My article, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62, was the focus of a session in this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, 21-24 November).
After my summary of the article, three senior colleagues, Paula Fredriksen, Carl Holladay, and Pheme Perkins, gave responses to the article. Thereafter, there was animated discussion involving the panel and a goodly-sized audience. (The pre-publication version of that article is available on this blog-site here.)
In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results. The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity. For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.
Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan. Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.
Fredriksen’s response was very encouraging, essentially affirming the thrust of my article. I also found insightful her observation that my proposal focused more on the process of early Christian developments, doing better justice to the lively nature of early Christian exchanges.
Holladay seemed a bit more reserved in his view of my proposal, and offered a guarded defence of the trajectories model, while also granting the validity of my examples of its dubious use.
Perkins drew upon her extensive familiarity with scientific theory posing various approaches to model-building and judging that my proposal wasn’t really a fully-fledged model, but instead more of a pointer to the factors that we need to take into account in forming one. That may be a fair point.
We can see what appear to be valid trajectories, such as the widely-held view of a Pauline tradition that produced the Pastoral Epistles. In that and other valid instances, the textual data make it clear that there are connections. But, as I note in the article, there are other instances where a trajectory has been asserted without sound basis in the data. My main emphases in the article are (1) that our models and theories should be based in the data, and (2) that any model should allow for the diversity and the interactivity characteristic of early Christianity.
I’m grateful to the organizers of that SBL session, and to my colleagues who gave their time to study my article and reflect on it.
In this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I took part in a session focused on the question of whether Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus. Three scholars gave three quite different views of the matter, and I was the designated respondent to their presentations. The textual focus was obviously Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11.
John Marshall (University of Toronto) contended that Paul’s promotion of faith-in-Jesus was solely intended for non-Jews (“Gentiles”). So he took Romans 10:9-13, where Paul urges confession of Jesus as “Lord” and faith that God has raised him from death, as having to do with Gentiles making these steps. Noting that Romans seems to have Gentile Jesus-followers (“Christians”) as the addressees (or at least the primary/main addressees), Marshall contended that this should dispose us to read such passages as really about Gentile believers. In Marshall’s view, Paul’s anxiety about Israel in Romans 9-11 was over their failure to endorse and take part in a mission to Gentiles.
I don’t find his case persuasive, largely because I think that the context, for example the immediate context of Romans 10:9-13, makes it fairly clear that Paul wanted both Gentiles and Jews to join him in his faith-stance toward Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Paul’s expressions of considerable anguish in Romans about the religious stance of his ancestral people (e.g., 9:1-5; 10:1-4), together with a similar view of things in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6 (where Paul also refers to “hardened” minds and veiled eyes of “the sons of Israel”) seem to me to require us to see Paul as holding that a positive stance toward Jesus was required, the alternate being disobedience to God. That is, as I read Paul, the problem with “Israel” wasn’t that they didn’t join in the Gentile mission, but that they didn’t recognize and confess Jesus as Mssiah and Lord.
Jason Staples presented what appears to be a summary-presentation of work from his soon-to-be-submitted PhD thesis (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), contending that in Roman-era Jewish usage “Israel” and “Jews” weren’t fully synonymous, and that “Jews” were a subset of “Israel.” The remainder of Israel, he argued, were “lost tribes” from the time of the Babylonian exile who had become assimilated among the nations and were by Paul’s time practically indistinguishable from “Gentiles.” So, in Staples’ view, Paul’s “Gentile mission” should be understood as his effort to retrieve those assimilated Israelites. Staples, thus, translates the crucial phrase in Romans 11:26 as “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come, and in this way all Israel will be saved.” That is, “the fullness of the Gentiles” is (or includes) the retrieval of those parts of Israel lost and assimilated among the nations.
I didn’t find this case persuasive either. I can’t find reason in Paul’s usage of the terms in question (“Jews,” “Israel,” “Israelite”) to make them have different referents. Indeed, it seems to me that Paul rather typically reflects a continuing distinction between “Gentiles” and his ancestral people, the latter referred to variously as “Israel,” “Israelites,” “Jews,” and I see no indication that Paul thought that large portions of “Israel” were comprised of assimilated Israelites such as Staples posits.
