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“1 Clement” and Christian Letter-Carriers

In my previous posting about Brent Shaw’s recent article on Nero and Roman Christians I mentioned the curious way that he treats the writing known now as “1 Clement” (commonly dated ca. 95-97 AD).  Further to that, I note the newly-published essay by Peter M. Head, “‘Witnesses between You and Us’:  The Role of Letter-Carriers in 1 Clement, in Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity:  Essays in Honor of Michael W. Holmes on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez and Paul Foster (Leiden:  Brill, 2015), 477-93.

After reviewing major matters widely accepted about the letter among scholars, Head focuses on the named individuals who were apparently sent with this letter from the Roman church to the Corinthian church:  Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Bito, and Fortunatus (1 Clem. 65:1).  He argues (cogently to my mind) that they are not simply letter-carriers, but important emissaries of the Roman church, who likely had a role in amplifying further the concerns of those who sent them, and may have been intended to have a role also in the resolution of the problem in the Corinthian church.

With previous scholars, Head notes also that the names of these individuals suggest that Claudius Ephebus and Valerius Bito were likely freedmen of the imperial household.  Their names reflect the family name of Claudius (emperor, 41-54 AD) and his wife Messalina (from the family of Valerius).  Such individuals would have had “a prominent social position” (492), illustrating the early inroads Christianity was beginning to make in somewhat higher levels of Roman society.

Head’s essay appears in the newly-published volume of 27 contributions honouring Michael Holmes, among which my own essay on the papyrus fragments known as P22, mentioned in a previous posting (here), also appears.  My contributor’s copy of the volume arrived yesterday, so I’ve only had time to glance through it thus far, quickly reading Head’s essay because of its subject.

Nero and the Christians

A recent article mounts a “full-on” challenge to the widely-accepted report of a Neronian pogrom against Christians in Rome in 64 AD, after the fire that destroyed a goodly part of Rome:  Brent D. Shaw, “The Myth of the Neronian Persecution,” Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015):  73-100.  It’s a large and complex analysis and argument, and will justify more space than I can give it here.  So I’ll simply comment briefly on a few matters that left me a bit puzzled.

The key and most specific witness to Nero’s pogrom against Christians is the Roman writer, Tacitus, in his extended description of the fire in Annals 15.38-44 (composed ca. 110-120 AD).  This report has enjoyed widespread acceptance among historians, but Shaw claims “compelling” reasons to doubt that Nero used Christians as scapegoats for the fire.  Essentially, Shaw goes at the question like a diligent defence attorney, seeking to question the prosecution’s case, and even posing an alternative account.  He certainly shows that any judgment in the matter must involve weighing various factors and assessing probabilities, and that is one reason that his article is a worthwhile read.  I don’t (at least not yet) find Shaw’s case “compelling,” however, largely because of his handling of relevant evidence.

Shaw’s basic claims are that Tacitus’ report reflects what he honestly thought was historical fact; but Tacitus was mistaken.  Instead, Shaw urges, Nero probably did execute some people blamed for the fire, but there is no reason to think that he went after Christians in particular.  So, why did Tacitus report otherwise?  Here is Shaw’s explanation:

“. . . Tacitus had at his disposal, in either written or oral sources, what he believed to be credible and compelling grounds to accept the stories that linked the Christians, Nero, and the fire at Rome as elements of a true narrative. Parts came from written records about the fire, and oral recollections; others came from contemporary cognizance of imperial administrators about such an identifiable and threatening group, and still others were further contemporary sources that linked the Christians with Nero.” (p. 96)

This all seems a bit vague and hazy to me, however:  Somehow, although Nero never went against Christians in connection with the fire, the story developed that he had done so, and Tacitus accepted it.  Granted, Shaw’s focus is more on attacking the bases for the more traditional view, but his own proposal for how it came to expression influentially in Tacitus seems to me just a bit less than worked out adequately, and so less than persuasive.

Shaw’s efforts to set aside the body of material typically invoked in support of the traditional view likewise seem to me curious at points.  For example, he cites Acts of the Apostles as a rather straightforward account of things when it seems to suit him (whereas a good many NT scholars would be more hesitant to use Acts quite so confidently), but then queries it when he must for his own case.  In particular, Shaw takes as anachronistic the statement in Acts 11:26 that the term “Christians” was first applied to members of the Jesus-movement in Antioch.  But Shaw’s reason seems to be the odd notion that Acts portrays here “The first use of the name Christianos as a mode of self-identifcation” (p. 88), whereas, surely, the Acts text refers to the first use of the term by outsiders.  From this external usage, the term came to be used thereafter by Christians themselves (as reflected, e.g., in 1 Peter 4:16), but an earlier and originating usage by outsiders such as portrayed in Acts, perhaps even as early as the 50s, still seems to me entirely plausible.[1]

Also, Shaw curiously refers to the term “Christiani” (and the Greek, Christianoi) as connoting fictive sons/daughters of someone, whereas one more frequently sees analogies to the labels of various political parties (e.g., Herodiani, Sullani, Neroniani, Caesariani, et alia).  In that light, the originating use of the term “Christiani/oi” by outsiders likely designated people as adherents or partisans of “Christ.”

