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Developments in NT/Christian Origins

November 5, 2010

A couple of days ago, in a comment to my posting on “NT Studies in the 20th Century,”  Rich Griese asked for a list of “discoveries” in the study of Christian origins in recent times.  In my response to his comment, I noted that we think more in terms of “developments” in our approach and understanding, often based on effective challenges to prior assumptions, but sometimes also prompted by the discovery or appearance of new data (e.g., the Qumran material, or early NT papyri).   I could recommend readers to Stephen Neill and N. T. Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1986 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).  But Rich’s query intrigued me, so here’s my own ad hoc list of what I think are major developments in the study of NT/Christian origins over the last century or so.  (Developments take longer in this field than in the bench-sciences.)  These are developments in the historical study/approach to the NT and earliest Christianity, so other matters don’t appear (e.g., hermeneutical/theological issues).  I’d welcome other scholars (if they can take the time to read this blog) to comment and add their own proposals.  

  • The “de-throning” of the textus receptus and the turn to a critically-based NT text.  Westcott & Hort (1880s) were crucial (though they built much on the work of earlier scholars).  Today, all scholars agree that our editions of the NT must be based on sound critical principles and the best evidence subjected to critical analysis.
  • The discovery & publication of early NT papyri.  In particular, the Chester Beatty biblical papyri (which includes both NT & OT) in the 1930s had profound effects thereafter on scholarly notions about the early history of the NT writings.  The Bodmer biblical papyri (1950s-1960s) furthered this.  We now have copies of NT writings (often partial/fragmentary) that take us back to ca. 200 CE, and so allow us to peek back into the second century.  This evidence still needs to be mined further, but has already generated significant shifts in scholarly views (e.g., the demise of the “Caesarean text” of the Gospels, and theories of a 3rd or 4th century “recension” behind the “Alexandrian” text of the Gospels).
  • Methods in text-critical analysis.  These include more soundly-based quantitative methods (prompted particularly by E.C. Colwell in the 1960s) for establishing textual relationships of manuscripts.  Now, with the development of computer-applications, there are further developments, esp. the Muenster-based “Coherence Based Genealogical Method” for attempting to map the “textual flow” of the transmission of NT writings.
  • A greater sophistication in our handling of the Gospels:  In particular, the recognition that the Gospels incorporate (1) Jesus-tradition that stemmed from Jesus, then (2) passed through a few decades of circulation and adaptation in early churches, and also (3) the editorial and authorial work of the individual authors of the Gospels.  This development really captures scholarly work across several decades.
  • The growing recognition that the apostle Paul was firmly Jewish in formative background and remained so in his life as apostle to the Gentiles.  From Schweitzer, Machen, W.D. Davies, Munck, and then E.P. Sanders and others more recently, this has now become the general stance for Pauline scholarship (a shift from some early 20th-cent views of Paul as a “radical Hellenist”).  Controversies remain, but the debate is now conducted on this premise.
  • A more vivid sense of early Christian diversity.  It should have been clear all along from the NT texts and early church fathers, but for many it took the publication of various extra-canonical texts (e.g., the Nag Hammadi corpus) to realize this. 
  • A much more sopisticated understanding of the Jewish context of earliest Christianity.  The Qumran scrolls are crucial, of course, generating changes on many issues (see the new Oxford Handbook on the Dead Sea Scrolls).   But also key work by Liebermann, Bickerman and Hengel (in particular), built on by others subsequently, has crumbled earlier tight compartments of “Palestinian-Jewish” and “Hellenistic” used then to shape views of earliest Christianity. 
  • A more accurate sense of the social composition of earliest churches.  Correcting earlier notions of earliest Christianity as almost entirely comprised of slaves and peasants, it is now clear that, e.g., Paul’s churches were made up of a more diverse collection of people, and that the local leaders were more often small business people and others with some property, schooling, and experience in leadership.  Edwin Judge’s 1960 classic is probably the turning-point:  Edwin A. Judge, The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (London: Tyndale Press, 1960).  Also, of course, there is now a far greater sense of the important place of women in earliest churches.
  • The early eruption of Jesus-devotion.  To cite a more recent development (i.e., of the last 20 yrs), it has become clear that a remarkable devotion to Jesus emerged astonishingly early in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution, so early that in Paul’s letters it is already presumed as characteristic of Christian circles, both Jewish and Gentile.  (I immodestly note that I’ve had a hand in bringing this awareness more to the fore, but a growing number of scholars have made important contributions too.)
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25 Comments
  1. Dr. Hurtado: “Today, all scholars agree that our editions of the NT must be based on sound critical principles and the best evidence subjected to critical analysis.”

