts present life in exile as a miserable existence but also at times elevate the exile as a philosopher. Likewise, the status of a resident alien could be valorized in philosophical terms, as it was in both Roman and Hellenistic Jewish writings.

In Chapter 2, Dunning focuses on the resident alien topos in Hebrews, specifically the identification of Abraham and his descendents as strangers and sojourners (Heb 11:13) and the exhortation to go to Jesus "outside the camp" (13:13). Dunning reads the topos here as creating a group identity using (paradoxically) "outsider terms" (53). He does not interpret the call to go outside the camp as a critique of certain cultic practices but rather as a way of marking Christian identity as distinct against a multicultural and multicultic background. Yet the figuring of "self as other" in Hebrews does not lead to a paraenesis to radical social action: "the text situates its practical vision of alien identity in assimilationist terms" (62), thus creating a distinct but usable social identity.

In the same vein, the Epistle to Diognetus (discussed in Chapter 3) identifies Christians as strangers and foreigners but also as participants of the general round of life in the cities they inhabit. However, the Christian life sketched out in the letter is "not serenely assimilationist" (66) but critiques Roman ethics and mores by not merely observing them but surpassing them: "[Christians] are obedient to the established laws, but they outdo the laws in their own lives" (Diogn. 5.10). Dunning interprets this implied critique of Roman society as a "protreptic invitation" (77) to join Christians, who live a superior philosophical and religious life.

Chapter 4 contains an analysis of the Shepherd of Hermas, Similitude 1, which also relies upon the valorization of alterity to state its argument. The text identifies Christians as strangers in the cities where they live but, moreover, calls them "the slaves of God" (Sim. 1.1, 10). These two metaphors for alterity create an identity that has double insider status: Christians not only belong somewhere else, they belong to someone else, and not just to any someone but to God. Unlike 1 Peter, Hebrews, and the Epistle to Diognetus, however, the rhetorical emphasis of the passage does not lie in describing the status of Christians as outsiders (and, thus, insiders) but in critiquing the actions of Christians living in a city that is not their own. Assuming their residency in the city is only temporary, this critique is aimed specifically at Christians whose investments suggest a permanent stay, i.e., acquiring "lands, expensive furnishings, buildings, and worthless living quarters" (Sim. 1.1). These are investments in a socioeconomic order to which Christians do not belong. Instead, Christians are to "purchase oppressed souls," (Sim. 1.8) and invest in a different economy. Dunning reads this text as having "a socially radical paraenetic agenda" (90) that uses the resident alien topos as an avenue for polemic and critique.

The Apocryphon of James (Chapter 5) provides a contrast to the texts analyzed in the foregoing chapters. In articulating a particular soteriology, the Apocryphon invokes the figure of the outcast and exile in terms of its negative associations rather than to valorize alterity. In the passage Dunning focuses on (Ap. Jas. 11.6-34), Jesus reprimands the disciples James and Peter for not understanding true salvation and tells them, "Liken yourselves to strangers," adding that they alone are to blame for being outcasts from their city. Dunning interprets this as a rejection of a positive use of the resident alien topos. Whether the author of the Apocryphon was aware of early Christian texts that figured the self as other and is specifically refuting them is a question Dunning wisely leaves unanswered. At any rate, the Apocryphon portrays "strangers" negatively to indicate that those who are outsiders are so through their own doing: they should have "acquired grace for themselves" and become insiders but have unnecessarily taken on the status of aliens and strangers.

In his Conclusion, Dunning considers what his volume contributes both historiographically and theologically. In terms of the study of early Christian history, Dunning does not venture to claim any definite answers to what the sociohistorical reality of early Christians may have been. However, through the reading of texts for their rhetorical strategies and emphases, Dunning does claim that scholars can understand the way Christians imagined and created their identity through diverse uses of the resident alien topos.

On the theological front, Dunning voices concern over the potential dangers of using the rhetorical trope of self as other, a trope that is still in use in contemporary Christianity. One possible danger is the silencing of criticism or questioning of a community that claims marginal status, since all such criticism can simply be viewed as justification for the group's self-identification as marginalized. Another possible pitfall lies in the move to view oneself as the other, potentially displacing others who are marginalized and in need of help and care.

Overall, Dunning provides convincing interpretations and judiciously draws upon sociohistorical data with valuable insights. Occasionally Dunning seems to overread the text. In his discussion of Hebrews, Dunning muses on the exhortations to the addressees to hold fast to their confession (κρατῶμεν τῆς ὁμολογίας (4:14 and similarly at 10:23)) and links this to Abraham and his descendents' confession that they are strangers and sojourners upon the earth (ὁμολογήσαντες ὅτι ξένοι καὶ παρεπίδημοί εἰσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (11:13)). Dunning argues that "the resonance [of Hebrews 11:13] with earlier uses of homologia in the text allows (and indeed encourages) readers to reimagine the contents of their confession . . . in light of their identity as strangers and sojourners on the earth" (52-3). But this is less than convincing considering that Dunning bases this only on the use of the common word ὁμολογέω.

Similarly, Dunning interprets the exhortation in the Shepherd of Hermas to "make no more arrangements for yourself than an adequate sufficiency" and to "purchase oppressed souls" (Sim. 1.6, 8) as more socially radical than perhaps is warranted. Dunning stops short of claiming that the text encourages radical asceticism, but his designation of the paraenetic as a call to "voluntary poverty" (89) seems to push the text too far.

These small points aside, Aliens and Sojourners presents a careful and methodologically nuanced analysis of the formation of Christian identity. Dunning's avoidance of pinning down the social reality of the audiences of the texts takes the conversation regarding the "alien" and "sojourner" figure of early Christianity beyond the interpretations of Elliott and Feldmeier. His focus on rhetorical possibilities, which allows for diversity and stays away from universalizing interpretations, makes a valuable contribution to the growing body of work on early Christian self-definition.3


1.   John Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).
2.   Reinhard Feldmeier, Die Christen als Fremde: Die Metaphor der Fremde in der antiken Welt, im Urchristentum und im 1. Petrusbrief (Tübingen: Mohr, 1992).
3.   For example, see Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

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