Suetonius mentions Nero inflicting punishments on Christians (The Twelve Caesars: Nero 16), but doesn’t link this directly to the fire.  So, Shaw points to this as working against the report in Tacitus.  But each of these ancient writers had his own purposes and emphases, and neither felt obliged to back up the other.  Can we so readily take the absence of confirming evidence in Suetonius as reason to doubt Tacitus’ account?

I think that Shaw exaggerates the nature of the ignorance that Pliny the Younger professed in his famous letter to Trajan (pp. 90-91), taking Pliny’s somewhat coy opening statements without noting their rhetorical purpose.[2]  Actually, what Pliny seems unsure about is, more specifically, what to do with former Christians and with those who apostasized (obeying his commands to do so).  Indeed, Pliny’s letter indicates that he knew of trials of Christians earlier than his own, and he certainly had no hesitation about how to treat those who refused to recant according to his demands:  Execution or (in the case of Roman citizens) dispatching them to Rome for trial.  Note also that Trajan’s response confirms the propriety of Pliny’s actions.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that there was at that point a formalized Roman judicial policy, but it does mean that Christians as such weren’t really entirely new on the radar screens of Roman judicial authorities.

Shaw also questions traditional notions of the deaths of Paul and Peter.  He grants that Paul was likely executed in Rome sometime in the 60s, but doubts that it was connected to Nero.  As for Peter, Shaw opines that he likely died in his bed in Judaea (but see now Timothy Barnes’s recent essay).[3]  One of the witnesses cited for the two apostles being executed in Rome is the account in 1 Clement 5, which is commonly taken as a letter sent from the church in Rome to the Corinthian church sometime ca. 95-97 AD.  Shaw, however, refers to 1 Clement as “Pseudo-Clement” (pp. 84-85, a strange label, given that the text nowhere claims to be written by Clement, and so hardly is pseudonymous), and seems to lump it together with the other texts that, with considerably less validity, have been linked to Clement (2 Clement, and the later Clementine literature).  But a good deal of work has been done on all these texts over a century or more (noting especially, J.B. Lightfoot’s classic work on the “Apostolic Fathers”), and the result more generally has been a differentiation between the confidence placed in 1 Clement (as a genuine letter from the Roman to the Corinthian church) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, any of the other texts.  Shaw’s blithe dismissal of 1 Clement, therefore, though convenient (perhaps even necessary) for his case, seems to me to require more by way of justification.

But, even if I am not convinced by Shaw’s case, I think it is very much worth the attention of anyone seriously interested in questions about the situations of early Christians, and specifically their relationship with Roman authorities.  I trust that his article will receive the further scholarly analysis that it deserves.

[1] Among recent discussions of the likely origins of the term, see David G. Horrell, “The Label χριστιανος:  1 Peter 4:16 and the Formation of Christian Identity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 126, no. 2 (2007): 361-81; Townsend Philippa, “Who Were the First Christians?  Jews, Gentiles and the Christianoi,” in Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity, ed. E. Iricinischi and H. M. Zellentin (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 212-30.  Similar phenomena are commonly pointed to, such as the positive adoption of the term “Mormon,” “Quaker,” and “Methodist,” from initially somewhat critical and outsider uses.

[2] Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response are available in a number of publications, including: A New Eusebius:  Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson (London:  SPCK, 1974), 13-17.

[3] Timothy D. Barnes, “’Another Shall Gird Thee’:  Probative Evidence for the Death of Peter,” in Peter in Early Christianity, eds. Helen K. Bond and Larry W. Hurtado (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2015), 76-95.  In the same volume, note also Peter Lampe’s large study, “Traces of Peter Veneration in Roman Archaeology,” 273-317.

Collar Responds to Reviews of Her Book

(In previous postings, the recent book by Dr. Anna Collar, Religious Networks in the Roman Empire: The Spread of New Ideas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), was the focus of comments by Dr. Margaret Williams here, and by me here.  Earlier this week, Dr. Collar emailed to indicate that she had read the postings, and she offered some comments in response.  I invited her to prepare a posting of her own in which she responds to the criticisms in the previous postings about her book.  Her posting appears below.  LWH)

I was recently pointed in the direction of Professor Hurtado’s very interesting blog, and was honoured to read the two reviews of my book that were published by such senior scholars there. Professor Hurtado has kindly offered me the space to say a few things in defence of the approaches and conclusions that I drew. I would do many things differently were I to have the opportunity again, but first of all, it should be understood that I am certainly far from being an expert with regards to ancient Judaism. The book was always intended to be an experiment in an innovative method, above all else. I hope to a degree, at least this aspect was successful; and this is the reason for the chapter which dealt with the use of networks as an analytical method in other fields. The topic is new in our field, and complicated, and in my eyes merited the consideration of how it has been used elsewhere.

