I’m a bit tardy in commenting on the day-conference held here on 6 May: “Power, Authority, and Canon,” which brought together a small galaxy of scholars on questions about the process by which certain writings came to be treated as “scriptures” and what it meant to do so. The conference was organized by my Edinburgh colleague, Professor Timothy Lim, who himself is a major contributor to scholarly analysis on the topic, with his recent book: The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
Those presenting (in the order of their presentations) were John J. Collins (on uses of Torah in the second-temple period), Michael Satlow (on “bad prophecies,” i.e., how books that contain unfulfilled prophecy were included among “scriptures”), Manfred Oeming (proposing that the dynamics of canon-formation go deeply back into Israel’s history), Timothy Lim (arguing that divine “inspiration” doesn’t seem to have been all that decisive a criterion for canonicity), John Barton (exploring how much the contents of scriptural writings matters for faith-communities), Walter Moberly (a critique of a recent effort at redrawing the NT canon), Craig Evans (exploring Gospel reports of Jesus’ attitude toward scriptures), and Shaye Cohen (offering concluding reflections on the conference).
Our Martin Hall was full for the conference, which drew attendance from several UK universities, as well as from Germany, Lithuania, Canada, and the USA. There were animated discussions in response to papers and in the breaks for coffee and lunch, indicating that the topic continues to hold a lively interest. Lim is working with presenters toward publication of a volume arising from the conference.
Over the weekend I finished reading a brilliant new study of early Christian teaching about children and households: Margaret Y. MacDonald, The Power of Children: The Construction of Christian Families in the Greco-Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014). The publisher’s notice on the book is here.
The key NT texts mined in this study are the so-called “household codes”: Colossians 3:18–4:1; Ephesians 5:21–6:4; with attention also to 1 Peter 3:1-7; and passages in the Pastoral Epistles. Comparisons with Greco-Roman instructions about household management have often been made, and there are obvious similarities: e.g., wives, children and slaves are to be submissive to husbands, fathers, masters, etc. That is, the larger social structures of the Roman era are reflected and accepted in the NT texts. But, MacDonald argues (creatively and effectively in my view), there are also important notes that are subversive of those structures, or are at least subversive of the abusive aspects of them.
One important observation to be noted right away is that the Greco-Roman household instructions are typically addressed to the dominant male: e.g., husbands, fathers, slave-masters. These dominant males are told to (and how) to ensure that their wives, children and slaves are submissive. But the NT texts address both husbands and wives, both parents and children, both masters and slaves, as forming one “audience.” This (as others prior to MacDonald have noted) appears to be “a distinctly Christian innovation to the household codes.” This direct address to subordinate groups as full listening/authentic members of the “audience” (the gathered ekklesia) is “unusual, if not unique” (7).
In addressing these subordinate groups in this manner, the texts affirm their status as fellow members of the ekklesia, and confer on them a certain moral agency. Moreover, addressing both dominant an subordinate groups together, each one hearing the responsibilities of the others, confers a certain sense of mutual responsibilities. The relationships are, thereby, made part of the corporate life of the ekklesia, (whereas in Roman law and custom, the “father” of the household answered virtually to no one in how he treated subordinates). (By the way, we have a particularly vivid example of a private matter being made an ecclesial one in Philemon, where Paul’s exhortations about Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus are addressed also to “the church in your house,” v. 2.)
One of several observations that frame her analysis is that members of Roman-era churches often had multiple identities, e.g., slaves could be husbands or wives, and children could be slaves or free. “Fathers” could be surrogates (of various sorts) as well as biological ones. In this and other matters, she helps us take better account of the complexity of Roman-era households and the subtleties of these NT texts.
MacDonald’s analysis is careful and cogent, her conclusions measured (respecting the limits of the evidence), and her approach fully informed by relevant ancient evidence and scholarly work. The general line of argument is that these NT texts accept Roman-era social structures and yet also creatively challenged aspects of prevailing ideology and practices.
In addition to her specific arguments and conclusions, MacDonald also models how taking greater account of the historical context of NT texts can yield fresh insights into them. Among those who should read this book, thus, are those contemplating PhD work in the field!
The latest issue of the journal Early Christianity (vol. 6, no. 1, 2015) is given to several articles assessing Wilhelm Bousset’s classic work, Kyrios Christos (1913; English trans. of the 5th edition 1970; new edition of the English trans. Baylor University Press, 2013). The articles derive from a special session held in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2013. Here is the table of contents:
David Capes, “Introduction: A Centenary Celebration of Bousset’s Kyrios Christos” (3-4)
Cilliers Breytenbach, “Bousset’s Kyrios Christos: Imperfections of a Benchmark” (5-16)
Larry W. Hurtado, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Kyrios Christos: An Appreciative and Critical Assessment” (17-29)
Kelly Coblentz Bautch, “Kyrios Christos in the Light of Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Second-Temple Judaism” (30-50)
Lutz Doering, “Wilhelm Bousset’s Die Religion des Judentums im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter” (51-66). (This article actually focuses on another of Bousset’s major works, which continued to be used, especially in German circles as a textbook, for many decades.)
Robert Matthew Calhoun, “The Power of the Call: Wilhelm Bousset on Miracle, and Mark 1:16-20″ (67-88)
In my article, I focus on some key problems in Bousset’s method and assumptions that render his construction of the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion untenable. His use of sources was particularly bizarre. For example, he presumed that the sayings material in the Gospels somehow derived from and preserved the confessional stance of the “primitive Palestinian” Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement, and he treated the Pauline letters as indicative of a quite different and secondary development in Christological beliefs and practices. He presumed a “pre-Christian gnostic redeemer myth” that supposedly influenced particularly the Gospel of John. He drew upon texts centuries later than the NT to posit the supposed background and sources for beliefs reflected in the NT.
But I applaud his aim of setting earliest Christianity in its ancient historical setting, and his recognition that early devotional/worship practice should be a key focus for scholars. He was also correct to grant that the treatment of Jesus as “Kyrios” and so rightful (co)recipient of worship erupted early, within the very first years of the young Jesus-movement. We’d have much to argue about, but Bousset could be invited for a drink with the Early High Christology Club!
As illustrated in the recent articles I’ve reported on in earlier postings, scholars continue to approach the question of “hymns/odes” in the NT in what I regard as a curious fashion. They often first turn to “pagan” examples of hymns and formulate characteristics of Greek “pagan” hymns and poetry as a basis then for assessing putative hymnic material in the NT. This I find open to questions for a few reasons, and I’d think a more inductive approach more sensible.
To start from classical/pagan poetry and hymnody is to presume that earliest circles of what became Christianity would have adopted these as patterns for their own “odes”. But it seems to me much more likely that the earliest “hymnic” practices would have been shaped much more by the Psalms (which, by all evidence, seems to have been the most used and copied text in early Christianity). The Psalms don’t follow Greek poetic/hymnic forms. The earliest circles of the Jesus-movement, after all, were composed of Jews, and for the first few decades at least Jews (such as Paul) were prominent in leadership roles. It stands to reason that the sort of “hymnody” with which they were familiar would have shaped earliest Christian practices.
Likewise, the “singing” involved in earliest Christian circles was likely much closer to simple chanting, rather than involving any more complex musical patterns. You don’t need metre or rhyme to chant a text.
But, aside from these observations, I’d think it much more sensible to commence with early Christian texts that are explicitly identified as “hymns/odes,” and see what features they evince. Then, we might have a better set of earmarks to look for in searching out “hymnic” material that is not explicitly identified as such.
It seems to me that one (or perhaps the) obvious place to start is with the overtly-identified “hymns” of Revelation. There are at least two that the author identifies as “odes”: Revelation 5:9-10, and Revelation 15:3-4. In these two passages the author identifies the material as an “ode” that was “sung/chanted.” There are also other passages often taken as hymnic (e.g., 4:8; 5:12-13), but these don’t involve use of the terms “ode” or the verb for singing/chanting. So, let’s commence with the explicit cases.
These passages have an obvious solemnity and phonetic resonances when read in Greek, e.g., “hiereis (priests) and ges (earth) in v. 10, and a sonorous quality. Now, of course, these “hymns” are literary products, and are put in the mouths of heavenly and/or eschatological figures. They aren’t transcriptions of “hymns” chanted in churches such as those addressed by the author. But I think it’s a good bet that these odes reflect “hymnic” material with which the author was acquainted, at least in formal features if not in direct content. So, what would our expectations and criteria for what is or isn’t “hymnic” material elsewhere in the NT if we used these passages as key case studies?
Thanks to Crispin Fletcher-Louis’ pointer, I’ve read now another newly-published article on the question of whether Philippians 2:6-11 is a “hymn”: Michael Wade Martin and Bryan A. Nash, “Philippians 2:6-11 as Subversive Hymnos: A Study in the Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory,” Journal of Theological Studies 66, no. 1 (2015): 90-138. In this large article, they essentially argue that Philippians 2:6-11 exhibits key content-features typical of “hymns” as described in ancient rhetorical handbooks and related texts. They also note the verbal resonances and Psalm-like parallelism identified by others.
I’ll have to ponder the matter further, and their case seems substantial enough to warrant it. I’ll offer here only a few initial thoughts on the issues involved in this article and the other one that I posted about earlier this week.
First, there are at least two issues that are related to each other but should be kept distinct: (1) Is Philip 2:6-11 (and Col 1:15-20) a “hymn/ode” deriving from early Christian worship circles/practices? (2) Does Philip 2:6-11 exhibit features of content and construction that reflect a “hymnic” character? Even if the answer to the latter questions is “yes” (as I rather confidently think is the case), that leaves open the other question about the circumstances in which it was composed. Does the passage quote (or reflect, adapt) an early Christian “ode” or “spiritual song” that first emerged in early Christian worship? Or is the passage the product of Paul, admittedly a fine example of “exalted prose” or “praise poetry”, but not a direct artefact of earliest Christian worship?
Given the impressive (to me) compositional qualities of Philip 2:6-11, I confess that I’m less confident that it arose as a spontaneous and inspired oral composition in the context of worship. The verbal resonances (e.g., morphe theou/morphe doulou; hyparchon/labon; christos/patros), and the structured nature of the passage may more readily reflect composition as a text (or so it seems for the moment!).
But it is surely one of the most compressed, pithy and memorable Christological passages in the NT (as is Col 1:15-20). This suggests to me that the thoughts expressed could hardly have been new to the original readers. We require commentaries to explore what the phrasing means, but it seems that the original readers did not require this. So, the passages in question still likely presuppose more than initiate the exalted claims made about Jesus in them.
A recent journal article offers a new reason for reconsidering whether Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 are (as many scholars have thought) remnants/adaptations of early Christian hymns/odes: Benjamin Edsall & Jennifer R. Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37 (2015): 290-311.
They are by no means the first to raise this question, and to suggest a negative answer. Indeed, as the authors readily indicate, in recent decades several scholars have raised objections to these texts as deriving from “hymns/odes” sung or chanted in earliest Christian circles. Previous critiques have focused on the criteria typically cited as justifying the notion that these passages reflect hymnic phrasing. For example, there is no clear metrical structure, and the parallelism of the phrases is disputed as well.
The new contribution by Edsall & Strawbridge is to cite the uses of these passages in early Christian writings (of the pre-Nicene period), drawing on the results of Strawbridge’s 2014 DPhil thesis. They judge that excerpts from Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 “are amongst the most frequently cited Pauline texts in the whole of early Christian literature” (300). Both passages are cited several hundred times in the controversies over the person and nature of Jesus and the nature of God.
But, and this is their key point, in no case does any early Christian writer refer to either passage as a hymn (or as deriving from one). The authors contend, therefore, that early Christian readers of Philippians and Colossians didn’t see either passage as hymnic, and (barring some other strong reason to the contrary) neither should we.
Instead, they propose that these passages should be seen as “heightened prose” forming part of the composition of each epistle. They go on to offer the term Christuslob (literally “Christ-praise” or “praise of Christ”) (306). And, agreeing with Michael Peppard’s earlier complaint, they contend that it is inappropriate for these texts to be printed in poetic form, as in the Nestle-Aland editions of the Greek New Testament.
The arguments offered by Edsall & Strawbridge, along with those of the other recent works that they cite, should not be side-stepped, but should be considered carefully. It is certainly the case that what begins as a plausible hypothesis can become a presumed fact too readily, and this may be the case with these two texts. We know that earliest Christians chanted/sang biblical Psalms and also their own compositions of praise as part of their worship gatherings (e.g., 1 Cor 14:26). Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 are two of the most condensed christological statements in the NT, and they have syntactical features that readily distinguish them from their surrounding texts. But does either passage derive from early Christian worship, or are both the products of the author of each epistle?
Taking these passages as examples, Martin Hengel contended that early Christian hymns/odes, spontaneously prompted by experiences of religious/spiritual exaltation, were a crucial mode of earliest Christological expression. He may well still be correct, but the question underscored by Edsall & Strawbridge is whether Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 can still be taken as examples of this early Christian hymnody.
While that question is weighed in the guild, I’ve a couple of small immediate comments on the Edsall/Strawbridge article. First, in considering the applicability of the category of “rhetorical prose hymn” to these passages, they make a curious statement (299-300) that this is “entirely dependent on one’s reading of Paul’s Christology, since apart from worshipping Christ as God, these passages could equally be construed as praising Jesus as Lord (but not necessarily as God or even divine).” I am bound to say that this seems to me to reflect a strangely confused set of notions. As should be clear to any serious reader, in the NT Jesus is not worshipped “as God” (whatever that may mean) but, instead, with reference to God, as the Son of God, as the Lord appointed by God, as the “image” of God, etc. To be sure, Jesus is referenced as sharing the divine name and glory, and OT texts originally referring to “God” (YHWH) are interpreted with reference to Jesus, and, most importantly, in earliest Christian circles Jesus is accorded the sorts of reverence that are otherwise reserved for deities in the Roman era. So, there can be no question whether the exalted Jesus is treated in the NT as “divine.” But, at the same time, the NT (and early Christian writers generally) also distinguish God and Jesus, while also relating them uniquely to each other. (For further discussion, see my book, God in New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010.)
So, actually, it isn’t an argument against Philip 2:6-11 or Col 1:15-20 possibly being (or deriving from) a “rhetorical prose hymn” to hold that neither text presents Jesus being worshipped “as God.” There may be other reasons, but that one simply reflects confused thinking.
I was also a bit puzzled not to see the classic study by Joseph Kroll, Die christliche Hymnodik, included in their many references. Though now hard to find (except in really good theological libraries), it remains a noteworthy study that ranges widely through early Christian texts and examples of hymns.
Likewise, it seems to me that the study that most effectively persuaded most NT scholars that Philip 2:6-11 likely was hymnic was Ernst Lohmeyer’s 1928 work, Kyrios Jesus. Indeed, the layout of Philip 2:6-11 in the Nestle-Aland Greek text seems to follow the strophic layout proposed by Lohmeyer.
But, in sum, Edsall and Strawbridge give a stimulating airing of reasons to wonder whether Philip 2:6-11 and Col 1:15-20 are (or derive from) early Christian odes.
 E.g., Gordon D. Fee, “Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?” Bulletin of Biblical Research 2(1992): 29-46.
 Jennifer Strawbridge, “According to the Wisdom Given to Him”: The Use of the Pauline Epistles by Early Christian Writers before Nicaea” (DPhil Disssertation, University of Oxford, 2014).
 Michael Peppard, “’Poetry’, ‘Hymns’ and ‘Traditional Material’ in New Testament Epistles or How to Do Things with Indentations,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30(2008): 319-42.
 Martin Hengel, “Hymns and Christology,” in [Hengel] Between Jesus and Paul (London: SCM, 1983), 78-96; “The Song about Christ in Earliest Worship,” in [Hengel] Studies in Early Christology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1995), 227-91.
 Joseph Kroll, Die christliche Hymnodik bis zu Klemens von Alexandreia (Königsberg: Hartungsche Buchdruckerei, 1921).
 Ernst Lohmeyer, Kyrios Jesus: Eine Untersuchung zu Phil. 2, 5-11. Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1928).
Yesterday, Professor Troels Engberg-Pedersen (University of Copenhagen) favoured us with an invited lecture: “Paul, Stoicism, and the Material Spirit.” He is an established scholar in Pauline studies, of course, and very well versed also in ancient Greek Philosophy. The main emphasis in his line of publications on Paul over a number of years now has been to urge that there are elements in Paul’s thought that derive from, and make for interesting comparison with, terms and concepts that likely come from Stoicism.
In this lecture, Engberg-Pedersen focused particularly on Paul’s use of the word “spirit” (Greek: pneuma). He noted that in popular usage today, “spirit” and “spiritual” tend to signify an immaterial thing, and (probably rightly) he judged that this reflects the general (albeit, now highly diluted) Platonism that is one of the intellectual tributaries of Western culture. But in Paul’s usage, “spirit” seems always to refer to something that is more substantial, and can be referred to as acting and having a real property. Engberg-Pederson offered that in Stoic thought as well, “spirit” is more a highly refined substance rather than totally immaterial. So, he proposes, Paul’s use of “spirit” makes for interesting comparison with Stoic usage.
Maybe. But I wonder if we aren’t missing something else. We don’t know, and (as Engberg-Pedersen granted) it’s unlikely that Paul had ever studied Stoicism or any of the writers connected with it. We do know, however, that Paul was a devout and intensive reader of his Jewish scriptures (the oodles of citations and allusions alone should make that clear). So, isn’t it actually a much more straightforward approach to consider similarities and connections between Paul’s use of “spirit” and the use of the term in those writings? And, if we do so, I submit that we have a good deal of the basic view of what a “spirit” is that Paul seems to draw upon and develop. You didn’t have to be (or be influenced by) a Stoic to imagine that a “spirit” was some kind of highly refined “material” or reality.
Moreover, if we take account of the apparently increasing interest in the divine/holy Spirit in Jewish writings of the period roughly contemporary with Paul (e.g., the Qumran texts), that, too, helps us understand better why the notion is so prominent in NT writings. (As I noted in my book, God in New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press, 2010, 73-95.)
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s clear that Paul reflects some terms and concepts that likely derived originally from Stoicism. Paul’s references to a human “conscience” (Greek: syneidesis) give us a cogent example (e.g., Romans 2:15; 9:1, and other references in Paul and other NT texts). But in these cases, we’re likely dealing with things that, by Paul’s time, had long-since become simply part of the intellectual furniture (or cultural “groundwater”) of the day. In short, lots of people came to think that people had a conscience and wouldn’t have been aware that to do so was a Stoic notion. There’s a danger of something like the etymological fallacy, if we aren’t careful.
So, with great admiration of Engberg-Pedersen’s knowledge of ancient Greek philosophy, and with a full readiness to read Paul in his historical context, I have to say that I find his emphasis on things Stoic to wander a bit into exaggeration. Moreover, as evident in some of the discussion after the lecture, I was still more puzzled at some of his readings of Pauline texts.
For example, do we really have an ascetic Paul arguing against sex and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7? Actually, in 7:1-7, Paul gives directions for marital sex that seem rather forthright and affirming, including the radical notion that the wife has her own conjugal rights and that her husband’s body belongs to her, just as hers belongs to him.
Granted, to “the unmarried [Greek: agamoi] and the widows,” Paul suggests (NB: suggests) that they remain so; but then freely advises re-marriage if they are unable to handle singleness (7:8-9). In the following verses, Paul conveys a “command” from “the Lord” (Jesus), however, that married partners should not abandon their marriage (7:10-11), and then even urges that believers married to unbelievers should also treat their marriage as valid (7:12-16). This doesn’t sound very ascetic at all, actually.
I certainly support Engberg-Pedersen’s emphasis in his lunchtime talk to students that we must go to the sources themselves, and read them again and again to ensure that we understand as well as we can. I also genuinely acknowledge the body of work of this most cordial and engaging colleague. Comparison’s with Stoic thought can often help us to see more clearly the specifics and distinctives in Paul’s teachings. I reserve judgement, however, on the question of whether Paul was particularly indebted to Stoicism. I rather doubt it, and the limits of what can be gained from comparing Paul and the Stoics may be more narrow than Engberg-Pedersen might urge.
Andrew McGowan’s new book, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) is now a major new resource for any who share my interest in historical origins of Christian worship practices. (The publisher’s catalogue entry here.) His focus is on practices, but he does include evidence of how early Christians regarded them and what these practices meant as expressions of their faith.
The scope of topics/practices covered is impressively wide, as is the time-frame covered (the first five centuries or so). The chapter titles will indicate the topics. After an introduction, we have “Meal: Banquet and Eucharist” (chap. 2), “Word: Reading and Preaching” (chap. 3), “Music: Song and Dance” (chap. 4), “Initiation: Baptism, Anointing, and Foot Washing” (chap. 5), “Prayer: Hours, Ways, and Texts” (chap. 6), and “Time: Feasts and Fasts” (chap. 7).
For me, given my own focus on the first couple of centuries or so, the larger chronological breadth of McGowan’s discussion of each of the topics covered was informative. He cites primary texts helpfully, and shows a generally impressive familiarity with scholarly work of others. My main emphasis, therefore, is commendation of this book to anyone interested in the early history of Christian worship practices.
But there were a few surprising disappointments. In his treatment of baptism, McGowan doesn’t even mention that our earliest texts refer to baptism “in/into Jesus’ name” (e.g., Acts 2:38; and Paul’s allusion to this in Romans 6:3 “baptized into Christ Jesus”). This apparently involved the ritual invocation of Jesus’ name (by the person being baptized and/or by the person administering baptism). McGowan mentions neither this practice (strange for a work focused on practice) nor the substantial scholarly works on it. The older, classic study was Wilhelm Heitmüller, “Im Namen Jesu”: Eine sprach-und-religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung zum Neuen Testament, speziell zur altchristlichen Taufe, FRLANT, 1/2 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1903). But more recently there are the several publications by Lars Hartman, especially his book: ‘Into the Name of the Lord Jesus’: Baptism in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1997); and an earlier journal article: “Baptism `Into the Name of Jesus’ and Early Christology: Some Tentative Considerations,” Studia Theologica 28 (1974): 21-48.
As Hartman showed, the expression “in/into the name of Jesus” seems to have conveyed the notion that the person baptized came thereby into a new/special relationship with Jesus, in some sense under Jesus’ ownership. Hartman concluded that the Greek expression translates an earlier Semitic expression, meaning that the practice of baptism “in/into Jesus’ name” goes back into the earliest circles of emergent Christianity. The (subsequently) more familiar “Trinitarian” formula drawn from Matthew 28:19 may have become ascendant as Christianity became more dominantly composed of former pagans, whose baptism involved a renunciation of pagan gods as well as allegiance to Jesus.
I also was surprised to find no reference in McGowan’s book to the practice of “confession” of Jesus as “Lord”, which seems to have been a collective act as part of early Christian worship-gatherings. Paul refers to this practice in Romans 10:9-13, and scholars commonly see allusion to it also in 1 Corinthians 12:3, and probably in Philippians 2:9-11 (the latter text projecting a universal confession of Jesus as “Kyrios”). And, again, the practice seems to have originated in Aramaic-speaking circles, as reflected in the curious “maranatha” formula in 1 Corinthians 16:22 (which appears to = “marana (a)tha” = “O Lord, Come!”). (I find no reference to “maranatha” at all in McGowan’s book.)
This “confession” of Jesus as “Lord” is what Paul seems to mean by referring to “calling upon” Jesus as Lord in Romans 10:13. It’s striking that he uses an expression that derives from OT texts that originally referred to invoking/worshipping God (YHWH), appropriating it for the reverence to be given to Jesus. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul can simply designate Christians as “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This rather obviously reflects how typical the practice had become broadly in the young Jesus-movement.
Although McGowan’s acquaintance with scholarly work is generally impressive, there are a few other (smaller) matters of curious lapse. E.g., his reference to the puzzling fragment, P. Oxy. 840, shows no knowledge of what is now its major study: Michael J. Kruger, The Gospel of the Savior : An Analysis of P.Oxy.840 and Its Place in the Gospel Traditions of Early Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
But these complaints don’t prevent me from recommending McGowan’s book heartily. The breadth of coverage, the wealth of detailed information, and the balanced judgments (e.g., on the “fantasy” that December 25 was a major sun-feast day then taken over by Christians) combine to make it essential for the study of early Christianity.
Last Friday evening here in the UK the TV programme, “Mysteries of the Bible–Jesus” showed (Channel 5, 9 pm), and already I’ve had one commenter asking why I allowed myself to be included in the programme. So, a few comments are in order.
First, when you’re approached by researchers for such a TV programme (at least in my experience), you’re not usually told the larger storyline or sweep of the programme. They simply say they have some particular questions that they’d like to interview you about. So, you can deal with those questions but never know in advance where the rest of the programme is going, or even if they’ll use all or any of your own interview. I, therefore, have no responsibility for this or other programmes for which I’ve been interviewed.
But let me now turn to some matters that made me feel glad not to be responsible for the programme. First, why did they devote such a large amount of the programme to the absurd notion that Jesus as a young man travelled to England, where he learned stuff from the “Druids”? No scholar takes any such notion as credible in the slightest. I guess the producers thought it would add what they regarded as something sensational. To their credit, they did allow a couple of scholars to debunk the claim. But we didn’t need the length of time given to the loony notion.
By contrast, for example, why no reference to something that is widely accepted by scholars, and regarded as historically significant: Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptizer? Now there are some interesting trails to follow up there. Or why no mention that Jesus gathered a body of twelve who seem to have had a special symbolic significance?
I also found it a bit curious that the programme made Jesus’ crucifixion quite so crucial. In one segment, Ehrman appeared to claim that it was essential that Jesus was crucified, not simply executed. And the programme then wound up making Jesus’ crucifixion the basis for subsequent Christianity.
But, so far as I can see, any form of violent death would have done as indicative of Jesus as martyr and obedient to the divine plan. Indeed, there are indications that Jesus’ crucifixion was from early on a potential difficulty in early Christian proclamation (e.g., Paul’s reference to the notion as a “stumbling block” for many). That Jesus was crucified meant that he was executed by the State, his execution, thus, for a political crime, and that is both historically significant and potentially relevant for Christian faith.
But as for the interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion as redemptive, as part of God’s plan, all this was not as a self-evident result of the crucifixion, but as a result of the powerful conviction that erupted shortly thereafter that God had raised Jesus from death and exalted him to heavenly glory. It’s curious (to put it mildly), therefore, that the programme made no reference to this. It wasn’t necessary for the TV programme to endorse the claim that God raised Jesus from death (that’s a theological claim); but it was beyond strange for the programme not to have indicated that this conviction (whatever you make of its validity) was in fact the historical ignition-point of what became “Christianity.”
So, we wind up with some mysteries about the programme itself. For some reason, TV producers seem reluctant to take advice on the preparation of a programme from scholars in the subject. Friday’s programme shows the results. Let’s hope for better results next time.
Yesterday I received notice of an extensive, two-part review of N.T. Wright’s 2-vol opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, by Chris Tilling. The review combines a generous and cordial attitude toward Wright with incisive criticism of some major problems in Wright’s big work. The review is available online in an “open access” journal, Anvil. The link is here.
I’ll also take the liberty of mentioning again my own review of the work, which appeared in a journal last year: Theology 117 (2014): 361-65. The pre-publication version is available on this blog site here.