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A.F. Segal: “The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity”

I’m very pleased to have my gift-copy of the re-publication of some key works by Alan F. Segal in one handy volume:  The Other Judaisms of Late Antiquity, Second Edition, which now includes also his major essay, “Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity, and Their Environment” (which originally appeared in the series, Aufstieg und Niedergang der roemischen Welt, 1980).

Segal was a phenomenal scholar (and a trusted friend of mine), with a remarkable facility for languages, and a lot of good sense to his interpretative judgements.  It’s great to have these works by Alan gathered into this handy (and reasonably priced at $39.95) volume.  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

The first part of this volume includes these essays:  “Dualism in Judaism, Christianity, and Gnosticism:  A Definitive Issue,” “The Ruler of This World,” “Hellenistic Magic:  Some Questions of Definition,” “The Sacrifice of Isaac in Early Judaism and Christianity,” “Torah and Nomos in Recent Scholarly Discussion,” “Covenant in Rabbinic Writings,” and “Romans 7 and Jewish Dietary Laws”.  The second part is devoted to the large essay from ANRW.  There is also a composite bibliography, plus indexes of primary sources and modern authors.

This is the second work by Segal published by Baylor University Press in the new series of republished work:  The Library of Early Christology.  In an earlier posting here, I noted the appearance of Segal’s high-impact work, Two Powers in Heaven (1977).  The republication of these works will make Segal’s contributions more readily available for scholars and succeeding generations of students.

Our Knowledge of Early Christianity

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.

Novenson’s New Book on Messianism

A slightly belated congratulation of my colleague, Matthew Novenson, on the publication of his book, The Grammar of Messianism:  An Ancient Jewish Political Idiom and its Users (Oxford University Press, 2017; the publisher’s online catalog entry here).  He is featured talking about the book on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here, and here.

Essentially, in this book Novenson probes several questions and queries some previously held views about ancient Jewish (and early Christian) ideas about Messiahs.  It is now likely to be the “go-to” book on the subject, and will further affirm Novenson as a significant contributor to the study of the New Testament and its religious environment.

On Representing the Views of Others

The following exhortation about representing the views of others is primarily directed to students and younger scholars.  One of the aims I’ve striven for over the 40+ years of my scholarly work has been to represent the views of other scholars fairly, and especially those views with which I take issue.

I owe a good deal of my concern in this matter to my PhD supervisor, Eldon J. Epp.  In the interview in which I approached him about commencing PhD work, I remember him emphasizing one thing:  I didn’t have to agree with his views, but he wouldn’t tolerate the misrepresentation of the views of those whom I might engage in my research.  And one of the deepest satisfactions for me over the ensuing 40+ years is that I can’t recall an accusation that I distorted or treated unfairly another scholar’s views in my publications.

But I’ve had to work at this, for the temptation to exaggerate or caricature views that you disagree with is very real, and no one is immune to it.  Especially in my early years of scholarly work when I was still “learning the ropes,” one measure I took was this:  When I wrote a review of a book, I’d send the review typescript to the book’s author with a note that the review was forthcoming in a given journal.  I’d typically write that, although I couldn’t expect the author to agree with my critique, I hoped that the author would recognize his/her views as I stated them.  It was a discipline:  If I hesitated about handing the review to the book’s author, then I should consider whether there was something in the review that was excessive or unfair.

Over the years since then, when I’ve focused on the work of a particular (living) scholar, I’ve typically sent my critique or engagement to him/her before submitting it for publication, inviting that scholar to point out any significant misrepresentation of him/her.  For example, my chapter on “Q” in my book, Lord Jesus Christ, is a close engagement with some of Kloppenborg’s well-known work on that topic.  So, I sent the draft of the chapter to him, asking him to help me avoid any misunderstanding or misrepresentation of his views.  Gentleman that he is, John dutifully read the chapter carefully, and assured me that it was an accurate description of his views (though he didn’t necessarily subscribe to my own).

In another instance, I recall inviting Adela Yarbro Collins to comment on my engagement with one of her views.  In that case she felt that I hadn’t represented her view fairly.  So, I modified what I wrote to take account of her complaint.

