Birth of a Movement: some fresh insights from Earl Doherty

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

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
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:

  1. to start from the Gospels; and
  2. 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
  • Revelation
  • 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”:

  • Damascus
  • Antioch
  • Ephesus
  • Rome

— 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.






The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

14 thoughts on “Birth of a Movement: some fresh insights from Earl Doherty”

  1. Regarding Doherty’s views on the Shepherd of Hermas I especially like his critique of scholars who see in similitude 5.5-7 a reference to the incarnation. I came across this view in Osiek’s commentary on this text (a pretty good commentary actually) and I had the same problem as Doherty has. The text rather appears to be talking about the holy spirit dwelling in believers:

    “The preexistent holy spirit, which created the whole creation, god caused to live in the flesh that he wished. This flesh, therefore, in which the holy spirit lived, served the spirit well, living in holiness and purity, without defiling the spirit in any way. So, because it had lived honorably and chastely, and had worked with the spirit and had cooperated with it in everything, conducting itself with strength and bravery, he chose it as a partner with the holy spirit, for the conduct of this flesh pleased the Lord, because while possessing the spirit it was not defiled upon earth. So he took the Son and the glorious angels as counselors, in order that this flesh also, having served the spirit blamelessly, might have some place to live, and not appear to have lost the reward of its service. For all flesh in which the holy spirit has lived will, if it proves to be undefiled and spotless, receive a reward….. Keep this flesh of yours clean and undefiled, so that the spirit that lives in it may bear witness to it, and your flesh be justified.”

    It is so easy, and so wrong, to read the Gospel incarnation in this, but forget about the Gospels and about a historical Jesus and read the text fresh. This scholars cannot do, because their historical Jesus assumptions are so strong.

    It is so striking that this is supposed to be a Christian text dealing with sin and how to be saved, yet there is not a single reference to Jesus’ atonement sacrifice. How could this not have been important for Roman Christian in the early 2nd century? Didn’t Paul write a letter to the Romans? Who were these so-callled “Christians”? In fact, the name “Jesus” and “Christ” is completely absent in this text (which happens to be one of the longest texts of early Chrtistianity). There is no cross theology, no historical Jesus, and I find it quite likely that it is pre-Christian (much like the Odes of Solomon).

    1. I agree that it is strange that there is no reference to “Jesus” or “Christ” in this document. Either this is not a Christian document, which would be strange given that it was one of the most popular texts in the Second Century; or, it is a Christian document, which would also be strange given the lack of reference to Jesus. If it is the former, then it represents a form of “Son of God” worship unknown in the record. If it is the latter, then it provides an interesting precedent for similar works at that time.

      Some interesting points:

      (1) The author writes: “a man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son”. But what is the name of the beloved Son”? It doesn’t appear to be given in the text anywhere. The author writes that there are those who “bear the name of the Son of God” and “they are not ashamed to bear His name.” But why isn’t it given?

      (2) The comment regarding the age of the rock and the age of the gate: The shepherd says that BOTH the rock and the gate are “the Son of God.” The author says “How? The rock is old, and the gate is new.” The shepherd responds “The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councillor with the Father in His work of creation: for this reason is He old.” The gate is new, because “He became manifest in the last days of the dispensation: for this reason the gate was made new, that they who are to be saved by it might enter into the kingdom of God.” I think that Doherty would go with “manifest” meaning the spirit of the Son of God appearing at some point; but when? Is there a record of a group that believed that an unnamed Son of God actually manifested at some point? Even Doherty’s Paul believed in a “Jesus Christ”.

      (3) The flesh that received the Son of God appears to be a past event. “So, because it had lived honorably and chastely, and had worked with the spirit and had cooperated with it in everything, conducting itself with strength and bravery, he chose it as a partner with the holy spirit, for the conduct of this flesh pleased the Lord, because while possessing the spirit it was not defiled upon earth.” This is a **past** event. Certainly the author points out that people living now can be justified by keeping their flesh clean and undefiled; but the author is talking about someone or something that had lived honorably and chastely in the past, whose “conduct of this flesh pleased the Lord” (see for reference how adoptionists read ‘You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.’) Do we have any records of any group with such beliefs?

