Tag Archives: Early Christianity

Bart Ehrman: Jesus Before the Gospels, Basic Element 1: Maurice Halbwachs

jesusbeforeNearly a year ago, while reading Bart Ehrman’s blog, I became aware that he was writing a book on memory. That news gave me no joy. My sense of unease, if not distress, did not diminish even when he said he had spent practically all of his spare time for two years reading up on the subject, because one never knows which Bart is going to show up.

Will we get the Bart who writes careful, well-written, meticulously researched books (some of the best in the genre) or will we get the one who skims the surface, makes inexplicable mistakes, jumps to conclusions, and wastes our time with recycled material? Well, let’s find out.

Basic element: Maurice Halbwachs

Ehrman writes:

[Maurice] Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember. He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories, that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped by, and provided through our various social contexts. Not everyone agrees with that view, but on one point there is much wider consensus. We—whether as individuals or as members of a collective—“remember” the past because of its value in the present. (Ehrman, 2016, Kindle Location 268, emphasis mine)

I’ll grant you that you can find social memory practitioners today who will (if only for the shock effect) flatly state, “All memory is social memory,” but Halbwachs had a much more nuanced view of the matter. As I said in a previous post, “Halbwachs differentiated between the autobiographical memory of a person and the collective memory within which individuals participate. But neither resides in a vacuum. There exists a symbiotic relationship between each type of memory.”

When we reflect on our personal memories, we rely on social frameworks — language, mores, religious beliefs, shared history, etc. — to make sense of them. On the other hand, collective memory is maintained within the personal memories of the individual minds within the group. Or, more simply: Personal memories depend on social frames for context, while social memories depend on individual brains for storage.

♦ Two Types of Memories

I will cite Halbwachs as I did when I took Ehrman to task last April: read more »

Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.

Community-early-Christians

Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:

.

Support of the Guardians / Apostles

PLATO ACTS
Guardians concentrate on philosophy, training and affairs of the state Apostles lead the community in teaching, fellowship breaking of bread, and prayers

they perform signs and wonders
Guardians are supported by the producing class Apostles are supported by other Christians (who lay the proceeds of goods sold at their feet)
in order to concentrate on being guardians (because all classes should do what is suited to their natures) The seven are elected so the apostles do not spend their time serving tables instead of preaching

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“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 4)

Scars of a whipped slave (April 2, 1863, Baton...

When we minimize and explain away slavery or talk about it as an abstract concept, we demonstrate our lack of empathy for its millions of victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Christianity and slavery: why does it matter?

As I made clear early on in this series, I contend that the institution of slavery in the Greco-Roman world was more terrible than we can imagine. In addition, we can’t deny the evidence that early Christians were generally ambivalent about it, or at worst, condoned it. Moreover, rich Christians continued to own slaves after they converted. We can, in fact, corroborate these assertions not only from ancient writings, but from certain artifacts that still survive.

Investigation of current Christian attitudes toward ancient slavery reveals a surprising number of people who prefer to remain in a state of denial. Recall from part one Thomas Madden’s unsubstantiated assertion that “Christianity . . . considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” Not only can we find no clear written evidence from the New Testament or patristic literature to confirm his claim, but we have solid written and archaeological evidence that disproves it.

The crime of running away

Jennifer Glancy begins her book, Slavery in Christianity, with the following few sentences that, for Christians (and ex-Christians like myself) are as sobering as an ice-cold shower:

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian man ordered a bronze collar to encircle the neck of one of his slaves. The inscription on the collar reads: “I am the slave of the archdeacon Felix. Hold me so that I do not flee.” Although the collar purports to speak in the first person for a nameless slave, the voice we hear is not that of the slave but that of the slaveholder. Felix, enraged by a slave’s previous attempts to escape, ordered the collar both to humiliate and to restrain another human being, whom the law classified as his property. The chance survival of this artifact of the early church recalls the overwhelming element of compulsion that operated within the system of slavery, with its use of brute paraphernalia for corporal control. (p. 9, emphasis mine) 

The words “chance survival” might lead the reader to think such collars — which gave license to the finder to detain the slave by any brutal means necessary, and which were lovingly adorned with crosses and chi-rhos — were rare. But they weren’t. True to form, some scholars have decided to interpret the existence of such collars as a good thing. They posit that it means Christian slaveholders stopped the practice of facial tattooing. In other words, “Baby steps.”