So, I’ve not been magically free from the danger of misrepresentation of others.  That’s why I’ve taken these steps to avoid it in publications.  And my advice to students and younger scholars is to take a similar approach.  I often told my PhD students that it wasn’t necessary or wise to exaggerate or distort the views of others in order to make their own case for their views.  It wasn’t necessary to run down the work of previous scholars in order to justify their own work.  All that was needed was to demonstrate some further contribution that their own work made to the subject, whether correcting, or supplementing, or reinforcing, or extending our understanding of it.

Critique, sometimes sharp critique, of scholarly failure to take account of evidence, of prejudice and insufficiently examined assumptions, etc., all this is fair scholarly discourse.  But, given the highly critical nature of scholarly discourse, there is all the more reason to aim for fairness and accuracy.

Crossley’s Curious/Amusing Misfire

James Crossley’s 2008 book, Jesus in an Age of Terror, was a broadscale critique of NT scholars (and it was directed against individuals) for their alleged biases.  One of those he attacked was me.  I drafted a response a couple of years ago, but then for various reasons decided not to post it.  I’ve complained about his discussion of me and my work before, e.g., as referred to here.  On a personal level, I like James.  But in the interests of setting the record straight on my views, here’s that response.

The discussion of my views by James Crossley in his book, Jesus in an Age of Terror (2008), struck me, by turns, as amusing, puzzling and sad.  Crossley (for some reason unknown to me) felt it necessary to include me in his critical discussion of various “historical Jesus” scholars (even though I’ve not written anything substantial on the subject), mainly, it appears with the intent of portraying me as another example of what he calls the tendency to make Jesus (and Christian Origins) “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish” (see pp. 186-89).  But he then proceeds to attempt a critique of my proposal that an early “Jesus-devotion” was a central factor in tensions between Jewish Jesus-followers and other Jews, and particularly a factor in what Paul called his “persecution” of “the church of God” (i.e., Jewish believers in Jesus).

But, first, an amusing bit.  Crossley declares my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, the target, and begins by referring to the “extremely confessional sounding title” (p. 186).  That’s both puzzling and really funny!  The book, after all, is about how devotion to Jesus as a divine/exalted figure who received cultic reverence arose and developed.  Also, as should be obvious, the main title is simply taken from Philippians 2:9-11, conveying the acclamation there:  “Kyrios Iesous Christos,” and the sub-title indicates the historical orientation of the work.  Moreover, the main title is also an allusion to the great agenda-setting book by Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos (1913).  Is that also an “extremely confessional sounding title”?  If not, why not?

In any case, I can’t think of anything in my book that demands, presupposes or even reflects any “confessional” response.  It’s simply an attempt to probe the historical questions and the evidence available about early Jesus-devotion.  What you make of that early Jesus-devotion personally (historical curiosity, example of religious nonsense, divine revelation, whatever) is your business.  The book doesn’t address that, so I can’t figure why Crossley thinks the book “confessional.”  I do admit to the charge of being a Christian.  So, does Crossley presuppose that anything written by someone who admits to that must be tagged “confessional”?  If so, it’s a sad prejudice.  As a corrective, I note that scholars such as Bousset and, most recently, Bart Ehrman (neither of whom can be characterized as apologists for “orthodox” Christian claims) reached a similar conclusion:  That devotion to Jesus as in some real sense divine and worthy of cultic reverence along with God erupted within the very earliest years of the young Jesus-movement.  (The key difference with Bousset was that he posited the eruption as happening initially in diaspora settings such as Antioch or Damascus, whereas I’ve argued that it likely commenced among Judean Jewish circles of the Jesus-movement.)

Crossley admits that I emphasize the very Jewish matrix in which earliest Jesus-devotion arose, but he then attributes to me the aim of making sure that early Jesus-devotion is distinctive in its Jewish context.  But I have no such aim.  I don’t work to make things point that way.  I simply note that the sort of Jesus-devotion reflected in Paul’s letters (to cite our earliest evidence) is distinctive in comparison with all other evidence of other Jewish circles with regard to any other agents of divine purposes (angels, messiahs, whatever).  I established that as far back as my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, pointing there and subsequently to specific phenomena of devotional practice (which Crossley strangely never engages).  So, maybe I’m right, and maybe I’m wrong; but it’s a cheap shot simply to ignore the data I point to and make accusations.

