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“Coins in/and the Bible”: Day-conference

The Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (University of Edinburgh) will host a day-conference on “coins and the Bible,” 29 April 2017, in New College (Martin Hall).  Experts from the British Museum and the University will make presentations on a body of ancient material often overlooked or little understood, even by scholars.

Registration is required, but there is no fee.  The link to more information on the event is here.

Christian Century Interview on “Destroyer of the gods”

An interview by David Heim over my recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) appears online here, and will appear in the print version of Christian Century  April 12.

How Many Christians Does it Take . ..?

How do historians estimate the number of Christians in the earliest centuries?  In a previous posting I commended Thomas Robinson’s new book here, in which he shows how the numbers often used by historians don’t “add up.”  But a comment asking how historians arrive at their estimates prompted me to this posting.

I think that one factor is Constantine’s adoption of Christianity in the early 4th century.  The implicit or explicit assumption is that for him to have seen this an advantageous action Christianity must have been fairly successful already.  It is often assumed that a growth comprising perhaps 10% of the population would have been necessary for Christianity to have attained such credibility for Constantine to have adopted it.

Now it is also necessary to estimate the population of the Roman Empire, and estimates vary widely, but something close to 60 million is frequently cited.  So, 10% Christians would = about 6 million Christians by about 300 AD.

In short, this is all very rough and ready estimates or scholarly guesswork.  (But it’s scholarly guesswork!)

A recent comment posed a good additional question:  How many Jesus-followers were there at the outset, in the earliest years after Jesus’ crucifixion?  One could infer from the Gospel accounts that Jesus had aroused a certain number of followers during his ministry, perhaps especially in Galilee.  These would be additional to the more well-known group of followers who seem to have (re)located to Jerusalem.

From Paul’s reports of his own early efforts to “destroy” (his word) the young Jesus-movement, one could infer that, already within the first year or two, it had become highly visible, and generated the rather harsh verdict reflected in his efforts.  Perhaps, as well, the Jesus-movement had already begun to grow impressively, and this, too, was a factor that generated the concern of this then-young Pharisee.

From a very early point, also, the Jesus-movement was trans-local, with followers mentioned in Damascus and Antioch, and probably other places as well.  So, it is possible that what became “Christianity” was, from a very early point, a rapidly spreading movement.  But it appears that across the second and third centuries this growth continued, with impressive cumulative numbers.

Tertullian (ca. 200 AD) claimed an “immense number of Christians . . . almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ” (Apology 37), and that “our numbers are so great–constituting all but the majority in every city . . .” (To Scapula 2), and that pagan critics “groan over the increasing number of the Christians” (Ad Nationes 1).  This may well be deliberate exaggeration for rhetorical effect.  But it would have been somewhat counter-productive to make such claims if the number of Christians had been totally insignificant.  So, I think that it is likely that, at least in some areas (such as North Africa, where Tertullian lived), Christians were sufficiently numerous to be rather highly visible and of concern to pagan opponents.

Why people joined the Christian movement in this period, given the social costs involved, is the question I urge that scholars should consider more closely in my recent book:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016).

“Who Were the First Christians?”

A new book by Thomas A. Robinson, Who Were the First Christians?  Dismantling the Urban Thesis (Oxford University Press, 2017) takes a virtual wrecking ball to the theories of a number of prominent scholars in early Christianity.  (The publisher’s online catalogue here.)

His most direct and effective critique goes at the numbers and accompanying assumptions widely touted about the growth of early Christianity.  Asking whether historians can count, Robinson shows that the numbers often invoked just don’t add up.  Many scholars posit that by 300 CE Christians made up ca. 10% of the population of the Roman Empire, and that somewhere between 5% and 15% of the population lived in urban settings, and that Christianity was almost entirely an urban religion.  But, as Robinson cleverly notes, putting these figures together would require that by 300 CE the population of urban centres of the Empire would have been totally Christian, something that no historian would hold.

So, something has to give.  Either there were far fewer Christians than typically imagined, or there were many more Christians beyond the urban centres than typically imagined.  Robinson then argues over several chapters for the latter view.  Drawing upon an impressive body of scholarly work, he seems to me to make a rather persuasive case.

One important point made is that there were strong links between urbanized and rural areas.  People from rural areas moved to cities, but likely retained links with relatives and friends in the countryside.  Cities and rural areas operated in a symbiotic relationship.  Indeed, it is not always possible to say where ancient cities ended and the countryside began.

Historians often grant that Christianity began to have a rural impact as early as 250 CE.  But,  extending his survey across a wide expanse, both eastern and western areas of the Empire included, Robinson also draws upon indications in early Christian sources that there were rural Christians from a far earlier point.

