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.
This summer I noticed a recent book on the spread of religious ideas in the Roman world: Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2013). As the topic addresses some projects of my own, and it promised methodological innovation, I even shelled out the rather costly price (£60). Overall, it’s very much worth the reading (although the price remains steep, to my mind). Though she mentions early Christianity only briefly, for anyone interested in the religious scene of the Roman period this is an interesting study. The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.
The methodological innovation involves the use of “network theory,” a topic on which I knew nothing prior to this book. The initial chapter takes readers through the varied ways that this concept (or ganglia of concepts) is used in various disciplines. Frankly, I don’t think that the chapter should have been published as it stands. It’s not necessary, for example, to note how “network theory” functions in scientific disciplines, involving the computerized use of large volumes of data. A simple and brief statement about this sort of thing would suffice. For as Collar uses “network theory,” it’s much simpler.
In three case studies that form the heart of the book, she focuses on inscriptional evidence of the distribution and spread of the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus, what she proposes as evidence of the spread of rabbinic reforms in Judaism, and inscriptions referring to a “theos hypsistos” (“most high god”). I’m not an epigrapher myself, but I appreciate the importance of the evidence and those expert in it. (I’ve passed the book now to my colleague here, Dr. Margaret Williams, an accomplished Greek/Latin epigrapher, for her comments, and I may be able to report on them later.)
Basically, Collar logs on a map where inscriptions mentioning, for example, Jupiter Dolichenus, were found. Then, she tries to identify geographical clusters and possible linkages, also taking into account the dates of the inscriptions. This allows her to plot where the cult seems to have been practiced, and the interesting thing here is that it is more heavily attested along the Rhine frontier and in Britain, not in the East from whence the god likely originated. She also notes the people mentioned in the inscriptions (which are mainly dedicatory inscriptions to the god), and is thus able to show that the social network through which this cult spread seems to have been officer ranks of the Roman army.
This combination of geographical plotting, dating of evidence, and a kind of prosopography of the people mentioned gives an impressive analysis. It’s not clear that it’s really “network theory” as practiced in the sciences, but it’s still a valuable study, and opens up a body of data unfamiliar to non-epigraphers such as me.
I found the analysis of the Jupiter Dolichenus data persuasive. I wasn’t quite so persuaded, however, by her argument from the Jewish inscriptions that they show specifically the influence of rabbinic reform efforts. Nor was I satisfied with her endorsement of Stephen Mitchell’s position that the “theos/Zeus hypsistos” inscriptions reflect a particular cult. I remain suspicious that the term was applied to a variety of gods in various locations (including, of course, the use of “theos hypsistos” as the Greek translation of the Hebrew “El elyon” in the Septuagint). So, I’ll be keen to learn what Williams thinks.
My final observation is something that Collar doesn’t note at all. In the same period that she studies in the book (essentially the first three/four centuries CE), there are these numerous inscriptions reflecting the Jupiter Dolichenus cult, for example. Now, in the same period we have scant epigraphical evidence of early Christianity (our earliest identifiable Christian inscriptions dated to the early to mid 3rd century CE, and then still very few). But we have a torrent of Christian literary evidence (e.g., by my count, at least some 250 books written by Christians in the first three centuries), but the Jupiter Dolichenus cult left scant literary evidence.
It’s yet another example of how unusual early Christianity was among the many and varied religious groups of the Roman period.
I returned yesterday from the invitational conference held in Leipzig (28-30 September) and focused on the relationship of “history-of-religion” research and theology. The conference was scheduled in observance of the 100th anniversary of the death of Georg Heinrici, an eminent scholar in Leipzig who was himself very much involved in history-of-religion research, and also in the controversies about how this research related to traditional Christian theology.
The fifteen invited presentations varied in scope and focus, but were all interesting. Confining myself here to those papers that addressed the broader questions, Heikki Räisänen (Helsinki) offered reflections on his own emphasis on “A Religious Studies Alternative to New Testament Theology,” providing further insight into his own thinking and personal background for it. (He was unable to attend, on account of health, but his paper was read out for us.)
Geurt Henk van Kooten (Groningen) proposed connections between the Gospel of John and Greek mythology and philosophy, urging that the author intended to make such connections as part of a concern to evangelize. Udo Schnelle (Halle-Wittenberg) focused on the NT idea of Jesus as “incarnate” deity, making comparisons and contrasts with other ancient ideas sometimes seen as analogies. Cilliers Breytenbach (Berlin) discussed the use (and misuse) of purported “analogies” and how dangerous it can be to construct “genealogies” from them. In short, similarities don’t necessarily signal “borrowing” of one thing from the other.
Peter Geneinhardt (Gottingen) considered the long-standing question of whether it is correct to see “myth” used in the NT declaration of Jesus’ significance. Part of the problem is that there are several distinguishable meanings of “myth” in modern scholarly usage. If, for example, “myth” refers to some figure/event of the timeless past that can be actualized in the present, that doesn’t quite fit. For earliest Christians (at least those in the emerging “proto-orthodox” circles such as the NT writings) tended to emphasize that Jesus is a real historical figure, whose death was a real and locatable historical event. Moreover, the eschatological emphasis makes for a difference: In early Christian proclamation, crucial events lie in the future (such as resurrection of the dead and the return of Christ). That isn’t typically a feature of ancient “myth.”
Marco Frenschkowski (Leipzig) reviewed the stances of Heinrici, Harnack, Bousset on the relationship of history-of-religion and theological approaches of the early 20th century. John Fitzgerald (Notre Dame, USA) surveyed references to Heinrici in English-language scholarship, noting the unjustified neglect but also the particular instances where Heinrici has been acknowledged (e.g., Hans Dieter-Betz’s notice of Heinrici’s commentary on 2 Corinthians as what he judged the best case for the literary integrity of 2 Corinthians).
I was invited to explore possible theological implications arising from the sort of work I’ve been involved in over the past few decades on the origins of Jesus-devotion, which forms part of what is now sometimes referred to as the “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule.” Noting that the term is misleading, and there isn’t any one theological stance represented in the body of scholars sometimes so-designated, I then offered some preliminary suggestions of my own, which I’ll briefly summarize here.
First, what implications arise from emerging consensus that the treatment of Jesus as somehow worthy of divine(like) honor originated in the earliest circles of the Jesus-movement? In my view, this doesn’t decide the theological validity of traditional Christological claims, but it does remove one major reason that has sometimes been used as a basis for rejecting them. You can’t relativize a “high” Christological stance by claiming that it reflects a secondary and late development. The early centrality of Jesus-devotion, in my view, makes it central also for theology today.
Moreover, the place of Jesus in earliest Christian proclamation and practice has theological implications for “God” as well as for Christology. The link of Jesus and God is the key distinguishing feature of discourse about “God” in the NT. Just as Jesus is consistently defined with reference to God (e.g., sent forth by God, raised/exalted by God, etc.), so “God” is rather consistently defined with reference to Jesus. I suggest that there are theological implications for virtually every traditional topic in theology.
I also discussed how the terminology used in early Christological discourse varies, focusing on the curious Christological usage of the Greek term pais (“child/servant”), which appears in only Acts and then a few other early Christian writings, and mainly in passages that reflect liturgical settings. Whatever the reason that the term had this limited usage, it illustrates how early Christians used various terms to express their faith. The basis implication is that theology has this continuing responsibility to find meaningful ways of communicating in different cultural settings and circumstances.
I also pointed to the importance of early Christian devotional/worship practices. My point was that the central place of the risen/exalted Jesus in earliest devotional practices has, I contend, profound implications for theology. There is a distinctive “dyadic” shape to earliest Christian devotional practice and to earliest Christian proclamation. Indeed, I propose that theologians might be advised to study earliest Christianity more closely, as perhaps a more fruitful resource for theologizing in the modern global and multi-faith context. For some 15 centuries, Christian theology has basically been an “in-house” discussion, Christian theologians arguing with one another. And the key starting points have been theological developments of the 4th century AD and later. But in the modern context in which again Christianity is simply one religious option among others, it is perhaps again important for theologians to work at articulating Christian faith in ways that can be engaged by people of other faiths. For that, I suggest that the texts of the first three centuries may now be more valuable than the later writings that have been more frequently the focus of theologians (e.g., Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, etc.).
I’m off to the University of Leipzig on Sunday for an invitational conference on “Theology and History-of-Religion Studies: Assessing the matter One Hundred Years after Georg Heinrici” (my translation). Heinrici was a prominent scholar in Leipzig and a leading figure in the emergence of the historical approach to the origins of Christianity in the late 19th century. But, unlike some others, he did not disdain theological questions.
I’m looking forward to the other presentations by a galaxy of prominent colleagues including Heikki Räisänen, Geurt Henk van Kooten, Udo Schnelle, Cilliers Breytenbach, Annette Weissenrieder, Peter Gemeinhardt, Veronika Janssen, Karl Friedrich Ulrichs, John Fitzgerald (whose paper on the influence of Heinrici on English-language scholarship should prove particularly informative for me), Marco Frenschkowski, Mattias Helmer, Manfred Lang, and Martin Hünegurg.
I’ve been asked to pose possible theological implications arising from the sort of work that I’ve been involved in over many years focused on origins of devotion to Jesus in the context of ancient Jewish concern about the uniqueness of the one God. It’s a bit of a shift for me, as I’ve tended to focus on historical issues.
Also, other that the papers by Räisänen, van Kooten, and Fitzgerald, all the other papers (aside from mine) will be in German. So, I’ll have to focus hard to keep up with the conversation! Perhaps I’ll report more on the conference after my return.
In the UK the academic title “Professor” is reserved for those who have been awarded the status by the university in which they teach/research. (This is very different from the use of the title in North American circles, for example.) In earlier tradition, there was typically one Professor for each subject, the incumbent occupying what was called “the established chair” in that subject. Other academics would be addressed as “Dr.” But, more recently, British universities have accepted the need to recognize the research/publication achievements of academic staff whose work would qualify them for Professorial status, and have begun awarding what are called “personal chairs” to them, i.e., full Professorial status (in the British sense of the term). This involves a university-level committee reviewing them, and requires strong recommendations from Professorial-level specialists in their subject from other universities (both in the UK and beyond). I’m very pleased to publicize the success of two of my colleagues in the New Testament & Christian Origins area here in Edinburgh. They are too modest to do so, but I’m delighted to proclaim our two recently-awarded personal chairs to Paul Foster and Helen Bond.
Paul was awarded a Professorial chair last year (2014), and is now also entering his third year as Head (Dean) of the School of Divinity. Paul’s publications on various subjects, including his “go-to” work on the Gospel of Peter, articles on “Q”, and other subjects have made him now known and respected in the field. Paul’s staff page is here.
Helen was awarded her Professorial chair this year (2015), and serves also as Director of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins. Helen’s publications, including her ground-breaking studies of Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas, and her accessible book on historical Jesus scholarship, as well as numerous articles likewise have propelled her to international recognition. You may well see her appearing in one of the many TV programmes for which she is often interviewed. Her staff page is here.
When I retired in 2011, we decided (largely for financial reasons at the time) not to fill then the “established chair” that I held and chose instead to ask permission of the university to advertise a “Lecturer” position (= Assistant Professor in North American terms). At the time, I stated that within five years at most one or both of my colleagues (then Paul and Helen) would likely be awarded Professorial status. As it terms out, both have now been made Professors well within that predicted time-frame.
I should also mention that Matthew Novenson, who was appointed to that Lecturer post, has likewise been promoted recently, to Senior Lecturer rank (roughly = Associate Professor in North American terms). This rapid promotion was likewise justified by his published research, including his important book-length study showing that Paul reflects a view of Jesus as Messiah, as well as a growing number of articles. Matt’s staff page is here.
Our newest addition, Dr. Philippa Townsend, is a Chancellor’s Fellow (a highly competitive post-doctoral fellowship), which allows her an initial three years of time focused on research projects. Her staff page is here.
And, wonderfully, all of these fine scholars are also fine colleagues, cordial, cooperative, hard-working, conscientious and committed to their students (at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels) as well as their subjects. I’m proud to have the chance to celebrate them and their successes.
Comments to my previous posting illustrate the occasional frustration in blogging: You raise an issue/topic, and commenters then take the discussion into other topics/issues. My previous posting wasn’t about the comparative usage of Hebrew and Aramaic, for example, or about how scribes rendered the Tetragram, but about the usage of Greek alongside Semitic languages and in the Jerusalem church. The point (which I, ah, thought should have been pretty clear) was therefore, that older notions that anything Greek must be secondary/later are dubious. So, to reiterate relevant points and try to steer us back onto the topic:
- The evidence shows Greek being used in Jewish Palestine from at least the 3rd century BCE onward. It was one of the languages of Jewish Palestine of the earliest period of the Jesus-movement.
- Textual evidence (e.g., Acts) posits a Jerusalem church comprised of Jewish believers whose first language was a Semitic one (I think most likely Aramaic, but that’s not the issue) and other Jewish believers whose first language was Greek. So, it appears likely that the Jerusalem church was at least bi-lingual from the earliest moments.
- So far as their scriptures were concerned, Jews appear to have treated copies written in Hebrew or Greek as scriptures, and a basis for exegesis. Earliest Jesus-movement believers seem to have done the same. So, in imagining those early moments of Jewish believers scouring their scriptures to try to understand their experiences (e.g., the resurrection/exaltation of Jesus experiences), we have to allow for rich interchange of those reading Greek and Hebrew versions of those scriptures.
- Nevertheless, whether Greek-speaking or Aramaic-speaking (or Hebrew-speaking), all indications are that these Jewish believers were devout in their allegiance to their ancestral deity and to the exclusivist stance characteristic of second-temple Jewish tradition: i.e., worship due solely to the one God of their tradition. There is no indication that they (or most other Jews of the time), whether in the Jewish homeland or the diaspora, had assimilated to the larger “pagan” religious culture on the question of worshipping the many gods of the time, or in accepting the apotheosis of rulers, etc. So, we can’t readily invoke their use of Greek to assert some sort of accompanying acceptance of these “pagan” notions/practices.
In responding to an excellent paper at the British New Testament Conference held here (3-5 September), I recalled the need to take account of the linguistic situation of first-century Judaea. We are accustomed to refer to the everyday use of Aramaic as the principal native language of the time, but we should also note that, especially in urban centres such as Jerusalem, we’re really dealing with a rather heavily bi-lingual setting. It is evident that Greek was (and for a long time had been) used quite a good deal, and that for many Jews Greek was their first language. This is reflected in the portrayal of the Jerusalem church in Acts of the Apostles, with a strong contingent of Greek-speaking Jews alongside the Aramaic-speaking Jews making up the church.
These Greek-speaking Jews had likely relocated to Jerusalem from their birthplaces in various Diaspora locations, where they had grown up with Greek as their primary language. The now-famous Theodotus Inscription reflects this. It is a dedicatory inscription for a synagogue established in first-century Jerusalem for Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora.
Similarly, especially in light of the biblical manuscript finds in the Judaean desert (e.g., Qumran), we now know that the text of biblical (“Old Testament”) writings was more diverse than some earlier generations of scholars realized. The familiar form of the Hebrew text (the “Masoretic” text) is attested, but so are other variant-forms, including Hebrew texts that seem to form the basis for some of the distinctive features of the Greek translation (sometimes referred to as the “Septuagint”).
All this means that earlier suppositions that a term or concept derived from Greek must reflect a secondary, later, perhaps Gentile circle of early Christianity are now shown to be simplistic. If the earliest circle of Jerusalem-based believers included both Greek-speaking and Aramaic-speaking people engaged in active cooperation and fellowship, then the development of earliest beliefs, and the activity of earliest scriptural exegesis among the young Jesus-movement could well have drawn in terms and concepts from both languages . . . from the outset. Moreover, the influences could well have gone in both directions, for we should not presume that in the Jerusalem church of that day Greek-speaking Jews deferred to Aramaic-speakers. Instead, there was likely a very lively sharing of insights and discoveries.
And, given the textual diversity of that time as well, we should not imagine that their textual resources were confined to what we know as the Masoretic and Septuagint forms. There was diversity in the text of the Hebrew biblical writings, and also some diversity in the text of the Greek translation of these writings. And any/all forms were likely regarded as “scripture,” giving a wealth of textual resources on which to draw as earliest Jesus-followers sought to understand their experiences and sought to frame ways to articulate and justify their beliefs.
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.
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).