Moreover, to ascribe a distinctiveness to earliest Jesus-devotion doesn’t make it any less Jewish.  Crossley seems to think so, but that’s facile thinking.  Roman-era Jewish tradition was not monolithic but pluriform, with various groups, each with its own distinguishing features, the early Jesus-movement a particularly noteworthy instance.  What above all that seems to have distinguished early Jesus-groups was the central place of Jesus in their beliefs and religious practices.  Is the early “high” view of Jesus as, for example, the “Mar/Kyrios” (“Lord”) worthy of cultic reverence a Jewish development?  Obviously, for it erupted first among Jews!  How is that “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish”?  Crossley imputes such a view to me, and I reject it as unjustified by anything I’ve written.

The issue to which Crossley devotes the most space (pp. 187-89), however, actually seems to be the argument that I deployed most fully in an essay originally published in 1999 (in Journal of Theological Studies 50:  35-58):  “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion,” republished in my book, How on earth Did Jesus Become a God? (pp. 152-78).  In another puzzling move, Crossley accuses me of using “theological categories . . . the myth of ‘Jewish . . . but not that Jewish,” “dictating the argument even when (especially when?) no serious evidence exists to support his case” (187).  Whew!  Using a “myth” to “dictate” conclusions, making claims “especially” when I have no evidence!  Those are pretty strong words.  Again, it’s very sad, for a fellow scholar to make such charges, especially when my essay in question carefully goes over the textual evidence.  And that evidence seems to me to require us to judge that (1) there was opposition against Jewish Jesus-followers from the earliest years, and (2) that central in generating this opposition was the place of Jesus in their claims and practices.  Now, you can try to read the evidence some other way, but it’s just not on to claim that there is none.

The argument is there in the essay (and the book) to read, and it is neither appropriate nor necessary to repeat it in full here.  I’ll simply highlight basic points, focusing on Paul’s initial opposition to what he came to call “the church of God” (Gal. 1:13-15):