In two appendices, Robinson tackles the theories of two figures who loom large in today’s study of early Christianity, Ramsay MacMullen and Rodney Stark, and mounts an effective critique of both.  He posits problems in method in MacMullen’s thesis of two early Christianities.  But his sharpest criticism is directed at Rodney Stark’s use of dubious numbers to support his thesis that factors specific to the ancient urban centres were crucial in the growth of early Christianity.  I found it hard to avoid wincing at points where Robinson skewers Stark for failures in method.

As should be obvious, this book is primarily a work of criticism, intended to signal the need to re-think a lot about early Christianity.  Robinson candidly admits that this re-thinking lies ahead, and that his book is essentially a clarion call for it.  But the implications are far-reaching.

For if the thesis is incorrect that early Christianity had success pretty much solely in urban settings in the first two or three centuries, then that calls into question the putative reasons for its growth that follow from that “urban thesis.”

Moreover, Robinson challenges some now-popular notions about the social levels of early Christians (e.g., W. A. Meeks), contending that the evidence suggests a larger place must be given to Christians of lower social and economic levels.  This, too, might well have effects on theories about what it was about early Christianity that appealed to people.

I commend this book to all students of early Christianity.  It should start the ball rolling on a prolonged and far-reaching re-examination of who the first Christians were and why early Christianity developed so remarkably.

(Robinson has made a career of challenging widely-held theories effectively.  His published PhD thesis, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church [Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988], was a powerful refutation of Walter Bauer’s theory that “heresy” preceded “orthodox” Christianity in several areas of the Roman Empire.  Robinson’s book, Ignatius of Antioch and the Parting of the Ways:  Early Jewish-Christian Relations [Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson; Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2009], offered an incisive reading of evidence of an early emergence of “Christianity” in distinction from “Judaism”.  I confess a certain pride in his accomplishments, as Robinson was one of my masters degree students from many years ago.)

For whom is “Destroyer of the gods”?

In all the various interviews about my recent book, Destroyer of the gods, the question  up early:  Who is this book for, and what can people today take from it?  So, I’ll summarize here what my answers are.

The book is intended for a wide swathe of readers, really, anyone interested in exploring how Christianity began and what it looked like in its earliest phases.  I’d hope that many Christians would be curious about their religious forebears, and would be interested to see what it was like being a Christian before Christendom.  It was a time when, in the words of the Australian ancient historian Eric Osborne, Christians had to reason for their lives.  A bit dramatic, perhaps, for not every Christian was under threat of death, to be sure.  But Christianity was simply one sect among  others, and, indeed, was seen widely in a rather negative light.

So, becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage that I can see in the first centuries before Constantine changed things.  Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass.  My book focuses on several features of early Christianity that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of the time.

In the “post-Christendom” setting of the modern Western world, Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was.  Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others.  So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.  Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Barth, etc., these all wrote in situations where their dialogue partners were other Christians.  But people such as Justin Martyr, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, Tertullian, and others of those early centuries were seeking to articulate and defend Christian faith to outsiders and critics in a situation in which Christians had to do so.  Their efforts at articulating their faith and living it out in as winsome a manner as they could will, I think, be more relevant now than at any time in the preceding 1000 years of Western history.

But I also have aimed the book at a wider public who don’t identify themselves as Christians, but will be interested to see what this thing called Christianity was like in its earliest setting.  These folk (or some)  may presume that all religion is simply the refuge of mentally less competent, socially dysfunctional souls, and/or the tool of those seeking to exploit credulity for economic and political gains.  It will come as a surprise, I suspect, to see who early Christians were, and that they included people of all social ranks and a decent number of clear educational and intellectual abilities.  And, as I’ve stated, for these early Christians their Christian allegiance had scant chance of offering any economic, social or political advantage (prior to Constantine’s adoption of Christianity).

To cite again the comment from Wayne Meeks that opens my book:

“Even in an age that some describe as post-Christian, the beginnings of the strange movement that was to become Christianity in all its varieties continue to fascinate thoughtful people . . . Yet something more that mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history.  Our interest in the question betrays our awareness that, whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings.” (The Origins of Christian Morality:  The First Two Centuries, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 1).



“Graphic Signs” in Early Christianity

I’m pleased to have notice of the publication of my contribution to a multi-author volume: Graphic Signs of Identity, Faith, and Power in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, eds. Ildar Garipzanov, C. Goodson, H. McGuire (Brepols, 2017; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here).  My essay = “Earliest Christian Graphic Symbols:Examples and References from the Second/Third Centuries”(pp.25-44).

