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Our Knowledge of Early Christianity

July 19, 2017

Here’s an observation for consideration (or refutation):  We have more evidence about the beliefs, behavioral practices/demands, and diversity in early Christianity in the first two centuries AD than for any other religious group of the time.  From within the few decades we have real letters sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed, and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

We have multiple first-century Gospels, which reflect also a diversity of emphases, and perhaps also a certain diversity of early Christians.  And, as the decades went on, there are still more writings that are rich in information about early Christianity, e.g., the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and others.  We have full-scale defences of Christianity from this period, in Justin Martyr’s Apology, and others of this genre thereafter.

Contrast this with the limitations in what we can say about rituals or beliefs pertaining to Mithraism, or the Isis cults, or Jupiter Dolichenus, or . . . you get my point.  Of them, we may well be able to say where they appeared (from remains of shrines, etc.).  But our knowledge of specifics of what went on in these groups, and what notions they affirmed, is frustratingly limited.  They are sometimes called “mystery cults,” but that adjective really reflects more the limitations of extant information about these groups, than it does their efforts to be secretive.  For example, if we didn’t have Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, what would be be able to say about Isis-cult?  Very considerably less, indeed.  And when it comes to Mithras, we have mithraeums, and that body of imagery; but who can say with deserved confidence what precisely that imagery really represented and what beliefs it may reflect?

The major difference is that early Christians wrote texts . . . a lot of texts, and often extensive ones.  That’s one of the points I make in my recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), pp. 105-41.  So, of course, we’d all like to have more evidence.  We’d like to know more about people, and things mentioned (e.g., what was “baptism for the dead” in 1 Corinthians 15:29).  We’d like those texts for which we have only excerpts to have survived wholly, and other texts only mentioned to have survived too.  But what we have is, actually, pretty impressive, and unusually (distinctively?) rich in comparison to our historical evidence for other forms of religion in the same period.

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30 Comments
  1. Arvo Palm-Leis permalink

    So the analogous early Jewish writings cf early Christian writings would be 1500 BC – 500 BC, compared to 1st and 2nd centuries AD. (Or BCE and CE). We have none of the former, right?

    • The earliest copies of OT texts are from Qumran, and are variously dated 2nd-lst century BCE and later.

  2. I’m getting ready to read Josephus and the New Testamemt by Steve Mason, but before I get started, I’d like to know your opinion about both passages that mention Jesus. Do you believe them to be authentic?

    • It’s commonly judged that the passages referring to Jesus may have undergone some editing in the course of the transmission of Josephus’ works, but that there is a core to the references that is original/authentic.

  3. I’m not so sure you’re right about Judaism. We have the works of Josephus and Philo, which alone are equivalent in length to a great deal of the Christian literature put together. We have the so-called Pseudepigrapha that date from that period. And we have a lot more relevant archaeology than for Christianity of the same period.

    • Yes, Richard, the works of Philo and Josephus are voluminous and include a lot of data. But Josephus tells us more about historical matters (e.g., the Jewish War, and his retelling of prior Jewish stories), and, of course, his writings were intended for particular external readers. Philo reflects a lot about his own learned Jewishness, and may reflect that of others of similar education, at least in Alexandria. The Pseudepigrapha/Apocrypha give us insights, to be sure. But we don’t know who wrote them, or for whom, or where, or even when in most cases. It’s not the same sort of data that we have, e.g., in the letters of Paul or Ignatius, or 1 Clement, where we have texts that address specific communities and issues stated clearly (not fictively). But, sure, Roman-era Judaism would be (to my knowledge) the closest thing to a competitor. These Christian texts allow us to get snapshots of real churches in specific locations and at dates that can be approximated within a few years span.
      Moreover, if we consider the relative size of the early Christian movement at that time in comparison with the larger Jewish tradition, I think that the literary output of early Christianity is still phenomenal.

      • Certainly, Philo is not representative, but nor is Justin or Irenaeus. Josephus tells us a lot about Jewish practice in the Contra Apionem and in the sections about the law of Moses in Antiquities, as well as what we can gather from what he says in passing in narrating in the Jewish War. We can create a very detailed picture of what happened in the temple in Jerusalem day by day and at the annual festivals and what an ordinary Jewish family visiting the temple would do (as Sanders does in Judaism Belief and Practice). I don’t think we have anything like as much detail for Christian liturgical practice. From Philo and Josephus we also know something about what happened in diaspora synagogues. (And interestingly the Christian literature actually tells us quite a lot about the Judaism of its time, which is not true vice versa.) True, we do not have named authors addressing specific communities at precise dates, but then it’s a case of what sort of things we know rather than how much we know. We know some kinds of things about early Christianity that we don’t know about Judaism, but we know some kinds of things about Judaism that we don’t know about early Christianity. We do, of course, have the Bar Kokbha letters which are to and from named people and precisely dated. We have all the legal documents from the Cave of Letters – do they count as “Judaism”?

