Category Archives: Christian origins and literature

Podcast 2.1: Introduction to Early Christian Portraits of Jesus

Here I discuss some introductory issues regarding the gospels, including their status as ancient biographies or portraits of Jesus and the literary relationships among the synoptic gospels (approx. 45 minutes). This sets the stage for an historical and literary study of portraits of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, as well as the book of Hebrews. This episode is part of series two (“Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”) of the podcast.

Podcast 2.1: Introduction to Early Christian Portraits of Jesus (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Sex and salvation in the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip has more to do with sex than you might imagine. This is one of the writings that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a third century work that is among those traditionally considered “gnostic”.

Sure, there’s the fact that this writing is cited in conspiracy theories regarding the supposed sex life of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code‘s use of the Gospel of Philip illustrates this approach. The (incomplete) passage that is used in the book and movie is the one that refers to Jesus, a companion, and Mary Magdalene, and then goes on to refer to some kisses and the jealously of other disciples because Jesus apparently loved Mary most (but the “translation” in the movie–unlike the one here–fills in the blanks):

And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene. [. . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [the disciples . . .]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?. . . When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness (Gospel of Philip 63.30-64.9).

The passage is, in fact, less than clear on any claim that Jesus was the companion, in the sense of sexual partner or lover, of Mary Magadelene. (I’ll also add that none of the second or third century Gospels tell us much at all about the first century peasant Jesus; rather they tell us about how later Christians understood Jesus centuries later). Instead, this is one further instance of what we find in other early Christian writings, namely, the claim that Jesus favoured a particular disciple (a disciple who “saw the light”, in this case) and may have offered that special disciple some secret or important information. The point is that a particular community that uses that gospel is claiming some direct and special access to Jesus’ teaching, and claiming that they have the truth more than some other group (compare the Gospel of Mary Magadalene, The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,or the Gospel of John, with its “beloved disciple”– I won’t go into any other inventive theories around the beloved disciple, or the scantily clad guy in the Gospel of Mark, Secret, Elongated, or otherwise).

Not to steal Hollywood’s excitement, but the kisses in question in the Gospel of Philip are best understood not as sexual ones but as further examples of the “holy kiss” greeting among members of Jesus groups as early as the mid-first century (see Rom 16:16, for instance). The followers of Jesus who used the Gospel of Philip also apparently attached an even more important significance to this kiss (59.1-5 and 58.30-59.6) and to breath (63.6-10; 70.23-24) in connection with their understanding of how the spiritual spark in some human souls is connected with the spiritual realm as a whole . It is true, however, that some outsiders–both Greeks and Romans– accused early followers of Jesus of incest (as well as cannibalism), but that had less to do with any knowledge of Christian “holy kisses” or their tendency to call one another “brothers” or “sisters” than it had to do with common mud-slinging in characterizing foreign peoples or minority groups as dangerous barbarians (see my posts here and my article here).

Nonetheless, there is some sex, quite a bit in fact, in the Gospel of Philip. I’m talking about the consistent way in which the author of the materials gathered in this writing uses sexual union as a METAPHOR for salvation itself. And the way in which the community of Christians that used this gospel enacted this salvation in a ritual known as the “bridal chamber”. So this is not sex of the usual type and is a little more tame than Hollywood likes–sorry to disappoint.

This writing expresses the poor condition of humanity, our present fallen state, using the metaphor or analogy of the separation of the genders and speaks of salvation in terms of the reuniting of the male and female: “When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (68.22-25). Further on it explains this “separation” again and refers to the reparation that the saviour figure, Christ, brings: “If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them” (70.9-18).

The Gospel of Philip presupposes a particular mythological and cosmological worldview that I have discussed in many other posts on “gnosticism” and related literature (browse some posts in my “gnosticism” and apocrypha category to understand this a bit better). Here Christ is the Saviour figure who brings salvation not by dying on a cross but by bringing the knowledge (gnosis), knowledge of the fact that an element within humans (certain spiritual humans) ultimately belongs in the perfect spiritual realm, not this inferior material realm framed by the creator god (the demiurge) of the Hebrew Bible.

So, for this follower of Jesus, salvation is about reunification. But how is this reunification understood and completed. Well, there is a specific ritual or process of initiation that this group felt was a way of enacting the process of gaining knowledge that brings reunification with the perfect spiritual realm: the bridal chamber, which was preceded by baptism and anointing (“chrism”). So once again, sexual union is the prominent metaphor for salvation, in this case within the ritual context. To be clear, it is not a real man and woman that unite in the ritual context of the “bridal chamber”. Rather, it is “the image” (here conceived as “male”) that unites with “the angel” (65.20-24). It is the image within man that unites with its female angelic counterpart in the bridal chamber. It is the spiritual element within certain people that reunites with its spiritual consort, thereby returning to where it belongs, namely ascending above to the perfect spiritual realm or “fullness” that is one and the same with the Father God (not the creator of this material realm).