      (4) This appears to be a big organisation. The author writes: “You will write therefore two books, and you will send the one to Clemens and the other to Grapte. And Clemens will send his to foreign countries, for permission has been granted to him to do so. And Grapte will admonish the widows and the orphans. But you will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church” and “these mountains are the twelve tribes, which inhabit the whole world. The Son of God, accordingly, was preached unto them by the apostles” and “Those square white stones which fitted exactly into each other, are apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, who have lived in godly purity, and have acted as bishops and teachers and deacons chastely and reverently to the elect of God. Some of them have fallen asleep, and some still remain alive.”

      I think that this is something that needs to be evaluated seriously: how likely is this an expression of some form of known Christianity? If it is likely, what lessons does this provide for how they wrote in those days?

      And if this isn’t likely to be some form of known Christianity, then what it is? What is the name of the Son of God that they are not ashamed of? Whose conduct of the flesh pleased (note the past tense!) the Lord? Which group believed in an unnamed Son of God (I assume that he does have a name but the author doesn’t want to give it) that had apostles, bishops, teachers, deacons and presbyters in a number of countries?

      I’ll note that I’m doing my own review of Doherty’s latest book, and the above are notes for it on my review of how Doherty analyses the early authors. I have about 50 pages of notes at the moment, slowly growing. It would be great if we could look at the Shepherd of Hermas in more depth here; it would be a shame not to try to get some tentative conclusions from our own analysis of the text.

      1. Thanks for the leading questions. The fact that you focus on these points suggests to me that you are looking at Hermas from the perspective of a historical Jesus apologist. It’s just my impression though, because I don’t really know you.

        I don’t have much time right now but perhaps you do knowe that scholars are careful not to read the later episcipacy into these early texts. Because of this the Greek word that you translate ‘bishops’ is often translated as ‘overseers’ to avoid this anachronism. So what are these ‘bishops’ or ‘overseers’ and ‘deacons’? Well, we have them in Phillipians 1.1 as well: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers (or bishops) and deacons. Just pick up a Harper Collins study bible and see what they say about this: “The precise meaning of bishops and deacons cannot be determined; they were leaders of the Philippian Church.” Osiek considers the term to denote collegial local leaders. I wouldn’t doubt that there were relations with other churches as this text became quite popular throughout the later Christian churches. I wouldn’t read as much into this as you seem to be implying.

        The name of the son of God should be dealt with similarly to the way ‘the name of God’ is used. According to Osiek in her commentary on Hermas it is a symbol for the presence of God and thus the name of the son of God is a symbol for the presence of the son of God. I get the feeling you would like to read Jesus Christ as the name into this text. Don’t you find it interesting that a text so centered on sin and being saved does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion as atonement for sins? You really think this text has anything to do with Jesus Christ?

        Don’t you find it interesting that in similitude 5.2 there’s a master who leaves his vineyard in the hands of a slave and who rewards the slave for his good work when he returns, which clearly parallels several synoptic sayings, only here the eschatology is applied to God and not to Christ. as Osiek puts it: “Contrary ot the eschatological expectation of the return of Christ, here it is the absence and return of the Lord, that is, of God, that is awaited.” How odd, doesn’t this Christian accept the doctrine of the parousia of Jesus Christ?

        The Son of God is of course just one of the ‘angelic’ figures (or intermediaries to God or heavenly beings) to make an appearance. Why not focus on the preexistence of the angel Michael and the fact that he puts the law into the hearts of the believers? Osiek denies that Michael is the Son of God (of course, she is a good Christian). I’m not so sure, perhaps she is right – it is something I need to study further (eventually), so I will leave that open. Perhaps it is futile to speculate on the name of the Son of God as the metaphors are flowing and being mixed and are used creatively in this text.