I broadly agree with Margaret Williams’ points about the Jewish Diaspora evidence, and I think on reflection that I have pushed the interpretation perhaps a little too far. I agree that the use of Hebrew in the diaspora was superficial, and never intended to suggest that what we see in the inscriptions is the ‘tip of a Hebraic iceberg’ – in fact, rereading that passage of the book, I think I am decidedly circumspect about the depth of knowledge of Hebrew. The argument was rather that the attempt to use Hebrew (as Williams points out, often misspelled) on some inscriptions might indicate an increasing desire to be more involved in a ‘Jewish community heritage’ as it was (perhaps poorly?) understood. I overstated the rabbinic nature of these reasons for this increasing desire (and I take the point that there is a degree of post-hoc interpretation here too). But I do think that the epigraphic evidence bears witness to a change in the self-identification of the Jewish communities of the Diaspora in the second-fifth centuries AD, and the explanation that the relationship of Jewish communities both to the Roman state and to the Jewish homeland in Palestine was changing does seem to be reasonable. I do also pointedly say that we witness the ‘gradual spread’ of new ideas within the Jewish communities, and not ‘rapid’, as Williams says.

The restriction of my analysis of the Jewish Diaspora to epigraphic evidence is of course a problem, but one that had very simple and extremely necessary rationales behind it.  First, limitations of time and space – the gathering of the inscription data alone took me 6 months (I used 1,500 inscriptions), and the aim of the book was always methodologically experimental and comparative, rather than being a complete analysis of the Jewish Diaspora alone. My reasons for choosing to include Jewish diaspora data was as a complement to the Theos Hypsistos data, which I was originally employed to work on as part of Stephen Mitchell’s AHRC project on Pagan Monotheism – not from a position of expertise, rather, from a position of comparison. This also applies to the lack of discussion of early Christianity – there simply wasn’t space or time – and I have no doubt that thinking about the different kinds of networks at play with early Christian communities would be extremely interesting and potentially very rewarding.

My second reason for limiting the discussion to inscriptions was connected with the method I wanted to explore. Epigraphic data enables geographical location to be marked and considered, which is essential to both a geographical network analysis and to understanding the spread of ideas from the bottom up, from the perspectives of ordinary people. Of course, Philo and Josephus tell us much about Jewish life in the Diaspora – but their information is essentially an elite point of view, and is hugely different from that provided by inscriptions – I wanted to see what things looked like if we only considered the ‘on-the-ground’ evidence, untinted by what the highly educated were thinking and doing.

Third, the papyri I know would have added a huge amount of very important data, and I regret that I was not able to include it – but I felt that there was simply too much additional material to deal with in the time and space allowed me, and to a degree it might have skewed the evidence very heavily towards Egypt. By using what is essentially only funerary data, we get a particular picture of expressions of identity in specific locations and for specific reasons. A partial picture, to be sure, and I should perhaps have made that more clear. I look forward to future work using network analysis which could include this papyri data.

Finally, regarding the menorah – again, I overstated the interpretive point that this could be considered part of specifically ‘rabbinic’ influence. It should surely be understood, however, as a clear symbol of distinctive Jewishness, which had not previously been present, and which requires an explanation – I liked Williams’ suggestion that it could be about ‘reclaiming inheritance’ in Rome, but this is not the only place that we find the symbol, and perhaps we can push the argument further to allow for communities to be in communication about their identity, status, and leadership.

I have always known I am on difficult scholarly ground with regards to both the well-trodden fields of early Judaism and the use of epigraphy in the way I have used it, and have been taken to task a number of times by those who have devoted their careers to the close study of epigraphic data. I do believe, however, that there is (or should be) space for taking different approaches to archaeological material, which may yield at least thought-provoking discussions, even if the conclusions drawn are not agreed with. I very much welcome the discussion about (disagreement with!) what interpretations I have offered, but hope at least that by taking an approach that highlights the connections between communities and the information transfers that this might have allowed, we might be able to air new ideas about how the spread of information and factors in identity were enacted in the past. Networks as a method for exploring data in archaeology and ancient history are now being more common, and new studies offer formal social network analyses of inscriptions or papyri documents or formal network analyses of other kinds of archaeological material which are yielding exciting new interpretations.

As a final note, regarding the price, I agree that £60 is very expensive, but I had absolutely zero control over this! The book is available as an e-book for much less, and might eventually be made paperback. My thanks again to both Professors Hurtado and Williams for taking the time to read my thoughts.