Instead, I find proposals such as that by Paula Fredriksen persuasive: By powerful revelatory experience(s), Paul came to see Jesus as raised from death and installed as eschatological Messiah and Lord. This, and perhaps additional revelatory experiences, persuaded Paul that this all meant that the biblical prophecies of the pilgrimage of the nations to the God of Israel were now to be fulfilled, and that he (Paul) had a special responsibility/calling from God to make it happen. In short, Paul’s “Gentile Mission” was . . . for Gentiles, not assimilated Israelites.
Mark Nanos conceded that Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus, and that Paul expected an eschatological time when “all Israel” would come to that faith. But, drawing upon several of his previously published essays, Nanos urged revised translations of several key words in Romans 9-11, with the effect of softening considerably how we take Paul’s characterization of the present religious state of fellow Jews who didn’t share his faith in Jesus. In particular, Nanos proposes that the “hardening” of Israel should be translated as a “callusing” that was intended to protect “Israel/Israelites” during the time in which they were out of step with God’s purposes through not (yet) confessing Jesus as Messiah. Nanos also proposed that Paul hoped that his Gentile converts would so exhibit the validity of their turning to the God of Israel that Jews would perhaps thereby become more favourably disposed toward the gospel of Jesus.
I found some of Nanos’ translation proposals more persuasive than others. For example, “callus” seems to me a reasonable translation of the Greek word porosis (and the verbal cognate forms). But I don’t so readily see that Paul presents this as a protective thing. Instead, he seems to me to intend the term as a metaphor for the inability of fellow Jews to perceive the validity of the gospel.
In my response to these papers, I urged that we take as important Paul’s expressions of anguish for Israel as indicating some sort of serious problem, as Paul saw the matter. In Paul’s eyes, that problem was such as to have moved him to pray that he be damned for the sake of his people (Romans 9:1-3). That suggests to me that Paul feared the damnation of those, whether Jews or Gentiles, who refused faith in Jesus.
Moreover, it’s pretty clear that Paul saw himself and other Jewish Jesus-followers as the elect “remnant” who prefigured the stance that he hoped “all Israel” would come to adopt toward Jesus (Romans 11:1-10). These Jewish believers also included the Jerusalem church (led by James and John) and the other Judean churches, and others such as “Kephas” (Peter), Barnabas, and the several fellow Jews named in Romans 16. Paul was not exceptional as a Jew who became a devotee of Jesus, and I think he hoped that all his people would join him as such.
There is some talk of the papers from this session being published in due course. I’ll give notice when I know more about this.
I’m pleased to announce the new multi-author volume: Peter in Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2015), eds. Helen K. Bond & Larry W. Hurtado. The online catalogue entry is here. This volume arose from our conference on Peter held here in Edinburgh under the auspices of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins in July 2013.
Long overshadowed by the apostle Paul, especially in Protestant scholarship and in the “secularized” scholarship descended from it, in recent decades there has been a small but interesting surge of interest in Peter.
This collection of studies is impressively wide in coverage of data and issues. Margaret Williams focuses on the names assigned to him, Shimon (Simon), Kephas (Petros/Peter), in light of then-contemporary naming practices. Other essays address Peter as portrayed in various texts, including the Gospel of Mark (Bond), Petrine speeches in Acts (Jonathan Lo), the Synoptic tradition (John Markley), the Gospel of John (Jason Sturdevant), Luke-Acts (Finn Damgaard), traditions of Peter’s literacy (Sean Adams), Petrine epistles (Matt Novenson), Apostolic Fathers (Todd Still), 1 Clement and Polycarp (Paul Hartog), Kerygma Petrou (William Rutherford), “Gnostic” texts/perspectives (Tobias Nicklas), other noncanonical texts (Paul Foster).
Timothy Barnes examines traditions and evidence about Peter’s death. Paul Parvis explores traditions about Peter as bishop (in Antioch!). Markus Bockmuehl engages the treatment of Peter in von Baltasar (Roman Catholic theologian). My own contribution is an analysis of the treatment of Peter in three modern Protestant New Testament scholars: Oscar Cullmann, Martin Hengel, and Markus Bockmuehl.