So despite the sort of thing you’ll read in church fathers like Epiphanius (see here), the followers of Jesus that used the Gospel of Philip did not engage in actual sex for this ritual; instead it is a metaphorical way of expressing and enacting salvation. But did such Jesus-followers have sex at all? There’s a scholarly debate on precisely this matter. April DeConick is among those scholars who suggest that the Gospel of Philip reflects Christians with a relatively positive view of marriage and sexual union within marriage (article title to come soon). Scholars like this point to the positive use of the analogy of sexual union in the discussion of the bridal chamber ritual, when the author speaks of “marriage in the world” to explain the other “spiritual” marriage of the chamber (82).

Other scholars would suggest that this author of the Gospel of Philip, like many other Nag Hammadi authors, had a less positive or quite negative view of bodily matters and would suggest that “it is proper to destroy the flesh” (82.25-29), including sexual activity even within marriage. In other words, the followers of Jesus who used this Gospel filled with sex (in the metaphorical sense) may well have been sexually ascetic and refrained from the real thing in any context, (real) bridal chamber or otherwise.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 2

This concludes the discussion of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in relation to the Pastoral epistles, addressing the ways in which Paul was used within debates about women’s leadership in second century groups of Jesus-followers. This is the final episode in series 1 (“Paul and his Communities”). Series 2 (beginning in March) will take an historical and literary look at “Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”, including the gospels.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here). approx 32 minutes

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Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 1

Here I look at legacies and interpretations of Paul after his death. In particular, I use several letters written in the name of Paul (the Pastoral epistles) and a novelistic story about Paul and a woman named Thecla (Acts of Paul and Thecla) as a window into debates about leadership of women in groups of Jesus-followers in the second century. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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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 online here). 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 (see some of the passages quoted here).

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.

UPDATE (moments later):

As if the result of some alignment of the planets, Stephen Carlson has just posted on an interesting (though certainly questionable) theory regarding the synoptic problem that involves a Marcionite gospel: Klinghardt’s New Solution for the Synoptic Problem.

Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans

This episode considers Paul’s response to the ethnic divisions that existed among groups of Jesus-followers at Rome. Here I discuss Paul’s main arguments regarding the equally condemnable and equally save-able status of both Greeks (or Gentiles) and Judeans, as well as Paul’s view that “all Israel will be saved”. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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The Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel

I joked to my students the other day that, of the portraits of Jesus in the gospels (on which also see my earlier post on “Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus), Mark’s would be the closest to a Bourne flick in terms of action and suspense.

True, the action in Mark may not be as intense as a car-chase through the streets of Moscow, but there is certainly some speed in the narrative. Jesus does just about everything “immediately” and the reader is brought from one episode to the next at almost lightning speed. In chapter one alone, Jesus appears, is baptized, goes out to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, collects together some students, teaches in the synagogue, has run-ins with authorities, casts out a couple of very vocal unclean spirits, heals both a woman and a leper as well has “many who were sick with various diseases” or possessed by demons. Hearing this gospel, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering what Jesus is going to do next.

Beyond the action, suspense is also built into Mark’s story of Jesus. Sometimes the author slows things down quite deliberately in order to build suspense of another kind, as in the section that deals with Jesus’ authority as healer. So, for example, Mark’s story-telling abilities come to the fore when he gets us quite worried about a poor girl on the verge of death: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.'” (Mark 5:22-23 [NRSV]).

With Mark’s record for having Jesus do just about everything in a flash, this time things go very slow despite the fact that a little girl is about to die. The narrator or story-teller is quite deliberately building suspense here, as many scholars note. Instead of flashing ahead to Jesus healing the girl in the nick of time, Mark goes on to relate Jesus’ healing of another woman with internal bleeding, and the author of Mark doesn’t do this quickly. The hearer of this story is left wondering: “What happened to the poor little girl! She’s going to die! Hurry up!!”

Then, after this story of the healing of the older woman, the hearer’s worries are confirmed. The little girl is indeed dead. Jesus is too late: “While [Jesus] was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (v. 35). This is when the panic of the hearer is alleviated as the story of Jesus going to the girl and raising her from the dead is narrated: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement” (vv. 41-42) — as are the hearers of this story. At last, things are happening “immediately” again.

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.

Podcast 1.9: Paul and the situation at Rome

This episode looks at the situation at Rome in the mid-first century that led Paul to write the letter to the Romans, now in the New Testament. I delve into the purposes in Paul writing and his focus on what he sees as ethnic divisions between Greeks and Judeans in the groups of Jesus-followers. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.8: Paul and the situation at Rome (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.8: Paul’s response to the Galatians

This second episode on Paul’s letter to the Galatians looks at Paul’s response to the situation involving opponents that were advocating circumcision. I discuss a plausible apocalyptic rationale for Paul’s notion that circumcision was not an entrance requirement for Gentiles to belong to the Jesus groups. In the process, I also begin to deal with Paul’s complicated positions regarding the Torah (the law) and its relation to non-Judeans (approx. 35 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.8: Paul’s response to the Galatians (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia

This episode looks at the situation in Galatia that led Paul to write his letter in the mid-first century. Here I explore the rationale of Paul’s opponents who advocated circumcision among Gentiles (non-Judeans) as a symbol of belonging to God’s people and an entrance requirement into this Jewish movement that considered Jesus the Messiah (approx. 25 minutes).  This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson

A new book in honour of Stephen G. Wilson (perhaps best known for his Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170 CE) was released at the Society of Biblical Literature this year in San Diego:

Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland, eds., Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others. Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007 (312 pp.).
ISBN-10: 1906055173; ISBN-13: 978-1906055172

I have gained permission from the publisher to reproduce my article here, partly as inspiration for you (or your institution’s library through your prodding) to purchase the book itself:

Philip A. Harland, “‘These people are . . . Men Eaters’: Banquets of the Anti-Associations and Perceptions of Minority Cultural Groups.”

Buy the book at Amazon.com or directly from Sheffield Phoenix.

The volume contains some intriguing articles by names you may recognize:

  • Zeba A. Crook , Introduction
  • Peter Richardson, Stephen G. Wilson 35 Years On
  • Kimberly B. Stratton, Curse Rhetoric and the Violence of Identity in Early Judaism and Christianity
  • Adele Reinhartz, Who Cares about Caiaphas?
  • Willi Braun, ‘Our Religion Compels Us to Make a Distinction’: Prolegomena on Meals and Social Formation
  • Philip A. Harland, ‘These people are . . . Men Eaters’: Banquets of the Anti-Associations and Perceptions of Minority Cultural Groups
  • Richard S. Ascough, ‘A Place to Stand, a Place to Grow’: Architectural and Epigraphic Evidence for Expansion in Greco-Roman Associations
  • John M.G. Barclay, Constructing Judean Identity after 70 CE: A Study of Josephus’ Against Apion
  • John S. Kloppenborg, Judaeans or Judaean Christians in James?
  • Laurence Broadhurst, ‘Where my interests and ignorance coincide’: Early Christian Music and other Musics
  • L. W. Hurtado , The ‘Meta-Data’ of Earliest Christian Manuscripts
  • Edith M. Humphrey, On Visions, Arguments, and Naming: The Rhetoric of Specificity and Mystery in the Apocalypse
  • Michele Murray, Christian Identity in the Apostolic Constitutions: Some Observations
  • Roger Beck, Identifying and Interacting with the ‘Others’: The Late Antique ‘Horoscope of Islam’
  • Alan F. Segal, The History Boy: The Importance of Perspective in the Study of Early Judaism and Christianity
  • Robert Morgan, S.G. Wilson On Religion and its Theological Despisers
  • William Arnal, A Parting of the Ways? Scholarly Identities and a Peculiar Species of Ancient Mediterranean Religion

Those present at the celebratory release had a great time and Steve was indeed surprised, as we had hoped. Many (including myself) reminisced about how Steve had welcomed them at Canadian and international conferences and had influenced their own careers or research.

Buy at Amazon

The anti-imperial Paul “coalition” — John Barclay’s response to N.T. Wright

I was just listening to John Barclay’s excellent talk from this year’s SBL that has been posted (as an mp3) by Andy Rowell. Now I’m wishing I had been at the talk itself. Not without humour, Barclay discusses what he calls the anti-imperial Paul “coalition” (including N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley and his group). In recent years, it has become very popular within scholarship to approach Paul as clearly anti-imperial and to see this figure as having clear intentions (however hidden in code) of taking stabs at the emperors (whether as rulers or as gods) throughout his letters. It seems to me that Barclay has, in this talk, clearly pinpointed the major fault-lines in the coalition’s approach to Paul and the methodological problems in imagining we can decode some hidden code in Paul’s letters. So do listen to that talk!

I would like to clearly position myself in these “battles” within scholarship over Paul and politics. As for my views on this matter, which clearly intersect with Barclay’s, I will quote an earlier post of mine that I wrote following on the SBL in Vienna in the summer:

[Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”] inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)

Much of my book on Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations was likewise focussed on deconstructing previous approaches to the study of imperial aspects of Greco-Roman society. In particular, I argued against the tendency to over-emphasize imperial cults and to interpret all of early Christianity through the lenses of the anti-imperial Apocalypse of John: “Although imperial cults [worship of the emperors] were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians” (p. 242). Quite often scholars project John the seer’s counter-imperialism onto other authors such as Paul, as though all early Christians agreed on such matters. Things were far more diverse, as I argued in that book.

The anti-imperial Paul coalition’s position on Paul is based, in part, on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of imperial cults. Here is an excerpt from my book on how imperial cults have been misused in scholarship on early Christianity (pp. 241-243), some of which clearly pertain to views espoused by Richard Horsley, N.T. Wright and others:

Scholars tend to overplay the significance of imperial cults–distinguished from religious life generally–in connection with diaspora Judaism and, even more so, early Christianity. . . . [There is a] common emphasis on the centrality of imperial cults per se for our understanding of Christian assemblies’ relations to society, particularly with regard to persecutions. Thus we find frequent references within scholarship to the antagonism or “clash” between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar, the latter being singled out from religious life generally (cf. Deissmann 1995 [1908]:338-78; Cuss 1974:35). Donald L. Jones (1980:1023), for instance, can begin his paper on Christianity and the imperial cult with the statement that: “From the perspective of early Christianity, the worst abuse in the Roman Empire was the imperial cult.” . . . An important basis of this view is the assumption that we can take the hostile viewpoints and futuristic scenarios of John’s Apocalypse as representative of the real situations and perspectives of most Christians, or even as a reliable commentary on the nature of imperial cults.