        I was thinking specifically of those Jewish Pseudepigrapha that we can date with reasonable probability to the first two centuries CE and can place in Palestine (e.g. 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch). There is Christian literature like the Apocalypse of Peter for which we are in much the same situation.

        I entirely agree that the literary output of early Christianity is still phenomenal, especially relative to its size. And there was a lot more second century Christian literature than, sadly, has survived. And it’s interesting how much of our Jewish literature (actually most apart from Qumran) we have because Christians preserved it. I would think that already in the second century Christians were copying and reading Jewish literature (in addition to OT). Don’t you think some of Christianity’s literariness was carried over from Judaism?

      • On your final question, Richard, of course I agree that the early Christian commitment to texts reflected the Jewish matrix of the Christian movement. And perhaps your point is correct that it’s more a matter of differences in the kinds of texts from Jewish and early Christian hands. But precisely the kinds of early Christian texts are, I suggest, particularly valuable for historical purposes. Could one, for example really write a book such as Meeks’s The First Urban Christians about Jewish groups in any city of the Diaspora (except possibly Alexandria), going into specific issues and the kinds of people involved etc.? We don’t know what “liturgy” was in early churches, but probably because there wasn’t much of one, at least in comparison with what we’re typically looking for. But we do know issues that divided them, and where early Christianity spread in the first decades, and what kinds of people made up their circles, and who key leaders were, and a lot more.

      • But when you ask, “Could one, for example really write a book such as Meeks’s The First Urban Christians about Jewish groups in any city of the Diaspora (except possibly Alexandria), going into specific issues and the kinds of people involved etc.?”, I have to say you’re making early Christianity define the terms of comparison. Why does it have to be the diaspora? Why doesn’t Jerusalem count? The point is that for Judaism the Temple and Jerusalem had a place for which there was no equivalent in Christianity. OK, the Christians didn’t have too much liturgy and that says something about Christianity, but Judaism was actually centred around the elaborate rituals of the Temple, which were of great importance even for Jews in the diaspora. That’s the sort of religion Judaism was. So why is all we know about that not “valuable for historical purposes”? Why isn’t a book like Jeremias’s Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus a parallel to Meeks? One could actually now write a much better and bigger book on that subject. We know about all kinds of named individuals and families and groups in first century Jerusalem. We know what divided Pharisees and Sadducees and revolutionaries and so forth (even different groups of Pharisees), often on very specific issues. Ossuary inscriptions add a great deal to what Jeremias knew. We know about pilgrims from the diaspora to Jerusalem and diaspora Jews settled in Jerusalem. And so on and so on.

      • I grant your point about the abundance (and continued accumulation) of data about Judaism, esp. in the Jewish homeland. No argument there. I’m not making the nature of the data for early Christianity the measure of things. I’m just saying that, esp. for its size, the early Christian movement seems to have produced an impressive body of texts, the nature of which is unique. In particular, we have writings (letters and the Acts narratives) that give us direct information about specific groups of people across various sites, their beliefs, practices, social make-up, etc. Certainly, in comparison with any other new movement of the time, we have more on Christianity. In the ways that you mention, Judaism may be a close competitor.

    • And we do have a vast quantity of Jewish priestly material from the Judean desert that definately dates before the time the Christian material was written.

      • Larry, as an apologist, you constantly desire to justify your beliefs. One example you wrote: “From within the few decades we have real letters sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed, and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.” You seem so assured of your beliefs, exactly the sort of accusation you level at me. How do we know that Paul ever existed, and that he wrote letters to named places and individuals? The writers of the day were perfectly capable of inventing Paul and imagining the destinations for his supposed letters and naming individuals to whom he wrote. The galaxy of named individuals mentioned in Romans 16 strikes me as being quite deliberate to make one think that this letter was real. How did Paul get to know so many people in Rome when he hadn’t been there himself?

      • Geoff: Were you better informed about historical scholarship, you would know that what I wrote is simply the settled judgement of historians of the period of all stripes. I’m not an apologist in what I write here, just laying out the historical data and appropriate judgements. If you don’t know the bases for treating Paul as a real character and his letters as genuinely his (and which ones are judged authentic and which written in his name), there is an abundance of historical introductions to the NT out there for you to read. Do learn something, Geoff, before you spout such nonsense!
        As for Romans 16, Rome was a place where people came and went, and the folks named are people Paul knew from elsewhere prior to their move to Rome. I know people in cities I’ve never visited, Geoff. Are you so provincial as not to have such contacts?

      • The Qumran manuscripts aren’t properly referred to as “priestly material,” but as the texts that apparently were acquired, copied & read in the “yahah” (community) of rigorist Jews at the site. The majority of these manuscripts, however, are simply copies of biblical writings. The “community” texts do tell us a good deal about their rules, key beliefs, organization, etc.

