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“Early Christianity”: A Plea and a Modest Programme Proposal

In researching for my current book project on early Christian distinctives, I note repeatedly how scholarly attention to the second and third centuries seems often to suffer in comparison to the first century and the post-Constantinian period. On the one hand, many New Testament scholars today (especially those from a Protestant background) all too often tend to lose much interest after about 100 AD, almost anything thereafter terra incognita (or at least not considered other than in a cursory manner), in this quite distinguishable from earlier scholars such as Lightfoot, Hort, Zahn, Harnack, and others (including, may I note, New Testament colleagues here in Edinburgh). I recall, for example, that in several seminars held to discuss my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, I was informed upon arrival that we would only deal with the first seven chapters (omitting the three chapters on the second century), and that the students hadn’t been asked to read any farther than that!

On the other hand, although the second century and thereafter is the traditional territory of scholars in “Patristics” (to use a traditional label, now increasingly replaced with “Early Christian Studies”), all too often the second and third centuries fail to get their due from these scholars as well. To use a baseball metaphor (and to risk caricature to make a point), it sometimes seems that the second century in particular is treated as the “bull pen” time in which a “warm-up” goes on for the “game,” which really gets underway with Constantine. One of the buzz-words now is “Late Antiquity,” and in practice this can sometimes mean a focus on the fourth century and thereafter, with less attention to the “pre-Constantinian” time.

Now, granted, in and after the fourth century AD the extant Christian texts and other data (church buildings, art, sarcophagi, jewels, elegant manuscripts, etc.) multiply considerably. But I wonder if this perhaps makes it more difficult for scholars to recognize adequately what we do have from the earlier period. If you come to the second century, with training and previous focus on the post-Constantinian period, does this make you too aware of what seems missing, and less able to appreciate what is there in its own terms? For example, perhaps judged from the post-Constantinian period (especially the fifth century and thereafter), the earlier centuries may seem to be simply a time of incredible diversity in practices and beliefs, and only a very loose linkage and structure. Well, diversity there certainly was then, and there weren’t synods and ecumenical conferences and creeds. But how would we judge matters if, instead, we made comparisons of second/third century Christianity with other religious options of those earlier centuries?[1]

As another illustration (and to “ride a pet horse”), as to artifactual data, OK, we don’t have the buildings and items that archaeologists more typically study, and we don’t have the lavish Christian art of later centuries that art historians write about. But what if we recognized that earliest Christian manuscripts were not only copies of texts but are also material/visual objects, early Christian artifacts?[2] As such, for example, they are direct artifacts of the practices involved in the use of the texts that they contain. Likewise, precisely in light of the diversity of earliest Christianity, what are we to make of the rather clear and widely-shared Christian preference for the codex (especially for texts treated/read as scripture) and right from the earliest extant manuscripts? And, similarly, of what import is the curious scribal practice, apparently distinctive to early Christians, called the “nomina sacra,” which likewise seems to have been adopted across various Christian circles?

As still another illustration, what if we studied the writings of the second century in their own terms and time, not comparing them with the later writings and issues that are (justifiably) given so much attention classically (e.g., Augustine, the Cappadocian Fathers, etc.)? Eric Osborn showed that the second century was in fact a time of remarkable Christian intellectual activity.[3] The journal, Second Century, that appeared in 1981 was intended to focus on that Cinderella period in Christian studies, but, unfortunately (for whatever reasons) did not survive in that form.[4]

Certainly, the social and political circumstances of Christians (of their various stripes) in the first three centuries were categorically distinct from those that obtained in the post-Constantinian period. So, there continues to be scope for analyses of these matters.

It was to contribute to breaking down the unhelpful barrier between New Testament studies and “early Christian” studies that I founded here our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins (1997), which focuses on the first three centuries AD. The conferences that we’ve held in recent years, on Justin, Irenaeus, and Peter, reflect this scope of interest. The formation of the New Testament was a process that originated in the first century (when the earliest texts were composed) and ran through the second and third centuries (when these writings and others were read, copied, cited, and collections of these writings began to be made) into the fourth century (when the current list of New Testament writings began to achieve progressively wider acceptance).