Along with such views comes a common, but highly questionable, depiction of imperial cults. One often reads of how emperor worship (particularly though not solely under emperors like Domitian) was “enforced” by Roman authorities or that there was considerable “pressure” or “demands” on Christians in their daily lives to conform to the obligational practices of imperial cults specifically (cf. Cuss 1974; Schüssler Fiorenza 1985:192-99; Hemer 1986:7-12; Winter 1994:124-43; Kraybill 1996; Slater 1998; Beale 1999:5-15, 712-14). Moreover, in this perspective, Rome took an active role in promoting such cults in the provinces and neglecting to participate could be taken as the equivalent of political disloyalty or treason, especially since imperial cults were merely political. Imperial cults stood out as a central factor leading to the persecution of Christians both by the inhabitants in the cities and by the imperial regime itself, especially in the time of Domitian when Christians were faced with death if they did not participate in such cults and acknowledge him as “lord and god.” . . .

This traditional view regarding the significance of imperial cults for Judaism and Christianity falters on several inter-related points concerning the actual character of these cults in Asia Minor. Although imperial cults were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians (cf. de Ste. Croix 1963:10; Millar 1973; Price 1984:15, 220-22). First of all, . . . cultic honors for the emperors were not an imposed feature of cultural life in Roman Asia. Rather, they were a natural outgrowth and spontaneous response on the part of civic communities and inhabitants in relation to imperial power. . . Most emperors and officials were not concerned whether the living emperor was worshiped so long as they were shown respect and honor (in whatever form) indicative of a situation in which order and peace could be maintained in the provinces. In fact, quite often these religious honors exceeded what the emperors themselves would expect or desire, at least in the case of emperors who wanted to keep in line with some Republican and Augustan traditions (cf. Suetonius, Divine Augustus 52).

Secondly, in contrast to a popular tradition within scholarship, . . . imperial cults in Roman Asia were not in fact solely political phenomena devoid of religious dimensions. If imperial cults were indeed merely political then we could understand the Christians’ non-participation as the equivalent of disloyalty or treason, in which case this would be a central cause of the persecution of Christians. However, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Fergus Millar, and others show the inadequacies of such political explanations of the persecutions, which had more to do with broader though interconnected religious and social issues. That is, persecution was often linked to the failure of Christians to fully participate in religious activities (especially sacrifice) in honor of the Greco-Roman gods generally.

Thirdly, far from being totally distinct phenomena in the eyes of most inhabitants in Asia, imperial cults were thoroughly integrated within religious life at various levels of civic and provincial society. . . [G]roups and communities reflecting various social strata integrated the emperors and imperial power within their cultural framework. The forms of honors or rituals addressed to “the revered gods” (emperors and imperial family) were not fundamentally different from those offered to traditional deities. This integration is a key to understanding the actual significance of the imperial cults for both Judaism and Christianity.

The imperial cults and the gods they honored were an issue for group-society relations only insofar as they were part and parcel of religious life in the cities. Failure to fully participate in appropriately honoring the gods (imperial deities included) in cultic contexts was one of the sources of negative attitudes towards both Jews and Christians among some civic inhabitants. Jewish and Christian “atheism” could then be perceived by some as lack of concern for others (“misanthropy”) and, potentially, as a cause of those natural disasters and other circumstances by which the gods punished individuals, groups, and communities that failed to give them their due (cf. Tertullian, Apology 40.1-5). This is why we find inhabitants of western Asia Minor, on one occasion, protesting that “if the Jews were to be their fellows, they should worship the Ionians’ gods” (Josephus, Antiquities 12.126; c. 16-13 BCE; cf. Against Apion 2.65-67; Apollonios Molon of Rhodes in Stern 1976:1.148-56). This issue which is broader than, though inclusive of, imperial cults is also a key to understanding sporadic outbreaks of persecution against Christians in Asia Minor.

It is time for scholars, particularly those of the “coalition”, to take more care in their study of Paul within the broader context of the Roman empire. It is time to stop reading into Paul (and other ancient authors) what we wish he had thought and said. Or, to quote Barclay’s appropriate critique of the “coalition”: “once you start looking for code in Paul, you can end up just about anywhere you want.” Paul said very little about imperial cults or the empire and its emperors, so let’s face that and move on to studying what he and other Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and others did say, think, or do.

