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“Interactive Diversity” SBL Session

November 27, 2015

My article, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62, was the focus of a session in this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, 21-24 November).

After my summary of the article, three senior colleagues, Paula Fredriksen, Carl Holladay, and Pheme Perkins, gave responses to the article.  Thereafter, there was animated discussion involving the panel and a goodly-sized audience.  (The pre-publication version of that article is available on this blog-site here.)

In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results.  The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity.  For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.

Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan.  Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.

Fredriksen’s response was very encouraging, essentially affirming the thrust of my article.  I also found insightful her observation that my proposal focused more on the process of early Christian developments, doing better justice to the lively nature of early Christian exchanges.

Holladay seemed a bit more reserved in his view of my proposal, and offered a guarded defence of the trajectories model, while also granting the validity of my examples of its dubious use.

Perkins drew upon her extensive familiarity with scientific theory posing various approaches to model-building and judging that my proposal wasn’t really a fully-fledged model, but instead more of a pointer to the factors that we need to take into account in forming one.  That may be a fair point.

We can see what appear to be valid trajectories, such as the widely-held view of a Pauline tradition that produced the Pastoral Epistles.  In that and other valid instances, the textual data make it clear that there are connections.  But, as I note in the article, there are other instances where a trajectory has been asserted without sound basis in the data.  My main emphases in the article are (1) that our models and theories should be based in the data, and (2) that any model should allow for the diversity and the interactivity characteristic of early Christianity.

I’m grateful to the organizers of that SBL session, and to my colleagues who gave their time to study my article and reflect on it.

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  1. December 2, 2015

    Dear Professor,

    I was very pleased to read the “pre-publication version” of your article on “Interactive Diversity. A Proposed Model of Christian Origins.”

    You have written, rightly, against the “now familiar ‘trajectories’ model of early Christian developments” proposed by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, model so dependent on Walter Bauer’s thesis that diversity was in the beginning and preceded a unified form of Christianity.

    I agree totally with the kinds of diversity and variety that existed, as you say, « in early Christianity from the outset ». You speak of “linguistic diversity”, of “trans-local diversity”, of “a well-attested ‘networking'” (“pre-pauline usage” ; “adversarial interaction” ; “literary interaction”). And, at that level, you’re right to conclude “that early Christian diversity was often (even typically ?) of a highly interactive nature.”

    But the diversities you mention are, in a sense, I would dare to say, very superficial. They are not at the same level of what was proposed by Bauer and his followers (including Kloppenborg when he presents Q as a real Gospel, proposing another kerygma, a Gospel without the death and resurrection of Jesus).

    I agree with all your diversities and varieties ! But I would have appreciated more insistance on the fundamental unity in all that diversity. I have read so many of your books and articles that I feel certain you think it is the Easter kerygma which creates unity in those diversities; that this element is not simply a “pauline kerygma”. Yet in your text you include only a very discrete indication of this essential, fundamental, indispensable point in note 30, where you say Q is “a ‘sayings-source’ and not ‘a sayings-gospel'”.

    Many thanks for your article, and the good work you continue to do (including your blog).

    Jean-Paul Michaud
    Emeritus professor of NT
    Saint Paul University, Ottawa, On. Canada.

    • Some of the diversity in early Christianity was more than “trivial”. Just consider, for example, Paul’s emphatic critique of those fellow Jewish believers who felt that gentile converts had to take up full Torah-observance (“false brethren,” “dogs,” “servants of satan” etc.)! And how about Marcion, or some of the so-called “gnostics”?

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