So, New Testament scholars need to define the field chronologically to include at least the first two centuries.  The recently established journal, Early Christianity, reflects this view of the field (publisher’s information here).  And I also hope that more scholars in “Early Christian Studies” might focus on the pre-Constantinian period, without invidious comparisons to later developments, and with a full appreciation of this period in its own right.  Together, we could enrich further our understanding of this vital and unique era.

[1] Perhaps the “normative self-definition” project run in McMaster University by E. P. Sanders and Ben Meier back in the 1980s illustrates a more positive approach.

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

[3] Eric Osborn, The Emergence of Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[4] The journal was taken over by the North American Patristics Society and re-branded as The Journal of Early Christian Studies, and now has a much wider chronological scope.

“Jesus’ Wife” Fragment: The Collective Negative Judgment

The latest issue of the journal New Testament Studies (vol. 61, no. 3, July 2015) contains a battery of commissioned articles from several scholars that collectively present the reasons that the putative Coptic fragment referring to “Jesus’ wife” (GJW) is a modern forgery.  The small galaxy of scholars are of unquestioned expertise in the language and the texts, and here combine to show why the putative fragment cannot be accepted as a genuine early Christian text.   The table of contents of the issue is here.  (The link is slow, but wait for it.)

Simon Gathercole’s article, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Constructing a Context,” presents reasons why a reference to a wife of Jesus doesn’t really have a context in early Christian texts, contrary to Prof. King’s proposal.  And he reiterates reasons why the GJW fragment is a pastiche of phrases heavily indebted to the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

Christian Askeland, “A Lycopolitan Forgery of John’s Gospel,” gives in his article a full presentation of evidence that the putative fragment of a Coptic translation of the Gospel of John (another fragment in the small batch passed to Prof. King) is certainly a forgery (created through use of a 1924 publication), and why this means that the GJW fragment must be also.  Among the reasons, the two fragments seem to be the same “hand,” so, if the one is a forgery, the other is also likely one.

Andrew Bernhard, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Textual Evidence of Modern Forgery,” presents fully the evidence that the GJW fragment was created by use of modern published versions of the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas.

Christopher Jones, “The Jesus’ Wife Papyrus in the History of Forgery,” recounts previous examples of forgeries purporting to be genuine Christian texts, and shows how these typically are intended to reflect trends in culture and thought of their time.  The GJW fragment seems now to be the most recent instance of this.

Myriam Krutzsch and Ira Rabin, “Material Criteria and their Clues for Dating,” address the tests of the writing material and ink used to create the GJW fragment, showing the limits of these tests and how they cannot adequately address the question of forgery (especially if a forger is sufficiently clever).

Gesine Schenke Robinson, “How a Papyrus Fragment Became a Sensation,” summarizes the grounds on which it appears that the great majority of scholars with expertise in Coptic early judged the GJW fragment a forgery and now do so with greater confidence.

As of today, the Harvard Divinity School web pages on the GJW fragment here appear not to have been updated since the April 2014 publication of her article in the Harvard Theological Review.  The articles in the new issue of New Testament Studies, however, collectively give interested readers a rather full presentation of reasons why the GJW fragment is now widely regarded a hoax, Prof. King perhaps the scholar most seriously and cruelly the victim of it.  It appears that surely now, however, the appeals of various scholars for a candid response to the collective judgment that the fragment is a hoax must be heeded, and (unless the combined judgments of the aforementioned scholars can be shown to be erroneous) an effort should be made to trace (and disclose) the process by which it was attempted.

“Early High Christology”: A “Paradigm Shift”? “New Perspective”?