Podcast 1.6: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 3

This episode concludes the discussion of followers of Jesus at Corinth with a focus on Paul’s response to the situation (in 1 Corinthians). Here we see Paul’s education in Greco-Roman methods of rhetoric or argumentation. Paul’s arguments for unity and against divisions provide a clear example of deliberative rhetoric, comparable to political speeches by the likes of Dio Chrysostom. The use of the body metaphor in chapter 12 further confirms Paul’s employment of civic discourse (approx. 20 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.6: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 3 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

The Gospel of Judas has been quite controversial, primarily in connection with the question of how Judas Iscariot is portrayed in the document. (Scholars did not see this as reflecting the actual historical Judas back in the first century, I should clarify, simply second or third century understandings of the figure). The original work of transcription and translation of this “gnostic” work by a National Geographic team resulted in an inverted picture of Judas. According to the translators and according to interpreters such as Bart Ehrman, Judas was the hero of this writing and was seen as the ultimate student of Christ in his role in having Jesus killed, thus freeing Christ’s spirit from the prison of Jesus’ body (see my earlier post on Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, now apparently very wrong on the overall portrait of Judas, which was based solely on my reading and trust in that translation, the only one available at that time).

Quite clearly, this picture of a heroic Judas was quite different from traditional understandings of Judas as betrayer doing the work of Satan. I had since expressed my doubts about the National Geographic picture and my own first post upon hearing about Louis Painchaud’s (a Nag Hammadi expert) major doubts. Painchaud saw major problems in the National Geographic transcription of the Coptic and in their translation: Judas Iscariot may be evil after all.

I just finished reading April DeConick’s new book on the Gospel of Judas which I picked up at the SBL meeting (you may also want to visit her Forbidden Gospels blog):

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007). Buy at Amazon

The book’s main contribution is in pointing to the problems in the National Geographic (NG) work on the manuscript in terms of errors in transcription of the Coptic and errors in the translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. She presents her own translation. Here DeConick is clear and convincing. She points to a number of major problems which change entirely interpretations of this document.

Some of the main, major changes that DeConick presents (pp. 45-61) are as follows:

  • The Coptic term daimon (borrowed from the Greek) should not be translated “spirit” as in NG but rather “demon”. Judas is called a “demon”.
  • The NG translation “For you (Jesus) have set me (Judas) apart for that generation (the generation that will see salvation)” should read quite the opposite: “you have separated me from that generation”. Judas is condemned by Jesus, not saved in this document.
  • Jesus does not, as in NG, say that others “will curse your (Judas) ascent to the holy [generation]”. Rather it says the opposite: “you will not ascend to the holy [generation]”.
  • Jesus does not simply say that Judas “will exceed” all of the other disciples, but rather that Judas “will do worse than all of them” (exceed them in doing evil).

These are major errors, indeed, on the part of the National Geographic Society’s work. DeConick’s careful presentation of how these errors were introduced and how the Coptic should actually be read are convincing.

April DeConick’s book then argues that the Gospel of Judas presents a demonic Judas, perhaps even harsher than portraits in the canonical gospels, who is seen as the ultimate, terrible representative of the disciples. For the author of the Gospel of Judas, the disciples, with Judas at their head, are the equivalent of the types of Christians that the “gnostic” author has most problems with and he even charges them with the equivalent of murdering children (see my post on The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”). The overall effect, as DeConick argues, is that the Gospel of Judas is a parody aimed at critiquing what DeConick calls “apostolic Christianity” (the equivalent of what some others label “the proto-orthodox”).

DeConick’s introductory chapters and her chapters assessing the content of this gospel are well-written and useful as an introduction not only to the Gospel of Judas but also to “gnostic” thought and its place within a variety of forms of Christianity in the early centuries. So the book would serve well within a course on the variety of early Christianity.

However, there are two terminological choices that I find problematic, one minor but notable and the other quite significant. Since these chapters are clearly aimed at beginners and carefully presenting ideas in an non-anachronistic way on the whole, it is strange that DeConick speaks of “Lucifer” (e.g. pp. 31ff) when explaining notions of personified evil and “gnostic” notions of the world-creator as the evil one. The term “Lucifer” came to be applied to a fallen angel or to “Satan” only after the fifth century Latin translation of the passage in Isaiah 14:12 and after a conflation of this passage about a Babylonian king with developing notions of personified evil figures. The way that DeConick speaks of this seems as though she is unaware of this, though it is perhaps simply an anachronistic slip.

The second, more significant terminological problem is DeConick’s use of the phrase “apostolic Christians” throughout her book as a convenient catch-all category. Like the problems with Ehrman’s “proto-orthodox” category, such categories might serve to confuse rather than clarify the variegated nature of early Christianity when teaching students. There is some anachronistic thinking involved in the use of such categories. First we might (should) be telling students that orthodoxy and apostolic Christianity did not exist as some clearly defined monoliths in earliest Christianity, and that the formation of “orthodoxy” was a long and complicated process involving the exclusion of certain forms of Christianity (I think that both Ehrman and DeConick would agree with this). But then some scholars nonetheless continue to use terms that presume the future arrival of orthodoxy, as though it had precursors in a specific group that can be identified and that various Christians can be categorized together. Who is to decide which specific Christians are to be fit into either the category of “apostolic Christianity” or “proto-orthodoxy” and would such figures agree to being grouped together in this way?