    Quite true, but it seems to miss the mark and imply something else, namely that all scholars agree on what those “sound critical principles” are.

    • (I’ve edited your comment down to convey your basic point.) I think that *scholars* (i.e., recognized contributors in the field of NT textual criticism) agree essentially on basic principles, as can be found laid out in any competent handbook on the subject (e.g., Metzger, K&B Aland, et alia): Most importantly, that editions of the NT must be based on critical procedures and judgements that attempt to take account of the transmission of the NT. There are differences in the weighting of these principles, and differences of judgement in the application of them.
      Scholars also differ over the history of transmission of the NT, especially the earliest period (2nd century is crucial). For ca. 30 yrs Eldon Epp has complained precisely that there is no agreed theory and early history of the NT text, and that this is crucial for serious further progress. Developing a sound and adequate theory/history of the earliest NT text will require much more work, and of a kind not really fully done heretofore.
      So, we go along with the products of our present situation, e.g., the Nestle-Aland text, and we gratefully use works such as the IGNTP volumes and the Editio Critica Maior project. These compile oodles of data that enable us to make judgements at variation-units, and in the main with some confidence and wide agreement.
      But, yes, this does involve judgement, which means that scholars will differ. It will *never* be reduced to some mathematical or machine-like process, so don’t wait for that or complain about it.
      And, yes, we do need to try to develop a more soundly based, and so more broadly persuasive history and theory of the earliest transmission period. But that will take people willing to devote themselves to it. I refer to this briefly in the paper I’m giving at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature later this month (Atlanta), in a session marking Epp’s 80th birthday.

  2. Graham Veale permalink

    Professor Hurtado

    1) Would it be fair to say that recognition of this evidence of widespread Jesus devotion in Paul’s letters comes at a time when scholars are abandoning the old caricature of a Paul who had no interest in (what we might anachronistically call) the Historical Jesus?

    2) Is any contemporary scholar seriously contending that Paul had no interest in Jesus of Nazareth, and was only interested in preaching a “Christ-myth”?

    Graham

    • Replies matched to your numbered ones: (1) No. The renewed interest in earliest Jesus-devotion comes more generally as a feature of renewed “history-of-religions” investigation of Christian origins, and more specifically (though it will seem immodest) from my own initiative and that of other colleagues. My book, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (1988) is cited often as a key landmark publication, but others, especially Richard Bauckham, Alan Segal, Martin Hengel, have also been key contributors. The question of what interest in and knowledge of the “historical” Jesus Paul had is distinguishable (though historically related). (2) I’m sure that somewhere you can find this or that scholar still holding that Paul had no knowledge of or interest in Jesus of Nazareth, but the stocks on this view have been falling for some time now.

  3. Hello Larry,

    Thank you for the list. I thought I left a comment here last night saying thanks, but I looked today, and I don’t see it, so perhaps I just dreamed it. Again, thanks for this list, it is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. I have been giving it a think of the last 24+ hours.

    Cheers! RichGriese.NET

  4. Graham Veale permalink

    ” it has become clear that a remarkable devotion to Jesus emerged astonishingly early in the aftermath of Jesus’ execution, so early that in Paul’s letters it is already presumed as characteristic of Christian circles, both Jewish and Gentile”

    (A) I know that this is always difficult to quantify, but how much of consensus is there on this point?
    (B) Is this having any impact on the Quest for the Historical Jesus? It’s difficult to see how this could emerge in 1st Century Palestinian Judaism ex nihilo