  • Paul says his aim was to “destroy” the Jewish ekklesia (Gal. 1:13), a word (portheo) that typically was used to describe the ravaging of a place or people by an invading army or other pretty serious, even violent actions. The same term is repeated in Gal. 1:23, where Paul is said to have sought to “destroy the faith” of Jewish believers.  So, something was sufficiently alarming to him, as a devout Pharisee, to justify this kind of severe action.  Consorting with gentiles, not keeping Pharisaic food rules, even speaking against the Temple, wouldn’t likely have generated or justified it.  (By the way, Paul doesn’t use portheo to describe the opposition that he suffered from fellow Jews, e.g., in 2 Cor. 11:24.  So, I don’t think that the latter necessarily corresponds to his own early opposition or the reasons for it.)
  • Paul says his strong actions against the ekklesia sprang from his being a superlative “zealot” (Gal. 1:14). In ancient Jewish tradition, the term “zeal” was often associated with the biblical character, Phinehas (Numbers 25:1-13), famous for his rather ruthless action against a fellow Israelite engaging in idolatrous behaviour, and who is lionized in a number of texts as exemplar for similar drastic actions (e.g., Sirach 45:23-25; Josephus 4.145-58; Philo, Spec.Leg. 1.54-57, and other references in the essay).  The offences listed by Philo as justifying Phinehas-type action were idolatry, apostasy, seduction by false prophets, and perjury.  This further suggests that what irked Paul the Pharisee was something serious that endangered the religious integrity of his people.  So, take your pick.  I’d say that what he judged inordinate Jesus-devotion could well have seemed an infringement upon the unique place of God in the eyes of a particularly vigilant Pharisee such as Paul.  There may have been additional factors, but it seems fully cogent that Jesus-devotion was involved.
  • Paul describes his own change-experience that moved him from opponent to adherent of the young Jesus-movement as a “revelation of [God’s] Son” (Gal. 1:16). That is, the cognitive import and content was christological, a “revelation” of the significance of Jesus.  He doesn’t say anywhere that the experience involved a shift of view about a supposed Temple-criticism or Torah-laxity by Jewish Jesus-followers.  The most reasonable inference, therefore, is that what he came to accept and affirm robustly in all his letters (Jesus’ high significance) was likely central in/among what he had previously opposed and found offensive.  Contra Crossley’s silly claim, that’s not using some “myth” or “theological categories”; that’s just making an intelligent inference from the data.  In the essay I cite additional Pauline textual data as well that point in the same direction.  There may be other interpretive options, but accusing me of “dictating” conclusions based on some supposed “mythic” framework is ad hominem and a dodge.
  • To cite another piece of evidence, in 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:6, Paul describes fellow Jews who reject the Jesus-movement as having veiled and hardened minds that prevent them from seeing (what he sees now) “the glory of the Lord” (3:18), who is Jesus (4:5), “who is the image of God” (4:4). Nothing there about Torah-laxity, or Temple, or anything other than the christological issue:  Paul and fellow believers perceive Jesus’ high significance, whereas others (including particularly fellow Jews) don’t.  That sounds like “Jesus-devotion” is the issue.
  • Against all this, what does Crossley offer? He alleges (making the same methodological error as Dunn and McGrath) an absence of evidence in Paul’s letters that Jesus-devotion was a matter of controversy, this supposedly comprising proof that it wasn’t controversial (and so can’t have been very innovative) in the eyes of Jews outside the Jesus-movement.  Instead, he continues, what we find in Paul’s letters are controversies over the place of Torah and the terms on which Gentiles can be granted status as co-religionists by Jewish believers.  Well, of course!  Paul’s letters were written to (largely) gentile churches about issues internal to them.  And, so far as we can tell, Jesus-devotion wasn’t a matter of controversy within these circles of fellow Jesus-followers.  Moreover, the controversies over Torah-observance and Gentile-inclusion that do appear in Paul’s letters were between Paul and other Jewish believers, not with the larger Jewish community.  So, that there is scarcely any controversy over Jesus-devotion in Paul’s letters to his churches tells us nothing about what may have been controversial with people outside these circles.  Arguments from silence can be valid, when something should be expected and it isn’t there.  But there’s no reason to expect what Crossley finds absent in Paul’s letters, so the argument is fallacious.  From texts that I’ve mentioned (and others in the essay), however, it’s clear that Jesus-devotion was in fact central for Paul in characterizing and distinguishing the Jesus-movement, and, in particular, was a key factor distinguishing his stance from that of fellow Jews whom he regarded as “hardened” and “veiled” in their understanding.

Crossley also tries to deny the evidence in Mark that the figure of Jesus is presented by the author as bearing transcendent significance.  To claim that Mark reflects a rather exalted view of Jesus is by no means an eccentric move, and in the essay I’ve cited a number of other Markan scholars who’ve reached a similar conclusion to mine.  I won’t take the time here to rehearse the matter.  But it’s completely misleading to characterize me as aberrant on the matter or winging off without basis.

To return to another amusing note as a final comment, Crossley’s attempt to posit my stance as making Paul and Christian Origins “Jewish . . . but not that Jewish” takes the cake.  I’m on the record in numerous publications (from my 1988 book onward) insisting that the eruption of a “high” Jesus-devotion was a development internal to second-temple Jewish tradition (e.g., How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?, p. 32:  “earliest devotion to Jesus as divine is best understood as a remarkable innovation within, and as a novel expression of, the monotheistic piety characteristic of Second-Temple Jewish tradition.”).  I simply can’t figure out how Crossley came to see my stance otherwise.  Unless . . . unless, he is working with a simplistic and monolithic notion of what “Jewish” had to be, against which the striking and unprecedented pattern of Jesus-devotion would be taken as some sort of departure or breach of things “Jewish”.  (So, to keep earliest Jesus-circles within such a monolithic notion of what “Jewish” is, Crossley has to work hard to keep earliest Jesus-devotion from being very remarkable or distinctive, and so, for him, a problem.)

But, if you work with the pluriform model of ancient Jewish tradition that I affirm, then there’s nothing un-Jewish or “not that Jewish” about earliest Jesus-devotion.  It was controversial to be sure, from the outset I contend, but that doesn’t make it any less Jewish.  To judge (as I do) that it was distinctive (apparently from its earliest expressions) is simply an attempt to characterize the data.