These are some more general theoretical problems that I have with a work that is in other respects a fine new translation and a very useful introduction for students.

Podcast 1.5: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 2

This fifth episode continues discussion of the situation at Corinth as reflected in chapters 6-15 of 1 Corinthians, dealing with problems that arose due to the socially superior position of some Corinthian Christians and the spiritually superior claims of others. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast. (approx. 32 minutes).

Podcast 1.5: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists . . . (NT 3.2)

in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is.

Followers of Jesus, like others devoted to the God of the Judeans, were among the most odd inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world when it comes to their attitudes towards the gods of others. Virtually everyone agreed that there were many gods, and that each home, association, city, ethnic group, or empire might have its own favourite deities without denying others. Few beyond those who honoured the Judean God were concerned with denying the legitimacy of other gods or with questioning other peoples’ practice of honouring their own gods, even if they looked down upon people from another ethnic group or place.

Monotheism was not the norm in antiquity. It was an anomaly. As a result, some Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and others had difficulty making sense of the Judean focus on one god, which seemed to them the equivalent of denying the gods altogether, of “atheism”.

Despite other ways in which they made a home in the Greco-Roman world, this is where the early followers of Jesus were at odds with surrounding culture, and it could be a source of harassment, abuse or even violence. In times of trouble or catastrophe, fingers began to point at those who failed to honour the gods properly, at the “atheists”. The gods were punishing people through natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, because the gods were not being honoured fittingly and atheists like the followers of Jesus were being blamed.

This is why, in part, the emperor Nero could choose the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that took place in Rome in 64 CE (see these sources and translations see Early Christians through Greco-Roman eyes). The Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 109 CE) relates how rumours were spreading that Nero had intentionally started a fire in an area of town where he had hoped to rebuild and renovate (Tacitus does not like Nero, by the way). To distract away from these rumours, which Tacitus implies were true, Nero was looking for someone to blame and he chose “a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Tacitus relates how these “superstitious” Christians were tortured and killed in a disturbing display, a display that was so over the top that it went well beyond any “hatred” that the populace had, or upper class disdain Tacitus had, for these little known worshippers of the Judean God and followers of an obscure criminal executed under Pontius Pilate (as Tacitus would put it).

A similar dynamic relating to the Christians’ failure to honour the gods seems to be at work behind the accusations brought before the governor Pliny the Younger in a northern province of Asia Minor (c. 110 CE). This Roman governor, like other authorities, knows very little, if anything at all, about this obscure group devoted to one “Christ”. This even though Pliny had spent previous decades in important imperial positions in Rome itself. What he does know from locals who brought charges against the accused is that followers of Christ will not honour other gods, including the emperor as a god:

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your [emperor Trajan’s] image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do (Pliny, Epistle 10.96).

So the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ. So far, I’ve not mentioned any cases where Christians are explicitly called what is implied in the cases discussed so far, namely “atheists”. Actual martyrdoms of Christians were not very common, but when anger towards Christians reached the point of violence and death, other Christians were careful to remember the deceased who were considered martyrs, “witnesses”.

One such remembrance in the form of a story related in a letter from one Christian group to others is the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written in the decades following Polycarp’s death in the 160s CE). It is here that we find the explicit charge of atheism. The angry crowds shout out “away with the atheists!” in reference to the Christians. And, when Polycarp is brought before the Roman governor (proconsul) of Asia for final trial, Polycarp turns the accusation on his accusers (something more than “I know you are but what am I” is going on):

“Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant saying, ‘Have respect for your age,’ and other such thngs as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the Genius [guardian spirit] of Caesar; repent, say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!'” (Mart. Poly. 9.2; trans. by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer and revised by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992]).

Similar charges of “atheism” and “impiety” were brought against Christians in Lyons in France in the 170s CE (see H. Musiurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], 64-65). The perception of early Christians as atheists was not uncommon.

Podcast 1.4: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 1

This fourth episode begins to look at the followers of Jesus at Corinth through Paul’s letter known as 1 Corinthians in the New Testament. After discussing the city of Corinth, I go on to consider the history of Paul’s interactions with these Christians, which was characterized by rocky relations. Then we delve into the situation among the Corinthians that led Paul to write his letter, primarily the issue of social and spiritual divisions within the Jesus groups at Corinth (in 1 Corinthians, chapters 1-4). This is the first of three episodes on 1 Corinthians (approx. 25 minutes).

