Let’s move on to something positive and evidence-based by way of explanation for the origins of Christianity and its early diversity, leaving behind the “scholarly” speculations based on narratives for which there is no external supporting evidence and that are full of fanciful tales.
Moving from Crossley to Doherty in discussing the birth of the “Jesus” movement is like moving from a wasteland of mirages and stubble to an oasis of clear-headed, well-supported insights.
Doherty? Yup. And I have the permission of Professor Stevan Davies of Misericordia University to quote his own views of Doherty’s insights. (Davies is the author of Jesus the Healer, summarized here.) From http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk/message/5438
I haven’t read [Thomas] Kuhn in a coon’s age, but recall something to
the effect that a prevailing scientific paradigm gradually
accumulates problematic elements that are swept under the
rug until a new paradigm appears, accounting for those elements,
at which time it becomes clear (where it did not before) that
those problematic elements should have indicated fatal flaws
in the former paradigm.
Earl’s paradigm is a paradigm. It’s not simply a reworking of
the usual materials in the usual way to come up with a different
way of understanding them. It’s not an awful lot different than
the claim “there is no such thing as phlogiston, fire comes
about through an entirely different mechanism.”
New paradigms are very very rare. I thought that my J the H
gave a new paradigm rather than just another view on the
subject, but no. Earl’s is what a new paradigm looks like.
(And if he’s not the first to advance it, what the hell.)
A new paradigm asserts not that much of what you know
is wrong but that everything you know is wrong… more or
less. Your whole perspective is wrong. The simple thing to
do is to want nothing to do with such a notion, which
simple thing has been violently asserted on crosstalk by
various people. Indeed, at the outset of this discussion,
more than one person asserted that since this is an Historical
Jesus list, we presuppose the Historical Jesus, therefore
a contrary paradigm should not even be permitted on the list.
I think this is cognate to the establishment’s reaction to Galileo.
But it’s not that Earl advocates lunacy in a manner devoid
of learning. He advocates a position that is well argued
based on the evidence and even shows substantial knowledge
of Greek. But it cannot be true, you say. Why not? Because
it simply can’t be and we shouldn’t listen to what can’t be
true. No. Not so quick.
The more you think about early Christianity from the perspective
of the new paradigm, the more the old paradigm can be seen
to be flawed. … and the more the rather incoherent efforts to
make those flaws disappear seem themselves flawed.
Ptolemaic astronomy does work, sort of, if you keep patching
it up. So we can say that the host of Historical Jesus scholars
haven’t got it right, but we know that they are going about
it more or less the right way because it’s the only way we
know of. Or indeed we say that HJ scholars are going about
a task that is just impossible, but still their goal is in theory,
however impossible in practice, the right goal. Really?
This isn’t to guarantee that Earl’s arguments are always
correct… I’m not at all pleased with the redating of Mark etc.
Or that he’s thought of everything… the normative Jesus
who is a Galilean Jew whose followers immediately were
subject to persecution by the pharisee Paul are huge holes
the standard paradigm just ignores… but he’s thought of a lot.
You cannot advance very far in thinking if you simply refuse
to adopt a new paradigm and see where it takes you. Even
if, ultimately, you reject it, the adoption of it, or at least the
effort to argue against it, will take you to places you have not
been before. Hence Goranson (an intelligent knowledgeable
person, thus the foil for this letter) is wrong.
Stephen Carlson’s objections to Earl on the grounds that
Mark is evidence for an historical Jesus just takes the
standard paradigm and asserts it. That’s one way of going
about it, as pointing to the self-evident fact that the sun
goes around the earth will nicely refute Copernicus.
But it’s not that simple.
But in going along with Earl I’ve learned more than
by going along with anybody else whose ideas I’ve come
across anywhere. I went along with Mark Goodacre, and
learned some there. Refusing to go along, refusing even to
argue against, being happy that nothing new is being
discussed except widgets of modification to the standard
paradigm, that’s where you really learn almost nothing.
Crossan, or Johnson, Allison or Sanders, can give you slightly
different views of the standard view. Earl gives a completely
different view. His is a new paradigm, theirs are shifts in
focus within the old paradigm. From whom will you learn
Thanks for the intro, Steve. Now for my presentation of just one of Doherty’s insights:
Doherty begins a chapter titled The Birth of a Movement thus:
Of all the puzzles in the New Testament record which scholarship has been forced to address, perhaps none has provoked a greater scramble for explanation then the amazing diversity of views about Jesus to be found in the surviving documents of the first hundred years. A survey of the record reveals notable differences in theology, ritual and expectation, between one writer and another, one Christian community and another. Within that diversity lies the key to understanding the true origins of Christianity. (p.267 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man)
Doherty notes the “astonishment” expressed by scholars such as Ridderbos (Paul and Jesus, 1957) over the presumed elevation of Jesus to cosmic heights so quickly after his death; and also how many have “also remarked on the seemingly rapid spread of the movement and the great multiplicity of forms it took in different centers”, and quotes Wayne Meeks (The First Urban Christians, p.5):
Christianity, even at the earliest moment we can get any clear picture of it, was already a complex movement taking form within several complex societies.
And from Ron Cameron (‘The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Origins’ in The Future of Early Christianity, p.381) he extracts this comment:
The beginnings of Christianity were exceptionally diverse, varied dramatically from region to region, and were dominated by individuals and groups whose practices and theology would be denounced as ‘heretical’.
Meeks? Cameron? Okay, it seems Doherty is addressing works of “real scholars”, something I would never have guessed if I had relied on critics of his I read “on the internet”.
Doherty then discusses how scholars have generally interpreted this sudden birth that emerges with all its inbuilt variety. I won’t spell out all the details here, but note that he addresses in particular Burton Mack’s explanation in Who Wrote the New Testament? In sum, their approach to the question has been:
- to start from the Gospels; and
- to assume that different strands within the Gospels can be traced back to a common source
But Doherty raises a severe problem with this approach:
But no concrete evidence exists for this postulated break-up of Jesus into his component parts, for this initial divergence of response to Jesus, followed decades later by a reverse convergence of those separated parts into the Gospels.
Ah, no wonder Doherty has so many critics. He sees “no concrete evidence” as a problem for a hypothesis that relies on a presumed historicity of the biblical narrative.
So what is his alternative? He takes the evidence of the diversity at the beginnings of Christianity as the evidence for its origins. No assumptions that if a text says Jesus popped down from heaven one day, or that he appeared out of nowhere to be baptized by John, etc, that any one of those stories is necessarily itself historical. No, he looks at the diversity of the evidence in its totality and suggests:
Rather, the separate stands which were later brought together to form the “Jesus tradition” of the Gospels are best seen as diverse expressions within the broader social and religious milieu of the time, having nothing to do in their earliest stages with an historical Jesus, in some cases not even with a spiritual Jesus. Collections of wisdom teaching, aretalogies . . . anonymous apocalypses, traditions of conflict with the establishment in the demand for reforms to social and religious practice: such things were the antecedents to the various Jesus strands and only at later stages did they become associated with such a figure, ultimately to end up in a composite Gospel. Some would have linked to a Jesus only at the time of Gospel composition.
Note in addition the contrasting and often incompatible view about this cultic Jesus:
- Paul’s epistles
- Book of Hebrews
- Other NT epistles
- Odes of Solomon
- Shepherd of Hermas
- et al
Doherty discusses each of these documents and their respective concepts of Jesus.
Doherty has discussed in depth the tendency of modern scholarship (e.g. John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack) to “collapse the Gospel diversity” into two fundamental strands: The Galilean and Jerusalem Traditions.
The Galilean tradition contains the sayings of a human Jesus but does not know of Jesus as a Messiah or anything much about his death and resurrection. The Jerusalem tradition is supposedly a response to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and views Jesus as a divinity know in heaven acting as Messiah and Saviour. The two strands supposedly exist side by side without knowing or touching each other. Doherty finds this scholarly scenario implausible. Even the Christ cult of the Jerusalem Tradition very quickly spawned much diversity, as Doherty notes.
A survey of that diversity will lead to certain conclusions about the origins of Christianity that have already been intimated in previous chapters.
Hebrews in Egypt
Doherty reviews the Book or Epistle of Hebrews, highlighting how unlike other NT documents is its depiction of the Jesus figure. The deviation from other NT concepts itself is not the point, so much. What is significant is that this Jesus depiction in Hebrews shows no evidence of having evolved from or in response to the other views of Jesus.
The writer and his community seem to move in their own world, a world exclusively dependent on scripture and its interpretation. The epistle is what it is because certain sectarian minds formulated their own picture of spiritual realities. They searched scripture for information and insight about the Son of God, influenced by the wider religious and philosophical atmosphere of the 1st century — especially the Platonism of Egyptian Alexandria — and this is what they came up with. . . . Hebrews and its community are self-sufficient, imagining they have undergone a revelatory experience. It too, like all the other expressions of Christ belief of the day, from Paul to the Johannine epistles, profess its dependence upon, and defines its origins in, divine revelation and the sacred writings. (p.269)
Doherty looks at some of the specifics of the wider ideological matrix of Hebrews, exploring the earlier layers of Jewish thought related to what we find in Philo, the Wisdom of Solomon and Jewish personified Wisdom, and some of the prayers traceable to the early first century that ended up in the later Apostolic Constitutions.
Shepherd of Hermas
Next Doherty examines the heavenly Son of God in “the longest surviving Christian document before Justin, the Shepherd of Hermas”. Shepherd is generally regarded as written well before the middle of the second century. This Son of God is “a highly mystical figure devoid of human features. Sometimes the Son is equated with the Holy Spirit or the Jewish Law. Drawing support from a comment by Charles Talbert on how this text describes the Son of God, Doherty concludes that if the writer had any notion of a historical and personal Jesus, “he could never have buried him in this densely obscure heavenly construct and allowed the entire picture ‘recorded’ in the Gospels to evaporate into the mystical wind.”
When it comes to the Book of Revelation, we see a Son who is sacrificed, but not in any earthly setting. The whole image of Jesus appears to be drawn from Daniel, and details from Zechariah. Contrary to anything Paul taught, Jesus’ sacrifice has no universal significance but is only meaningful for devotees. All others are doomed to hell. Angels are the mediators. Scriptures the source for details about how this Son was “pierced”.
As for the frequently interpretation that Revelation says Jesus was crucified at Jerusalem, Doherty refers to scholarly opinions of John Sweet, P. E. Hughes, G. A. Kroedel, O. S. Wintermute, and his own knowledge of the Greek, to show that this interpretation appears to be little more than a reading of the Gospel narrative into Revelation. Similarly, he argues that the references to the names of the Twelve apostles is a mystical reference, and the sort of thing that itself could have given rise to the idea that Jesus had 12 disciples as followers.
Odes of Solomon
Doherty then has an extensive discussion of a set of Syriac hymns that probably date to the latter first century, the Odes of Solomon. I cannot do justice to Doherty’s discussion of these, but can quote one part of his conclusion:
The Odes of Solomon are a jewelled window onto the early development of Christ belief, part of a “proto-Christian” stream. . . . There is as yet no firm development of an incarnation — certainly not in “flesh” — and the Word or Son is probably not yet perceived as a separate entity, only a highlighted aspect of God, an emanation from him that serves a revelatory, mediatorial function, channel of the knowledge which brings salvation to the elect.
But a complex of spiritual attributes, titles and feelings are coalescing around this emanation . . . .
Summing up this “riotous diversity”
In the formative period of the 1st century CE, when no historical Jesus had yet set foot on the scene, a rich panoply of Son/Christ/Savior belief was thriving across the eastern half of the Roman empire, expressions of the new intermediary Son philosophy, conceiving of different routes to salvation through him. As in most such uncoordinated movements, centripetal forces eventually pulled this diversity into a common central pool, and the strongest, most advantageous and most appealing elements established themselves as a new core, a new orthodoxy. This later development then became the standard by which the earlier manifestations were evaluated, and the present was read back into the past. (p.279)
A New Nativity Scene
Doherty cites Ernst Haenchen’s Commentary on Acts to point to “Christian communities all over the Eastern Mediterranean” within “a handful of years of Jesus’ supposed death”:
— all founded by unknown Christians, as were no doubt countless others.
Damascus had Christians before Paul’s conversion. Antioch and Rome likewise had Christians before Paul’s mission work. Rome in particular is interesting — Paul’s letter to the Romans informs us of a community that had “many years” behind it (15:23) by the mid-50s.
The standard view that Rome’s Christians originated from Jews returning there after their Pentecost experience in Jerusalem is simply implausible and without evidence, notes Doherty.
This scenario is entirely based on Acts which, as an actual record of history, has no reliable standing. Moreover, the feasibility of such a development is highly dubious, that Jews visiting Jerusalem were converted in great numbers to the proposition that a recently crucified man was God and went home to convert in turn many of their distant countrymen to the same blasphemous idea.
Doherty suggests, on the contrary, that the true answer to the origins of Rome’s church were indicated by a later commentator on the epistle to the Romans (Ambosiaster) who praised the Romans for believing without seeing any miracles or seeing any of the apostles.
Such a tradition points to something very revealing. Christ belief in Rome arose independently of any proselytizing movement from outside. No apostles inspired by Jesus had arrived from the east to preach a Galilean god-man. The Romans were not responding to an outlandish message about a crucified man executed as a subversive in Jerusalem. The multiplicity of early Christian expression does not need an explanation in the context of a single point of origin and an initially pristine doctrine about Jesus.
Rather, Christianity was born in a thousand places, in a host of different forms, growing out of the broad, fertile religious soil of the time. It sprang up in many independent circles and sects, . . . . the product of many minds. All of it was an expression of the prevailing religious philosophy of divine intermediaries and the cravings of the age for “salvation.”
Paul “and the Jerusalem brotherhood” were but one strand of this Christ belief.
I am reminded of Paul’s and John’s warnings about many competing Christs promoted by a range of other messengers.
What I like about Doherty’s explanation is that it works with the evidence we have — the earliest documents — and posits the most economical of hypotheses to explain this evidence.
The orthodox alternative takes but one subset of these documents, the Gospels and Acts, and treats their narrative as containing at some level “The” historical explanation of Christianity, and then seeks to uncover this history through proposed models of oral traditions. It is then left to explain the “missing gap” of evidence from the time of Jesus to the earliest Christian documents. But what if the earliest Christian documents we have — and that Doherty discusses — are indeed the evidence themselves for the origins of Christianity? That is, there is no gap. The gap only exists by a misguided attempt to historicize the narrative of one subset of the documents.
Thompson demonstrates that the many tropes attached to Jesus’ works and sayings were part of the wider literary traditions of the day, also. Doherty narrows this to the specific philosophical and religious currents of the first century.
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