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Religious Freedom and Early Christianity

I’m pleased to point to the publication of my essay in which I argue that pre-Constantinian Christianity provides an early impetus and argument for freedom of religion.  It appears in the online magazine, Marginalia here.  The editors chose the title, which uses the word “race.”  I, however, refer to “ethnicity” in the article, and contend that there are strong theological and traditional reasons that Christians should support a society in which there is uncoerced “space” to choose one’s religion, or to choose none.

The New religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Observations

As I indicated in my posting about the colloquium held here this week, the plan is to publish the finished form of the papers in a multi-author volume later this year.  In the meantime, I aim to present brief summaries of the papers on this blog site.  The presenters were not expected to produce abstracts, and so I am left to my own notes to give these summaries.

I start with my own paper:  “The New religionsgeschichtliche Schule at Thirty:  Observations by a Participant.”   In this brief paper, I take the title from the endorsement of the American edition (1988) of my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism.  Hengel characterized the book as reflecting a number of scholars internationally who, he said, might be thought of as a “new religionsgeschichtlich Schule” (history of religion school).  I probe whom he might have had in mind, proposing scholars such as Alan Segal, Richard Bauckham, Jarl Fossum, and a few others, and then turn to the similarities and differences between this body of scholars and the earlier/original Schule (based in Goettingen, Germany in the early 20th century).  Essentially, I think that the questions are similar, but the approach, aims and results are different.

The two main conclusions of the newer Schule are these:  (1) a remarkable devotion to Jesus as in some way sharing in divine honor and status, and also in ritual practices, erupted initially among Jewish believers and in Judean settings, not (as Bousset contended) in diaspora settings; and (2) in the context of second-temple Judaism and the wider Roman environment, this Jesus-devotion is historically novel and noteworthy.  Differences of emphasis and particular points remain among scholars who agree on these points, however, and the colloquium discussion illustrated this.

I stress that this devotion to Jesus is expressed both in confessional statements and, importantly, also in ritual/devotional acts.  These in particular are innovative.  Other “chief agent” figures in Jewish tradition of the time did not function so centrally in devotional practice.  In the larger Roman environment, the incorporation of multiple divine beings wasn’t unusual, of course.  But there is no similar exclusivity of one deity and one divine agent.  The “dyadic” pattern of earliest Jesus-devotion is distinctive, however you approach it.

Although some scholars have characterized the impact of the new Schule as constituting “a new history of religion perspective,” “a paradigm shift,” and a “a clear (though not unanimous) consensus,” there are scholars who criticize the work and dissent from it.  In the final part of the paper I engage briefly some of the most vocal and recent scholars in question, indicating why I don’t find their views valid.  These include Adela Yarbro Collins, Michael Peppard, Dieter Zeller, Daniel Kirk, and David Litwa.

I conclude by observing that, whatever the extent to which the work of the so-called new Schule is accepted, “the continuing flow of PhD theses and books on the origins and early development of Jesus-devotion, almost always showing engagement with the works of scholars who can be associated with the new Schule, surely shows that they have helped to shape the agenda of the investigation of Christian origins,” and “that, in itself, may be a sufficient contribution.”

“Varieties of Theism in Antiquity”: The Two-Day Colloquium

Tuesday and Wednesday this week there was a special colloquium held in New College here in Edinburgh focused on the variety of ways that gods are treated in the ancient Greco-Roman period.  It was not open to the public, and so I’ve waited till it was over to blog about it.