I introduce the “nomina sacra” and the “staurogram,” and then discuss various symbols referred to in Christian texts of the first three centuries: the cross (the T-shape), and fish symbolism.

The remainder of the essays, by a galaxy of scholars, are mainly focused on later centuries, and explore how “graphic symbols” (i.e., non-representational and non-textual) functioned to express and promote “identity, faith and power.”  I was invited to contribute, even though my own expertise and focus are on the first Christian centuries, and am honoured to be included with the various respected colleagues in the volume.

I have uploaded the pre-publication version of the essay on this blog site under the “Selected published essays” tab.

Jesus in the Gospels

In the light of recent discussion about how the Gospels present Jesus, I offer some observations intended to underscore and summarize my own views, and, hopefully, to promote some clear thinking by all.[1] Readers’ alert: This will be a long posting.

The first thing to say is that, quite obviously, all four canonical Gospels (not only the Synoptic Gospels) present a genuinely human Jesus whose career is empowered and authorized by God. These “Jesus books” are all bios-shaped sequential narratives, all of them commencing Jesus’ career in connection with John the Baptizer, all of them then relating Jesus’ itinerant activities of proclaiming God’s kingdom, teaching, disputing with opponents, working various miracles, and all of them devoting a sizeable final section to Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, featuring his arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. They are not theological tractates, but narratives of the earthly Jesus.[2]

So it is dubious to infer that their lack of the explicit Christological claims affirmed in other early Christian texts means that they advocate some particular Christological stance different from or in opposition to that advocated in writings that do incorporate more explicit and “post-Easter” Christological statements, such as Paul’s letters. Certainly, I find no evidence in the Gospels that the authors were tilting against or correcting some Christological stance, intending their accounts as replacements or alternatives.

Instead, the “bios” shape of these writings suggests that the authors were all (albeit in varying ways) motivated or inspired by the emergence of biographical type literature in the late Hellenistic and Roman periods. That is, these writings seem to reflect the “literary environment” in which they were written. They are all “literaturizations” (to use David Aune’s term) of the stories of Jesus. This is perhaps more obviously evident in Matthew and Luke, which add birth narratives, a feature of “great figure” biographies.

As bios-type writings, the aims were to promote Jesus as the central heroic figure, authoritative teacher, always correct over against critics, and the inspiring example to followers. This exemplary emphasis is perhaps particularly evident in Mark, which features Jesus summoning people to follow him (e.g., 8:34-38). Indeed, Mark seems to make Jesus the sole fully positive example for followers, and depicts Jesus’ disciples as often contrasting examples of “fallible followers.” That is, the purpose of the authors wasn’t to formulate and promote some distinctive theological standpoint, but instead, presuming convictions already held, to emphasize the earthly Jesus as exemplary, and his teachings as authoritative for the behaviour of his followers. I repeat: Nothing in the Gospels suggests that this was in opposition to other beliefs about Jesus (e.g., advocating a “low” Christology over against a “high” Christology), and so the more reasonable inference is that the authors intended their works to promote and complement the sorts of beliefs and devotional practice that appear to have been widespread in various early Christian circles by the late first century when these texts were written.

The emphasis on the earthly career of Jesus involves an impressive amount of “local color”. The Gospels are studded with geographical sites, early first-century issues and customs characteristic of Jewish circles in Roman Judea (e.g., food customs, clean/unclean questions, Sabbath observance), historical figures of the time, Jewish religious parties (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees). And there is an interesting absence of issues that featured in the period after Jesus’ career, such as debates about circumcision. You get foreshadowings of the kind of Christological claims familiar in early Christian circles, as in the Markan scene where Jesus responds to the question of the high priest (14:61-65). But, on the whole, the writers (especially the Synoptics) tend to situate Jesus authentically in his own setting.

So, the Synoptic Gospels don’t present Jesus declaring his divine status or demanding that people worship him. But this simply reflects the emphasis in various NT writings that it was God’s post-mortem exaltation of Jesus, involving his installation as universal “Kyrios” that provided the basis for treating him as sharing in divine glory. So, in these terms, it would have been inappropriate for Jesus to claim a status not yet conferred by God, or to demand the sort of reverence that was seen as authorized by God’s exaltation of Jesus. Even in the Gospel of John, with its more explicit statements on the mouth of Jesus claiming a heavenly origin (e.g., about having “come down from heaven,” 6:38) and divine significance (e.g., 14:8-11), we have otherwise a genuinely human Jesus, who, for example, grows thirsty (4:7), weeps at the death of a friend (11:35-36), and, most clearly, who really dies (19:30). Indeed, John (uniquely) has Jesus insisting that he works entirely as empowered by God and does not bear witness to himself but depends upon God (and also John the Baptizer, Moses and the scriptures) to do so (5:19-24, 30-45).