    Graham Veale

    • I use the word “consenus” sparingly (much more sparingly than many other scholars), only when we can say that something is virtually undisputed among scholars in the field. Among those who have devoted themselves to the question, all agree that a remarkable Jesus-devotion emerged very early, i.e, within the first very few years, perhaps months after Jesus’ execution.
      There are disagreements about what this Jesus-devotion represents. Some scholars see it as already representing a new type of Jewish monotheistic devotion, with Jesus uniquely and programmatically functioning in their devotional practice closely aligned with God and yet also distinguishable from God (the Father) to such a degree that we can speak of an early Christian “binitarian” devotional pattern. Others hesitate to go this far, but agree that the data = a remarkable and noteworthy development. Overall, of those who have focused on the question (various nationalities, ages, religious traditions), I’d say that the dominant view is (1) a remarkable Jesus-devotion erupts early and quickly, and (2) as a development initially within second-temple Jewish tradition.
      This is a shift from some older scholarship (and will seem strange to those who haven’t kept up!), but it’s where the discussion is at today.

    • Of recent/current scholars who have devoted themselves to the question, there is broad agreement that a remarkable Jesus-devotion erupted early and quickly, and that it emerged initially in a Jewish-Christian context. There are differences over whether this Jesus-devotion should be considered a new variant-form of Jewish monotheistic piety (as I think) or simply as a remarkable place given to Jesus in early Christian devotion. There are differences over how to account for it too. But it’s pretty clear that there is something remarkable to try to investigate. This might seem a shift for those who haven’t kept up with the research of the last 20 yrs or so on this question.
      As for “historical Jesus” discussion, it all depends on whether one agrees with E.P. Sanders and others that a picture of the “historical” Jesus must somehow help account for the vigorous religious movement that erupted in his name almost immediately after his death.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        It is a remarkable place given to Jesus, especially bearing in mind that Jews like Saul would have thought of the death of Jesus as a just punishment, for an accused false teacher and prophet,who fell under God’s curse for his misbehaviour.

        It is hard for me to put this into context, given my ignorance of those times. What modern analogy is there?

      • It is remarkable, much more so than some scholars realize. In Paul’s case, he seems to have had an unforeseen, unanticipated experience that he took to be a direct divine revelation (e.g., Gal. 1:13-15), the cognitive effects of which were to make him realize that the very religious claims & practices that he had been violently opposing as outrageous were God’s truth. It is hard to find direct analogies. In Philippians 3:4-14, Paul states what his religious re-orientation involved for him, and indicates the passionate nature of his Jesus-commitment.
        As others have noted, Paul’s experience wasn’t a typical conversion: not a shift from irreligion to religion, from being a sinner to devout (“I once was lost but now am found”), nor was it a shift from one religion to another. Paul was always devout and deeply religious (see esp. Philip. 3:4-14), and found his “pre-Christian” life as a devout Pharisee satisfying and successful. Moreover, his experience was that of a divine “call” from the very God he had been serving, and he saw his mission as enfranchising gentiles into the God of Israel through the gospel.
        It’s what makes Paul a truly fascinating figure of history.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        I still think the only modern analogy for Paul’s devotion of an exalted Christ, after regarding Jesus as a crucified criminal, justly punished for his misbehaviour and cursed by God, is a hypothetical elevation of Lee Harvey Oswald from a hated assassin to ‘True President of the United States’. What other analogy could convey the magnitude of change from ‘cursed by God’ to God’s agent and Lord?

      • Hmm. Well, Oswald didn’t have a following of people making claims about him. Jesus did, even during his own ministry. You don’t get people leaving their livelihoods to be your followers, and others thinking you’re a sufficient threat to justify execution unless you’ve become the polarizing issue.
        I suppose that a closer equivalent might be someone who began by seeing Joseph Smith as a false prophet and then came over to being a dedicated evangelist of Mormonism.

  5. Melissa Fitzpatrick permalink

    Thanks for this bird’s eye view of some of the major developments in early Christian origins over the past century, Dr. Hurtado. I appreciate your blog and your willingness to make some of your thoughts and materials accessible for some of us who do not have the opportunity to study under you.

  6. Kurt permalink

    This is a helpful list to work off of for further thought…

    This is a great blog. Thank you for the effort that you clearly put into it. I feel as if the days in seminary are not that far from me when reading your entries.

  7. Steven Carr permalink

    It is astonishing that a recently crucified criminal was being devoted to as the agent through whom God had created the world, without Christians being stoned by Jews as blasphemers, rather than being persecuted on the issue of circumcision.