This was a rich feast of papers and discussions featuring a stellar assembly of accomplished scholars.  Each paper was distributed and read beforehand, and the presenter gave a short summary, followed by a prepared short response, followed then by a period of discussion (and sometimes debate!).  Here is the list of them and their titles, as well as assigned respondents (in the order of presentation):

L.W. Hurtado, “The new religionsgeschichtliche Schule at Thirty:  Observations by a Participant.”  (Response by Jan Bremmer)

Matthew Novenson, “The Universal Polytheism and the Case of the Jews.” (Response by Paula Fredriksen)

Charles Gieschen, “The Divine Name as a Characteristic of Divine Identity in Second Temple Judaism an Early Christianity.” (Response by April DeConick)

David Capes, “Jesus’ Unique Relationship with YHWH in Biblical Exegesis.” (Response by Richard Bauckham)

Paula Fredriksen, “The Gods of the Nations and the One God’s Messiah:  Apocalypse and Redemption in Paul’s Christology.” (Response by L. Hurtado)

Carey Newman, “God and Glory and Paul, Again.”  (Response by Paula Fredriksen)

Richard Bauckham, “Confessing the Cosmic Christ (1 Cor 8:6 and Col 1:15-20).” (Response by Jörg Frey)

Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr, “One God, and One Lord in the Epistle of James.” (Response by Carey Newman)

Jörg Frey, “Between Monotheism and Proto-Trinitarian Relations:  The Path of Johannine Christology.” (Response by Marianne Meye Thompson)

Jan Bremmer, “The God of the Early Christian Martyrs.” (Response by Sara Parvis)

Pheme Perkins, “Gnosis and the Tragedies of Wisdom:  Sophia’s Story.” (Response by Charles Gieschen)

April DeConick, “The One God is No Simple Matter.” (Response by Pheme Perkins)

It was also personally very meaningful and touching that this galaxy of fine scholars took their valuable time to prepare papers and come to the colloquium in my honour.  There is a photo of the participants on the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins here.  I count them all, not only colleagues from whom I continue to learn, but also friends, and I’m truly honored by their contributions.

Thanks also to Matthew Novenson for making all the arrangements, including refreshments and meals, and to Carey Newman (Baylor University Press) for arranging funding for the colloquium.  Particular thanks to the Lanier Theological Library for a generous grant in support of the event.

There are plans for a multi-author volume of finished versions of the papers to be published in due course by Baylor University Press.


Chester Beatty Manuscripts Online

Two online avenues for accessing the Chester Beatty Library biblical manuscripts are now available.

The earlier one is via the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (link here).  The CSNTM made fresh and high-resolution digital images of the Chester Beatty manuscripts a few years ago, and I’m pleased to have been instrumental in arranging this.

More recently it appears, the Chester Beatty Library has now digitized and put online the many volumes of the original editions of their biblical manuscripts made by F. G. Kenyon (back in the 1930s).  See Brent Nongbri’s blog posting, which includes the links that he set up to facilitate accessing the volumes:  here.

Wax Tablets: A Follow-up

I’ve been surprised (pleasantly) at the number of comments and interested readers responding to my posting yesterday about the use of wax tablets by writers in the Roman era.  Here are a few further comments:

  • Wax tablets survive and can be viewed in some museums.  You can see a scale replica here.
  • If you want to own one, you can purchase replicas here.
  • As these sites show, the size approximated the modern e-tablet, ranging from ca. 15×20 cm to ca. 20×25.
  • The Mediterranean heat did not melt the wax!!

When I was a student (waaaay back before computers!), the essential research tool we were all taught to use was the file card, the lined 4×6 inch card.  As you read, you recorded full bibliographical data on a card for each item consulted.  You added quotes or other notes.  Then, when you came to compose your essay, thesis, whatever, you prepared an outline and then organized your file cards keyed to the outline.  As you wrote, you drew upon the file cards.  You didn’t have the many books, journal articles, etc., on the desk, and you didn’t need them.  The file cards recorded what you needed from each (assuming that you carefully recorded all important data on them).

Ancient authors used wax tablets the same way.  We don’t have to puzzle over how an author could work with multiple scrolls.  He didn’t.  He consulted them one-by-one, made notes & quotes on wax tablets or papyrus sheets, and then when he composed, he drew upon these.

Wax Tablets, Sources, and Ancient Composition-Practices

One the questions currently intriguing me is how the authors of texts such as the Gospels may have gone about their composition of them.  What were the “mechanics” and the physical items used?  One of the studies that I’ve come across is this one:  John C. Poirier, “The Roll, the Codex, the Wax Tablet and the Synoptic Problem,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 1 (2012): 3-30.