For me personally, the largest essay in the volume is the most fascinating and informative: Peter Lampe, “Traces of Peter Veneration in Roman Archaeology.” Lampe is internationally respected for his previous work on textual and archaeological evidence of early Christianity in Rome, and this essay further demonstrates his control of this sort of data.
(Dr. Margaret Williams is an internationally recognized epigrapher working in the Roman period. She is also a colleague here in Edinburgh, and I was keen to know what she made of Anna Collar’s recent book that I mentioned briefly in a previous posting here. At my invitation, she agreed to review the book for this blog site. LWH)
Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
I found the methodology of this study interesting and I think that the network approach (most notably the use of Proximal Point Analysis/PPA) is useful in interpreting the epigraphic material relating to the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus. However, I feel that with the Jews and the Theos Hypsistos cult (cults?) C.’s discussion is far less convincing. The main problem in these areas, I think, is that instead of dispassionately reviewing the source material to see what comes out of it, C. is striving all the time to fit the source material (unnecessarily restricted in the case of the Jews to inscriptions alone) to a pre-conceived structure.
C. takes it pretty much for granted that the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a watershed moment in Jewish history, that the Jewish leadership (assumed without discussion to be rabbinical) immediately concluded that Temple-worship had disappeared for ever and so embarked at once upon the codification of the oral law (in Hebrew) and its rapid dissemination throughout the Jewish world, even its western half where Hebrew had pretty well dropped out of use. The effect of this, so C. repeatedly claims, was Jewry everywhere turning inwards, rapidly re-Hebraising and in consequence effectively shutting the synagogue-door to the Theosebeis (Greek = “God fearers”). By way of compensation the latter (always conceived in this work purely in cultic terms) then turned to the worship of Theos Hypsistos. Hence the apparent rise in popularity of that cult in the second century.
I find all this deeply unconvincing (a) because of the lack of hard contemporary evidence for rabbinical activity in the decades after 70 CE (many scholars question the historicity of the activities ascribed to the rabbis at Yavneh in the years after 70 CE; (b) the fact that the first rabbinical compilation, the Mishnah, wasn’t published until around 200 CE and (c) because this hypothesis so clearly smacks of anachronism. Jews in 70 CE could not have known that Temple-worship had effectively gone for ever. Given the relatively short interval between the First and the Second Temple, why should the possibility/likelihood of a Third Temple not have been envisaged? It seems that the Temple cult was restored briefly by Bar Kochba in the 130s CE and in the 360s CE the Jews almost did get their Temple back. So why should the Jewish leadership have given up immediately in 70 CE on the idea of a future restoration of Temple-worship? After all, even today there are Jews who fervently believe that one day the Temple in Jerusalem will be restored.
However, C.’s discussion is marked by no doubts about a sea-change in Jewish attitudes in the period immediately after the destruction of the Temple. Excluding from the discussion papyri as well as literary evidence (both of which would have revealed immediately the flawed nature of the main hypothesis, especially the postulated post-70 CE change in Jewish attitudes towards the Law), she proceeds to present the epigraphic evidence that she claims supports her case. I find this presentation far from convincing. A major problem with this approach is that it is virtually impossible, using epigraphic evidence alone, to compare Jewish attitudes before and after 70 CE since there is not a single community for which epigraphic evidence exists both before the destruction of the Temple and afterwards. Either the evidence runs out around 70 CE (e.g. Leontopolis; Cyrenaika) or (this, far more common) the evidence does not start until well after 70. Examples of this are provided by Hierapolis (about two dozen epitaphs, most of them documents recording tomb ownership, dated mostly to the third century), Rome (around 600 inscriptions/epitaphs, most of them from catacombs, conventionally dated to the 3/4th centuries), Sardis (about 80 donor texts from the synagogue probably dating from the fourth to the sixth centuries), Aphrodisias (Jews and Godfearers inscriptions, provenance unknown, now dated to Late Antiquity – i.e. 4th/5th or even the early 6th century). Most of the evidence from Venusia in southern Italy (between 70 and 80 epitaphs from the Jewish catacomb there) is similarly late. Another problem is that there is hardly any Jewish epigraphic evidence that can be dated with any confidence either to the late first century or to the whole of the second. This makes it virtually impossible, using inscriptions alone, to illustrate developments in the Diaspora during that very period when, according to C., Diaspora communities were rapidly re-Hebraized and rabbinised as a result of a veritable “information cascade” (C’s term for a kind of critical-mass effect of the spread of an idea through a social network).
