Category Archives: Diversity course

Diversity, part 2: Judean diversity fits with plurality of Jesus groups

One heads-up to mention for the coming week and for the rest of the course is something some of you may or may not know: Namely all forms of Jesus adherence in the first centuries are in some sense Judean or Jewish. In other words, the Jesus movements emerge as marginal movements within Judean culture. Take a step further back and realize that Judean culture (or “Judaism” as it’s often labelled as though it is merely a religion) itself was extremely diverse in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There were numerous different groups with different approaches to using Judean scriptures and to living generally and there were many many arguments and struggles within that context. If Judean culture was extremely diverse with many competing groups and approaches, then it’s no surprise that marginal movements within it (the Jesus groups) would be too. Furthermore, the whole question of how a movement that was now including non-Judeans was to make sense of the Judean roots was not straight-forward.

The situation lying behind Paul’s letter to people in Galatia embodies that conundrum quite well. So keep a sharp eye out for Paul’s OPPONENTS and try to see what their position was on certain aspects of Judean culture and what Paul’s position was in the debate about including non-Judeans (“Gentiles” = Greeks and Romans) in a Judean movement (“Christianity” as it later gets labelled),

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).

Marcion’s Stranger God (also “strange”)

For students who are familiar with Christianity in some way (and most are regardless of what their religious backgrounds may be), it is hard to get their minds around a variety of people that called themselves “Christians” or followers of Jesus back in the first couple of centuries. These other Christians sometimes had quite different worldviews and practices than the ones we associate with Christianity today, and they can come across as “strange”.

One reason these other followers of Jesus come across as “strange” is because the varieties of Christianity we are familiar with today (despite the diversity there too) all stem, in some way, from the winners who established their positions as “orthodox” (true-belief) in antiquity. The result was that, in the long run, many others who felt they followed Jesus got left out the picture, with the exception of other Jesus-followers speaking negatively about them as “heretics”.

Once in a while, we are lucky to actually find writings from the perspectives of the ones who lost out (the “heretics”) as history moved forward, as when a group of writings like the Nag Hammadi documents are found. However, with most others it is only indirectly that we can get a sense of the diversity of groups that followed Jesus.

One such form of Christianity that comes across as “strange” at first is Marcion’s style of following Jesus (he was especially active in the 130s and 140s CE). We only know about Marcion’s views from those who disliked him, from certain patristic writers like Tertullian, who wrote a five-volume work condemning Marcion’s views (Against Marcion). I have already discussed the sort of name-calling you might expect from the likes of Tertullian in a previous post on the “savage” Marcion here. We have to carefully reconstruct the views of Marcion from writers of the late-second and third centuries like Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus.

In the 150s CE, for instance, Justin writes:

one Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even now alive, teaching those who believe him to pay honour to a different god, greater than the Creator: and this man has by the assistance of those demons caused many of every nation to utter blasphemies, denying the God who made this universe, and professing that another, a greater than he, has done greater things (Apology 1.26 as cited in Evans).

From such sources, it seems that Marcion believed that the God who sent Jesus was not the same god familiar from the stories of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Reading these stories quite literally, Marcion saw the creator god in the Hebrew Bible as rather impulsive, unpredictable, warlike, and primarily interested in having humans follow his rules or in judging those who did not. Marcion felt that Jesus’ message and behaviour was not compatible with the sort of behaviour Marcion found in the creator god.

This is where the stranger God comes into the picture, and I mean strange in the sense of previously unknown. Marcion proposed that Jesus had no direct relation to the Judean (Jewish or Israelite) creator god of the Hebrew Bible and that he was not that god’s messiah. Rather, Jesus was sent from a previously unknown, stranger God whose character was centred not on war and justice but on love. There is a sense in which the creator god of the Bible was the antithesis of the God who sent Jesus, in Marcion’s view.

