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Is the New Testament a Field of Study?

In the course of researching for another topic, I came across my notes of an article by Leander Keck, one of the major American figures in NT studies in the late 20th century:  “Is the New Testament a Field of Study? Or, From Outler to Overbeck and Back,” Second Century 1 (1981): 19-35.  It’s the sort of reflective piece that is best written by someone with ample time in the subject, and Keck’s essay is well worth the reading, even these several decades later than its publication.

On the one hand, Keck urges that for historical inquiry into early Christianity, the NT writings must be treated the same as any other ancient source.  To cite Keck in his own words,

“All texts are equal in the court of criticism. For this reconstructive task, what matters is not whether a text is canonical but whether it was produced by someone who considered himself a Christian, and whether we can determine what kind of Christianity it manifests. For a reconstruction of the early Christian past, all such texts are simply ‘early Christian literature.'” (p. 30).

On the other hand, he contends, to “dissolve” the NT, treating it as “an error to be rectified,” produces distortions in theological and also historical work.  Keck argues that amassing “Early Christian literature” does not indicate “which of them was influential and which was marginal, if not obscure, in its own time.” Granting that it is difficult to determine this exactly, he nevertheless insists, “But if the historian disregards the fact that a particular corpus of texts was becoming canonical [in the early centuries], then one’s historical perception is skewed.” (p. 31).

Referring to “the Mandaean fever of the 20s and a severe case of Qumranitis in the 50s,” Keck observes that “repeatedly our agenda probably elevated to major significance for the New Testament certain texts which might not have been nearly as influential on the early Christians as we have made them.” (p, 32).

Given the considerable body of early Christian literature, the selection of certain texts to function as scripture in a wide diversity of circles of early Christianity should not be ignored:  “For the historian of early Christianity to treat this as a curious and probably unfortunate development or to relegate it to the shag end of a course in New Testament introduction . . . is to minimize the one thing that links later Christianity, including that of our own time, with that of the early centuries.” (p. 32)

As to the canonization process, Keck writes, “It is a commonplace, and one I have no desire to overturn, that to a considerable extent canonization was really ratification, that what was canonized had already established its preeminence as scripture before it was made canonical in the strict sense.”  (p. 33)  In a footnote, Keck cites A.C. Sundberg, “The Bible Canon and the Christian Doctrine of Inspiration,” Interpretation 29(1975): 356, in support of the distinction between “scripture” as “authoritative writings” and “canon” as “a closed collection of Scriptures.”

So, as for the question posed in his title, whether the NT is “intelligible as a field of study”, the answer must be no, “for the New Testament alone is an unhistorical abstraction from historical reality.” He further urges that for historical study, “What is to be desired rather is a history of early Christianity in which a central place is given precisely to the restless dialectic of the emergent canon(s) and the communities in which it (they) was (were) taking shape.” (p. 35)

In a similar spirit, our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins from the outset has represented a commitment to historical inquiry that takes account of the wider context in which Jesus and the movement that became Christianity emerged.  To keep things manageable, this has meant a chronological focus on the first two centuries or so.

In short, for theological purposes the NT is (and should be) a “privileged” body of texts.  But for historical purposes we should both take account of the breadth and diversity of early Christian literature and also the dynamics that from a remarkably early point gave to certain texts a special status and authority among at least many (most?) early Christian circles.

Fredriksen Honorary Doctorate

Hearty congratulations to Paula Fredriksen (academic pal) on being awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University!  She is an eminent scholar in early Christianity, with a new/forthcoming book on Paul:  Publisher’s online description here.


(The top hat is the gear awarded with the doctorate in Lund.)

Fredriksen hon doctorate

How We See Historical Changes

Working now on a paper for a conference at summer’s end on the formation of early Christianity, I’ve noted to myself how careful we must be in the insufficiently examined use of metaphors to characterize the chronological changes in early Christianity.

With the (dubious?) advantage of hindsight, we know the sorts of changes in early Christianity that came somewhat later, such as the changes from first to second century and thereafter.  I think that we have to beware of thinking of changes in terms of a “maturation” or movement from “primitive” to more advanced stages.  In some things, such as technological developments, those involved at early points see their work as only an early stages of something that could likely undergo refinement, improvement, and sophistication later.  In these cases, it’s ok to refer to earlier points as “embryonic” of later developments.  But in at least some historical phenomena, this kind of characterization may be inappropriate.