As suggested in his title, Poirier’s interest in the article is whether taking account of ancient compositional practices, particularly the use of wax tablets, helps us to explore options for questions about the literary relationships of the Synoptic Gospels.  But I found the article in drawing attention to the crucial role of wax tablets in the Roman world, and helpful in citing other works dealing with this and related matters.

The items in question were rectangular wooden frames with a rectangular recessed area into which wax was melted and smoothed.  You write on the wax with a stylus.  You could have multiple such tablets, and could join them together with a leather or cord tie.  They were portable, and we read of authors taking them along on a journey to jot down thoughts.  They were also re-usable.  One end of the stylus was flattened, and was used to smooth out (erase) writing when it was no longer needed.

Ancient authors used such tablets to record quotations and notes on the texts that they consulted in doing any research for composition of a text.  So, as Poirier points out, authors didn’t have to have the full texts (scrolls) of literary sources before them as they wrote.  Instead, they used wax tablets containing the bits that they wanted to quote or cite.

Other studies more fully devoted to the use of these tablets are (unfortunately for English-only readers) these: Paola Degni, Usi Delle Tavolette Lignee E Cerate Nel Mondo Greco E Romano, Ricerca Papirologica, no. 4 (Messina: Sicania, 1998); Les tablettes à écrire de l’antiquité à l’époque modern, ed. Elisabeth Lalou (Turnhout: Brepols, 1992).

A couple of other studies from a few decades ago provide some interesting context for questions about how authors went about using sources.   C. B. R. Pelling, “Plutarch’s Method of Work in the Roman Lives,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 99 (1979):  74-96, notes that Plutarch and other ancient authors seem to have relied on one principal source, supplemented by others and by memory.  And Pelling also emphasizes the role of note-taking, using wax tablets and/or papyrus sheets.  So, he identifies three main compositional steps:  (1) preliminary reading of sources, (2) production of hypomnemata or hypomnema (notes, excerpts) , relying heavily on one source, but switching when that account was unsuitable or inadequate, and (3) the writing of finished versions.

In another interesting article, Pelling analyzes Plutarch’s use and adaptation of his sources: C. B. R. Pelling, “Plutarch’s Adaptation of His Source Material,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980): 127-40.  Pelling shows that Plutarch abbreviates, collapses incidents, changes chronology, expands with dramatic details, etc.  And differences show up between two of Plutarch’s accounts of the same incidents. Sometimes they seem conscious and sometimes perhaps accidental.

I wish that we had more such studies (and would be grateful for tips for any additional ones).  The relevance to the study of the NT is obvious.  Poirier’s article is one illustration, but there are still other things that might make more sense if we took greater account of ancient compositional practices.

The Investment of Early Christians in Texts: Further Thoughts

In an earlier posting (here) I noted the indications of a remarkable investment of time, effort, and expenses in the composition, copying and distribution of texts in early Christian circles, especially (but not exclusively) Christian texts such as became part of the NT.  I offer here a few further thoughts on the subject, exploring what was involved in some settings.

As I pointed out in that previous posting, Randolph Richards has attempted to calculate the time and effort involved in preparing and copying Paul’s various epistles.  So, e.g., he calculates that it would have taken a copyist over 11 hours to make a fair copy of Romans.  That in itself is an impressive effort.  But in the case of Romans, and also Galatians, we have epistles addressed to more than one early Christian assembly (e.g., Gal 1:2, “the assemblies of Galatia”).  So, did Paul send out individual copies to these respective assemblies?  Or did he send one copy to one of them in each case, and then expect that assembly to make a copy for another?

Personally, I’d guess that he may have had individual copies made for the churches in question.  That would ensure that each assembly actually got a copy of the respective epistle, and also would ensure that the copy each assembly got was approved by Paul.  But this means that Paul and his “team” who traveled and worked alongside him would have to help shoulder the burden of making multiple copies of these epistles.  That in turn suggests that they sometimes  operated as an early kind of publication group.  In the case of Galatians, did Paul personally add the postscript (6:11-18) to each of several copies?  If not, the effect of its claim that it is written in Paul’s own “hand” would have been diminished quite early.