New Study of P.Oxy 1228

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my essay on the curious fragments of the Gospel of John comprising P22 (or P.Oxyrhynchus 1228) in the recently-published volume of essays in honor of Michael Holmes:  “A Fresh Analysis of P.Oxyrhynchus 1228 (P22) as Artefact,” in Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez and Paul Foster (Leiden:  Brill, 2015), 206-16.  The pre-publication version of my essay is available on this blog site under the “Selected Published Essays” tab here.

P22 (as identified in the Gregory-Aland list of NT papyri) comprises two fragments with a few verses of the Gospel of John, remnants of two columns from what appears to have been a roll, which makes this an interesting item (nearly all manuscripts of NT writings are codices).  Also, the text is on the outer surface of that roll (the side with the papyrus fibres running vertically, and so the text written across the fibres), but the inner surface (with the horizontal fibres) is blank.  Doubly curious!

To my knowledge, my autopsy analysis is the first of such detail since the original publication of the fragments by Grenfell & Hunt in 1914.

It is a personal pleasure to honor my friend, Michael Holmes, whose scholarly expertise and contributions have generated also my admiration for many years.

“Christian Oxyrhynchus”: New Book

Christian Oxyrhynchus:  Texts, Documents, and Sources, eds. Lincoln H. Blumell & Thomas A. Wayment (Baylor University Press) promises to give in one hefty volume a rather complete collection of material from Oxyrhynchus reflecting Christians/Christianity in the first four centuries CE.  (The publisher’s online catalogue description is here.)  At $89.95 (USD) for a 756-page hardback, it’s a significant purchase, but in comparison with equivalent volumes from some other publishers the price is commendably modest.

All of the texts in the volume have been published previously, most in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri series, but a number of others in various journals and other venues.  In addition to bringing together transcriptions of the 162 texts that make up the main part of the volume, the editors give updated bibliographies and their own comments on each.  As well, except for the 52 manuscripts of NT writings, the editors give English translations of the other 110 items.

It would take a good deal of patient comparison with the original publications to check the accuracy of the transcriptions, and I don’t have the time right now to do this.  But I note that the volume comes with endorsements from a number of highly-respected scholars with competence in papyrological studies (Thomas Krauss, John Kloppenborg, Malcolm Choat, Annemarie Luijendijk).  So, we should expect a high standard.

The Introduction sketches quickly the story of the Oxyrhynchus excavations by Grenfell & Hunt, and then lays out the parameters and policies that shape the volume.  One move that I found curious was the decision not to include any LXX fragments.  The editors’ rationale for this is that (in their judgment) it is “often difficult to determine whether these fragments are evincing Christianity or Judaism” (p. 13).  I’d say “in a few cases” rather than “often.”  Perhaps as many as half a dozen at most.  For the rest, the earmarks (use of codex + nomina sacra) indicate rather clearly to my mind that they are remnants of LXX manuscripts prepared for early Christian usage.  And so they should be taken into account in forming a picture of “Christian Oxyrhynchus.”  Granted, that would have increased the size of the volume (and the workload involved) a good bit more.  But the editors’ decision means that we need to consult other works to survey LXX evidence.

Aside from remnants of NT writings, the editors include remnants of “extracanonical texts” (apocryphal writings, and texts such as Shepherd of Hermas and Didache), “other Christian literary texts” (theological treatises, homilies, etc.), “documentary papyri” written by or referring to Christians (e.g., letters, the Decian “libelli,” etc.), and then in a separate section “Patristic, Coptic, and Other Sources on Christians and Christianity at Oxyrhynchus.”  For these last items, the editors give the respective Latin, Coptic or Greek text with translation, notes and introductions.

Assuming (and hoping) that the work embodies the exacting care that the project deserved, we have in this volume a singularly valuable go-to resource for anyone wanting to consult primary-text data about Christians and Christianity in Oxyrhynchus ca. 100-400 CE.

Language Usage in Jewish Palestine: Epigraphic Evidence

Walter Ameling draws upon epigraphical evidence to consider languages usage in Jewish Palestine in the Hellenistic and Roman periods in a data-rich recent essay:  “Epigraphy and the Greek Language in Hellenistic Palestine,” Scripta Classica Israelica 34 (2015):  1-18.  The thrust of his study is that from the Seleucid period onward Greek was widely used.  As this publication won’t be readily available to some, I’ll give a few representative extracts.

