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“Resurrection Cults,” and Early “Material Traces” of Christianity”?

October 12, 2018

Having praised the recent volume,  The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, in my blog post yesterday, I have to express some surprise at, and dissent from, the statement that opens an otherwise helpful introduction to catacomb art by Norbert Zimmermann (pp. 21-38).  He refers to early Christianity in the first few centuries as “then only one of many oriental resurrection cults in the Roman Empire,” and claims that Christians “left no material traces” in this period.  Both claims are dubious, however.

Let’s consider first his reference to the “many oriental resurrection cults.”  I have to say that my fifty years or so studying early Christianity and its historical context has yielded no evidence to support this.  There were many cults of the time, to be sure.  But resurrection (at least actual bodily resurrection) wasn’t typically a feature that they offered.

Some, such as the Isis cult, offered this or that form of transformation beyond death.  But, as observed in the now-essential study, Religions of Rome, by Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price (Cambridge Univ Press, 1998), “This is a quite different conception from the ideas of immortality or resurrection that developed among some Jews by the first century A.D., and became particularly associated with Christianity–which offered not only a radically new life here and now, but also the hope of a bodily resurrection and a glorious after-life” (290).

On the same page they go on to note that “through the first centuries A.D., Christian writers had to defend the idea of bodily resurrection against general mockery; and it was this very strange notion that prompted the writing of some of the first technical works of Christian theology.”

And note also their questioning and rejection of the term “oriental cults,” and their rejection of the notion that the new cults of the time “shared a common preoccupation with ‘salvation’,” an assumption (influenced by the early 20th century scholar Franz Cumont) “that the ‘Oriental cults’ were the precursors of and rivals to Christianity that has encouraged us to construct them in those terms–on directly Christianizing lines” (247).  That is, earlier ideas about the many new cults of the Graeco-Roman period were actually constructed on the dubious presupposition that they were essentially like early Christianity, and accounted for it.

Now, as for Zimmermann’s assertion that there are no “material traces” of Christians/Christianity in the first two centuries, this, too, I have to query.  For there are a number of obviously Christian manuscripts palaographically dated as early as the latter half of the second century.  And once again I have to emphasize that manuscripts aren’t simply copies of texts; they are physical and visual artifacts as well, “material traces” of Christians of their period.  That was the main burden of my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

Moreover, the earliest Christian manuscripts attest an early Christian preference for the codex bookform over the scroll, and this preference seems to have emerged earlier than the earliest extant manuscripts.  As well, already in these earliest extant manuscripts, we have another physical and visual feature that identifies them as Christian productions:  the “nomina sacra,” those curious abbreviated forms of key words in early Christian faith-vocabulary.  These devices also must have originated much earlier than our extant examples, likely by the early second century and perhaps earlier still.

Art historians rightly complain that textual scholars don’t take account of visual phenomena, such as “early Christian art”.  I must observe also that art historians don’t typically take account of the sort of phenomena that I have mentioned here.  The codex and the nomina sacra and the staurogram aren’t perhaps “art”, but I contend that they are our earliest extant expressions of an identifiable Christian “visual culture.”  That is, they are material and visual expressions of an early Christian identity.  So Zimmermann shouldn’t be singled out, for the dubious assertions that I’ve challenged here are, unfortunately, not his alone.  It’s the result of the unavoidable “silo” effect of modern scholarship, something that we all struggle with.

Further Reading

Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

Larry W. Hurtado, “What Do the Earliest Christian Manuscripts Tell Us About Their Readers?” Pp. 179-92 in The World of Jesus and the Early Church: Identity and Interpretation in Early Communities of Faith, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011).

Larry W. Hurtado, “Manuscripts and the Sociology of Early Christian Reading.” Pp. 49-62 in The Early Text of the New Testament, ed. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Larry W. Hurtado, “Earliest Christian Graphic Symbols: Examples and References From the Second/Third Centuries.” Pp. 25-44 in Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages,, ed. Ildar Garipzanov, Caroline Goodson and Henry Maguire (Turnhout: Brepols, 2017).