At the same time, all four Gospels reflect and even appear to allude to beliefs and devotional practices that erupted early in the “post-Easter” period and that, by the time of their composition certainly, had become widely characteristic of the early Christian movement. The mysteriousness of Jesus’ true/full significance in Mark, for example, is widely taken as indicative of this. Human characters in Mark don’t “get it,” to be sure, even Jesus’ closest followers (e.g., 4:41), but it seems to me that the early Christian readers for whom Mark was written were expected to smile knowingly, perceiving at various points in the story allusions and foreshadowings of the “high” Christological beliefs and devotional practices that they shared. For example, the demonic recognitions of Jesus’ high status (e.g., 2:24, 34; 5:1-7) serve as ironic contrasts with the obtuseness of humans in the story, and seem to me to allude to the insights into Jesus transcendent status likely familiar to earliest readers.

Or consider Matthew’s interesting uses of proskynein in several scenes in place of the Greek terms used by Mark (on which Matthew seems to have drawn heavily).[3] It seems that the author of Matthew intended his Christian readers to see these scenes where people make obeisance to Jesus or reverentially ask favors from him as anticipations of the more explicit cultic reverence familiar to those readers. And, of course, there is the remarkable version of the lament over Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39; also Luke 13:34-35), which appears to ascribe a “pre-existence” to Jesus, who speaks here as the mother hen who repeatedly sought to gather rebellious Israel under her wings.

To reiterate the point for emphasis, in all four Gospels, Jesus is a genuinely human and historical figure, authorized and empowered by God for his unique mission. But, contra the recent proposal of Daniel Kirk, the Gospels don’t try to fit Jesus into a genus or category populated also by others, such as Kirk’s “exalted human” category. Indeed, there are indications that the authors opposed any such categorization as wholly inadequate.

Note, for example, the transfiguration scene in Mark 9:2-8. Jesus alone is portrayed as glistening with heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah appear “talking with Jesus,” but in contrast to Peter’s ill-judged proposal to “make three booths” for Jesus, Moses and Elijah, the divine voice proclaims Jesus alone as “my beloved Son” and orders the disciples, “Listen to him.” In short, if Moses and Elijah fit the category of “exalted humans,” the scene seems to distinguish Jesus as not really fitting within that box, but having a unique status of his own. Jesus is a human, but his divinely affirmed status seems to break the mould of “exalted human.”

Or consider the parable in Mark 12:1-12, where the “beloved son” is distinguished from all the other “servants” (likely the OT prophets) sent to the “tenants” of the vineyard (Israel). Likewise, consider the question Jesus is pictured as posing in Mark 12:35-37, which appears to query common notions of the Messiah as inadequate, and ascribes to the one taken here as David’s “lord” a unique heavenly exaltation at God’s “right hand.” Here again, a previous category of an exalted human is challenged as inadequate. Yes, Jesus is genuinely a human. But the accounts hint at a status and significance that defies precedents.

I know that we NT scholars are all trained to try to identify distinguishing features of every early Christian text, and to react somewhat allergically to any reading of texts that appears to harmonize them or treat them as complementary. But, in this case, duly granting the distinguishing emphases of the individual Gospels, and the collective character of the Synoptic Gospels, I think we have to be cautious about ascribing to them some major alternative theological position over against the beliefs and practices reflected in other and prior Christian texts. The literary genre and the authorial purposes of the Gospels involved an emphasis on the “earthly” and “pre-Easter” Jesus (albeit with indications that the accounts were written in the light of “post-Easter” Christological convictions). But it exceeds the warrants of evidence to make the authors into exponents of a supposedly “low” Christology intended to counter what otherwise seems to have been the widely shared beliefs and devotional pattern of Christian circles of the late first century. After all, if the Gospels were written with this intent, it would be difficult to account for their rather early acceptance in the various Christian circles in which those beliefs and devotional practices were affirmed.

In short, it is a fallacy to pose a genuinely human Jesus such as we have in the Gospels over against the “high” Christology reflected in Paul’s letters and other various early Christian texts. Instead, at least in the various circles that comprised the emerging “proto-orthodox” Christianity of the late first century and thereafter, various affirmations about Jesus were seen as compatible and complementary, and various literary genres were appropriated to express Jesus significance.

[1] I refer readers to my extended discussion of the Gospels as literary expressions of Jesus-devotion in my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), 259-347.