  • “Greek had to be used in important contexts even though the majority of the population may still have been raised speaking another tongue. However, the importance of Greek must have at least induced the upper classes to learn that language if they aspired to gain political participation.” (p. 4)
  • “Coins employed Greek iconography (sometimes also with Greek lettering), and the local weights were marked with Greek letters. These everyday items incised with Greek lettering show that the use of Greek proliferated down into society and was not restricted to formal political business.” (p. 4)
  • From the Seleucid period onward, “For anyone who wished to profit from the enormous economic possibilities opened under the Hellenistic monarchies, knowledge of the Greek language was of paramount importance.” (p. 7)
  • On language usage in Judaea in particular:  “Until ca. 300 [BCE], Hebrew was still a spoken language, but it was gradually replaced by Aramaic, only retaining its value as a language of ritual and religious texts. If we express it differently: following the year 300, the spoken language ceased to be an important identity marker. An Aramaic-speaking Jew who by metamorphosis became a Greek-speaking Jew did not necessarily change his religious beliefs nor necessarily adopt every kind of Greco-Hellenistic identity. On the other hand, it seems that Greek did not establish itself as a language of religious discourse even if some books were written in it and others were translated for religious use.” (p. 9)
  • “Everywhere we look, we find everyday objects associated with the Greek language: ceramics with incised or painted Greek graffiti, sling bullets with Greek inscriptions, game counters which not only carried pictures, but also short Greek inscriptions to explain them. Games with Greek counters are as basic as it gets short of names, of course.” (p. 11)
  • On the famous Theodotus inscription (commonly thought lst century CE) dedicating a Jerusalem synagogue for Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora:  “But the interest of this last text goes beyond the confirmation of something we already know. The founder of the synagogue was Theodotus, son of Vettenus: he had a Greek name, his father had a Latin name, and he records that he was an  archisynagogos [synagogue leader] in the third generation. The fact that the reference to his family background and synagogal foundation, ad maiorem gloriam Theodoti, as it were, were all inscribed in Greek, show us that Theodotus not only expected his community to be able to read his text in Greek, but had also composed it according to the custom with which his community was acquainted.”
  • As a summarizing statement:  “Greek was epigraphically the prevalent language in the surrounding world and therefore was chosen more often for epigraphic purposes than any other language. However, linguistic choice in a particular situation envisages the possibility that all parties concerned understood more than one language. Linguistic choice in epigraphy implies that not only the prevalent epigraphic culture was Greek, but that the language of this culture was understood (and read!) not only by the people erecting inscriptions, but by their intended public.” (p. 18)

“Jewish” and “Hellenistic” in Recent Scholarship on Christian Origins

In some recent studies of early expressions of Jesus-devotion, there are some issues that need clarification.  One of these recent studies is Iesus Deus:  The Early Christian Depiction of Jesus as a Mediterranean God, by M. David Litwa (Fortress Press, 2014).

I must begin by acknowledging the learning displayed and, most often, the carefully crafted analysis and claims advanced.  Essentially, Litwa seeks to show that early Christianity (in the first couple of centuries or so) drew upon and adapted literary topoi and various notions, in particular notions about how human figures could be, or become, divine in some sense of the word.

For example, in one chapter Litwa compares the account of Jesus’ miraculous conception in GLuke with Plutarch’s thoughts on the divine involvement in the conception of figures such as Plato.  In both writers, Litwa notes the use of “pneuma” (“spirit”) and “dynamis” (“power”) to portray the action of a god in the conception of a figure, the shared aim being to avoid crude notions of a god having sexual relations with a human woman.

In other chapters Litwa discusses the curious depiction of the child Jesus in the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” which has Jesus striking out in anger against fellow children.  Litwa argues that this shows the Christian author appropriating the notion that gods could demonstrate their power by such actions.  Litwa also notes how the Gospels portrayals of Jesus as working miracles and performing good deeds reflects wider notions of the traits of gods and humans endowed with divine power.

Litwa also proposes that NT references to Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation can be seen as a partially distinctive example of what he calls “corporeal immortalization” of a human figure, examples given in Jewish and non-Jewish texts.  And he contends that the reference to Jesus being given (or given to share) “the name above every name” in Philippians 2:9-11 reflects wider notions of deified humans being given a new name signalling their deified status.

I reiterate that Litwa is careful to avoid claiming a simple “borrowing” or direct influence in most cases.  Instead, he offers the comparisons in support of his thesis that the notions and themes in question were widely available in the larger cultural environment, both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles, which allowed early Christians to make use of them for their own distinctive purposes.  I can’t here engage the particulars of these proposals, which deserve adequate thought and space to discuss them, except to say that some strike me as more persuasive than others.  Instead, I focus here on Litwa’s characterization of the scholarly discourse into which he places his study.  I think he makes some significant errors.

Litwa rightly complains about an overly sharp distinction between “Jewish” and non-Jewish (often “Hellenistic”) categories, but he fails to note that the distinction was actually introduced and promoted by the older “history-of-religion” scholarship that he seems to admire.  Moreover, this distinction was clearly shaped by theological views and purposes.  Take Otto Pfleiderer, for example, sometimes referred to as the father of the history-of-religion approach to Christian origins (and a figure Litwa cites often and with apparent admiration).  Pfleiderer referred approvingly to “the deliverance of the Christian idea from the rigid fetters of Judaism,” that comprised adopting “myths and rites” from various pagan sources, which were “free from that slavery to history which is the characteristic of Judaism and every legal religion” (The Early Conception of Christ, 168).  Likewise, Wilhelm Bousset insisted that the cultic reverence of Jesus couldn’t have emerged in a Jewish Palestinian setting, but only in cities where pagan religious influence was sufficient to prompt it.  And he too reflected a similar disdain for things Jewish (as I’ve shown in previous publications, e.g., One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, 22-24).