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  1. john permalink

    Certainly, the claim that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” is best described in many of the compelling and powerful versus of Isaiah 53. For example, “when he makes himself an offering for sin”…”he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant make many to be accounted righteous and he shall bear their iniquities”…”he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors.”

    A fascinating, probably near contemporary, but often overlooked parallel to this is what happens to the righteous one in the PE (Parables of Enoch): “And the hearts of the holy ones were filled with joy, for the number of the righteous one (or perhaps the “number of the righteous”) was at hand”…”the blood of the righteous one had been required in the presence of the Lord of Spirits” (1 Enoch 47:4). Certainly, no mention of “the third day” in the PE though.

    But in any case, the notion of rising on “the third day” may just be early tradition, rather than “in accordance with the scriptures”, which also belongs to a very early tradition. Why Paul seems to link rising on “the third day” with “Christ died for our sins” is a timeless question. Was this Jesus’ prophecy? Or does it come from a now lost scripture? The authenticity of the so-called “Gabriel Stone” that apparently mentions “the third day” in a similar context is questionable. Plus that stone was found way south by the Dead Sea, where John the Baptist was martyred according to the gospel. If “third day” is Jesus’ prophecy in the gospels, perhaps Jesus received it from his disciples communicating with John the Baptist’s disciples, before John was martyred? Perhaps the tradition that Jesus sent disciples to ask John if he is “the Coming One” is also authentic? The mysteries of the gospels is amazing!!!

    • It’s usually proposed that Hosea 6:2 may be one OT text that Paul had in mind about “on the third day.” I rather doubt that the notion had anything to do with John the Baptist.

      • john permalink

        Thank you very much for the Hosea quote Larry. I should do a deeper study of “on the third day” in Judaism and also; “and in three days” (Mark 14:58); or “build it in three days” (Mark 15:29); as well as looking into Matthew’s and John’s “in three days”, even though Mark is probably our best text to work with historically in the search.

        My link to John the Baptist here is of course flimsy, pure speculation, except for the oddity (on stone) and geographical location of the controversial “Gabriel stone,” which places it in the time and vicinity of John the Baptist being arrested. So thanks also for pointing that out to me.

        Of course, only Mark tells us that destroying the temple and building another not made with hands “in three days” was a false charge against Jesus, but I’m not so sure of its falsity. Like the prophet Isaiah, I believe Jesus thought of the temple as full of corruption and injustice in high places. Also like Isaiah, I think Jesus at least sometimes thought in terms of the dire need to repent, before the wrath of the Holy One of Israel. The temple incident with the money-changers, which I believe is at least partially historical, reinforces the notion that Isaiah and Jesus sometimes shared a moral need to make a strong point about hypocrisy, (Isaiah 1:10-27) matches Jesus’ belief that what the money-changers were doing is ripping people off the common poor people. Matthew’s quote, that Jesus himself quoted Hosea seems historical here: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). If that is true, than perhaps it was Jesus, before Paul, who was thinking of Hosea 6:2?

        Do you think this is possible?

      • I personally wouldn’t place much weight on the “Gabriel’s stone.” And, as you may know, Jesus’ action in the temple has been seen from various perspectives.

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    Thanks Larry;

    I do understand that palaeographic dating provides a range of possible dates; but if that range for surviving biblical texts is never earlier than ‘from 150 to 250 CE’, then arguably we cannot consider any of these to have been securely dated in the first two Christian centuries.

    Equally a radiocarbon date provides a (wideish) range of possible dates; but if that range were from 50 BCE to 150 CE; then that artefact would have indeed been securely dated in the first two Christian centuries. But do we have any such securely carbon-dated Christian artefacts?

    Otherwise, a document or letter may very well carry a date (or explicitly indicate a narrow dating range). And the contents of such a letter could equally clearly indicate a Christian writer. So, which is the earliest such ‘Christian’ text (letter or document) that carries an explicit date; and do any such dated Christian texts fall in the first two centuries?