This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.4: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.3: Paul’s response to followers of Jesus at Thessalonica

This third episode looks at Paul’s response to followers of Jesus at Thessalonica, including his attempt to comfort these socially dislocated Christians, his use of familial language to build up their identity, and his use of praising (demonstrative) rhetoric. It also begins to consider Paul as an apocalyptic Judean (approx. 32 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.3: Paul’s response to Jesus-followers at Thessalonica (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians)

This second episode looks at the situation among followers of Jesus at Thessalonica in Macedonia in the mid-first century. Considering the ethnic and social makeup of the earliest Christians, this episode also discusses two main problems faced by these followers of Jesus: “afflictions” and the death of fellow-followers of Jesus. This prepares the way for episode three, which will look at how Paul responds to this situation in his letter, known as 1 Thessalonians in the New Testament (approx. 36 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.1: Paul in his own words

This inaugural episode in series 1 (Paul and his communities) uses incidental autobiographical references in Paul’s letters as an avenue into the study of Paul, his letters, and early Christian groups (approx. 27 minutes).

Podcast 1.1: Paul in his own words (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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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.

Contexts of early Christianity (NT 3.1)

One of the things that needs to be emphasized when approaching the study of early Christianity is the fact that the early Christians, and the writings they produced, were part of a real world (for my course outline and discussion notes for Christian origins go here). Writings such as those found in the New Testament were not floating up in heaven somewhere. Instead, they were written by real people in real places. As a result, they both reflected and were products of broader social and cultural contexts, both Greco-Roman (or Hellenistic) and Judean.

On the one hand, it is important to consider the complicated conglomeration of things we scholars simplify with labels such as “Hellenistic (Greek) world” or “Greco-Roman world”. There is far too much to cover under such terms, but among the issues are the ways in which Hellenistic (Greek) culture came to prominent position in the ancient Mediterranean, something that I have discussed in a post on Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2). You might also get a taste, but only a mere taste, of how complicated this world was by reading some of the posts in my category Greco-Roman Religions and Culture.

There is a sense in which dividing the Judean world from the Hellenistic world is itself a problem, since the two cultures were in interaction for more than three centuries before the emergence of the Jesus movement in Judea. A similar thing could be said of interaction with Roman (better: Greco-Roman) culture once the Romans were in charge of things (beginning in the second century BCE but climaxing with the imperial period, beginning about 31 BCE). The so-called Maccabean revolt of the 170s BCE, which I discuss in ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays, involved a sustained war arising from conflicts with certain actions by Hellenistic rulers and those Judeans who adopted certain aspects of Hellenistic culture. However, the relation between Judaism and Hellenism was by no means entirely hostile, and there were varying reactions by Judean individuals and groups to particular facets of Greek culture both within Israel and in the dispersion (cities across the Mediterranean). The fact that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (a translation known as the Septuagint = LXX) beginning in the third century BCE is indicative of the less antagonistic interactions that were going on in various places.

This discussion of varying Judean responses to Hellenistic culture segues well into the second main cultural sphere: Judean culture. To understand a movement that began within Judaism, such as the Jesus movement, one needs to consider Judean culture in its many forms in the first and following centuries. This is a tall order, since Judaism itself was marked by a variety which I have discussed in posts including Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). The Jesus movement was just one among many groups within second temple Judaism and it is important to consider how to plot out these followers of Jesus in relation to others. As we shall soon see in the case of Paul and the situation at Galatia, even early followers of Jesus could have different answers regarding the relation between the Jesus movement and certain aspects of Judean culture (circumcision among them).

There is a sense in which a course on the New Testament or early Christian literature is, through and through, a study of these two worlds and the interplay between them.  So we will continue to struggle with these issues for a while.

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. See his brief summary available online: “Who are those ‘Servants of Satan’“.

Soon we’ll be starting out with one of the most difficult letters of Paul, Galatians, in asking what forms of Christianity are reflected in the opponents Paul attacks. So a couple of earlier posts that I have done on Galatians may be of help and, thanks to the wonders of the blogging universe, I have included links in these posts to Mark Goodacre’s (Duke U.) excellent discussions of similar issues:

What crime did Ignatius of Antioch commit and who laid the charges?

Ignatius of Antioch was a controversial leader of the church in Antioch (around 100 CE) who ended up in handcuffs on his way to Rome for trial (his letters are available here). There is some mystery surrounding why he was arrested and who brought charges against him, however. He never tells us, but there are hints in his own letters to churches in Asia Minor that some of Ignatius’s problems stemmed from tensions not with outsiders but with fellow followers of Jesus at Antioch in Syria.

In his letter to the Christians at Philadelphia, for instance, he refers to reports of peace finally coming to the church at Antioch, thereby alluding to the conflict or schism that had been going on previously (Phld 10.2). This situation of conflict at Antioch has led some scholars (including myself) to suggest the possibility that it was fellow-Christians on the other side of the conflict who brought charges against Ignatius, resulting in his arrest (though they may not have intended his execution). Or, although less likely, it may be that turmoil within the Christian community led to intervention by local authorities and the arrest of Ignatius as one among the “trouble-causers”.