However, in the (ridiculously overpriced) book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425, Kyle Harper notes:

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“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 3)

Interpreting Philemon

English: The apostle paul reading by candlelig...

The apostle paul reading by candlelight, with a large open book leaning on a skull, seen from below. Mezzotint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had intended next to describe the wretched state of slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world, but I promised we’d cover Philemon first. The epistle to Philemon is one of those few books you can refer to simply by verse number, because there’s only one chapter. With today’s online Bibles you’ll frequently see references to Philemon 1:1, but traditionally, you could just refer to Philemon 1. (Quick trivia question: What are the other four single-chapter books in the Christian Bible?)*

Because this tiny letter seems to offer a glimpse of real people and real events from the first century CE, Philemon remains one of the most tantalizing books of the New Testament. We can only guess exactly happened before and after the letter. How did Onesimus end up with Paul? What did Paul expect Philemon to do with his returned property, and did he do it? How had Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” become “useless” to Philemon? Was he a runaway slave? Or had he committed some act that displeased Philemon, who subsequently dismissed him?

Throughout the centuries, scholars have debated over Paul’s ultimate intentions, offering (as I mentioned in earlier comments) a wide range of interpretations. Did Paul want Philemon to free Onesimus or not?

Why didn’t he just come right out and say it?!

A voluntary act

Paul assures his recipients that he is certainly in a position to compel Philemon to “do the right thing” (whatever that is), but prefers that he reach this decision of his own accord.

24.  but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will. (NASB)

So one could argue that Paul wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, and free him. And he wanted his slave-holding friend to come to that conclusion on his own, because a coerced good deed is less desirable than turning away from evil and carrying out a righteous act with a free and open heart.

That’s one way to approach it.

However, we should recall that normally when Paul learns of sinful behavior among his congregations, he does not gently prod them into changing their ways.  Consider the man in Corinth accused of incest (viz., fooling around with his father’s wife). Paul doesn’t coyly intimate what they should consider doing . . . maybe . . . perhaps, if it isn’t too much trouble.

No, he blasts them, and tells them exactly how to handle this guy:

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“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 2)

Unlike other religions?

We noted last time that Thomas Madden in his course on early Christianity claimed, “Unlike any other ideologies at the time, Christianity also considered slavery — the institution of slavery — to be inherently wrong.” He said that attitude stemmed from their belief that: “Unlike other religions, Christianity held that all people, men or women, free or slaves, were the same in God’s eyes.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran.

English: Remains of living quarters at Qumran. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we will see, and as you probably already know, most Christians until relatively recently did not see slavery as inherently wrong. Further, despite Madden’s sweeping statement to the contrary, we do know of one Jewish sect that actually did condemn the practice. According to both Josephus and Philo, the Essenes did not keep slaves. As Philo wrote:

There is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, serving one another; they condemn masters, not only as representing a principle of unrighteousness in opposition to that of equality, but as personifications of wickedness in that they violate the law of nature which made us all brethren, created alike. (Quoted by the Jewish Encyclopedia from Philo, Vol. VI, Loeb Classical Library)

Granted, the Essenes set themselves apart from general society, dwelling in communes, keeping all things in common, and living as “free men.” So one could argue that since they lived in their own little world, they didn’t have to worry about letting loose a “frightful revolution” (in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia).

However, the fact remains that the Essenes, not the Christians, were one of the few (if not the only) communities or sects in the ancient world who, it was believed, unequivocally condemned slavery. Moreover, they put their money where their mouths were.

[T]hey emancipated slaves and taught them the Law, which says: “They are My servants (Lev. xxv. 42), but should not be servants of servants, and should not wear the yoke of flesh and blood.” (Jewish Encyclopedia)

They pooled their resources and purchased the freedom of enslaved Jews. That’s pretty remarkable. Of course, we should temper our respect with the textual evidence that the Qumran community may have indeed kept slaves. Jennifer Glancy writes:

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“With All Fear”: Christianity and Slavery (Part 1)

Not so great courses

Several months ago, I purchased a course on ancient Christianity through audible.com. You might find the title intriguing (I know I did) — From Jesus to Christianity: A History of the Early Church — which reminded me of Paula Fredriksen’s book, From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ. In no other respect do these works resemble each other, not in clarity, accuracy, or depth.