    • If a literary text (Christian or not) is palaeographically dated ca. 150-250 CE, then it is no more “securely” dated later than the 2nd century, and, as I wrote “may be as early as the latter half of the second century.” There are no special rules for Christian texts. They’re dated the same way that other ancient texts are dated. Of the number that are dated “late 2nd/early 3rd century” (such as the recent Mark fragment in the Oxyrhynchus vol), it is unlikely that none come from the 2nd century.
      Carbon dating of papyri has not been done much, largely because it involves destruction of some ofthe item,and owners are reluctant to consent to this. To my knowledge, we have no documentary text identifiably Christian in the first two centuries.

  3. Tom Hennell permalink

    Thanks Larry for the most interesting discussion; but I question that I have long wished to ask of you. Suppose we simplify (with Brent Nongbri perhaps) that “palaographically dated as early as the latter half of the second century” must be considered an oxymoron; what early Christian arterfacts are there that do have a ‘secure’ date in the first two centuries? Once, the SATOR square at Herculaneum, was proposed as such; but I think now this commonly rejected. But what are the earliest demonstrably Christian documents or texts with dates on them; or which have been securely radio-carbon dated; or found in an archeological context that sets a limit to the date?

    • “Palaeographically dated as early as the latter half of the second century” isn’t an oxymoron. It reflects the only way that we can date undated manuscripts, the standard practice in palaeography and papyrology. Nongbri’s main point is that we have to be modest in how precise we can date things. So, e.g., the items I refer to are properly dated ca. 150-250 CE.
      The only texts that have dates from the original copyist/writer are “documentary” texts, such as letters, proclamations, etc. All literary texts have to be dated by palaeography. Oh, and radio-carbon dating is no more precise than palaegraphical dating, dates are usually +/- 100 yrs or more.

      • john permalink

        Trying to use historical events to try and date things is also an interesting approach. So, for example, when Paul says “was raised on the third day” (1 Cor 15:4) we try and link this logically to stories about the tomb being discovered empty on the third day. Thus we try and date belief in Jesus’ resurrection to three days after he was crucified. It would be more helpful if Paul had indicated an empty tomb, rather than just an implied empty tomb, but it seems probable that the tomb was indeed found empty on the third day. Yes? We do not have a scripture that talks about someone being raised on the third day, so we wonder what Paul might be referring to, when he says this was all being fulfilled “in accordance with the scriptures”.

      • Yes. It would have been helpful to us had Paul cited the texts he had in mind!

  4. john permalink

    It seems to me worth emphasizing much more that, as you say Larry, “This is a quite different conception of the ideas of immortality or resurrection that developed among some Jews by the first century A.D….” A lot of these ideas took root in wake of the Maccabean Revolt, which gave rise to ideas about immortality or resurrection, based upon a longing, or yearning for “DIVINE JUSTICE”. Too many common Jewish people were becoming senseless victims of deadly persecution and oppression. Many Jews were beginning to realize that military resistance, or a military messiah was hopeless. They were looking for a servant leader whom depended on God to recreate everything anew, as they depended on God to recreate everything anew. George Nicklesburg’s work on immortality and resurrection as the longing for “divine justice” is well worth reviewing, as here:

    • Grahame Mack permalink

      Hi John. Are you saying the ideas of immortality or resurrection, present among some Jews in the first century A.D., followed on from Jewish ideas of immortality or resurrection that preexised the first century A.D , that had taken root in wake of the Maccabean Revolt?

  5. David Madison permalink

    If resurrection cults had been widespread, it would have made Paul’s job much easier. He could have said to the Corinthians, “What do you mean, ‘there is no resurrection of the dead?’ I’m not suggesting anything that is not already familiar to you. You have heard of the resurrection of Isis, etc. Well, the Resurrection of Jesus is no different.”

    Instead, Paul had to justify what was obviously an alien idea.

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