Marcion wrote a whole book, which is now lost, on the Antitheses or “Oppositions” between the two. Marcion also expressed this opposition in terms of the opposition between Law (enforced by the creator god) and Gospel (brought by Jesus from the loving Father). He drew this contrast between gospel and law from his own interpretation of Paul’s letters, which he edited to remove connections with the Judean god. Marcion thought that Paul got things right and that the other apostles mis-interpreted Jesus. The loving Father sent Jesus to free us from the legalistic enforcement of the Judean god, Marcion believed. Although the Judean creator god was just in a legalistic sense (he punished humans based on the law he established), the Father God who sent Jesus was far superior and loving.

In order to further bolster this interpretation, Marcion also was among the first to gather together a collection of authoritative writings. The Hebrew Bible was quite clearly excluded from scripture in Marcion’s mind, since it had nothing to do with either Jesus or the previously unknown, loving God. Rather, Marcion proposed as authoritative ten of Paul’s letters together with a version of the gospel of Luke with parts removed that implied a connection between Jesus and the Judean god. Marcion, it seems was among the first to propose a canon of scripture of sorts.  On that, see my post: Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament.

That, in brief, is some of the limited amount we know about Marcion, whose brand of Christianity was considerably successful in various parts of the Roman empire from North Africa and Rome to Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, at least into the fourth and fifth centuries.

The “savage” Marcion: Ethnographic stereotypes in attacking “heretics”

On a number of occasions I have discussed ancient ethnography (posts here), namely the ways in which ancient authors describe the practices and beliefs of other peoples. These descriptions of “foreign” peoples are often heavily laden with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, nasty characterizations. As minority cultural groups, Judeans and followers of Jesus could be on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes of “barbarous” peoples, as when some Greeks or Romans charged Christians with incest and cannibalism (see a full article on the topic here). I have discussed Tertullian’s defence of Christians against such stereotypes, including the notion that followers of Jesus regularly sacrificed little children: ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort.

But this church father, Tertullian, could also dish it out quite well, even in dealing with others who claimed to follow Jesus. Around the turn of the third century, Tertullian wrote a five-volume work (Against Marcion) in which he put on trial, so to speak, the views and practices of Marcion, a follower of Jesus who had substantially different views from Tertullian’s. Tertullian opens this massive work with a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of the peoples of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and Pontus region — this is where Marcion came from. Here Tertullian characterizes these people as barbarians with extremely strange practices, including “deviant” sexual practices he dare not name (“If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”) and “savage” practices such as carving up their own fathers for a stew. These stereotypical accusations of barbarity are neither here nor there in terms of realities of life around the Black Sea or in terms of what Marcion was like, but it is interesting to see such name-calling techniques used in one Christian’s attack on another. Marcion, it turns out in Tertullian’s not so subtle characterizations of everyone from Pontus, is, no doubt, a savage, father-eating sexually-deviant barbarian. Don’t listen to Marcion’s form of Christianity is the message:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in [blogger’s note: “If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”]. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers’ corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972], pp. 4-5).

Oh yes, Tertullian doesn’t like philosophers either.

An early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ flesh: Opponents of John the elder (Diversity 1.2)

Although philosophical debates about the nature of Jesus Christ in terms of his humanity and / or divinity were clearly a hallmark of the fourth century (as evidenced in the church councils and creeds), it is true that how one viewed Jesus’ fleshliness was a divisive factor among some followers of Jesus in the late first century and into the second. In fact, one of the earliest cases of schism within a specific community of Jesus-followers seems to relate to this factor.

The author of the tractate and epistles associated with John the elder (1-3 John) provides us with evidence of this earliest of schisms (probably in the late first century). More specifically, this elder attests to the fact that a group of people had left what was previously a relatively united community of followers, likely somewhere in western Asia Minor (usually labeled the “Johannine community” by scholars due to the community’s shared traditions associated with the Gospel of John).

The divide that had since developed between John the elder and his supporters, on the one hand, and those that had left, on the other, was considerable, with very little sign of reconciliation. So much so that the elder associates them with “the world” in a strongly negative sense and he does not hesitate to label them “deceivers” and “antichrists” — strong language indeed. The central factor in the disagreement relates to what the elder considers a failure to acknowledge Jesus’ coming in the flesh:

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7-8 [RSV]).