In a programmatic essay surveying recent scholarly discussion about earliest Jesus-devotion, Jörg Frey (Professor, University of Zürich) judges that one can speak perhaps of “a paradigm-shift” (von einem Paradigmenwechsel) or, “a new perspective” (von einer ‘neuen Perspektive’) in the work of a number of scholars:  “Eine neue religionsgeschichtliche Perspektive:  Larry W. Hurtados Lord Jesus Christ und die Herausbildung der frühen Christologie,” in Reflections on the Early Christian History of Religion/Erwägungen zur frühen Religionsgeschichte, ed. Cilliers Breytenbach & Jörg Frey (Leiden:  Brill, 2013), 117-69.

The term “new perspective” derives from (and alludes to) the use of that expression to describe the major shift in viewpoint (or at least in the scholarly agenda) arising from the landmark book by E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977).  In the case considered by Frey, however, there is no one book and no one scholar to point to as having had the same effect.  Instead, there are a number of scholars in various countries and of varying stances (and Frey cites many of them, pp. 122-24), among whom he includes me.  I would myself cite Martin Hengel’s works as particularly important foundation for me and, likely for a number of others as well.  His little (but typically jam-packed) book, The Son of God: The Origin of Christology and the History of Jewish-Hellenistic Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976; German: 1975) I would cite as especially noteworthy.

It was in Hengel’s endorsement on the cover of the initial publication my own book, One God, One Lord (1988) that he referred to the work of a number of scholars of various countries as comprising a kind of “new religionsgeschichtliche Schule” (“history of religion school”), this term taken up several times subsequently by observers of the ensuing scholarly discussion.  As I have stated earlier (Lord Jesus Christ, 11-18), I don’t think that the term strictly fits.  Unlike the original “schule,” the more recent scholars are from various universities in various countries, and, perhaps still more importantly, they are not all of one stance on matters of religion (the old “schule” were all German Protestant liberal theologians, mainly in the University of Gottingen).  But, with allowance for differences among us, we do all tend to judge that a “high” devotion to Jesus erupted early and quickly, and in circles of Jewish Jesus-followers.

So, I agree with Frey that it may be more appropriate to refer to “a new perspective” in the study of the origins of “Christology” and the place of Jesus in earliest Christian faith and practice.  Frey characterizes my book, Lord Jesus Christ, as now offering “a comprehensive representation” (“eine zusammenfassende Darstellung”) of that new perspective (125).  Well, it is at least my attempt to do this.

Frey’s essay derives from a day-long seminar on my 2003 book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, held in Berlin in 2005 under the auspices of the New Testament section of the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Theologie.  Other essays from that event, now published in the same volume, are by Jens Schröter, “Trinitarian Belief, Binitarian Monotheism, and the One God:  Reflections on the Origin of Christian Faith in Affiliation to Larry Hurtado’s Christological Approach” (pp. 171-94); Christoph Markschies, “‘Radical Diversity’? Ein Gespräch mit Larry Hurtado über verschiedene Formen der Christusverehrung im zweiten Jahrhundert” (195-210); Hermut Löhr, “‘Binitarian Worship’?  Zur impliziten Theologie des frühchristlichen Gottesdienstes. Dargestellt an Justin, 1 Apol. 61-67″ (211-29).

I remember that Berlin seminar well, with gratitude to the German-speaking colleagues who gave my work their serious attention. There were both appreciative and critical observations, to be sure!  I remember that when we re-convened after the lunch-break the leader said something like “Well, after roasting you on one side, we now turn you to the other side,” alluding, of course, to the story of the death-by-roasting of my early Christian name-sake, Laurence!  But, in fact, they were much kinder than that, and I escaped without any serious scorch marks.

“One God, One Lord”: Third Edition Forthcoming

Earlier this week I received the proposed cover for the third edition of my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, forthcoming November 2015).  Now I see that Amazon has notice of this edition as forthcoming here.   Originally published in 1988, there was a second edition in 1998, in which I provided a new 5,000-word Preface reviewing the discussion of relevant topics in the ten years between editions.  In this third edition, I provide a 20,000-word Epilogue in which I sketch the background of the book (in my own research development), and then devote the greater part of the Epilogue to tracing scholarly discussion of the main points of the book, engaging key scholars in the process.