    It is also interesting that Paul is consistent in explaining that it was God who appointed apostles, the Law and the Prophets which had testified to this new righteousness, the scriptures had revealed the hidden mystery,the Jews had had the advantage of the scriptures etc etc

    Afpart from helping to create the world, and being with the Jews in the desert during the Exodus, what else did Paul think Jesus had done?

    • Yes, early Jesus-devotion is astonishing, and Jewish Christians (and please note only Jewish ones) were opposed by fellow Jews because of their reverence of Jesus, not on account of circumcision, as the accounts in the early chapters of Acts, sayings in the Gospels, etc., make clear. See my article, “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion,” Journal of Theological Studies 50(1999): 35-58 (republished in my book, How on Earth did Jesus become a God? [Eerdmans, 2005], 152-78). Don’t confuse Paul’s complaints about being opposed by fellow Jewish believers (e.g., Gal. 5:11) with the opposition against Jewish believers by non-Christian Jews.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Doesn’t Paul say in Galatians 6 that he was persecuted on the issue of circumcision,and asks rhetorically in Galatians 5 why he is still being persecuted if he has supposedly compromised on the issue of circumcision?

        Was this persecution purely inter-Christian persecution?

        Where does Paul say what ‘non-Christian Jews’ persecuted Christians over?

        In Acts, the Jews decide to leave Christianity be for the time to see if the movement came from God,rather than from a ‘human origin’ (Acts 5). Didn’t they know where Christianity had stemmed from? Why did they think it might have come from God?

      • The epistle to the Galatians was prompted by trouble in his churches from Jewish believers who thought that Gentiles should complete their conversion to the God of Israel by taking up Torah-observance. This conflict between Jewish-Christian views is the focus (as, e.g., in the account of Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Gal. 2).
        We actually get very little direct information from Paul’s letters about the specifics of opposition from “non-Christian” Jews. 1 Cor 1:22-24 says the gospel of the crucified Christ/Messiah is “a stumbling block to Jews”, and again in Romans 9:32ff. says that unbelieving Israel “stumbled over the stumbling stone” (in the context, again, Christ). Indeed, the rest of Rom 9–11 makes it clear that the issue was over Christ. Note esp. 10:1-13, which contrasts Jewish “ignorance” with the confession “Jesus is Lord” (v. 9), and the reference/exhortation to “call upon the Lord (Jesus)” (vv. 11-13).
        Again, see my article, “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus Devotion” for a fuller discussion of the evidence.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        ‘Note esp. 10:1-13, which contrasts Jewish “ignorance” with the confession “Jesus is Lord”’

        This is an excellent point you have made here.

        Romans 10 is indeed very pertinent to the subject of Jewish ‘ignorance’

        Paul writes in Romans 10 ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?

        Jews were indeed ignorant ,as you rightly point out. How could they believe in the one they had not heard of?

      • But Paul’s pain in Romans 9–11 is over fellow Jews who had heard the gospel of Jesus and refused it. That’s the “hardening” of their hearts that Paul grieves over.

  8. Great list Larry. Thanks.

    I would add two related items. First, the increasing use of social-scientific data in the interpretation of the NT has helped uncover some of the embedded cultural scripts that, while present in the text, often remain unnoticed. Malina’s “The NT World” was the first major publication to bring this in our attention and the ongoing work of the Context Group continues this important aspect of the study of Christian Origins.

    Second, the growing awareness of the Roman Imperial context is beginning to help scholars note the ways NT authors and their communities negotiated the empire on a local level.

  9. Larry,

    Many thanks for this list. Rich also asked me for a list of discoveries and wanted them restricted to the last ten years. I too explained the way the field works and listed off somethings over the last 100 years including the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Gnostic literature.

    I would add the more conscious placement of Jesus in the context of early Judaism, made possible by the DSS and such.

  10. Great list! I would add the application of social-scientific methods (sociology and anthropology) to the New Testament beginning in the 1980s and 1990s.

  11. Concerning your last point, could you name a few scholars whose contributions you value?

    • Loren Stuckenbruck, Darrell Hannah, Carey Newman, Richard Bauckham, Alan Segal, David Capes, Kevin Sullivan, Martin Hengel (mucho), to name a few.

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