The reason I bring this up now is that, for other purposes (regarding Eusebius’ view of the unity of the earliest church against heresy), we were reading through a passage in Eusebius’ Church History (written in the 300’s CE). There I noticed an incident that provides an analogy for this possible explanation of Ignatius’ arrest: namely, that it was other Christians that took actions which resulted in the arrest of the leader with whom they disagreed. Eusebius cites Hegesippus regarding the reason for the arrest and martyrdom of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem in the early second century: “Certain of these heretics brought accusation against Symeon, the son of Clopas, on the ground that he was a descendant of David and a Christian; and thus he suffered martyrdom, at the age of one hundred and twenty years, while Trajan was emperor and Atticus governor” (Eccl. Hist. 3.32.3; surrounding passage here).

Remembering that “heretics” is a label for fellow Christians with whom another Christian has a disagreement, this incident may not be unlike what happened at Syria when Ignatius was arrested, despite his role as a leader (sole bishop, in his view) of the assembly of Jesus-followers there. It may be that other Christians who disagreed with his monarchical method of leadership were involved in some way.

“Diversity in Early Christianity” and “Founders of Christianity” course outlines now up

As September quickly approaches, I have now prepared and uploaded two course outlines for this year. One course is my second year introduction to early Christian literature, Founders of Christianity. The other is a fourth year seminar on Diversity in Early Christianity (I-II CE). In both cases, I am trying to integrate the internet more fully into the course (in the form of readings, previous blog posts, and other such things). Let me know what you think by posting a comment.

In the seminar, the first term focuses on mapping out the range of Christian groups in Asia Minor in the first century or so. The second term focuses on groups of the second century as reflected in the Apocrypha and gnostic literature, including Ebionites, Marcionites, and the various groups often called “gnostic”. Some of my blog postings this year will therefore hearken back to my earlier series on Christian Apocrypha and “gnosticism”. This Fall, my colleague Tony C-B here at York U. is teaching a specialized one-term course on the New Testament Apocrypha which approaches things in a more genre focused way.

Bible Geocoding — Google Earth meets Bible

Perhaps this is old news to some, but I was pleasantly surprized by a site that Daniel Bernard (from good ol’ Concordia U.) pointed out to me: Bible Geocoding: The location of every identifiable place mentioned in the Bible. As the name suggests, this site provides a look at virtually every biblical site mentioned in the Bible via Google Earth. You can browse the geographical landscape of the lands by biblical book as well. When I click on Revelation, here is what I get. Why not zoom in and see what “Jezebel” is doing in Thyatira.  There are also great views of well-excavated sites such as Pergamum and Ephesus.

International SBL in Vienna, part 2 — also Paul and anti-imperialism

Well, I’m back from Vienna now and adjusting to real life (real life isn’t too bad either). There were a couple of other papers I thought I’d mention here as a follow through to my other post on the SBL conference. (I’ll soon have other posts on the Ephesos museum at Vienna).

Universitat WienGerd Theissen’s paper on “The Historical Jesus and the Continuum between Judaism and Christianity” was quite interesting, even though the paper reflected (and did not necessarily defend) particular assumptions regarding what we can know about Jesus through the sources. Theissen argued for a somewhat high degree of continuity between Jesus and subsequent Christianity (including Paul). He did so by focussing on three main points:

1) Theissen pointed to evidence which he interpreted as Jesus’ universalizing tendencies, Jesus’ tendencies to include non-Judeans. These “liberal” (as Theissen calls them) ideas of Jesus are reflected in Jesus’ eschatological views (e.g. Mt 8:11-12), according to Theissen. In other words, Jesus opted for the inclusion, rather than annihilation, of the nations / gentiles (those from East and West, in Theissen’s interpretation) option within Judaism of the time. This reflects continuity with those Jews who likewise imagined the end-time inclusion of the Gentiles, as well as some continuity with Paul’s subsequent focus on including gentiles in God’s end-time community, according to Theissen.

2) Theissen then went on to outline the “radical” (rather than “liberal”) side of Jesus in terms of Jesus’ radicalized Jewish monotheism and restoration eschatology. Here there was an emphasis on Jesus in the context of millenarian movements in the first century. Theissen also proposed that Jesus focussed on love of neighbour and on humility, which radicalized ethics.

3) The combination of universalism and radicalism, which each had precedents in Judaism, were characteristic of the subsequent Jesus movements, in Theissen’s view. Here he brought in ideas from cognitive theory regarding intuitive and counter-intuitives to attempt an explanation of why Christianity was “successful” (here my memory fails me on the details).

This was my first time hearing Theissen speak, and so I enjoyed it despite my disagreements with this or that point and doubts about Theissen’s overall configuration of the materials.

I also managed to see Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”. Stanley provided a very clear outline of what has been done (including work on Paul and “hybridity”) and where he plans to head with his own research into analyzing Paul’s letters in terms of post-colonial theory.

Stanley’s talk inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)

New blog on “Current Epigraphy”

Inscriptions have played a key role in my own research and you may remember that a while ago I began a series of posts on Greek epigraphy (I really should do more posts now in that series).

Now there is a brand new blog that focuses on sharing news regarding inscriptions or epigraphy: Current Epigraphy (Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College, London). As the editors of that blog note, they are seeking to fill the sort of role that the blog What’s New in Papyrology does for that other area.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.