2017-07-20

Our Knowledge of Early Christianity — sifting interpretation from the raw data

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by Neil Godfrey

Larry Hurtado has written “an observation for consideration (or refutation)” concerning the sources we have for earliest Christianity. I make my own observations (or refutations). Hurtado writes:

We have more evidence about the beliefs, behavioral practices/demands, and diversity in early Christianity in the first two centuries AD than for any other religious group of the time.  From within the few decades we have real letters sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed, and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

I think we can be more precise.

From [apparently] within the few decades [of the reported crucifixion of Jesus under Pilate] we have real letters [widely but not universally believed to be real] [that purport to be] sent from a known author (Paul) to named and known recipients (e.g., Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia), in which [supposedly] contemporary issues of belief and practice surface and are addressed [although often the same issues are also addressed in the second century], and in which also a whole galaxy of named individuals appears, along with information about them.

My qualifications are added for the purpose of keeping in mind that

  • we have no evidence of the existence of the letters until the second century when we find an array of competing versions of Paul as a focus of theological battles, some of them quite diametrically opposed to the Paul whose name is attached to the letters;
  • the letters of Paul are in several noticeable ways quite different from other personal and philosophical letters of the day; moreover, we have good reasons to believe that today’s manuscripts are the products of ancient editorial and other redactional practices;
  • we quite readily set aside some letters claiming to be by Paul as spurious and merely assume that a subset of the total corpus are simply because they appear to be expressed in a common style and with a common theological outlook.

Now I am quite prepared to accept the NT letters of Paul as genuine for various reasons, but at the same time I am always conscious of questions such as those above that continue to hover nearby. Accepting data provisionally for the sake of argument and for the testing of hypotheses is not a bad way to go, I think. 

We have multiple first-century Gospels, which reflect also a diversity of emphases, and perhaps also a certain diversity of early Christians.  And, as the decades went on, there are still more writings that are rich in information about early Christianity, e.g., the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and others.  We have full-scale defences of Christianity from this period, in Justin Martyr’s Apology, and others of this genre thereafter.

Again, let’s be more cautious:

We have multiple first-century Gospels [some widely argued to have originated in the first century], which reflect also a [common source], diversity of emphases, and perhaps also a certain diversity of early Christians. And, as the decades went on [or rather, possibly even being written before all of our Gospels, or maybe in some cases composed around the same era], there are still more writings that are rich in information about early Christianity, e.g., the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, 1 Clement, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, and others.  We have full-scale defences of Christianity from this period, in Justin Martyr’s Apology, and others of this genre thereafter.

There is no “proof” that any of the canonical gospels (presumably Hurtado’s capitalising “G” in Gospels indicated that he had the canonical gospels in mind) date from the first century. There are many arguments that they originated then, but normative rules of dating a work must consider earliest and latest possible dates. We know that there are among some scholars strong ideological reasons for dating the gospels as early as possible, but one would expect that genuinely critical scholarship surely guards against such temptations.)

By stressing our luck in having “multiple” gospels the fact that there are strong arguments for three of the gospels all originating as variations of the Gospel of Mark (and sometimes of one another). They are not independent sources.

The other authors listed are all widely acknowledged to have derived from the early, mid and late second century, quite possibly written independently of any knowledge of our Gospels. What is remarkable is that very often they indicate a knowledge of Christianity that is not found in our canonical letters of Paul or our canonical gospels.

Such a state of the evidence, I would have thought, is inconsistent with a unitary model of Christian origins that holds Christianity was the direct outgrowth of a band of Jesus followers seeking ways to immortalise and glorify him after his death.

 

 

7 Comments

  • Tim Widowfield
    2017-07-20 15:40:09 UTC - 15:40 | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, Neil. We all have sinned and come short of the glory of Larry Hurtado.

    I find it takes a great deal of restraint to explain simply and in ordinary language where one’s opponent has erred. I may inwardly suspect that a scholar is engaging in self-deception (or worse), but that’s just idle speculation on my part. It does nothing to advance my own argument; I may be completely wrong in my suspicions; and I look petty and childish for bringing it up.

    But I think I am justified in open speculation about competence if the same kinds of mistakes occur over and over again. And we need to point out when peer review fails to catch these mistakes, because it isn’t the panacea that professional scholars make it out to be.

    Additionally, if a scholar takes a quote out of context (“I go a quote fishing”), we need to take him or her to task. These mistakes can become the foundations for bad secondary analysis that may become the ruling consensus.

    All of that can be quite frustrating. I’m sure my frustration is often quite visible, but I try never to accuse anyone of outright dishonesty. That doesn’t help the situation at all. All it does is to divide us up into warring camps of fans. How the hell could I know whether a person is intentionally lying?

    I’m thinking now specifically of Carrier’s habit of calling those he disagrees with “liars.” How does this help? If I think Q is still the best solution to the Synoptic Problem, does that make me a liar? Does that put me at odds with his “fans”?

    This is the sort of thing that signals the end of rational argument and a return to poop-flinging.

    http://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/12352

  • Neil Godfrey
    2017-07-20 17:11:06 UTC - 17:11 | Permalink

    Just for the record I have since updated the post to add the following:

    And, as the decades went on [or rather, possibly even being written before all of our Gospels, or maybe in some cases composed around the same era], there are still more writings that are rich in information about early Christianity

    …. and addressed this addition in the subsequent discussion.

  • MrHorse
    2017-07-22 07:20:15 UTC - 07:20 | Permalink

    Richard Bauckman posted some comments below Hurtado’s blog-post –

    https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2017/07/19/our-knowledge-of-early-christianity/#comment-14794

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-07-22 07:53:55 UTC - 07:53 | Permalink

      I love Hurtado’s response there:

      The Pseudepigrapha/Apocrypha give us insights, to be sure. But we don’t know who wrote them, or for whom, or where, or even when in most cases. It’s not the same sort of data that we have, e.g., in the letters of Paul or Ignatius, or 1 Clement, where we have texts that address specific communities and issues stated clearly (not fictively).

      The fact is we have no more reason (apart from the say-so of a fourth century ecumenical council) to “know” who wrote the letters of Paul, Ignatius, Clement — or the gospels (interesting that Larry omits those from his list here) than we do the authors of the Ps/Ap.

      His criteria (specific communities, clear statement of issues) are ad hoc arguments worthy of any apologist.

      • Neil Godfrey
        2017-07-22 10:14:23 UTC - 10:14 | Permalink

        To clarify quickly with respect to one of his points: Just having a name on a letter is not an assurance of its authorship as we well know from the literary culture of the period and even from early Christian studies themselves: e.g. No critical scholar thinks Paul wrote all the letters bearing his name, and no critical scholar takes notice of the names of Thomas and John attached to the Apocryphon and Gospel attributed to them.

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