“For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).

(For a discussion of the rhetorical use of “Satan”, “antichrist” and related labels, see my other post here.)

Elsewhere, the elder also claims that this had some implications regarding ethics or behaviour, regarding how these opponents were viewing “sin”, namely that “we have no sin” (1 John 1:5-10). It is hard to evaluate the truth in this accusation of false claims, if there is any, since the elder claims that he and his camp, in opposition to the “children of the devil”, know that “no one who abides in [Jesus] sins” (1 John 3:6). Both sides are claiming sinless status though disagreeing on the other’s precise understanding of that and of whether or not the other is “abiding” in Jesus.

Apparently the “flesh” factor also underlies the elder’s other accusations that the opponents supposedly deny “the Father and the Son” or deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). We need to take these generalizations with a grain of salt and interpret them in light of the “flesh” factor, since it is hard to imagine that these other followers of Jesus were indeed denying that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus was sent by the Father. Instead, the elder seems to equate any downplaying of Jesus’ humanity as the equivalent of denying Jesus, the Son, and the Father altogether.

As scholars such as Raymond Brown point out, it seems that the elder and his opponents, who had belonged to the same community and had the same favourite writings, were both interpreting the gospel of John’s rather high Christology (Jesus as the preexisting “Word” or Utterance of the Father) in two very different ways. Both might agree that Jesus was preexistent and that Jesus was made flesh in some manner, but each interpreted such things differently and put more emphasis on one factor (divine preexistence) than another (flesh).

It is difficult to know precisely how these opponents relate to the opponents attacked by Ignatius of Antioch just about a decade later, also in Asia Minor. These opponents are accused of saying that Jesus “suffered in appearance only” (Letter to the Trallians 10). The downplaying of Jesus’ fleshliness is once again a factor here in what scholars often label “docetism” (from the Greek word dokein = to seem or appear to be). We’ll come back to docetism and Ignatius in a later post.

For more on the opponents in 1-3 John, see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 93-144.

Viewing the diversity of early Christianity through opponents (Diversity 1.1)

The variety of early Christian groups and related questions regarding “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are the focus of a course I am offering this year (course outline here). The traditional view of “orthodoxy-first-and-heretical-deviations-later” which I’ve discussed in connection with Eusebius rests, in part, on lack of attention to followers of Jesus who were opposed by certain authors in the earliest period. Opponents in Paul’s letters (our earliest evidence starting about 50 CE) and other subsequent early Christian writings can provide an important window into opinions and practices that existed among Jesus followers from the beginning. I’ve chosen literature pertaining to the region of Asia Minor as a geographical focus for our attempt to plot out these opinions and practices, to map out the forms of Christianity in one area.

Yet there are serious (methodological) difficulties in getting back to the views and activities of such opponents. For one, the sources we have about them are quite hostile towards the worldviews and practices of such opponents, and ancient authors did not hesitate to engage in exaggeration, labeling, and name-calling. They expressed their opinions in a rhetorically-charged way, and it is likely that, if we had writings from the opponents, they may well have done the same. For an example of such counter-attacks, see my Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17).

The modern historian must remain above this, so to speak, and avoid uncritically taking the position of the ancient author who condemns some other individual or group. Instead, we want to do the best we can to sift rhetorically-charged material for particularly significant items. We want to evaluate what levels of probability there are that a given practice or view goes back to the opponents in question, placing such things within broader cultural contexts. While the ancient author was interested in dispelling the opponents’ position, we want to recover it, despite the difficulties involved in doing this.

Added to this are the dangers of “mirror-reading” by which I and other scholars mean the process of mentally holding up a mirror to the literature. Here one must be careful not to assume that every point rhetorically attacked by an author necessarily has a basis in the reality of some group’s activities. There is not always a direct correspondence between one author’s proscription (condemnation) of certain behaviours and views and the actual situation at a particular locale, and we should not assume that everything condemned was actually done. Jerry Sumney has spent a good degree of his time researching precisely the difficulties in evaluating opponents in literature.