Since the bulk of the evidence used by C. to make her case consists of inscriptions from the catacombs of Rome, material with which I am particularly familiar, I will restrict my comments to this evidence. C.’s case for the rapid re-Hebraisation of the Roman Jewish community rests on inscriptions relating to four topics – (i) the use of Hebrew itself; (ii) the (allegedly) increased emphasis on the Law as a way of advertising Jewish identity; (iii) the (allegedly) greater use of Hebraic names, especially by community (synagogal) officials; (iv) the increased prevalence of the menorah as tomb-decoration. In each of these areas, the evidence is far less compelling than C. claims.
Take the use of Hebrew, for a start. This is found in only a dozen texts out of approximately 600 (i.e. a mere 2%). Mostly the Hebrew amounts to no more than a single word Shalom, frequently mis-spelled (JIWE II no. 183). On occasion the lettering is so bad that there is debate as to whether it is even Hebrew (JIWE II nos. 161 and 203(xviii). In two (or possibly three) epitaphs, we come across the three-word phrase – Shalom al Yisrael (JIWE II nos. 193, 529 and possibly 92). And that is the extent of Hebrew found in Romano-Jewish inscriptions. For C., this Hebrew is but the tip of a large (assumed) Hebraic iceberg. I am more convinced by those scholars (e.g. Nicholas de Lange) who believe that knowledge of Hebrew among the Jews of Rome was at best superficial, that the Hebrew in these inscriptions may simply have been copied and “it is not necessary to suppose that the authors of all these inscriptions knew some Hebrew.” (quoted by C. at p. 194) Indeed, we should no more assume on the basis of this evidence a community au fait with Hebrew than we would assume a deep knowledge of Latin from the occasional RIP on a British tombstone.
References to the Law (supposedly revealing that reverence for it became, through rabbinic influence, a more significant element in expressing a Jewish identity) are equally limited – again around a dozen cases and so amounting to about 2% of the evidence. These references consist largely of honorific epithets such as philonomos (“law lover,” 2 cases); philentolos (“commandment lover,” 4 cases); nomomathes (“learned in law,” 3 cases). Given the scores of honorific epithets to be found in the epitaphs of the Jews of Rome, this haul is pitifully small. Most of the epithets, as Rutgers’ careful analysis has shown, are those used in the wider, non-Jewish community – in Latin epitaphs, benemerens (“well deserving”), dulcissimus (“sweetest”); in Greek texts, glykytatos (“sweetest”). Had evidence other than inscriptions been considered by C. – e.g. the writings of Philo, Josephus and NT texts – then it would have immediately become apparent that observance of the Law was a constant element in Romano-Jewish identity throughout antiquity. 
Nor is the onomastic evidence as revealing of rabbinic influence as C. seems to think. From her discussion, it would be concluded that the use of Hebrew names was widespread, especially among synagogal officers. Close analysis of the evidence shows quite clearly that that was not the case. Rutger’s analysis in Jews in Late Ancient Rome (the most thorough that I know) shows that “Semitic, Greek, and Latin names all seem to have been used freely by the Jewish community in third- and fourth-century Rome” (p. 148) and “Jewish ancestral names did not enjoy a higher degree of popularity among Jewish community officials than less conventional names.” (p. 150) In the Jewish community at large and among synagogal office-holders the take-up of Semitic names (they include Aramaic as well as Hebrew ones) was roughly the same – between 13 and 14%. (ibid.) As with epithets, the personal names used by Roman Jews are largely those popular in the wider community – among male Jews, most notably the name Alexander. You do not get the feeling of a community shutting itself off and deliberately stressing its differences with the host community.