I will leave others to ponder why Crossley chose to engage in caricature, distortion and selective engagement with the data in discussing my work.  But, whatever the motives, these tactics hardly advance our understanding of the fascinating historical developments in question.  I’d prefer that we focus on that.

A Handy NT Greek Lexicon

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly recommended to students A Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, by G. Abbott-Smith.  I’ve often been surprised at how infrequently people knew about it.  For it’s perhaps the best hand-lexicon around.

In a volume of slightly more than 500 pages, about 3 cm thick, and about 14.5 x 22 cm, it’s compact enough to keep on your desk and take along in a briefcase.  And, yet, the volume includes a great deal of data in this package.  For example, it is rich in references to uses of a word in the NT, such that it is a complete concordance of uses of 95% of words used in the NT.  And if the word is used in the LXX, the lexicon gives LXX instances as well, a complete list of LXX instances for nearly 40% of such words used in the NT.  As well, the lexicon gives the Hebrew word that is translated for each Greek LXX word used in the NT.

The lexicon first appeared in 1922, and then went through two further editions, the most recent one in 1937.  Of course, for serious work leading to publication, you would want to check other and later lexica, and, more importantly, do your own analysis of word-usage.  But for that first look at a word, for initial exegesis of a NT text, I think that Abbott-Smith is hard to beat, especially as its size makes for easy usage.

It’s still available, new from Bloomsbury T&T Clark, but at an unnecessarily steep price.  Look around for used copies, which can be found.  The 1922 edition is available in e-form here, and so can be downloaded to your computer.  But know that the 1937 edition has a number of corrections.

More on “Destroyer of the gods” reviews

In some contrast to the disappointing review of my book, Destroyer of the gods, that I blogged about earlier here, you might find this somewhat earlier review here more accurately reflective of the book.  It also notes the possible relevance of the book for modern-day Christians (and, actually, non-Christians too).

In a more recent blog-post, Peter Leithart draws attention to my discussion of early Christian condemnation of child sexual abuse in the book here.

Advance Publication Notice: “Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion”

A collection of 32 of my previously published essays on earliest Jesus-devotion is scheduled to appear in September, and is now available for pre-order:  Ancient Jewish Monotheism and Early Christian Jesus-Devotion:  The Context and Character of Christological Faith (Baylor University Press, the publisher’s online catalog entry here).

I’ve just finished a final review of the proofs, and look forward to having the volume in hand in due course.  These essays represent my work on the origins of Jesus-devotion that has extended over nearly forty years now.  I’ve chosen what I hope will be studies that remain relevant and useful to others interested in the question.  The essays include some that are primarily critical engagements with other scholars, others that focus on explanations of earliest Jesus-devotion, and a greater number of them concerned with particular early Christian texts that reflect the place of Jesus in earliest Christian devotion.

Although nearly 700 pages, the publisher has priced it reasonably at $39.95, to make it a feasible acquisition for students in particular.

“Destoyer of the gods”: A Recent Review and a Plea for Accuracy

I suppose many authors experience the uncertainty and occasional frustration with reviews of their books.  A recent review of my book, Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016) left me disappointed:  David Wheeler-Reed, in Expository Times 128.9 (2017): 441-42.  A reviewer has the right (even the duty) to be critical of weak points, absolutely.  But, surely, the first duty of a reviewer is to be accurate in representing the book under review.

So, my first complaint is that Wheeler-Reed distorted my emphasis.  I argued that early Christianity exhibited distinctiveness; but Wheeler-Reed wrongly portrays me as ascribing to early Christianity a “uniqueness.”  But the two aren’t the same, and I chose my word and claim carefully, and based on the historical data.  Wheeler-Reed accuses me of ignoring J.Z. Smith’s exhortations (in Drudgery Divine) against imputing uniqueness to early Christianity.  But I made no such claim, and Wheeler-Reed’s chiding is wide of the mark.  Instead, I specifically state that there were other groups in the Roman world as well with their own distinctiveness.  My book is simply about early Christian distinctiveness.

I also observe (p. 10) that “to grant that something is distinctive or even novel, however, is not necessarily to endorse it as valid.”  My book is not some apologetic tract, but an attempt at sober historical analysis, written for a wide reading public.