Or let’s consider Revelation, which, likewise, is addressed to multiple assemblies (in this case, seven).  Were there seven copies prepared and sent out to the individual assemblies?  If so, who was involved in making these copies?  Or did the author send one initial copy (e.g., to Ephesus), and each church in succession was expected to make a copy to send to the next assembly in the series?

Either way, a goodly amount of time and effort was required of someone (or some group or groups) to make multiple copies of these texts.  Then, there was also the necessity of arranging for the copies to get to the various assemblies.  In the case of Romans, at least they were all in one city.  But in the case of Galatians, we’re likely dealing with assemblies in various cities of Galatia.  That means couriering the copies trans-locally across some distances.  This, of course, is also the case with Revelation.

(I should also mention the statement in Colossians 4:16, where the readers of this epistle are directed to have it read also in Laodicea, and in turn to read the letter from Laodicea.  Whether Colossians is from Paul or written in his name, either way this statement reflects what is likely an early practice of sharing Paul’s letters among various assemblies.)

All of this reinforces my emphasis on early Christianity as a “bookish” type of religion (in my book, Destroyer of the gods, 105-41).  So, even though the great majority of earliest believers may have been illiterate, thanks to the efforts of those who could write and read and copy texts, Christian assemblies were shaped heavily by texts, and they invested considerable efforts in making texts available and influential in their circles.

“Pagan” Knowledge of Early Christian Texts

Scholars continue to probe whether and how early Christian texts such as those that make up the NT show knowledge and influence of “pagan” literary texts.  But far less frequently is the question asked whether literate pagans gave any attention to early Christian texts.  I confess that I’ve only recently come across an invaluable tool for addressing that question:  Giancarlo Rinaldi, Biblia Gentium: A First Contribution towards an Index of Biblical Quotations, References and Allusions Made by Greek and Latin Heathen Writers of the Roman Imperial Times (Rome:  Libreria Sacre Scritture, 1989).

After an extensive Introduction (in both Italian and English), Rinaldi lists identifiable references to, and/or uses of, biblical texts in pagan authors, 715 citations/allusions in all.  The references are listed in the canonical order of the biblical writings, starting with Genesis and extending on through Revelation, and even one reference to the Apocalypse of Peter.

Some 417 of the total are references to NT writings.  Of those that can be ascribed to a particular NT writing, 105 are to the Gospel according to Matthew, 16 to Mark, 41 to Luke, 64 to John.  There are another 60 references that are difficult to assign to any one Gospel, but definitely show an acquaintance with one or more.  There are, then, 110 other references to other NT writings.

So, the identifiable uses of Matthew are almost as many as the total number of identifiable references to the other NT Gospels.  This accords with the prominence of Matthew in other indexes of comparative popularity of the Gospels in early Christian circles too.

Each text in the book gives the reference to the classical author and the biblical writing, the Greek or Latin of the classical author, and a translation in Italian and English.  Indeed the bulk of the book (690 pages plus several indexes) arises from the helpful decision to give the Introduction and all other material both in Italian and English.

Building on Rinaldi’s catalog of references, John Granger Cook produced subsequently an analysis of the pagan references to NT writings:  The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Mohr Siebeck, 2000; reprint Hendrickson Publishers, 2002).  Granger discusses the use of NT writings in Celsus, Porphyry, Macarius Magnes, Hierocles, and the emperor Julian (often called “the Apostate”).

Various questions arise.  How did the pagan authors obtain access to early Christian texts?  Did Christians place copies in the various public libraries of the day?  Or?  Clearly, the pagan critics such as Celsus and Porphyry believed that a key part of their effort to refute Christians involved a critique of their scriptural texts, and these many references to NT writings are entirely for the purpose of pointing out alleged contradictions, or other intellectual problems.  (Obviously, one sees something similar today in some writers, in which critical issues are raised for the purpose of scoring points in religious polemics.)