Finally, there is the widespread (and incontestible) use of the menorah as a symbol on tombs. Unusually (uniquely?) C. takes this to be a sign of rabbinic influence. I do not think that this can be right. If this image was indeed rabbinic, you would expect it to figure widely in that most rabbinic of burial places – viz. Catacomb 14 at Beth She’arim, believed by many to be the burial ground of the family of Judah I, the Patriarch. But its use there is very limited indeed – a single instance. Where the menorah does occur at Beth She’arim, it is found mostly on graves clearly belonging to Diaspora Jews, an occurrence that has prompted Avigad to suggest that “these Jews, Greek speaking and bearing Greek names, doubtlessly (sic) wanted to stress their national affiliation by appending a distinctively Jewish symbol to their tombstones.” (An analogous case is the use of the identifier, Ioudaios, by Jews at Rome. Those found using this term in their epitaphs tend to be either immigrants or proselytes.)
While the popularity of the menorah as a grave-symbol from the 3rd/4th century onwards cannot be disputed, I see no reason at all to see this as rabbinic. Reasons for this development continue to be disputed. I suspect that several factors, differing according to time and place, may be at work. In the case of the Jews of Rome, where the actual Temple menorah was on display in the Temple of Peace as part of the loot from the First Jewish War (66-72 CE) and the image of the seven-branched candlestick prominently depicted on the Arch of Titus, a powerful reason for putting its likeness on their tombstones may have been a desire to reclaim their inheritance.
From the foregoing, it will have become clear that I regard the epigraphic evidence presented by C. in support of her thesis as inadequate. In my opinion, the evidence does not support the idea that there was a widespread Hebraisation of the western Diaspora in the wake of the destruction of the Temple or that it became rabbinised at such an early date. In fact, the first unambiguous epigraphic reference to rabbis occurs only in the early sixth century – a bilingual Latin/Hebrew inscription from Venusia. Although one can trace in that community an increasing use of Hebrew in Late Antiquity (i.e. during the 5th and sixth centuries), that process took several generations as can be seen from my analysis of the data relating to the family of Faustinus the Father. (Personal names remain largely Latin – e.g. Faustinus/a; Pretiosa, Asella (Little Ass!), Vitus, Bonus, Rosa.) It’s only in the ninth-century inscriptions from that town that you get epitaphs written completely in Hebrew and an onomastikon that is entirely Hebraic.
A final word on the Theos Hypsistos cult. Here, C.’s case rests on accepting her hypothesis about the nature of post-70 CE Jewry: Because the Jews had become rabbinical (and therefore Hebraised and inward-looking), the Theosebeis (“God fearers”) were forced to turn elsewhere for their cultic needs. Hence the popularity of the Theos Hypsistos cult (cults?) in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. There is, of course, not a shred of evidence for what is essentially an argument from silence – namely, the absence of inscriptions relating to Theosebeis in the second/third centuries. Given the overall thinness of the Jewish epigraphic record in that period, noted above, the absence of texts referring to Theosebeis is entirely unsurprising.
 JIWE II = D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995).
 See L. V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome, Leiden: Brill 1995, chapter 5.
 M. H. Williams, “The Shaping of the Identity of the Jewish Community in Rome in Antiquity” in J. Zangenberg and M. Labahn (eds), Christians as a Religious Minority in a Multicultural City, London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004, chapter 3.
 N. Avigad, Beth She’arim III: Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press 1976), p. 270.
 See M. H. Williams, Jews in a Graeco-Roman Environment (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), chapter 17.
 D. Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe I [= JIWE I] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1993), no. 86 – duo rebbites.
 M. Williams, “The Jews of Early Byzantine Venusia: The Family of Faustinus I, the Father,” Journal of Jewish Studies 50, 1999, 38-52.
The Society of Biblical Literature has mounted a new/recent web-resource for the “general public” entitled “Bible Odyssey” here. People are invited to lodge questions, and to each a relevant expert is asked by the SBL to make a response. I’ve had my own first go at doing this here, in response to a question about the origins of treating Jesus as divine.
