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Trebilco on Early Christian Self-designations

June 3, 2013

In recent years a lot of scholarly effort has been given to questions about early Christian “identity,” how early and in what ways early believers in Jesus saw themselves and acted as distinct groups with their own identity.  Major research projects continue to be devoted to this sort of question (e.g., the project on Prayer and Early Christian Identity, based in Oslo, with which I’m connected currently).  Paul Trebilco has now published an important study relevant to these questions:  Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Trebilco is a proven scholar in the field, with important earlier publications, e.g., Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (1991), and The Early Christians in Ephesis from Paul to Ignatius (2004).  His new book comprises a further significant contribution to the study of earliest Christianity.  Drawing on observations about how groups develop their own “social dialects” (“in-group” terms and expressions), he focuses on the key terms evidenced in NT writings that appear to have been used to refer to early Jesus-believers, each term given a chapter-length analysis.

These terms = “the brothers” (αδελφοι), “the believers”, “the saints” (οι αγιοι), “the church” (η εκκλησια), “disciples” (μαθηται), “the way” (η οδος), and “Christian” (Χριστιανος).  Among his conclusions, he contends that “εκκλησια” originated among “Jewish Christian Hellenists” (“most likely in Jerusalem,” p. 301), but he further argues that this does not mean that they no longer considered themselves also part of the larger Jewish community.  He judges the term “Christian” to have originated among outsiders/observers of early Jesus-believers, thereafter appropriated by believers, especially in the later period of persecutions.

As to the larger question about when and how believers saw themselves as a distinct group, Trebilco contends (rightly in my view) that the use of these terms indicates that “they were creating and shaping their identity” already before the time of our earliest texts.  This means easily within the first couple of decades after Jesus’ execution.  (I’d say likely within the first few months.)  Trebilco again:  “…these designations also involve the claim of a distinctive identity . . .” (p. 308), “have clear boundary-marking roles,” and “distinguish this new group from other Jews and from Gentiles” (309).

I mean no criticism in saying that this all seems rather obvious to me, but in view of the nature of recent scholarly discussion (e.g., Boyarin’s claim that we don’t have “Christianity” as such before the fourth century CE), I’m very grateful to Trebilco for this fine evidence-based study, which will further confirm his status as a noteworthy figure in NT/Christian Origins.

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7 Comments
  1. Anyone know when one can spot Christian burial in the Diaspora as I’ve never looked at this outside of Israel. Since the change from Saturday to Sunday as a day or worship came after the Bar Kochba revolt 132-35 I would have expected seeing something in burial customs here, but one does not see it.

    • We have identified sites as Christian burials from the early 3rd cent, e.g., in Rome. I presume that you include in your query any type of Christian, i.e., former pagan or Jewish. I don’t know that we can or when we can identify specifically Jewish-Christian burials.

  2. It would be interesting to see archaeological evidence to substantiate this, but unfortunately it does not. A few years ago the British Museum, the Vatican and the State of Israel mounted an exhibition in Rimini Italy on Early Christianity and viewers were somewhat taken aback that there was no archaeological findings on display, which would push it back to the 1st century. i would suspect that the earliest material would come from the Holy Land but to date there is non evidence until around the early Byzantine period.

    • Wrong, Joe. Unless you don’t regard manuscripts as evidence. We have Christian biblical manuscripts dated to early 3rd century or some a bit earlier, and they exhibit the physical earmarks so well known as distinctively early Christian: the codex format and the nomina sacra. “Artifacts” surely include manuscripts, and as I’ve contended, they provide us with evidence of an early “material and visual culture” identified as Christian. See my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian origins.
      But we shouldn’t expect much else. What would you look for? Christians were a small number until the 3rd century, and heavily among those who don’t have the cash for monuments. And it takes time for a set of beliefs to work themselves out into physical implements such as lamps with chi-rhos, or tomb stones with distinctively Christian symbols.

      • At a certain point one group wishes to differentiate itself from others, burial being one thing i’m very familiar with. For us here to tell the difference between one group and other its relatively easy as the Christian community crossed the hands across the abdomen or chest and faced, on their back, the rising sun. with their head in the west. Jewish burials on the other hand were obligated to place the hands alongside or parallel with the body and Arabs on their side facing Mecca. This used to angry the religious fanatics protesting graves accidentally here when we would tell them, ‘you wish to know who is a Jew ? ask the archaeologists, but then seldom listened and in the end they won out.

      • Yes, burial custom customs are important, but they tend to develop somewhat later than other means by which a group expresses its identity. As Trebilco shows, in the earliest decades Jesus-believers had begun developing a “socio-lect”, involving terms to refer to themselves and a distinct group. This doesn’t mean that Jewish Jesus-believers thereby disassociated themselves from the larger Jewish communities. They didn’t seek not to be Jewish, but did seek to identify themselves as a particular type of Jewish-ness.

    • Michael Lawmaster permalink

      “Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesarʼs Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 BC) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesarʼs day. Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC- AD 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals” – F. F. Bruce.

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