      2. Bill, thanks for your comments. I’m a liberal Christian. I don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, and I’m agnostic on any resurrection. The Bible isn’t the inspired word of God. Evolution — good! Creationism — very bad! I think that there is very little evidence for a historical Jesus, and that the question should be asked. There isn’t much history in the Gospels. I go for the “Jesus failed apocalyptic preacher” model. The historical Jesus shouldn’t be considered the default position, however I think any analysis of Paul supports that there probably was a historical Jesus. I think Doherty’s theory doesn’t stand up to any in-depth investigation, but that this doesn’t mean that there was a historical Jesus.

        On ‘deacons’: my point is that this appears to be a big organization. The Son of God had been preached to the whole world, according to the author. The organization included ‘apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons’, ‘some who have fallen asleep’. If we look at the record, which group best fits that description? What are the possible alternatives? This is not a rhetorical question, by the way. Do we have any evidence of “Son of God” groups outside Christianity to which the author may belong?

        What I’m trying to do is determine what best fits the evidence that we have. We have at least one example of a “historicist” Christian text that doesn’t refer to “Jesus” or “Christ” (Tertullian’s “Ad nationes”), so there is precedence. But is it likely? And if it is likely, why didn’t the author refer to “Jesus” or “Christ”?

        You wrote: “Don’t you find it interesting that a text so centered on sin and being saved does not mention Jesus’ crucifixion as atonement for sins? You really think this text has anything to do with Jesus Christ?”

        I think it would be a mistake to read the Gospels into the text. I think we have enough to show it was likely that the author was referring to “Jesus Christ”, whether that was a historical or mythical creation.

        For example, the author writes that those followers of the Son of God “bear the name of the Son of God” and “they are not ashamed to bear His name.” Where does the question of being “ashamed to bear the name” come from? Philo posited the Logos as a Son of God, but there was no shame attached to it. We know from the writings of the time that Christians were condemned just for the name; were there any other “Son of God” groups like that?

        Personally, I think it very likely that the author is referring to one of the “Jesus Christs” going around at the time. Orthodoxy hadn’t been established at this time, so trying to read an orthodox view into the text is premature. But that shouldn’t stop us trying to determine alternatives, and what is most likely from the evidence available.

        You wrote: “Don’t you find it interesting that in similitude 5.2 there’s a master who leaves his vineyard in the hands of a slave and who rewards the slave for his good work when he returns, which clearly parallels several synoptic sayings, only here the eschatology is applied to God and not to Christ. as Osiek puts it: “Contrary ot the eschatological expectation of the return of Christ, here it is the absence and return of the Lord, that is, of God, that is awaited.” How odd, doesn’t this Christian accept the doctrine of the parousia of Jesus Christ?”

        Very definitely! If the text isn’t referring to some version of “Jesus Christ”, then that question becomes very pertinent. And if the Son of God isn’t a “Jesus Christ”, then what are the alternatives that can be supported?

      3. I understand the Shepherd of Hermas not in isolation, but together with texts that are related in some significant way. On the one hand there’s the epistle of James which is very strongly related in terms of language and imagery (which need not necessarily be a direct literary relationship) and on the other hand there’s a group of texts comprising the Odes of Solomon, 1 John and the Gospel of John. All these texts have important links with texts from Qumran as well.

        The interesting thing about the trio of texts James, Shepherd of Hermas and Odes of Solomon is that they are all three very theocentric, have no atonement and Jesus Christ is absent (in James there’s a single reference to Jesus outside of the salutation, but this is an awkward greek construction suggesting to some scholars that it is an interpolation).