Indeed, it was a major objective of Pfleiderer, Bousset and others of that school of thought to invoke various “oriental” (i.e., non-Jewish) influences as decisive for the distinguishing features of early Christian circles.  In her important study of German orientalism, Suzanne Marchand discusses what she calls their “furor orientalis,” and the programmatic effort to credit various “oriental” influences on early Christianity (German Orientalism in the Age of empire: Religion, Race, and Scholarship, 212-91).  As she notes, their key question = “Was Christianity a product of Judaism or of oriental syncretism?” (283).

Here is where the unfortunate “divide” between “Jewish” and non-Jewish influences was set up.  Contra Litwa (and a couple of other recent scholars), it wasn’t with Hengel or others of us who have emphasized the rich and diverse Jewish tradition as the matrix and primary reservoir of conceptual categories adapted in earliest Christian circles.  Instead, the contribution of Hengel in particular was to emphasize the prolonged encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, for some 300 years by the time of Jesus’ birth.  So, if we see notions that seem to have a Greek derivation in Jewish figures such as Paul, it is most likely that they had been absorbed and adapted by his Jewish tradition, and so reached him as part of his Jewish heritage.

Further, it wasn’t Hengel or others who point to the Jewish matrix of early Christianity who introduced theological concerns.  Here also, it was actually the older history-of-religions advocates such as Pfleiderer and Bousset.  You can’t miss Pfleiderer’s blatant theological concerns in the book that I’ve cited already.  And Bousset made his own theological concerns entirely clear in several general-reader books, some of them translated early and read widely in English as well, such as The Faith of a Modern Protestant (1909).

Indeed, as Marchand shows, Bousset and others of his stance were concerned specifically to reform Christianity to make it palatable to what they saw as “modern” Christians, and for the purpose of strengthening the German Volk for its destined purposes in the world.  One must say, in short, that their dedicated historical work was by no means innocent of theological and cultural purposes.

So, when Hengel and others (such as I) have emphasized that all historical evidence points to the origin of a “high” Jesus-devotion in Jewish circles of Jesus-followers in Palestine and in the very earliest years after Jesus’ execution, we have been trying to correct the imbalance and tendentious claims of the older history-of-religions scholars.  We didn’t create any “Jewish/Hellenistic” divide; that was done by Pfleiderer and company.  And we didn’t introduce theological concerns either.

As a final point, Litwa goes at Hengel (and at me across several pages) for failing to do what Litwa sets out to do in his book, to note interesting parallels and comparisons between ideas and themes in early Christian texts and in the larger Roman-era environment.  But it isn’t a case of failing; we’re doing different things.  Litwa clearly focuses on certain features of selected literary expressions of Jesus as a divine figure in early Christian texts.  To speak for myself, I’ve been concerned more with the historical origins of the phenomena of Jesus-devotion:  how and when Jesus was treated in devotional practices as well as in rhetoric as sharing in divine status, particularly how and when Jesus was treated as rightful recipient of cultic devotion.  So, it’s just a bit misleading (and, I think, unfair) to scold Hengel and me for failing at what we didn’t set out to do.  (I can also note that I’m not as neglectful of the wider Roman-era environment as Litwa alleges.  He claims that I devote a mere 5 pages to the matter in my large book, Lord Jesus Christ.  But in fact there is more, such as my discussion of the Gospels in reference to the literary environment, 277-82, or my discussion of the use of “savior” and “ephiphany” as possibly reflecting Roman emperor-cult, 516-18.)

As I say, Litwa’s study is helpful in considering critically how early Christianity adapted certain notions and themes in articulating Jesus’ significance variously.  It’s a bit of an exaggeration to refer to the literary motifs discussed as the “deification” of Jesus (and Litwa seems to recognize this), but I suppose the term helps to focus the mind of readers!  His study also doesn’t really address the historical questions about what motivated early Christians to appropriate themes and notions from their cultural environment to posit Jesus as divine.

Any living tradition confidently and critically appropriates things  from the wider cultural environment and adapts them to serve the tradition.  In doing so, the tradition itself adapts and changes, of course.  The only traditions that don’t do so are dead ones.  But what drives healthy traditions isn’t the appropriation process.  It’s something else, its own driving force of convictions that empowers a tradition and gives it boldness to appropriate things and bend them to the purposes of the tradition.  We shouldn’t be surprised that the early Christian movement did this.  As Litwa also grants, this wasn’t some simplistic syncretistic process, and the decisive matrix for Christian origins was the rich and lively Jewish tradition of the early Roman era.