The Martin Lautenschaeger Awards for Theological Promise are given each year for a first book or PhD thesis. Winners are flown to Heidelberg for the awards ceremony, and take part in a two-day seminar in which they individually present their next intended research project. Winners are judged by an international body of senior scholars in various areas in the study of religion and theology.
Awards are made in May each year. Winners for 2016 will be announced in the next few months.
The notice for the 2017 awards has now been posted and can be read here: Lautenschlaeger-Award2017. Applicants can be from any topic involved in the study of religion/theology, any religion, any period, any approach.
Sometime back I mentioned Craig Keener’s mammoth commentary project on Acts, a work amounting to some 3 million words, he says, appearing in massive volumes over the last few years. Volume 4 has just appeared, completing the project and commenting on Acts 24:1–28:31 in 431 pages, the remainder of the volume a list of Works Cited (primary and secondary sources, 301 pages), and then indexes of subjects, authors, and ancient sources (another 370 pages): Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 4: 24:1–28:31 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015). Replete with numerous endorsements, including some from those who disagree with some of his views, this volume completes what must be the largest commentary on any individual New Testament writing.
Keener’s particular interest and emphasis is on noting any possible reference in classical texts that may in one way or another help shed light on the Acts text. This is the emphasis that he has pursued in his previous commentaries on other NT writings too. But the work is foremost a commentary on Acts, and so Keener engages in the exegetical task, conducting his discussion with impressive knowledge also of other scholarly work on Acts. In the midst of trying to complete a much more modest-sized book myself, I haven’t the time now to do the perusal of Kenner’s latest volume necessary for a critical review of it. But it is surely now an important resource for any other scholar working on Acts. And Keener writes clearly and accessibly, making it possible for wider circles of serious readers/students of the NT to benefit from his work.
In an earlier posting I referred to Anna Collar’s recent book, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire (2013), and I return to it to mention something that puzzled me in her chapter on epigraphic evidence of Judaism. She posits an escalation of evidence of Jews emphasizing their Jewish identity across the second to fourth century CE, and ascribes this in part to the success of “rabbinic” Judaism. But I recall an earlier study focused on papyrological evidence that posited a noteworthy “re-Hebraization” and renewed emphasis on Jewish particularly already in the early Roman period: Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, by Victor A. Tcherikover, Alexander Fuks and Menahem Stern, eds. (3 vols; Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1957-1964. (Hereafter, CPJ.)
This work draws on papyrological data about Jews and Judaism across the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, which means lots of attention to “everyday” data, such as marriage contracts, etc.
The 110-page analysis of the data that commences volume 1 should be required reading for anyone wishing to work on Roman-era Judaism, or any other religious development of that time (including, notably, Christian origins). Yet, in conversations with fellow scholars (including some senior ones), I’ve been surprised to find how few are acquainted with this work. I also noted, with surprise, that there is no mention of it in Collar’s book. Now, of course, she was concerned with inscriptions mainly, but her rather bold thesis about Judaism could and (to my mind) should have required her to engage with CPJ. It may be another unfortunate instance of a “canalization” of scholarly work, in this case focused on epigraphic data (and a focus is necessary for a PhD thesis, from which her book emerged), to the neglect of other data relevant for a larger historical view of things.
The CPJ posits that in the post-Ptolemaic period “there was an increasingly vigorous tendency in the diaspora in Egypt to discard hellenization and return to Jewish traditions” (1:27), and “a spirit of national regeneration in Palestine” as well in the Roman period (1:47). They judge that a “steady increase in the use of Hebrew names from the Ptolemaic to the Roman period is the best evidence of the gradual increase of national spirit among the Egyptian Jews” in that period (1:84).
In short, the analysis in the CPJ suggests strongly that an increasing expression of Jewish ethnic and religious particularly began much earlier than Collar proposes. Even the increased emphasis on Torah and observing its commandments that she highlights in later Roman Jewish inscriptions is surely reflected already in developments such as the emergence of the Pharisees, a party particularly concerned to promote observance of Torah among Jews.
It’s in light of this renewed emphasis on Jewish particularly/identity that we might view both the initially hostile actions of Saul the Pharisee against Jewish members of the Jesus-movement, and also, then, his struggles for his “Gentile mission” against others in the young Jesus-movement concerned to maintain the religious integrity of their ancestral faith, and so concerned about the influx of Gentiles.
Everyone working in early Christianity knows that there was much diversity, and were sharp conflicts in some instances. A commenter on a previous posting emphasized this, implying that I was guilty of presupposing a “fixed” and uniform early Christianity (which I don’t). Some scholars have even taken to referring to “early Christianities” (which I consider just a bit precious myself). Today there are at least as many and as major divisions among those whom modern historians classify as “Christians,” but we don’t have references to “modern Christianities” (to my knowledge). And I also note that Roman/Ancient historians tend to refer confidently to “early/ancient Christianity,” fully aware that the term designates an impressive diversity of forms.
But let’s not get hung up over terms. “Christianity” or “Christianities,” whatever you prefer. Let’s talk substance (I frequently tire of fellow scholars spending a lot of time over terminology and neglecting the data.) Although some modern scholars have difficulty finding “Christians” or “Christianity” before perhaps the late second or third century (or even later), it’s interesting that ancient observers seem confident that there were contemporary Christians/Christianity to criticize, and Roman officials seem well able to lay their hands on Christians when they wished to do so (e.g., reports of Nero’s pogrom in 64 CE; Pliny’s letter to Trajan ca. 112 CE; Celsus’ critique of Christianity; etc.). And when you look at their descriptions and critiques, they seem to know Christianity fairly closely to what we see in familiar early Christian texts.
I repeat: There was considerable diversity in early Christianity. No question. Often today, scholars credit our awareness of this to the now-classic book by Walter Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum (1934), English translation: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity Edited by Robert Kraft and Gerhard Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971). But, actually, Bauer’s main thesis wasn’t that early Christianity was diverse, but instead that what was later “heresy” was in several geographical areas the earlier form of Christianity, and was then replaced by a form regarded as “orthodox”. But several subsequent studies have shown rather persuasively that Bauer was incorrect, in this claim. (E.g., Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988); Michel Desjardins, “Bauer and Beyond: On Recent Scholarly Discussions of Hairesis in the Early Christian Era,” The Second Century 8 (1991): 65-82.) So, pretty much what is left to credit him with now is the simple observation that early Christianity was diverse.
But it isn’t as though we didn’t know that before Bauer wrote. From our earliest Christian texts (e.g., Paul’s letters and other writings) we have candid references to diversity in the young Jesus-movement, even sharp conflicts and mutual condemnation. Maybe Eusebius could convince himself that everything was sweet agreement initially and that diversity and division only came later, but that’s not what the earliest sources actually show.
This early Christian diversity, however, was not a number of totally separate communities or forms (hence, my dissatisfaction with “early Christianities”). As I contend in a recent article, the diverse expressions of early Christianity seem to have been in vibrant contact with one another, sometimes conflicting, at other times seeming to agree to overlook differences, at other times seeking to persuade others of their own views/emphases: Larry W. Hurtado, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62. (The pre-publication version available here.)
Nevertheless, in that swirling diversity we also see from a very early point strong efforts to establish trans-local and trans-ethnic commonality. That’s an obvious major aim reflected in Paul’s Gentile Mission, reflected, for example, in his extended effort in the collection for Jerusalem. And note Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, that Jerusalem leaders and he proclaim a broadly shared message focused on Jesus. Of course, Paul also refers to “false brethren,” “false apostles,” etc., indicative of the real diversity and division as well. But the effort to try to form a broadly connected and cooperative trans-local religious movement didn’t start with Eusebius or Constantine. The impulse was there from very early (however it may have fared from time to time).
True, of the widely varying forms of early Christianity, some fell by the wayside. Some, such as Marcionite Christianity, seem to have been rather successful for a while. Others seem to have never been more than a “niche” form of Christian “spirituality” (e.g., some of the so-called “gnostic” forms). By and large, those that were “lost” subsequently seem to have been considerably less successful in commending themselves to adequate numbers of people, in comparison to what became the emergent “proto-orthodox” forms (NB: not uniform but itself varied). I recall again the quip of the American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld: “Sometimes, the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”
In my posting about Anna Collar’s recent book, I noted the striking differences between the kind of evidence we have for early Christianity in comparison with other Roman-era religious groups. In the example from Collar’s book (and we could multiply it), we have a body of inscriptions, but scant textual data. In the case of early Christianity, we have no inscriptions till the 3rd century (and then only a limited number and from few geographical locations), whereas we have a torrent of literary texts composed in the first three centuries. (Consider, for example, the ten volumes of the classic set, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, for a readily available sample . . . and it’s only that.) So, why this difference, and what does it reflect?
This particular difference, the prolific production of literary texts in early Christianity, is one of the several distinctive features of the religious movement that I discuss in my current book project (which I hope to send to the publisher by end of October, with the aim of publication by Autumn 2016). I’ll comment here briefly on this particular matter.
In the Roman era, “religion” (our term, not theirs) was typically a set of cultic performances, mainly sacrifice/gifts to gods. People liked the gods to do things for them, and the gods liked gifts. So, it was a convenient exchange. You could offer a god a gift to ask for a boon, or in thanks for one. There were also regular sacrificial rites, at periodic times, essentially to keep the god in a positive relationship with you, your city, nation, etc.
This produced physical evidence of “religion.” There were sacred places, and shrines or temples built. There were altars, and images of the gods. There were “ex voto” objects purchased and given to the temple/god in thanks for answered prayers. Substantial gifts would often also involve an inscription (just so the god and other people didn’t overlook who gave the gift). These “dedicatory” inscriptions form the main part of the data that Collar studies on the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, for example.
But early Christianity (in the first three centuries CE) didn’t have shrines or temples, or altars, or cult-images, and no sacrifice was involved. So, no dedicatory inscriptions or ex voto objects, or whatever. (The earliest church structure thus far identified firmly is the famous Dura Europos one dated in the 3rd century CE. But it didn’t include an altar or image or such.)
Instead, early Christianity was heavily the propagation of teaching about the Christian God’s purposes and will for human life, which included the formation of responsive groups (“ekklesias”) called to exhibit the way of life demanded by the God. There were, to be sure, cultic/worship actions and rites, e.g., baptism invoking Jesus’ name as the entrance rite, and the sacred shared meal. But early Christianity didn’t generate the kinds of physical objects generated/used by other religious groups of the time.
Indeed, some scholars (e.g., Edwin Judge) even urge that early Christianity can’t be called a “religion” in the terms applicable in the Roman world, and should be classified as a peculiar “philosophy” instead. For my part, I still prefer to classify early Christianity as a peculiar kind of Roman-era “religion,” although I grant that it exhibits a number of features that are more commonly found among some philosophical groups of that time.
Of course, there are also obvious parallels/similarities with the practices and emphases characteristic of Jewish synagogue gatherings of the time. In these settings, too, texts were read and discussed, and teaching and prayer were central. It’s a “no-brainer” to presume that early Christian practice was shaped by the Jewish matrix in which it first emerged.
But, in comparison with that Jewish matrix, the aggressively trans-ethnic nature of early Christianity, even in the earliest decades, made it a distinguishable entity.
As I noted in my 2006 book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans), the earliest physical artifacts/evidence of early Christianity is heavily comprised by remnants of literary texts, fragments of manuscripts, some of which are dated as early as the mid/late 2nd century CE. But, of course, manuscripts can travel about (unlike inscriptions or shrines). And so it’s a bit more difficult to use the kind of evidence that Collar drew on in her book when it comes to mapping the spread of early Christianity. (That’s probably why she didn’t try to tackle the question in her study.) For that we have to rely heavily on textual evidence, the mention of people and places in the literary texts produced by and about early Christians.
My main point: Profound differences in the nature of early Christianity in comparison with other Roman-era religious groups account for the differences in the nature of the physical remains and evidence that we have.