Because I judge the net effects of the vigorous scholarly work reviewed not to have called into question anything significant in the original edition of the book, I’ve again chosen not to revise it.  Instead, the Epilogue is my effort to update the scholarly discussion and carry the argumentation forward.  The book has, however, been typographically reset for this edition, and so the page-numbering differs.  But the publisher kindly offered to provide in the margins the original page numbers, so you can find places cited in work published earlier than this edition.

It’s unusual for a scholarly work to remain in print for 25+ years, and to continue to be cited and pointed to by colleagues as worth consulting, so I’m understandably pleased and encouraged that One God, One Lord has enjoyed this success.  To be able to help shape the scholarly agenda in one’s field is surely one of the most cherished aims of scholars, and a source of great satisfaction.  I’m encouraged and honoured by the commendations of fellow scholars for this third edition, as they appear on the back cover as shown here:  One God, One Lord proof 3.

As I indicate in the Epilogue, the book remains foundational in my body of work on the origins of Jesus-devotion.  The later works, including the big book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003) all take the positions reached in One God, One Lord as the premise and carry the investigation further.  On some matters, therefore, such as the basic relationship of earliest Jesus-devotion and the Jewish matrix in which it first emerged, the book continues to be my crucial statement of my position.  It continues to be cited as well as a good review of the “chief agent” figures of ancient Jewish tradition.

“Charity” and Benevolence in the Greek & Roman Eras

Speaking for myself, I’m often finding valuable scholarly work on various matters pertaining to the world in which early Christianity emerged, such as this book:  A. R. Hands, Charities and Social Aid in Greece and Rome (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1968).  It’s a well-researched and balanced discussion of ancient attitudes and practices toward the “less fortunate” in society, which provides a valuable context in which to view attitudes and practices reflected in the early Christian texts.

Here are some representative observations by Hands:

  • “In the vast majority of texts and documents relating to gifts in the classical world, it is quite clear that the giver’s action is self-regarding, in the sense that he anticipates from the recipient of his gift some sort of return.” (26)
  • In records of the time, “. . . the motive which is constantly ascribed to the donor by the recipient–and, indeed, asserted by the donor himself–is philotimia or philodoxia (love of honour or glory). . .” (43).
  • “. . . the classical preoccupation with philotimia left little room for any mention of pity–or of ‘the poor’ as peculiarly deserving of such pity.” (61)
  • Although there are commendable expressions of the notion that the wealthy should give more generally (and examples of this humanitas), “It is . . . among a comparatively few rare spirits, even within the cultured Latin-speaking class of the Empire, that this distinctive humanity is, if anywhere, to be sought.” (88)
  • The more common pattern of public provision by the wealthy was to direct the gifts to town councillors and others of standing in the town, or to give larger shares/portions to such people:  “. . . discrimination by factors of three or five is quite normal.” (91)
  • Hands also touches on child-exposure, noting that the practice seems to have been particularly focused on disposing of unwanted female children.  Families were often limited to one child, or perhaps two sons, but “more than one daughter was very rare.” (69-70).  Hands notes, however, that Jewish families (and then Christians as well) were known as not practicing child-exposure, at least as a group.  (Note, e.g., the reference in Acts 21:9 to Philip who is ascribed there four daughters.)
  • In light of the current financial crisis over Greece, one other statement caught my eye, which I hope it is not too mischievous to repeat here:  “The Greeks, in particular, were notorious, not least in the eyes of fellow Greeks, for their unreliability in handling money.” (19)

The Spread of Early Christianity: A Valuable Tool

In the course of working on my current book project, I’ve come across another useful resource:  Roderic L. Mullen, The Expansion of Christianity:  A Gazetteer of Its First Three Centuries (Leiden: Brill, 2004).  This is a unique resource for tracing the specifics of the expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries.