“Interactive Diversity” SBL Session

My article, “Interactive Diversity: A Proposed Model of Christian Origins,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 445-62, was the focus of a session in this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (Atlanta, 21-24 November).

After my summary of the article, three senior colleagues, Paula Fredriksen, Carl Holladay, and Pheme Perkins, gave responses to the article.  Thereafter, there was animated discussion involving the panel and a goodly-sized audience.  (The pre-publication version of that article is available on this blog-site here.)

In the article, I tackled the now-familiar “trajectories” model of early Christian developments proposed influentially by James Robinson and Helmut Koester, showing examples of how it has involved dubious results.  The trajectories model does reflect the sense of diversity in early Christianity, but I contend that it is inadequate as a model in allowing for the complexity of that diversity.  For it seems to me that all our evidence points to a rich and vibrant interaction of the various early Christian groups.

Sometimes this was of a hostile nature, as in the well-known conflict of Paul and certain other Jewish Christians whom Paul refers to as “false brothers,” and even agents of Satan.  Sometimes, however, perhaps more typically, this interaction was of a more positive nature, as reflected in the appropriation of “Q material” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or the implicit affirmation of Peter in John 21.

Fredriksen’s response was very encouraging, essentially affirming the thrust of my article.  I also found insightful her observation that my proposal focused more on the process of early Christian developments, doing better justice to the lively nature of early Christian exchanges.

Holladay seemed a bit more reserved in his view of my proposal, and offered a guarded defence of the trajectories model, while also granting the validity of my examples of its dubious use.

Perkins drew upon her extensive familiarity with scientific theory posing various approaches to model-building and judging that my proposal wasn’t really a fully-fledged model, but instead more of a pointer to the factors that we need to take into account in forming one.  That may be a fair point.

We can see what appear to be valid trajectories, such as the widely-held view of a Pauline tradition that produced the Pastoral Epistles.  In that and other valid instances, the textual data make it clear that there are connections.  But, as I note in the article, there are other instances where a trajectory has been asserted without sound basis in the data.  My main emphases in the article are (1) that our models and theories should be based in the data, and (2) that any model should allow for the diversity and the interactivity characteristic of early Christianity.

I’m grateful to the organizers of that SBL session, and to my colleagues who gave their time to study my article and reflect on it.

Paul and Israel: This Year’s SBL Meeting Session

In this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting I took part in a session focused on the question of whether Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus.  Three scholars gave three quite different views of the matter, and I was the designated respondent to their presentations.  The textual focus was obviously Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapters 9-11.

John Marshall (University of Toronto) contended that Paul’s promotion of faith-in-Jesus was solely intended for non-Jews (“Gentiles”).  So he took Romans 10:9-13, where Paul urges confession of Jesus as “Lord” and faith that God has raised him from death, as having to do with Gentiles making these steps.  Noting that Romans seems to have Gentile Jesus-followers (“Christians”) as the addressees (or at least the primary/main addressees), Marshall contended that this should dispose us to read such passages as really about Gentile believers.  In Marshall’s view, Paul’s anxiety about Israel in Romans 9-11 was over their failure to endorse and take part in a mission to Gentiles.

I don’t find his case persuasive, largely because I think that the context, for example the immediate context of Romans 10:9-13, makes it fairly clear that Paul wanted both Gentiles and Jews to join him in his faith-stance toward Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  Paul’s expressions of considerable anguish in Romans about the religious stance of his ancestral people (e.g., 9:1-5; 10:1-4), together with a similar view of things in 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6 (where Paul also refers to “hardened” minds and veiled eyes of “the sons of Israel”) seem to me to require us to see Paul as holding that a positive stance toward Jesus was required, the alternate being disobedience to God.  That is, as I read Paul, the problem with “Israel” wasn’t that they didn’t join in the Gentile mission, but that they didn’t recognize and confess Jesus as Mssiah and Lord.

Jason Staples presented what appears to be a summary-presentation of work from his soon-to-be-submitted PhD thesis (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), contending that in Roman-era Jewish usage “Israel” and “Jews” weren’t fully synonymous, and that “Jews” were a subset of “Israel.”  The remainder of Israel, he argued, were “lost tribes” from the time of the Babylonian exile who had become assimilated among the nations and were by Paul’s time practically indistinguishable from “Gentiles.”  So, in Staples’ view, Paul’s “Gentile mission” should be understood as his effort to retrieve those assimilated Israelites.  Staples, thus, translates the crucial phrase in Romans 11:26 as “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  That is, “the fullness of the Gentiles” is (or includes) the retrieval of those parts of Israel lost and assimilated among the nations.

I didn’t find this case persuasive either.  I can’t find reason in Paul’s usage of the terms in question (“Jews,” “Israel,” “Israelite”) to make them have different referents.  Indeed, it seems to me that Paul rather typically reflects a continuing distinction between “Gentiles” and his ancestral people, the latter referred to variously as “Israel,” “Israelites,” “Jews,” and I see no indication that Paul thought that large portions of “Israel” were comprised of assimilated Israelites such as Staples posits.