        Now, what about the name of God/ the name/ the name of the Lord traditions. Where does this come from? Here are a few quotes from DeConick’s “Voices of the Mystics”, who relies to some extent on Jarl Fossum’s paper “In the beginning was the name”.

        p. 114: “Fossum’s interpretation ….. aligns with the representation of Jesus throughout the Gospel [of John] as God’s manifestation, his kabod or Glory, a figure from Jewish tradition that often bears God’s Name.”

        p. 90: “Thus the mystic could expect to see a light phenomenon surrounding God’s image, his manifestation or kabod. This notion is a development of a Jewish tradition that taught that one could not directly see God himself. This tradition, of course, is rooted in Exodus 33:20 where Moses is told that no one can see God face to face.”

        p. 111: “…. the Johannine author is utilizing Jewish traditions about the Angel of the Lord who is indistinguishable from the Tetragrammaton [YHWH]. The Name of God was understood in the traditions to be a hypostasis of God’s eternal nature and thus equivalent to him. It helped with creating the world and was present in the Angel of the Lord who was known to descend to earth and take on a human form. Thus, according to John, Jesus is the final dwelling place of the Name of God.”

        The Son or Son of God in Hermas and the Odes of Solomon come from the Jewish kabod traditions and is the way for believers to God (as God cannot be known or seen directly). “The Name” is hereby a symbol for the presence of God in this agent and in Hermas this tradition gets transferred to “the Name of the Son of God”.

        The Odes of Solomon is also very important in understanding the pre-Johannine traditions. Several scholars (most prominently Bultmann and Harnack) see the Odes as pre-Christian and as a background for the Gospel of John. James Brownson in his 1988 paper “The Odes of Solomon and the Johannine Tradition” writes: “I am suggesting that the Jewish-Christian community which produced the Odes may have already engaged in hypostatizing wisdom speculation before ever hearing the Christian proclamation. It is not difficult to imagine that such a group might assimilate the Christian proclamation of Jesus as redemmer with relatively minor adaptations to their own theological position….. George Richter, on the other hand, posits simply that a group of ‘Son of God Christians’ joined the Johannine community at some point and contributed to the movement toward a high Christology.”

        I guess there’s your ‘Son of God’ group, although I would call them Jewish and not Christian. The Odes of Solomon and the Shepherd of Hermas were written prior to the merging of the Jesus Christ myth with the Son/ Son of God kabod traditions. These latter traditions were far more prominent in the east (Odes/ Johannine literature) than in the west (Hermas), but clearly Hermas knows and uses these traditions. 1 John was written after the merging of the two traditions (and appears to attack those who have left their group and do not accept the Jesus Christ myth). Later the merged Son of God and Jesus Christ myths are historicized and we get the Gospel of John.

  2. Well, I learned a new word: aretalogies.

    Neil, on Hebrews you said “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.” I have to disagree based on the author laboring at the beginning to convince us that Jesus is not an angel which presupposes some familiarity with a sect that viewed him as an angel. It could have never occured to him to string all the passages he strings together on this point together unless he started with a view he was seeking to proof-text into oblivion.

    Wow, Bill. I just did a search in the text of Hermas and you’re right, the words Jesus and Christ never appear. Very interesting.

  3. Bill, you are probably aware that Doherty has another chapter in which he addresses “the tyranny of the Gospels”. The Gospel narrative is the lense through which so much else is force-viewed. Of course, being included in the New Testament makes this almost inevitable. If the Pauline literature had not been included but survived in some urn in a cave till recently discovered, it would be a lot easier for the scholarly community to read them in their own right, too.

    Rey, you are probably right about Hebrews being written at least partly in response to some other viewpoint. I seem to have overstated that.

  4. If Christ belief arose in Rome independently of any proselytizing movement, where did they hear of Christ? Was Christ talk “in the air”? Did Christ appear to someone? How did it get connected to a larger Christian movement? It seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that Christ belief just appeared on the scene at a bunch of different places without connection to each other or to some proselytizing effort.

    1. Good point. Actually Doherty discuses this in some depth, and my reply owes something to him as well as other reading. It is really a topic on its own. What there was “in the air” — or throughout the Greek speaking world — a certain “philosophical” interest and world-view that inspired a certain way of interpreting holy books. The sort of thing that was happening was that, say, some philosophers could not accept the literal stories of myths about gods or past heroes, and sought to interpret them allegorically. As you can imagine, a number of different interpretations arose in different places.