It’s not clear, for example, that Jesus-believers of Paul’s time (ca. 30-60 CE) thought of themselves, their faith and practices as “primitive” or “embryonic” of some more mature and complete form of Jesus-devotion that might be worked out across time.  I get the impression, instead, that Paul (for example) thought of the convictions and teachings that he delivered as adequately formed and fully appropriate for his situation.  So, if we refer to those early years of the Jesus-movement as embryonic or the seeds of something that developed later, I think that we’re importing a value judgment that isn’t based on the evidence.

Sure, changes in early Christian beliefs and practices happened, such as those across the first two or three centuries.  But I suggest that it’s better to see these as changes that happened in response to changing circumstances, changing issues facing Jesus-believers, etc.  So, for example, the articulations of Christian faith in someone like Justin Martyr or Tertullian aren’t instances of maturation of something immature; instead, they are changed formulations prompted by the changed circumstances of their times.

In any change of circumstances, of course, it is entirely appropriate for members of a religious movement to assess changes to the formulation of their faith, and to weigh critically proposed changes.  A living tradition changes; but it changes with critical concern both to address changed circumstances and also to maintain an authentic connection with the predecessor tradition.  And individuals may well differ on the matter.

But my main point is a historical one, about examining how we see changes in a religious tradition, avoiding the use of metaphors that unconsciously import value judgments into historical work.  Of course, it is also possible to privilege earlier forms of a tradition over later ones, seeing subsequent forms as declensions or deviations from a “pure” and “original” form.  That too is more a value judgment, and likely a theological one, rather than a fair historical analysis.  There can be deviations or developments that take a tradition in a very different direction that might involve abandoning some key features of the tradition.  But not all change is deviation.  Changed historical issues and circumstances require changes in how religious groups articulate their faith.

Alms, Acts of Compassion, Rewards, and Atonement for Sins

David J. Downs, Alms:  Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity (Baylor University Press, 2016), will be an enlightening and stimulating read for many.  His central thesis is that early Christian texts of the first three centuries reflect the beliefs that doing acts of kindness/mercy (including, but not restricted to financial assistance) was widely encouraged, was portrayed as something that God would reward eschatologically, and was also regarded as a way of atoning for sins.

Downs also shows cogently that this view seems to have sat comfortably alongside the conviction that Jesus’ death was the supreme and unique atonement for sins.  In some texts, the explicit distinction is that Jesus’ death atones for pre-baptismal sins and merciful-acts help cover post-baptismal sins.  In other texts, however, the distinction isn’t so sharp, and the authors simply affirm the uniqueness of Jesus’ atoning death alongside exhortations to merciful acts as also “covering a multitude of sins.”

Protestants especially may find Downs’s analysis startling or troubling, and may be tempted to write off the texts that he cites as simply failing to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus’ redemptive work.  But I think that would be a mistake.  For the notions of meritorious actions (i.e., merciful actions that God rewards) are there all through the NT as well, including sayings ascribed to Jesus (e.g., Matthew 6:1-4; Luke 12:33)!

After a lengthy Introduction, Downs first reviews references to acts of mercy that acquire rewards in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint).  Then, he addresses texts in the “Apocrypha,” Jewish writings that were sometimes cited as scriptural but didn’t make it into the finalized Hebrew Bible.  In particular, texts from Tobit and Sirach were frequently cited by early Christians as bases for their encouragement to merciful actions.

Thereafter, he gives a close analysis of early Christian texts.   This includes the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (chap. 4), the Pauline epistles (chap 5, which includes attention to the NT writings typically regarded as written in Paul’s name but not by him), and the influence of 1 Peter 4:8 (“love covers a multitude of sins”) in subsequent early Christianity (chap. 6).

In chap 7, Downs cites early Christian writings that connect care for the needy with belief in the resurrection, and that accuse those Christians who didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection of a connected lack of interest in such merciful acts.  In chap. 8, Downs shows that early Christian teachings about almsgiving and related kindness were grounded in exegesis of scriptural texts, and were not foreign elements in early Christian concerns.

In his conclusion, Downs reflects on how the evidence that he reviews might be regarded by Christians today, especially Evangelical Protestants, who might be inclined to think that these texts exhibit some declension from a “pure” faith in Jesus’ atoning significance.

I won’t go into more detail and spoil the reading of the book for others.  It’s a well-researched, well-written and organized book, and the basic line of argument seems to me compelling.  (The publisher’s online description is here.)

Young Scholars of Promise

I am currently taking part in events connected with the 2017 Lautenschlaeger Awards for Theological Promise in the University of Heidelberg.  The award is given to ten young scholars on the basis of their doctoral thesis or first book judged to reflect outstanding promise in scholarly work.   The scope of the awards is very broad, as you can see by scanning this year’s winners here.

In my own field, they include Frederick Tappenden’s book, Resurrection in Paul:  Cognition, Metaphor and Transformation, in which Tappenden explores the multiple ways that Paul deploys references to resurrection.  In some texts such as Romans 6, Paul speaks of the power of resurrection-life that can be already at work in his converts, providing inner resources for new life.  In other texts such as Romans 8, however, Paul refers to the future and bodily resurrection of believers in more traditional eschatological mode.

Another winner this year in my field is T. J. Lang’s book, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness:  From Paul to the Second Century.  Lang contends that there is a development or shift from Paul’s use of the term mysterion (Greek = “secret”) to the subsequent usage in which it becomes part of an early Christian organization of history into a period promise and one of fulfilment.

All the winners are impressive young scholars, and it is an honor and privilege to take part of identifying such promising scholars and helping in giving them the unique recognition represented in these Lautenschlaeger Awards.

The “Thorny Crown”

At our recent day-conference on ancient coinage, one speaker noted the depiction of rulers as wearing a “radiate crown,” a crown with spikey points that seems intended to ascribe the ruler with divine qualities.  You can see examples on coins here.

Many years ago, H. St. J. Hart proposed that the “thorny crown” placed on Jesus’ head by the Roman soldiers in the Gospels accounts was one made to mock Jesus more than particularly to inflict pain:  “The Crown of Thorns in John 19, 2-5,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 3 (1952): 66-75.  Hart’s article includes plates of coins depicting various forms of the radiant crown, and he explored also the types of plants whose spikey leaves may have been used for the crown placed on Jesus’ head.  Shortly thereafter, Campbell Bonner published an article giving further support to Hart’s proposal:  “The Crown of Thorns,” Harvard Theological Review 46 (1953):  47-48.

As Hart noted, this sort of crown fits the context, in which the soldiers are depicted as dressing Jesus in a purple robe, with a reed as a mock sceptre, and the soldiers then (in Mark) bow down to him in mock obeisance.

I’m taken with the idea, and have been since I first read Hart’s article many years ago.


Kloppenborg’s Review of “Destroyer”

On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, in the prestigious online journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, here.  And the reviewer, John Kloppenborg, is certainly himself a respected scholar, his review broadly irenic in tone.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed that he seems to have misunderstood my clearly stated objectives in the book, and so a major point of his criticism is . . ., well, quite beside the point.  Contra Kloppenborg’s statement that, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” I state no such intention in the book.  I do draw upon Rodney Stark’s observation that successful religious groups maintain a balance between compatibility with their cultural setting and distinctiveness from it.  This simply serves as a premise to exploring what distinctive features characterized early Christianity, which was self-evidently “successful” across the first three centuries.

But, contra Kloppenborg’s characterization of the book’s “burden,” I make it rather clear from the outset that I have two main points in the book:  (1) Early Christianity did have certain distinctive features, as observed by contemporaries, especially non-Christians; and (2) the particular distinctive features discussed in the book have become for us unexamined assumptions about “religion.”  Neither of these objectives entails the necessity of theorizing how or why early Christianity “succeeded.”   So Kloppenborg’s complaint is, I have to say, misjudged and even inappropriate.

Also, contrary to the impression one might take from Kloppenborg’s review, I do allow for variations in the ways that early Christians negotiated their existence in the Roman world.  They weren’t by any means uniform in their stance about such things as participation in feasts in honour of the gods, for example, and I cite the texts in 1 Corinthians and in Revelation noted by Kloppenborg as indicating such differences.

As for my view on the early Christian preference for the codex, the data are rather clear.  Christians preferred the codex far, far more than anyone else in the early centuries.  Oh, and later visual depictions of Jesus and the prophets and the apostles and their books are interesting.  But it’s not quite as willy-nilly as Kloppenborg assumes.  A solid study needs to be written on this subject (perhaps a good PhD topic for someone!).  But, e.g., the Evangelists and Paul are rather consistently depicted with codexes, whereas the OT prophets have scrolls.  That suggests there was in ancient Christian iconography a recognition of the semiotic differences between these two bookforms.  I wouldn’t expect full consistency in the matter, but there does seem to me to be a dominant pattern to the visual use of codex and scroll in Christian art.  And as for Bagnall’s claims about the codex, see my posting about them here (which includes a link to my review of Bagnall’s book).

Kloppenborg likens the pagan house-cult that I cite to Paul’s congregations, suggesting that it is invalid to characterize the one as a local cult and Paul’s groups as trans-local.  But I find this a surprising gaff.  For surely Paul’s own trans-local ministry, as “apostle to the nations/gentiles,” meant that each of his “local” congregations was (and knew themselves to be) part of a movement of much larger geographical and ethnic dimensions.  Paul’s collection for Jerusalem expresses the trans-local relationships that he sought to foster, in that case not only linking his own churches together in a common effort, but also linking them with their fellow believers in Roman Judea.  I could say more on this point, but it should be obvious that the early Christian movement wasn’t simply a bunch of “local cults” with no trans-local connections or relationships.

As another response to Kloppenborg’s critique, in fact I do note that there are other examples of what I call “voluntary” religion (Kloppenborg’s term “polis cults”) in the Roman world, such as the cults of Mithras, Isis, and others.  Yes, of course.  But, so far as we know, none of these cults expected members to desist from sacrifice to their traditional gods.  None raised any problem with members continuing to express their religious allegiance to families, cities or empire through reverencing the many deities.  Among the new religious movements of the time, only early Christianity made such things issues for members.  So, it is simply a red-herring to point to other “voluntary cults” as if that somehow diminishes early Christian distinctiveness.

I find it interesting that biblical scholars seem more reluctant to grant my point than do historians of Roman-era religion.  That should be evident from the many such historians that I cite and draw upon in the book.  How to account for this is not my concern.

I conclude, however, by acknowledging gratefully Kloppenborg’s irenic tone, especially his concluding comments.  Destroyer of the gods wasn’t written primarily as a monograph for scholars, but as a scholarly book for a wide readership.  But I share Kloppenborg’s hope that the book may help to simulate further scholarly work on the fascinating movement that became Christianity.

Two Recent Books on Coins

In light of the recent day-session on “Coins and the Bible” here, I want to note two recent books.  Coins were a regular medium for kings and administrators to promote themselves and their regimes.  Coins were also sometimes minted to celebrate military victories.  Coinage is one important part of the “material culture” of the ancient world.  The metals used, the use of images and writing, the places where coins were minted, all these things and more contribute to historical understanding of the period in which they were minted.

Coins and the Bible, eds. Richard Abdy & Amelia Dowler (London:  Spink, 2013) appeared in connection with the exhibition of the same name held in the British Museum, 17 May – 20 October 2013.  Especially for those not familiar with how to “read” coins of the ancient world, this book will be a useful introduction.  It offers a survey of coins from earliest production through to the Byzantine period (4th-7th century AD).  And it is richly illustrated (although many of the images are small and may require use of a magnifying glass!).  For students of the NT and Christian Origins, the chapters on “The Herods (40 BC – AD95), Money in the Time of Jesus,” “Money and the Gospels,” “The Downfall of Judaea (AD 66-135),” and “Christian Dawn (Roman Empire, 3rd Century AD)” will be particularly informative.

Judaea and Rome in Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE, eds. David M. Jacobson and Nikos Kokkinos (London:  Spink, 2012), includes papers originally presented at a conference hosted by the publisher, 13-14 September 2010.  These papers give much more focused attention to particular types of coins, with attention to coins of Herod, the Roman Prefects of Judaea in the early first century (including notably coins minted by Pontius Pilate), Jewish coins of the revolt (66-72 CE) and the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), and coins minted under emperors Vespasian and Nerva.

It is interesting to note how the various kinds of coins reflect also the religious outlook of those who minted them.  The coins minted to celebrate the Jewish revolt, for example, don’t have representations of humans or animals, whereas the “pagan” coinage typically does.  And the illustrations in this book are clear, even those small ones.

“Paperback Writer”

My recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), is now available in paperback edition (the publisher’s online catalogue entry here), at a reduced price of $19.95.

I’m pleased to learn this, both because it means that the clothbound edition sold out, and also because the paperback price means that the book may now reach a wider readership.  I express my thanks again to Dr. Carey Newman (Director of BUP) and to all his energetic team for their various contributions to my book.


Paul and Letter-Writing

I’ve written a posting for the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins on recent scholarly works analysing ancient authorial practices in relationship to Paul here.

These include a new book focused on the practice of authors adding a concluding postscript of sorts in their own hand.  And I also recommend to serious students of Christian Origins that they subscribe to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, a valuable online book review journal covering all aspects of the ancient world.

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