Moreover, at various points I explicitly note similarities between early Christianity and certain philosophical groups of the time, and other examples of “voluntary” religion, and, of course, I frequently note the shared features with the ancient Jewish matrix from which the early Christian movement sprang.  It is unhelpful in assessing a book to exaggerate its claims.  Of course, an exaggeration is more easily ridiculed or refuted; but it is a failure in the responsibility of a reviewer.

As another inaccuracy, Wheeler-Reed says that I use Rodney Stark’s figures for early Christian growth, whereas (as my endnotes rather clearly show), I actually draw upon the figures given by Keith Hopkins in an oft-cited article.  Whereas Wheeler-Reed portrays me a emphasizing “the political consequences of being a Christian in these early centuries,” I actually refer to “the social and, increasingly, the political consequences” (p. 35, emphasis here), and in the larger context it is what I call “social” consequences and costs that really are the focus.  Contrary to Wheeler-Reed, I don’t accuse scholars of giving insufficient attention to the political/state actions against Christians, but instead I urge that we need “an adequate treatment of what made early converts think it worth those costs” to become a Christian in those early centuries.

The less-than-careful reading continues in Wheeler-Reed’s statement that I posit “influences of early Christianity upon Roman cultic practices.”  For I can find nothing in the pages he cites (pp. 102-4) as reflecting this statement. Instead, following historians such as John North, I pose the likelihood that early Christianity generated various reactions, including in some instances among pagans a greater sense of their own religious identity.

Contra Wheeler-Reed’s misleading statement, I don’t make the preposterous claim “that Christianity produced the majority of writings in the Roman Empire from the first through the third centuries.”  What I actually observe is that, for its size, early Christianity generated a remarkable number of writings (pp. 118-19), more than any other new religious movement of the time.  And further, contra Wheeler-Reed’s claim that I fail to observe that “writing was considered a product of the elite class,” I specifically note that this impressive body of Christian writings was not composed by people of leisured classes but by individuals of varied stations in life (128-29).  Moreover, it’s particularly disappointing that Wheeler-Reed doesn’t even note the abundant data that I provide in the chapter about the phenomenal investment of efforts by early Christians in writing, copying and circulating their writings.

In his discussion of my chapter on “A New Way to Live,” he continues to reflect a lack of care in reading what I wrote.  For example, I don’t “limit” the meaning/usage of the Greek word porneia; instead, I point out that in Jewish and early Christian texts the term is expanded in meaning, from its original sense, “prostitution” (i.e., the action of a prostitute), to various illicit forms of sex done by men as well.  It’s also disappointing that in his review of this chapter he fails even to mention the data that I provide about how early Christianity apparently developed a distinctive vocabulary for sex with children. Instead of “paiderastia (“child/boy love”), Christians labelled it “child corruption” (paidophthoreo).  He likewise doesn’t mention my emphasis on the likely significance of the household-based setting of early Christian ethical exhortation.   As yet another inaccuracy, I don’t actually say that Paul advocated “sex for pleasure” in contrast with philosophers such as Musonius Rufus.  Instead, I note that in 1 Corinthians 7:1ff Paul urges that married couples should not refrain from sex, and doesn’t confine sex to reproduction but treats marital sex as helping to avoid temptations to porneia.

Toward the end of his review, Wheeler-Reed notes the appendix to my book, where I briefly cite some key figures in the development of a historical approach to early Christianity, and he claims that “the reader discovers that Bousset and the history of religion-of-religion school has been Hurtado’s main interlocutor all along,” and that my main aim was to oppose the idea of “oriental” influences.  But I find his claim baffling, and seriously misleading.

In his concluding judgement about whether I’ve made my case that early Christianity exhibited some distinctive features, Wheeler-Reed simply says “Yes and no,” without elaborating.  He then warns readers that my interpretation of the evidence is “only one of several possible ways of interpreting the data,” again, without elaboration or example.  Sure, reviewers must work within word limits, and so brevity is required.  But, surely, some examples of points successfully made, and at least one or two examples of demonstrable errors is not too much to ask in defence of his judgement.

So, here are the observations and claims that I make in the book that require either consent or refutation.