  4. Timothy Knowlton permalink

    Thank you Professor Hurtado! What is your opinion of the works of Arnaldo Momigliano or Jorg Rupke on Early Christianity? Is there anything you would recommend or caution against regarding these historians?
    Thanks again!

    • Momigliano I read years ago, on the emergence of biography as a genre in particular. Seemed sound and well supported. Rupke I haven’t followed so closely . . . yet. From what I’ve read by/about his work it is both informative and, in my view, in danger of operating at too high a level of generalization, noting broad similarities and not doing justice to differences between early Christianity and its religious environment.

  5. James ("Jim") Currie permalink

    Professor Hurtado,
    I subscribe to and read your blogs regularly and thank you so much for them. As a Presbyterian pastor who leads a Bible study every Wednesday at noon, I want to ask you a question that came up today. We were concluding a study of Colossians when one of the participants asked the question, “How did the Gentiles know about Jesus and the gospel since the Gospels had not been written. My reply was that, in addition to the words of persons like Paul and his missionary colleagues, there was an oral tradition of Jesus and his life and ministry that probably had reached them. Is there a better, or more precise answer to this question? I have Richard Bauckham’s book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” which has a couple of chapters on this which is helpful. I wonder how you would answer this question.

    Many, many thanks,
    Jim Currie

    • It’s commonly understood by scholars of the Gospels that they incorporate material that circulated and was collected prior to the Gospels: sayings collections, collections of miracle stories, perhaps even early passion-narratives. As well as oral communication, it appears that Christians used texts from the gitgo. Knowledge of Jesus didn’t depend on the Gospels. They came somewhat late to the party!

      • GPG permalink

        So if many early Gentile converts presumably did not speak or write Hebrew or Aramaic, then they must have heard about Jesus in other languages more familiar to them. Suggesting that very early on, there were stories and possibly texts about Jesus in say, Greek?

      • From its inception the early Christian movement was bi-lingual, Aramaic and Greek speakers.

  6. Adam Kubis permalink

    Is not the lack of texts pertaining to Mithraism, the Isis cults, Jupiter Dolichenus, and the like, resulting from the lack of the later tradents of these texts? Christianity won the battle and Christian scribes copied mostly Christian texts. I cannot imagine that a benedictine monk in, let’s say, VIII century was truly concerned about copying any purely ritual or mithological text connected with Mithraism.

    • No. No conspiracy or medieval suppression of Mithraic texts. There were damn few to suppress. That’s my point. Medieval monks copied all sorts of things. How do you imagine that we have copies of all the pagan literary texts? They were transmitted by monastic copyists!

      • Adam Kubis permalink

        I do not claim that there was any conspiracy and intentional destruction of religious pagan manuscripts. I also do not claim that Christian monks copied only Christian literature. As we all well know, ancient Christians were getting their education by means of ancient literature (e.g. Homer) and science, be it philosophical (e.g. Aristotle), rhetorical (e.g. Quintilian), medical (e.g. Galen) and the like. The monastic copyists multiplied the copies of this great Graeco-Roman heritage pretty carefully. But… I wonder if they pay the same attention to a purely ritual, liturgical, religious pagan texts – sometimes contemporaneous and competitive or hostile with early Christianity. Did the monks copy Egyptian magic texts? As far as we know, pagan religions were widely recognized among Christian as demonic.

      • And I’m not claiming that Christian scribes treasured pagan ritual texts. But my point is that the abundance and diversity of texts stemming from early Christian circles (esp. lst and 2nd centuries) simply has no parallel, nor any hint of one, among other new religious movements of the time. In any event, for whatever reason, it is the case that we have more resources for the study of early Christianity of that time than for any other contemporary religious movement.

    • GPG permalink

      I suppose there were however many texts in this timeframe that referred to Zeus, or Jove, and related gods? Or Ra or Theuth and so forth?

      • The point isn’t whether there were texts relating to other religious options, but the role of texts, the preoccupation with them, the resources devoted to composing, copying and distributing them, these are what distinguish the early Christian movement, especially for its size.

  7. Bobby Garringer permalink

    How would you compare knowledge of Judaism through the same time-frame?

    • We actually have more direct information about practices, distribution, beliefs of early Christianity. The only Jewish group for which we have any somewhat similar information is the Qumran community.

  8. Joseph Meyer permalink

    As a Classics student (with a particular emphasis on ancient Mediterranean religions), this post caused me to purchase the mentioned book. Thanks for the blog post!

  9. And when it comes to Mithras, we have mithraeums, and that body of imagery; but who can say with deserved confidence what precisely that imagery really represented and what beliefs it may reflect?

    Yes and it so strange that nobody wrote about that.

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