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 Period, online 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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