After a helpful introduction, the main part of the book comprises an area-by-area listing of sites where Christians were in these early centuries, each site also given brief commentary.  Mullen has also provided a rich bibliographical resource of other scholarly publications on which he has drawn.  There are also a number of maps showing where these specific sites are.  The publisher’s online catalogue entry is here.

Published by Brill, it’s pricey (156 Euros), and so will likely be affordable only by adequately resourced and committed libraries (and middle-Eastern oil sheiks).  But it’s a seriously good piece of work and a genuinely valuable resource for scholarly investigation of early Christianity.

“Early Christianity in Contexts”: Recent Book

A new book on early Christianity merits serious attention:  Early Christianity in Contexts:  An Exploration across Cultures and Continents, ed. William Tabernee (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2014).  The publisher’s information online here.  It’s a hefty (600+ pages) book, but reasonably priced for its size.  More importantly, it’s uniquely broad in geographical and cultural coverage, and each component part is written by recognized experts in that particular area.

The publisher’s online description includes the table of contents, which will indicate the impressive breadth of coverage, with extended discussions of all areas of the Roman Empire, but areas beyond the imperial borders as well, including the Caucasus, the Balkan Peninsula, Persia and northern Mesopotamia, China, India, and Nubia.  The time-frame seems to be roughly the first 600 years of Christianity.

The particular focus stated by Tabernee is “the earliest available ‘material evidence’,” including “inscriptions, coins, mosaics, remnants of church buildings, baptisteries, decorative artwork, icons, crosses, symbols, ecclesiastical vessels, reliquaries, and a host of other artifacts” to describe the forms of Christianity in each geographical area.  This is commendable.  But notice anything missing?  Once again, as so often the case, early Christian manuscripts are omitted as artifacts, physical evidence of early Christianity.  I’m sure it wasn’t intentional.  It’s simply indicative of a wider failure among historians to recognize that manuscripts are not only copies of texts but also physical/material/visual artifacts, with “meta-textual” data useful in understanding the Christian past.  Granted, the chapter on “The World of the Nile” (181-222) refers to the early papyri of Christian provenance (190-93), but mainly to note what texts are evidenced.  There is scant attention to the papyri as physical objects.

But this criticism aside, the book seems otherwise thoroughly commendable.  There is rich documentation of primary sources and references to current scholarly publications as well, some 123 illustrations (maps, photos, etc.), a 61-page bibliography, a 46-page subject index, plus an index of ancient writings referred to in the book.

For readers who might want to push out their own frontiers of knowledge of early Christianity, this book will be a gold mine.

A Million Hits

Sometime yesterday (Tuesday, 17th) someone made the millionth “hit” on this blog site (launched in the summer of 2010).  The “big boys” in blogging probably get that number annually, but for a “niche” site like this one it’s very encouraging.  I couldn’t let it pass without notice.  This site is one effort to disseminate scholarship in the field of New Testament & Christian Origins to a wider (self-selecting) public.  The continuing interest shown makes it worth the effort.

Biblical Studies: A Discipline in Danger?

I was recently sent advance notice of an article devoted to a (misguided) critique of one I published a year or so ago.  My article = “Fashions, Fallacies and Future Prospects in New Testament Studies.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 36 (2014): 299-324.  The editors wanted to know if I wished to write a response.  Under other circumstances I might have considered it, but the press of other/prior commitments made that impossible.  In any case, as I say, the supposed critique was wide of the mark, and about the only thing I could have said in response was that.

In the critique, the author claimed that Biblical Studies departments were closing (at least in UK universities) and/or in danger of closing, and the remedy he proposed was to steer in what he regarded as more progressive and innovative directions.  My own emphasis in my article on the examples of transitory fashions and also on (for a time) widely-held fallacies was, I guess, deemed unprogressive.

