Explaining Christian Origins Without Any Theological Baggage

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by Neil Godfrey

James C. Hanges

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of an unusual article currently being hosted on the Bible and Interpretation site. It’s header is certainly interesting enough —

Looking to the Future of the Study of Christian Origins

But then it continues with reference to something that definitely has very little interest for me — that word “ecstasy” in a religious context:

The Ecstatic Perception of Evolving Complexities

Tongues? Trances? No thanks. But what’s the catch with that “future” word? I do like studies of visionary experiences to explain texts and certain belief systems but am less enthusiastic about the wider world of “religious ecstasies”.

It begins with reference to postcolonial studies. Suspicion deepens. Another anachronistic model being applied to the ancient world? Is this going to be something like a Marxist interpretation of Shakespeare?

But then the author, Professor James Constantine Hanges, writes something scandalous. (Scandalous, at least, to most contemporary biblical scholarship I have read.) He seems to be saying that scholarship should be studying early Christianity as something that emerged from within not only a Jewish world but also a pagan context. The pagan world should be seen as a matrix of Christianity’s emergence, not as “the other” against which early Christianity fought tooth and nail:

Smith’s razor sharp point in the book is that the history of modern Euro-American study of Christian origins . . . was never a genuine attempt to acquire new knowledge and to more accurately describe and understand the formation of earliest Christianity. Rather, modern Euro-American biblical scholarship has been simply an exercise in apologetics, using comparison to shore up the uniqueness of Christianity against a so-called “parallelomania” for ancient polytheistic cultures. 

[For Christian scholars] polytheism, and . . . Greco-Roman culture, served as the foil against which early Christianity was negatively defined. Any attempt, such as the German “history of religion” approach, that assumed that early Christianity, was like all cultural forms inextricably intertwined with all other cultural forms . . . meant the destruction of Christian uniqueness. Uniqueness has come to serve as the last bastion in the defense of Christian claims, whether theological or historical. 

Hanges explains that his analysis of the evidence for earliest Christianity (Paul’s letters) is through culture-studies. Hanges seeks to understand Paul through what he has in common with the Greek world in which he was most active.

The postcolonial aspect relates to the way counter-cultural groups forge their identities through engagement with both their cultural roots and the challenges presented by “the others”, especially those wielding power over their fate. Okay — but how does this relate to “Christian origins”?

I wanted to know more so I located Hanges’ book, Paul, Founder of Churches: A Study in Light of the Evidence for the Role of “Founder-Figures” in the Hellenistic-Roman Periodonline through a university subscription database.

Fascinating. Hanges is discussing a wealth of “pagan” literature that strike harmonious chords with what we read by and about Paul as a cult leader. Now I’ve read a fair amount of Greek and Roman literature in translation and have often been teased by so many echoes with what I have read in the Bible — but I have rarely been able to identify how I should understand these resonances. And always we hear the gloomy warnings of the trap of “parallelomania”. But it appears that Hanges is tying all of this together through a tight theoretical structure that relates to identify formation and the emergence of new groups like religious cults.

I’ve only had time to dabble in it so far but already I have been led to other articles and an earlier book by Hanges. One of these is his earlier Christ, the Image of the Church: The Construction of a New Cosmology and the Rise of Christianity.

Now that’s a pretty full-on title. So now I’m also in a race to finish reading this one, too. I want to outline his thesis here. He is applying a formal sociological model that explains how new groups emerge and acquire their own distinctive identities to the emergence of Christianity as distinct from Judaism.

And he brings into his thesis here an argument for the critical importance of ecstatic religious experiences we see referenced fairly often in Paul’s letters. He also has a brilliant explanation for the Pentecostal narrative in the Book of Acts and why the miracle of “tongues” here is so different from what we read in Paul’s letters.

Suddenly reading about tongues and visions is not threatening to be as tedious as learning about the early Wesleyans. Hanges makes a case for how they relate to cosmological development of their Christ figure.

His case, moreover, reminds me very much of another (brilliant) study into Paul’s letters — this one by Engberg-Pedersen showing the way Paul’s gospel was an adaptation of the Stoic philosophical system in large measure.

Suddenly I’m getting a raft of new understandings of how Christianity – and its Christ figure – could well have emerged in a Greek environment. Fertilized by Paul, the Jew who argued with other Jews, of course.

But back to Hanges’ newer book about Paul as a founder of churches. On page 19 he writes this about the world of biblical scholarship:

Before I discuss the history of the debates, I must confess to finding myself in agreement with Johathan Z. Smith’s devastating observation that after all the debate, regardless of the distance between the various combatants, even were we to give the benefit of our doubts to the intentions behind the comparisons these scholars have conducted, and were we even to acknowledge the precision with which they have constructed their various comparanda, we still find only the pretentious shroud of historical objectivity and rigor hiding an entire enterprise that appears to be nothing less than a theologically-driven defense of the uniqueness of Christianity . . . . (p. 19)

Hanges looks like serious shite. (It would be cruel to compare his work with that of another secular scholar who strives to affirm that Christianity was not special or unique in its origins but who does so by insisting that it began with a thoroughly Jewish historical Jesus and then grab-bagging any text he can find in the gospels that he can stick on a social-economic model to “prove” his case. Hanges is thorough and legitimate. He works painstakingly with the evidence, not a theory supplemented by merely tendentious proof-texting. I’m really thrilled to have found another scholar whose method shares none of the assumptions of the devout and have an opportunity to study something refreshingly constructive.)

I’ll try to outline his thesis in the way Christ was “created” in the image of the Greek churches in another post soon.


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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Explaining Christian Origins Without Any Theological Baggage”

  1. Very interesting! I have found a paper on academia.edu by Gerhard van den Heever that is a summary but this was the interesting part. “The papers offered here are interactions with James Hanges, Paul, Founder of Churches, and were read in a panel Redescribing Greco-Roman Antiquity: Theorizing Cult Foundations: Discussion of James Constantine Hanges, Paul, Founder of Churches organised by the Redescribing Graeco-Roman Antiquity project group hosted by the Greco-Roman Religions Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, November 2011 in San Francisco. James Hanges response is also included.

    1. I’m taking a bit longer than I anticipated to write more about Hanges’ views. I have had to spend some time not just quickly reading but also trying to fully grasp Durkheim’s theory of social segmentation and the nature of religion from the perspective of his sociological model. I hate it when authors make me stop reading and spend time doing homework and getting on top of some new basics before I can continue with them.

  2. I wonder how many scholars read and then feel comfortable enough to comment on B&I articles. This should have raised a good debate, I would think, but got a huge meh instead. (Granted, the title was off-putting, but come on). Is there any way to tell how many unique views the article got?

    Further confusing me, the editors cut off a paragraph in my comment. It had a URL in it, but that’s not an automatic block for the site. Anyway, I’ll try to reconstruct:

    One additional factor to consider for the context of Paul’s ministry: “pagan” philosophy, namely Stoicism and Epicureanism. On the very good podcast Rationally Speaking (hosted by Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef), they recently had an episode on Stoicism, particularly its application in the modern world. However, there was a great 3-minute digression starting about 35:00 on early Christianity’s interaction with these two major schools of thought during the early Roman Empire. Listen to the whole thing if you can, and for sure minutes 35-38. But for now, the point is that early Christianity adopted lots from Stoicism and rejected and ridiculed Epicureanism.

    Note that the logos (the rational principal of the universe) is a major precept of Stoicism and there is a Wikipedia section on Christianity in the Stoicism article.

    1. Engberg-Pedersen shows that Paul’s Christian communities were “in Christ” and that this was the basis for a new Christian community/social group and personal identity of each believer — and that this concept was an analogue to the Stoic being “in Logos/Reason”. Hanges appears to be arguing for something very similar but not through an analysis of Stoicism vis a vis Paul’s letters but through Durkheim’s sociological model of religion.

      Interesting to find two distinctly different approaches converging on the same conclusion about the nature and background to the formation of Pauline Christianity.

  3. Re “Paul, the Jew who argued with other Jews”: isn’t Paul a bit murky also? I recall you treating the similarities of Paul’s voyage to Rome with that of Josephus. A few conjectures in the comments were that Paul and Josephus were one and the same person, that they both took the same boat, that the ‘Paul voyage story’ was plagiarized from the actual Josephus voyage, etc. Just interested in your latest thinking about who this ‘Paul’ really was.

    1. I can’t accept the identification of Paul with Josephus. Certainly the author of Acts used Josephus for part of his history of Paul but that was part of the usual (Greco-Roman-Jewish) practice of literary borrowings and adaptations. Roger Parvus is serializing here a very interesting case that Paul was Simon Magus, and similar conclusions have been drawn on other grounds by Robert M. Price and Herman Detering. Brodie sees “Paul” as a literary figure used by writers belonging to some sort of “school”.

      I have to confess I am not at this stage willing to be dogmatic about any conclusion yet. The Simon Magus idea is intriguing; I also used to wonder about the ‘literary figure’ possibility before I read Brodie’s similar ideas — I just don’t know. Maybe I’m leaning slightly towards the Simon Magus idea at the moment, but I won’t build any other conclusions on that idea. In most discussions in the meantime I’ll write as if Paul is just Paul! 🙂

  4. Professor James Constantine Hanges, writes something scandalous. (Scandalous, at least, to most contemporary biblical scholarship I have read.) He seems to be saying that scholarship should be studying early Christianity as something that emerged from within not only a Jewish world but also a pagan context.

    Also the Imperial Cult of the Caesars: since Revelation sets up Nero Caesar (or any of them) as the Anitchrist, ergo, the gospels, especially gMark, sets up Jesus as the Anticaesar. Francesco Carotta is onto something here. It’s just that he goes through far too many peregrinations to support his hypothesis.

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