      In Second Temple Judaism, for instance, it appears that some Jews even interpreted the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac as a cryptic indication that Isaac literally was sacrifed but raised to life again. His blood was then interpreted as an atonement for the sins of Israel. This was before Christianity appears.

      There are also indications that in Second Temple Judaism belief in “monotheism” was not quite what it means today — the term can be seen as a misnomer. Some Jews saw the godhead as more like a club of high angelic or spirit powers although one was still “The Boss God” — apparently an evolution from the old Canaanite idea of a supreme god, El, presiding over other gods. Part of this belief was that their were spirit or angelic Isaacs, Jacobs, etc — who later appeared on earth in the flesh.

      There was a tendency to interpret the “Old Testament” writings allegorically, too.

      A common idea running through these was the philosophical/theological notion of a Logos of Son of God as an agent or mediator acting on behalf of God.

      This is the sort of thinking that was “in the air” throughout the Greek speaking world — of Jews and gentiles.

  5. All of this could just make the ground ripe for a proselytizing effort about Jesus Christ the son of God who fills these expectations. I am not getting how the connection was made between this and Christ or Jesus Christ. If there wasn’t a proselytizing effort that made this connection, are you suggesting (or Doherty) that a multiplicity of Christ movements just happened to appear at about the same time that eventually got connected, or some of them, with an organized Christian movement?

    1. This is just my take on it. I’m not sure if it addresses your specific question. If not, maybe I can ask you to ask again when you see how I might be thinking of it and maybe misunderstanding your query?

      I think of the way diverse philosophical schools as a result of local interpretations of Plato’s ideas and allegorizing; or the way so many diverse strands of “Judaism” emerged in the Second Temple Era; or even the different scribal schools of thought that arose, in Philip R. Davies reconstructions, among the “Jews” who were resettled in Palestine by the Persians as alternative myths of identities came to be written. In the latter case these often incompatible schools of thought were brought together in a canonization process on behalf of a set of elites that managed to acquire some status and power.

      One can imagine different such groups sharing contacts with each other, and sometimes variant views merging into a new syncretism. Or some smaller groups over time evolving or adapting their views to conform in little ways to those of more influential groups.

      By the time we see evidence for what is identifiable Christianity, it appears that it is the unorthodox Christianities are the earliest on the scene. Marcionism or some form of Marcionism may well have been the earliest form of Christianity in Syria and surrounds, as Baur argued. One sees clear Platonic or Middle-Platonic influence in Marcionite philosophy, with the Unknown or Alien God being pre-eminent, and the Demiurge, a lower god, being responsible for material creation. And Marcionites claimed their debt was to Paul.

      But Marcionism itself spawned other Christianities as some leaders, such as Apelles, broke away with alternative views.

      This diversity continued throughout the second century. Thanks to the survival of only one point of view in the literature, it is easy to forget this was the situation all this time. It is clear, however, from reading Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and co that there were many schools of Christianity and some that we would be hard pressed to even think of as Christian in existence throughout this time. The Patristic and other evidence suggests something of a “continuum” from views from those barely distinguishable from Platonist views to others who are strict Jewish legalists.

      Persecutions appear to have worn many of these down, such as the Marcionites, while one form of Christianity managed to keep working at establishing itself as a good friend and supporter of the political powers, despite their own members also sometimes being caught up in the persecutions. This particular group was also highly organized an authoritarian monarchical like structure, and who were bent on spreading their power by amalgamating the different strands of Christian-like movements into one with their “catholicizing” efforts, centred in Rome. The idea of “Jesus Christ the Son of God” in our canonical sense is very much a product of this group, and did not gain any sort of clear dominance until very late in the second century at the earliest, as I read the evidence.

      We only have the analogous developments of other theological/philosophical movements for comparison.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading