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Homi Bhabha’s “Signs Taken for Wonders”: A Critique

Since its publication decades ago, Homi Bhabha’s essay, “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817,” has been a foundational text in subsequent/emerging “postcolonial” studies.  Biblical studies has typically picked up academic trends a decade or so after they appear in some other setting, and surely enough for the last few decades postcolonial biblical studies has added a further facet to a diverse and diversifying field.

For any interested, consequently, Bill Bell’s recent critique of Bhabha’s influential essay should be assigned reading:  “Signs Taken for Wonders:  An Anecdote Taken from History,” New Literary History, 43/2 (Spring 2012), pp. 309-329.  It is available via Project Muse here.

He essentially shows that Bhabha rather seriously misunderstood and misconstrued the events that he purports to report.  If, consequently, our critical theories should be based on actual field-data studies, then it means that, at the least, Bhabha’s study can’t really be cited as a basis for much.

There may well be other bases for postcolonial exegesis, and many now are the studies that incorporate that approach.  Categories such as “mimicry” and disguised “subversion,” for example are now required items in scholarly vocabulary.  And there are, no doubt, data that justify these categories.  But Bell’s essay Is a salutary reminder to keep our theories rooted firmly in historical data.  This isn’t some frontal assault on postcolonial studies (so, please, no flame-throwing defenders feeling the need to leap to its defence and denounce me as an enemy).  But any field and approach is subject to criticism, and should welcome it.

Early Christianity on Sexual Abuse of Children

The sexual abuse of children has now become a major and publicly recognized concern (and high time too!).  A recent study by John W. Martens shows that for early Christians, too, it was a major concern, and that this is reflected in what appears to be a distinctive early Christian vocabulary to refer to the practice:  John W. Martens, “‘Do Not Sexually Abuse Children’: The Language of Early Christian Sexual Ethics,” in Children in Late Ancient Christianity, eds. Cornelia B. Horn and Robert R. Phenix (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 227-54.

As Martens notes, there was a whole Greek vocabulary for the practice of having sex with children:  “pederastia” (“child-love”), “pederastes” (“child-lover”), etc.  Indeed, Roman-era poets and others celebrate the practice, and it seems to have been tolerated widely.  It was particularly slave-children who likely suffered the most.  But (and this is Martens’ contribution) in early Christian texts we see what appears to be a rejection of these benign and condoning terms in favour of terms to express forthrightly that the practice is evil and destructive.

In Christian texts from the second century onward, the person who engages in sex with children is called a “paidophthoros” (“child-corrupter/abuser”), and there is the prohibition, “do not corrupt/abuse children” (“me paidophthoreseis“).  Our earliest instances are in Epistle of Barnabas (10:6; 19:4) and Didache (2:2).  These terms seem to have been coined by early Christians to re-label and condemn the practice and those who engage in it:  Not “child-love,” but “child-corruption.”

Another important observation by Martens is that these texts show, not only that early Christians condemned the practice, but also that they recognized the need to avoid it among Christians.  The exhortations in these passages are in texts written primarily for Christians to read, and, along with the other exhortations, were intended to shape Christian behaviour collectively.

It’s fascinating to see how beliefs and stances on behaviour can generate terminology like this.  And it’s one indication of an early stage in the revolution in “sexual logic” generated by early Christianity that is described by Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

New Hurtado Podcasts

Dale Tuggy has published two podcasts based on an extended Skype interview about my work on the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion and earliest Christian notions of the relationship of Jesus and God.  The first podcast is here, and the second one here.

Tuggy’s own concerns (and the web site on which these podcasts appear) are focused on contemporary theological questions about how to frame a doctrine of “God”, and he’s particularly worked up over/against what he sees as problems in traditional “Trinitarian” theology.  My own work, however, is focused on the (simpler?) task of trying simply to understand what earliest Jesus-followers thought of him and how he functioned in their religious/devotional life.  So, that I agreed to the interview and podcasts does not imply any position regarding Tuggy’s own focus and stance.  (I also hadn’t realized that his site and interviews would be prefaced with appeals for funds and publicity.  But that’s his business.)

He made a good interviewer, however, and for those who prefer listening to reading, these podcasts might be useful in conveying my views on relevant matters.  (And, of course, there’s also the sheer enjoyment of my dulcet tone of voice!)

“One God, One Lord”: Third Edition Published

Yesterday, I received my author’s advance copy of the 3rd edition of my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.  (And I’m pleased at the comparatively reasonable price.)

The major addition to this edition is a 53-page Epilogue, in  which I first explain briefly how the book arose (key influences, etc.), and how it fits into the research program in which it was an early and important step, and then I spend most of the Epilogue underscoring major results argued for in the book and discussing the “Ongoing Debate,” that is, how scholarly discussion has proceeded since the book’s appearance in 1988 (and especially since the 1998 2nd edition).

I can’t claim to have read or referenced everything that may have been published on the broader clutch of topics and questions involved in what is typically called the origins and early development of “Christology.”   Instead, I’ve aimed to note and discuss briefly what seem to me important works that more specifically engage the questions and major areas of focus in the book.

I’m pleased that this modest-sized book has been so well received and deemed worth keeping in print.  I hope that the new Epilogue will continue to make it useful to readers, perhaps especially students seeking to gear up in the topic.

“Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?”

In response to requests, I’ve now uploaded a PDF of the pre-publication version of my contribution to the newly-published (and excellent) Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha (noted in my previous posting), the PDF available here, and under the tab on this blog site “Selected Published Essays.”

New Handbook on Early Christian Apocrypha

I’m pleased to have my contributor’s copy of what appears to be a very valuable new work:  The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha, eds. Andrew Gregory & Christopher Tuckett (Oxford University Press, 2015), the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.    Here is the list of contributions:

Part I: Introduction and overview
1: Christopher Tuckett: Introduction
2: Jörg Frey: Texts About Jesus: Non-canonical Gospels and Related Literature
3: Charlotte Touati and Claire Clivaz: Apocryphal Texts About Other Characters in the Canonical Gospels
4: Richard Pervo: Narratives About the Apostles: Non-canonical Acts and Related Literature
5: Andrew Gregory: Non-canonical Epistles and Related Literature
6: Richard Bauckham: Non-canonical Apocalypses and Prophetic Works
Part II: Key Issues and Themes
7: Tobias Nicklas: The Influence of Jewish Scriptures on Early Christian Apocrypha
8: L. W. Hurtado: Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?
9: Jens Schröter: The Formation of the New Testament Canon and Early Christian Apocrypha
10: François Bovon: ‘Useful for the Soul’: Christian Apocrypha and Christian Spirituality
11: Pheme Perkins: Christology and Soteriology in Apocryphal Gospels
12: Paul Foster: Christology and Soteriology in Apocryphal Acts and Apocalypses
13: Stephen J. Patterson: The Gospel of Thomas and the Historical Jesus
14: Simon Gathercole: Other Apocryphal Gospels and the Historical Jesus
15: J. K. Elliott: Christian Apocrypha and the Developing Role of Mary
16: Robin M. Jensen: The Apocryphal Mary in Early Christian Art
17: Richard I. Pervo: The Role of the Apostles
18: Petri Luomanen: Judaism and Anti-Judaism in Early Christian Apocrypha
19: Outi Lehtipuu: Eschatology and the Fate of the Dead in Early Christian Apocrypha
20: Harald Buchinger: Liturgy and Early Christian Apocrypha
21: Candida R. Moss: Roman Imperialism: The Political Context of Early Christian Apocrypha
22: Judith Hartenstein: Encratism, Asceticism, and The Construction of Gender and Sexual Identity in Apocryphal Gospels
23: Yves Tissot: Encratism and the Apocryphal Acts
24: Tony Burke: Early Christian Apocrypha in Popular Culture
25: Tony Burke: Early Christian Apocrypha in Contemporary Theological Discourse

As you can see, the topics included comprise pretty much anything you’d want to ask about this diverse body of texts, and the contributors form a galaxy of recognized scholars of a number of nationalities.

In my own contribution, “Who Read Early Christian Apocrypha?” I have had to be selective in the texts considered, but I hope that the selection is sufficiently representative to be adequate for answering the question.  I’ve also included data not usually considered, specifically the features of earliest manuscript-copies of some apocryphal texts, reflective of my emphasis on manuscripts as artefacts of early Christians and what they did with the texts included in these manuscripts.

The short answer to the question posed in the title of my essay is:  Various Christians read “apocryphal” texts (as they only later came to be designated), and for various reasons.

The Cross as Early Christian Symbol

One of the long-standing presumptions often presented as established fact is that the cross wasn’t a Christian symbol until Constantine adopted Christianity (early 4th century AD).  Bruce Longenecker’s new book, The Cross Before Constantine:  The Early Life of a Christian Symbol (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2015) now effectively demolishes any such presumption.  The publisher’s online catalogue description here.

Marshalling a massive amount of data, Longenecker shows that visual reference to Jesus’ cross was “there” in the pre-Constantinian period without question.  Some years back, I tried to reinforce a similar observation made earlier by Erich Dinkler and Kurt Aland in particular, with reference to the so-called “staurogram,” a pictographic visual reference to the crucified Jesus that we find in early NT manuscripts (P66, P75, P45) commonly dated to the early 3rd century AD.  (See my chapter on “The Staurogram,” pp. 135-54, in my book The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Eerdmans, 2006.)  And so I greet Longenecker’s book as a more programmatic assault on the tired and ill-informed notion that the cross-symbol came with Constantine.

I’ve endorsed the book as “an effective barrage on the insufficiently-examined position that the cross was not a Christian symbol prior to Constantine.”  I’m pleased to note that the respected historian of early Christianity, William Tabernee, endorses it also, urging “If you only read one book on early Christianity this year, The Cross before Constantine has to be that book!”  High praise, indeed!

Longenecker shows that there are still things to learn, and sometimes even widely-shared views that can be shown to be incorrect, in favour of a much better grasp of the fascinating pre-Constantinian period of early Christianity.

British New Testament Conference 2015

I’m in Cambridge all week teaching in the Vacation Term Biblical Studies programme for this year.  Just a quick reminder of the forthcoming British New Testament Conference being held this year in Edinburgh.  The link for further information and registration is here.

Main speakers are now set (but may not be up on that web site yet):

Dr Susan Docherty: ‘The Use of Scripture in the New Testament and the ‘Rewritten Bible’ Texts: Some Exegetical Comparisons’

Prof. Philip Esler: ‘Giving the Kingdom to an Ethnos that will Bear Its Fruit: Ethnic and Christ-Movement Identities in Matthew.’

Dr Peter Oakes ‘Galatians as a Letter Defending Unity in Diversity in Christ’

Full-board is £235; the non-resident rate is £160; and Saturday only is £80.

Diversity and the Emergence of “Orthodoxy” in Early Christianity

I continue to see some scholars stating as unquestioned fact that “orthodoxy” and “heresy” really only emerged after Constantine, that only with the power of imperial coercion could these categories operate, and that in the pre-Constantinian period all we have is Christian diversity, with no recognizable direction or shape to it.  In some cases, scholars will admit that with Irenaeus (late second century) and perhaps even Justin (mid-second century) we may see the early expressions of notions of “heresy.”  But a recent study by Robert M. Royalty, Jr., The Origin of Heresy:  A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (London/New York:  Routledge, 2013), marshals effectively evidence and argument that should correct such views.  The publisher’s online catalogue description is here.

Royalty essentially shows that, although the term “heresy” (Greek:  hairesis) came to be used in the now-familiar pejorative sense sometime in the second century, the social and rhetorical dynamics reflected in this use of the term go back much, much earlier.  Indeed, not only earlier Christian texts, but also pre-Christian Jewish texts (e.g., from Qumran) exhibit these dynamics, which involve labelling certain views and practices as unacceptably deviant.  To cite Royalty, “I have shown here that Justin was part of a discursive tradition that developed in earlier Christian Gospels and post-Pauline literature. . . . The Christian notion of heresy and the rhetoric of heresiology [that emerged full-blown in the second century] draw on these earlier Christian and Second Temple Jewish discursive formations . . .” (172).

Actually, one of my PhD students, Troy Miller, reached and argued for essentially the same conclusions earlier in his 2002 thesis, “The Emergence of the Concept of Heresy in Early Christianity : The Context of Internal Social Conflict in First-Century Christianity and Late Second Temple Sectarianism.”  The University of Edinburgh Library catalogue entry here.  Indeed, as Miller, and now Royalty also, show, the critical engagement with diversity in belief and practice seems to have been there in earliest circles of the Jesus-movement, and reflected already in Paul’s own letters (e.g., Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians), because it was a feature of the Jewish tradition that was the matrix of the young Jesus-movement.

Moreover, careful study of the second and third centuries will show that, along with the now-familiar panoply of diverse forms of Christianity then, there was actually also an emerging early “mainstream” of Christian circles.  They themselves included a certain diversity, but saw one another as sufficiently alike to recognize one another.  This is reflected, for example, in the early stages of text-collections that later grew into our familiar New Testament:  especially the formation of a four-fold Gospel collection (which itself represents a significant diversity), but also the inclusion of writings ascribed to Peter, James and John, as well as writings ascribed to Paul (contra the Marcionite stance).  The second-century critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, also direct their fire against what seems a fairly recognizable form of Christianity.

In short, it’s high time for us to move on from earlier overly simplified notions and gain a more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the early dynamics and developments in question.

“Early High Christology”: Taking up a Dialogue

In a commendably professional step, Michael Kok sent me advance notice of a piece in which he addresses briefly the work of several scholars associated with the “early high christology” perspective (sometimes also referred to as “the new religionsgeschichtliche Schule”), and that he subsequently posted on a web site here.  In that piece, he says that he hopes “to open up a dialogue,” and so I offer an initial response here.

My first observation is that I think that Kok has attempted a balanced and (within the limits of his brief posting) essentially fair treatment of recent discussion/debate about the origins of “high Christology” (or, as I prefer to describe my own emphasis, “Jesus-devotion”).  The notes to his piece will guide readers to some key works both “pro” and “con,” and the characterization of various scholars seems to me basically accurate (again, working with the constraints of a brief web-posting, and see my critique in the following paragraphs).  So, I’ll take up his wish for dialogue by briefly addressing a few issues of substance.

One of Kok’s concerns is whether in the recent work that prompts his piece (particularly mine and that of Bauckham) there is “a concern to date a ‘high Christology’ as close as possible to the founding of the “Christian” movement.”  Well, Bauckham can speak for himself (as can others), but, to represent my own stance in the matter, I’ve reached the views that I advocate on the basis of the evidence and the best analysis of it that I can develop, using premises, approaches and arguments that are fully open to scholarly engagement by colleagues of any perspective.  I think that the evidence points to the conclusion that the pattern of Jesus-devotion presumed and reflected already in Paul’s letters was basically shared by, and likely originated among, Jewish circles in the young Jesus-movement based in Roman Judaea, i.e., among the earliest circles and in the earliest “post-Easter” period.  I judge that, I repeat, not out of some concern that it be so, but because that seems to me what a reasonable analysis demands.  (In footnote 9, Kok says that his concern applies more to “apologetic appropriations of the work of the EHCC rather than to its main scholarly proponents,” and I take him at his word.  But his essay addresses the “main scholarly proponents,” in which case his “concern” seems to me a red-herring.)

I will also note again that (unlike the older German Schule) this so-called “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule” includes scholars of various personal and religious stances, such as Jarl Fossum (who was a Jungian but I’m not aware of any particularly Christian theological stance) and Alan Segal (a self-identifying Jewish scholar of ancient religion).[1]  I happen to be a Christian (so, take me to the lions, I guess!), and Bauckham is also.  But I’m also a white male, a North American of mixed British and Spanish ancestry, near-sighted, of centre-left political leaning, a gender-egalitarian, who also likes porridge often for breakfast, gin and tonic or a good whiskey on a Friday afternoon, brought up on country music, and the first in my family history to take a university degree.  So?  The positions I’ve reached and advocate don’t require anybody to share any of these personal features. Let’s discuss substance.

