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Aliens and Sojourners

Self as Other in Early Christianity

By Benjamin H. Dunning

Publication Year: 2011

Early Christians spoke about themselves as resident aliens, strangers, and sojourners, asserting that otherness is a fundamental part of being Christian. But why did they do so and to what ends? How did Christians' claims to foreign status situate them with respect to each other and to the larger Roman world as the new movement grew and struggled to make sense of its own boundaries?

Aliens and Sojourners argues that the claim to alien status is not a transparent one. Instead, Benjamin Dunning contends, it shaped a rich, pervasive, variegated discourse of identity in early Christianity. Resident aliens and foreigners had long occupied a conflicted space of both repulsion and desire in ancient thinking. Dunning demonstrates how Christians and others in antiquity capitalized on this tension, refiguring the resident alien as being of a compelling doubleness, simultaneously marginal and potent. Early Christians, he argues, used this refiguration to render Christian identity legible, distinct, and even desirable among the vast range of social and religious identities and practices that proliferated in the ancient Mediterranean.

Through close readings of ancient Christian texts such as Hebrews, 1 Peter, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle to Diognetus, Dunning examines the markedly different ways that Christians used the language of their own marginality, articulating a range of options for what it means to be Christian in relation to the Roman social order. His conclusions have implications not only for the study of late antiquity but also for understanding the rhetorics of religious alienation more broadly, both in the ancient world and today.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion


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pp. v

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Introduction: Aliens, Christians, and the Rhetoric of Identity

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pp. 1-24

At the close of the first century C.E., the early Christian text 1 Clement (c.93–97) opens with a greeting from one group of Christian aliens to another: “The church of God residing as aliens (paroikousa) in Rome to the church of God residing as aliens (paroikousē) in Corinth.”1 ...

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1. Citizens and Aliens

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pp. 32-52

What kind of “other” was the resident alien within the various discursive fields of the early Roman Empire? What might a designation of “alien,” “sojourner,” or “foreigner” have meant to various audiences or readers in this context? In the second century C.E., Lucian of Samosata (or whoever the author of this epigraph may be)...

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2. Going to Jesus “Outside the Camp”: Alien Identity in Hebrews

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pp. 46-63

Early Christians talked about themselves as aliens and outsiders. Often it was with just a few words or phrases, as in 1 Peter or some of the other examples surveyed in the Introduction. But sometimes the trope was developed more extensively, becoming a major theme in exhortatory treatises and epistles. ...

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3. Outsiders by Virtue of Outdoing: The Epistle to Diognetus

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pp. 64-77

In the second century, the designation of the Christian as alien and sojourner remained a useful (and indeed prevalent) category for forging and negotiating identity. Scholarship on the topos has tended to treat second-century materials primarily in terms of their relationship to the earlier canonical sources (1 Peter, Hebrews).1 ...

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4. Foreign Countries and Alien Assets in the Shepherd of Hermas

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pp. 78-90

Given the flexibility of alien and foreign status as a trope, early Christians found further uses for it in addition to labeling themselves. As I have argued, the claim to alien status is a relational one, drawing a boundary that defines an outside in relation to an inside. In the traditional valorization of the alien topos...

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5. Strangers and Soteriology in the Apocryphon of James

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pp. 91-102

Not all early Christians thought that speaking about themselves as aliens was a good thing. While numerous texts of the first and second centuries were making exactly this move (as evidenced by our analysis thus far), this was not the only conceptual option available to Christians as they thought about their identity and what its legitimate relationship...

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pp. 103-117

In an important article, Rowan Greer characterizes early Christianity in terms of what he calls “the marvelous paradox of Christians as alien citizens.”1 That is, Christians are paradoxically “both involved in and disengaged from society.”2 Greer surveys the practical outworking of this paradox in both pre-Nicene writers...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 118-121


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pp. 122-160


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pp. 161-177


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pp. 179-184

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pp. 185-186

This book would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of numerous people and institutions. First and foremost, I wish to thank Karen L. King. Karen has been a rigorous but always encouraging mentor, and I cannot imagine this book without her. Her insights have influenced and improved the project from beginning to end. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201819
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241563

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion