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Early Christian Movements: “Successful” and “Unsuccessful”

August 23, 2012

Further to my posting earlier today, I draw attention to an important book that has received attention but deserves more:  Michael Allen Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”:  An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1996).  It’s full of intriguing insights, observations and proposals, most of which bear on scholarly attempts to characterize “gnosticism/gnostics” and use these terms meaningfully.  Williams’ main argument is that this effort hasn’t been very successful.  Not all have agreed with the full measure of his own take on things, which is that we should drop these terms as not having any agreed meaning, but he does mount an impressive case.  Essentially, Williams proposes that we can identify certain ancient Christians who held to what he calls “demiurgical” ideas, i.e., that the world was created by an inferior or evil deity, not the high deity of salvation.  He insists that this is a quite specific and verifiable type of early Christian belief/stance, but that when we move off beyond this specific belief the terms “gnostic/gnosticism” become a”wax nose”, i.e., the terms don’t have any firm meaning but become a kind of catch-all for various emphases such as asceticism, mysticism, etc.

One of the many intriguing portions of the book that I was re-reading today comes in his final chapter titled “… and What They Left Behind”.  Williams proposes (p. 262) that the 4th-century Nag Hammadi mansucripts of so-called “gnostic” writings should be regarded then as “shards from what were, in relative terms, failed religious movements of earlier generations, debris from religious experiences that never really created truly successful new religions.”   Nevertheless, the copying and gathering of these texts in the 4th century reflected some continuing interest in them, “the vibrant and incessant experientation to which the Nag Hammadi texts bear anecdotal testimony . . . itself evidence that ‘failures’ in the sociological sense only create fresh opportunity and inviting leftover material for the next round of innovators.”

Earlier in this chapter, Williams considers what a “successful” and an “unsuccessful” religious movement means in sociological terms, drawing upon the work of other scholars such as Rodney Stark  too, proposing features of various forms of early Christianity that made them “unsuccessful”.  Some of them were “not radical enough,” sustaining too little tension with their sociocultural environment, and others were too much in tension with their environment, or failed to develop the organizational strength needed to succeed and sustain themselves over time.

He doesn’t use the image, but in a sense in the first three centuries CE, when no form of Christianity had any special status (and, indeed, Christians were often regarded as deviant and were subject to social hostility and sometimes government persecution), it was a kind of “free-market economy”, each form of Christianity required to contend for its emphases and win adherents.  To put it another way, in his stimulating study of key intellectual developments in second-century Chrisitanity, as Eric Osborn said of key Christian thinkers of the second century, they “had to argue for their lives” (The Emergence of Christian Theology [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993], 3).  And some were more up to this than others.  By the time that Constantine was looking at Christianity as a religion to endorse, it was already clear that by far the most “successful” version was that constellation that became “orthodox/catholic” Christianity.  Other Christian movements just didn’t commend themselves as well, and didn’t hold up as well in the difficult 2nd-3rd centuries of complex struggles.  As I wrote once in a review of Bart Ehrman’s book, Lost Christianities, I was reminded of a quip by the American comedian, Jerry Seinfeld:  “Sometimes the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”

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  1. Laurie Hall permalink

    Speaking of early Christ movements, do you have any opinion on the Gabriel Revelation Stone?

    Also, I have noticed an interesting clustering of early activity around ancient Pontus – we’ve got Marcion hailing from Sinope/Pontus, Paul inexplicably heading up to that general area right after his experience on the road to Damascus (instead of going straight to the apostles in Jerusalem), and Aquila and Priscilla, whom Paul joined forces with in Corinth (Acts 18:18-19). In Acts 18:2, we find that Aquila is from Pontus – and from elsewhere, we’ve got another Aquila from Pontus, who wrote a translation of the Hebrew scriptures in the early 2nd Century CE. Acts 2:9 mentions believers from Pontus coming to the feast at Pentecost, and 1 Peter 1:1 addresses the epistle to “strangers” in Pontus and surrounding cities. Do you have any perspective on the development of this geographic area in earliest Christianity? Polycarp’s status in the quartodeciman controversy speaks to the early power and influence of the churches in that general area (Asia Minor).

    Finally, do you know of any other meaning to “tentmaker” than “someone who sews tents together”? It seems that, if that were the only sense, Aquila and Priscilla might not have welcomed Paul, as he would have represented economic competition. Tents made of leather would be quite durable; how many tents can you expect to sell in a given area? But if there were a missionary angle to the term, what with early congregations meeting in temporary “tent” locations until a permanent church could be built (or like Evangelical tent revivals, which became popular in the US in the 1970s), it would make sense for them to join forces. The only activity mentioned for these people is preaching.

    • Laurie, let’s first get the fact straight. Paul says he went to “Arabia” and Damascus after his Christophany event (Gal. 1:17), and then after three years to Jerusalem, and then (1:21) to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia”. Pontus doesn’t figure. 1 Peter 1:1 refers to believers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, not “Pontus and surrounding cities”. There are some interesting people from Pontus, but I can’t offer any insight about why. And please note that “Pontus” is a specific area, not to be confused with the Roman province of Asia or Cappadocia, or Galatia, etc.
      On Paul’s “tentmaking”, see Paul W. Barnett, “Tentmaking,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin, D. G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 1993), 925-27. Most think he worked in leather goods, tents, canopies, awnings, etc. There’s no evidence of any metaphorical use of the expression such as you ponder.
      On the “Gabriel Revelation” stone, there is the following multi-author volume: Matthias Henze, ed., Hazon Gabriel: New Readings of the Gabriel Revelation (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). Knohl’s proposed reconstruction of the text of the writing to make it refer to a suffering/dying/resurrected Messiah hasn’t fared well among scholars to this point. Then too, the unprovenanced nature of the actual stone remains a bit of a worry. It’s still a looooong reach to claim that pre-Christian Jews entertained ideas of a dying/rising Messiah. The claim makes for sales of books, TV programmes, etc., but doesn’t have much going for it in any hard evidence.

  2. John McBryde permalink

    If memory serves, the early church fathers often claimed apostolic authority, through an appeal to apostolic succession. For example, Irenaeus:

    “It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times, men who neither knew nor taught anything like what these heretics rave about” ( Against Heresies 3:3:1)


  3. I have a couple questions as well.

    You have mentioned a number of times that you feel Paul’s letters are our earliest evidence for Christianity. That would imply that all these “failed religious movements” and their texts are of a later date.

    1. Since orthodox Christianity came to be the most successful with Paul’s letters at its core, would that suggest that the basics of orthodox Christianity always existed? And do we have any reason to believe it was always more prominent then these failed religious movements?

    2. If the story is true, what can we learn about this topic from Valentinus’ conversion from what seemed to be orthodox Christianity to Gnosticism.

    3. What distinctions can/should we draw between the various religious movements that merely interpreted the same texts differently and those who used addition texts (future non-canonical)

    • Howard, these are BIG questions, too big to answer adequately in blog comments. A few stray thoughts and bibliographical pointers:
      –For an argument that what I would call “proto-orthodox” tendencies were very early, Arland J. Hultgren, The Rise of Normative Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994). As I’ve noted before, in Paul’s letters we have the interesting combination of (1) his affirmation of his own distinctive apostolic calling, and (2) his equally strong efforts to maintain collegial relations with other groups, particularly Jerusalem. Note, e.g., 1 Cor 15:1-11, where he links himself with figures from Jerusalem, insisting (v. 11) that they all affirm the same basic message. And, of course, his collection for Jerusalem (a project to which he seems to have devoted several years) was a very tangible effort to effect and maintain strong mutual-affirmation between his churches and Jerusalem. For further reading: Bengt Holmberg, Paul and Power: The Structure of Authority in the Primitive Church As Reflected in the Pauline Epistles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980).
      –I’m not clear what you allude to and see in Valentinus, so I don’t know how to respond.
      –The various early Christian groups both interpreted traditions and texts differently (cf. e.g., the Sethian approach to the OT!) and produced texts/traditions of their own.

  4. Larry,
    I deployed basically the same “market” metaphor in my essay on the formation of “The Biblical Canon” (in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies [OUP, 2008], 418-9):

    “If by 175 CE or so there was as yet no ‘canon’ in the sense of a closed collection of scriptures (Sundberg’s definition), there were, without question, emerging ‘protocanons’, different groupings of authoritative writings by which different strands of the Christian movement defined themselves—virtually always, it would seem, in conjunction with an accompanying hermeneutical perspective that shaped their interpretation. Each strand offered its own ‘take’ on what it meant to be a Christian, its own perspective on what the essence of Christianity was—often accompanied by a different sense of which writings counted as ‘scripture’.
    “Which of these options would thrive and prosper, which would not? Around 175, the answer was not obvious. Perhaps that is the point of this effort to look at the canon from the beginning forward, rather than from the end back: to realize that there was nothing particularly inevitable about how matters turned out. This in turn leads to a different question: instead of ‘how’ did a twenty-seven-book canon eventually emerge in the fourth century from the amorphous collection of writings visible two centuries earlier, perhaps the more interesting question becomes ‘why’ did this particular proposal carry the day?
    “Whatever a full answer to that question may look like,4 one part of the answer is clear: Irenaeus. The case that Irenaeus made (in his major work, Against Heresies) for seeing the ‘rule of faith’ and his core group of writings as the authentic and reliable transmitters of the teachings of Jesus and his ‘true disciples’ (Haer. 2. 32. 4) proved to be widely persuasive. Irenaeus was ‘but the pioneering representative of a method and approach which everywhere met an urgent need’, and Clement, Tertullian, and Hippolytus, among others, picked up and developed further his ideas concerning the central role of authoritative tradition (Campenhausen 1972: 210; also 208–9). With the support of such an able group of advocates, Irenaeus’s ‘answer’ eventually became the ‘mainstream’ answer.”
    4. One may suggest, as a start, that in a social context that valued tradition and stability, the ‘proto-orthodox’ proposal was apparently a more attractive ‘product’ with a more compelling rationale. Also, the proto-orthodox appear to have had a more effective and broadly based organization. Moreover, whatever factors led to the victory of Nicene Christianity over competing formulations likely assisted the closure of a New Testament canon favoured by the Nicene proponents.

    I wouldn’t want to push the metaphor too hard, but it does offer, I think, an interesting and idea-generating angle from which to think about the narrative of early centuries of the Christian movement.

    • absconn permalink

      “Market” vel sim. has been around for a while to describe the religious world of Late Antiquity. I’ve been using the ideas in teaching for quite a while.

      It’s interesting to think about what ideas suddenly seem illuminating to lots of people, and why. They are suddenly so obvious that one can’t remember how one thought or lived without them. (“Obvious” is of course an emotional, and not a rational, judgment.)

      Arthur Shippee

  5. I am also fascinated with the roads less taken among Christianities and near-Christian religions and cults. I have to believe that the amount of material that wasn’t preserved dwarfs what was and that another order of magnitude of non-textual practice is lost forever. Would you agree?

    In any case, don’t you think that Constantine chose orthodox/catholic Christianity less for how “successful” it was, than for how hierarchical it was? It suited an emperor and an empire more than any other version.

    “it was already clear that by far the most “successful” version” How could you possibly know this, no matter the definition of the appropriately scare-quoted “successful”? I would think that suppression of other versions after Nicea and the unknowable non-textual practices of the time would make a clear historical judgment impossible.

    • Mark, It’s a fair guess (all we have are better and worse educated guesses for many things) that a lot of things have been lost from early Christianity. I’m not sure what you mean by “non-textual practice”, but if you mean rituals, preaching, etc., certainly by its nature it was lost. But a lot of such tradition was also retained . . . that’s what tradition claims to do.
      As for Constantine, scholars still debate exactly what he was up to and what were his own personal beliefs and reasons. But as to the religious scene at the time of his move, I rather think that most historians of this period judge that he made a calculated move to go with what was the clear winning version in the variety that was early Christianity. Certainly, one of the factors in the “success” (in sociological terms of “proto-orthodox” Christianity was its organizational structure. But remember that we really don’t have monarchical bishops (with effective authority over local areas) until perhaps the third century CE, and by then arguably it was already clear where the “mainstream” of Christianity was. Item: Note that when the pagan critic, Celsus, chose to do his attack on Christianity ca. 170 CE, it’s clear that he focused on the ideas that we associate with what became “orthodox” Christianity. So already at that point, that was the dominant version of Christianity that Celsus felt he needed to refute. Recommended reading: Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale Univ Press, 1984), (94-125 on Celsus). I think it’s always particularly interesting to consider the testimony of someone’s enemies.
      What changed after ca. mid-4th century was that this “mainstream” Christianity was able to use the power of the Roman state to promote further its dominance (except for the hiccup under Julian “the Apostate”, 332-63). Prior to that, however, it was “open competition”, and in that fray “proto-orthodox” Christians seem to have been the most “successful” ones.

  6. Roland Wolfe permalink

    Larry, I would love to read your review of Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I don’t see it here among your selected essays nor am I able to readily find it online. Might you have a link?

    • Dear Roland,
      I’m afraid that I’ve developed the bad habit of not keeping track of my reviews of books. And I can’t now recall where it appeared. In any case, it wasn’t a long or particularly incisive review. The book is a decent enough summary of the various types of early Christian views/groups that we think we know about. I did, however, detect what seemed like a certain wistful tone, and hence the Seinfeld line.

  7. Bobby Garringer permalink

    I have a couple of questions:

    (1) How great a role, in orthodoxy’s success, was its claim to apostolic authority?

    (2) Does orthodoxy’s claim have validity, denied to competitors?

    • Bobby, Lots of people and and groups in early Christianity claimed apostolic authority. E.g., many/most of the texts of “heretical” views claim apostolic figures (e.g., Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, etc.). One difference between the emergent “proto-orthodox” folk and their rivals was that they seem to have gone more for a collective apostolic claim. E.g., the interesting text, “The Epistle of the Apostles” (Epistula Apostolorum) purports to relate how the entire 12 were commissioned by Jesus, and it’s widely recognized that this text was likely written to counter the claims of other Christians about the special authority of this or that individual apostle. LIkewise, the collection that became the NT reflects a clear effort toward an inclusiveness of a certain diversity of apostles and emphases. In its earliest expressions, “proto-orthodox” Christianity = not a single point of view or group but a constellation that was united in their readiness to recognize a certain critical diversity. After all, the early Christian sense of the Greek word for “heresy” (“hairesis”) was a “sect” or “party”.

      • absconn permalink

        Thanks for noting the importance of the 12 as a single entity. But is it not also an appeal to the type of apostolic claim? Irenaeus IIRC spoke of the voice of the apostle, preserved in scriptures and tradition, and there seems here & elsewhere a claim to the authority of history — quite not the claim to authority by direct revelation &c. among some so-called Gnostics.

        So, to BG’s question, perhaps a two-step answer: yes, the proto-Orothodox may have had a better claim to a certain sort of Apostolic Authority (public tradition), but this very criterion of authority was universally accepted at that time.

        See what I mean?
        Arthur Shippee

      • Arthur, yes, the notion of apostolic authority goes back to our earliest evidence, letters of Paul, in which Paul certainly makes much of his own claim to apostleship. But note that he rests this claim on a revelatory experience. Moreover, it appears that the apostolic authority of the others in this category was also linked to commissioning-visions of the risen Christ, as reflected in Paul’s list in 1 Cor 15:1-11. Note here how he links his own status and experience (while also differentiating it somewhat, at least in time) with that of these other figures, insisting (v.11) that there was a solidarity of message linking him and them.
        It’s the claim that this or that apostle had uniquely valid authority, the other apostles compared unfavorably, that seems to distinguish the various “heretical/sectarian” people/groups in the early centuries: e.g., Marcion the most famous (with Paul the sole valid apostle), and other textual evidence in, e.g., Gthomas, GMary, etc.
        So, it appears to me that the proto-orthodox circles were those concerned to link up with one another and so willing to affirm a collegial apostolic validity. Some have seen such a move afoot in GJohn (esp. chap 21), with its implicit affirmation of Peter along with the “disciple whom Jesus loved”, the “Johannine community” reaching out to accept also “Petrine” Christians. It does look as if this kind of affirmation of a certain diversity was a/the major factor shaping the NT collection as it developed.

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