Instead, I find proposals such as that by Paula Fredriksen persuasive:  By powerful revelatory experience(s), Paul came to see Jesus as raised from death and installed as eschatological Messiah and Lord.  This, and perhaps additional revelatory experiences, persuaded Paul that this all meant that the biblical prophecies of the pilgrimage of the nations to the God of Israel were now to be fulfilled, and that he (Paul) had a special responsibility/calling from God to make it happen.  In short, Paul’s “Gentile Mission” was  . . . for Gentiles, not assimilated Israelites.

Mark Nanos conceded that Paul believed that fellow Jews should put faith in Jesus, and that Paul expected an eschatological time when “all Israel” would come to that faith.  But, drawing upon several of his previously published essays, Nanos urged revised translations of several key words in Romans 9-11, with the effect of softening considerably how we take Paul’s characterization of the present religious state of fellow Jews who didn’t share his faith in Jesus.  In particular, Nanos proposes that the “hardening” of Israel should be translated as a “callusing” that was intended to protect “Israel/Israelites” during the time in which they were out of step with God’s purposes through not (yet) confessing Jesus as Messiah.  Nanos also proposed that Paul hoped that his Gentile converts would so exhibit the validity of their turning to the God of Israel that Jews would perhaps thereby become more favourably disposed toward the gospel of Jesus.

I found some of Nanos’ translation proposals more persuasive than others.  For example, “callus” seems to me a reasonable translation of the Greek word porosis (and the verbal cognate forms). But I don’t so readily see that Paul presents this as a protective thing.  Instead, he seems to me to intend the term as a metaphor for the inability of fellow Jews to perceive the validity of the gospel.

In my response to these papers, I urged that we take as important Paul’s expressions of anguish for Israel as indicating some sort of serious problem, as Paul saw the matter.  In Paul’s eyes, that problem was such as to have moved him to pray that he be damned for the sake of his people (Romans 9:1-3).  That suggests to me that Paul feared the damnation of those, whether Jews or Gentiles, who refused faith in Jesus.

Moreover, it’s pretty clear that Paul saw himself and other Jewish Jesus-followers as the elect “remnant” who prefigured the stance that he hoped “all Israel” would come to adopt toward Jesus (Romans 11:1-10).  These Jewish believers also included the Jerusalem church (led by James and John) and the other Judean churches, and others such as “Kephas” (Peter), Barnabas, and the several fellow Jews named in Romans 16.  Paul was not exceptional as a Jew who became a devotee of Jesus, and I think he hoped that all his people would join him as such.

There is some talk of the papers from this session being published in due course.  I’ll give notice when I know more about this.

In previous postings in dialogue with Tom Wright here and here, I’ve indicated my own take on Romans 9-11.

Peter in Early Christianity: New Book

I’m pleased to announce the new multi-author volume:  Peter in Early Christianity (Eerdmans, 2015), eds. Helen K. Bond & Larry W. Hurtado.  The online catalogue entry is here.  This volume arose from our conference on Peter held here in Edinburgh under the auspices of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins in July 2013.

Long overshadowed by the apostle Paul, especially in Protestant scholarship and in the “secularized” scholarship descended from it, in recent decades there has been a small but interesting surge of interest in Peter.

This collection of studies is impressively wide in coverage of data and issues.  Margaret Williams focuses on the names assigned to him, Shimon (Simon), Kephas (Petros/Peter), in light of then-contemporary naming practices.  Other essays address Peter as portrayed in various texts, including the Gospel of Mark (Bond), Petrine speeches in Acts (Jonathan Lo), the Synoptic tradition (John Markley), the Gospel of John (Jason Sturdevant), Luke-Acts (Finn Damgaard), traditions of Peter’s literacy (Sean Adams), Petrine epistles (Matt Novenson), Apostolic Fathers (Todd Still), 1 Clement and Polycarp (Paul Hartog), Kerygma Petrou (William Rutherford), “Gnostic” texts/perspectives (Tobias Nicklas), other noncanonical texts (Paul Foster).

Timothy Barnes examines traditions and evidence about Peter’s death.  Paul Parvis explores traditions about Peter as bishop (in Antioch!).   Markus Bockmuehl engages the treatment of Peter in von Baltasar (Roman Catholic theologian).  My own contribution is an analysis of the treatment of Peter in three modern Protestant New Testament scholars:  Oscar Cullmann, Martin Hengel, and Markus Bockmuehl.

For me personally, the largest essay in the volume is the most fascinating and informative:  Peter Lampe, “Traces of Peter Veneration in Roman Archaeology.”  Lampe is internationally respected for his previous work on textual and archaeological evidence of early Christianity in Rome, and this essay further demonstrates his control of this sort of data.


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