Kok also wonders if the emphasis on the ancient Jewish matrix of earliest circles of Jesus-devotion serves to “insulate them from influences from the Greco-Roman world.”  Well, one could also note that the older work against which I and others have been pushing back was openly concerned to attribute a lot to “oriental” forces, with an inadequate appreciation of the richness of the Roman-era Jewish tradition. But, again, Kok’s statement implicitly imputes a motive, rather than engaging issues.  Any reader of my work, for example, can note that one of the “forces and factors” that I specifically cite is the larger Roman-era religious environment, including emperor-cult (e.g., Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 74-77).  Moreover, as Hengel and others showed, the Jewish matrix of the Jesus-movement was Roman-era Jewish tradition that had been shaped (albeit variously) in response to Persian, then Hellenistic, and then Roman influences for some 300 years or more.  So, I reject any suggestion of an effort to dodge “influences from the Greco-Roman world,” and I simply ask for colleagues to point out specifically what things I’m ignorant of, or incorrectly interpreting.

Kok suggests that “through a process of colonial mimicry, some Jews may have replaced the emperor with Jesus as the sovereign to whom divine honors were due.”  Now that (along with other things) is possible.  But to pose it as a possibility is one heck of a long way from showing it to have been the case.  Do we have evidence of Jewish “mimicry” involving the sort of devotional pattern that we see in earliest Jesus-movement circles, and given to other figures?  The major thrust of my 1988 book, One God, One Lord, was that we have no such evidence.  If I overlooked something, let’s have it.  And are we to imagine (and it is only imagination so far as I can see) that the stoutly Jewish early followers of Jesus would have aped emperor-cult, when, by all indications, it was regarded with utter disdain and horror by Jews who identified strongly with their ancestral tradition?  Or do we imagine that these Jews might have aped emperor-cult unconsciously?  Really?

I’d find this all a good deal less difficult to grasp if we had some comparable examples of other Jewish circles who likewise developed the sort of “dyadic” devotional pattern that we have in our earliest Christian texts.  Otherwise, I think that we have to say that something unusual and innovative went on in the early Jesus-movement.  That doesn’t mean that it was a miracle, or that you have to see it as the had of God.  I’m simply focusing on historical observation, not apologetics.

Kok also worries that there is “a risk of depicting ancient ‘Christianity’ as monolithic, assuming that a divine Christology was the definitive feature of all Christ associations,” and he notes the thematic variety that we have in NT texts in their Christological emphases.  Another red herring, in my view.  To speak for myself again, I don’t claim a “monolithic” early Christian movement.  In fact, in a recent article, I’ve argued that there was rich and “interactive diversity.”[2] There may well have been early circles in which Jesus wasn’t treated as recipient of the sort of cultic devotion that I cite.  But, again, to mention that as possible isn’t the same as demonstrating that it was so.  In any case, my own emphasis isn’t that there weren’t any such circles.  Instead, my point is that, whatever other kinds of Jesus-movement there may have been, the remarkable pattern of Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters seems to go back to/among the earliest circles.  Maybe there were other circles with a different devotional pattern, but those circles in which such Jesus-devotion was practiced were at least among the earliest.

On some other matters briefly mentioned in Kok’s piece, my only complaint is that he cites this or that critic of my work without noting that I’ve often given an answering argument.  For example, the critique of the term “monotheism” is by far wide of the mark.  In several publications over a couple of decades or more I’ve made it quite clear that “ancient Jewish monotheism” didn’t involve necessarily denying the existence of other “gods,” but that what I mean by the term is the evident cultic exclusivity characteristic of Roman-era Judaism.[3] And, as for James Crossley’s bizarre characterization of my portrayal of earliest Jesus-devotion as “Jewish, but not too Jewish,” well, in my view it says more about the limits of what he means by “Jewish” than it does about what I’ve actually written.

Finally, I endorse completely the exhortations in Kok’s final paragraph, which to my mind essentially echo emphases that I’ve posited for many years: Let’s avoid simplistic and reductionistic conclusions; let’s allow for a rich diversity in early “Christianity”; let’s contextualize early beliefs and practices; and let’s avoid simplistic uses of historical analysis.

[1] For analysis of the theological/cultural agenda of the older Schule: Karsten Lehmkühler, Kultus und Theologie: Dogmatik und Exegese in der religionsgeschichtliche Schule. Forschungen zur systematischen und ökumenischen Theologie, 76 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996); and Suzanne L. Marchand, German Orientalism in the Age of Empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), esp. 212-51.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62.

[3] Most recently, Larry W. Hurtado, “‘Ancient Jewish Monotheism’ in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4, no. 3 (2013): 379-400, which includes a response to (my friend and colleague) Paula Fredriksen’s critique.


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