  • As evidenced by contemporary critics, early Christianity was apparently a distinctive option in the religious environment of the time. It was not perceived as just one movement like others, but as an objectionable and even dangerous movement that didn’t fit into the dominant religious culture.  The social costs of early Christian faith appear to have been such that is remains an insufficiently considered question why people became Christians in that time.
  • The early Christian rejection of the gods as “idols,” and the consequent teaching that Christians should avoid offering sacrifices to them, distinguished early Christianity from other new religious movements of the time. Likewise, the lack of shrines, altars, priests, images and sacrifices all set early Christianity apart from the typical expressions of Roman-era religion.
  • The aggressively trans-ethnic and trans-local scope of early Christianity had the effect of de-coupling what we would call “religious identity” from ethnicity. Moreover, in contrast to other examples of “voluntary” religious affiliation (e.g., Mithras or Isis cults), early Christianity urged a cultic exclusivity.  This, too, gave to early Christianity a distinctive religious identity.
  • Early Christianity was a particularly “bookish” religious movement, with considerable investment of efforts in composing, copying, circulating and reading texts. For its size, the number of texts produced was remarkable.  Moreover, the undeniable preference for the codex (especially for texts treated as scriptures) was another distinctive feature of its bookishness.
  • In the notion that converts were held to strong behavioural demands, early Christianity differed from at least most other religious movements of the time (although it reflects the Jewish matrix from which the Christian movement arose). These demands were more akin to those advocated by some philosophical voices of the time.  But, as Galen observed, early Christianity represented a different kind of social project in which these behavioural demands did not rest on a long period of philosophical training.  And, especially in sexual ethics, early Christianity exhibited some distinctive features in comparison with the dominant culture, e.g., requiring a marital chastity of husbands as well as wives, and in condemnation of child-sex.

I repeat that criticism and refutation is fair comment.  But the first task of a reviewer should be accurate representation of the book under review.  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.)

More Money than Sense? Hobby Lobby and Artifacts

Over the last several days news has broken that Hobby Lobby (big American firm selling household decoration items) has settled with the U.S. Justice Department over the purchase and importation of several thousand artifacts illegally obtained from Iraq.  E.g., news story here, and the Justice Department press release here.  Hobby Lobby had to hand over several thousand artifacts to the Justice Department and paid a $3 million fine.

Most damning of all is probably the Justice Department press release, which lists a number of facts not contested by Hobby Lobby in the civil suit.  The President of Hobby Lobby (Steve Green) and others, back several years ago, ignored the warnings and advice of experts in artifacts and the legal issues involved.  They purchased the artifacts in situations that were patently irregular, accepted shipments that were falsely labeled to conceal their true nature, and paid out a huge sum into several individual bank accounts (not to any reputable dealer).

All along this dubious process, the alarm bells should have rung in their minds.  From the outset, they should have recognized that they were being taken into a shady arrangement.  Instead, out of . . . what?  Hubris, stupidity, your guess as good as mine, they pressed ahead with this purchase of cuneiform tablets, clay bullae and cylinder seals, that are now admitted to be stolen items illegally taken out of Iraq.

As one of a number of scholars asked to advise in the displays that will form part of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC (the big project funded by Hobby Lobby), I feel betrayed.  I and others have repeatedly been assured that every step was being taken to ensure that any artifacts (manuscripts or other items) acquired were legal and legitimate. It is now clear that we were deceived.

Moreover, this massive dodge of legal obligations in the acquisition and transport of historic artifacts was conducted by the same organization that loudly trumpeted itself as an Evangelical Christian business, in a law suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Hobby Lobby case was that as a business owned by a Christian family they should not have to pay for workers insurance that covered abortions.  But the same people obviously found no problem in the nefarious activities that have now come to light, and, I repeat, are uncontested.  Certainly, to critics, this will seem another example of a selective ethical behavior that brings discredit to the claim of “Evangelical” Christian faith.

On a final and more positive note, however, I have been assured that this “fast and loose” approach to acquiring artifacts by the Museum of the Bible has now ceased, subsequent to the appointment of David Trobisch in 2014 to oversee these matters.  Let’s hope so.  For the regrettable activities brought to light from the prior years indicate that previously it was a situation of lots of money and less than enough good sense.

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