Similarly, a few years back when I blogged about the importance of languages in Biblical Studies (e.g., Koine Greek in New Testament/Christian Origins), there was an almighty blowback from some individuals.  I was accused of trying to stifle creativity, holding back a younger generation as a moss-backed senior, trying to impose a “Victorian straightjacket” on the field (by one particularly exercised fellow in the antipodes).  I should think that anyone who read the blog after having one’s morning coffee would have seen that I simply stated what many/most scholars in the field would think obvious:  That you need to be able to read the primary sources in question in their primary language, if you wish to be taken seriously as a commenter on them.

Well, here in Edinburgh we do not flinch from emphasizing language-preparation for scholarship in Biblical Studies.  Our masters degree requires at least one biblical language for entrance, and requires 1/3 of the course-credits taken to be in biblical languages.  For PhD work in NT, for example, we require good reading ability in Koine Greek, and at least a basic reading ability in Hebrew, German and French, these to be demonstrated within the first year of PhD work.  So, we’ll let applicants decide what they want, and what places they find most attractive and appropriate for their aspirations.

Oh, and so far as I can tell, in Edinburgh we’re not in danger of closing.  Indeed, Biblical Studies seems to be thriving, and particularly New Testament & Christian Origins.  There are, to be sure, some places that have suffered in recent years.  The factors involved likely vary from one place to another.  But it would be an interesting project to see whether there are factors that can be identified.  I rather doubt, however, that it has anything to do with the sort of emphasis that I’ve placed on languages and on gearing up to be a contributing scholar in the field.  I’d guess that one positive factor would be to identify a given field of study and promote what it takes to excel in it.  Also, I’d say that departments are wise to stake out the territory that they want to address well, and not try to be everything to everyone.  That might involve a bit of traditional thinking, and my antipodean critic will again perhaps find this objectionable.  Is Biblical Studies in danger?  It depends perhaps on the department.

Creation Imagery in the Gospel of John: New Book

I’ve just received news of the publication of the book by Carlos Raul Sosa Siliezar, arising from his recently completed PhD thesis written here:  Creation Imagery in the Gospel of John (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).  The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

There is, of course, an obvious allusion and conceptual link to the Genesis creation account in the opening words of the GJohn, “In the beginning.”  But how much farther does “creation imagery” extend in the GJohn, and what prominence or role does it have?  Numerous previous scholars have made various proposals on the matter, and so Sosa Siliezar’s project was to make an independent analysis and, thus, an assessment of those previous proposals.

His first step was to devise a set of criteria that would permit some basis for identifying allusions and use of creation imagery.  Curiously, this hadn’t really been done before, and so, in the words of the book of Judges “each man/woman did what was right in their own eyes”!  I found his criteria cogent and appropriate, and his judgments sound and convincing about whether and where there is use of creation imagery in the GJohn.  His results will, however, show up weaknesses in a number of previous scholarly proposals on the matter, but that’s the nature of the scholarly enterprise.

His main conclusions are that the GJohn uses creation imagery in a limited number of places, but has these positioned so as to underscore their significance.

First, John uses them to portray Jesus in close relationship with his Father, existing apart from and prior to the created order. Second, John uses creation imagery to assert the primal and universal significance of Jesus and the message about him, and to privilege him over other important figures in the story of Israel. Third, John uses creation imagery to link past reality with present and future reality, portraying Jesus as the agent of creation whom the reader should regard as the primal agent of revelation and salvation. The book concludes by underscoring how these findings inform our understanding of John’s Christology and Johannine dualism.

I think that his study is a significant contribution to studies of the GJohn, and should receive due attention.  Carlos was one of the very top PhD students I’ve supervised in my 18 years in Edinburgh, and I hope that he will be able to make further contributions to scholarship in NT studies.  He is currently teaching in the Central American Theological Seminary (Guatemala).


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