English: Dr. Thomas Madden

English: Dr. Thomas Madden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thomas Madden may be an expert in medieval and renaissance studies, but his understanding of the Ancient Near East and early Christianity is superficial and slanted toward a confessional, orthodox, if not specifically Roman Catholic, viewpoint. As we’ve said many times here, bias does not inherently make somebody wrong. We all have particular points of view; however, we should acknowledge other points of view and strive to present them fairly. Madden, unfortunately, seems completely unaware of other perspectives.

When I buy courses and books, in the back of my mind I hope to find something new and interesting that I can blog about. However, as I alluded to above, Madden’s course is so superficial as to be devoid of blog-fodder — except for a few outright mistakes that made me shake my head and grumble. (I wonder how crazy I look, walking through airports, earbuds in place, muttering softly to myself in disgust — like Popeye in a Max Fleischer cartoon.)

What a ridiculousk situation!

What a ridiculousk situation!

As a brief aside, we should note that Madden’s wretched course is emblematic of a trend in publishing. The latest history and religion courses released by The Great Courses (formerly The Teaching Company) and The Modern Scholar (part of Recorded Books, LLC) are more conservative than ever — a comfort to a public that prefers confirmation of its beliefs over learning. Listeners to these courses will learn, to their relief, that Paul certainly wrote all of the epistles attributed to him and that the Documentary Hypothesis is false. Madden, a frequent contributor to such publications as The National Review and Crisis Magazine, as well as an apologist for the Crusades and the Inquisition, fits right in.

Comforting the comfortable

Given the underlying purpose of Madden’s course on the history of the church — namely, to comfort the faithful laity by regurgitating the party line — nothing should have surprised me. I thought I’d heard nearly all of the pious lies proffered by Christian apologists, but I wasn’t prepared for this one.

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Was Jesus not a teacher after all?

Teacher

Image by tim ellis via Flickr

Every scholar engaged in Jesus research is by profession a teacher and so every construction of Jesus the Teacher is formulated by a teacher. These teachers, professors by trade, should wonder if there is not a bit of a Jesus-Like-Us in their constructions. (Stevan L. Davies in Jesus the Healer, 1995)

Most of the Jesus Seminar fellows think that Jesus was not an apocalyptic teacher, so they think that Jesus was a great wisdom teacher, and that helps them to actually preach Jesus, because you can go to the pulpit and say Jesus was a great teacher. (Gerd Ludemann in interview with Rachael Kohn 4th April 2004)

Most scholars, “practically all historical scholars engaged in Jesus research” (says Stevan Davies) “presuppose consciously or unconsciously that Jesus was a teacher.” Davies quotes E. P. Sanders as representative of Jesus research scholars generally and responds with what should be a most fundamental observation:

E. P. Sanders writes, for example, “I do not doubt that those who find the teaching attributed to Jesus in the synoptics to be rich, nuanced, subtle, challenging, and evocative are finding something which is really there. Further, in view of the apparent inability of early Christians to create such material, I do not doubt that the teaching of Jesus contained some or all of these attributes. In short, I do not doubt that he was a great and challenging teacher.” And so, it should follow, we know what Jesus taught. But we don’t. (p. 10, my emphasis) read more »

Christianity and the “let’s turn the world upside down” bandwagon

Central panel of the Triptych of the Crucified...

Image via Wikipedia

While one sometimes hears it said that the gospel message when first heard in the early Roman empire was “shocking” and “turned the world upside down”, it is in fact more correct to say that the gospel message was a product of its age.

In the century or so leading up to the common era and beyond, the idea of winning by losing, of conquering and gaining life through death, and the virtues of patient endurance and self-denial when faced with tyrannical powers and losses in this world, were emerging as a “new morality”. The Christian message of finding one’s life by losing it was the product of its age.

The Christian saviour who is a king who conquers by dying was the kind of hero that resonated with the popular figures of both serious and light literature of the day.

If in another time heroic figures were great conquerors of cities and slayers of giants — Agamemnon bringing down Troy, Dionysus and Alexander conquering Asia, Odysseus outwitting and slaying Cyclops, David felling and decapitating Goliath — there was another value emerging in those generations preceding the time of Christ that came to stand as an alternative virtue for the powerless.

Here is what a non-Christian Jewish text from around the same era as Christ wrote of heroic figures. The conquering king is the loser; the victor is the one who yields up his body to be a public spectacle as it is tortured to death. The blood of the martyrs is even said to be the salvation of the nation. read more »