But the larger matter is that, already by sometime in the second century (at the latest), various writings that came to form part of the NT were not only being read in Christian assemblies but were also being read by some pagan intellectuals of the day.  And the results may not have been only refutations of Christian claims.  Some scholars have mooted the possibility that Christian texts and idea had an influence in the wider religious and literary world of the time.  For example, some have suggested that Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana may have been shaped in part in imitation of the Gospels accounts of Jesus.

On “Spitballing” and Informed Inferences

Having spent a few decades investigating early Christian usage of the codex and what all was entailed, including reading everything I could find written by other scholars about ancient books, and examining examples of rolls and codices for myself, I find it by turns amusing and a bit annoying when individuals obviously totally new to the issues confidently offer “simple” answers to the questions about why early Christians preferred the codex.  Their proposals are what is popularly referred to as “spitballing”, which in the Urban Dictionary is defined as “to shoot ideas out in the open, that may cause yourself to seem like a complete dunce.”

That’s a bit harsh, but, really, is there any other field of academic work in which rank amateurs with none of the skills involved, none of the relevant training, and no proven competence in publishing in the subject so readily and so confidently launch their opinions?  This also often involves disdain for the work of those scholars who actually have the necessary attributes to be taken seriously.

So, for example, on the matter of the early Christian preference for the codex,  it is not too much to ask those who haven’t already done so to at least read some of the key scholarly studies of the matter before launching their own speculations.  You might begin with my discussion of the matter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93, and then follow up on other studies cited in my notes.  Then, feel free to ask questions, or even to ask for further clarification of issues.  But, please, it is rather tiresome to have spitball efforts to solve a complex and demanding issue.

The “Investment” of Early Christians in Texts

In previous posts I’ve emphasized the importance of early Christian manuscripts as material artifacts, not only copies of texts (e.g., here).  An associated matter is the effort and expense involved in the production, copying, and dissemination and usage of these texts as manuscript copies.  This is hardly explored, and it’s therefore difficult to find scholarly works that help us to do so.

But one scholar who has focused on this matter in a couple of books now is E. Randolph Richards, perhaps more accessibly in his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing:  Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Inter-Varsity Press, 2004).  Although it involves a good deal of careful estimation and inferences, Richards attempts to gauge the efforts and expense involved in the composition of Paul’s letters, and the preparation of them for dispatch to the churches that he addressed.  (The publisher’s online catalog entry is here.)

Richards rightly notes that Paul was leader of a “team”, at least some of whom served as his assistants in the preparation of his epistles, and occasionally as couriers as well.  Richards also surveys the material of ancient writing, and particularly the role of secretaries.

The matter that is most directly relevant to this blog post, however, is his effort to estimate the time and effort involved in preparation of Paul’s epistles for dispatch.  The composition of a sizable text such as the epistle to the Romans may have involved weeks, and several sessions of composition.  Based on the practices reported by other Roman-era authors, Richards proposes that each epistle likely went through a four-stage process:  an initial draft prepared from notes, a revision-draft, a polished draft prepared for dispatch, and a fair copy kept by Paul (p. 164).  Richards estimates that the copying of a draft of Romans would likely have required nearly 12 hours, perhaps spread over 2-3 days.

Then, there was the necessity of sending an epistle, which required specific arrangements, as there was no public postal system.  It is likely that Christians themselves served as couriers, some of them from Paul’s entourage.  Given the distances involved, they would have required food, lodging, and transportation.

All of this indicates an impressive commitment to the production and dissemination of texts in earliest Christian circles.  It illustrates my reasons for referring to early Christianity as a particularly “bookish religion” in my recent book:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), pp. 105-41.  This tells us something about the internal “culture” of early Christianity, not only Paul.  And, though needing more scholarly exploration, we see in this the profound commitment of resources to the use of texts.  On this matter, I refer again to the landmark study by Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church:  A History of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press, 1995).

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