Reflections from the Diversity of Early Christianity course, part 1: Invested sources

Without providing a lot of context, I thought I’d share here on the blog some of my reflections and comments to students in my Diversity of Early Christianity course (fourth year) as I go along.  This may perhaps resuscitate the blog in some limited way (do people even read blogs anymore?).  I may even reflect on the process of teaching remotely by zoom once in a while.

Here is the first installment that I posted in our course forum:

One of the things that stood out to me from our discussion and from student observations this past week is that the ancient sources we look at are written from very specific perspectives of particular people in particular places, people who are highly invested in the claims they make. For this reason, we as historians need to be careful not to identify with particular positions that we are studying. Instead we want to understand the various positions rather than taking sides and we need to pay attention to those being excluded in the rhetoric of ancient authors. And so a person like Eusebius (in the fourth century) or Hegesippus (in the second century) will freely characterize other followers of Jesus as “demonic” or as inspired by Satan while firmly asserting that they hold the true position, namely that they are the orthodox (people holding correct belief and, implied, practice) and others are the “heretics” (wrong-choosers). This itself is the process of formulating orthodoxy (us) and defining heresy (people who claim to be “us” or insiders but who are really “them” or outsiders). This process is the process whereby diversity is made to appear as unity by exclusion. There is a sense in which this (the “us” and “them” dynamics of self-identification) is really a more widely witnessed sociological phenomenon. I think it was Simon (our Simon, not the “heretic”) that compared some the identity dynamics with politics in the US.

Overall, I hope you all got the three different historiographical ways of looking at Christian origins, with the first claiming that orthodoxy or a movement united around “truth” was there first and that heresies (or diversity) came later (Acts, Eusebius); the second that there was a Peter (Jew) vs. Paul (Hellenistic Jew) battle from the outset (F.C. Baur); and the third that there was diversity from the get go and the process of formulating “orthodoxy” was a gradual process of exclusion (Walter Bauer, with an e).

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