[2] “Jesus books” is, so far as I know, my coinage, first used in Lord Jesus Christ, in my discussion of the various Gospel writings, both canonical and non-canonical. On the literary genre of the canonical Gospels in the Roman setting, see, e.g., David E. Aune, The New Testament in its Literary Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987); and Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[3] See, e.g., my discussion in Lord Jesus Christ, 337-38; H. Kim, “The Worship of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew,” Biblica 93 (2012): 227-36.

“The Last Adam”: Brandon Crowe’s new book

Relevant to the recent discussion here about the portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, note also Brandon D. Crowe’s new book, The Last Adam:  A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Baker Academic, 2017; the publisher’s online catalogue entry here.  As does Kirk, Crowe (one of my former PhD students) overtly offers his study with a theological concern that the life-stories of Jesus in the Gospels should be taken seriously, both in theological reflections and in preaching.  But Crowe doesn’t seem to make so much of a contrast between his emphasis on the human career of Jesus and the emphasis on him as having a divine status and as rightful recipient of worship.

As hinted in the title, Crowe’s book has a central thesis that in all four Gospels Jesus is implicitly or explicitly presented as the new/last Adam, Jesus’ life and actions depicted in relation to (and in contrast with) the (failing/disobedient) Adam of Genesis.  In Crowe’s judgement, the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ ministry emphasize his obedience (to God), making his life salvific, and not only his death and resurrection.  Crowe pushes back against depictions of the Gospels as “passion narratives with extended introductions” (Martin Kähler), urging (cogently) that the authors of the Gospels must have intended their narratives of the Jesus of Galilee to be meaningful, and not simply preparations for his crucifixion.

Crowe draws upon a history of scholarship to argue that his thesis is not so much new as insufficiently noted in some recent scholarly work.  His intended readership includes particularly students and pastors, hoping to offer the latter in particular some practical help in preaching from the Gospels narratives.



“A Man Attested by God”: Kirk’s Response

Daniel Kirk has blogged here in reply to my review of his book, A Man Attested by God, exhibiting an irenic tone that is much to be commended.  I’ll allow myself just a couple of observations in response.

First, and perhaps most importantly for the purpose and argument of Kirk’s book, he doesn’t respond to my point that his proposed reading of the Synoptic Gospels seems very implausible in the late first-century CE Christian setting in which these texts were composed.  Kirk seems to want to read the Synoptics as if (1) they were complete Christological statements on their own, and (2) early Christian readers would have had to hand only what these texts explicitly state.  But, as I noted in my SBL response published on this site earlier, these are most unlikely.  For we know that the treatment of Jesus as worthy of divine honor and cultic devotion had been in place and widely practiced already by the 50s when Paul wrote his letters.  So, to imagine that some 30-50 years later the authors of the Synoptics and/or their intended Christian readership would have been ignorant of these things (as Kirk’s approach seems to me to require) is an implausible stretch of imagination in my view.

Positively, therefore, it’s far more plausible to think that the Synoptic authors emphasize a genuinely human Jesus, not because they are uncomfortable with treating him as sharing in divine status, or because they want readers to take their narratives of the historic and human Jesus in isolation from other early Christian beliefs, but because, instead, these authors simply want to present ordered narratives of the earthly career of this Jesus.  Perhaps they wished to maintain (or re-establish) a balance, underscoring that the exalted Jesus of early Christian devotion is also the man of Galilee.  In any case, my point is that it’s methodologically dubious to read the Synoptics as if they were the only statements about Jesus available to original readers.

And my further observation here is that Kirk doesn’t seem to me to have responded to this point.  At least not directly or explicitly, so far as I can see.

My other point is in response to the quotation that he cites in defence of his accusation that my views show the influence or “Chalcedonian” creedal categories.  I’d think that a careful reader of that quotation will note that I’m simply making the historical observation that the discursive and devotional patterns evident in NT texts played a [NB: a] major role in the subsequent (NB:  subsequent) developments in Christological thought.  To make such a historical observation is not, however, to read those subsequent developments back into the earlier phenomena (contra Kirk’s claim), nor is it to frame the investigation and characterization of those earlier phenomena in line with later developments.  The historical connection moves from earlier to later, and that’s just a fact.  But to note this is hardly to commit the anachronistic analysis that Kirk seems (albeit softly) to ascribe to me.

I’d hope that anyone who reads my work without such an accusation in mind would see that I go to great lengths to avoid using later creedal categories to describe the earlier beliefs and devotional practices of the Jesus-movement.  There are real distinctions between the discursive categories of 4th century Christological debate and the first-century texts in the NT.  At the same time, the one could not have developed without the other.

Podcast Interview with David Pendergrass

A two-part interview of me by David Pendergrass is now available here and here.  The discussion ranges over my recent books on early Christianity and related topics, including questions about what implications there might be for Christians today.

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